I practice a kind of meditation called “Vipassana,” which translates as “awareness.” It is practiced as moment-to-moment engagement with the sensations on and in the body.
The idea goes like this: a stimulus comes in contact with one of the sense doors, and a sensation, or vedana, arises. Our habituated perceptive apparatuses instantaneously evaluate that sense perception on the basis of previous experiences, acculturated assumptions, etc. This perception is called sanya. Next comes the crucial link, the sankara. The sankara is craving or aversion in response to our perception of the sensation. In the most basic terms, something that we’ve coded as good (like the taste of our favorite ice cream or the kiss of a lover), we want more of. We want the sensation to last. Something we’ve coded as bad (embarrassment, physical pain), we develop aversion to: we want it to end, we want to get away from it, we want to master or change it.
These sankaras are bouncing around all the time beneath the threshold of awareness, and they form the topography of the fourth link in this chain reaction the vinyana, or consciousness. This part of us is (or seems to be) our selves, our drives and volitions. Buddha figured out that the only link in this chain (vedena/sensation, sanya/perception, sankara/reaction, vinyana/consciousness) over which we have any control is actually the sankara, and we paradoxically get that control through close but non-interventionary observation of it. In other words, we learn to lower the threshold of our awareness so that those sankaras register in our conscious minds, where we can at least try not to act upon them (under normal conditions, we act upon these reactions, feeding them with thought, vocalization, or physical action). We can become aware of our cravings and aversions and learn to observe them instead of building mental or physical dramas with them. In fact, through observation, our vinyana learns to countenance the fact that these cravings and aversions are impermanent. They always pass away. They will pass away more quickly if we don’t make them the basis of mental, vocal, or physical actions.
The reason we would want to weaken the hold of craving and aversion in the first place is that all craving and aversion are the sources of suffering. Aversion seems pretty obvious, but how can the satisfaction of craving be the source of suffering? The answer is that impermanence we just went over. Whether or not we want to accept it and whether or not we are able to observe it on a moment-to-moment basis, everything changes, everything is changing constantly. Therefore, when we have and are holding something we really want and want to last, that thing inevitably changes. The piece of cake ends. The baby grows up. The son leaves home. The fortune needs to be preserved and extended through careful management. The house needs to be maintained. The property becomes a source of conflict and division between family members. The career demands more time, more accomplishment. The monsters need to be fed, and we can feed them only with our time/attention/energy. We hold on to versions of our identities that we want other people to see and crave, and it takes a lot of energy to maintain the public faces of those identities. We get locked into those patterns of being and lose our abilities to respond to reality as it is, preferring instead to struggle with reality to get it to conform to what we had planned for the day. We lose the ability to respond to possible new selves that are emerging in the moment.
Which brings me back to material, and getting into the dirt, and hiking through it. Vipassana as I’ve begun to practice it in the last year or so involves trying to engage with reality as it is evolving around me in real time, as my body is enmeshed in its immediate physical circumstances. I try to be aware of what’s really happening – not what I’d like to happen, not what I’ve planned on happening – and think about what it’s asking of me, how I’m in relation with it in the moment. That means putting some of my plans and ideas on hold sometimes (when I can do it, which isn’t as often as I’d like). I’ve seen people who do this well, who engage deeply in every interaction, who are open to the reality of the moment and not the glittering mechanisms of their aspirations, and it is truly a joy and inspiration to be around them. They remind me of David Foster Wallace’s Kenyon College commencement Speech, “This is Water,” in which he argues that our default minds (the ones in which the sankaras are bouncing around unchecked, like a hall of mirrors) will have us worshiping what it seems like everyone around us worships. Fame. Money. Power. Beauty. Desirability. Status. These gods, Wallace says, will “eat you alive,” precisely because things change. Bodies grow old, money gets spent, pride in an accomplishment quickly fades and needs to be shored up by yet more accomplishment. What he offers in their place is awareness, the choice of what to concentrate on, which he suggests a liberal arts education seeks to cultivate in its students. I think DFW is talking about something like Vipassana: the awareness of the sensations, the longings, the perceptions that are always directing our consciousness and actions just below the surface. So let’s peel back that surface, let’s get into the material of our bodies and its instructive, practical wisdom.
And in case you’re interested in taking a course in Vipassana meditation; it’s not for the faint of heart, but you’ll be a different person on Day 11!