By Daniel J. Benor, MD, ABHM
I have meditated regularly for 27 years. My intent to sit in silence daily at least once, and if possible twice, has been honored more often than not. Busy periods of work or family visits and travels are the main distractions that have made it difficult or impossible to keep this promise I've made to myself.
My introduction to meditation was in a workshop on LeShan healing, taught by the late Joyce Goodrich in 1982. Lawrence LeShan, a New York psychologist, had investigated spiritual healers from the vantage of a strong skeptic, but came away a strong believer. He has an awesome gift for pattern recognition and after observing a series of strong healers came to observe that the common denominators for healing are:
1. Quieting the mind/ centering oneself;
2. Mentally imaging or imagining oneself to be united in some way with the healee; and
3. Mentally imaging or imagining oneself to be united in some way with the All.
So a lot of the healing workshop involved the exploration of varieties of meditation approaches. Among other mind-focusing methods, we observed our breath filling our chest and emptying; pictured to ourselves that we were perched on our upper lip, noting the breeze of air entering and exiting our nostrils; counted our breaths; and did various imagery exercises as we observed our ever-shifting mind-chatter
At the time I found the counting and mindfulness visualizations the most helpful. I found watching my breath from my upper lip so silly, I had to restrain myself from giggling, as I have a mustache and thought to myself how tickly it would be to sit among those hairs to watch my breath.
In the intervening years, I practiced each of the above approaches, as well as many others. Having a very chatty mind, at first the visualizations helped me keep my focus more than other approaches. Later, simply feeling my breath coming in and out was the most comfortable. And yes, I even came to use the upper lip visualization and found it helpful for a period of time.
Knowing a variety of approaches was extremely helpful, as I found that methods that worked for a while might wane in their potency or efficacy in my practice after several months or years. In teaching meditation as a part of learning spiritual healing or for relaxation, it was similarly helpful to be able to introduce audiences to varieties of approaches because no single method works well for everyone who is just starting on this path of mental and spiritual discipline.
I should add parenthetically that my goal of developing my own healing gifts was realized through this and other methods, including Therapeutic Touch and Reiki. I have come to acknowledge this as a part of most of the work that I do.
I had of course heard and read of Transcendental Meditation (TM), mindfulness meditation, and other approaches, but was never inclined to study these. In 2007, a new friend and colleague, Eli Bay, invited me to attend his meditation course. I found this very instructive and helpful, as it includes body awareness and movements.
In that same year, a close friend and colleague, Mary Ann Wallace, MD, showed me a video of Vipassana meditation used in prisons in India. This had proved so successful that 80% of prisoners were able to be rehabilitated. In some prisons in India this is now a mandatory practice (Vipassana in Prisons). I was tremendously impressed by this and by the centeredness of Mary Ann, who had attended a number of silent Vipassana meditation retreats.
It was only in August of 2009, two years after first setting my intent to do so, that I was able to attend a ten-day silent Vipassana meditation retreat at the Ontario Vipassana Centre just north of Toronto. I found the experience very instructive and extremely helpful on many more levels than I had anticipated.
Vipassana meditation has been popularized by SN Goenka, a Burmese businessman. Goenka learned Vipassana in Burma, where it had been preserved as teachings very close to the original versions of Gautama, known today as the Buddha. Goenka's business experience and gifts of pattern recognition and teaching served him in good stead, in that he has been able to found a worldwide organization to promote and teach Vipassana meditation (http://www.dhamma.org/).
The format for the course included 1-2 hour meditations from 4:30 am – 9:30 pm, interspersed with silent bathroom breaks, meals, and times when students could ask to speak with the Assistant Teachers (male and female) conducting the course in person. Each day, groups of four students were invited during one of the meditations to come up to the instructor to review their progress. Some meditations were mandatory group meditations; for others, students could elect to meditate in the hall or in their room (shared with one other person). Men and Women were separated for meals and lodging, and sat on separate sides of the meditation hall. Time to stroll the gender-assigned portions of the grounds was available after lunch, if one was not queuing to speak with the Assistant Teacher. Meals were vegetarian, simply prepared, with the principal repast at lunch and only fruit and a drink at dinner time.
The course was conducted with videos taped in 1991 by Goenka, played in one-hour segments each evening during the retreat. Goenka is an excellent teacher, presenting his materials clearly, firmly based in Buddhist worldviews, illustrating them with numerous anecdotes, and most importantly, providing experiential ways of learning and validating these approaches.
General meditation process
The focus of the meditation is on the breath and on body sensations:
- One watches the breath entering and exiting the nostrils, ignoring all other thoughts.
- One notes sensations around the nostrils and upper lip, such as the breath being cooler on entering and warmer on exiting.
- One notes various other sensations, such as itches, tightness, moisture, etc. etc. in this area.
- One remains present with the sensations, and does not fight them or dwell upon them, simultaneously continuing to focus on the breath. Often, the sensations dissipate over the course of several breaths.
- If thoughts, memories or emotions arise, one does not engage them. One looks for the body sensations that accompany them, treating them as one does any other sensations.
