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I'm currently reading The Art of Living: Vipassana Meditation and it says to observe sensations in the body without reacting.

  1. What would be an example of a reaction that one might have? When I feel an emotion - perhaps I remember a conversation that I had that produced a strong emotion - I notice a sensation in my body associated with the emotion. Is the goal to focus on the sensation and wait for it to pass?

  2. Also, I've tried starting a meditation session by focusing on my breathing. I then try to observe sensations in my body -for example, my stomach gurgling, a tingling on my skin or the temperature on my skin. If I focus on this, no emotions are coming up because I'm focusing only on my breathing or sensations in my body. In the book it says to observe the sensations without reacting. There's nothing to react to though if I'm just focusing on the bodily sensations so I'm not sure what this piece of advice is referring to.

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    Have you considered doing the Goenka 10-day Silent Retreat? I did it some years ago and can highly recommend it. You will learn the technique there and there will be a teacher where you can ask questions after the evening Dhamma talk. Also one can sign up for individuel short sessions with the teacher if one has any questions. The retreat can be done almost anywhere in the world.
    – user19910
    Apr 5 at 3:49
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  1. an example of a typical reaction would be bodily feelings of pain and reacting with aversion, anger, etc. Or feelings of bodily pleasure, and then the mind running off with thoughts of things from the past that the bodily pleasure reminded them of.
  2. what you describe is exactly what should happen if you're doing breath meditation correctly, or kaya-gata-sati body immersed mindfulness correclty. You're focused on the kinaesthetic experience of how the breath and bodily sensations feel in all the cells of the body, so the bandwidth of your attention is completely occupied with skillful thoughts of Dharma, and there's no room for unwanted thoughts and emotions to interrupt. This is training of samadhi, training the mind to think what you want to think and not think what you don't want to think, using the breath as a skillful way to occupy the mind.

Now where your question #1 is ultimately heading, building on #2, once you have stability and control of your mind, then you can observe sensations in the body without the 'reactions', typical deluded responses and filters we impose on top of the raw experience of mind and body, and instead use lucid discerning and wisdom to see reality moment by moment as it actually is, and by doing that, you free yourself from suffering.

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There are many ways to start on a path of meditation and Goenka's described path & interpretation of the Buddha is just one. If you want to see serious benefits from Goenka's path, I highly recommend that you attend one of the 10 day meditation courses that are available worldwide.

Until then, I will give you some additional context to Goenka's meditation instructions to help with what you are currently working on.

Observing bodily sensations with equanimity (non-reacting) is a very important aspect to the meditation, but it should not be started on right away. The first four days of Goenka's meditaiton course is focused on Anapana meditaiton, meditation of breathing. This is done to sharpen the mind, allowing you to feel the subtlety of feelings, and allow it to stay with a directed object for consistent and long periods of time.

You mention that you are not able to see how you are reacting to your bodily sensations and this is likely why. Observing bodily sensations will not produce much benefit until some amount of concentration has been practiced. Once your mind can feel in a more subtle manner and also stay on a sensation for longer periods of time, you can begin to see how also on a subtle level, the sensations either feel pleasant, unpleasant or neutral and that along with those categories of feelings, your mind is craving for the pleasant ones and creating aversion for the unpleasant/neutral ones (aversion to neutral feelings is often the feeling of boredom). And then once you see those reactions taking place, you can simply observe those reactions and over time those reactions reduce and become calmer and calmer.

That's the general idea behind it, gaining concentration, and then using that concentration to observe your feelings, see its parts, feeling & reaction and work to reduce the reactive part of your mind.

But to start, I would spend a fair amount of time practicing breath meditation. To do that, you simply need to observe your breath coming in and going out, without trying to control it. Breathe naturally. Observe for as long as you can and eventually your mind will wander to something else. Once you realize your mind has wandered away, smilingly bring it back again and start again observing the breath. By repeatedly doing this, you are building concentration and reducing the habit of mind wandering. It is very important not to get frustrated when your mind wanders (or even to get frustrated if you get frustrated!) but instead accept that this is the current nature of your mind and to just gently keep guiding it back to the breath.

Over time, the duration of continuous time spent noticing the in & out breath will increase and the duration and frequency of mind wandering will decrease. Once you get to a point where you can keep your attention on your breath for at least 1 minute continuously, that is probably a good time to start trying to observe your bodily sensations.

You can incorporate this naturally as you practice Anapana by feeling the breath coming in and out at the entrance of your nostrils and below it. Knowing the breath coming in and going out and also feeling the sensations of the breath passing over that area as the breath comes in and out. As your concentration grows, you can reduce the space focused on your upper lip and entrance of your nostrils to a smaller and smaller area to help increase the subtlety of your mind.

When you can sufficiently feel sensations in that area when you are breathing in & out, you can begin to observe sensations on other parts of the body. Trying to still keep a small area of attention, you can move your attention up and down your body, part by part, feeling the sensations briefly, and then moving on. If you don't feel anything right away, or it feels foggy, you can stay there for a minute or so and you might start feeling those sensations, otherwise keep moving. The order that you go in does not matter, but it is important that you don't linger on areas for too long and that you cover every little tiny part of the body. Goenka suggests going head to toes to toes to head, part by part and repeat.

After you can subtly feel the entire outside of the body, you are free to try to pierce your attention inwards to feel the inside of the body, going part by part.

If at any point your mind becomes too agitated and difficult to practice observing bodily sensations, then its good to come back to the breath meditation until your mind becomes calm and stable again.

There is more to the practice after this point, but I don't want to overload you at the moment. Also please keep in mind that I've described a progression of practice and it is not good to try and jump ahead when you have not sufficiently practiced prerequisites.

