Enquiry into Vipassanā: Going Beyond the Present Moment

Neelam Oswal1 & Mahesh Deokar2


A psychologist, on her journey of self-exploration, stumbles on Vipassanā. It has not only facilitated her self-exploration, but also aroused her interest in Buddhism. Off starts a process of inquiry into Vipassanā along with regular practice with the help of people who are experts in the theory of Vipassanā and in the teachings of the Buddha. Here the process is presented through a dialogue between a psychologist and a Buddhist scholar.
The discussion is about important concepts related to Vipassanā or Mindfulness-based interventions like the true meaning and implications of Mindfulness, Equanimity, Anattā (the Non-self), Anicca or impermanence and also about the concept of mental health in Buddhism and psychology. Generally speaking, this discussion hints towards the possible theoretical clashes that might occur when the two disciplines, namely Buddhism and psychology, come together because of their common subject matter, that is, the human mind.
The dialogue between the psychologist and the Buddhist scholar is presented against the backdrop of a narrative, ‘Evaṁ Me Sutaṁ’ or “Thus have I heard”.

Evaṁ Me Sutaṁ
Thus have I heard

Once upon a time, a group of psychologists from India had a big debate among themselves.

It was not long since they had taken this job of maintaining mental health. Such a debate might have created confusion about their work. So it had to be settled very urgently.

Their role in the society was to unravel the nature and functioning of the mind and use it for the betterment of human life. Everybody had started their work from whichever point they got access to the mind, and now they were unable to come to consensus regarding the nature of the human mind. 

A few of them were of the opinion that the ancient scriptures should be referred to for solving this matter about mind. According to them, ancient Indians with all their contemplative methods were very much advanced in their understanding of the human mind.

This group had experienced Vipassanā meditation and were amazed by the positive effects of the seemingly simple technique of just sitting still and observing the breath. They had experienced that the process during Vipassanā meditation was similar to psychotherapy to a large extent. Vipassanā had led them from the known to the unknown aspects of their being. They felt apologetic for not knowing the depths of mind despite the advanced technology of the time.

“Big deal!” the majority would retaliate. “Even a talisman given by a shaman has positive effects. It is nothing more than a placebo effect. Indulging in this ancient knowledge is just waste of our valuable time.”

According to them, ‘Vipassanā’ and ‘meditation’ in general were not at par with the scientific spirit of psychology.

So the debate was mostly about whether ancient contemplative methods should or shouldn’t be used by psychologists.

They decided to take the matter to the co-ordinating body of psychologists in India. But it couldn’t be done for the simple reason that there were equivocal opinions about who would be the co-ordinating body!

Then some among them who were worldly wise said, “As it is, our science in this form has been established first in the West. Many of the theories are formulated by Western people even today. We do look up to the West for validating our knowledge. Better we approach the co-ordinating body in the West.”

And guess what! This Apex body was welcoming to the ancient Indian knowledge; but asked them to scrutinize it with the lens of modern research methods.

There was a great celebration and enthusiasm in the group which was a minority so far.

At last, they were heard by the Apex body!

They were quick to combine traditional and contemporary knowledge about the mind. Therapeutic programs based on this combination were designed to help mental and physical illness. Following the guidelines of the Apex body, these programs were named as ‘Mindfulness-based therapeutic interventions’.

Everything seemed to be going on well with this new force of ‘Mindfulness’, at least in the beginning. Indian Psychologists were proud that this new innovation had its origin in ancient Indian knowledge. Westerners visited India more often seeking the origin of Mindfulness.

But still all was not well. There were some sceptics who considered Mindfulness as one of the waves which keeps on coming and receding periodically in the history of psychology. Others felt that Mindfulness is a pathway to something else, though they were not sure what it would be!

The group of traditional Vipassanā practitioners and scholars also had their own doubts. They were doubtful about the intentions of these psychologists. They felt that this adaptation of ‘their’ Vipassanā meditation must have been motivated for commercial purposes.

India had been the land of many techniques of meditation and not only of Vipassanā. Practitioners of each technique wanted to take credit for ‘Mindfulness’.

Even among the Mindfulness-based practitioners, heavy debates were going on about the existing body of knowledge of mind and the knowledge base that was brought about by this new development. The matter about mind was not completely settled yet.

Now what to do!

Whom to approach?

After much hue and cry they were directed to the Buddha himself as he was considered to be the trainer of all living beings in his time.

*   *

Time travel must have been an easy thing by then!

The Indian psychologists in the modern time did not take much time to reach Bhagavāna Buddha who lived in the ancient time, once they realised that there was no other way.

Bhagavāna was in the holy land of Kuru with a group of students when he became aware with his divine eye of the psychologists approaching him. 

He had great respect for these people who were seeking to understand the mind, as he had realised with his own experience that the mind is the chief among all phenomena. He was also happy because these psychologists wanted to utilize his teachings about the mind for the betterment of human life. He was aware about their latest venture onto the Noble path3 for eradication of suffering through ‘Mindfulness-based interventions’.

