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Vipassana Meditation

Richard Chambers

There are countless varieties and forms of meditation. All are united by the principal aim of training awareness and consequently increasing voluntary control of the mind (Walsh, 1983). They may be divided into two broad types: concentrative techniques aim to develop single-pointed concentration, while insight techniques foster mindfulness, in the sense outlined above (Goleman, 1977).

Mindfulness practices originate from a 2,500-year-old Theravadin Buddhist meditation practice known as Vipassana (see Hart, 1987). The technique emphasises the simultaneous development of awareness and equanimity, which Buddhists believe leads ultimately to the cessation of suffering. As part of this process, however, it unavoidably leads in the shorter term to enhanced self-awareness and a resultant amelioration of emotional turmoil.

The technique involves moving one's attention methodically throughout the body, experiencing and acknowledging fully, but not reacting to, whatever physical sensations are encountered along the way . Thoughts and emotions that arise during the process are similarly treated. While initially practiced during sessions of seated meditation, this quality of equanimous awareness ultimately becomes internalised and automatic, unconsciously infusing all activities and experiences of the meditator. This is mindfulness, in the fullest sense of the term.

Interestingly, the literature tends to focus almost exclusively on awareness of respiration when discussing mindfulness meditation (e.g. Bishop et al., 2004; Brown & Ryan, 2004). This is unfortunate, as such descriptions are therefore intrinsically limited. The underlying philosophy is vast and intricate (for a discussion, see Hart, 1987; Rahula, 1999), but is based fundamentally on the notion that mental and sensory events generate physical sensations on or within our bodies, and it is to these that we react, rather than to the events themselves. Remaining equanimously aware of sensation within our own bodies thereby offers us a way to practice not reacting to the emotional and cognitive states which naturally emerge in response to the vicissitudes of life. This translates to decreased reactivity in our everyday lives. Changes in respiration in response to such events (e.g. the breath becoming shallow and rapid in response to stress) are more readily detectable than subtle bodily sensations, which may explain their dominance in the literature. However, sensations arise at a much earlier stage of reaction than changes to respiration. With sustained practice, we become able to recognise increasingly subtler sensations, becoming aware of our emotions and cognitions before they are able to upset the balance of our minds.

While conceptually simple, developing this capacity is incredibly hard to master. Our minds are largely conditioned to react to such sensory and cognitive events, and attempts to change this are initially met with intense internal resistance (Hart, 1987). As a result, Vipassana is initially learned on a course of 10 days duration , during which practitioners adhere to a strict timetable and code of discipline, refrain from any sort of communication or entertainment, and perform up to 110 hours of actual meditative practice. Accordingly, this presents a model population for investigating the effects of an intensive period of mindfulness training.

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