Recent decades have seen an explosion in the popularity of Vipassana meditation, with millions of people learning and practicing this and other modalities of meditation. This raises two important questions.
– Does Vipassana bring valuable benefits? The answer is a resounding Yes.
– Is Vipassana safe? The answer is a resounding No.
In this article, you will learn how Vipassana can harm you, both physically and psychologically. You will also learn how to benefit from Vipassana while avoiding the harm it can bring. This article is useful for novice meditators, seasoned meditators, and even Vipassana teachers.
If you are thinking about going to your first Vipassana retreat, I will provide tips on what you need to do before the retreat to assure your safety. If you are a seasoned meditator, I will help you understand why your initial rapid progress turned into a feeling of stagnating in your growth, and why you have reached a plateau. If you are a Vipassana teacher, I will help you become more aware of the dangers your students are being exposed to, and how you can protect your students from harm.
Vipassana: False Promises
One of the most popular forms of Vipassana has been promoted for decades by S.N. Goenka. According to Goenka : “Vipassana, which means to see things as they really are, is one of India’s most ancient techniques of meditation. It was rediscovered by Gotama Buddha more than 2,500 years ago and was taught by him as a universal remedy for universal ills, i.e., an Art Of Living. This non-sectarian technique aims for the total eradication of mental impurities and the resultant highest happiness of full liberation.”
This is some very strong language! If a pharmaceutical company claimed that a new pill helps you achieve “full liberation” and remedies “universal ills,” they would undoubtedly have scientific studies to back up these claims! Goenka must have conducted some studies before making such far-reaching claims, right? Let’s call in the magic of Google Scholar!
I can not find a single study demonstrating that people who practiced Vipassana meditation achieved “full liberation.” There is no evidence that, say, out of 100 people who practiced Vipassana meditation for five years, 74.5% achieved “full liberation.” This is hardly surprising since, as far as I know, no one has defined “full liberation” and described a validated way to measure it in the scientific literature.
Goenka further claims that Buddha practiced Vipassana. This is what social psychologists and marketers call an “authority trick.” As a potential new Vipassana disciple reads this statement, he is likely to think, “Oh wow! Gotama Buddha did this meditation! And he achieved enlightenment! Vipassana must be awesome! I want to learn it! I want to be fully liberated! I want to be enlightened!”
There are many problems with this claim connecting Vipassana to Buddha.
– There is no way to determine if Buddha indeed practiced this type of meditation.
– Is it just the practice of this meditation that led Buddha to enlightenment, or did he practice other methods, as well?
– How do we now that Buddha indeed reached the state of enlightenment?
– Does anybody know what enlightenment is? Do you know anyone who has experienced this state? Is the state of enlightenment something you can measure? How will you know that you have reached “enlightenment?”
This is how we play the game of enlightenment and spiritual development – both the disciple and the system are fooling each other. The disciple has no idea where he is going, he is interested in a vague concept of “spiritual development,” and he hopes the guru will take him there. The guru implicitly promises enlightenment, but since he has not experienced it himself and does not know what it is, he does not know how to help the disciple in his path.
This is like an engineering company making an offer to the citizens of Boston.
Company: Hey guys, we know you want to develop and travel, so we are going to build a road from Boston!
Bostonians: Sounds great! Where is this road going to take us?
Company: It will take you to Atlantis!
Bostonians: That’s awesome! Have you been to Atlantis?
Company: No, but we know it is amazing there!
Bostonians: How do you know? Have you heard from your friends?
Company: No, but there was this dude 2,500 years ago, and people say he was there and it was good.
Bostonians: This sounds amazing! Do you know how many hours it will take to drive there?
Company: Nope, we don’t even know if you will ever get there!
Bostonians: Sounds amazing! Let’s build the road! Here, take one billion dollars for you to build it!
What happens when an organization promises its disciples a sweet goal that is impossible to measure?
For the disciple, the system leads him on a long path of exploration. This path has no end. It has no measurable goals. At first, the disciple feels tons of new sensations during meditation. But after some time, he reaches a plateau, and thinks to himself, “Gautama Buddha practiced Vipassana, so this stuff must be good! If it is not working, then it must be me. Maybe I don’t practice enough. I gotta be more dedicated!”