The group of psychologists, tired by the long journey they had undertaken, reached him when he was sitting under a banyan tree meditating.

They bowed to him and sat on one side till he opened his eyes.

At the right time the Buddha came out of his meditation and looked at the group which was waiting for him.

Once he opened his eyes, a few people in the group felt so calm, quiet and relaxed by the serene atmosphere that they almost forgot that they had come to settle some debates. A few others started wondering whether it might be possible that their questions were very stupid and the Buddha would just dismiss the questions, as it was known to them through various stories related about him. He might say, “Doesn’t matter. Leave aside these questions. Continue meditation. You would realise the answers at the right time.” Or he might keep mum as he had done before, when he was asked those famous questions about what happens after death.

Nonetheless, a few of this group were determined to seek answers to their questions. They had asked themselves again and again why they want answers to these questions. They themselves could have been satisfied with the famous answer “kālaṁ āgameyya! Wait for the right time!” But it was their responsibility to explain the knowledge to the next generation of students of the mind and for that they had to be very clear about these concepts. The modern methods of education and research would not leave any question to experience at the “right time”. Reason was the most important instrument of knowledge. 

The concepts like rebirth; Abhiññā, i.e. extra-sensory perception; and different Lokās, i.e. realms of existence in His teaching were not compatible with the empirical spirit of their science. But knowing the past history of His keeping quiet on such speculative questions, they had decided to keep these questions aside for the time being.

Who knows, their perceptual abilities might expand beyond the present human perceptual spectrum by training! But that was not the pressing matter at this moment. They had also decided not to ask theoretical questions like what is the nature of mind.

They wanted to clarify concepts related to their own practice of meditation and also the practice of Mindfulness based therapeutic interventions.

Then, getting encouraged by the Buddha’s compassionate gaze, understanding that he is not judging them for coming from a different time, or for using some different methods of validating knowledge, some questions which were foremost in their mind for a long time were blurted out by a few in the group.

“You insist too much on the present moment. It might leave us unprepared for the future!” somebody said.

“If there is no self as you said, who is following the sīla4 or who is meditating?” another one spoke.

“Won’t equanimity lead to passivity?” Questions were coming as a rapid fire now!

The Buddha looked at the questioning minds. These were indeed beings who had taken a few steps on the Noble path. Their minds were such that they would not accept anything just by faith and devotion. Enquiring with the help of reason was their method of assimilating new knowledge into their existing base of knowledge.

The Buddha himself did not want anybody to accept anything just because it was said by Him. At the same time, he also knew that somewhere they would realise that some things are beyond the periphery of reason, amenable only to experience. But for the time being he had to help them get answers so that they would be ready to take further steps on the Noble path.

Then there was a long discussion between the Buddha and the psychologists. The discussion helped the psychologists to understand Vipassanā in better ways.

Here we, Neelam and Mahesh, are presenting the highlights of the discussion for your sake, as we have heard it.

*   *

Neelam: First and foremost, let me welcome and congratulate you for being open for a dialogue with a psychologist.

Mahesh: Thank you very much. It is indeed my pleasure. Though I am a student of Buddhism, I always felt that the traditional knowledge should be relevant for the present time. I also want to know how psychologists have tried to understand the mind. And that’s why I am here.

Neelam: And I am here because, being a clinical psychologist, I am ever looking for models and methods which are comprehensive and would help me understand the human mind in better ways. Exposure to a Vipassanā course5 made me feel that the path of Vipassanā might help me in my ongoing search. Coming to today’s subject, let me put a disclaimer in the beginning itself. I have undertaken this inquiry into Vipassanā with all humility despite knowing very well that the essence of the Buddha’s teaching lies in its practice. It is undertaken with the sole intention of strengthening the practice of meditation.

Mahesh: hmmm...

Neelam: Let me tell you a bit about what happened when I first got exposed to Vipassanā in the form of a 10 day course. There was a long and difficult time in which I was trying hard to sit still and concentrate on my breath. And then in the midst of all the restlessness and irritation over being confined to this way of sitting, a moment of realisation dawned on me. It made me see very clearly that the more irritated I became over the situation, the greater were the difficulties in sitting. It was actually my mental agitation which made it difficult for me to sit still. I had no problems sitting whenever my mind was calm and quiet. To my surprise this realization actually calmed down my agitated mind. It was an ‘aha’ experience. “So they are making us see the connection between mind and body!” That moment lies in the past now, but it has opened gates to the experiential understanding of many psychological constructs which I had read in books of psychology so far.

Mahesh: hmmm...

