Written by Dan Kaminsky
There are, at this point, a few very predictable responses to certain types of concerns being raised. And those responses are valid. There is a ton of wisdom in observing your own baggage and working to not be consumed by it.
Yet, I think those responses aren’t always appropriate. Often, when I have received that response it feels like a dismissal of the topic I am trying to raise. Instead of engaging in the topic of concern, responses in this vein feel to be spiritually bypassing the critique being raised, and leave me feeling totally unresolved in what I was attempting to discuss in the first place.
I sat my first course a decade ago. Within the very first course I felt enormous benefit, but I also had significant concerns and confusions (the content of which I have outlined in other posts). Over the following years, I got increasingly involved in the tradition, making serving and sitting more central to my life. During those many years of deep involvement, I don’t think I said a single word about my concerns. I just sat on them. I did my best to treat them as passing doubts, and continued to observe the agitation that they caused when coming up in my mind.
Starting about two years ago, recognizing I needed a new strategy after years of trial and error, I began to approach AT’s about the concerns. Overwhelmingly, I was met with “just observe” style responses. Around this same time, my sitting practice became abysmal. I had difficulty sitting still, and spent most of my time on the cushion rolling in thought.
Over the last year to six months, I began openly dialoguing about these issues with anyone who wanted to engage with me about them. This blog is part of that process, but there are many old students, ATs, and friends who I have had long conversations with about the content of my critiques. Starting about two months ago, my sitting practice is finally back on track. I am able to practice properly without rolling in thought and feel I am again fully benefiting from the tradition.
I write this personal history because to me, engaging in these conversations didn’t hinder my practice but helped get it back on track. I had tried the two traditional avenues for inquiry (the cushion, and ATs), and hadn’t gotten anywhere. It was by talking to people who didn’t dismiss my concerns but engaged with them that I have finally gotten somewhere.
The other important thing to say is that in my mind, sometimes students simply need to be heard. Just observe style responses ended up making me feel really gaslit. I believed (and still do) that the concerns I am raising do warrant discussion and engagement. Yet after being told to observe them or treat it like a black stone time and time again, the message was it’s just you; it’s all in your head. This ended up making me far more confused and agitated then I was to start. What started out as a concern about a certain subject left me feeling isolated, alone and questioning myself. Of the many real tangible shifts that have occurred since openly engaging in dialogue has been feeling seen and heard.
I say all this to encourage the cautionary use of responses that tend to dismiss. They are appropriate at times, and have real wisdom in them. Yet they also are at times unhelpful for struggling students along the path.
The final dismissive claim that I will respond to in this post is the response “you are confusing new students.” This response is used often when expressing the will to open up dialogue to all Vipassana practitioners. There is of course importance to this claim. New students and new old students should be encouraged to continue walking on the path, and the last thing I would want open dialogue to do is to have people concerned and run away. The reframing that I would propose then isn’t “you are confusing new students” which automatically shuts down the conversation, but rather “how can we have these open conversations in ways that helps clarify the path and tradition for all students”?