The disciple starts coming up with ideas that can explain his apparent lack of progress. He has already invested so much time and money into the whole process, it is easier for him to continue believing and practicing rather than looking at the meditation process rationally.
What happens to the system when it has no definable and measurable goals and instead promises its disciples magic castles in the form of “full liberation?” The system has no way to optimize its methods. The system is set in stone.
Why is it set in stone? Very simple! Why would I want to improve a system that led Buddha to enlightenment! There is nothing to improve! It is perfect!
What happens when a system fails to monitor problems, and then change and improve? The system starts harming people. The system simply fools people into thinking that it leads them to “liberation” and “happiness.”
Many people have had positive experiences with the popular book “The Art of Living: Vipassana Meditation. As taught by S.N. Goenka,” as you can see from the books’ Amazon page. But here are two critical reviews:
Review 1: “I did my retreat a couple of years ago after reading the book. What a disaster that was! People hallucinating around me, crying, some had to go to the HOSPITAL with depersonalization problems and receive psychiatric treatment. The organization was not ready to help and kicked out the very people needing their support while trying to keep it a secret from the other participants.”
Review 2: “This technique is not only bad, it is also dangerous. You meditate for 10hrs every day, without any preparation for any psychic effects and revelations that might come out of such intense meditation. I started having hallucinations and asked the teachers for help and they simply kicked me out of the retreat in the middle of the night without any care for my well being. There are many cases of people that have psychological issues during this course, and there are even known cases of people that after leaving the retreat have committed suicide.”
Let’s now analyze Vipassana practice. I will outline several severe problems and explain how you can benefit from Vipassana methods without the accompanying serious dangers.
Equanimity: A Useful Skill and Its Dangers
Generally speaking, Vipassana practice consists of observing inner body sensations with equanimity. Equanimity means observing your inner body sensations without making any judgments about them.
You can make both positive and negative judgments about inner sensations. For example, when you observe a sensation, and you feel how pleasant it is, you like it, and you start craving for more. In this case, judging the sensation as pleasant pushes you out of the state of equanimity. You start wanting more of it. And according to the teaching, any unfulfilled desire may lead to suffering.
Similarly, you may have an unpleasant sensation; you feel itchy, you feel pain. You start thinking, “Oh damn, I don’t like this sensation! Go away!” This is an example of a negative judgment by your mind, pushing you out of the state of equanimity. The mind is tricky. When I notice that I start judging a particular sensation, I can start judging myself for being judgmental! And judging yourself for being judgmental is, of course, not equanimity.
The skill of moving into the state of equanimity is tremendously useful. It has a beneficial impact on psychological health. It helps you live through difficult inner body sensations, feelings, and emotions that come with significant challenges life brings us.
This is what social psychologists and marketers call an “authority trick.” As a potential new Vipassana disciple reads this statement, he is likely to think, “Oh wow! Gotama Buddha did this meditation! And he achieved enlightenment! Vipassana must be awesome! I want to learn it! I want to be fully liberated! I want to be enlightened!”
But here is the critical point! Equanimity is a skill. It is a great skill and one of many very useful skills.
Every skill has its place and time. Sometimes, a skill is appropriate. Sometimes, it is not appropriate. For example, if you are great at socializing and joking around, using this skill to meet and chat with people will be appropriate for a dance party. Doing the same will be inappropriate for a funeral.
Sounds pretty obvious, right?
Let’s see how this relates to Vipassana practice.
Dangers of Vipassana: Orthopedic Injuries and Equanimity to Pain
During my 10-day Vipassana retreat, I started having knee pain on the very first day. Never before in my life had I sat for 10-14 hours a day in the lotus pose!
I was not alone in having knee pain. I could see from other participants’ postures that the majority of people were sitting in positions that predisposed them to knee pain. The reason is simple. When your hip internal rotators are tight, your femur cannot go into the full external rotation required for a comfortable lotus pose. This creates torsion in the knee joint and, subsequently, knee pain, predisposing one to knee injury later on.
I approached my meditation teacher and inquired what I should do. She recommended I go through the pain and learn to be equanimous to pain.
Is being equanimous to pain a useful skill to have? Absolutely! If you are a special operations soldier, this skill is a must to increase your survival chances. It is an exceptionally useful skill for the rest of us as well, as it helps us overcome life’s hardships.
