Alternative Views on Sankhara’s and the Process of Purification: Part 1

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.

11 thoughts on “Alternative Views on Sankhara’s and the Process of Purification: Part 1

  1. Geetali 'Taali' Sharma

    Hi Dan, welcome to Living Vipassana! I’ve been reading everything you’ve been sharing since the last month-and-a-half. I’ve resonated with much of it, and relate to some of the questions and experiences. I’ve had many similar questions myself and I have also engaged in those conversations. I guess, you could call me a long time reader & fan, first time commenter 😀

    This blog didn’t resonate with me. I’d like to share my understanding on surfacing of and eradication of Sankharas.

    My experience has also been the same as yours and Ingram’s– nothing has completely eradicated, but reaction to my reactions has changed. For example: [previously] anxiety surfaces, I respond with more anxiety; [now] anxiety surfaces, I respond with awareness/equanimity/objectivity/unattachment. I experience the anxiety that has surfaced, but I don’t multiply it by being anxious about it.

    Also note, my reactivity to different Sankharas has diminished at different levels. For example: I still can’t just observe my desire to watch hours of television, I still engage and later realize that that wasn’t a wise call.

    To me (a) anxiety still surfacing / not having been eradicated, or (b) hours of TV watching habit still being far from being observed in an unattached way, doesn’t equate to deeming the eradication model false. To me it just means that I might be carrying a big baggage of anxiety and an even BIGger baggage of TV watching addiction.

    I think that not being able to see how much baggage we have, vipassanating for numerous years and yet not seeing the ultimate change that we were promised could possibly lead to confusion, doubt, and understandably questioning if eradication of sankharas is even a real thing. This is just me sharing my thoughts, I have not seen anything “ultimate” yet myself. For that matter, several years ago, I gave up looking forward to reaching anything ultimate. This path really is mostly a very long journey. And the interesting thing about travel is that one is enroute until they get to the destination. Finally being at the destination is one tiny moment in time, but the enroute phase takes as long as it’s gonna take. I have a few analogies to further illustrate my points.

    BAGGAGE
    Imagine two people decide they’re going to clean their houses and get rid of anything they haven’t used in the last year. Person A dedicates one-hour a day and accomplishes the task in one-week. Person B also dedicates one-hour day but still hasn’t reached the goal even a month later.
    Reason: Person B is a hoarder and has a much bigger house
    ^ this is our missing context. We are unaware of the size of our inner house and the extent of accumulation of various sankharas. All we can do is keep stripping away at it.

    JOURNEY
    If I’m going to my neighbor’s house, it may take five minutes. If I’m going to my grandfather’s, at the least it will take a day or it could take longer.
    Reason: my neighbor is next door, walking there takes 5 minutes. My grandfather lives in India, getting there door-to-door should take approximately 24 hours, but it could be longer depending on layovers or any other unforeseen circumstances along the way.
    ^ here, distance is the missing our context. With our Sankharas, we really don’t know how long we have to go. No digital map with an estimated time here, lol.

    —-
    I also wanted to address Sankharas coming up when not on the cushion (while washing dishes, talking to a friend, taking a shower). When we are on the cushion we are building our equanimity muscle, it doesn’t stop when we get off the cushion. It gets stronger on the cushion and we get to benefit from that strength throughout the day. Even while washing dishes or talking to a friend, our 100% attention may not be on awareness & equanimity, but some part of us is equanimous as a result of building the habit everyday. That cup spills over in day-to-day life and may bring up things when not expecting. After all, those Sankharas aren’t keeping an eye on the watch to arrive only between 7-8pm. They’ll arrive anytime, like rain or a storm or any other natural phenomenon.

  2. Daniel J Kaminsky

    Taali! 

    Wow!  Thank you so so much for this incredibly thoughtful, detailed and engaging response.  I really appreciate the care you took to write this and I love hearing about other people’s experiences on and off the cushion.  I also must admit, it is refreshing reading these new analogies to be able to hear things I have heard many times from a different angle. There is a lot I want to respond to in your post.  Some of it I wont get to in the interest of trying to be as concise as possible, but I do plan to elaborate out my thoughts further in coming blog posts.

    I will start by responding with my experience. I did do some deeper reflection after posting that blog and recognized that there has been larger shifts than I acknowledged in the original post.  For example, when I first started meditating jealousy was an emotion I routinely struggled with.  A decade later, that emotion is more or less gone from my lived experience. I think there are circumstantial components to this as well, but I do think meditation played a really central role in changing the landscape of my mind in relation to that emotion.

