How does Zen compare with Vipassana? and Body signals and pain

Dr. Charles T. Tart, Mindfulness, Institute of Transpersonal Psychology,

Lecture 3, Part 1 of 13 parts. To start class from beginning, click here.

(Lively discussions going on before class)

CTT: All right. Steady. Okay.

There are some times, like this moment when I feel rather scattered, that I feel very hypocritical in teaching the mindfulness course. But then there are moments when I’m mindful, and it reminds me that mindfulness makes a difference.

Last week I introduced you to Vipassana, insight meditation, and in a minute I’m going to ask you how your initial practice during the week went so I can see if there’s any further suggestions I need to give. But first I want to follow up on one thing that was asked last week. Somebody asked me where does Zen meditation fit in this continuum of concentrative meditation, where the focus is on the very narrow range of experience with equanimity, versus the full scale of Vipassana, where it’s open minded, equanimous attention to everything. And I think I pretty much avoided answering it because I felt like I really didn’t know.

So I talked to a friend of mine who did Zen for many years and asked him where he would put it in this kind of a classification. From his experience, but again remembering there are a lot of varieties of Zen besides the two main styles, Zen training starts with concentrative meditation, with a big emphasis on learning to follow the breath, and then it moves into a wider focus that eventually is what we might call a full scale Vipassana , that is, not just the most prominent body sensation, but open minded attention to whatever is happening.

And Zen shikan taza, this full scale kind of thing, is called just sitting, because there comes a point in the Vipassana where you want to transcend having a task orientation, because the task orientation automatically narrows your focus. So they call it just sitting, but of course you really do have an intention of being open and equanimous about what happens. But, if possible, all of that becomes background and you’re just clearly conscious of the flow of experience, of whatever is happening.

I’m still not satisfied that I quite understand that, so I’m going to have a conversation sometime soon with Shinzen Young – who is a Zen student himself, even though he teaches Vipassana, because he thinks Vipassana is much more teachable than Zen – and get his feelings about where on this kind of continuum you would place Zen, or if it’s simply inadequate to place it on that kind of continuum. So I’m following up on that loose end.

Body signals and pain

CTT: So how did people do in practicing Vipassana during the week? Let me get a little feedback here on what’s happening. Yes?

Student: When I started practicing, I noticed that there were these sensations of that, and then I would look at that, and then there would be this, and then there’d be this and this and this. And it was like really, really rapid. And I thought, “Is this right that it’s so rapid?” But then it seemed to slow down, and then it would be just this for awhile, and then this for awhile. And then it got to the point where it was just the aching in my inner thigh for a long time. I just sat with that and then the meditation ended.

CTT: So with practice you learned to be aware of an ache for a long period of time?

Student: Yeah.

CTT: Okay. Yeah. Things do change rapidly most of the time. And how fast they change is partly a function of the reality of what’s actually going on in your experiential stream, and partly the implicit focus you have. You know, although you say “I’m just going to pay attention to the strongest body sensation,” there tend to be implicit intentions about how fast you want things to change or not.

I’ve noticed sometimes, and maybe this is something you eventually see when you’ve done this for awhile, that I’m kind of semi-subconsciously willing my body changes to slow down so I can watch them better. Which, when you see something like that, that’s something to be aware of also that you’re putting little intentions into it. But you’re doing fine. Yes?

Student: Actually, that comes back to a question that we raised last week. Say you’re uncomfortable or you feel a back pain or a foot falling asleep, feeling that as sensation and then sometimes actually intending to change that sensation, as opposed to just purely being aware of it. How much of that is within the range of body mindfulness? It seemed to me that if I was in pain, then my body was telling me something and so I should react. But at the same time I thought that that would be less mindful, not exactly just purely being aware of it.

CTT: Well I think you’re thinking in the right direction. I mean let’s face it, our bodies tell us all the time, “I’m uncomfortable.” And you are already extremely good at following those instructions. But if all you do is automatically follow them, you’ll spend your whole life twitching, to use a “technical term” for that kind of motion, and it’ll be very seldom that you’re perfectly comfortable, and you’ll always want to change.

