Introduction to Vipassana

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

Lecture 2, Part 10 of 15 parts. To start class from beginning, click here.

CTT: I want to move into Vipassana meditation now, I want to introduce you to this technique.

Student: Will we become enlightened?

CTT: That’s optional. It worked for the Buddha. Whether it will work for you or not, we’ll see.         😉

The basic instructions for Vipassana, like those for classical concentrative meditation, start with being in a comfortable posture, being upright so that you can sit still without having to move much, but not so comfortable you’ll fall asleep.

Doing it in a quiet setting where you’re not readily distracted, letting something else like a timer keep track of the time, all that’s pretty much the same. It basically means get your body parked in a comfortable but alert posture and don’t be interrupted by external cares, especially while you’re basically learning this. Eventually you’d like to be able to do all these things no matter what the environment. But then the focus is different.

For the controlled attention practice of concentrative meditation, we moved to a very narrowly defined area of action, right? I was going to call it one thing but it’s not really one thing. The sensations of your abdomen moving as you breathe, or the sensations of the breath going in and out at the tip of your nose, when you really pay attention to them, there are little changes all the time. But it’s a very narrow range of things.

The sensations at the tip of the nose are very localized. They’re very clear. They’re very convenient. You always have them with you. You can’t leave them at home. They will keep up until you’re dead. And it’s a distinct enough kind of sensation that you won’t be fooled long into imaginary simulations of breathing sensations. As you drift over on other things, it will become fairly clear that you’ve drifted off into thoughts or images or other body sensations, or something like that.

Vipassana in its basic form says you bring an attitude of attentiveness and equanimity to your focus. Equanimity means neither pursuing nor rejecting. Neither saying “I got to have more of it, this is good” or “Get away!,” but just equanimity. “What is it? I’m open to experiencing what it is.” You bring that attitude to a wider range of things than you do in concentrative meditation.

And in the ultimate form of Vipassana, you bring it to all experience. Okay? The ultimate form of Vipassana, in a sense, is practiced in all positions, in all circumstances, at all times. You could be doing Vipassana right now. But that’s not the way our minds usually function.

Our minds usually want this and don’t want that, so they’re constantly accepting and rejecting, running after and pushing away. They’re constantly running down memory lane or internal reaction lane instead of simply staying with what’s actually happening in the present. So our minds are very much in the future or the past, the imagined future or the imagined past, or remembered past or whatnot.

So it’s very hard to learn Vipassana if you simply tell someone, “Pay clear attention, continuously, to whatever happens, with equanimity.” So the way it’s usually taught is to move out from the concentrative meditation focus to a larger but still a clearly delimited range. And the larger range, in the way I’ve been taught it and it’s usually taught, although with some variations, is simply body sensation. A body sensation is usually clearly different from a mental image or an outside sound or a thought, talking to yourself, or something like that. You know the difference between the body sensation and something else.

You can get to a level of extremely subtle body sensations where it gets a little more difficult to tell them from imagined sensations, but that’s not something you have to worry about when you’re first learning this sort of thing. So the basic instruction in Vipassana meditation is to pay attention to whatever body sensation is the most prominent at a given moment.

And I would make that somewhat relative too. This is not a contest to see if you can drive yourself crazy, to worry “Is the feeling in my shoulder a little bit stronger than the feeling in my knee? Which one is really the most prominent?” You pick on what’s obviously the most prominent, and don’t worry whether it’s actually the very most prominent in all possible ways at the moment, and you pay attention to it.

So right now, for instance, even though I’m talking, I’m noticing the sensation in my right elbow and the way it spreads up from the elbow a little bit; but – there – immediately it changed to a sensation in the shoulder replacing it. As you follow body sensations, they change. Some last longer than others. Some, especially if it’s a painful sensation, may, at a gross level, seem to last for a long while. But if you look at them more attentively, you’ll start to find change even within what seems like a steady sensation.

So the basic instruction for this kind of Vipassana is take this attitude of attentiveness, curiosity. I’d like to know what it actually feels like, rather than simply living in my head.