Is it appropriate to suggest new students start practicing this skill on the first day of Vipassana practice without knowing anything about the student, without knowing his prior
physical injuries, state of health, and potential psychological trauma? Absolutely not!
I would go further and say that this is irresponsible behavior bordering on malpractice.
The room was full of people in their 40s and 50s, most of whom, I later learned, had a pretty low-level of physical activity. They did not have physical therapists or psychotherapists to support them before or after the retreat. They had many physical injuries. Why in the world would you want to put these people through so much pain just to teach them the skill of equanimity?
Dangers of Vipassana: Suppressing Self Regulation
Pain is just one type of sensation. There are lots of inner body sensations floating within me. Inner body sensations inform me about how I need to change my behavior to assist my BodyMind with self-regulation. I have an entire article dedicated to this topic: Stress: How it changes you from the inside
For example, when I feel pain in my knee while meditating, this is a signal that I need to change my body position to relive the pain. If I sit at my computer for 6 hours and my shoulder starts hurting, this is a signal coming from my body: please do something to relieve my pain!
Aside from sensations of pain, there are many other more subtle sensations the body sends over the course of the day. This ocean of sensations is tremendously important for our neuroendocrine health. Many of these subtle inner body sensations carry with them an action impulse.
Action impulses tell us what the neuroendocrine system wants us to do to move the system to a healthier equilibrium point. Examples of the actions could be crying, lying down, going for a run, asking for a hug from a friend, and many others. Stress: How it changes you form the inside and What your physicians won`t tell you and how it can save you from pain, insomnia, and depression
Similar concepts apply to emotional feelings. For example, if I lost a loved one and felt deep sadness, my BodyMind sends me inner body sensations. If I listen to them, they might be telling me that I need time to grieve and need emotional support from my friends.
One of the foundational problems within our society is that practically all of us learn to suppress and ignore inner body sensations and action impulses. Ignoring signals of bodily discomfort and pain is just one example of this much greater problem. In the best case scenario, we swallow a pain-killer to deal with a headache or shoulder pain.
With regards to emotional feelings, we tend to either ignore so-called negative feelings or distract ourselves with something else, be it comfort food or an engaging book or a movie.
Now, here comes a hugely important point – so listen up!
For most people, equanimity is not the first skill they need to develop. The first skill people need to develop is assisting the Body-Mind to self-regulate by paying attention to inner body sensations, learning to recognize action impulses, and then changing behavior to implement these action impulses in the real world. For someone who has been ignoring inner body sensations for decades, it is counterproductive to start the training from practicing equanimity!
Would you think to teach a young child how to drive in NYC? Of course not! You would first teach her to walk, run, communicate, then you will teach her to drive in a suburb, and only then will she be ready to operate a car in NYC! So, why would you want to teach the advanced skill of equanimity to a novice?
This wrong timing has dire consequences for the student. Instead of awakening the student’s self-regulatory ability, the practice diminishes it even further!
Ironically, following a 10-day Vipassana retreat, the student may have a better ability to feel inner body sensations, but the capacity for internal body sensations to drive his behavior has been severely reduced. You go back into the real world after your 10-day retreat; you have shoulder pain after sitting for way too long responding to all the emails that accumulated while you were on the retreat.
What do you do? The trained reaction is to automatically focus on neutrally observing your sensations of pain.
Goenka talks about liberation. Is this the type of liberation he wants students to learn? This does not sound like liberation to me. This seems like an autocratic and forceful suppression of your Body-Mind spirit and its yearnings.
This is precisely why the first skills soma system® students learn are:
– To observe bodily sensations in one tiny location at a time;
– To change body position and behavior to create wonderful and pleasant inner body sensations;
– To recognize action impulses and implement them in real life.
During my 10-day retreat, I was surprised to observe that the majority of people had exceptionally poor meditative posture. Moreover, neither meditation teachers nor Goenka, in his video, spent any time on training practitioners to develop proper meditation posture.
Posture is of utmost importance in meditation. Here is an example of typically poor meditative posture Releasing myofascial restriction for yoga: TFL
The image is taken from a great software package created by Dr. Gill Solberg and Amit Gal Alon. By the way, I highly recommend this software for students of yoga! (I am not affiliated with this company and receive no compensation for this.)
