Read this before watching the documentary film: Doing Time, Doing Vipassana. (see link below)
This film is about how a specific mode of Buddhist meditation, known as vipassana, can change the state of our heart and mind – emotions, moods, feelings and thoughts – and so our behaviour and the quality of our life.
The subject matter of the film, and virtually all the people shown in it, are Indian. They have grown up in and are rooted in a culture that is radically different from our Western culture. What appears in the film when seen through Western eyes, with Western understanding, is the tip of a vast submerged and ancient iceberg, which we in the West are unaware of. We cannot imagine what it is.
This film is made by westerners: Eilona Ariel and Ayelet Menahemi.
The story, and it is a remarkable story, told in the film starts with the sad, miserable state of some ten thousand inmates in an Indian prison. Men who are incarcerated not only in the physical building but also, and more importantly, in the emotional and mental prison of their own minds. To change, which in their case aims to stop their criminal behaviour, they need to undergo a change of heart.
The catalyst for change comes in the form of a new Inspector General of Prisons, Kiran Bedi, a diminutive woman put amongst and in charge of tall armed male prison guards and the prisoners. But she has an extraordinarily strong spirit and with it the insight that recognises the need first to change the way in which the staff treat the prisoners.
They are in prison because of their actions. The word karma refers to volitional actions in speech, behaviour and thought. This is deeply rooted in Far Eastern culture and most people there have at least some understanding of it. It is alluded to in the film but is not discussed in any detail.
For Indians, as with others from Far Eastern cultures, actions include effects and consequences. Present emotional and mental states are the inexorable consequences of volitional actions done in the past. Our moods and feelings – joy, sadness, love, hate, fear, anger, anxiety, depression, resentment and so on – and concomitant behaviour and thoughts, are all consequences of past volitional actions.
By the same token, what we say and do now will give rise to, shape and colour, our moods and feelings and behaviour in the future. The consequences of our actions will also affect other people and all else in our immediate and distant environment.
These underlying principles and effects, as laws of nature, also apply to our mental health services at both the macroscopic and microscopic levels, both material/physical and emotional/psychological. They apply to staff and patients in psychiatric hospitals, how they behave to each other, how they care for and try to help each other whether suffering emotionally, psychologically and mentally, or not. And, whether we realise it, or not, these natural laws of nature also apply to what we in Western societies believe about the nature, cause, effects and treatment of mental illness.
In the film the word mind is used. This is misleading, particularly for us in the West. Nothing has contributed more to the misunderstanding of Buddhism, Zen and meditation than the mistranslation and misinterpretation of the concept in Buddhism that is translated as mind. It should be heart – as the seat of emotion.
This is understood in Far Eastern cultures but we have largely forgotten it in the West. Vestiges remain in expressions like ‘a warm heart’, ‘cold-hearted’, ‘I feel it from the bottom of my heart’, and ‘a change of heart’: expressions that are not applicable to the intellectual mind.
Just as the mind has no physical location but is thought of as being in the head, so the heart has no physical location but is felt to be in the midriff. The ‘mind’ is not the brain and the ‘heart’ (as the seat of emotion) is not the physical organ that pumps blood.
Meditation, including vipassana meditation, is training the heart; not the mind: not the faculties of cognition, thought, memory, reasoning and will. But all the faculties and cognitive functions of the mind are strongly inluenced by emotion. The film does not show this or even hint at it. It is a serious omission, perhaps a blind spot. However, before a change of heart can occur the mental faculties and functions in the mind have to be stilled and quietened; this, the film shows.
Vipassana, like other modes of Buddhist meditation, is not the same as Westernised mindfulness, but without knowing what Buddhist meditation is one could easily be mistaken. You can read about mindfulness, CBT and Adaptation Practice here (perhaps after watching the film).
If we are to understand the relationship between emotion and cognitive function (particularly thought, reason and will), we need to understand that emotion arises in the midriff and affects what we say, do and think. Emotion gives rise to moods and feelings and to emotionally-charged thoughts that at the time seem unquestionably true, self-evident, and are compelling and alluring, for the very reason that they are charged with emotional energy. How to discover this for ourselves is taught in Adaptation Practice.
When the heart is quiet and calm, the cognitive processes calm down because they are no longer agitated by or charged with emotional energy. Upsetting and disturbing thoughts quieten down and fade into insignificance. Then, and only then, is it possible to start to see life as it really is. This last point is indispensable and is made clear in the film.
What the film also shows very well is containment: both physically (prison walls and the form, posture and composure of the human body) and behaviourally (sitting still and keeping quiet for prolonged periods).
What, we should ask, is being contained? What is meant by the expression, ‘Contain yourself’? Surely, it is to contain the emotion when it flares up in us, and not let it out in what we say, do and think. This applies equally to prisoners and guards and to all of us at home, at work, and including all in psychiatric clinics, whether as patients, doctors, psychologists or in any other role.
The film shows the need for the staff to undergo the same process in the vipassana meditation course before offering it to the inmates.
It is crucial for us, particularly us Westerners, not to be arrogant but to have the courage, the sincerity, the integrity and humility to consider the possibility that we do not know what this is really about. And more than this, it is to allow the possibility that we do not even know of the existence of something coming across in this film, something that underlies (as the submerged part of the iceberg) and is the foundation for the short course of vipassana meditation. The latter is possible in a Far Eastern setting because of the cultural foundations it is based on. But it would not be the same in a Western setting because we lack the underlying cultural foundations for it.
And so, rather than try to fit what is presented in the film into our preconceived culturally-defined assumptions, we would do well to look carefully at our own assumptions and to question them.
What is sadly lacking in Western society is an understanding of the nature and role of what we regard as our ‘self’, ‘I’, ‘me’ and our intellect, reasoning and logic. If we are to help ourselves, to change, we first need to help others. If we are to help others we first need to help ourselves. If we are to help anybody drowning we first need to become strong swimmers before jumping in.
One last, but equally important, point is that ten days of what is shown in the film is not nearly, not even remotely, long enough to bring about the deep and lasting changes that need to occur in us for a real change of heart, to be able to cope with emotion, and to see life as it really is. Several weeks or months or years cooped up in one cell can bring changes in us that render us prepared for a strict course in self-discipline like this ten day course of vipassana meditation.
Nothing could be more important for us when it is our turn to suffer emotionally, psychologically and mentally, whether feeling disappointed, frustrated, resentful, frightened, angry, remorseful, stressed, anxious, grieving or depressed.
I hope you find the film interesting and moving and I hope that it might fan an existing interest or spark a new one in the practice, which the film shows an aspect of as it has been for more than two thousand five hundred years.
Documentary: Doing Time Doing Vipassana
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