Shifting Realities through Vipassana Meditation

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Shifting Realities through Vipassana Meditation

Hannah Messkoub

Shifting Realities through Vipassana Meditation

It has been suggested in class that a disconnect of information exists between the "I-function", an individuals experience of being, and the "unconscious", discussed as the behaviors controlled by the central nervous system of which one is unaware of. I found this concept intriguing as my own experiences with Vipassana, a Buddhist meditation technique, allowed me to make the gap between my conscious and unconscious less sharp. This is an attempt at comparing and contrasting the relationship between these two realms, drawing upon both my own experiences and those, such as Pilou Thirakoul and Dr. James Austin, who have already explored this field.

My experience with Vipassana meditation began with a 10-day course that required several serious commitments from all potential students. All meditators accept 5 noble precepts for the duration of the course which include an abstention from killing, stealing, lying, sexual misconduct, and the use of intoxicants. In order to maintain an environment that is conducive to intense meditation, all students take a vow of "Noble Silence" in which one abstains from any type of verbal or gestural communication. All precepts are taken in an effort to preserve a sense of shila or morality that creates a state of mental purity that aids meditation.

The course began with a 3-day instruction of annapanna that focuses the mind on becoming increasingly aware of the flow of natural respiration. One observes the subtleties of unadulterated respiration and the mind becomes calmer and sharper, ready to enter the field of panna or wisdom. Vipassana, literally translated as "seeing clearly" allows one to change the habit patterns of the mind at the deepest level. 1a> Through a process of self-observation and sustained equanimity an individual is able to change the general flow of sensory information. Inputs that were previously only recognized by the unconscious can now be processed through the I-function. I realized that consciousness is a subjective state that exists at different levels of awareness for every individual. There are sensations constantly arising and passing away that are too subtle for our I-function to achieve without intentional observation. This only becomes clear when one observes the chaotic habit patterns within one's own mind.

Vipassana teaches that there is a strong connection between mind and body, and that by focusing on bodily sensations one can understand the concept of constant change or annicha at an experiential level. One observes a variety of sensations on the body while remaining equanimous and detached, observing the sensation without any feelings of craving or aversion. By maintaining the balance of my mind, my old habit patterns of "blind" reaction grew weaker and weaker. I realized that my concepts of pain and pleasure were states that, with practice, I could observe as an outsider. My self-awareness had reached new heights and I felt a deep connection to the ways in which my body responded to sensory inputs.

A similar thought pattern in regard to the pattern principles of "mindfulness" is reflected in Pilou Thirakoul's essay titled "Buddhist Meditation and Personal Construct Theory" On my last retreat I delved deeper into the practice of Vipassana. I no longer felt the need to change my posture during meditation periods. Sensations existed everywhere in a constant state of flux and flow. Although I could identify sensations as uncomfortable or pleasant, my mind focused less on a physical reaction. As neurologist and Zen meditator James Austin explains a similar experience of detatchment from sensation during a meditation session. He states, "Awareness was steering itself toward a vague layer beyond thought. Here, pain alone could be turned off, pain in and of itself." 4 He concludes with the idea that there exists both opiod and non-opiod mechanisms for changing the way one interprets pain.

I began to observe my body as an objective outsider, examining each individual part of my body. Eventually I experienced a complete dissolution of mind and matter with the experiential realization that all my sensations were just an amalgamation of impermanent vibrations. As Thirakoul explains, "Indeed, an understanding of identity as essentially a flow of psychic processes avoids any notion of a discrete, absolute, metaphysical self. This Buddhist doctrine of the non-existence of the self, or annata, is important to understand; for the self, or rather the illusion of self, is the primary factor which keeps individuals in the cycle of suffering." 2 Thirakoul touches upon the concepts of self-dissolution at a physical level. At this stage, information enters the central nervous system and the conscious mind simultaneously, resulting in a deepened awareness that is partnered with a mental equanimity.

Although the perspectives of other meditators such as Austin and Thirakoul prove helpful in drawing parallels between my own experiences and the experiences of others, the specific mechanisms for achieving increased awareness or a higher level of consciousness still remains unclear. Our neurobiology and behavior class has attempted to explain the connection (an at times disconnection) between our mind and body, our consciousness and unconsciousness, our I-function and our central nervous system. My own perspective on meditation and understanding of my own consciousness have shifted as a result of our class discussions. At an experiential level I felt this shift from a pervasive "unconsciousness" to an awareness that is generalized to many aspects of my life. This was done without any understanding of where information was being processed and through what specific methods new information became available to me.

In future discussions of consciousness and the I function I would encourage an even more detailed description of how this information is transformed at a chemical level within the brain. When information passes from the unconscious to the I-function what changes can we observe at a gross, physical level and at a more subtle chemical level? These are all questions that would allow for a more dynamic discussion of this exciting topic.






4. Austin, James. Zen and the Brain. New York: Yale University Press, 1999.

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