Shortness in the Tensor Fascia Latta muscle prevents your femur from moving into the full external rotation. This creates injury-predisposing torsion in the knee (1).
The position of the knee and femur force the pelvis (2) into a posterior tilt.
This, in turn, slouches the upper back (3) and pushes the head forward (4).
The overall result is excessive muscle tension throughout the entire body: from feet to upper back and neck. Since your head is shifted forward, your posterior neck muscles need to work extra hard to prevent your head from dropping. Most peoples’ necks are already tight, and the last thing we need is to invest ten days into making our necks even tighter!
Increase in muscle tightness leads to the formation of trigger points and various pains throughout the body, including low back pain, shoulder pain, headaches, and many others. It is one thing to sit in this posture for five minutes, but it is a totally different story to spend 12 to 14 hours a day in this posture!
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During a 10-day Vipassana retreat, a student spends an average of 140 hours in this posture without movement. This is equivalent to spending an entire month at work slouched behind a computer!
Muscle tightness and pain that accumulate during these sitting hours lead to mechanical changes in soft tissues whereby adjacent fascial layers form chemical bonds and lead to even more muscle tightness [2-10]. This is exacerbated by absolutely minimal movement, as Vipassana teachers ask you to avoid movement as much as possible (even yoga asanas), except for walking in moderation.
The Danger of Vipassana: Nervous System HyperArousal
Receptors generating inner body sensations live within myofascial tissues. When myofascial tissues get tight, the biochemical environment around these receptors changes with the accumulation of pro-inflammatory substances [11-14]. Thus, the receptors start bombarding the brain with these newly generated signals. This leads to promoting hyper-arousal of your nervous system, which in turn contributes to insomnia and poor sleep efficiency . These signals have nothing to do with your supposed “liberation” or “spiritual growth.” These are signals the body sends begging you to stop abusing it!
The teacher tells you to be equanimous. You abide and continue abusing your body!
To draw a parallel, imagine you go to the Metropolitan Opera. You buy super expensive tickets to enjoy the Berlin Philharmonic playing Mozart. The subtle body sensations you observe during Vipassana are as mesmerizing as Mozart’s creations. You enjoy the first 5 minutes of the concert and then, all of a sudden, your neighbor takes out powerful speakers, positions them on the floor right in front of you, and starts blasting Metallica!
You are shocked and your brain is screaming, “What The Hell!”
Your neighbor turns to you and, with a pleasant smile, declares, “Practice equanimity!” This is exactly how your brain reacts to all the pain produced because of sitting in a horrendous posture for 14 hours a day! But you force your brain to shut up as your teacher tells you that you have to be equanimous.
Does this sound like a path to liberation? Again, this sounds to me like a path to suppression!
Dangers Of Vipassana: Promoting Poor Mood and Breathing
The effect of poor posture extends beyond increasing muscle tightness and putting your nervous system into hyperarousal. In fact, whole body posture is intimately related to one’s mood. For example, slouching makes one feel more sad, less proud, and less self-confident [16-19].
This raises the question: why would you want to put a student into a posture that predisposes her to feel sad?
There are clinical situations when one wants to induce a feeling of sadness in a client intentionally. If Vipassana was supposed to induce sadness in all students, students would be instructed to meditate in a slouched posture. But they aren’t! And this may mean that Goenka is largely oblivious to the effect of posture on one’s internal state of being.
Slouched posture also interferes with breathing biomechanics. It gets harder to breathe with your diaphragm, and, instead, you start breathing more with your chest and by lifting your shoulders. This breathing pattern tenses up your accessory breathing muscles, which should be involved in breathing only occasionally and under extreme situations.
One of the accessory breathing muscles is the scalenus, a major neck muscle. Habitually using this muscle for breathing leads to muscle tightness and trigger points. Neck tightness has a tremendous effect on how you feel, both physically and emotionally, and on how much energy you have. Since pretty much everyone in our modern society has tight neck muscles, the last thing you need to do is make them even tighter!
Moreover, breathing with your accessory chest muscles predisposes you to hyperventilation which can, in turn, trigger a panic attack .
