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Documentary: Doing Time Doing Vipassana

Read this before watching the documentary

This film is about how a specific form of Buddhist meditation, known as vipassana, can change the state of one’s heart and mind – emotions, moods, feelings and thoughts – and so change one’s behaviour and the quality of one’s life.

The subject matter of the film, and the people shown in it, are Indian. They are rooted in a culture that is radically different from our western culture.

What appears in the film, to western eyes, to western understanding, is the tip of a vast submerged and ancient iceberg, which we seem not to know exists. 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 more than a 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. She has a strong spirit and with it the insight that recognises the need for radical change.

Before the prisoners can change she insists that the staff need to change how they treat the prisoners. This also requires a change of heart.

The men are in prison because of what they have done: their own actions. The Sanskrit word karma refers to volitional actions in speech and deed. This is deeply rooted in eastern culture. It is alluded to but is not discussed in the film.

For Indians, as with other far eastern cultures, actions include their effects. Crimes affect the victims, their families, friends and acquaintances, now and into the future, and they affect the criminal. He had to run away, hide, conceal and lie and now he is in prison. For the rest of his life he has to live with the knowledge of what he has done. This is shown well in the film.

Karma is one of the laws of nature, because of which what we say and do now will give rise to, shape and colour, our moods and feelings, the quality of our life and our actions and thoughts, in the future. What we say and do will also affect other people and everything our actions touch, affect or influence in the environment, the situation we are in.

By the same token, 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. Our own past actions.

This is not to deny the effects other people, situations, drugs etc., can have on us: it is to understand that the main and primary cause of our moods and feelings is our own volitional actions.

Mental health services

Karma applies equally to staff and patients in mental health services.

Conditions like stress, anxiety, anger, depression and disturbed behaviour are ‘emotional states’. We might not like how we feel, we might find the emotion unbearable, but that does not make it bad, wrong or pathological. Remember: beauty is in the eye of the beholder; and so is ugliness.

When we find emotion, moods and feelings difficult we are not mentally ill, we are upset, anxious, angry, depressed, and so on. You might think it odd that a doctor would say that emotional states are not ‘mental illnesses’ but that is exactly what I am saying, and for good reason. In order to understand this we need to understand emotion. The medical model has a stellar record for physical diseases, but does not apply at all to emotional or psychological states.

Whether prisoners like it or not, they are responsible for their own actions. Whether we like it or not, we are all responsible for what we say and do. As is said in the film, we have all done wrong in our lives.

Our misunderstanding of Buddhism, Zen and meditation

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 misinterpretation of the Buddhist concept that is translated as mind. It should be heart, as the seat of emotion (see below). The concept of heart is understood in most eastern cultures but we have largely lost sight of it and 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’: adjectives that are not applicable to the mind or brain.

Just as thoughts in the mind have no real physical location but are felt to be in the head, so emotion, moods and feelings in the heart have no real physical location but are felt to be in, and to spread from, the midriff. A major difficulty with this has arisen because we have long since turned away from the heart because we have preferred to pay attention almost exclusively to the mind and brain.

A blind spot

Meditation, including vipassana meditation, is training the heart; not the mind. All authentic Buddhist meditation assumes the ability to cope and to behave responsibly. Problems arise when emotion flares up like a conflagration, or smoulders like a slumbering volcano inside us. With all its energy, emotion has a habit of derailing us and driving us to say and do things we would not dream of doing in cold blood.

Meditation is not concerned with controlling thoughts, memories, reasoning and will. The film does not show this or even hint at it. It is a serious blind spot in society.

Vipassana, like other forms of Buddhist meditation, is not, I repeat not, westernised mindfulness which has been widely publicised through the media recently; but one could easily fall into the error of thinking that it is. (See the blog: Mindfulness and CBT)

We need to transform emotion: not get rid of it

If we are to understand human behaviour, our own and others’, we need to be thoroughly familiar with the two main players that determine what we do and how we do it: emotion and the self – ‘I’, ‘me’.

Emotion is the energy in the urge or compulsion to say or do something, which then passes into and energises what we say, do and think. Emotion is neither rational nor irrational. It is incomprehensible to the intellect as we all know when we have just said or done something and afterwards say, ‘I’m sorry; I didn’t mean to say that. I don’t know what came over me.’

Emotion is indescribable. We all know love, joy, happiness, hate, fear, misery, anger, anxiety and sadness, if not depression, but to try to describe it is like trying to describe what it is to balance on a bike to someone who has never ridden a bike. We cannot understand emotion but we can learn to live it and to transform it.

Before a change of heart can occur, I need to adapt.

When the heart is tranquil and at peace, our thoughts calm down because they are no longer charged with emotional energy. Upsetting and disturbing thoughts quieten and fade into insignificance. Then, and only then, is it possible 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: by the prison walls and the form, posture and composure of the body. When contained by sitting still and keeping quiet for prolonged periods the heart starts to settle down.

What is being contained? It is the emotion in the body. This is what we mean when we say, ‘Contain yourself!’ It is to contain the emotion when it flares up inside us, and not let it drive us blindly in what we say and do.

The film also shows the need for the staff to undergo the same process in the vipassana meditation course before offering it to the inmates.

Those of us who care for individuals who are suffering, need to adapt in order to let the heart settle down. Then we can help and care for others and ourselves.

It is crucial for us, particularly us westerners, not to be arrogant, thinking that we know what emotion is, but to have the humility, the sincerity and integrity to consider the possibility that we do not understand what emotion and its effects on us really are. And more than this, it is necessary for us to allow the possibility that we are utterly unaware of something that is hidden in this film, something that underlies the tip of the iceberg and is the foundation for the short course of vipassana meditation.

The course is possible in an eastern setting because of the cultural foundations it is based on. But it would not be possible in a western setting because we lack those underlying foundations. We are, and we come from, a radically different culture. And so, rather than try to fit what is presented in the film into our preconceived culturally defined assumptions, to question and doubt our assumptions and perhaps try to find out what underlies them. But how?


When something goes wrong for us, when we cannot have what we like and when we cannot get rid of, or avoid, something we dislike, emotion flares up in us. We become disappointed, frustrated, angry, anxious, depressed. The emotion drives us blindly in what we say, do and think.

We cannot understand this until we know the nature of our self, of ‘I’, ‘me’. I who wants to have my way, getting what I like and rejecting what I dislike. I who suffers when I can’t have my way.

When we have adapted, at least enough to start to see life as it really is (that we cannot always have our way) then we are ready to help others.

One last, but equally important, point is that the ten days of what is shown in the film is not nearly, not even remotely, enough to bring about the deep and lasting changes that need to occur in us to bring about a real and lasting change of heart, to be able to cope with emotion when it arises in us, and to bring about clarity of sight to see life as it really is.

As long as we do not see clearly, we are the blind being led by the blind and we are the blind leading the blind. We delude ourselves. Delusion is to believe that we know how life really is when we do not. It is to believe that we see life as it really is when we do not. It is to believe that our point of view is correct, is true, when it is not. To change this is to adapt.

I hope you enjoy watching the film and I hope that it might fan the flame of an existing interest or spark a new one.

Clive Sherlock

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