Written by Dan Kaminsky
There is this fear that the meditation technique will get watered down or changed by people looking to make it easier or more pleasant, and the essence of the technique will be lost. This fear then leads to some of the rigidities around exploration that are in existence. This fear is somewhat founded in my mind; I think this meditation technique is quite powerful and the essence of working to observe sensations equanimously and understand anicca should not be changed.
That said, our collective attachment to this one way of practicing doesn’t align with my understanding of this tradition’s history. My Buddhist theory and history aren’t particularly strong, but from what I understand, the Buddha had multiple different techniques he offered to students depending on where the student was at. In terms of this specific lineage, the systematic scanning method, a staple in this tradition of how to practice, was only added in the last century by U Ba Khin.
There are real benefits to the systematic scanning method and to rigidly guarding the meditation technique. This formulaic method has allowed this method of meditation to become accessible to many, and has allowed this tradition to grow rapidly.
Yet, I also wonder what it would be like for AT’s to have other tools in the toolkit to teach struggling students other than the simple one size fits all formulas? Or for meditators comfortable in the technique to be able to use other practices to aid in their efforts when they hit rocks in the road.
I think the centerpiece of this tradition always should be working to feel sensations, observe them equanimously and understand that they are changing. But what if we viewed the systematic scanning method as only one way (even if the main way) in an array of approaches to achieve this.
I will start with anapana. My understanding of anapana is to calm the mind and increase concentration to prepare for vipassana. What if students who were struggling to concentrate or who had very wandering minds were allowed to count their breath for the first five minutes to help boost concentration? Or what if students who were very agitated were allowed to do walking meditation for the first fifteen minutes of the hour? From time to time I also use sound as the meditation object as a way to ground in the present. What if struggling students were allowed to use these tools to aid them? Or what would it look like to empower AT’s to be able to suggest tools other than the one’s Goenka recommends on a case by case basis depending on the needs of the student?
I say these things because I recently have been experimenting with these techniques and others. I have an incredibly overactive mind, and have been finding them really helpful tools to work with to meditate in different ways. My aim is to always get back to sensations and to work to understand anicca, but using these other strategies has been helpful to get me there. I think this technically puts me “outside the tradition” and ineligible to serve (and potentially sit). I don’t think such wanderings should be discouraged but wonder what it would be like if other tools were embraced, and integrated into the tradition in some way that could benefit people.
To me, it is like going to the gym and being told the only useful activity here is to squat in this one way. Indeed, squats are an amazing exercise that benefits the whole body. And maybe we can agree squats should be the centerpiece of what is worked on when at the gym. But don’t leg presses aid in the effort to achieve the squat? And even if leg presses weren’t explicitly part of the formula for how to achieve the squat, I don’t think doing them should be discouraged and disqualify you from going to the gym at all.
If we think about innovation, innovation needs openness. This tradition has had a remarkable history of innovation from making meditation available to lay people, to the scanning method, to the removal of much of the Buddhist parameters, to ensuring courses are donation-based. My hope is we embrace this history of innovation as opposed to stifling it.
In terms of a central dialogue question stemming from here, I hope the takeaway isn’t the specifics of what I’d like to see added, but rather what is the essence of the tradition? What shouldn’t be changed (in my mind it is anicca and sensation-based meditation) and what can undergo innovation as new generations have new needs?