Neelam: My inquiring mind asked the next question, why does the mind become agitated after all? Generally something happens which I don’t like and I start getting agitated. The situation makes me remember past events which are similar to this one. I also start anticipating some better conditions. Then, or even before that, my feelings, thoughts and sensations start changing. It might appear as if the event has caused all these changes. But actually, the changes are the joint result of the present event, elicited past memories and our related future expectations. Hmmm...so mind generally wanders in the past or future, I realised. If the wandering mind is attentive to the present task without any biases or preconceived notions, we would be more efficient, it seems. Oh! That is why we are training our mind to be in the present moment with the help of ānāpāna,6 that is, by being aware of the breath at any moment.

Once I was settled in ānāpāna, further instructions were to observe bodily sensations and not to react to them irrespective of their painful or pleasant nature, and after that, to be aware of sensations during any activity. “And why do we have to observe bodily sensations?” The doubting mind was never at ease.

Then gradually through observation of mental activities and the discourses, I realised that we generally attend to the feelings and thoughts after an event, but changes in sensations are so subtle that they are ignored despite arising even before feelings and thoughts do. Vipassanā is making us acknowledge the reality, that is, the effect of any external or internal stimulus, at the subtlest level of bodily sensations. If we are able to acknowledge the mental changes in the present moment at the subtlest level of sensation, the pressure of unattended mental happenings would be reduced.

So Vipassanā is nothing but being completely aware of the present moment and also accepting it irrespective of its pleasant or painful nature, I concluded. This awareness of the present moment with equanimity actually liberates us from the bondages of suffering. This was how I understood what I was doing in Vipassanā. Is it correct?

Mahesh: Good understanding. Let me put the traditional teaching in this way. Though nowadays a single term ‘Vipassanā Meditation’ is used for the whole practice, it is actually a twofold practice. It comprises samatha7 and Vipassanā. The whole thing together is the training to be aware of the present mental state and our response to it.

Neelam: This much was easy to understand. But at the end of every session of meditation I kept on hearing ‘Anicca’! It is a long journey from knowing of the mind-body interaction or of the present moment to the understanding  that Anicca or impermanence leads to suffering. I have seen impermanence. A bud flowers, a flower dies and so on. But why so much focus on that? Why should impermanence lead to suffering? A pleasant thing that passes away may do so. But everybody would appreciate that unpleasant things also pass away. I remember being angry with the Buddha for looking at life so pessimistically.

Mahesh: Talking of impermanence and suffering is not being pessimistic, but in fact being realistic. The Buddha spoke of three kinds of suffering. The first kind of suffering is caused by things which generate painful sensations. This is called as Dukkha dukkhata. Secondly, an apparently pleasant thing also changes and causes suffering as people in general seek for permanent satisfaction. This is called as Vipariṇāma dukkhatā. Thirdly, there is suffering because all phenomena in this world are compounded and conditioned by many things. Hence satisfaction from any of the phenomena is dependent on many things, each of which keeps on changing every moment. This is called Sankhāra dukkhatā. Thus impermanence and suffering is universal reality.

Fortunately, the Buddha has not only observed that suffering is universal, but also shown the path to eradicate the suffering completely. This requires systematic training of mind. As a first step of this training, we are training our mind to be aware of the present mental state by focusing on one particular object. In the case of ānāpāna, the object is our own breath. By doing this, we reduce the mental chatter and other disturbing things which may distract our mind. This first step is traditionally known as samatha practice. But that is not all.

After that, Vipassanā type of meditation is started wherein one actually starts to analyse the object. The whole idea is that with samatha practice one sharpens one’s mind, which can further be used to analyse the object or see the reality as it is. This entire practice is to see the reality in the present moment and to use it more effectively.

Neelam: Wait, wait, for a moment. I see a slight difference in the way you describe Vipassanā and the way I understood it. You say that it is analysis, whereas I felt that it is more of being aware of sensations and not reacting to them. I see the insistence on the awareness of sensations in the present moment even the way Mindfulness is defined in the Mindfulness-based therapeutic interventions. They have defined Mindfulness as being aware of the present thoughts, feelings and sensations with a non-judgmental attitude and without any reaction to them.

Mahesh: So the problem is the way Mindfulness is defined in these interventions. Mindfulness is a translation of a Buddhist term called Sati in Pali and Smriti in Sanskrit. It does not stop at the awareness part. There are two aspects of Sati. One is of enumeration. It involves making oneself aware or constantly reminding oneself that this is my present state of mind, these are the reasons for my present thoughts, these are positive mental attitudes, these are negative mental attitudes and so on.

The second aspect of Sati is more important, and that is the aspect of discretion. Discretion is wherein one is given the information of whether this is right or wrong, and is encouraged to choose the right thing. According to Ahidhamma8, this makes it not a neutral mental factor, but a positive or wholesome mental factor.

What we generally see in Mindfulness-based practices is that they are more focused on just observing, just seeing or just being. But there is no mention of this aspect of discretion where one is actually making a decision of what is right and wrong and then choosing what is right and not wrong.

