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Vipassana Meditation Discussed

Pages: 12-16
Dr. Ida Rolf Institute

Bulletin of Structural Integration Ida P. Rolf


Dear friends,

I’d like to offer some additions and qualifications to my letter which appeared in the “Forum” about a year ago in which I talked about the relationship between Rolfing and vipassana meditation practice. In the past year I’ve gone to a couple more ten-day retreats and consequently have some more information to pass on further notes from the field, so to speak.

In the first place there are a great many different techniques and practices all of which call themselves vipassana. The word can be translated as “promoting insight,” but obviously there are a lot of different ways to do this. The Buddha enumerated something like forty different aspects of the body-mind process any of which would be a suitable object on which to focus attention whole schools of meditation have developed which emphasize one particular aspect of this process to the exclusion of the rest. I’ve heard that in Rangoon alone there are over thirty different vipassana centers, each one teaching a slightly different approach and technique. Anyway, I’ve found that certain of these techniquest are more relevant to and directly supportive to our work as Rolfers than are others, and I’d like to direct you to them.

Currently in the United States there are two major approaches to vipassana meditation. The first, and by far the most widespread, is loosely based on the teaching of Mahasi Sayadaw of Burma. The practice involves focusing on the breath as it enters and leaves the body and making mental notes to yourself as you watch this process (in, out, in, out, etc.). It doesn’t take long to see how difficult it is to keep the mind focused in one place. Thoughts and feelings start clamoring for your attention and draw you away from your breath rather quickly. When these thoughts or feelings get so strong as to make continued focusing on your breath impossible, you allow the thoughts or feelings themselves to become the focus of your attention, making mental notes of these new objects (in, out, in, out, thinking, thinking, pain in the back, anger, etc.). As these thoughts and feelings subside, you return again to noting the movement of your breath. Such an approach emphasizes a choice less awareness of the entire mind-body process. It allows the disruptive flak and chatter of the mind to run itself out to give you a glimpse of the clarity that is hidden beneath.

The two best known western teachers of this technique are Jack Kornfield and Joseph Goldstein. They are nice people and offer a great many retreats around the United States throughout the year. Unfortunately, as good as it is, I do not find that their approach is the one that best complements our work and goals.

The approach that I do recommend is based on the teachings of U Ba Khin, another twentieth century teacher from Burma. The first vipassana retreat that I ever did followed the format of this tradition, and it was after that retreat that I felt inspired to write the letter that appeared in the Forum a year ago. The technique is very simple.

It is also very, very powerful. The first few days of these retreats are also spent in watching the breath, but just as an aid to sharpen the mind for the work that will follow. Also there is no mental noting involved. Rather your attention is directed to knowing the process of breath directly through its bodily indicators the feeling of the air on your nostrils and upped lip as it enters and leaves your body. After three days or so of this the practice changes, and for the rest of the retreat you focus exclusively on the experience of body. You begin by focusing attention on the sensations at the top of your head and very methodically move through your entire body over and over and over again. At first the movement is slow and exacting. By the end of the retreat you may be able to move through your entire body in a single inhalation or exhalation. Each passage through the body works directly on any pockets of pain or obstruction that you might encounter. With the application of a sustained force of awareness, these areas gradually release. With continued practice we come more and more to apprehend our sense of self not through the concepts of mind, but rather through our literal physical embodiment. In acknowledging the process and optimun mechanics of this embodiment, as so many of us have also come to understand through the Rolfing work, clarity can emerge. In fact the experience of this particular meditation practice bears an uncanny resemblance in substance if not in form to the experience of being Rolfed. It’s been very exciting for me to realize this.

I’m struck by how often people who have gone through a basic series of Rolfing and have experienced some movement work keep asking what they should now do to keep furthering the movement towards verticality and embodiment that the Rolfing initiated. Largely we’re not much help at this point. It’s as though we’ve been perfecting the work that gives us the foundation for our continued evolution towards verticality, but it’s still kind of a no-man’s-land past that. I feel really strongly that this particular style of vipassana may provide us with one possible answer here.

