Honoring the Ask

Greetings fellow Vipassanators, 

I’m writing this post in collaboration with my partner Hannah Joy. 

Throughout our Vipassana journeys, we both have been inspired to deepen our practice via the sit-serve program and leadership roles within the organization. During our experiences, we too have encountered some challenges and have come to develop some of the same questions as Ryan and Dan, along with several other serious and long-term meditators of this tradition. In this blog post we attempt to bridge the gap between these challenges and questions, and the comments that suggest leaving the practice or finding something else if the rules & regulations aren’t to one’s “liking.”

Let’s pause for a second, take a step back and go to the beginning of our personal Vipassana journeys. Let’s reflect on the time when you first heard about Vipassana, decided to sign up, and successfully completed your first 10-day course. If you’re here reading this blog, chances are you’ve sat more than one course, perhaps even served a few. People who keep coming back to sit and serve have a couple things in common:

  1. they recognized a deep enough suffering in themselves that lead them to sit a course
  2. they find immense value in the technique and therefore make the practice and service a part of their lives

Due to these and other reasons, leaving the practice isn’t a desirable option or a practical solution. For many people, vipassana provides immense healing and becomes a catalyst for future life choices. When one finds something beneficial enough that it changes their entire life, leaving is the last thing to consider.

As a wise AT once said to us, for a serious vipassanator, one’s relationship to the practice can be compared to a marriage. Successful marriages don’t have the option of leaving as one of their pillars; communication, empathy, and growing together is what makes a lasting marriage. The understanding of anicca and non-resistance to anicca makes a happy marriage. The suggestions of leaving—whether by a life-partner or through comments on this blog—to us, come across as a disinterest in opening oneself up to truly listening. Are such suggestions really aligned with the practice of empathy, compassion, and most importantly—anicca—the very core of this practice? 

Furthermore, center management and ATs are constantly encouraging long-term servers and center operations to take a deeper look into the systems at play, analyze them, and suggest improvements. The goal is to make the center, the organization, and its various moving pieces more and more effective. From this perspective, taking a deeper look at, and questioning and deliberating ways to improve the teaching model is also imperative. After all isn’t teaching itself another system within the organization? We as students may not have the authority to implement changes to the teaching model. However, since we are receiving the teaching, we are the ones in the position to provide feedback (we might write more on this in another post).

The following statement is the root of many challenges that arise for many old students.

I don’t think it is fair for the tradition to ask of serious old students that we make a commitment to this and only this path, but then not give students making that commitment the support they need.

By Dan Kaminsky from a comment on The Rigidity of the Tradition

What really adds to the frustration is the fact that on the surface interest is shown in wanting to hear about the challenges and possible solutions–at Old Student Meetings there’s even acknowledgement of and agreement with what’s brought up–but in the same breath there is no accountability or closing of the feedback loop to show what is being done to address the challenges. It appears that talking about challenges is just an “exercise” with no actionable follow through. 

The organization says it wants to know how to better support old students; from our perspective, this blog is honoring the ask by bringing up concerns, challenges, and possible solutions out in the open, by creating a wider dialogue, and maybe even attempting to create accountability.

4 thoughts on “Honoring the Ask

  1. Tejas

    How can one honour the ask if the person keeps on asking the same question even though the question is answered?
    For example, in the article of the rigidity of the tradition, dan talks about using mantras or verbalization to develop concentration in anapana. Now, goenkaji clearly mentions in Discourses of day 1 n day 10 about mantras n verbalization. He clearly says that even though mantras help in concentrating in anapana, he says not to use it. And then goes on to mention all the reasons why it shouldn’t be used. Now..clearly explained why it shouldn’t be used, if dan still uses n the argument he provides is that it helps him to focus better in anapana, then how come anyone will honour his ask ?

  2. Geetali 'Taali' Sharma

    Hi Tejas,

    First, to clear some possible misunderstanding- in this blog ‘the ask’ isn’t referring to what Dan, Ryan, Hannah or I are asking for, it is referring to what ATs and the organization ask of old students, which is: how to better support old students and how to help evolve the organization for generations to come. By bringing up our difficulties and challenges, we’re honoring the ask of the ATs and the organization.

    Now on to the sentence about Anapana from Dan’s previous blog, The Rigidity of the Tradition: Part 1 (https://livingvipassana.com/2020/06/10/the-rigidity-of-the-technique/). Dan specifically says, “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?”

    Tejas, you’re absolutely right in pointing out that Goenkaji shares why we don’t verbalize in this tradition— the goal is to develop a relationship with observing pure breath, with nothing in between ones breath and their awareness of the breath. I think striving for this during ones 1st course is important so that a new student can start on the right foot and develop the necessary muscles in the right way.