Vipassana: Induces Re-Traumatization
When you stay with yourself for 10 days, 14 hours a day, you can be sure that old memories will re-surface. Many people have experienced psychologically difficult and traumatic events in their lives. And the memory of these, often horrendous, events are likely to come up.
What should you do when these traumatic memories start resurfacing? Goenka and his teachers have one recommendation: stay equanimous and observe inner body sensations. In my experience and opinion, this recommendation is a mix of ignorance and malpractice.
If you recall a situation that brings up so-called “negative” emotions such as sadness or anger, focusing on neutrally observing inner body sensations may do you some good. Often, we stigmatize unpleasant emotions and feelings, and we put a label on our experience. For example, when feeling sad, you might say to a friend, “I feel depressed.” This label introduces a linguistic layer that separates you from the actual raw bodily experience of feeling sad. This label launches a series of thoughts and changes self-perception. The worst thing is that it separates you from your own subjective experience.
In this case, focusing on observing inner body sensations sets you back in reality. You are not “depressed,” you are not “sad.” Instead, you feel a specific set of inner body sensations that create this state. It is this inner state that you interpret as feeling sad or depressed. This skill is beneficial and works wonders in clinical situations with clients experiencing depressive and anxious moods.
But what if one recalls a traumatic event – a rape, or molestation experienced in childhood?What if one recalls the experience of losing a friend at war, observing him being blown to pieces? What if one recalls a severe car accident? Often when traumatic memory arises, the body wants to move . This is an example of the much wider concept of action impulse, discussed above. For example, a meditator starts re-living a car accident. She may feel a desire to escape, or to finish turning the wheel that she did not have a chance to do during the collision. A rape victim may feel a desire to push away the attacker. Can she do that? No! She cannot even move because she has to stay equanimous!
But this can have horrendous consequences for a trauma survivor.
It is not just as simple, though, as allowing the student to move if she experiences recollection of psychological trauma. Before an individual can successfully resolve psychological trauma, she needs to have:
– Sufficient level of energy;
– Well-developed bodily resources and ability to self-regulate;
– Ability to sense physical sensations, emotional feeling, awareness of thoughts, and skills in rational thinking;
- Experience in separating sensations, emotions, and thoughts;
- Knowledge of how to manage sensations, emotions, and thoughts; and,
– Support from a knowledgeable professional who can intervene at any time to provide support and prevent re-traumatization.
Vipassana practice does not develop the skills for successfully resolving trauma, and it does not provide support from an expert knowledgeable in working efficiently with trauma.
The reality is that you don’t just come to a 10-day retreat led by Vipassana teachers who lack training in psychological trauma, listen to a bunch of standard Goenka videos, and resolve your trauma! This simply does not happen. What does happen is that a mediator is re-traumatized and, in the worst case scenario, he suffers severe psychological or psychiatric symptoms or disorder. And then he spends months trying to resolve them!
Right now, Vipassana functions as a magic standardized pill. Out of millions of students who have passed through Vipassana centers, every single one of them listened to the same Goenka video lectures recorded decades ago. From the perspective of the pharmaceutical industry, this is the perfect magic pill! It’s even better, actually, since pills need to be adjusted by physicians. But not the Vipassana course!
To summarize, be aware that a Vipassana retreat is likely to stir up deep emotional issues and you may not have sufficient skills and support to work through these issues. If you suspect you may have experienced a traumatic event, I highly recommend reading Peter Levine’s books and before going to a Vipassana retreat, consider having a session with a therapist trained in Somatic Experiencing, a system developed by Peter Levine.
The danger of Vipassana: Lack of Follow Up
This is one of the most disconcerting features of Vipassana meditation. As far as I know, Goenka’s organization makes no attempt to collect information on potential side effects following Vipassana 10-day retreats. The organization, thus, has no way of even knowing the extent of side effects and therefore lacks any ability to revise their offerings to minimize risk and harm to Vipassana practitioners.
Now that we have discussed the dangers of Vipassana, let’s consider the benefits Vipassana practice brings.
What is Vipassana Practice Good For?
Most research on mindfulness was conducted using mindfulness-based interventions such as Mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR), mindfulness-based cognitive therapy MBCT or acceptance and commitment therapy ACT.
There is a major difference between these therapies and Vipassana. These therapies tend to be used by professional therapists in clinical practice or require teachers to complete reasonably extensive study, including mental health clinical training and supervision.
