Jeff Warren explores the promises and pitfalls of vipassana and other mindfulness meditation on Psychology Tomorrow Magazine:
Practicing vipassana, you have more space to make appropriate responses, and more space, too, around your looping thought-track, which can dramatically reduce stress and anxiety as well as raise a person’s baseline levels of happiness and fulfillment. This is one reason why mindfulness has become the technique of choice for thousands of clinicians and psychotherapists, and there is now a considerable body of scientific research demonstrating these and other benefits.
Yet most of the clinicians who so enthusiastically endorse mindfulness do not have a proper understanding of where it can lead. The fact is that mindfulness in large doses can penetrate more than just your thoughts and sensations; it can see right through to the very pith of who you are – or rather, of who you are not. Because, as Buddhist teachers and teachers from many other contemplative traditions have long argued, on close investigation there doesn’t appear to be any deeper “you” in there running the show. “You” are just a flimsy identification process, built on the fly by your grasping mind — a common revelation in meditation that happens to be compatible with the views of many contemporary neuroscientists.
In fact, the classic result of a successful vipassana practice is to permanently recognize the impermanence (anicca), the selflessness (anatta), and the dualistic tension or suffering (dukkha) of all experience, which may sound like an Ibsen play, but this is the clear empirical understanding that many otherwise sensible practitioners report. For most people this shift is the most profoundly positive experience of their lives. In the words of [Buddhist scholar and future neuroscience-consultant] Shinzen Young, “it allows a person to live ten times the size they would have lived otherwise, it frees them from most worries and concerns, it gives them a quality of absolute freedom and repose.”
But once in a while, something goes wrong. In Buddhism this is known as falling into “the pit of the void.” Young is more modern: “Psychiatrists call it Depersonalization and De-realization Disorder, or DP/DR. I call it ‘Enlightenment’s evil twin’.”