Neelam: But what should this discretion or decision be based on? In a 10 day course one is asked to follow the pañca sīla9 or five codes of moral behaviour in the beginning itself. Often, adopting Buddhism is equated with adopting the pañca sīla. Should we decide that our mental state is right if it is as per these pañca sīla? Won’t it be against the empirical nature of Buddhism? Besides, in the present world who would accept anything just because it is a moral imperative?

Mahesh: See, you should understand that it is not a moral imperative. The Buddha has never asked anyone to follow anything just because he has said this. He has said that following the pañca sīla would facilitate wholesome mental states. But you can observe it yourself while practising Vipassanā. Then only you are supposed to take up the moral behaviour if it is really useful for mental well-being.

Neelam: So this can be understood as a controlled experiment wherein I am assessing the effect of following sīla on mental states. The result of the experiment of these 10 days can be compared to the mental state when I am not following these supposedly moral rules in daily life. This way my decision would be based on my own experience. This seems to be my experience as well that if the reason of the mental agitation is acknowledged at the subtlest level, it automatically paves the way for a better state of mind and also for change in behaviour.

OK. But tell me one thing, what to do for people who are not willing to follow the pañca sīla even for the 10 days of a Vipassanā course? For example, what to do if someone is not willing to attend a course just because they will not be able to smoke there? What to do with people whose craving for liquor is the main hurdle in their going to Vipassanā? Do we ask them to drink mindfully, or be aware of the sensations while drinking at least? Will that be of any use?

Mahesh: This will certainly help people at least in the beginning. Probably they will be able to see how their cravings are arising or how the hatred is arising. But this is just one aspect of the entire practice. The next step after this is to see the point where they are enjoying the things and the next is to see the danger in it. So once somebody starts stealing or drinking mindfully, they will see how the object is controlling them, or how they are falling prey to liquor or stealing.

Through all these steps they will be able to see that even though they are drinking now and it is giving some kind of pleasant sensations, it is going to be harmful. They are going to lose their mental control over things like that. And once they see the dangers in this activity or these objects, the next consequence would be that they will try to go away from that. And when that process happens, only then we say that the practice is reaching its completion. So if somebody learns to drink mindfully, I think that is the first step achieved. This is not useless at all. This can be turned into a practice.

Neelam: I am wondering if clinical psychologists can play an important role here. There are people who would surely get benefited by Vipassanā, but are not willing to take a course for whatever reasons. But such people do land up in clinics for their health issues which might be in the form of anxiety or psychosomatic illnesses like hypertension and diabetes or addiction. If we are able to design exercises which will help them taste the benefit of being mindful, we will be able to build a bridge between these people and Vipassanā, I think.

Mahesh: Having said that ‘drinking mindfully’ can be a first step to the practice, I would like to add that, according to the Buddha, without sīla (morality), samādhi (one-pointedness of mind) and paññā (wisdom) cannot arise. The training in a Vipassanā course involves all these three aspects. While designing Mindfulness exercises for people who are not willing to attend a course, morality needs to be introduced skilfully even in a clinical set-up.

Neelam: This is indeed an important suggestion for those who wish to develop mindfulness-based interventions for a clinical set-up. At the clinical level, I see that many people are suffering because they are carrying their past distressful moments along with them. A technique to help them to be in the present and be free from the burden of the past like Vipassanā would certainly be useful for them. But what about the people who remain mostly in the future? The society today gives a lot of importance to being goal directed, planning efforts for achieving goals and having a secure future. How would present moment-oriented Vipassanā get along with this meta-narrative of goal direction and security for tomorrow? In general, should we plan for the future or not? What would Vipassanā say about this?

Mahesh: In fact, when we are training ourselves to be in the present moment, we are actually trying to get more control of our present responses. This is necessary in a way to plan for a better future. Usually, the problem is that since we are not properly aware of the present, we respond in a reactive manner and not in a proactive way.

In this training of working with the present, people very clearly see what they are doing, what are the effects of it and what are the intentions behind their action. This clarity will be helpful in planning the future. So when we say that you should live in the present, it is for the sake of a better future. One should not be wasting time in just pondering about the future or just dreaming about things which are not there, but one should very positively plan for it in the present.

The same thing is true about the ‘past’. Brooding over the past, called Kukkucca (Pali) or Kaukrutya (Sanskrit), is considered to be one of the obstacles in meditative practice. It includes phenomena like repenting, having a sense of guilt, having a sense that I have not done what I should have done and that I have done something which I should not have. Instead of that you see the past mistakes and the problems clearly and then in the present moment you decide to learn something from it and move ahead. So moving ahead is always there whether in the case of the past or the future.

Neelam: In a way, Vipassanā helps you to be away from entanglement in the past which can happen in the form of guilt, pride, biases, and also from getting caught up in fantasies or anxieties about the future, and actually work for a better future without any biases. So far, we have come to the point that Vipassanā is learning to be a detached observer of your own mental processes. However, I have met people who would do it out of faith in a particular person or religion or sometimes it is done as a ritual. Why? I keep on wondering. Why do people understand Vipassanā differently despite the same instructions being given to everybody?

