Vipassana In A Hostile Environment

There are so many wonderful aspects of this technique, but one that still concerns me is whether it can protect people in a hostile environment. There are certain communities where vulnerability causes you to become a target. Travelers learn to act confidently and blend in as not to draw attention to themselves. People who, “Aren’t from around here” can very quickly become the target of a violent or non-violent crime. So while Vipassana is a great tool in a safe learning environment, how does it hold up under duress?

There are many stories of how the Buddha navigated hostile situations by maintaining the equanimity of his mind. In my work with troubled youth, I’ve observed how kids with agitated minds that want to instigate a confrontation with me can be derailed by my calm and loving response. They realize that I’m not the source of their anger or misery and usually try to redirect their frustration towards someone else, but sometimes they deescalate. In this way I can see how someone with the depth of the Buddha could protect himself from becoming a victim.

Jesus wasn’t so lucky. The people of his time were afraid of his impact so they tortured and murdered him. Jesus was trying to teach people to love without attachment and triggered a hostile response. Should this be a concern for a new Vipassana meditator?

When I was first starting to practice I felt very vulnerable and open so I sought out safe environments and isolated myself. One of the first tasks a teacher has in a classroom to facilitate learning is to create an environment where students feel safe making mistakes and asking questions. So what about people who don’t have access to safe environments?

This is one of the reasons prison courses spark interest in me. A prison is not a safe environment. People are continuously jockeying for position in the social hierarchy. This leads to verbal and physical attacks around the clock. Individuals seek out groups for protection and change their behaviors to be part of that group. This is the foundation of gangs in inner cities. So what happens when one of these inmates or gang members tries to develop a Vipassana practice? I’ve seen Dhamma Brothers and I’ve read some of their letters, but this is a tiny sample size. I want to hear more stories of personal experiences.

I have observed examples of violent individuals bypassing someone they respect. For example, someone vandalizing houses in a neighborhood may skip a church out of respect. A scared patient may yell at every nurse that enters their room but quiet down when a doctor enters. I wonder where meditators fall in the hierarchy of a hostile environment. Do meditators rise to the top of the hierarchy because people respect the compassionate way they go about life or do they fall to the bottom and become a target for someone else to climb the social ladder? This is an important question in discussions of social change. Hopefully meditation will help me discover an answer.

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About Ryan Shelton

While I'm currently married to a beautiful woman while teaching physics at Padua Academy, these descriptors fail to capture the totality of my adventurous life. I have hiked over 1700 miles, traveled to 5 continents, managed a bakery, started a meditation center, counseled troubled teens, attended Duke, UNC, and Harvard, protected forests as a wildland firefighter, volunteered thousands of hours with Americorps, rafted the Grand Canyon, SCUBA dived on the Great Barrier Reef, and continues to find new adventures. I hope my writing encourages you to pursue your dreams and be the best version of yourself while supporting your communities to work together to solve the current challenges in our world.

3 thoughts on “Vipassana In A Hostile Environment

  1. Keep seeing this thing about vulnerability coming up in the blogs and I am not quite getting it. If vipassana brings clarity and balance, how can there also be vulnerability? I also see some doubts, still, with your regard for the practice- as you wonder whether a vipassana meditator is perhaps more exposed or in some kind of danger. My thoughts are, the more you meditate and become centered, the more fearless and the more you will notice that everything is managable and seems to go your way. We’re never given more than we can handle, and vipassana is a way to master our mind so that we can penetrate any situation with our diamond sharp mind and bird-light spirit! But if you think this practice is making you vulnerable, perhaps its not right for you!

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    • I think I feel vulnerable because it’s difficult to give up control to this practice that I don’t fully understand. On many levels I can relate to your experiences of clarity, balance, sharp mind, and light spirit, but this practise and the wisdom that comes with it is a very different form of stability than I was raised with. My ego and intellect struggle to give up control which feels vulnerable. Maybe I need to find a different word. In my blog I’m speaking more of my perception of vulnerability than actual vulnerability. On a deeper level, I know this practice is helping me discover a much stronger foundation to build upon and that’s exciting. Thanks for your insight. I’ll need to think about this a little more.

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