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Sensation, Experience and Impermanence

By Sara Breikrutz


Everyone of us has eye-faculty, ear-faculty, nose-faculty, tongue-faculty, skin-faculty, and mind-faculty; we do not need to create or look for that faculty which is the external source and which does not exist on its own …. Reality can be found within and not without these faculties.

Sobhana Dhammasudhi (1965: 11, emphasis added)

Introduction: Mind and Buddhist Meditation

Some Buddhist traditions hold that six senses form the basis of human experience. As Sobhana Dhammasudhi explains, the first five correspond to the Western canon, and the sixth slot is filled by ‘mind’. Far from Western notions of ESP and psychic powers, however, the sixth sense of mind does not transcend the bodily senses but rather complements them, serving as the site of sensation for mental sense-objects just as touch is the site of sensation for physical objects. This arrangement collapses the divisions between mental (imaginary) and physical (real) phenomena so prominent in Western thinking, replacing them with an assertion that all phenomena are illusory, and that all experience – and therefore all that we perceive as real – arises out of the contact between senses and objects.

While much could be (and has been) written about mind as a sixth sense, my concern is to describe a particular Buddhist meditation practice called vipassana, and the complex sensorium in which it situates itself. Vipassana includes the six-senses model, but also elaborates a reciprocal relationship between bodily and mental sensations, and perhaps more importantly postulates the phenomenon of sensation as the focus of a knowledge tradition which has as its goal total sensory awareness, understanding of impermanence, and liberation from a cycle of suffering that is intimately linked to these sensations in both body and mind.


Caveats and Disclaimers

In late 2010, on the advice of a friend, I attended a 10-day vipassana meditation retreat in rural Quebec. Apart from a few relaxed beginner courses in a Tibetan tradition of Buddhist meditation a few years earlier, this was my first experience with intensive meditation. The following is a reflection on my time at the meditation centre from a personal and experiential standpoint, supplemented by some very limited research which mostly serves to augment my fading memory of information that was communicated at the retreat. I am by no measure an expert on Buddhist religion or philosophy, meditation in general, or vipassana practices in particular. My experience, however, compels me to offer some thoughts about what might be called the ‘vipassana sensorium’, and to raise questions about what this sensory worldview can teach us about living as humans in a world of sense-objects and sensations.


‘Insight Meditation’: Historical Emergence and Context

Although vipassana (sometimes called ‘insight meditation’) appears as part of several Buddhist traditions, the vipassana practice with which I am familiar claims a particular historical and spiritual lineage, tracing its origins through a series of Buddhist practitioners in Burma to Gotama Buddha, whose teachings of the Dhamma (the ‘way to liberation’) date back 2500 years. S. N. Goenka, whose efforts are largely responsible for the worldwide spread of vipassana meditation, studied in Burma under Sayagyi U Ba Khin, and then brought the practice to India in 1969 (Vipassana 2013a). After teaching in India, S. N. Goenka went on to establish vipassana centres around the globe. The meditation centre I attended in Quebec’s countryside was one of ten in Canada and dozens more around the world. (Vipassana centres associated with S. N. Goenka’s teaching can be found in Canada, the United States, the United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand, India, Burma, Thailand, Nepal, Japan, and Sri Lanka, among other countries in Europe, Africa and South America (Vipassana 2013a)).  In Quebec, it is promoted actively to adults and schoolchildren as a non-sectarian practice without explicit attachment to Buddhism as a religion – despite the fact that the discourses guiding the practice itself are explicitly situated in a Buddhist framework – and seems to spread largely through word-of-mouth, especially in certain lifestyle communities. Many of the students at my retreat, for example – including myself – were also practitioners of various forms of yoga.


Entering the Sensorium: Anapana, Vipassana, and the Silent Retreat

According to Goenka-ji’s tradition, it is necessary for beginners to attend the full 10-day silent meditation retreat in order to begin learning the practice; given the importance attached to it, and its role in shaping the environment in which the vipassana sensorium is experienced, I will briefly describe the format and features of the retreat. Each day follows the same schedule, beginning at 4 AM and ending at 9 PM. There are four blocks of meditation, some private (somewhat optional) and some public (compulsorily held in the group meditation room, and accompanied by an audio recording of Goenka-ji’s instruction), which take place before and after breakfast, after lunch, and before lights out. Directly following an early evening meal consisting of tea and fruit and before the final meditation of the day is an hour devoted to the ‘Discourse’, usually a tape-recording or video-recording of Goenka-ji delivering the day’s teaching. There is also time scheduled for speaking with an assistant teacher (one of the only situations in which speech is allowed). Participants are housed in dorms divided by gender, and the eating room, group meditation room and external grounds are also divided into men’s and women’s areas. On the first day, participants agree to uphold the ‘noble silence’, described as “silence of body, speech and mind” (Vipassana 2013b). The most overt component of this entails refraining from speech, eye contact, gesturing and other forms of interpersonal communication, along with reading and writing, until the final day.