Mahesh: See, someone’s perception and understanding of anything is limited by their temperament. That is why as per the tradition a teacher is supposed to assess the student’s temperament and suggest a meditation object (kammaṭṭhāna10) which is suitable for that type of temperament. In Buddhism, six types of temperaments or carita based on wholesome and unwholesome roots are enumerated. Temperament means personal nature or idiosyncrasy. These temperament types emphasize either emotional or intellectual aspects of human nature. Three of them emphasize emotional aspects of human nature and find their expression in attachment (rāgacarita), aversion (dosacarita) and faithfulness (saddhācarita). The other three temperaments emphasize intellectual aspects are characterized by critical intellect (buddhicarita), hyper-attention (vitakkacarita) and confusion (mohacarita).

In Visuddhimagga11 there is discussion about an appropriate meditation object for each type of temperament. The meditation which starts with the object suitable for the student’s type of temperament as suggested by the teacher is supposed to counter the unwholesome characteristics of that person and cultivate and support the wholesome ones. In texts like Saundarānanda,12 the author Asvaghosa talks of checking our mental states every now and then because even in the same person mental states may not remain the same and we have to adjust our practice accordingly. Watching our own state of mind, we have to take a decision about what kind of object we should be focusing on. But in the present day of organised meditations and organised retreats sometimes this kind of personalised attention or training becomes very difficult. But that is something which is ideal as far as Buddhist scriptures are concerned.

Neelam: Mahesh, this is very similar to how a psychologist would have tried to answer this question of differential understanding. For psychologists, individual differences are always because of the unique personality which is lasting, which can be said to be more or less consistent. In your description, I can also see the difference between trait and state aspects of personality, which psychologists have considered. Traits are long-lasting behaviour patterns whereas states are temporary emotional states.

I am wondering how it is that Buddhism has also spoken about temperament which relates to patterns of behaviour. Because, as you have said, the whole practice is to make one understand the true nature of reality. And reality, it is said, is ever changing or impermanent, isn’t it?

Mahesh: See, impermanence needs to be understood in the correct perspective. Impermanence can be observed in moments, in days, in months or in years; because some things change very fast and others very slow. Temperament many appear similar to personality because it gives consistency in behaviour. But unlike personality it is not long-lasting or inflexible. Temperament is just accumulated habit patterns. It is formed by doing certain things repeatedly, so it can be changed by doing good things repeatedly or with the help of meditation practice.

With the practice of samatha and Vipassanā, you are developing awareness of the conditions that are leading to certain behaviour patterns of yours. By developing awareness and mindfulness you can change unwholesome habit patterns and develop wholesome habits. Introducing Vipassanā appropriately to each temperament is important.

Neelam: Ok, but what about anattā13 or non-self, the last of the three characteristics14 of the reality then? Are not carita and non-self contradictory to each other? One speaks about sustained mental habits, whereas the other says that there is no such thing as continuity or substantiality, every moment is separate from another.

Mahesh:  Now we need to understand these two things in proper context. Anattā negates anything which is over and above the mind and body like a permanent, unchanging soul, which is neither created nor dependant on anything. When we talk of carita, we do talk of some kind of stable nature of a person. But as I already mentioned, unlike the permanent soul, this stable nature is caused or conditioned by something and can be changed with right efforts.

Neelam: Truly speaking, psychology has untied itself from the concept of soul a long time ago. We believe only in those things which we can experience by this very mind or body. Still, it is a very real experience that at the age of 40, though my appearance is different from the one that was there when I was 4 years old, a feeling is there that I am the same person. I have memories of all the things which happened as I grew in age. These memories are actually making my Self. How do we account for this continuous stream of memory if there is no self? If there is nothing which is continuous and consistent, who would take the responsibility of any action? A thief might say that I am not responsible for stealing as I was a different person then.

Mahesh: This was the view (that I am a different person each moment and not responsible for my previous actions) of some teachers who were contemporaries of the Buddha. The Buddha strongly criticised them for taking such a stand. In a Buddhist text, ‘Milinda pañha’,15 which literally means ‘Questions of Milinda’, king Milinda asks this question to a Buddhist teacher Nāgasena. Nagasena answers, the person who I was in my childhood and the person who I am now are not totally distinct from each other, also not exactly the same. In Pāli it is said, ‘na ca so, na ca añño’.

Though the river Ganges in the Himālaya appears different from the one when it starts flowing on the plateau, the flow of the river Ganges has not become the flow of the river Jamunā. The stream of the consciousness which has started since my birth has not changed completely, though it has undergone many changes. So of course I am responsible for my previous actions. The person who was doing the action cannot be totally separate from the one taking its responsibility.

Neelam: If so, then what is the necessity to speak of anattā? Speaking of anicca should be sufficient! Anicca is the first characteristic to be experienced when one starts meditating. But the fact is that a sense of self or a feeling that ‘I am observing’ remains for a long time.