    I say that to say clearly there are things happening in my mind that I don’t fully understand why or how they work, and there is obvious plausibility in the eradication theory.    

    Yet, on the other side of that was how I felt when listening to that Ingram podcast.  It really felt like a wave of validation and understanding kicked in while listening.  He discussed still feeling anger, but just being able to fully observe and not identify with that emotion.  This is similar to what you mentioned about anxiety, that it is still present, but now you don’t react with anxiety to that anxiety.

    Reading what you wrote about your experiences with anxiety or tv watching, and listening to this podcast closely mirror my own experience with how I have benefited from meditation. That doesn’t necessarily negate the eradication model. Theoretically my anxiety could one day be gone. It does mean though that how I have been explained things would happen and how things have happened in my lived experience are by-in-large divergent (the emotions are often just as present, the change has just been my relationship to them). Much of why this important to me though comes down to packaging. 

    Finally, for now (I do plan to write blog posts on several issues you discussed in the coming weeks) to be open about my baggage, I do feel rather misled, lied to and gaslit by this tradition. I do not think anyone intentionally lied, misled or gaslit me. But I do think there are really vast gaps in how this tradition is packaged and explained versus the reality of what I as an individual have experienced here. To me, this is only one small example of this larger trend.

    Finally (for real this time) I fully encourage you to write a post if you ever feel the interest in elaborating out your thoughts.  Ryan and I are trying to build more of a diverse chorus of voices in this space to fully cultivate conversation, and would welcome any future comments and/or posts.  

    Thanks again!
    Best,Dan

  3. tomwhitemore

    I too would like to thank you Taali for your contribution, and sharing your lived experience of ‘living vipassana’.

    I too have an ongoing unhealthy relationship to watching TV, aswell as other habits. Thanks to discovering Vipassana and being able to develop and maintain a daily practice I have seen a shift in my consciousness and to a certain degree my ability to be practice equanimity. But the bad habits remain. But with more insight and control. Using your analogy of person a and b, clearing the room, helped my insight and ability to be kind to myself, i think I am a hoarder!

    Taali, you have shown it is possible to have a point of view that primarily supports the value of the Goenke tradition without disputing what Ryan and Dan have been advocating. Well at least that’s my experience. The more the better.

  4. Hi Tom – I think you’re getting at a very important point. You want to support and preserve the primary value of the Goenka tradition, but you also see value in some of the points that Dan and I have been making. You appreciate that Taali is able to bridge that gap. I don’t want to put words in your mouth, so please correct me if I’m wrong. I believe trying to find more of those bridges is the primary goal of this blog. If we don’t explore these topics at all, our organization is losing insights and people, but if our exploration gets to dispersed, we start losing the core values of the Goenka tradition. I think a healthy exploration is possible, but I agree that it requires more people within the tradition to help us keep our discussion on track. Hopefully we can invite more diverse perspectives to the blog while respectfully helping to guide everyone in the right direction as a group. Thanks Taali for being a bridge and thanks Dan for listening to her feedback respectfully. We can do this!

  5. tomwhitemore

    Hi Ryan,

    I agree, I “think a healthy exploration is possible” which requires those who have been able to make Vipassana meditation a beneficial factor in their life, to be able to share their experiences to enable positive discussion to flourish. To help this I believe it is worth considering how we can avoid ‘us’ vs ‘them’ and what steps are needed so we can organise our thinking and approach Vipassana HQ for discussion.

  6. Geetali 'Taali' Sharma

    I’m glad to read that my comment was helpful and received well. I also hear you on feeling misled, lied to and gaslit by this tradition. I too have reflected on different aspects of the organization and continue to have discussions with my partner and other Dhamma friends about things that don’t sit or gel well.

    I think what makes us feel misled, lied to or gaslit are the disconnects between where a long-term meditator has reached after hundreds or thousands of hours of practice and the largely two opposite ends that the organization focuses on. The two ends being-
    1. introduction to the practice (the kindergarten of Vipassana)
    2. liberation (ultimate goal of the path)

    Meditators who have been practicing for years are no longer at the introduction stage, and we are also not exactly close to the liberation stage. This is a long journey with many steps in between, many of us are looking for guidance and support along that path past the intro stage and ‘just observe’ just doesn’t cut the mark all the time. Buddha and even Goenka had better answers than ‘just observe’.

