In the West, we often think of Buddhism as a cure for all of life’s ills, and Vipassana as the fastest-acting medicine. But no matter how deep a philosophy, Buddhism can’t solve all of our problems by itself. And Vipassana can be as harmful as it is also helpful, especially when shorn of the broader cultural context in which Buddhism originated.
When I refer to Vipassana in this article, I mean the 10+ day silent meditation retreats established worldwide by S.M. Goenka, which are the most common form of Vipassana retreat and typically what people refer to when they say they have ‘done Vipassana’.
This article is for anyone new to Buddhism or meditation who is contemplating sitting a Vipassana, or who just wants a little more guidance in the theory behind their practice. It is also for you if you have sat a Vipassana and are still trying to integrate it. And more broadly, it’s for anyone who can struggle to find a point of integration between their own experiences or beliefs and their spiritual practice or affiliation.
I remember when I first encountered Buddhism. I was six years old, on a once-in-a-lifetime family trip to Sri Lanka. I didn’t necessarily understand much of what was being said in the tours around the museums and sacred sites, but some deep impression was made on me by the blank, serene face in which the Buddha’s likeness was represented. Used to the blood and drama of Catholicism, the fetishisation of suffering, the invocation of grace to mediate human action, here was something completely different. A man celebrated in the depth of ordinariness, achieving nothing but sitting still, radically self-responsible, seemingly floating above the turbulence of life.
I drew that likeness many times in my little notebooks, fascinated by the intricately bunched hair, the fold of the limbs, the monastic dress. But most of all, that still, inscrutable expression.
There is no doubt that these experiences shaped my later life and my enduring interest in religion, philosophy and spirituality, and were therefore of huge value. Little did I know know that in these experiences there was planted the seed that would ultimately flower into my first Vipassana and beyond.
But there is also a sense in which this was an immature encounter with something unfathomably deep, which could have misled even developed minds, and may have set me unconsciously on a path I am only now beginning to correct. I believe there is something of this in many self-led discoveries of Buddhism, a naivety which ultimately leads to profound misunderstanding.
This Is It
Because there is something in Buddhism (particularly the Theravada tradition of the Indian sub-continent) and in Vipassana specifically, in its plainness and simplicity, in its secular accessibility, which enchants (or perhaps coldly, quasi-rationally convinces) the spiritual seeker that this is it. That here is ground zero of spirituality, beneath all of the superstitions, lies, misinterpreted myths and misapplied metaphors. Here is the real deal, pointing to what is the only truly meaningful goal of human existence: the cessation of suffering.
The danger is that, precisely because of this no-nonsense, proto-scientific tone in which the discourses are delivered on Vipassana, many spiritual seekers suspend the development of their own sense-making. They defer to the infallible wisdom they have just encountered, believing they have found a truth that trumps and nullifies any other.
Vipassana As Panacea
Now, Buddhism does undoubtedly advocate a system which, if applied correctly, can lead to the achievement of lasting contentment and the dissolution of the egoic self. Just by sitting down, over and over again, and letting go of thoughts (which the spiritual initiate identifies unreflectively as inherently bad/unreal), your life and your ability to appreciate it improves. Indeed, it becomes clear that there is nothing to improve. Because you – understood as a stable self with coherent desires – don’t exist.
This particular understanding of Buddhism as a panacea to all of life’s ills will be familiar to anyone who has ever sat an SN Goenka Vipassana retreat – a ten-day silent retreat involving nothing but meditation, 11 hours per day.
Goenka, the solemn teacher clad in white you watch nightly projected on a screen, instructs you to pursue no other means of meditation or self-inquiry for the duration of the retreat. You are told that this will corrupt the practice, and that the practice is all that you will need in order to attain a state of total and everlasting ‘peace and harmony’.
He utters these phrases with a genie-like sway in his seat, elongating the words in a breathy voice, as if he is revealing the very secrets of life to you, the location of the Holy Grail. Moreover, you are encouraged to maintain a strict and exclusive adherence to Vipassana after the course is finished, and are checked up on when making future applications as to whether you have mixed other modalities in with your practice.