Mahesh: The experience of Anattā comes a little later on the path. As your understanding of impermanence related to mind and body reaches to the subtlest level, understanding of Anattā rises, it is said. However, the awareness of non-self is very important for the practice. Practice of Vipassanā meditation is to end or uproot suffering. It is realised sometimes during the practice that the root of suffering is craving or Taṇha. Then you further try to understand the root of craving. With consistent practice one realises that craving is rooted in the idea of ‘I’ and ‘my’. This is exactly where we refer to self. If one really has to get rid of craving, then one has to come out of this idea of ‘I’ and ‘my’. The idea of ‘I’ is imposed on us because of the way we talk about ourselves and about the world around us. But according to Buddhism, this is basically an illusion, not the reality.

Neelam: This concept of Anattā has created a lot of confusion for me. Let me tell you the beginning of all these troubles. For me and for most of us, our motivation to study psychology as well as to take a course of Vipassanā was similar; that is, to explore our ‘selves’. I was in search of that which was giving me identity, which was making me unique, which was making me different from others, what should be the goal of ‘my’ life, what is my role in this society, what is the purpose of life, so on and so forth. Along with the psychological studies, I took this course of Vipassanā simply because it was readily available, thinking that it would give me enough space and time for my ongoing self-exploration. And here I get to know that ‘self’ does not exist! It creates a lot of confusion in my mind. If there is no self, what am I seeking for? I was proud that I was on a journey which very few people undertake. Was my pursuit of ‘self’ in vain then? To tell you the fact, it is terrifying.

Mahesh: You are right. Discovering that there is no self is a terrifying idea. Initially when practitioners begin to practise, they have a very strong sense of ‘I’. I am practising, I am meditating and so on. But when their enquiry goes further, and when they come to discern the reality about themselves, they realise that basically what they are calling ‘I’ is in fact nothing but a combination of different experiences, thoughts and feelings. So basically it is nothing but mind and body interaction. What actually is happening is just this process of observation and nothing else. So in Buddhism it is said that the practitioner discovers that there is no meditator, but only this process of meditation; there is no thinker but only thinking. This is a scary moment, but this opens the path to deliverance. Because this is where the person actually comes out of the hold of ‘I’ and ‘my’ and the practice becomes deeply rooted. So it is perfectly fine to have this self-exploration in the initial stages, but one has to always remember that according to Buddhist practice, this exploration will finally lead to the awareness of self without self.

Neelam: Self without self! I will share some of the efforts of psychologists to understand the self and the difficulties they faced. The early psychologists had only one thing to help increase their understanding of self, observe the behaviour of their clients or subjects. By ‘self’ we were trying to understand that which was making everybody a unique human being, having certain likings and disliking. Initially, we presumed that there is a real entity within which is shaping all our behaviour. We tried to excavate that self from childhood memories as in Psychoanalysis, but it left us entangled in the depth. We then decided to be limited to the actions and reactions here and now as in Behaviourism, but that made the self very shallow. We thought that the uniqueness for which we are seeking must be in the purpose of my life as I decide. But too much emphasis on human agency was misplaced. Later we changed the search of our direction and started looking for the things on which the self was dependant, as you said just now. We explored social structures and linguistic structures for the same. By depending too much on linguistic structures for the source of self, we lost the inner experience of the person. You described that there is observation, but no observer. This is exactly the way postmodern theories described the self. But that way they lost the subject. After all, I exist and you also exist. It is also a fact that we two are discussing with each other. Are there no distinct selves of ours who are communicating with each other?

Mahesh: Buddhism always talks of two levels of understanding. The first level is the level of communication or of Sammuti. There is another level which is the level of absolute reality or of Paramattha. In terms of the communicative level, we do talk of I and you. The Buddha himself uses such language as “I will teach you” or “I will ask you a question”. The practice of sīla which involves not killing others, not stealing other’s property and so on very much depends on the distinction between myself and others. But at the same time, when we are developing samādhi and paññā along with sīla, the sīla does not make us proud or egoistic of what we are doing. As samādhi and paññā are cultivated, one understands that although I am using this term ‘I’, it is not something which is absolute or the paramattha. In the paramattha, ultimately there is no ‘I’ as such.

Neelam: So I understand that at the conventional level, the concept of a distinct self who communicates with others or takes responsibility for an action is accepted. Childhood memories, the meaning ascribed to life, the motivation to achieve something, the way we speak about our self, the social structure, everything contributes to the construction of this distinct self. But if we consider this self as permanent, then come unwholesome mental states like pride, jealousy and envy. So the whole practice is to realise how impermanent and without any substantiality is this sense of self.

Mahesh: Yes!