    The organization’s emphasis is certainly on practice and I think a lot of people’s takeaway has been to not worry about the theory (ATs might’ve even emphasized it one-on-one). However, Goenka does mention in one of his discourses that practice and theory should go hand in hand (I think it’s in the 10-day discourses). Meditators who are past the introduction stage need additional theory. Unfortunately though the ATs shy away from that and also don’t encourage students to seek out theory on their own. This doesn’t make them true teachers in my opinion. A true teacher is someone who is able to see that a student is having trouble with a concept, they then change their approach to meet the student where they are and explain things in different ways. Goenka’s ATs often parrot the same stale answer. They don’t teach, they ‘supervise’. It’s disappointing and it leads to many older students to never again go in for a Q&A (me included). I also want to share that I’ve met few ATs who are truly teachers and I do go and ask them questions if they are conducting a course I’m sitting, but not everyone is at that level.

    I personally have not read the Suttas, but I know someone who reads them and his understanding of the practice has evolved quite a bit as a result. Not sure if you would be interested in something like that, just throwing it out there as something to consider.

  7. Hi Geetali – Thanks for your comment. I agree with you about the huge gap between teaching introductory information and liberation. The presumption is that everything you need to know is in the 10 day discourse (supplemented by the other old student courses), but that hasn’t been enough for me. Life is just too complicated and nuanced. But I also empathize with the challenges of an AT. They have full time jobs, families, and layers of service responsibilities outside of courses, and answering complex questions for 50 students in 5 minute slots during a course is basically impossible without the systematic answers.

    The question is, as a population of meditators and ATs in this gap, what can we do about it? Personally, I believe we can learn so much from one another’s journeys living vipassana in the modern world. There are thousands of meditators around the world who have found solutions to various problems that others are struggling with. There aren’t enough “true teachers” to go around, so could we instead look to each other for support and insight?

    I’ve always hoped this blog could be a vehicle for authentic dialogue about real life obstacles. It would be even better if the organization facilitated these types of idea exchanges. The biggest difficulty in my opinion is the organizational belief that only Goenka has something worth teaching and learning. It puts us all on our own individual islands which feels unnecessary. What do you think?

  8. Geetali 'Taali' Sharma

    Hi Ryan, I agree with everything you said. Just a couple of weekends ago I was talking to some dhamma friends about how helpful it would be to have mentorship facilitated by the centers. Then I came back to this blog to catch up on the last 5-6 posts and read that you had suggested the same. We’re riding similar frequencies for sure!

    I agree that with how things currently are, we end up being on our own islands. However it really doesn’t have to be that way. We’re all at different milestones along the path, and we all have developed some wisdom along the way, which can and should be shared with each other for support and strength. Sangha is a very important aspect of this path, even the monks during the time of Buddha did not meditate all by themselves.

    I acknowledge that there are opportunities to sit with other meditators outside the center in weekly group sits and 1-day sits in some cities. I also think that if a mentor-mentee relationship was built early on in a meditators practice, then perhaps we become inclusive of and support people living in places that don’t have group sits, and help build sangha, slowly connecting the many islands. Thus increasing the likelihood of continuous personal growth, evolution along the path, and most importantly much needed support for each meditator. I’m more so thinking of longer-term / more mature meditators linking up with newer meditators.

    If a meditator brings up a question that their mentor doesn’t have experience with, the mentor could consult their mentor, mentor 2 could consult mentor 3 and so on. I’m thinking of how in AA there are sponsors- each sponsor have their own sponsor, thus each person is linked to someone who they can talk to, share with, etc. Therapists use the same model.

    Just a possible model for mentorship. Whether it looks like this or something else, I would definitely sign up for a pilot run.

  9. Anna

    Thank you so much this article and feed are very interesting!
    I think that studying the suttas may help.
    You can find the mahasatipatthana on the dhamma website for old student with the translation in your language.
    In my opinion, It’s interested to see translation from other tradition too, personally it helps me to grasp the main concepts such as Thana, or dhamma vicaya or sankhara etc… more deeply to really see them while practicing. It will also deepen your understanding of the discourses which are clearly inspired by the scriptures.
    Also, it is very interesting to see how this Vipassana technique is born regarding the suttas. You can then make your own opinion if it is yes or no the technique Buddha is talking about and also see that some tradition insist on this or that part and how Myanmar tradition position itself. Goenka’s tradition insists on vedana and I find it absolutely fascinating to see where this comes from because you will find vedana at the same level than any other parts such as sanna for example. But maybe I’m wrong on this one… Still have to study
    So yes I think that studying the suttas are a really important part of the practice and can help you develop your discernment.

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