Experiential enquiry

The Buddhist term for experiential enquiry is vipassana. It is defined thus by Analayo (2009, p. 672)

Vipassana and the corresponding word vipassati stand for the development of a form of vision that sees, “passati,” in an intensified and also analytical manner, vi-, hence vipassana stands for “insight” . . . The basis for growing insight into the true nature of existence is penetrative awareness of its impermanence and therewith conditioned nature . . . Such comprehensive seeing with insight will ensure that the entire gamut of what is usually experienced as “I” and “mine” is instead seen with insight as a product of conditions and subject to change and alteration . . . Whereas in the thought world of the early discourse vipassana stands for a quality to be developed, in modern day usage vipassana represents mostly a particular form of meditation . . .

The early usage of the term implied a quality to be developed. Concentration alone will not give us the means to transform ourselves. It can make us feel better, in that we will feel more stable and calm if we cultivate meditative concentration in a balanced way, but another quality is needed for radical transformation. That is the quality that uses the mind’s capacity to question and to look deeply into our experiences to see what is happening instead of submerging into commenting and ruminations.

We have a tendency to generalize—or even permanentize. When something happens, especially something negative, we extrapolate that “it has always been like this and always will be” For example, we may feel tongue-tied in a social situation and then “permanentize” this experience in relation to expectations of sociability in future situations, rendering us even less capable of engaging positively, comfortably, and openly with others. This fixes the experience in a permanent and negative way. The Buddha emphasized exploring with mindfulness our experience and knowing for ourselves that things, events, and sensations change, in order to counteract that tendency to generalize, fix, and thereby limit our experience.

In the Tibetan tradition vipassana is seen more as analytic meditation; in the Zen tradition as a question or a non-grasping attitude; and in early Buddhism it is connected to the experiential understanding of change, unreliability, unsatisfactoriness, pain, not-self, and conditionality. I am going to explore change and conditionality here, again because this is relevant particularly to a psychological understanding of meditation processes.

Experiential enquiry enables us to be more in accordance with what is happening as it occurs and to develop a processual awareness. Research has shown that for most people the resting state of the brain is not restful. We spend a lot of our time working in our heads. Experiential enquiry aims to make us more aware of our body, our senses, and the impact of the environment on our senses and to experience for ourselves how long things last. We can ask: “How long is this (sensation, feeling, sound, or situation) going to last?” (e.g., how long is this feeling of anger/fear going to last?). If we do not do anything with it and it goes by itself, we do not need to do more with it. If it repeats itself, we need to pay more attention to what gave rise to it. What was the trigger? What were the conditions? What were the contributory factors such as stress, sleeplessness, or tiredness? For example, I used to be irritable when I was tired. When I discovered that mechanism through experiential enquiry, I started to rest more when tired and thus became less irritable. If the intensity continues, then it means that something happened that was shocking or frustrating, for example, and we need to find a way to address the situation. Enquiry thus enables us to be both more aware of and to have more choice over our experiences.

Experiential enquiry can also enable us to go into the experience itself and show us that this too is changing. There are momentary changes as sensations arise and pass away and there are organic changes when sensations or sounds are changing. When I experience physical pain, if I go inside the experience to the specific part of the body where it resides, I can see that it is not fixed and solid but that it fluctuates; it ebbs and flows. It is not exactly the same all the time. When one is aware of this, the pain still exists but it seems to be a more diffuse sensation than an attack on well-being. It is then easier to relate to it in a non-reactive, non-intensifying way.

At a simpler level, take the experience of an itch on the cheek. You sit still in meditation and suddenly you feel this itch. It is so itchy that you have the impression that it is going to be itchy and almost unbearable like this forever; it is that intense. You do not scratch it, however, and wait to see how long it is going to last. And then as suddenly as it came, it is totally gone. It is so gone, it is as if it was never there. Experiential enquiry helps us to become more familiar with this phenomenon that something can be so there and then so not there. And we can know for ourselves that things do change and this in itself can be quite transformative, as we no longer assume immediately that things will always stay the same.

Experiential enquiry brings brightness and clarity to the meditation at the same time that we are developing calm and stability with the steady development of concentration. The two together seem to produce a different kind of awareness that I call “creative awareness" This awareness does not make us radar-like, fixedly staring at reality, but more easily living in our moment-to- moment conditions in the present and creatively engaging with them. I see the cultivation of these two abilities together—concentration and enquiry—as dissolving the rigid framework of our habits and patterns to enable them to return to their original helpful functions and creative usages.

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