Finding Sense in Sensation

I am in the middle of teaching the Embodied Practices Course which is designed to help those with a history of trauma and attachment to practice ways to train their minds, calm their bodies, and open their hearts.  As always when supporting people to use practices skillfully I am inspired.

One of the ways we have to work with ourselves is to explore sensations in the body without getting distracted by them.  This article by S.N. Goenka one of the great vipassana meditation teachers delves into this subject.  Reprinted from the  fall  2002 issue of Tricycle Magazine it has a timeless wisdom.


The Buddha was the foremost scientist of mind and matter (nama and rupa). What makes him a peerless scientist is his discovery that tanha, or craving, and by extension, aversion—arises from vedana, or sensation on the body.

Before the time of the Buddha, little if any importance was given to  bodily sensation. In fact, it was the centrality of bodily sensation  that was the Buddha’s great discovery in his quest to determine the root  cause of suffering and the means to its cessation. Before the Buddha,  India’s spiritual masters emphasized teachings that encouraged people to  turn away from sensory objects and ignore the sensations that contact  with them engenders.

But the Buddha, a real scientist, examined sensation more closely. He  discovered that when we come into contact with a sense-object through  one of the six sense doors (ears, eyes, nose, tongue, body, mind), we  cling to the sensation it creates, giving rise to tanha (wanting it to  stay and to increase) and aversion (wanting it to cease). The mind then  reacts with thoughts of either “I want” or “I do not want.” Buddha  discovered that everything that arises in the mind arises with the  sensations on the body and that these sensations are the material we  have to work with.

The first step, then, is to train the mind to become so sharp and  sensitive that it will learn to detect even the subtlest sensations.  That job is done by anapana—the practice of awareness of the  breath—on the small area under the nostrils, above the upper lip. If we  concentrate on this area, the mind becomes sharper and sharper, subtler  and subtler. This is the way we begin to become aware of every sort of  sensation on the body.

Next, we feel the sensations but don’t react to them. We can learn to  maintain this equanimity towards sensations by understanding their  transitory nature.

Whether pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral, gross or subtle, every  sensation shares the same characteristic: it arises and passes away,  arises and passes away. It is this arising and passing that we have to  experience through practice, not just accept as truth because Buddha  said so, not just accept because intellectually it seems logical enough  to us. We must experience sensation’s nature, understand its flux, and  learn not to react to it.

As we reach deeper states of awareness, we will be able to detect  subtler and subtler sensations, or vibrations of greater rapidity,  arising and passing with greater speed. In these deep states, our mind  will become so calm, so tranquil, so pure, that we will immediately  recognize any impurity accompanying the agitated state and make the  choice to refrain from reacting adversely. It becomes clear to us that  we can’t harm anybody without first defiling ourselves with emotions  like hate or anger or lust. If we do this, we will come to an  experiential understanding of the deep truth of anicca, or impermanence.  As we observe sensations without reacting to them, the impurities in  our minds lose their strength and cannot overpower us.

The Buddha was not merely giving sermons; he was offering a technique  to help people reach a state in which they could feel the harm they do  to themselves. Once we see this, sila, or ethics, follows naturally. Just as we pull our hand from a flame, we step back from harming ourselves and others.

It is a wonderful discovery that by observing physical sensations on  the body, we can eradicate the roots of the defilements of mind. As we  practice more, negative emotions will become far more conspicuous to us  much earlier; as soon as they arise, we will become aware of sensations  and have the opportunity to make ethical choices. But first we need to  begin with what is present to us deeply in our minds at the level of  sensation. Otherwise, we will keep ourselves and others miserable for a  very long time.

S. N. Goenka first began teaching ten-day vipassana  meditation courses in India in 1969. His courses in vipassana  instruction are now being given to prison inmates, government officials,  corporations, schoolchildren, and the homeless.

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