In the hands of a professional therapist, mindfulness-based therapy is just another tool in their professional toolbox. They use this tool whenever it is appropriate to do so. Vipassana favors a very different approach. There is no individualization in Vipassana – it is one size fits all.
Unlike Vipassana, these therapies do not promise a client the vague and unmeasurable goal of getting rid of “universal ills.” Clinical mindfulness-based therapies are recommended or prescribed by healthcare professionals with a specific goal in mind. For MBSR, the goal might be stress reduction; for ACT, the goal is to increase psychological flexibility. It is not clear if the advantages of mindfulness-based therapies translate into Vipassana meditation. All we can say right now is that it would be logical to assume that at least some of these benefits also come from practicing Vipassana.
– Observing Subtle Inner Body Sensations
In my 10-day experience, the Vipassana retreat was a unique setting allowing a well-prepared student to immerse myself into the world of inner body sensations. One important caveat, though: as long as you know how to be safe and avoid the potential dangers of Vipassana.
– Regulation of Attention & Training Meta Position Towards Present Moment Experiences
This is especially true about present moment inner body sensations, and this skill is common to many meditation traditions. You focus on your inner body sensations. A thought comes into your mind, and you start thinking. Suddenly, you realize that you are thinking instead of observing inner body sensations and shifting your attention once again to inner body sensations. This develops the skill of shifting from being completely immersed in your current life experience (consisting of thought, emotions, and sensations) and developing meta-awareness that allows you to observe your experience from the side.
Developing an Attitude of Acceptance, Openness, and Curiosity Towards Experience
Many of us tend to absorb judgmental attitudes about ourselves and the surrounding world. A child gets a “C” in math class, and he immediately blames himself, “I am such an idiot!” Your husband did not do what you expected him to do, and you blame him, “You disappointed me! You should have known better!” We don’t even notice how many judgments we carry around.
Mindfulness practices train us to shift from unconsciously jumping to judgment to observing inner body sensations. These inner body sensations might be uncomfortable, which is why we are reacting with the judgment. We don’t like feeling unpleasant inside, so to push away these unpleasant feelings and protect ourselves from future instances of having such feelings, we start attacking another person (or even ourselves) with judgments.
This skill of accessing your inner body physical and emotional experience while you are experiencing hardship is handy. The skill trains us to accept our experience instead of pushing it away, and even to jump into the sensory experience and explore it with openness and curiosity.
– Decreasing Rumination
Sometimes we experience what seems to be an unending stream of thoughts. The less we feel the body, the more we may go into our thoughts. We then start identifying ourselves with our thoughts. If my thoughts keep revolving around “I am so stupid! How could I have done …”, the label “stupidity” gradually becomes a defining characteristic of me. Several studies demonstrate that mindfulness-based interventions, such as MBSR, may decrease ruminative thoughts and behavior [21-26].
– Training Self-compassion
Self-compassion is a feeling of kindness towards oneself during challenging times and personal suffering. When I learn to observe my inner body sensory experience without judging myself or others, this opens the door to feeling kind to myself and my experience. This also involves accepting that suffering, failures, and character flaws are part of the human condition [27-28].
– Reducing Experiential Avoidance
During times of hardship, we may use coping strategies that aim to avoid memories, feelings, thoughts, and physical sensations. In the short term, this strategy may help us to overcome challenges. This is called experiential avoidance.
Since avoiding the unpleasant experience does not lead us to address head-on the traits that might have contributed to the “negative” experience, these difficult situations tend to repeat themselves. Some scientists believe that it is not negative thoughts, emotions, and sensations that are problematic. Instead, it is how one responds to these challenging experiences that can cause difficulties .
Several studies demonstrate that mindfulness-based interventions, such as ACT, decrease the level of experiential avoidance .
Reducing Cognitive Reactivity
There is a typical pattern in depressive states. Let’s say I get fired. I am disappointed and sad. These emotions trigger a thought pattern: “I am not capable of maintaining a good job. This was such a great job, and it paid well. What is wrong with me! I don’t deserve having a good job. I am such an idiot!”
If you look carefully at this train of thought, you will notice that it lacks rationality. The thing is, it is hard to discern irrationality of one’s own thoughts. The more negative thoughts I have, the more sad and depressed I feel. And this starts a depressive cycle.