To not respond to the urge to move to make yourself more comfortable is, in a sense, artificial. But to develop the talent to be able to not do that, in the service of some higher purpose, is to develop a very valuable skill. I’ve never seen it expressed quite this way before, but I think one of the foundational principles beyond Vipassana is that if you simply give in to all your twitches, you’ll never start seeing below the surface of your own mind and body experience. You’ll never start seeing the deeper stuff.

So you have to learn to not react automatically; and to practice the attitude of equanimity also means, in a sense, to not react automatically. When you’re not practicing that, you know, if I’ve got an itch I want to scratch it and I scratch it. If I’m practicing equanimity and curiosity, then what I’m going to do is turn my attention toward the itch and ask myself, “What exactly does an itch feel like?” Not that I ask myself that question verbally, but that’s the attitude I take toward it.

And in terms of things that might be painful and the like, use your common sense. By and large, in the comfortable position you sit in when you’re doing meditation, you’re not going to have any sensations develop that pertain to a lethal event any time soon! So you can go much further than you ordinarily would, of just looking at it even though your conditioned mind is saying, “Well I’ve got to react to this or my leg will dry up and fall off,” or something like that.

Student: I’ve been experiencing a lot of back pain, so it was pretty easy for me to focus on that. But I don’t know if it was my expectations, I was just sitting there thinking, “All right, I feel it throbbing. It’s not moving anywhere. I feel it getting more intense, less intense.” Why won’t it go away?


I thought that by being aware of it I was able to separate the pain from my reaction. I mean, for that time period I didn’t move, where normally if I did feel a jolt, I would definitely move. So am I moving along the right path?

CTT: It sounds like you’re practicing very well. But don’t expect to “transcend” pain the first week. Okay? Maybe not the first year. And also, if you’re sitting in some really weird posture that’s putting a lot of unnecessary strain on your back, sit more comfortably! If you’re doing the full lotus or something like that, maybe that’s pushing it a little bit too far. I’m told pain does have an advantage as a focus for concentrative meditation or body Vipassana, because it’s intense and it’s localized and so it’s easy to stay focused on it.

One can take feelings of pleasure as the focus of meditation, but it’s much harder to actually meditate because we tend to get carried away on the pleasure. That’s why when I remember to go get a massage once in awhile, I don’t just “enjoy” it. I try to make it into a Vipassana meditation and follow it, every moment, with equanimity. But it does make it more enjoyable.



  1. “Zen training starts with concentrative meditation, with a big emphasis on learning to follow the breath, and then it moves into a wider focus that eventually is what we might call a full scale Vipassana , that is, not just the most prominent body sensation, but open minded attention to whatever is happening.”

    I would say based on my experiences at my local Zen center and my reading and practicing of Zen, that this is a fairly reasonable statement. If someone wanted to, they could build an argument focused on the differences between Zen and Vipassana or focused on the similarities – what ever their preference was. But what is really interesting about Zen is that there is this whole component to it which tries to get the practitioner to stop thinking with their reasoning mind. When you try to stop thinking in terms of “similar” or “different”, good or bad, liking or disliking, winning or losing, you start to realize how your opinions are often arbitrary and how they create a delusive reality. This also helps you to understand the role the ego plays in that delusion. You also start to see the role of attachments and aversions in that delusion. All of this helps you to let go of attachments, aversions, opinions, ego, attitudes, poses, affectations, which leads to equinimity and a more sincere idea of who you are.

    “To not respond to the urge to move to make yourself more comfortable is, in a sense, artificial.”

    There is a certain similarity to fidgeting and letting your mind wander off on a train of thought. During meditation you shouldn’t just move because you it occurs to you to move, just like you shouldn’t follow a train of thought because a thought occurs to you. A lot of fidgeting is not due to pain but due to boredom or habit. It is the bodily analog to a wandering mind. But if you feel pain my opinion is that you shouldn’t risk damaging your body.

    Depending on the type and purpose of the meditation, keeping still can also result in deeper relaxation or attainment of altered states.

  2. @anonymous:
    There is a certain similarity to fidgeting and letting your mind wander off on a train of thought.
    It might help us to not be so attached to our precious thoughts if we started thinking of them as “mental fidgeting”…. 😉

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