Neelam: Another thing which is troubling me about Vipassanā is non-reactivity, non-judgment or equanimity. I am wondering how this non-reactivity would reflect in your day-to-day interactions with others? It is in a way good that you accept others as they are. But will this attitude be a hurdle for even necessary changes. For example, suppose students in a class are unruly and undisciplined, what should be a teacher’s behaviour with them who happens to be a Vipassanā meditator? Should the teacher scold them or accept them as they are?

Mahesh: See, as I said before, this concern is again due to an inappropriate definition of Mindfulness. Equanimity or Upekkhā (=Pali) to the pleasant and painfulness of bodily sensations is necessary in the training of Vipassanā. However, it does not mean non-reactivity or indifference at the level of social interactions. It means approaching problems not on the basis of feelings, but with wisdom and understanding. It is more distancing yourself emotionally from the problem. This distance is necessary for effective action and would in fact help avoid burn-outs among social workers and healers. In the example of the unruly class, a wise teacher, rather than reacting to unpleasant feelings, would try to understand the conditions which are making these students undisciplined and would look for solutions to reduce these conditions. While doing this,  a practitioner with equanimity will not be carried away by success in this pursuit. In case of failure, instead of getting frustrated, the practitioner will try and find out new ways and solutions for the problem.

Neelam: I agree, if I cry listening to the sad stories of my clients, it would be harmful for me as well as for my client. What is required is to detach myself emotionally, so that I can take effective action to help the person. Equanimity with compassion only can make you stable and capable of helping others. It would be a relief for many of us to know that Vipassanā does not promote passivity, but appropriate action in social interactions.

By the way, there are people who have understood very well that everything is impermanent and that we are the creators of our own pleasure or pain. They know that the art of living is in accepting life as it is. But they deny taking up systematic training in Vipassanā, saying that they do not need it. Are there some people who genuinely do not need Vipassanā, for whom it is actually too early or too late?

Mahesh: See, what is going to help us is the experiential understanding of reality consisting of impermanence, suffering and non-self. There might be some people who have understood it very well even without going for the systematic training of Vipassanā, which is very good. However, for many people it also might be true that their understanding of reality  is only at an intellectual level. The intellectual understanding is not sufficient when it comes to suffering. For this understanding to get firmly established, the impermanence needs to be understood experientially at the level of bodily sensations. So everyone has to decide for themselves if their understanding is sufficient to come out of suffering in life or not. If the goal of the practice is complete eradication of craving, aversion and confusion, there is no alternative for daily practice of Vipassanā. However, if the goal is coming out of present mental disturbance or getting relaxation, practices which cultivate one pointedness or tranquillity also would be sufficient. As I said before, in texts like Visuddhimagga, it is suggested that a different meditation object would be suitable for each person. However, for reaching the goal of Nibbāṇa or complete eradication of suffering, Vipassanā is the only way.

Neelam: There is a popular discourse nowadays that there is no need to sit for meditation separately. You should be in meditation or mindfulness, as it is said, even while doing all your activities. This discourse is actually creating confusion among meditators as well as non-meditators. Is there any real necessity to sit for two hours per day? What is the relation of Vipassanā to daily life?

Mahesh: Being continuously mindful is an ideal state. If somebody can become mindful without the effort or continuity of sitting meditation, that would be great. But usually that is not the case. Our mind at times gives different kinds of excuses for not sitting for meditation. Saying that ‘I do not need it’ or ‘I am always mindful’ can be one of the excuses, and one has to be aware of the mind which is playing these tricks.

Our mind is habituated in such a way that it always takes up different objects at different moments and gets involved in them. So we really need to train our mind to be attentive, to work with the present moment. Sitting meditation is useful for this kind of training, at least initially. Even if a person achieves the state of being mindful every moment, sitting meditation still has its own benefits. It will be useful to remember that the Buddha also used to ‘sit’ for meditation even after enlightenment.

Neelam: So daily sitting for meditation is necessary for proper cultivation of your mind, at least in the initial stages. But everyone has to decide it for themselves. In a way, Vipassanā is for the mind and mental health as a daily bath is for the body and physical health. You have to decide how frequently and how deep you want to take a dip, nobody else can decide that for you.

Neelam: While concluding do you want to ask anything?

Mahesh: When psychologists have tried to use meditative techniques in Mindfulness-based therapies, what I see is that they have cut the techniques from their original religious context. So how far can that be justified? Is it not in a way a half-hearted attempt at this technique?

Neelam: The initial efforts to assimilate the Buddhist meditation techniques started in the West as we all know by Jon Kabat Zinn in the form of Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction. Secularising it or presenting it as something which is beyond religion, culture or region might be the necessity of the people for whom he has developed this program. I understand that the way MBSR or other mindfulness-based therapies have given more importance only to awareness to sensations might be misleading about the technique itself, and that more of the necessity of morality, which is the foundation of the practice, and also the realisation of tilakkhaṇa, should be incorporated in these interventions.