When entering into Vipassana for the first time, I was particularly impressionable. As with so many spiritual seekers, I was especially vulnerable because the very reason I was subjecting myself to this marathon of endurance was because I had run out of places to look for answers. My attendance was predicated on the notion that I was lost, and I was asking for something, anything, to lead me out of my confusion.
The extent of my meditation up to then had been sporadic stints of 10-15 minutes on Headspace, which had felt mildly torturous. And so when I arrived, I was on edge, terrified at the prospect of ten days of unremitting exposure to my own mind, and very much out of my comfort zone.
All of this meant that I deliberately quietened and sidelined my critical, rational mind. It had failed to get me very far so far in life it seemed, so I’d better just believe what I was told. The problem was that, viewed through this lens of instability and insecurity, I both overemphasised the infallibility of the teachings and distorted their negative aspects.
In Vipassana, there is a heavy focus on the idea that life is suffering. The pleasures of habitual experience are presented as vanishingly small, illusory, and essentially worthless. You are implored again and again to work ‘diligently and persistently’, to leave behind your old mindless existence and engage with the only work that matters. There is an emphasis on achieving ‘purity’, based on the exorcism of ‘defilements’ that permeate and define your psychological experience.
Naturally, I finished the course even more distressed than when I began. I was briefly introduced to Metta (loving-kindness meditation) at the retreat’s end as a balm to the ‘deep wound’ I had uncovered over the ten days, but this ultimately felt like just another responsibility to add to my new spiritual burden. The main takeaway was that I should spend two hours per day maintaining my practice if I did not want to slide back into my old, self-destructive existence. And thus I felt the need to drag myself kicking and screaming to my practice regardless of how this new practice was making me feel or what I might think it was doing for me.
Denial of Self
What this meant was that, for many years after my first Vipassana, I felt highly disassociated from my own life, experiencing deep contradictions between my spiritual practice and almost every other aspect of my life. Everything was seen through the lens of ego and illusion. I had uncritically swallowed the belief that Buddhism was the only worthwhile philosophy for life, and that what I had encountered on Vipassana was an objective and comprehensive take on Buddhism. That the explanation I had been given and the ensuing interpretation I had made of the notion of life as suffering was total and irrefutable and, this being the case, that the only solution was the asceticism and world-renunciation that this seemed to entail.
This illusory and painful plain of experience was supposed to be transcended, and this was to be achieved through turning away from it, through turning inward, until one is no longer affected by life’s vicissitudes. So why was I fooling and distracting myself with anything else?
My life became the silent asking of a question to which I did not want to hear the answer:
Why was I pursuing any personal project when the only thing that really mattered was Enlightenment and the only way of working towards that was meditation or some other mindfulness practice?
To put it another way:
Why was I working on myself, when the self needed to be dissolved?
I naively understood that the dissolution of the self was (a) the ONLY goal and (b) contradictory to any personal pursuit of meaning or achievement in my life.
Far from liberating me as it was supposed to and streamlining my life towards one unified goal, this caused me to suffer and reject life. This understanding, that is, had ironically percolated into a pervasive sense of dissatisfaction, exactly what Buddhism seeks to overcome, because of my rejection of the trappings of the temporal world and belief in the ultimate vanity of all action. And yet this belief was still too apathetic, held too reluctantly, to warrant fully withdrawing myself from the world in the manner of a monk or saint.
However, the truth is that Buddhism advocates, before anything else, the importance of the meditator exploring the nature of reality for themselves. This is the meaning of the famous Zen koan, ‘If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him’. It is an invocation to accept no truth other than your own, to honour no sacred cows. It is a reminder that at the centre of Buddhism is no doctrine or dogma, but rather a focus on intensely personal insight.