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    Thank you for explaining this to me. One more question - sometimes I'll think of something that happened and an emotion will come up. The book says to observe the thought, emotion and the feeling it produces and wait for it to pass before returning to observing my breathing. For me the thought and emotion doesn't pass - I just keep thinking about it. It's not until I resume observing my breath that I'm able to turn my attention away from the thought. What should one do if a thought, feeling or emotion doesn't seem to pass away on it's own? Is it ok to then focus on breathing at that point?
    – Chloe Hill
    Apr 5 at 3:30
  • The key thing that allows the thought/emotion to pass is to observe it objectively, not getting involved with it and to let it be, let it progress as it wants. Observing something with objectivity/equanimity is a skill and not immediately intuitive; It is likely that you are reacting to the emotion but it is hard for you to see that you're doing it. Keep trying to observe the thought/emotion objectively, but if you find your mind is getting more and more agitated/emotional, then yes, come back to the breath to calm the mind down. It takes time to build up these skills. Keep trying
    – Ryan Baker
    Apr 5 at 4:40
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    Thank you for your help!
    – Chloe Hill
    Apr 5 at 16:12
  • @ChloeHill Gladly!
    – Ryan Baker
    Apr 5 at 16:42
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Please be aware many Buddhists are not in fully agreement with the teachings of Mr Goenka.

I'm currently reading The Art of Living and it says to observe sensations in the body without reacting.

To observe "sensations" clearly in the body is something very subtle and not easy to do. There are two major sensations found in meditation: (i) the sensation of pleasure, often called "rapture", when the breath & body are calmed; and (ii) the sensation of physical pain, from sitting for long periods in a fixed meditation posture.

On Goenka Meditation Retreats, participants are forced to sit for long periods so they can feel the painful sensations.

In summary, in Goenka meditation, painful physical sensations from sitting appear to be the main "sensations" to be observed without reacting to them. Naturally, this type of continuous practice is contrary to the teachings of the Buddha.

What would be an example of a reaction that one might have?

In Buddhism, there are three groups of reaction:

  1. love, lust, greed, attachment

  2. irritation, aversion, hatred, anger

  3. confusion, delusion, self-obsession, egoism

When I feel an emotion - perhaps I remember a conversation that I had that produced a strong emotion - I notice a sensation in my body associated with the emotion.

Yes, the above is a type of mixed sensation, which is made up of sensations of pleasure or hurt and reactions of love, hatred, egoism, etc.

However, as i originally wrote, to feel such a sensation in the body is very subtle and difficult to do.

If such a sensation can be merely felt, without reacting to it, it will dissolve and pass relatively quickly.

Is the goal to focus on the sensation and wait for it to pass?

Yes.

Also, I've tried starting a meditation session by focusing on my breathing.

The Buddha taught to always focus on breathing, from the start to the end of a meditation session.

I then try to observe sensations in my body -for example, my stomach gurgling, a tingling on my skin or the temperature on my skin.

Yes but as i said the above is very difficult and subtle to do. If you continue to do this, the mind and sensations will become very vague. The Buddha recommended a very clear object of meditation, namely, the breathing.

If I focus on this, no emotions are coming up because I'm focusing only on my breathing or sensations in my body.

Correct. The goal of Buddhist meditation is not to have emotions/reactions coming up. Instead, the goal of Buddhist meditation is to have calmness & pleasant sensations coming up.

In the book it says to observe the sensations without reacting. There's nothing to react to though if I'm just focusing on the bodily sensations so I'm not sure what this piece of advice is referring to

If you can continuously observe the breathing, the body & any associated sensations, without reacting to them, what will occur is the breathing & body will become very calm and the mind will feel peaceful, calm and may even break out with "rapture". This is the purpose of watching the breathing & body. To bring calm & tranquility.

But if an emotion or memory from the past comes up, you have to deal with this or wait for it to pass, before you can return to exclusively watching the breath & body.

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  • Thank you for this clarification. A couple more questions - you said "If you can continuously observe the breathing, the body and any associated sensations, without reacting to them, what will occur is the breathing and body will become very calm..." What would be an example of a reaction to that? So far, when I do this, I don't notice any reactions to bodily sensations. Also, I am just starting this path of meditating on a regular basis. A friend gave me The Art of Living. Do you not recommend this book? What are the disagreements with Goenka's teachings? What book would you recommend?
    – Chloe Hill
    Apr 4 at 15:31
  • One more question - is it ok to focus on a noise or something outside the body when meditating or do you recommend focusing only on breathing? If so, why is it important to focus on breathing vs. something outside the body?
    – Chloe Hill
    Apr 4 at 15:37
  • while often difficult for people to do, real buddhist meditation is simply watching the mind to ensure the mind is free from greed, hatred, attachment and other disturbing mental states. when this is done, the mind naturally converges with the breathing because, when the mind is pure, the breathing becomes the most predominant sense object. the breathing is the important meditation object because it functions to purify the body & mind of stored stress and it causes the body & mind to be calmed and eventually blissed. this is why the breathing is a meditation object in many spiritual traditions Apr 4 at 20:33
  • in summary, when you sit in meditation, you must 1st ensure your mind remains calm, equanimous and non-attached. you just sit like this. Apr 4 at 20:35
  • Thank you for the explanation. In the past I've had a tendency to repress certain feelings and emotions - anger, sadness, shame etc. I've fortunately been able to learn to not do this as much. I know that in these teachings and in meditation no one is advocating that you not feel your emotions. The objective is to observe them and let them pass. I can let a thought pass but it's harder for me to let an emotion pass - especially since I'm cautious not to repress my emotions based on past experience. How do I guard against repressing my emotions while trying to observe them and let them pass?
    – Chloe Hill
    Apr 5 at 3:43

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