A Positive Mental Health Measure
Lt. Col. M.B. Pethe and Dr. R.M.
Vipassana meditation is a scientific technique of self-exploration: a
system of self-transformation by self-observation, a healing by observation of and
participation in the universal laws of nature. Its theoretical basis, health potential and
practical applications are discussed and reviewed in this paper.
Key Words: Vipassana Meditation, Positive Mental Health,
Self-Actualization, Transpersonal Consciousness.
Health, as defined by the World Health Organization, is a state of
complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely an absence of disease or
infirmity. This is considered to be an idealistic goal, setting out the standard of
positive health, with due emphasis on the promotion and protection of health. "Health
for All by 2000 A.D." is the main social target set the by the 30th World Health
Assembly . Health, therefore, is a dynamic concept and can be described as a
multidimensional process involving the well being of an individual in the context of his
or her environment.
This presentation shall deal primarily with the mental dimension of
health since it is the "mind" which is the central directing force of one's
entire life and activity, and also because every health disorder is affected directly or
indirectly by psychological factors. It is truly said that mind matters most.
In Indian parlance, health is a positive concept: "swasthya"
means being oneself. Indian introspectionists over millennia have produced a rich harvest
of profound psychological insights, which needs to be reinterpreted in the contemporary
context and the currently familiar idiom; for example, nibbaana or "nirvana"
by Gotama Buddha as the burning out of passions or mental impurities; "moksha"
by Lord Krishna as freedom from conditioning and constraints of all kinds; "sahaja"
by Guru Nanak as one's nature: literally born along with oneself . Various austerity
and self-control measures and meditative approaches have been detailed in their treatises,
to enable one to attain the desired goal of self-realization or self-liberation, called in
modern parlance a higher psychic state or transpersonal consciousness.
Abraham Maslow , generally regarded as the modern founder of
transpersonal psychology, postulated the concept of "self-actualization", which
emphasizes the importance of maximal growth and development of human potential. It has
also been equated with such terms as self-realization, optimal functioning, psychological
health and individual autonomy. All these imply the highest stage of personality
development or the optimal personality functioning and positive mental
health. Shostrom  describes self-actualization as an ongoing process
of growth towards experiencing one's potential in terms of creative expression,
interpersonal effectiveness and fulfilment in living. Vipassana is a way and means to such
self-actualization or self-realization.
Vipassana Meditation 
Also known as Insight Awareness or Mindfulness Meditation, Vipassana is
a very ancient meditation technique of India, laudatory references to which are found even
in the Rigveda. Long lost to humanity, it was rediscovered twenty-five centuries ago by
Gotama Buddha. Although Vipassana contains the core of what was later called Buddhism, it
is not an organized religion, requires no conversion and is open to students of any faith,
nationality, colour or background.
To learn Vipassana, one is required to take a ten-day residential course
under a qualified authorized teacher. Meditation teacher Shri S.N. Goenka and about two
hundred assistant teachers trained by him ' hailing from various parts of the world and
practically all walks of life, are discharging this onerous responsibility voluntarily and
There are in all thirty-one permanent Vipassana Centres across the globe
in countries like India (14), Nepal (2), Sri Lanka (1), Myanmar (1), Thailand (1), Japan
(1), the United States (4),Australia (4), New Zealand (1), France (1) and the United
Kingdom (1). The main Centre is the Vipassana International Academy, located at Dhamma
Giri, on the outskirts of the town of lgatpuri in the Nasik district, about 135 kilometres
Vipassana is a Pali term and it means insight, to see things as they
really are. It is a scientific technique to explore the laws of nature (called Dhamma),
within the framework of one's own mind and body. During the training period of ten days,
the participants follow a basic code of morality, which includes celibacy and abstention
from all intoxicants. For the first three and a half days, one is trained to focus one's
attention on breathing (Anapana) and thereafter, one learns to examine the reality
pertaining to oneself, systematically and dispassionately. One realizes, by direct
experience, the scientific laws that operate on one's thoughts, feelings, judgements and
sensations. One also learns to live in conformity with these laws, a life full of peace
and harmony, a really healthy and happy life.