The first three days are spent practicing anapana, or mindful breathing (about which I will say more below). Only after this initial training session, taught as a refinement of awareness, are participants encouraged to practice vipassana, which is a complex and multi-layered technique. I will attempt to describe it here as mindful awareness of bodily sensations, beginning in focused areas, and eventually encompassing the whole body. The first few days of vipassana training focus awareness on small areas of the body, such as the upper lip under the nose. Rather than simply being aware of one’s breathing, as in anapana, practitioners are coached to become aware of any physical sensations arising in this area – tingling, burning, or itching, for example.

As practitioners become aware of physical (touch) sensations, they are instructed to notice the accompanying mental phenomena of craving and aversion, that is, mental or emotional responses to perceived or even unperceived physical sensations. Eventually participants are instructed to notice that these sensations are constantly changing and impermanent, and so to deal with them ‘equanimously’, thereby decoupling the cravings and aversions associated with these sensations from same, and adopting a neutral relationship to physical and mental phenomena. Gradually, meditators are guided in passing their newly-focused and equanimous awareness over each part of the body in sequence, resulting in a continuous body-scan of awareness from head to toes, and toes to head. Eventually, they are told, all ‘blank spots’ of sensation will become clear, and the scanning awareness will be able to penetrate with pin-point accuracy through the three-dimensional body, and even perhaps to subtle vibrations at the molecular level.

Vipassana as taught by Goenka-ji is described as an experiential technique, grounded in empirical observation of mental and physical sense-objects and sensations, which leads to the ‘true vision’ of impermanence and constant change at the heart of Buddhist understandings of emptiness, egolessness, and liberation from the cycle of death, rebirth and suffering.

I hope that this description of the vipassana technique – cursory though it be – will suffice to situate the uninitiated reader. Let me now offer some experiential reflections on my own vipassana practice and the sensorium that developed around it. Though my experiences were personal, there was considerable anecdotal evidence that many of them were shared by other practitioners.


Vipassana and Silence

The meditation centre where I attended the retreat was situated in the rolling, forested countryside of southern Quebec. It was early fall; the sun was low, the trees were turning golden and the Monarch butterflies visited us during our break times spent outside in the forest or walking through tall stands of grasses and wildflowers. All of this was enjoyed in silence by the thirty or forty people in attendance who had agreed to refrain from speaking to one another, gesturing, or making eye contact. There were minor transgressions, often to facilitate the opening and closing of doors, but overall this was easier than I had expected, and had an interesting effect.

For the first few days, I became aware of a great deal of mental ‘chatter’ – snippets of remembered conversation, songs stuck on repeat – which gradually began to fade. We were told this quieting of the mind was to be expected, and would help us with our practice. With very little input, so to speak, there was less auditory experience to replay and recycle. The only real auditory input (in the form of speech, that is) came from Goenka-ji’s meditation instructions and discourses. Most of the time I was surrounded by a soundscape devoid of speech, which increasingly came to include subtle noises, like wind and footfalls, and inner noises like my own breath, a ringing in my ears, or my digestion at work. I found it soothing, and on the final day when we were allowed to speak again, I stayed late in the relative silence of the meditation room, apprehensive about joining the rowdy din of conversation outside. I realized that my relationship to the others, with whom I had been sharing the space in silence for more than a week, would change as soon as we spoke to one another.


Vipassana and Breathing

During the first three days of anapana meditation, we focused exclusively on the breath, attempting to maintain a constant, unbroken awareness of its rhythm and cadence. This, as most meditators would allow, is much more difficult than it sounds. The effect, we were told, was a sharpened awareness that prepared us for the next stage of vipassana meditation, but the choice of the breath as the focus of attention was not arbitrary. Goenka-ji sometimes invoked psychoanalytic concepts to explain that the breath is that which connects mind and body, conscious and unconscious. We were familiar with the idea that some bodily processes happen without our awareness, such as digestion and circulation, and that some require conscious effort, such as the movement of our limbs; but breath, we were told, bridges the gap. Breathing occurs without conscious effort, but conscious effort can be used to control it. It is therefore a particularly suitable tool with which to hone awareness. It is interesting to note that in some traditions “breathing” is even treated as a sense or modality of consciousness in its own right (Klima 2002; Howes 2009: 26, 33; Laderman 2009: 311).