But at the same time, I also think that there would be changes in the external appearance of any tradition as it travels from one region to another as per the culture of the region. I see that this has happened in the history of Buddhism when it travelled from India to other neighbouring countries, though all of them have maintained the basic Trishikshā comprising sīla, samādhi, paññā as it is. About cutting a technique from its religious background .... it seems to be the necessity of the time. We are in a time when people are getting educated mostly in a secular set-up. Asking questions, curiosity, reasoning are the necessary life skills. In such an atmosphere it is difficult to impose anything just because tradition has said so. Besides, it would reach to many people if we are able to pierce through the outer shell of religion, which in fact originally was not there, and see that the true essence is universal and not only limited to a particular religion or community.

Mahesh: Again, meditative practices can be used for much higher goals than just medical health. Besides, mental health in Buddhism and in psychology appear different to me. In Buddhism, someone is not mentally fit unless they have completely eradicated all their defilements, whereas in psychology you are aiming to help people only to solve their current problem.

Neelam: Hmmm... I see the difference between the concept of mental health from the Buddhist and psychological perspectives. In psychology, mental health is conceptualised as a continuum. On left most extreme of this continuum there would be a state of mental illness wherein the people are not able to manage day to day activities and are not satisfied with themselves.  In the middle there would be a state wherein the people are fulfilling their day to day responsibilities, taking care of themselves, contributing to others through their work and are satisfied in general. The right-most extreme of this continuum consists of the people who are having exceptional mental health in the sense that they are doing works which are much beyond the limits of an average individual. Secondly, mental health is also conceptualised as a process. At every moment there would be challenges for people at whichever place they are on this continuum. People who are successfully able to handle these challenges can be called mentally healthy. For people who are mentally ill as per the ‘so called’ criteria of mental illness, the challenge is to maintain a positive state of mind and take charge of the activities of daily life, whereas for people who are already fulfilling their daily responsibilities, excellence in whatever activities they undertake would be a challenge. I understand that the Buddha’s teachings, if practiced appropriately, help people to transcend the pulls and pushes of internal and external challenges by giving them insight into the reality, but has Buddha ever said that this would not be useful for any goal lower than this? People may turn to Vipassanā as a solution to their own problems, as I had turned to Vipassanā thinking that it would help in my self-exploration. For somebody else it might be useful for coming out of a depressed state of mind. But that can be a starting point at least. If people remain on the path, somewhere they would realise that all these mental states are impermanent or that the self is actually illusory. Why not begin? 

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Thus the discussion between the Buddha and the Psychologists continued for a long time. The clouds of doubts were disintegrated by the end of the discussion.

Psychologists realised that though some of the concepts in the Buddha’s teaching may seem incompatible with the science of psychology to begin with, at further analysis they can be assimilated.

They also realised that the practice of Vipassanā or Mindfulness is not an end in itself. It is in fact a pathway to the true wisdom which was very rare nowadays.

The discussion ended with a great ‘sādhukāra’ from all the beings who were present there.

Here we have narrated as we heard it for the happiness and benefit of many!

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1    Clinical Psychologist, Phaltan. Email: neelvinchurni@gmail.com

2    Buddhist scholar, HOD, Department of Pali, Sawitribai Phule Pune University. Email: hodpali@unipune.ac.in

3    The Noble Eightfold path taught by the Buddha for complete eradication of suffering.

4    Sīla: Rules of morality

5    Vipassanā course: A 10 day course of systematic training of Vipassanā Meditation as taught by SN Goenka, sometimes referred only as Vipassanā.

6    Ānāpāna: To be aware of incoming and outgoing breath. A Vipassanā course starts with instructions of  Ānāpāna.

7    Samatha: Meditation to develop tranquility or one pointedness of mind.

8    Abhidhamma (or Abhidharma in Sanskrit): Abbreviated form of Abhidhamma pitaka, one of the baskets of Tipitaka (lit. three baskets; Sutta and Vinaya being the other two baskets) wherein the Buddha’s teachings are compiled. Abhidhamma means higher philosophical doctrines.

9    Pañca sīla are no killing, no stealing, no use of intoxicants, no sexual misconduct, no false speech

10  Kammaṭṭhāna: The object of meditation, e.g. in breath awareness , the object of meditation is breath

11   Visuddhimagga: The path of purification. A Buddhist text written in 5th century by Buddhaghosa. The classic manual of Buddhist doctrine and meditation.

12  Saundarānanda: An epic written by Asvaghosa in 1st century.

13  Anattā: The central doctrine in Buddhism. Neither within the bodily and mental phenomena of existence, nor outside of them, can be found anything that in the ultimate sense can be regarded as a self-existing real ego entity, soul or any other abiding substance.

14  Three characteristics or tilakkhaṇa are aniccadukkha, and anattā

15  Milinda pañha: A Buddhist text in Pali which dates approximately to 100 BCE. It is included in the Burmese edition of the Pāli canon of Theravāda Buddhism as a book of Khuddaka nikāya.