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founded by S. N. Goenka in the tradition of Sayagyi U Ba Khin






Vipassana and Psychotherapy

-By Jyoti Doshi

The modern therapies have bonds both with religious systems and with scientific theories. Areas that were once considered too mystical, such as meditation and psychedelic experiences, are now viewed with more respect, as one can see in noting the serious work on Transcendental Meditation and LSD therapy.

There are three groups of therapies. The first group emphasises cognitive and emotional processes, and includes Rational-Emotive Therapy and Feeling Therapy. The second group of therapies emphasises activity and behavioral processes, including Transcendental Meditation, Implosive Therapy, Behavior Modification and Assertiveness Training, while the third group of therapies emphasises biological processes.

The goal of most therapies is to help the client improve his or her functioning in some way. But the type of functioning considered important for therapeutic change varies widely. For example, for Cohen, whose LSD Therapy is used as an adjunct to psychoanalysis, the goals could be to retrieve inaccessible unconscious material to alter superego functioning. In contrast, behavior therapists usually have a specific goal, such as the elimination of fear as in Implosive Therapy or a decrease in a child's tantrums as in Operant Therapy.

Other approaches prescribe goals that may fall somewhere along the continuum from the very general, abstract type of change prescribed by Cohen, to the particular, well-defined change of the behaviorists. For example, moving roughly from the general to the specific: the Gestalt therapist Yontef strives for Awareness in his clients; Karle, Woldenberg, and Hart hope to have clients live from their feelings; Glasser encourages a successful identity; Ellis desires the elimination of disordered thinking and Cotler helps clients assert their rights.

What is Vipassana?

Vipassana means to see things as they are; to see things in their true perspective, in their true nature. It is, in essence, a technique of self-observation and self-exploration.

The objective of Vipassana is to purify the mind. All human actions emanate from the mind, and a pure mind by nature is full of love and compassion. Sustained practice of Vipassana brings about total transformation of the human personality.

From the psychological point of view, Vipassana can be described as a technique of non-verbal, self-administered psychoanalysis (in a detached manner), as it sets in motion the process of disintegration and tension release. One is able to operate on one's own mind and observe it as a witness. To the extent one develops an attitude of equanimity, one prevents further tying of psychic knots, resulting in releasing of tension, mental peace and purification of the mind from raga-dosa (craving and aversion).

I believe that the Vipassana meditation technique offers an alternative, not necessarily to replace the interpersonal encounter that is the core of psychotherapy, but as a valuable technique of reducing tension, broadening awareness and making life more meaningful and pleasurable, and thereby, fulfilling the goals of all therapies.

The key to successful therapy lies in creating psychological and physiological conditions that optimise the natural tendency of the nervous system to stabilise itself. And it is possible to achieve this through Vipassana.

Vipassana can offer relief from stored up anxiety and conflict very systematically, without the need to have these sensations verbalised. There is no need to receive interpretations from a therapist. The student has been trained to be a detached observer of his or her own feelings and sensations, which are impermanent in nature.

Whereas psychotherapy may help the individual to gain intellectual insight into the sources of stress, all too frequently the old fears persist on a visceral level, and the patient remains discouraged. But Vipassana gives an opportunity to get rid of old fears even at a visceral level.

Too often traditional psychotherapy or psychoanalysis keeps the patient preoccupied with the dark side of human nature, by bringing the oedipal wishes and primitive impulses to the conscious level. To remind anyone of such things will only result in lowering his consciousness. Towards the end of his life Freud found that the very act of verbalising unpleasant thoughts brought resistance to their interpretation. Rather than "digging into the mud of a miserable past," one's vision should be enlarged to "the genius and the brightness of man's creative intelligence."

Through the practice of Vipassana, one learns that the territory of the mind is far more extensive than Freud realised. Brain researchers too have identified the enormous capacity of the human nervous system. This untapped potential can be identified through Vipassana meditation.

Vipassana perhaps makes an excellent adjunct to individual therapy, group therapy and family therapy. Like other forms of psychotherapy, it helps in the release of stress and in the maximisation of psychological growth and integration. As the well known psychotherapist Fritz Perls explains: "If you are centred in yourself, then you don't adjust anymore, then you assimilate, you understand, you are related to whatever happens, without a centre, there is no place from which to work, achieving a centre, being grounded in oneself, is about the highest state a human can achieve." So if we want to experience this centre, the first thing we have to do is close our eyes, turn inward, and then take advantage of this Vipassana meditation technique for recentring, coming home to ourselves.

Alvin Toffler has popularised the term "future shock" to describe the disastrous effect of the accelerating pace of the modern world on human life. The increasing rate of change and transience is producing shattering stress and disorientation in individuals, many of whom are being pushed beyond their ability to cope. Too much change too fast weakens the physiology and causes deterioration of emotional and mental well-being. No amount of material comfort is sufficient to reverse this damage. And we know that anxiety is the common denominator in almost all mental disorders.

While psychotherapy is the principle treatment for anxiety neurosis, either alone or combined with tranquilizers, it is expensive, time consuming and available only in cities. Today, vast numbers of individuals in our modern world who are not thought of as mental patients are suffering needlessly by failing to actualise themselves.

For such people, Vipassana will work as a preventive as well as a curative measure. It is easy to practice, does not need continuous professional attention and it is inexpensive. Vipassana should be incorporated into our psycho-therapeutic repertoire as it has many advantages over other psycho-therapeutic techniques, since it:

  • Teaches one learns how to become a detached observer, keeping in mind the impermanence of feeling and sensation, happiness or unhappiness.
  • Reduces tension and anxiety.
  • Reduces violence and anger.
  • Increases tolerance and understanding of difficult situations.
  • Helps one to take appropriate decisions and action.
  • Increases constructive activity.
  • Increases work efficiency.
  • Improves interpersonal relationships.
  • Increases receptive, perceptive and cognitive abilities
  • Develops the habit of appropriate introspection.
  • Helps one regain composure through facing and solving one's problems.
  • Restores equilibrium by reducing stress and maximising the enjoyment of life. It may well offer a safe and plausible alternative to all forms of drug abuse.
  • Improves communication.
  • Encourages the resolution of emotional conflicts and allows for previously unacceptable aspects of the self to become integrated into the personality.
  • Reduces the need for excessive sedation with tranquilizers.
  • Normalises the sleep pattern.
  • Enables one to feel fresh and alert.
  • Gives one a feeling of inner happiness and lightness.

By allowing the individual to regain his vital centre of energy, satisfaction and stability, Vipassana can become the necessary antidote to future shock from the mental health point of view.