- If strong sensations arise elsewhere in the body, such as leg or back aches, one does not move the body in order to dissipate them. One simply acknowledges and accepts them, allowing them to be present in the background of awareness as one continues to meditate on the breath.
The above is not to be taken as an instruction in Vipassana meditation, as the process involves much more detailed directives that have been video- and voice-recorded by Guenka and are paced to facilitate students' learning Vipassana to a very deep level of consciousness transformation. The above details are presented to stimulate considerations about elements that appear to facilitate psychological transformation.
My personal experience with Vipassana
I found the ten-day experience deeply transformative. I am naturally a very active, high-energy person. I enjoy tickling along many projects at once. I am in my primary retirement career of developing and promoting wholistic healing, in which I include:
- WHEE (Wholistic Hybrid derived from EMDR and EFT) – consultations to individuals in person, by phone and Skype; lectures and workshops; promoting my book; and writing articles such as this one;
- Editing and producing the International Journal of Healing and Caring – on line;
- Collecting and publishing reports of remarkable recoveries from medically incurable diseases;
- Promoting my other books;Writing articles and chapters in other publications on aspects of wholistic healing;
- Participating in the Council for Healing, a group I founded ten years ago for communicating and collaborating between various healing organizations;
- Managing the WholisticHealingResearch.com (WHR) informational website, which includes worldwide consultations to people interested in wholistic healing;
- Publishing the monthly eZine of the IJHC-WHR site
- Continually peeling the onion of life's challenges to self-growth, centeredness, and the fullest possible participation in the collective consciousness – believing that I can be of greatest help when I am personally the clearest possible channel/ vessel for wholistic healing.
Needless to say, I am by habit a person who is constantly on the go, enjoying the varieties of challenges and interactions with interesting people that the above provide. I also have a slight Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). I am easily distractible, slightly impulsive, and at my best when I have the opportunity to be physically active several times in the day.
With all of the above, it is easy to see that sitting quietly for prolonged periods does not come naturally to me. Meditation has been an enormous help in calming me down and in staying centered – i.e. connected to my higher self.
The ten-day Vipassana retreat was an enormous boost in these regards. I have felt more inner peace and quiet than ever before in my life. When I ask myself what was helpful in the meditation retreat, a number of items stand out.
Just taking the time to be quiet was a blessing, in a setting where phones, emails and all other non-Vipassana communications were halted. My roommate, an experienced meditator, walked everywhere with a measured, slow pace. His presence provided a model for quietness with which I resonated, as I deliberately mimicked his way of ambulating. This was reinforced on days eight and nine of the course, during which we were all instructed to make every movement a conscious, deliberate part of our meditation.
Observing sensations in the body, and letting them dissipate as I focused on my breathing was a healing experience. I was initially struck by the helpfulness of observing the coolness of air on inhalation and warmth on exhalation. Connecting with the sensations felt to me a more centering focus than had my earlier practices of counting breaths or acknowledging "in" on the in-breath and "out" on the out-breath.
At first it was a struggle for me to remain concentrated for such long periods. On the second day, immediately after I was called up with three other students to briefly discuss our progress with the Teaching Assistant, my focus was dramatically enhanced. It was as though I had stepped into the energy pattern of focus, or a light switch had been turned on. This lasted till the end of the day, and had mostly dissipated by the next morning. My concentration slowly improved again after that, but not nearly to the steadiness of focus I had experienced on the second day. Mentioning this to the instructor on the fourth day, he said he could not explain this, and certainly could not take credit for having inspired or facilitated it. I continue to wonder whether I might have somehow resonated with him or with my roommate, who was one of the other students sitting with me in discussion with the instructor.
Another firm instruction was to not engage one's mind with other body sensations. Aches in the back, neck, legs or buttocks with prolonged sitting can be a serious distraction. I was pleased to find that these aches almost always dissipated within a minute or two of acknowledging them but letting them fade into the background as I focused on the breath meditation.
Ignoring emotions and intruding thoughts as I meditated was also helpful when the these were of mild to moderate intensity. I was several times particularly surprised to see the emotions dissipate, as I focused on their associated body sensations, in the same manner as sensations alone dissipated, when they were not connected with emotions.
Intense emotions that emerged several times proved impossible for me to dissipate. At a few points they distracted me for hours from the meditation. Rather than continuing to struggle to focus on the sensations as a way to dissipate them, I used WHEE. WHEE produced releases of the emotions within about half an hour in each case.
Connecting with Buddhist teachings was promoted by:
Goenka's lectures were richly illustrated with stories of Gautama; historical notes on the origins and development of Buddhist thoughts, practices and teachings; Goenka's personal experiences as a student and teacher of meditation; and the experiences of his students.
The atmosphere of service was much evident. Instructors and their assistants, as well as staff in kitchen, grounds maintenance and other functions of a retreat center all volunteered their time. This is a core element in Goenka's worldwide network of meditation centers. Students on this retreat were invited to repay the help we had received by contributing to cleanups at the end of our retreat, but more importantly, to return to the Center at later dates to serve others who were coming for retreats.
