Written by Dan Kaminsky
I recently listened to Daniel Ingram’s four hour long interview on the Monk on a Motorbike podcast. If you are able to, I recommend it, as it challenges many basic operating assumptions present in the Goenka tradition, especially those around Sankhara’s and how the mind is purified through Vipassana meditation.
Ingram controversially claims to be enlightened. In this podcast he argues enlightenment isn’t the full eradication of all mental defilements, and says this is false advertising. He instead describes it as a change in relationship to the mental states that he used to identify with.
For the sake of more clearly elaborating what I mean, I’ll give an explanation of my experience with all of this. Goenka’s understanding of how Vipassana works starts with the idea that past mental reactions are the cause of consciousness in the present moment. If you remain equanimous a prior mental reaction comes to the surface and gets eradicated so that consciousness can continue. By remaining equanimous as your mental reactions come to the surface your “Sankhars” or mental defilements get eradicated. And if you get through all of your past reactions, you’re enlightened.
This explanation has never resonated with me intellectually or experientially. To start with an experiential example, over the past few years I have done a fair amount of public speaking. Typically before I go on, I feel a heaviness in my stomach and a burning sensation in my chest; let’s call this anxiety. Sometimes when I sit these exact same sensations arise. As they do, I do my best to observe them and remain equanimous. Considering I have nothing to be anxious about in the moments I’m on my cushion, one could say that this is the process at work; because I was sitting, was aware and equanimous, this habit pattern of anxiety arose.
The first part of this to come into question for me is the cause and effect nature. Sometimes these exact sensations appear when I am walking down the street, when I am doing the dishes, when I am talking to a friend or when I am taking a shower. I say that to say that it hasn’t been my experience that the cause of a mental reaction surfacing is equanimity. This then has larger implications for the whole process of purification as Goenka describes it (which I will talk about more in part two of this post).
The second part that comes into question from this example is that mental habit patterns are eradicated through equanimity. The shift for me hasn’t been that this sensation (or the emotion of anxiety) has disappeared from my life experience. Rather it’s grip on me and my relationship to it has entirely changed. I can now routinely remain aware of the sensations/mental states as they arise, remain rather objective/not identified with the whole experience, and have a deep seeded knowledge that sooner or later it will pass.
The “defilement” hasn’t left me, it is still present, yet I can remain aware and unattached to them as they present themselves. It seems the Goenka model presents purification as defilement’s leave your mind altogether, whereas the Ingram model says they remain present, just their grip on you and your attachment to them falls away. From a purely experiential standpoint, my experience has absolutely been the latter not the former. What about other people?
For the sake of an inquiring mind, I would love to know people’s experience with Sankhara’s and the process of purification more broadly. Have people found the process to closely mirror what Goenka says in their personal experience? I have heard from a few people on this and have really been intrigued by the range of answers.