Let me make a little side trip here. Our minds are wonderful at categorizing and naming things and thus disposing of them. So you say to yourself “Oh, that’s an itch,” and you don’t have to pay any real attention to it anymore. You’ve put it in its proper place somehow. I always used to be amazed by the old anthropologists, because they’re always writing about primitive people who believed in magical thinking. These “primitives” thought if you knew the name of something, you had (magical) power over it. Gosh, we do that all the time!

So our mind is very good at naming something, putting it in a category, and then not really paying much attention to it. Sometimes that’s very convenient. If there’s a lot of stuff you’ve got to sort through rapidly for a given task, that might be the appropriate thing to do; but a lot of times we miss both the richness and the subtlety of what’s out there because of the automaticity of this naming and forgetting kind of process. So here in this kind of Vipassana you pay attention to what the most prominent body sensation is at the moment. You don’t have to talk to yourself about it, you don’t have to name it.

If some words come up, that’s all right, but don’t get caught up in the words. Keep coming back to what does the sensation actually feel like. If the sensation keeps lasting as the strong sensation, that kind of naturally draws you anyway, stay with it. Keep looking at it moment by moment. It may change. It may stay the same from moment to moment. But chances are it’s going to change and you want to notice the changes. The changes may include a weakening of it, for instance, and then you notice some other body sensation is more prominent so you switch your attention to that other body sensation. Or it may weaken or strengthen but still remain the most prominent body sensation and you just stay with it.

Again you do this with an attitude of curiosity, “What does this actually feel like, moment-by-moment?” and avoiding the usual attractions and aversions. So if you have a good feeling in your body, pay clear attention to it. What exactly does that feel like? But don’t get attached to it like “Oh, I’ve got to make this good feeling get better” or, “Oh, it’s starting to fade. Oh shit! I’ve got to make it last!” If it fades, let it fade.

Same thing with an unpleasant sensation. Your mind is liable to say, “Red alert, red alert! Pain, pain! Got to get out of here!” No. Pay attention to the sensation. What does it actually feel like, moment-by-moment? Instead of getting caught up in the usual rejection of it and hysteria about it, stay with it. Some of those sensations that initially get labeled pain are going to turn out to be very interesting when you pay clear and equanimous attention to it.

So that’s what you do, and you follow one body sensation to the other to the other. Sometimes the most prominent sensation will be your breath and you follow your breath for a second or 10 seconds or a minute, if that remains the most prominent bodily sensation. And as I was telling somebody else recently, some Vipassana teachers introduce this same practice, but tell you also to keep some attention on your breath all the time as a way of stabilizing you. But we’ll try this more “pure,” there I go using that word again, form of just going for the most prominent bodily sensation and seeing/feeling/experiencing what it’s like.

Okay. You ready to try it?

Student: Yep.

6 comments

  1. “upright so that you can sit still without having to move much”

    This also helps by allowing one to breathe naturally. If you have poor posture it can compress the torso or cause tension in the abdominal muscles which may then require an unnatural effort to breathe or result in a feeling of difficulty in breathing.

    Keeping the spine “straight” (the spine has natural curves in it but you know what I mean), and the abdomen relaxed will allow natural breathing.

  2. I find this particular exercise quite a bit of fun to do. It is much easier than concentrating on different parts of one’s body in a specific order. Maybe because I can just let the sensations be in charge, while I just passively enjoy the show. It seems like less work.

    Is this something you do to help you be better at the more controlled exercises where you concentrate on specific things in a certain order? Or is it something useful just in and of itself that also happens to be kind of fun to do?

  3. Your reputation as a bad boy is a well deserved badge of honor. Having followed you since I was one of your students in 1969-71 (even remember babysitting your kids), I find it interesting we have ended up in a very similar place though by far different paths. My passion for scientific inquiry and the mind/body connection (to which I give you credit) has not abated despite a reckoning with the reality that we are all spiritual beings temporarily trapped in a physical body. It has been a strange journey, would love to compare notes someday.

  4. I was amazed and delighted when I simply silenced the non stop incessant chatter of my mind at what I found in place of all that BS … A description here (and in the psychedelics discussion too) always brings a bit of a conundrum since a primary characteristic of the experience is what we refer to as “ineffable.” Words automatically reduce it.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *