Deeper, Shallower, Higher, Lower

The Metaphors of Vipassana

We are not usually conscious of our heart beating or the pulse in our stomach or how our small intestine feels. Typically we only become aware of these sensations when they cause us pleasure or pain, or when they become intensified such as after we go for a run.  Part of the practice of Vipassana is to bring conscious attention to subtler bodily sensations.  "How does my stomach feel when I'm not eating?  How is my heart beating when it's not pounding in my chest?"  By sitting for long periods of time and paying attention to these more mundane sensations, we can accomplish two tasks at once.  

First we realize that our bodily sensations are directly connected to our more meaningful emotional states.  When we become angry specific things happen in the body.  We scrunch our face.  We generate heat and tension.  Our chest tightens.  When we become more conscious of the physicality of our emotional states, we gain a little more control when they occur.  So if we start to get angry, instead of getting lost in the abstract idea of our anger, we focus on what is going on in the body.  We may not know how to stop being angry, but we do know how to relax our face.  

Secondly, as we search the body, as we watch ourselves react to these pleasurable and painful sensations, we become aware of our reactions.  When we experience pleasure, we desire to keep experiencing it and to experience more of it.  When we experience pain, we desire to lessen it or to avoid it completely. Physically this makes a lot of sense.  If we touch a hot stove we want some incentive (pain) to make us stop.  Mentally though we take a physical pain, such as a sore throat, and instead of experiencing only the pain of a slightly irritated dry esophagus, we multiply our suffering by extrapolating all sorts of painful meaningful experiences as well.  "I'm going to be sick!  Now I won't be able to go out tonight!  My plans are ruined!"  In the world of meaning, instead of moving our hand away from the stove, we have the ability to grasp it even tighter, and for longer periods of time.

In the continued observance of our ability to multiply our suffering, we become more conscious of these processes, and with continued concentration, we have the ability to reach a more equanimous state of being, one which does not get pushed and pulled as easily by our associative grasping for meaning.  

The physical experience of what I've described and the experiential looking and realizations that occur because of it are often described as "going deeper".  It makes sense, in that, we think of ourselves as containers for meaning, such as a ceramic vessel.  We have an outside layer that is perceived as protective, obvious, shallow, and surface.  It can thicken, harden, soften, become more permeable, depending on how much information it lets in to the deeper more meaningful realm which is hidden inside.  When we talk about "going deeper" in the spiritual sense, we are participating in this conception.  We are penetrating into the unconscious, the hidden part of ourselves that we don't see, peering into the vessel, digging into the hard shallow surface of the exterior and entering into the depths of the unknown. 

Another way to look at this is in a more traditional hierarchy that is composed of higher order states of complexity that transcend and include one another.  For instance, at the most basic level we are made up of physical stuff, atoms and quarks, vibrating and bouncing around.  Within the physical there is a smaller realm of biological matter that has transcended and included the previous, and still, there is a smaller realm that transcends and includes biology, in that, there has emerged beings capable of abstract thought. 

Using this conception, the practice of Vispassana is not about going deeper, finding a truer, more authentic self.  It is taking our ability for self reflection and using it to explore the connections between the meaningful and the biological realm.  It seeks to root us in our body, as it is our tendency to believe that we are somehow separate from the physical blood, bone and flesh that make us up.  Vispassana offers physical experiential insight into where our meaning originates, and in doing so presents us with the reality of our existence at a more rudimentary level.  We search for our anger internally and instead of finding a deeper more complex interior reality, we find tension in our muscles, heat and pain; shallower, more basic experiences.

Embodied Cognition is also interested in the relationship of how our world of meaning relates to the biological realm.  The conclusions so far within the field have been that our concepts are derived from the physical body, are mostly unconscious and highly metaphoric.  

"She's a warm person.  I feel very close to her."  
"She's a cold person.  I don't feel close to her at all."
"She's really hot."

These sentences use the unconscious metaphors Affection is Warmth, Intimacy is Distance and Heat is Desire.  All of these concepts are derived from being a physical body moving through space.  When we are physically close to another person we generate warmth.  When we move further away from them that warmth disappears. When we are having sex with someone we generate quite a lot of warmth, and thus desire becomes attached to this more intense heat.  All three take the physical sensations of the body and use them to extrapolate a more meaningful experience.  

Vipassana tries to teach us the connections between the meaningful and the physical through first hand experiential knowledge.  We experience these connections in realtime and see for ourselves what exists and what does not. What exactly are the physical sensations that occur when you become angry?  When you closely observe them, when you peer into the depths of who you are, instead of finding deeper and deeper layers of a truer and truer self, you will find nothing but biological functions that produce warmth, coldness, itchiness, pulsations, dryness, moistness, tingling and if you hone your concentration long enough, you will be able to feel the subtle wave-like sensations that permeate your body.  

Embodied cognition intellectually picks apart our conceptual system and shows us the same thing.  Our most deeply held concepts are nothing more than re-appropriated physical experiences, such as when we describe intimacy as warmth. The conclusion should not be "This is all we are" that because there is a more basic, more rooted experience (the body) that this is somehow truer than our meaningful experiences.  Rather we should use it for what it is, an anchor to tether our mind's ability to disembody.  In this sense these two parallel practices, Embodied Cognition and Vispassana, are completely compatible and incredibly reinforcing when pursued concurrently.  

This is why that I would recommend that any serious Vipassana mediator pursue at least a cursory study of Embodied Cognition (as well as Conceptual Metaphor Theory) as it will only help reinforce the practice they are actively pursuing, and likewise, any scientist who has an interest in the conceptual systems of the mind, should familiarize themselves with Vipassana as it will give them first hand knowledge to see how their specific mind works, and to be able to more closely examine the biological experiences of what it feels like when "meaning" occurs from (not "in") the body.