The Biomimicry of Vipassana
Recently I participated in a ten-day Vipassana Meditation Training in the California desert. It had been on my bucket list for over a decade, so I figured it was time. Having practiced Zen meditation, guided visualization, Reiki, Transcendental Meditation (TM), and Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), I still felt something was missing from my meditation jigsaw puzzle.
Well, I was right. Vipassana has made my practice whole. Paraphrasing S. N. Goenka, whose recorded video and audio instructions we followed in the course, Vipassana is about connecting to one’s own direct experience of one’s own reality from moment to moment. This is different from relying on a deity, a mantra, a visualization or other vehicle to reach deeper consciousness. The result of being in the present moment observing one’s own reality via sensations on the body is that deep mental aversions and cravings have the opportunity to surface and evaporate. Amazing, right? What was missing for me was the complete, pristine technique, as taught by Siddhartha Gautama, the Buddha, for accessing and cleaning the subconscious mind.
There’s more. I was fascinated by Goenka Ji’s discourses each evening, especially because he gave examples from Nature. As a student of biomimicry, my ears immediately perked up. A few themes stood out that I’ll summarize:
- Life affirms life. Biomimicry is about emulating nature’s principles and processes. One overarching principle of nature is that it creates conditions conducive to life. In Vipassana, the gem of Sila (Morality), contains the principle of cause and effect, which stipulates that if you do something negative (steal, lie, etc.) it will have a negative, and immediate effect. Therefore the focus is on honesty, compassion, love, peace, and happiness in all actions to ensure good karma.
- Direct observation. The Scoping phase of biomimicry involves deep observation of examples in nature that can inform the design of solutions. In Vipassana we deeply observe our own bodies for sensations, which signal what present and past miseries we are carrying.
- The four elements. Earth, air, water, and fire make up our natural world and models from nature show how these elements can be used to advance life, such as using wind, fire, or water for seed dispersal. During the Vipassana course, I learned that the sensations we feel on the body correlate to the four elements: fire shows up as heat or cold and connotes anger; air manifests in the body as movement, such as trembling or butterflies in the stomach; earth is either a heavy feeling or a feeling of lightness, such as after a large or small meal respectively; and water has to do with cohesion or feeling like things are coming together in the body, whether positive or negative.
Goenka Ji also used a couple of metaphors from nature to help explain how the human mind functions:
- Multiplication: in nature, seeds follow a principle of multiplying to spread their DNA. Every seed sprouts into a full plant or tree with a lot of fruit, which in turn all have many seeds. This is how aversions and cravings multiply in the mind – one seed or thought is planted, for example: “This is going to be a really tough week” and then multiple thoughts are generated on top of this one, leading to anxiety, worry, fear, and stress.
- Reserves: A body stores fat and other nutrients, and when one starves or fasts, these reserves are brought into use to help keep the body alive. If no food is taken, eventually the person dies. Similarly, when aversions and cravings are simply observed with equanimity, they evaporate and old, deep traumas surface. If those are also only observed, not added to, eventually they are released too, and this is how one reaches a state of liberation, through the death of all miseries.
I found these commonalities between biomimicry and Vipassana very intriguing, especially for my quest to bridge personal and planetary wellness…what we do to ourselves, we do to the world, and vice versa. The sooner we understand this, the better we can create harmony between humans and the rest of nature.