At one point during a retreat I did last summer, an image came to me that has been very meaningful along these lines. I thought of a Renaissance sculptor and of the process which turns a block of marble into a finished image of the human form. The sculptor begins with a large mallet and chisel, pounding away carefully but forcefully until his image begins to assume a rough but recognizable shape. Gradually the mallets and chisels become finer and finer as ever more subtle levels of features emerge. To polish and complet the sculpture, he will move on to even subtler tools, fine grades of sandpaper and abrasive cloth.

During the retreat I could envision the process of Rolfing as equivalent to the initial phase in the formation of that sculpture. Our tools and techniques may be somewhat rough and rudimentary, but they’re also invaluable in allowing a more perfected human form to begin to emerge. And over time we have become quite adept at using them. The vipassana practice feels to me like the next stage of work. A finer, more subtle tool and, as I mentioned in my first letter, you can definitely deal with and touch areas of the body that fingers and knuckles just can’t reach. It’s a two-way street here, for sure. While the vipassana practice may offer a very elegant continuation of our work, it also seems clear to me that a good deal of initial opening and aligning of the body such as the basic series of Rolfing provides is essential for the vipassana to be fully effective.

I definitely felt that I was at an advantage at this retreat because of the amount of bodily input I have had over the years and the sensitivity of balance that has resulted from that. Approaching the sitting as an act of alignment and balance quite dramatically affects the nature of the experience. If you have to hold yourself up when you sit, you can expect that your experience will largely be one of pain and constriction. Finding a place of relatively effortless balance both increases the intensity and aliveness of the sensations and also hastens the rate at which the obstctions to a true balance release. Buddhists call these obstructive tendencies sankharas habit patterns, reactive tendencies of the mind. We see them as holding or compression or stuckness in the tissue of the body, but I know we’re talking about the same thing. Almost without exception when I would experience a release during the process of sitting, it would be accompanied by a shift to a more grounded condition of balance.

The only drawback I can see to pursing this practice is the relative unavaibility of teachers. One of U BA Khin’s closest students, a Burmese-born Indian named Goenka, teaches for most of the year in India and Nepal. It looks like he will start coming to the United States once a year in the late summer. He is a very powerful and artful teacher. Other than him, there’s a teacher in England who has come over to the States on occasion and a teacher in Burma who only accepts advanced students. To be notified of Goenka’s schedule in the West, you have to subscribe to the Vipassana Newsletter. Their address is: P.O. Box 9426, Berkeley, Cal. 94709. The newsletter is sent out free, but they will happily accept any size donation you might feel like sending. Goenka’s retreats fill up fast, so if you decide to do one register as soon as you hear about it. Incidentally his retreats are something of a miracle in this day and age of the inflationary growth industry. His intention is for them to be free. Again if you feel like offering a donation at the end of the retreat you may, but you’re under no obligation to do so. Before they were free, costs usually came to ten or fifteen dollars a day. In that this includes food, lodging, and teaching we’re talking about one of the great bargains for personal growth currently available.

I’m obviously enthusiastic about the benefits of this practice. In all fairness, though, I have to say that during one of these retreats you can probably expect to go through some pretty hellish moments. Here again the analogy with Rolfing is stricking. It’s as though the act of sitting quite effectively brings up into our awareness the stuff that begs to be released in much the same was as does the pressure of our fingers and knuckles on the soft tissue of a Rolfer’s body. In both cases we often call the experience of this stuff “pain”. The mind may wish to argue that the pain is caused by sitting for long periods in an unfamiliar position, but we might reflect for a moment on our understanding that Rolfing does not cause pain so much as it allows pain (or, more accurately, what manifests as pain) that is already there to come to the surface of awareness and be released. While admittedly some of the discomfort may be due to the posture, the majority of what comes up for you, sorry to say, is your own. That this is so is also, of course, a blessing.
The practice proceeds through just watching and experiencing the sensations, not in trying to change them in any way. Over a period of time they change on their own. What is ultimately stressed is the cultivation of equanimity. Horrible sensations of blissful sensations and you can probably expect some of each in the extreme they all come and go, constantly changing. The trick is not to get attached to either. It was eye-opening for me to see that to identify with the very powerful and blissful sensations was ultimately quite painful.

