Transforming the Politics of Experience: the case of Vipassana

António Carvalho
Phd Student, Department of Sociology and
Philosophy, University of Exeter
Transformations - Postgraduate interdisciplinary conference
7-8 July 2011, Cardiff
 Case study of my ongoing research
 Reflection on technologies of the self, ontology and the
 Methodology- Literature research; participant observation
in a 10-day retreat; reports of experiences with
Vipassana; ongoing interviews
 Structure of Presentation – Introductory remarks on
processes/axes of subjectification;
Vipassana and
politics of experience; “Social” Applications; Final
Vipassana and ontology of the body/self
- “the systematic development of insight through the
meditation technique of observing the reality of oneself by observing sensations
within the body” (Hart, 1987: 164)
 Vipassana meditation
 Body/impermanent - empty space
and subatomic particles, deprived from
solidity and impermanent; kalapas, - units that express the four aspects of
matter - mass, coherence, temperature and movement. Bodies as vibration of
impermanence, a dance of aggregates of kalapas, a process of constant somatic
 Mind as four processes – consciousness, perception, sensation, reaction:
 Sankharas (reaction) – craving and aversion towards sensations, the nature
and fuel of the mind
 Importance of (meditative) experience to overcome this condition - 10-day
Organizational aspects
 Morality: 1) to abstain from killing any being; 2) to abstain from stealing; 3) to abstain
from all sexual activity; 4) to abstain from telling lies; 5) to abstain from all intoxicants.
 Other aspects: Acceptance of the Teacher and of the Technique ; No other
Techniques, Rites, and Forms of Worship; Noble Silence ; Separation of Men and
Women ; No Outside Contacts ; No Music, Reading and Writing
 Schedule:
 4:00 a.m.
Morning wake-up bell/ 4:30 . 6:30 a.m. Meditate in the hall or in your
room/ 6:30 . 8:00 a.m. Breakfast break
 8:00 . 9:00 a.m. Group meditation in the hall/ 9:00 . 11:00 a.m. Meditate in the hall or
in your room according to the teacher’s instructions/ 11:00.12 noon Lunch break/
12:00.1:00 p.m. Rest, and interviews with the teacher/ 1:00 . 2:30 p.m. Meditate in the
hall or in your room
 2:30 . 3:30 p.m. Group meditation in the hall/ 3:30 . 5:00 p.m. Meditate in the hall or in
your room according to the teacher’s instructions/ 5:00 . 6:00 p.m. Tea break
 6:00 . 7:00 p.m. Group meditation in the hall/ 7:00 . 8:15 p.m. Teacher’s discourse in
the hall/ 8:15 . 9:00 p.m. Group meditation in the hall
 9:00 . 9:30 p.m. Question time in the hall/ 9:30 p.m.
Retire to your room; lights
Anapana Sati
 Sitting meditation – cross legged; half-lotus; knee posture; chairs; upright position;
closing eyes and mouth;
 The meditator observes the various sensations created by the touch of the breath
inside, at the entrance or below the nostrils, both inspiring and expiring –awareness of
the sensations caused by the breath entering and leaving the nostrils, focusing on a
single object to develop concentration.
 Initial experiences . As one starts observing the breath coming in, going out, the
nature of the “monkey mind” manifests, wandering into the past and the future. It is
very difficult to concentrate on the present. The body reacts against the posture with
pain, aches and discomfort.
 With practice, the mind is able to concentrate on the breath, creating episodes of
calmness and relaxation, becoming stable and still. In advanced stages of
concentration, it is common to experience visions, to see “divine” lights or hearing
extraordinary sounds, while experiencing oneness with the object of meditation.
 Preparation for Vipassana
 Body Scan – head to feet and feet to head (4th day)
 Observing sensations with awareness and equanimity (somatic gaze)
 One may not feel sensations at all, or one may feel sensations in some parts of the
body and other parts can be blind spots. Gross sensations and subtle sensations.
Gross sensations are solidified, unpleasant sensations (pain, itching, trembling, heat,
cold). Most common at the beginning, but they can turn into subtle sensations - a flow
of vibrations of energy. With no generation of new sankharas – equanimity – old ones
Sankharas and Bangha
 “Sometimes you’ll spontaneously become aware of an emotional event associated
with sensations. When passing my attention across my cheek during my first retreat
(…) I felt a stinging at the same time I had a memory of my brother slapping me
across the face. This had happened when I was a kid and I hadn’t thought of it in
years, but obviously in some way it was still there” (Glickman, 2002: 105)
 No necessary correlation between sensations and episodes of the past - they can be
caused by vary different aspects, such as atmospheric conditions, the posture in
which one sits, the effects of a disease or weakness or even the food
 Psychological insights about the self - “(…) sitting with “no effort”, I realized that
sensations come naturally and go naturally. They come and go not because I am
doing something but because of their nature. At the same time I could see myself, how
proud, how self-centered, how selfish, I was. These experiences were things I will not
forget for my whole life” (Hetherington, 2003: 49)
 Bangha – as the scanning continues, blind/gross spots/sensations may turn into
subtle ones, and the body is felt as a current of vibrations, the body is felt as in
dissolution - “(…) I experienced a very deep stage of bhanga in which my entire body
seemed to have dissolved into a mass of vibrations constantly arising and passing
away. Even if by chance I happened to look at someone, I saw only the outline of that
person and within it a kind of blinking or oscillation.” (Goenka, 1991: 139)
Metta, a technology of Compassion
 (10th day) - ideally practiced while experiencing the free flow – pure mind. While
experiencing one’s vibrations, the meditator expands or radiates this energy out into
the world, sharing them as wholeheartedly as possible (Glickman, 2002: 101)
 If there are gross sensations, one just works with a sentence - “May all beings be
peaceful. May all beings be kind. May all beings be happy” (ibid).