Vegetarian meals were served, with minimal spices and sometimes with no sauces. We were repeatedly encouraged to respect all living things and to kill no living beings (i.e. animals). This was at times a serious trial when the mosquitoes were seeking to feast on our flesh.
Personal, experiential validations of the teachings
Both Vipassana and WHEE offer people many and varied personal opportunities to validate the efficacy of the methods. The differences and similarities between the two methods may be instructive.
Focus on body sensations vs. focus on emotions
I find it most fascinating that mental focus in Vipassana to deal with emotions is not on the emotions themselves, but only on the body sensations associated with the emotions. My personal experience validates that of several others on the retreat I attended – with whom I conversed (at the end of the retreat, after silence was officially broken) – and that of thousands of others taught by Goenka. Emotions dissipate when one follows this mental practice.
It is to be emphasized that one gives no attention or mental/ emotional energies to the troublesome emotions. One sets them aside as one focuses on one's breathing and on the physical sensations associated with the emotions. And they dissipate.
WHEE and other Energy Psychology approaches focus on the emotions themselves as the approach for dealing with troublesome emotions. This is true as well as numerous other psychotherapeutic methods. WHEE and numbers of other EP approaches include body sensations as secondary items of focus that are associated with the emotions.
The WHEE and other EP focus is thus in reverse priority to that of Vipassana meditation. WHEE focuses first on emotions and for the most part, secondarily on the body sensations. Body sensations are theorized to be produced by the emotions, or to be linked to the emotions by psychological conditioning. My strong personal experience with WHEE is that pains, for instance, are like the ring of a telephone – i.e. the body's way of drawing attention to underlying emotional issues that have been hidden away, repressed in the unconscious mind. The unconscious mind appears to use the body as its way of drawing the attention of the conscious mind to the buried, problematic emotions and associated memories – so that the conscious mind can release these.
Pairing of a positive focus with negative feelings, thoughts and body sensations
Another aspect to these processes in both methods is the pairing of counteracting positive cognitions and feelings with the negative ones. It would seem that in the two approaches, both of which are successful, the holding of problematic feelings and thoughts in one's consciousness, while engaging in a calming, relaxing, strongly affirming and supportive focus, leads to the dissipation of the negative feelings and thoughts. (This process has been thoroughly researched in psychological treatments called systematic desensitization.)
Rhythmic focus contributing to dissipation of negative emotions and thoughtsIn WHEE, a rhythmic, right and left tapping on the body helps to counteract negative feelings and cognitions. In Vipassana, one's rhythmic breathing does the same.
Spiritual awarenesses contributing to diminishing of negative sensationsBoth Vipassana and WHEE recommend a spiritual focus as counteracting positive cognitions. In WHEE, the stepwise introduction of elements enables people to validate the potency of this component. When people start with the affirmation "I love and accept myself, wholly and completely" they are able to get a sense of how well this works in diminishing a negative focus. When they then add, "And [God/ The Infinite Source/ Buddha/ Christ/ Mary/ your choice] loves and accepts me" many are able to perceive a significantly more potent counteracting effect.
Is one method better than the other?
I have no question that a ten-day Vipassana silent meditation retreat offers enormous benefits in deepening one's spiritual awareness. I am personally attracted to Buddhist philosophy and practices of compassion and helping one's fellow beings on this planet. It is clear that Vipassana can reduce personal negativity, witnessed by the impressive results demonstrated in reducing recidivism of inmates in prisons in India. The fact that there are growing communities of Vipassana meditators worldwide provides major support to people who are on meditative and spiritual paths.
I have no question that WHEE is an incredibly potent method for releasing physical and psychological pains of all sorts – rapidly, easily and deeply. For dealing with residues of major traumas, I would recommend WHEE as a treatment of first choice between the two. WHEE also enhances personal intuitive and spiritual awarenesses. WHEE goes further than Vipassana in advocating for caring for all beings, encouraging people to consider every aspect of the environment as being sentient and worthy of our compassion.
These methods are by no means exclusive. I encourage readers to explore both
Doing Time, Doing Vipassana http://www.dhamma.org/en/av/dtdv.shtml
Phillips, Jenny. Letters from the Dhamma Brothers: Meditation Behind Bars, Periyatti Publishing 2008.
Vipassana Meditation As Taught By S.N. Goenka in the tradition of Sayagyi U Ba Khin http://www.dhamma.org/
Goleman, Dan. The Varieties of Meditative Experience, New York: Dutton 1977. (History of classical meditative practice and analysis of types of meditation.)
Kornfield, J. The Healing Path, New York: Bantam 1993. (Excellent on meditation & psychotherapy overlaps.)
LeShan, L. How to Meditate, New York: Bantam 1974. (Excellent varieties of meditations.)
Your feedback on this article is welcomed.
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Further information about WHEE
Basics of the WHEE process
Appreciations for benefits of WHEE
Problems helped by WHEE
Book on WHEE for Pain
Introductory WHEE article
WHEE for trauma and re-entry problems
WHEE for children
WHEE-kly brief articles