Vipassana is a tool for scientists

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Buddhism is one of many incredibly old religions loaded with more historical cruft than is necessary to be a religion. Vipassana is a small, minimal, and very old tradition out of Buddhism that has been passed on for thousands of years in monasteries in Burma. It isn't cruft-free, but close, like how non-alcoholic beer can have half-a-percent of alcohol

For the purposes of this article, a scientist is anyone who has quietly or loudly bought into the sentiment that being good at thinking implies being bad at feeling. The scientist has not accepted this because its true or attractive, but because something better was never available. One potential Something Better is that the two are nearly indistinguishable, and that sensitivity to subtle sensations is necessary for clear thinking.

Vipassana can be seen as offering religious or spiritual practice, but its entirely focused on the regular practice of meditation, where meditation is sitting quietly and watching yourself feel. Meditation is a fantastic thing to be able to know and do. This is true for scientists. For all its differences from the things you might be familiar with, the 10-day Vipassana courses available through are the best way to learn how to meditate.

With its Eastern roots and low profile, Vipassana is easy to chunk as a fringe religion making its buck. It is growing, due in part to the efforts of one practitioner, S. N. Goenka, who appears on tape in meditation retreats around the world. His low-tech website doesn't have any of the gradients or Javascript that we've confounded with trustworthiness. His centers are growing quickly in India, and they have strong representation in North America. I think this success in the States is aided by the fact that we like our Eastern religions monastic. Any decent scientist will have a completely understandable skepticism of this Goenka and his company. For starters, what does he charge?

After the ten days are over, on your way out, the teachers announce that you are paid for already and that you can give them money if you would like someone else to experience what you just went through. Your ten days included room and delicious board. Even with this entirely voluntary income stream, based on a very soft sell, the centers continue to run and to grow.

The 10 days act as training, a crash course in meditation. The goal is to get you to a point where you can benefit from sitting regularly on your own as soon as you get back home. Without an intensive introduction, many people can sit regularly for months before feeling anything, and that makes meditation a difficult habit to pick up.

So you sit, and you pay attention to yourself not wanting to sit anymore, and you do that for about 100 hours, and you learn about yourself. You suffer, it rarely has fleeting moments of greatness that probably don't make up for the many hours of misery, but we are too limited to balance these ups and downs rationally, and after its all over you've maybe gained a tiny tiny glimpse into why. Its science at its best.

A regular practice after the retreat, if you end up making time for it in your life (as little as an hour a week) can make you think better and more clearly. And all of this is even more true if you are in the brain sciences. You will never have a better opportunity to see yourself be a thing that thinks in a body in time, and to see it happening as its happening. When I went in 2003 I had just taken my first courses in cognitive psychology and psychophysics. I actually experienced many of the processes I read about, and I came home with ideas for experiments, despite my best efforts to stay focused on meditation.

Practicing Vipassana also makes you identify with compassion, equanimity, and it helps you understand suffering. Its volunteers devote themselves to spreading Vipassana because of these effects of meditation. But if you are only interested in meditation to help you think better, you can go into it treating compassion et c. as probably-unobjectionable side effects until you've given yourself time to evaluate them for yourself.

The minimalism is what attracts me to Vipassana over other styles of meditation. As a way to sit, it avoids tricks like counting and visualization. And as a social entity, it is also very stripped down. One claim you hear repeated in the retreat is that "Buddhism is sitting." No holidays, cosmogonies, costumes, or God. It isn't totally clean of history: The teachers wear robes instead of pants, they play tapes of Goenka chanting, and you chant too. They ask you to refrain from eating meat, eating after noon, masturbating, killing things, and to subscribe to other constraints that they see as aiding your practice.

Towards the middle of the ten days you will hear mention of reincarnation on one of Goenka's pre-recordings. You will even hear an implication that its an ideological prerequisite. That was as close as it got to relying on superstition. You might be less likely than me to let it slide. If so, Paul R. Fleischman, who has been active in the American Vipassana community for decades, writes with his son in the title essay of Karma and Chaos to suggest that Vipassana's reincarnation is just something that is useful to believe to aid your practice. The Fleischmans invite the scientifically-minded to replace reincarnation---if they'd like---with the connectedness implicit in chaos theory. But once you've recognized reincarnation as a pragmatic concession, you are free to any of a variety of more palatable beliefs to fill its role. You will hear Goenka himself make some well-intentioned attempts to explain meditative states in the vocabulary of the scientific worldview.

Regardless, Vipassana is not pitched to scientists who want to think more clearly. Its aim "is total eradication of mental impurities and the resultant highest happiness of full liberation." If you sign up, you'll have to remember that you are a guest and that different people are there with different backgrounds and for different reasons. You'll have to assume good faith and be tolerant of things that are unfamiliar.

In the end, I think its impressive how hands-off Vipassana is for something that people treat as spiritual practice. Let me compare it to other traditions out of Buddhism. The Western conception of Zen is as something clean and minimal, but I've been to Zen monasteries and I've experimented with their techniques. Zen, even when it is heavily simplified for Westerners, is almost as full of inscrutable historical accident as Tibetan Buddhism, home of the Dalai Lama, whose religious canon is 3,000 times longer than the Christian Bible. By comparison, Vipassana is teaching only techniques for sitting and paying attention to sensations in your body.

So I'm calling Vipassana a part of scientific practice, even if at first it looks more like religious practice. If you want a lasting introduction to meditation for the least time, money, and religious instruction, a Vipassana course is your best bet.

If you want to try out a ten-day, you'll want to sign up two months or more in advance, especially if you can only free up ten days during the summer or winter break (and if you're signing up as female). You should read what the insiders have to say about it, and then you can dig after their retreats and webforms. Here is the site:


Eric, who is at a conference in India before trying his first retreat, let me know that I'm not the only one pitching Vipassana to scientists. Jon Kabat-Zinn has spun it into a program called Mindfulness Based Stress Relief (MBSR). Its name is awfully inspirational-seminar-with-free-coffee, but its got a research agenda and it has apparently been pitching itself to American culture for over thirty years. These superscripts are their home page and a one hour Youtube talk [1][2]. The video suggests that a lot of this is coming out of Cambridge, MA and the two big schools there. It refers to Vipassana as mindfulness meditation, which reminds me that it is also known in the states as insight meditation (as in this place, also in Cambridge, MA). Eric also pointed me to this journal article in Psychiatry Research: Neuroimaging.