Mindfulness meditation: A primer and some thoughts

by Rishidev Chaudhuri

Laos-vipassana Among the meditative practices I’ve explored, Vipassana seems the one that is most easily seen as a principled way of exploring the structure of one’s experience and the one most easily separated from a religious or soteriological context. This is true even amongst the Buddhist meditations. For example, Zazen is fascinating but its goals seem different. It pays great attention to exactly how you should position your body but tells you little about what you should do with your mind. The idea seems to be that, since you are already enlightened, active exploration or instruction in mental technique is a hindrance, and you just need to recognize your inherent enlightenment. On the other end of the spectrum, the practices derived from the esoteric Buddhisms (like Shingon and the Tibetan schools) rely heavily on symbols and their unpacking. This is a simplistic classification and mindfulness meditation appears in the other Buddhist traditions (even if not as prominently), but it’s one that I think is roughly true.

The general principle in Vipassana is to train one’s attention through focus on a particular object and, once this is well-trained, to use it to observe the unfolding of experience. It’s effectively a systematic way of noticing experience. The breath is typically the chosen focus. As far as I can tell, this choice is semi-arbitrary but has a number of advantages. Apart from the comforting stamp of tradition, the breath is both ever-present but also changes with emotional and mental state, giving a good starting ground both for training concentration and for training mindfulness of the multiple aspects of one’s state.

So here's a sketch of how you might start off:

Sit down (on a chair, on the floor, cross-legged or not, it doesn't matter) and bring your attention to the edge of your nostrils, where your breath enters and leaves. Again, all you want is an anchor point that you can use to train your concentration and to return to when your mind starts to get swamped by thoughts. Other foci would work.

Pay attention to your breath entering and leaving. Here “pay attention” means feel. Don't try to control your breath; just watch it. This can be hard to do and you’ll often find yourself interfering in the breath and trying to breathe in particular ways. Be patient with yourself and watch this process unfolding – it’s really interesting to watch your attempts to control and not control your breath.

You'll find yourself getting distracted and, when you notice yourself thinking or day-dreaming instead of watching your breath, gently return to your breath. You might also get distracted by bodily sensations. If they're insistent, you can use them as the object of focus, watching them until you no longer feel drawn away by them, and then you can return to the breath. It's important not to get too frustrated by how easily and frequently you get distracted, or how hard it is to focus. Much of the point of this exercise is noticing distraction and recovering from it (and there's some evidence that suggests that Vipassana helps one recover more easily from distraction on other tasks). There are a few techniques to help concentration along, and if you’re interested I recommend a few books at the end.

The next step is to use this enhanced focus to be mindful of various aspects of your experience, widening the scope of your attention to notice sensations in your body, emotional states and patterns, the arising of thoughts, aspects of your inner monologue and so on. Traditionally there’s a distinction made between practices that are primarily about concentration, in the sense of one-pointed focus on an object, mantra, image or sensation, and mindfulness practices, which attempt to become aware of the constantly changing flow of thoughts and sensations without becoming embroiled in them. Here the practice starts off with something closer to concentration and then moves into mindfulness.

That one-pointed concentration is only an initial step is an interesting illustration of the vast differences between Yoga (the classical school, not the shorthand term for spiritual exercises more generally) and the various varieties of Buddhism. At least traditionally, the Yogic universe is dualistic: spirit and matter are intermingled but are fundamentally distinct substances. The example often used is the way fire and metal mingle when an iron bar is heated. The goal of Yogic practice is to separate the soul from matter and escape from it, moving towards pure one-pointed focus. The initial bodily postures and breathing exercises in Yoga are used to quiet the body and create the conditions for the mind to focus. Within this scheme, concentration and complete absorption are the goals of meditation and so, rather than turning the enhanced concentration outward to study one’s experience of self and the world, the yogi pushes forward with concentration, aiming to achieve the complete cessation of thought and oneness with the object of contemplation. As a very literal example of this, some Yogic meditative postures place the hands over the eyes and the ears to shut out the external world. In Yoga, the soul attempts to unite with the divine, whereas in the closely related Samkhya (which sees the souls as independent monads) the soul simply attempts to separate from matter.

Anyhow mindfulness, which here means non-judgmentally paying attention to experience, can be applied in a variety of contexts and to a variety of things and doesn't need to be preceded by the formal training of concentration, or to take place in an explicitly meditative session. As I mentioned, noticing the way the breath changes is a good place to start. Mindfulness of body, one of the classical forms, involves paying attention to bodily sensations and really feeling your body (rather than picturing it, or interpreting the sensations). It's a simple exercise, but well worth doing. You can do something similar with emotion – watching the play of emotions across your self as you move through the world or sit in meditation. And, if you are subtle and skilled, you can settle back and watch as thoughts drift through your consciousness, not identifying with them, not becoming attached to them or letting them make you forget your distance from them, but simply observing them, their creation and the way they cause each other.

I've been talking about meditative practices as tools divorced both from their social and historical context and from their more explicitly religious aspects. This is obviously a very particular angle, and the merits of taking this approach are open to debate. Regardless, I think it is important to study mindfulness meditation and other attention-training practices from non-traditional perspectives, and I believe that they have useful things to tell us both about the way we experience the world and about how plastic the structure of our experience is.

There are a couple of directions I think this should be taken in. The first is to study Vipassana scientifically: through behavior, imaging and self-reporting. This has been increasing over the last few years, though I think it is still understudied. Most of the studies look at the effects of mindfulness meditation as a therapeutic tool; a few look at differences between experienced meditators and novices or non-meditators. Looking at the effects of Vipassana also seems a promising angle from which to study the plasticity and trainability of various cognitive functions in humans.

The second approach is to take seriously the idea that Vipassana represents a principled way to explore experience and to treat it as a form of phenomenology and as a tool for psychological investigation. Attempting to build up a literature of descriptions of experience and a vocabulary for the results of investigating experience in this way seems like a very interesting project. The Buddhist literature should certainly inform the project, but it is unclear to me how much of this literature can be successfully translated to a modern context in a precise way as opposed to one that simply uses it as broader motivation and as a source of ideas. Such a project straddles the odd line between psychology and a form of autobiography, and aspects of this will sound like idealism or like a return to introspection as a mode of psychological inquiry. There are many things to be careful of. We (perhaps) no longer believe that we can bracket off large parts of our context, or that the structure of experience can be studied without society and history or that the subject can become transparent to itself. And I’m certainly not claiming that some imagined ancient wisdom will lead us to finally understand the true nature of ourselves. But Vipassana seems like an important method of inquiry and area of study, and I think we need to study it in a systematic way at the very least for the same reasons we study so many other things: to see what we find.

References:

Both of these are excellent books. They are written from a Buddhist perspective, but you can take what you want from them.

“Seeking the Heart of Wisdom: The Path of Insight Meditation” by Joseph Goldstein and Jack Kornfield

“Breath by Breath: The Liberating Practice of Insight Meditation” by Larry Rosenberg

You can find scientific studies on Vipassana by typing “mindfulness meditation” into Google Scholar. There are a number of scattered results, but I haven’t found any good general reviews.

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