Cognitive reactivity is a term that describes challenging events and emotional experience triggering an irrational train of thought. This is one of the proposed mechanisms of recurrent depression. The initial depressive episode triggers association between emotional experience and thinking pattern. Once you experience a new challenging experience and emotions, this triggers the association and reactivates a negative and irrational thinking pattern .
Several studies suggest an inverse correlation between cognitive reactivity and mindfulness level .
– Increased Emotional Intelligence
Roughly speaking, emotional intelligence is the skill of recognizing one’s own emotions, differentiating between various emotions and feelings, and using this to guide thinking and behavior. Several studies have shown a positive correlation between the level of mindfulness and level of emotional intelligence [33-34].
– Reduced Self-Discrepancy
Self-discrepancy reflects the perceived difference between the actual concept of self and an ideal concept of self I have . Self-discrepancy contributes to depression . One study suggested that mindfulness may decrease self-discrepancy , and thus may have a protective role in preventing the reoccurrence of depression.
– Accepting Pain
One study showed that mindfulness training may help patients with chronic pain to accept pain .
Vipassana: Overpromising and Underdelivering
Now that we have looked at what science has to say about the benefits of mindfulness-based interventions, let’s see what Vipassana promises and what it delivers. Vipassana promises “universal remedy for universal ills“ and “highest happiness of full liberation.”Do we think that the skills Vipassana may develop, as discussed in the previous section, are sufficient to provide “universal remedy for universal ills”?
I think it is pretty obvious that we need to have many more skills than just these to have a good life.*
Let’s look at an average 45-year old student, Tom, coming to his first Vipassana 10-day retreat. He has accumulated some problems with his physical, psychological, and social health, such as:
– Imbalanced posture (e.g., one shoulder higher than the other, head pushed forward, slouching);
– Muscle tightness and pain (e.g., headaches, low back pain, shoulder pain);
– Chest breathing with the associated feeling of being stressed;
– Reduced sleep efficiency (hard to fall asleep; waking up groggy in the morning);
– Some unresolved issues from the past, maybe even psychological trauma, such as child abuse, sexual abuse, rape, car accidents, divorce, exposure to war or violence; he might be blaming himself or a partner/friend/boss for challenging and emotional experiences, like a divorce or losing his job.
– Challenging relationships at work and home; frequent conflicts with his wife and kids; he wishes his relationship with his wife was more affectionate and romantic.
Will the skills developed by Vipassana be sufficient for Tom to create the kind of good life he wants? No!
Will these skills help Tom have better physical health? No!
Will these skills help him to reduce pain? No!
They can help Tom to accept the pain, as discussed above. If Tom had chronic pain, this would be useful, but he does not suffer from a chronic pain condition. He needs to start listening to the signals his body is sending him asking for help!
There is a famous serenity prayer, written by Reinhold Niebuhr:
“God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
Courage to change the things I can,
And wisdom to know the difference.”
There is a real danger that without contact with a professional therapist, Vipassana can encourage us to accept what can actually be changed!
If Vipassana promises “highest happiness of full liberation,” does it mean that Tom will learn equanimity and will not care about these issues anymore?
Is it possible to be liberated and happy while living in a painful body, being sad and unsatisfied with his relationships? I highly doubt it!
If Vipassana promises “highest happiness of full liberation,” does it mean that Vipassana will help Tom resolve all the issues he is struggling with, and he will grow spiritually and become liberated? This is also highly unlikely.
I know that magic is always a possibility. But most often, when we hope for magic, we delude ourselves with magical thinking. And even if it were possible, why would you want to do this, if you can change so many things for the better?
Vipassana is not an integrated system. It merely develops a few skills. These skills are essential, but they are not nearly enough to substantially improve our well-being.
Let me illustrate using one of Tom’s complaints: muscle tightness and pain.
Vipassana: Does Not Help With Muscle Tightness and Pain
Inner body sensations observed by the Vipassana practitioner are constrained and affected by numerous tight and painful areas of his body. This is a critical point. If you heal soft tissues, relieving tightness and pain, inner body sensations experienced during Vipassana are likely to be rather different.
