The Foundations of Vipassana Meditation

Flickr - Dharma Wheel - saamiblogPeter O’Donoghue, Contributor
Waking Times

I spent 6 consecutive weeks sitting and serving on courses at Dharma Sikhara, a Vipassana centre, in Dharamkot, India in July and August 2007. It was one of the most profound experiences of my life and left a lasting impression, so now I would like to offer an insight into the technique so that you too may benefit from it.

‘Vipassana’ is a Pali word meaning ‘Insight’, to see things as they really are instead of how they simply appear to be. It is a meditation technique discovered by Gottama the Buddha over 25 centuries ago and was the key aspect to his enlightenment, being the unique element of his teaching that separated him from the many other masters of his time and since.

Gottama himself was born as a prince in Nepal, and for the early part of his life enjoyed all of the material comforts and sensual pleasures such a position brought a man. However, after some years he tired of these things, realizing that such objects and experiences offered no real happiness. He left his palace, wife and child to enter India, where he shaved his head, clothed himself in the garb of a renunciant (or sannyasin) and began leading the harsh life of a wandering ascetic.

Many teachers were offering a huge variety of ways to escape suffering, most of which involved enduring severe austerities and subjecting the body to torturous starvation in order to cleanse oneself. For some years he sampled and practiced many of these, but found that they only offered very superficial purification. He was searching for something deeper, the actual root cause of suffering in all of its forms.

  • He understood that each person possesses six sense doors (the eye, the ear, the tongue, the nose, the skin and the mind) and that each of these has its respective sense object (sounds for the ear, smells for the nose, thoughts for the mind etc) in the apparently external world. Whenever a contact occurs between any of these sense doors and its object a sensation, however subtle, is always produced in the body.

    These things were already well known and accepted by others at the time, but the key discovery of this man was that the deepest level of the mind is always connected solely to the sensations arising in the body. Obviously the conscious mind is normally occupied with the external world, but this other part is only ever aware of these sensations in the body, normally occurring below our conscious awareness. Whenever a sensation arises, the mind automatically labels it as either pleasurable or painful, an instantaneous value judgment is made and assigned to this feeling that is experienced. As soon as this happens, the reacting part of the mind either begins craving (if the sensation is deemed to be pleasurable) and instructs the conscious mind and body to seek out more similar stimuli, or becomes averse (if the sensation is classified as painful) and seeks to avoid any further sensations of that kind.

    The Buddha realized that this process of craving and aversion is the root cause of all suffering in our lives. A contact occurs at one of the sense doors, a sensation occurs and is labeled as pleasurable by the deepest level of the mind and it then it reacts by wanting more and more of the experiences that lead to that feeling. Craving compels us to seek out only certain types of experience and to only want things which give us pleasure to happen in our lives. This causes us to define events, people and situations as good and bad, right and wrong; to categorize everything in terms of how much they please us. The mind is averse to any sensation that is unpleasant or causes pain, so any person or situation we find ourselves in that produces such a reaction in us is avoided at all costs. We are constantly running away from things that produce unpleasant sensations in us and towards those that produce pleasant ones, slaves to this reacting part of our minds.

    If something is giving us pleasure we cling to it and never want it to end, so when it inevitably does we suffer. If something is causing us pain and it goes on for longer than we want it to, or it is unavoidable for a period of time, we suffer because the mind is averse to pain. This root level of the mind, with its reaction to all sensations in the body caused by all sense contacts, is the cause of suffering. It either clings and craves, or seeks to push things away through aversion. It cannot simply accept things as they are, it always wants to change the external experience to produce maximum pleasure and minimum pain at whatever cost to others or itself.

    We constantly blame external things, people or situations for our sufferings. ‘It’s because of that person I am unhappy’, ‘that person did or said something that displeased me, that’s why I am miserable’, ‘if this situation in my life changed, then I could be happy’. We believe 100% of our happiness or pain is caused by things out there and that if the world was just as we wanted it to be then we would be at peace; if we had everything and everyone we wanted then life would be perfect. What we fail to realize is that the external world comes and goes, people and places come and go, things just happen, they are neither good nor bad, right nor wrong, they just are. It is only in our reaction to them, and our labelling of them as things that either give us pleasure or pain that misery arises. 100% of our suffering is caused inside, by our reactions to the things we perceive as happening outside of ourselves.

    For example, someone in your life acts in a way that displeases you in some way, they do not conform to what you would like them to do or be. That particular situation in itself contains no suffering, it has no intrinsic pain in it, a person has simply chosen to act a certain way, they are not forcing you to be unhappy. It only becomes a source of suffering when you perceive it as producing pain in you and you react, demanding that the person change what they are doing or be different in order to please you, to give you pleasure rather than pain.

    Things happen and you choose to react and let them trouble you, no one else but yourself is causing the misery. It is always your decision to react. Buddha therefore discovered that in fact 100% of all suffering is produced by our reactions to sensations in the body apparently being caused by people and situations outside of ourselves, 0% is in fact caused by the people or events themselves.

    With these realizations, Gottama set about developing a solution to this universal malady, and began investigating and dissecting sensations and this root level of the mind. The solution he found was a technique of meditation he referred to as ‘Vipassana’.

    About the Author

    Peter O’Donoghue is a Personal Performance Consultant and blogger based in London, England. He spent 6 consecutive weeks sitting and serving on courses at Dharma Sikhara, a Vipassana centre, in Dharamkot, India. He is also the creator of Follow and interact with him on Twitter and

    View his previous Waking Times article on mindfulness here.

    This article is offered under Creative Commons license. It’s okay to republish it anywhere as long as attribution bio is included and all links remain intact.

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