    Now let’s also try to flex our compassion, openness, and understanding muscles here. From what we’ve learned about Dan, he has been a long time old student, has served long term, and also sat long courses. It’s safe to assume that he has spent plenty of time building his pure-breath-awareness muscles. Let’s just give him the benefit of the doubt that after hundreds of hours and a decade of Vipassana, he is asking for alternatives not out of laziness or naivety but maybe out of necessity. We all know that once many layers of sankharas have been shed, lots of heavy stuff (anusaya kleshas or sleeping volcanoes) could come up. What if the newly arising deeper sankharas are so gross, so powerful, so strong that concentrating on the breath is mere impossible and trying to do so is exhausting (speaking from personal experience here). What shall a person do who is committed to uprooting defilements yet unable to stabilize themselves in the present through breath or extremities? What tool shall they try next?

    I look at Dan’s suggestion of counting the breath for 5 minutes not as a disagreement with or blatant neglect of what Goenkaji and the tradition are trying to do, but an attempt to surface a serious difficulty and attempting to come up with some possible tools that may help one get to a place from where they can observe the breath again. I also don’t think Dan is demanding that they let us count our breath. He’s simply admitting that sometimes a pre-anapana technique is needed. The reason he’s even venturing into some possible solutions is because of having met with no practical solutions from the tradition so far.

    (Dan, please feel free to share more or correct me if I am off in my understanding)

  3. Tejas

    This is what my AT answered when I had asked him my troubles with my practice …..I dont think I can ask more than this…..if I am asking more than this then I am really being ungrateful for what they are doing for us

    Yes, there are a few tricks you can use: 

    use more Anapana until the mind calms down.

    if „normal Anapana“ with natural breath does not work, then use slightly hard breath.  Once the mind calms down a bit, go back to natural breath Anapana.

    If this also does not work then use the help of extremities:  put your attention on the palm of the hands + sole of feet and observe sensations for a few minutes. Then for a few minutes Anapana, then again extremities. Keep switching until the mind calms down. This should be used when the mind is very agitated and not all the time.

    You can also get up, walk 2-3 minutes in your flat while doing Anapana or observe any sensation and then sit down again. See, if it helps.

    You an also try lying down for a few minutes and do Anapana / Vipassana. See, if it helps.

    Practice Metta for a few minutes and give Metta towards yourself. See, if it helps.

    There is no hard and fast rule. You need to experiment a bit and see what helps you best. Even this might change from time to time.

    I hope, this will help.

  4. Dan Kaminsky

    Hello!

    Firstly, Taali thank you so much for the elaboration above.  I think you said where I am at better than I could have, so in my response I will try not to repeat any of the points you made, but all of them do apply.

    Tejas – thanks for these tips.  I think they can be very helpful for struggling students to find an anchor during a storm. In general, it seems that for you the teachings within this organization are complete and total. I believe I said this before, but I am genuinely glad to hear that. I want this tradition, it’s teachings and the technique to be as helpful for as many students as possible.  Your responses show how helpful and satisfying your time in this tradition has been, which is great.  

    My experience in this tradition has also been wonderful, but as my posts discuss I also think the tradition has many blind spots which I hope to dialogue about so the needs of students who may not feel as you do can have their needs met too.

    In terms of the specifics here, I will only add two points to what Taali wrote above. The first is something Ryan has touched on in previous posts as well.  In total there are about 15 hours of discourses total that we base this tradition off of.  Conversely, the buddha gave thousands of sutta’s.  Goenka packs a truly remarkable amount into those discourses, yet there is of course a vast amount missing. The idea that 15 hours of tape can satisfy the many needs, situations, compositions or questions that students may have, for me means that many people will go with things unanswered (if we only are able to rely on that).

    The second point is to re-prioritize one of this traditions central focuses of being non-dogmatic.  There is of course no one ultimate way to meditate.  The buddha taught many different techniques depending on the quality of the mind of the student he was teaching. The tradition itself has had large variations on how to meditate, with the systematic scanning method being a relatively recent addition.    

    I say these things because I do believe the tradition’s response to suggestions like the one from my prior post feel rather dogmatic.  If incorporating walking meditation into one’s practice (for example) can be helpful to a student I don’t see the harm in incorporating it.  I know it isn’t how “we” meditate, but if the ultimate aim is to help people, and doing 30 minutes of walking can help calm the mind why not discuss opening ourselves up to it?

    As Taali mentioned, I wasn’t making any demands, simply hoping to open up a conversation.  I very much understand given the context that AT’s are householders and lay people, it may not make sense for now to authorize them to teach different approaches to different students in need.  

    So for me, the next thing to think about is why we completely barr all exploration for students who can’t get the answers or techniques they need from our AT’s.  If on the next course application I wrote I have been counting or walking, I would not be accepted to serve a ten day or sit a long course.  I would likely be flagged on a ten day course application (I used to be a registrar and I was taught to flag anyone who put answers like these on the applications). This is the sort of closed approach that to me runs contrary to the mission of being non-dogmatic.  It is one thing to not have AT’s have other tools outside of Goenka, it is another to not allow exploration. This then brings us back to the ask that Taali writes about above.

    I hope this helps clarify my thoughts.  As always, thanks for engaging and I hope your practice is going well.        

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