Although this is included in the Vipassana discourses, there is an inherent contradiction in the dogmatic and impersonal tone in which they are delivered. Or, at least, it is likely that you will latch onto the more dogmatic and harsh aspects of the teaching if you are unprepared for the experience. Because Goenka is nothing but an image on a screen expounding one-size-fits-all spiritual guidance, it is absolutely inevitable that some subtleties are overlooked, and that more sensitive meditators will feel triggered, isolated and depressed by what they hear. There is no room for individuality in what has become an off-the-shelf self-help product.
Whilst the Upanishads, the oldest canonical texts of Buddhism, are necessarily dogmatic in the sense that they are transmitting universal and direct truths, we must never forget that the tradition is always being perceived through whatever cultural lens we bring and so must be adapted to our own understanding and needs. It is through us as practitioners that it moves from theory to practice, from idea to form. In us the teaching is subsumed into and through us it becomes manifest.
(Let me be clear: I am not saying Goenka had even the slightest of bad intentions in creating the course, or that his courses are not incredibly effective for most people in most situations (I have been on Vipassanas since! This isn’t a sad story!). I am saying that this is what I took from my first retreat experience and that the disorientation and depression that I felt is a salient example of the effect that Vipassana and a simplistic view of Buddhism, in all their rationalistic simplicity, can have on the naive spiritual seeker.)
Moreover, regardless of its universal truth, despite its obvious profundity and efficacy in addressing some of the central difficulties with life, Buddhism is only one modality of thousands within the spiritual and psychological canon. Even the Dalai Lama himself admits:
‘Buddhism is not everything.’
It took me many years to get to this point, where Buddhism has become just one resource amongst many.
Why though? What is it missing?
Life is not suffering
The first noble truth – Dukkha – tends to be translated as ‘life is suffering’. But this is both a mistranslation (or at least a misleading translation) and an overgeneralisation of a phenomenon which is not as pervasive and universal as it first sounds.
(It’s interesting how uncritically the spiritual seeker accepts the maxim that life is suffering and blows it out of proportion, though it makes total sense that they do: they are seeking because they are, to a greater or lesser extent, suffering. Mmore importantly though, they are seeking because they are so focused on that suffering. Their life is not giving them what they want. When they read something which tells them this is inherent to the human condition they naturally swallow it. Here is something they can relate to, which explains their spiritual dissatisfaction: ‘Yes Buddha, Yes! Now tell me how to solve it!’)
It would be better to say Dukkha means ‘unsatisfactoryness’. This can be understood by considering the second noble truth, Samudaya, which explains the origin of Dukkha as craving and attachment to things in a world characterised by transience and impermanence and thus insatiability. I can never achieve satisfaction because everything is constantly changing and therefore slipping out of my grasp.
Moreover, the Buddha’s lesson was not that life was inherently unsatisfactory but rather was so in habitual experience because of how we relate to life. Because we are always striving after something that never arrives, there is a lack or gap in my experience of the world. As long as we subsist in the separated reality of the ego, we are forever other than the object we are relating to. As John Vervaeke puts it, we occupy our existence in a kind of modal confusion – constantly seeking to ‘have’ rather than ‘be’ experience.
This has important consequences for our understanding of and deference to Buddhist teachings. The solution the Buddha proposed for this unsatisfactoriness was to stop striving whatsoever, to excise it at its core, on the bodily, pre-cognitive level. Spiritual initiates, particularly those who have gone through a process as stressful as a Goenka Vipassana retreat, can easily extrapolate from this that the only meaningful goal of life must be to stop striving towards anything. (Or, at best, to strive towards the cessation of striving).
But if the unsatisfactoriness of existence is defined by how we relate to the world, rather than the world or any particular actions we take per se, any means by which we can adopt the correct attitude and modal relation to the world will be a solution. We can still strive, so long as we do not confuse the aim or function of striving for a goal with the achievement of that goal, and rather find the meaning inherent in the process itself.
Do not seek, but bring, fulfilment
This is known in popular parlance as ‘happiness is the journey, not the destination.’ This can seem like an annoying platitude, but as with most cliches, has only become a cliche because of its self-evident truth. Of course, the only satisfaction you will ever have is in the journey. Because all of life is a journey. You never arrive once and for all at the thing. Life never stops. What would that even look like?