Much of the information in this letter is based on my experience at a ten-day retreat with Goenka that I attended last summer in northern California. Without going into detail, the retreat was an extraordinary experience for me, certainly one of the most powerful things I have ever gone through. Before the retreat began I was somewhat apprehensive as unlike other vipassana retreats that alternate periods of sitting with walking or moving around Goenka just focuses on sitting. This goes against every belief I have about the need for some form of regular exercise to keep the body happy and to maintain optimum verticality. Anyway, by the end ob the retreat, contrary to all my misgivings about this, my body not only felt terrific, but it honestly looked like I’d just received a number of very good Rolfing sessions! I felt much more open and aligned than before the retreat. I almost wish I’d taken before and after photographs of myself if that might encourage or convince some of you to go to one of these retreats. At this point for me this practice is without question the best thing I have found to maintain and promote the input I have received through Rolfing.

After the retreat I felt incredibly good extremely light, buoyant, alive. Over a period of time the buzz fades, and a different pattern of discomforts and holdings are presenting themselves in my daily sittings. I relate to this pretty much along the lines of our layers-of-an-onion metaphor. It would appear that in the process of evolution we keep on moving not only through ever more refined conditions of balance and ease, but through the obstacles to these conditions as well. Whether we like it or not, this seems to be what life is all about anyway, and the sitting practice just seems to speed things along.

Some thoughts about sitting. Most people sit cross-legged on the floor with a firm pillow underbum and a mat to cushion the knees and ankles. If you’re attached to sitting on a chair, there’s no reason why you can’t do this. I would recommend, though, at some point you try the floor. Over a period of time you can settle into a sitting posture that is very comfortable and supportive. I sit with one ankle loosely crossed over the other, nothing more complex than that. The next sitting I cross my ankles the other way and continue to alternate like this at each sitting to discourage any imbalances that might otherwise develop. It’s important to have a pilllow that is firm and high enough to give your pelvis some elevation. This allows the weight of your torso to fall directly over, or a bit in front of, your sitting bones. If you start sitting behind yourself, there’s just no possibility for support and balance. Ib you decide that you want to attend one of Goenka’s upcoming retreats, I strongly recommend that you begin sitting for an hour every day.
Experiemtn with pillows and balance and find what works for you. You’ll have enough to deal with during the retreat itself without having to figure out how to sit in relative comfort.

I hope the length of this letter emphasizes how strongly I feel about this practice. Personally I see it as a very logical and beautiful culmination of our work. I really feel fortunate to have come accross it and would like to share that gratitude with you. I fully intend to keep writing these lengthy letters (and I assure you they will get even more boring!) until enough of us have become involved with this practice so as to get some feedback about it from sources other than myself. I honestly feel as though I’m on to someting here that could be of tremendous benefit to us, so if you’re at all attracted to something like this, give it a try and let me hear from you.

One last note of clarification. As many of you know, I have been more or less involved with Rajneesh over the past few years. During that time I never used the Forum to talk about my experiences or to encourage anyone to rush over and sign up. I’ve felt that my relationship with Rajneesh has been largely pensonal, and frankly I don’t see it as a trip for everyone. About the vipassana practice, though, I feel quite differently. Its application is directly relevant to our work, or so it seems to me. Unlike conventional “spiritual” trips it comes with none of the trappings that for so many of us get in the way and are offensive. No ritual, no belief system, just the act of experiencing what’s real in ever increasing depth. Sound familiar? Hope to see you soon.


Pranama Certified Rolfer
(status:”Not actively Rolfing”)
CanadaVipassana Meditation Discussed

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