 Metta can be understood as a technology of compassion, irradiating the same blissful
and loving feelings experienced in deep stages of Vipassana. It also configures new
possibilities of communication and intervening in the world.
 Metta is used by Goenka, assistant teachers and volunteers at the retreats to help the
students “progressing”
Forms of Subjectification I
 Discipline - Rules of an organizational nature; physical aspects of
discipline – sitting in straight position, regulation of sleep and of diet;
mental discipline of awareness and equanimity towards the
meditative self.
 Environment – organizational aspects with “vibrational” foundation
(special ontology) – segregation to avoid multiplication of passional
vibrations; meditators in the same place generate good vibrations;
vibrations of Buddha’s relics and the Vipassana Global Pagoda
(inaugurated in 2009)
Forms of Subjectification II
 Struggles of Agency
– Actants such as Memories of the past, desires
of the future, pain, discomfort, strange visions and dreams, different physical
manifestations, OBEs contribute to disturb one’s equanimity creating a
conflict with the pure awareness of equanimous observation.
 Hermeneutics of Experience – a) Performative dimension - ways of using the
body and the mind that modulate inner experience. One sits in a certain way,
closes the eyes and the mouth, focuses on a specific part of the body ,
observing sensations. Performative interpretation/response to the
experience of the body/self.; b) Discursive Dimension – Discourses every
night; Interviews with the Assistant Teacher – making sense of the
experience with concepts, inter-subjective dimension.
Vipassana’s Politics of Experience I
 The Role of the Body
Body and sensations produce a new politics of experience.
1) Observation of sensations and liberation; 2) through the body we unveil hidden
episodes of reaction, the sankharas 3) through the body we become aware of what is
going on with the mind, and through the equanimous observation of the breath and
sensations we can “modulate” the experience of the mind; 4) experience of the
dissolved body and ontological nature of things; 5) through discipline and specific
performances of the body the self is transformed; 6) the body gives us the “truth”
about ourselves and the world
 Overcoming Stability –In Bangha, the body is just energy - some users report
experiencing a dissolution between the boundaries of the body and the environment.
With practice, increasing awareness of vibrations – of other people, of places - self,
environment, other humans and non humans and vibrations from the past are part of
the same assemblage of entities that can affect each other.
Politics of Experience II
 Agency - the freedom to choose beyond desires, frustrations, anger, and the
untamed “monkey mind”; self-regulation through the awareness of the body.
 Ethics - Ethical transformations are linked to the ontological transformation
of the self. With equanimity, the subject can observe and monitor changes in
the breath or in body sensations. With meditation it is possible to cultivate an
attitude of observation towards negative emotions; Cultivation of positive
emotions towards others (Metta) – a) embodied ethics; b) ethics rooted in
the direct experience of the self; c) non-individualistic ethics
Vipassana and the Social
 What is the social? Individuals and their sensations/minds. To transform social, first
subjectivities have to be transformed.
 Vipassana and Government – examples of King Ashoka and U Ba Khin (good
emotions and the ruler; Vipassana and the fight against corruption)
 Vipassana and Prisons - 1975, central jail of Jaipur, India. After that, Taiwan,
Thailand, Nepal, USA, New Zealand and Britain. India – since 1994, approximately 26
prisons are conducting Vipassana courses regularly. All India Institute of Medical
Sciences - awareness of emotions, reducing anger, hostility, tension and
hopelessness. Drug addiction and neurotic and psychopathological symptoms are
also reduced - instead of promoting a normalization or domestication of the deviant
self, social empowerment through emotional/somatic education? “just as oppressive
power relations are encoded and sustained in our bodies, so they can be challenged
by alternative somatic practices.” (Shusterman, 2008: 22)
 Vipassana and Education - Since 1986, courses in schools (1-2 days) and in
Vipassana centers (2-3 days), for children between 8 and 15 years old. They learn
Anapana. Education focuses on emotional and spiritual aspects, This incorporation of
meditation in education overcomes the verbal mainstream model, presenting
interesting possibilities. Huxley’s idea of non-verbal humanities, “the arts of being
directly aware of the given facts of our existence” (Huxley, 1963: 62)
 Technological constitution of selves –
practices and performances
transform the somatic and mental experience of selfhood, creating altered states of
consciousness, different embodied ethical perspectives, different ways of “existing” as
 De-naturalizating the constitution of individuals
– if there is a
relationship between technologies of the self and ontologies of the self, we are invited
to question our common and mainstream ways of reproducing, maintaining and
stabilizing selfhood. If selves depend on practice, environments, different
assemblages, the ontology of selves is always political. Ontological politics of selves –
what kinds of selves do we want to be? What kinds of performances can we
undertake in order to change our constitution and relationship with humans and non
 The social –
We can question the role of institutions and forms of contemporary
governmentality concerning subjectification; how are these politics of subjectification
transformed with the inclusion of certain practices; how can technologies of the self be
mobilized to transform the social, also transforming the fabrication of selves,
promoting new ways of experiencing the body and reality?

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