Through shifting the focus from simply ‘not-striving’ to ‘doing whatever it is you like so long as you bring the right mentality‘, a new kind of spirituality can emerge that coheres more easily with the individualist life project of the western spiritual seeker. It becomes possible to pursue spiritual growth and experience life’s more mundane pleasures along the way.
As emphasised by Western society’s culmination in the rabid individualism of late capitalism, something in our cultural DNA is deeply committed to the project of the individual. We can try to ignore this, to decry it as a corruption of life itself and something to be vanquished and transcended. Or we can accept that there is a fundamental drive within us, originating in our Western Philosophical tradition and the project of what it takes to live a meaningful individual life, which constitutes how we understand what it means to be alive in the West, and which cannot simply be cast off because we think it should be.
This realisation was crucial for me because it gave me my life back. I could continue to busy myself with projects that were meaningful to me, to build the life I dreamed of, to fall in love with life. I just had to let go of outcomes and appreciate the process itself.
We need to be in love with our lives – or at least to believe we can work towards this feeling – because this is the fuel which sustains us, on the spiritual path and every other one.
To put it bluntly: if life is purely suffering, why not commit suicide? The nihilism the Western individualist mind perceives as permeating Buddhism can lead us to pursue the spiritual project with a completely negative and therefore unsustainable mindset. We feel that here are undeniable, universal truths: life is suffering and ultimately pointless, so we’d better begin the slow and boring work of detaching ourselves from our illusory and transient affections for it. But this negativity and resentment of life is ultimately self-defeating, distorting everything through its lens.
Chopping wood and carrying water
Again, life is not suffering. But our approach towards it frequently makes it so. This distinction explains how instant enlightenment or ‘kensho’ is possible in the Zen tradition. It is a sudden realisation that there is nothing to solve, nothing to suffer about. Chopping wood and carrying water. Sending emails and watching Netflix. It’s all golden. Just be mindful while you’re doing it.
Through coming into this realisation, that there is more richness, more plains of truth, more possibility than one teaching could possibly encompass, I have begun to experience a joy in my life I didn’t think I had in me. For the first time since I can remember (interestingly, my earliest memories seem to trace back exactly to that Sri Lankan holiday and no further, as if there was planted the seed of adult-, or self-, consciousness), I feel something like love for life. I accept the challenge. I am excited for the future.
Today I find myself engaging in spirituality and philosophy with a renewed vigour. Where before I was guiltily questioning such aimless self-indulgence, I now understand that this is part of the deepest project I have: to make sense of the world and find its meaning and beauty. That the meaning and the beauty is in the finding and the making of that meaning and beauty. And that this entails exploring and sharing it with others, because this shared exploration and exchange is meaning and beauty itself.
Again, the purpose of this article is not to denigrate Buddhism or Vipassana. Since my first experience, I have sat and served additional retreats and just sat my most recent retreat. These practices are, for me, an integral part of my ‘ecology of practice’ – a holistic system of spiritual and self-development practices which give my life meaning, help me perceive truth and bring me joy. It is simply that they are not all-sufficient in and of themselves and can pose dangers to the spiritual initiate when understood as such.
I now see that first Vipassana, despite the difficulty and confusion, as being a vital step towards this love of life. It was a necessary shaking of the self to its very core so that I could begin the slow work of reconstructing a life and self that I could actually say ‘yes’ to, as opposed to simply having thrust upon me.
Ultimately, the truth that you seek is yours alone to find. It cannot be handed down ready-made by someone else. As Zen monks say, each time someone climbs one ladder to enlightenment, that ladder is kicked down. On a positive note, it means your life is your own to build and enjoy. And that you don’t have to hold beliefs that hold you back.
So go out. Explore. Find the missing pieces of the puzzle. Or rearrange the pieces you have. You don’t have to accept ANY teaching because someone told you you have to. Even because you told yourself you have to. Rather, you will know you have found the lessons that you need when they begin to resonate inside the caverns of your being, and lift you forward in the unfathomable, inarticulable, constantly evolving play of life.