Vipassana and Vision

Vipassana is broken down etymologically as ‘true seeing’. In a book co-authored with Goenka, William Hart writes that vipassana refers to “a special kind of vision: observation of the reality within oneself” (1987: 92). The ‘sight’ in question is not accomplished with the eyes, but with a faculty of  ‘awareness’ that penetrates to the deep internal reality of impermanence and selflessness. It would seem, therefore, that a metaphorical relationship exists in the vipassana sensorium between vision and knowledge, similar to that found in many Western worldviews that privilege sight over other senses and associate it with truth. In practice, however, vipassana is conducted with the eyes closed (or nearly closed) to avoid the distractions of visual stimuli, and if any of the canonical senses is privileged, it might be touch; as I will explain in the next section, information about the world, both true and false, is understood to be transmitted via physical sensations in the body.

My own experience of vision and vipassana was that I found it exceedingly difficult, as did some other practitioners, to separate the body-scanning process from vision. The temptation was to simply visualize my body being scanned by some proxy for awareness, and often I found myself moving my eyes behind my eyelids in an effort to get a better view. I was instructed, however, that this was not the correct approach, and that awareness needed to be disengaged from sight and experienced as an embodied awareness of sensations. Some lingering questions remain for me about whether this awareness could be considered a sense in its own right – it is frequently referred to in the discourse as a ‘faculty’ capable of refinement and development – and whether this intense association between vision and awareness I experienced was something particular to the visuall-dominated sensory regims into which I have been socialized.


Vipassana & the Body

            Perhaps the most important element of the vipassana sensorium is what Goenka somewhat nebulously calls ‘sensation’. Although he gives repeated examples of types of ‘sensation’ throughout his discourses, there is always a caveat: the common list is “heat, cold, heaviness, lightness, itching, throbbing, contraction, expansion, pressure, pain, tingling, pulsation, vibration, or anything else” (Hart 1987: 93, emphasis added). Sensation could be anything, so long as it is experienced in the body. This definition is reminiscent of Riskin’s (2009) discussion of sensational empiricism in 18th-century France: in some ways evocative of French sensationists, Goenka asserts that “it is by sensations that we experience reality directly”, and that “[i]n order to develop experiential wisdom, we must become aware of what we actually experience; that is, we must develop awareness of sensations” (Hart 1987: 92). Comparisons are odious, of course, but what is interesting to note is that the pitfalls of French sensational empiricism,which identified “the truth” with that which is felt, are avoided in the vipassana approach with the assertion that all sensory experiences are illusions anyway, and that reality itself, when finally understood, is impermanent and illusory. I suspect that there are many subtleties I am missing here. It is a topic which bears further reflection.

Another very important distinction between Western empiricism and vipassana (however often vipassana discourse refers to itself as ’empirical’) is the inclusion of mind as a sixth, non-privileged sense. Goenka explains that “[w]hen mental objects—thoughts, ideas, imaginations, emotions, memories, hopes, fears—come into contact with the mind, sensations arise” (ibid.). To some extent, this constitutes a reversal of the Western model whereby the mind is an active generator of thought, emotion, and imagination and the senses are passive receptors of external stimuli; in the vipassana sensorium, mind and the other five senses are all simultaneously active and passive, participating in the sensations that ‘arise’ from contact with mental and physical objects, and also informing each other reciprocally: “Every thought, every emotion, every mental action is accompanied by a corresponding sensation within the body. Therefore by observing the physical sensations, we also observe the mind” (ibid.).

It is unclear where smell and taste fit into vipassana practice, except perhaps as refinements of touch, although they are referred to consistently as separate senses. Hearing and vision seem to be identified as in need of suppression or control, hence the noble silence and the closing of the eyes during meditation. My distinct impression is that touch is the privileged sense, but that it is also understood as standing in relation to mind. I would love to know the perspective of an experienced practitioner on this topic.

To briefly go over my own experience of vipassana and the body, I must say that the ten days were not sufficient for me to achieve the goal of total sensory awareness and deep inner knowledge of impermanence. I experienced many ‘blank spots’, about which we were instructed, where sensations were not readily accessible to my roving and fickle awareness. I did, however, start to get the hang of the body scanning technique, and had several experiences in which I let my awareness rest equanimously on a sensation of pain (usually in my knees), and the pain quickly dissolved into something subtler and less unpleasant, like a low-level vibration. My most interesting and anomalous experience occurred after a few days of vipassana training; I began to feel a pulse, like a wave of a sort of tingling sensation (probably what would be called in some circles ‘energy’) rising through my body at regular intervals, but not associated with any other biorhythms, like my heartbeat or my breathing. When I asked about this, I was told that I had ‘skipped ahead’ to a more advanced level of vipassana, but I was not convinced; the awareness seemed to come too easily, to be too embodied, to be the result of the sort of conscious striving required by vipassana. Perhaps they were right. This remains a mystery to me.


