What Vipassana Forgot
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What Vipassana forgot

Any close observation of the Law of Nature must include Nature in its entirety.

It is difficult to critique something that has given your life a stream of immeasurable benefits. But if one critiques what they care about then it needs to be said that I remain highly grateful to Vipassana meditation (as taught by S.N. Goenka) for what it has gifted me over the past decade. It transformed my outlook on life, and I say that as one who is wary of using a word that is often overplayed in a society seeking easy fast-tracked “transformation”.

However, in recent years, and having now completed doctoral research on meaningful nature experience and connectedness, I have been forced to reflect on personal experiences with this Art of Living and feel compelled to share what I believe remains a notable shortcoming, possibly preventing the technique from reaching its full potential.

A Dissociative Practice?

The late S.N. Goenka is to be lauded for his decades of tireless dedication in bringing the Vipassana meditation technique (as purportedly taught by Siddhartha Gautama the Buddha) to a global audience. Whilst criticisms have been levelled at the teaching (e.g. particularly the strict regime of the 10-day silent courses, firm moral standpoints or theoretical interpretations), these points of contention are usually over-inflated, factually flawed or, in focusing on the details of course (e.g. “harsh jail-like conditions”), miss the essence of the teaching entirely.

Vipassana can seem like an austere path and the charge of it being a “dissociative practice” is something which is often levelled at meditation in general – that it emotionally detaches or anesthetizes one from full-ranging feeling of the world. Again, those familiar with meditation and who have experienced its benefits would find this claim to be misguided. If anything, in increasing awareness, mindfulness and inner peace, one becomes more engaged with life.

What Vipassana ForgotHowever, is Vipassana dissociative with regards to non-human Nature?

This warrants a closer look. Singh (2007) is critical and believes that:

The wonders of the natural world, the stars in the night, the raindrops and the flowers and the waves in the ocean are considered transient phenomena and not worthy of a second look. Enjoying a sensory experience is disparaged as attachment to the senses.

This is not my experience of Vipassana. Indeed, natural phenomena are transient but it is erroneous to confuse enjoyment with attachment or to suggest that the beauty of Nature is not worthy a second look. One enjoys, one appreciates (often more thoroughly as one is more present-minded) but one is equally aware that this enjoyment is temporary and will also pass. Everything in life is ephemeral and changing.

But that fact that misinterpretations like this can be made by students suggests there is some confusion.

Where is Nature in the Law of Nature?

Vipassana is a pragmatic and rationally-grounded technique that aims to understand the Law of Nature through self-observation. To this end, the practice of Vipassana adopts a scientific-type approach by creating experimental lab-like conditions (indoor meditation) which largely isolate and control the environmental variables that would otherwise unduly influence the subject (oneself) in being able to objectively observe changing bodily sensations (through acute awareness).

However, for any experiment to become a credible statement of reality, it needs to be taken into the dynamic complex world which has a multitude of interlinking and unpredictable variables. Vipassana recognizes this: after all, the whole point of the practice is to take this mastery of the mind – this equanimity toward sensory experience – into everyday life in order to come out of the continuous cycles of desires and dislikes which fuel our everyday unhappiness and suffering.

But something seems amiss: is the Vipassana ‘experiment’ incomplete?

For the aspiring Vipassana student, there is never a proper opportunity – at least within the formal course offerings as taught by S.N. Goenka – to “field test” one’s indoor experiment in Nature before implementing it into the grand scale of the animate world. Students may inevitably try outdoor meditation on their own so why don’t Vipassana courses pre-empt that with tailored guidance on how to employ the technique immersed in Nature?

During the Vipassana program’s Day 1 evening discourse, Goenka highlights the importance of Nature by noting that Gautama the Buddha became enlightened under a tree. However, he stresses that it is unwise for inexperienced meditators to sit outdoors given both the ease of being lured into distraction and/or being confused by errant sensations on the body as caused by prevailing environmental variables (e.g. wind, changes in temperature) outside of the body.

The additional concern is that meditators will get caught up in sensory outdoor delights and begin to yearn for (or imagine) certain aesthetically pleasing experiences, losing the balance of the mind or become overly attached to types of (past) experiences. In scientific terms, the experiment would be invalidated due to confounding external influences. The logical recommendation is therefore to train the observation of one’s bodily sensations in the isolation of the indoors.

S.N. Goenka again refers to the presence of Nature in Buddha’s life during the evening lecture on Day 4. He notes that Siddhartha Gautama happened to be born outside under a tree (his mother fell into premature labour). More strikingly, Siddhartha’s first self-initiated meditation as a child occurred under a tree, his first sermon was taught under a tree and, most importantly, at the age of 35, he became enlightened under a tree. Finally, aged 80, Siddhartha died peacefully under a tree. In other words: the pivotal moments of Buddha’s life all transpired under a tree.

In the face of such a striking trend, S.N. Goenka agrees that the Law of Nature is evidently important in one’s life but, curiously and paradoxically, continues by saying that the study of this Law of Nature on the outside will never get you enlightened. According to Goenka, it is instead the study of the Law of Nature on the inside of one’s self – our own bodies – that is necessary. It is on this point that I must differ with Goenka:

It is the attentive study of the Law of Nature on the inside and outside – in equal measure, the middle way – that is absolutely necessary.

It must be both – each supports the other.

Can the Law of Nature be truly understood and embodied without tuning into a little guidance from Mother Nature herself?

Conversing with Nature

There are just as many insights about one’s self which can be elicited by the watchful contemplation of Nature. Nature can be the mirror of the psyche and can cast up telling reflections of who we are and where we are in life. Ancient philosophers (e.g. Anaxagoras, Plato), modern phenomenologists (e.g. Goethe, Merleau-Ponty) and ground-breaking physicists (Max-Planck, Wheeler, Einstein) all shared the wisdom – cultivated through experience – to truly know that we are not just mere observers of Nature. Buddha must have known the same.