As we discussed, these sensations of tightness and pain send SOS signals to the central nervous system and overstimulate it [2-10]. As we grow older and accumulate these spots, the nervous system becomes more hyper-aroused [11-14]. This reduces sleep efficiency and may lead to insomnia . Reduced sleep efficiency and insomnia have detrimental effects on a host of factors, such as the immune system, decision making, emotional reactivity, and many others [38-41].
You would think that a system that promises “full liberation” and positions itself as a “remedy for universal ills” would have an impact on muscle pain and tightness. After all, muscle pain is one of the “universal ills” afflicting humanity! Unfortunately, this is not so.
Aside from the fact that Vipassana can lead to more pain due to poor meditative posture and orthopedic injuries, it also does not resolve myofascial tightness and pain. The reason is straightforward. According to modern scientific models, soft tissue tightness is an expression of two processes:
- Acute overstimulation by the nervous system that contracts the muscle or fascial elements within the muscle. This is exactly what happens when you get stressed and hike up your shoulders.
- Chemical bonds form between neighboring fascial layers, and collagen fibers get deposited to replace muscle tissue. For example, this happens when you habitually hike up your shoulders and get used to it. Your body wants to take some of the demand away from overworked muscles that maintain your shoulders up, so it starts laying out collagen fibers, which are much tougher than muscle tissue. This results in histological changes in soft tissues [2-10], and they start feeling much harder to the touch.
The only muscle phenomenon known to resolve almost spontaneously are trigger points . And to release a trigger point, one needs to apply direct mechanical pressure for a certain period. There is absolutely no scientific evidence that you can reduce the proportion of collagen within soft tissues by merely observing your inner body sensations. However, there is ample evidence that this proportion can be decreased by improving posture [42,43].
There is neither scientific nor empirical evidence that it is possible to release trigger points by observing your inner body sensations! My point is, the skills trained by Vipassana are very useful, but they are very far from being what Goenka claims they are. Do not expect to be liberated or healed from universal ills by Vipassana!
Vipassana: Avoiding Injury and Harm for Novice Students
What can you do to avoid the numerous psychological and physical problems Vipassana can cause? If you have never practiced Vipassana before, don’t rush to sign up for the 10-day retreat!
You first need to start with:
– Developing detailed point-specific awareness throughout your entire body;
– Discovering the ocean of inner body sensations and learning to create pleasant sensations;
– Learning to recognize action impulses and implement them in real life;
– Learning to release muscle tightness and pain, thus starting to shift your nervous system from a state of hyper-arousal into a more relaxed state;
– Improving sleep, so that you quickly fall asleep and wake up refreshed and energized;
– Improving posture and breathing patterns.
These are the skills that soma system® develops.
The first year of soma system® practice focuses on developing these and some other foundational physical, psychological, and emotional skills. This leads to holistic improvement in physical, emotional, mental, and social well-being. Once a student has gone through posture and breath balancing, has gained point-specific inner body sensations, has a good quality sleep, and has successfully worked on integrating his “I” by working on past traumatic experiences, he might be ready for 10-day Vipassana retreat.
For posture training, I also recommend seeing a professional trained in Anatomy Trains, a Rolfing-inspired system created by Tom Myers.
When you do decide to experiment with a 10-day retreat, you also need to get support from an experienced therapist trained in mindfulness-based therapies. You can find one here: https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/therapists. Once you select your location, you will be able to choose the type of therapy you are looking for, such as MBCT. If you can’t find an MBCT therapist in your area, make sure you still find a good psychotherapist. In case you have a problem during the retreat, you will at least know that there is a professional therapist ready to support you in your process. Even if you don’t have a massive problem during the retreat, it will surely stir up some emotional issues. You can start working on these issues right after the end of the retreat with your therapist.
I can not emphasize enough how important it is to have support from a professional therapist!
Finally, instead of jumping into a 10-day retreat, search for local meditation centers that offer meditation classes or short 1- or 2-day meditation retreats. Once you have developed essential psychological and physical skills, you might be ready for a Vipassana 10-day retreat. These retreats are unique and valuable in providing an amazing opportunity to stay with your inner body sensations for ten days. This indeed is an unparalleled opportunity! But you have to be ready for this journey. If you are not ready for this journey, you will be better off avoiding a 10-day Vipassana all together!
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