Vipassana, Memory and Dreaming

There are two final experiences I wish to address, as they were quite striking and also shared by many other practitioners with whom I spoke after the retreat. I do not know exactly how they are dealt with in vipassana discourse, and I won’t attempt any type of thorough analysis here; I merely wish to propose them as elements of the vipassana sensorium.

The first experience is the nearly continuous and extremely vivid recollection of seemingly random distant memories. One afternoon, while I was kneeling on a cushion in the calm, dimly lit meditation room, I had a sudden recollection, with amazing clarity, of a science project we had done in grade school. I must have been around 7 or 8 years old, and we were keeping cocooned moths or butterflies in a terrarium, waiting for them to emerge and learning about their life cycle. Even now, the memory escapes me and I remember it only through my more recent experience at the vipassana retreat; it has receded back into the fog, but in the few moments at the retreat, it was as clear as the first time: the layout of the classroom, the faces of my classmates, and my excitement, curiousity, and attachment to the tiny, fragile cocoons. This is perhaps the most vivid example, but not the only one. Many of us experienced the surfacing of old memories throughout the retreat, and while Goenka’s discourse does anticipate that memories and powerful emotions may arise as old layers of craving and aversion surface and disperse, I am still curious about the implications of this experience.

Another shared experience was the occurrence of extremely vivid dreams. Most of mine have now faded, but I can recall that every morning, without fail, I woke up with a clear recollection of dreams from the night before, and each time they involved representations of people in my life (eg. a former boss, a friend, a former teacher). They were not memories, but novel situations played out with well-known characters from my experience. The situations themselves didn’t seem as significant to me; rather, the presence of the people and the clarity with which I perceived them, and my feelings about them, were the most remarkable.


Conclusion: The Vipassana Sensorium and Unanswered Questions

What can vipassana tell us about the senses? As a sojourner from another sensorium into the world of vipassana for only a brief time, it is difficult to avoid a comparative approach. From this perspective I would say the most interesting distinctions between the Western-scientific sensorium and the senses in vipassana are the inclusion of the mind as a non-privileged sixth sense, the emphasis on bodily sensation and its interconnectedness with mental sensation, and the epistemological conviction of impermanence and illusion as true and real. From a more emic perspective, I might say that the gross sensations of the everyday are readily accessible to everyone, but that vipassana is a technique that opens up the world of infinitely subtle sensation, and therefore constitutes a path to the realization of the truth of impermanence. I am particularly fascinated by the emphasis on sensations rather than senses; sensations arise because of contact between senses and objects – Goenka recounts an old Buddhist narrative about rubbing sticks together to produce a flame (Hart 1987: 92) – but the senses and sense objects are never considered separately from one another. Both seem to participate in the generation of sensation. Rather than passive receptor sense organs being ‘stimulated’ by the external world (allowing their response-sensations to be judged according to a correspondence theory of truth), senses in the vipassana sensorium take a backseat to sensation, which is the primary productive site of knowledge and transformation.



Hart, William
2011 [1987]  The Art of Living: Vipassana Meditation: As Taught By S. N. Goenka. Onalaska, WA:Pariyatti Publishing.

Howes, David
2009  The Revolving Sensorium. In David Howes (ed.), The Sixth Sense Reader. Oxford: Berg. pp. 1–52.

Riskin, Jessica
2009  The Mesmer Investigation and the Crisis of Sensationist Science. In David Howes (ed.), The Sixth Sense Reader. Oxford: Berg. pp. 119–150.

Laderman, Carol
2009  The Embodiment of Symbols and the Acculturation of the Anthropologist. In David Howes (ed.), The Sixth Sense Reader. Oxford: Berg. pp. 311–324.

Sobhana Dhammasudhi, The Venerable Chao Khun Phra
1965  Insight Meditation. London: John Peaty & Sons Ltd.

Vipassana Meditation
2013a  Mr. S. N. Goenka. Online: http://www.dhamma.org/en/goenka.shtml. Accessed: February 6, 2013.

Vipassana Meditation
2013b  Questions and Answers About the Technique of Vipassana Meditation. Online:
http://www.dhamma.org/en/qanda.shtml. Accessed: February 6, 2013.