“The world is wholly inside, and I am wholly outside of myself” ~ Merleau-Ponty

We commune with Nature through what may be best characterized as a sense of interrelating – a kind of mutualism that is difficult to pin down. We are in an ongoing conversation with the world, whether we are aware of it or not. Yet the more attentive we are to this dialogue, the more likely we will recognize that we are creating the world as we go. We come to realize, as the Zen Masters did, that attention is the blade for consciousness, the instrument. Focused attention performs an incision capable of piercing the surface of ‘hard’ material Nature, revealing an underlying softness that appears animated with its own intelligence and consciousness.

What Vipassana ForgotThere is an inescapable reciprocity to our observation of Nature: we create living, pulsing, changing bonds such that all our seeing is simultaneously objective and subjective – we are central participants to what is seen.1 So what is seen is not merely a ‘thing’, but rather meaning. In other words, Nature’s ‘things’ conspire with our consciousness (thoughts, emotions) to bring us into conversation with symbolism, myth, intuitions or other ways which we are yet to fully understand. However, we somehow sense that the quality of our interactions with Nature are intimately linked to our level of present awareness.

Nature delivers insight. I have heard anecdotes from Vipassana meditators who received needed inspiration from the stillness of the mantis seen in the toilet, the strength of an eland bull in the adjacent reserve, the soft touch of a passing butterfly, the sighting of the ever-changing chameleon, the melodic song or curious gaze of a bird or the realization that mosquitoes are also deserving of compassion. Gazing up at the revered Bodhi Tree, I also experienced such an epiphany.  Surely, Nature raw in tooth and claw must have also played a pivotal role in inspiring Siddhartha toward enlightenment – helping alleviate his own suffering (i.e. saṅkhāras* ) and providing the needed insight.

Goenka argues that no heaven is going to save you just by performing dogmatic rituals. One must do the work themselves in walking the path toward liberation. Whether salvation is found in a heaven is debatable but what is certain – here and now – is that there is an earth that is indispensable in aiding Self-realization.

In understanding impermanence, Vipassana also invites one to transcend ego and be ownerless of their experiences (Anattā: “no me, no I, no mine”). Similarly, Nature can serve as the “The Great Leveller” – reigning in the human ego to be redefined and rediscovered as belonging in relation with this perennial earthly ‘other’. Studies on wilderness experiences show that participants experience “diminishment” – in the face of Nature’s grandeur, the concept of “I” gradually assumes much less importance.2

Advanced Vipassana courses should therefore include outdoor sittings and more experienced students encouraged to sporadically meditate beneath a tree.

Doing so tacitly acknowledges not only that we participate with reality in its entirety but that Nature is a key role player in our own prospects for Self-realization, or even enlightenment.

Buddha’s Enlightenment

Artistic images of Siddhartha Gautama’s life story at the Global Vipassana Pagoda (Mumbai, India) show him conversing with elephants, monkeys, deer, birds and other wildlife at various times while sitting beneath a tree or wandering the landscape.

As Siddhartha approached his moment of enlightenment under the Bodhi tree, it is said that Mara, the evil one, tried to prevent this great occurrence. He tried to frighten him with storms and demon armies but Siddhartha remained calm. Mara then sent his three beautiful daughters to seduce him but Buddha remained unfazed. Finally, Mara tried to trap Siddhartha in his own ego by appealing to his pride. This, too, failed.3

Having conquered all temptations, Siddhartha touched the ground with one hand and asked the Earth to be his witness.

And their conversation continued…

1 Kaplan, A. and Davidoff, S. 2014. A Delicate Activism. The Proteus Initiative, Cape Town.
2 Morse, M. 2013. A quality of interrelating: Describing a form of meaningful experience on a wilderness river journey. Journal of Adventure Education & Outdoor Learning:1–14.
3 The Life of Siddhartha Gautama, Dong Hu’ng Temple, Buddhist Education Center.
* saṅkhāras: negative or unhelpful thought patterns fabricated within the mind. It is also worth noting that other central figures of the world’s major religions spent extended time in wilder nature: Moses on Mount Sinai, Jesus in the desert and garden of Gethsemane and Muhammad in the mountain cave of Hira. Certain Indigenous groups are known to ceremonially place their backs up against trees in order to connect to a higher energy/Source and receive wisdom.
Image Sources:
kushinagaronline.com, wallpaperswa.com, thebeautifulbrain.com

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  • Jac says: March 5, 2015 at 1:34 pm

    Insightful article. Something i have observed for many years. At nearing the end of my last course some 15 years ago I had decided to not do another vipassna retreat based on this premise. After sitting under a tree at 4am waiting to ring the bell to begin the day for all participants, I experienced the tree ‘wake up’ and begin breathing. It was a moment I realised that the observation of myself in the ‘outside real’ world was where my greater insight occurred. From that point I made a practice of mindfulness in each moment in my daily life particularly in communion with nature. Observing my reactions and sensations to all that Mara sends my way. Of course the level of distraction determines the focus giving credence to the inside vipassna model. For me it’s a more fluid, integrating way of being.

    • Matthew Zylstra says: March 6, 2015 at 6:13 am

      Thanks Jac for sharing this. Sounds like an incredibly powerful experience – fascinating. Admirable also that you’ve been able to integrate mindfulness and observation into everyday ‘outside’ life. Fluid indeed.

  • Matthew Zylstra says: March 18, 2015 at 5:18 pm

    Blinded by Science – the recent book by Matthew Silverstone also looks at the health and psychological benefits of contact with trees. Read preview…

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