Mechanism and Psychological Effects
The teachings of the Buddha embody "Abhidhamma", a very
systematic and intricately laid out psychology, which presents a set of concepts for
understanding mental activity and methods for healing mental disorder. It differs markedly
from the contemporary psychotherapeutic outlook. In this model of mental activity, every
mental state is composed of a set of properties of mental factors, which gives it its
distinctive characteristics. There are 52 basic perceptual, cognitive and affective
categories of these properties. The basic dichotomy in this analysis of mental factors is
between pure, wholesome or healthy and impure, unwholesome or unhealthy mental properties;
healthy mental states are antagonistic to unhealthy ones, inhibiting them. Vipassana
meditation aims to eradicate these unhealthy properties from the mind; the operational
definition of mental health is their complete absence, as in the case of an arahanta (saint)
"Everything that arises in the mind is accompanied by a concomitant
physical sensation", said the Buddha. This interrelationship is the key to the
practice of Vipassana meditation. Vipassana trains the concentrated attention to follow
the mechanics of mental processing with the base of physical sensations, in a detached
fashion. This perspective of an observer allows the controlled release of mental contents
such as craving and aversion, past and future, in a seemingly endless stream of memories,
wishes, thoughts, conversations, scenes, desires, dreads and lusts. Thousands and
thousands of emotionally-driven pictures of every kind rise to the surface of the mind and
pass away without provoking a reaction, while simultaneously anchoring one in concrete,
The mind is deconditioned with meditation altering the process of
conditioning per se, so that it is no longer a prime determinant of future acts . A
refinement of awareness occurs and one responds consciously to life situations thereby
becoming free from limitations, which were forged by mere reactions to them. One's life
becomes characterized by increased awareness, reality-orientation, nondelusion;
self-control and peace. Such a person is able to make quick decisions, correct and
sound judgement and concerted effort-mental capabilities which definitely contribute to
success in contemporary life.
Vipassana is not merely an exercise to be performed in the special
environment of a meditation retreat. When a ten-day course is over, meditators take the
tool home with them. The path of Vipassana is a continuous, disciplined pursuit of this
experiential gnosis throughout life; it is a human capacity and a personal choice. Through
Vipassana, one can transcend body-mind or even East-West dualism and shake hands with
ethical rootedness, cultivated mindfulness and wisdom in all its enduring forms.
Vipassana, Health and Healers: A Review
Considerable data is available, documenting the various biopsychosocial
benefits that accrue from the practice of Vipassana meditation. It indicates the vast th
rapeutic potential that Vipassana has. For instance, many case report studies have been
recorded on the positive effects of Vipassana in different psychosomatic disorders such as
chronic pain, headaches, bronchial asthma, hypertension, peptic ulcer, psoriasis, etc.,
and so also in different disorders including alcoholism and drug addiction. Beneficial
aspects of Vipassana have also been studied in special population groups such as students,
prisoners and police personnel, besides individuals suffering from chronic pain and
various mental disorders.[11,12,13].
However healing-not disease cure, but the essential healing of human
suffering-is the purpose of Vipassana. Suffering springs from ignorance of one's true
nature. Insight, truth experiential truth-alone frees one. "Know thyself" all
wise persons have advised. Vipassana is a practical way to examine the reality of one's
own mind and body to uncover and solve whatever problems lie hidden there, to develop
unused potential and to channel it for one's own good and the good of others.
All people need healing, most particularly healers. "Physician heal
thyself" is a well-known phrase. Freud and Jung insisted that analysts be analysed.
The very vulnerability and compassion that sets the healer on a lifelong journey to heal,
coupled to the constant exposure to human suffering, requires a treatment of its own.
Vipassana is acceptable and relevant to healers of diverse disciplines because it is free
of dogma, experientially based and focussed on human suffering and relief. With its
practice, healers are able to deepen their autonomy and self-knowledge, at the same time
augmenting their ability to be a professional anchor to others in the tumult of their
lives. Vipassana is verily the path of all-healing, including self-healing and
A Model for Clinical Application
The clinical utility of Vipassana is more likely to be in terms of
providing a general psychological pattern of positive mental states rather than a response
to any particular problem. Generally, the conventional psychotherapies are generated as
treatments for the latter. Many therapists [11,12,13], who are themselves meditators,
teach "Anapana"-a preparatory step in the training of Vipassana, to their
clients. The clients may be suffering from various neurotic, psychosomatic and personality
disorders including addictions, and Anapana is taught as a supplementary form of
treatment, with a good clinical response.
Before commencing the formal training in Anapana, the therapist explains
to the patient its potential benefits, particularly relaxation. This helps reduce the
patient's apprehension and enables him or her to cooperate and participate actively in the
treatment. In addition, it is necessary to ensure that the physical environment is one
that will facilitate relaxation; the room should be quiet and free from interruptions and
the patient's couch should be reasonably comfortable.
The patient is asked to lie comfortably on the couch, close his eyes and
observe, that is, cultivate awareness, of his respiration at the entrance of his
nostrils-whether in-breath or out-breath, deep or shallow, fast or slow; natural breath,
bare breath and only breath. When his mind wanders, the patient is asked to passively
disregard the intrusion and repeatedly focus his attention on his breath, without getting
upset or disturbed about the drift of his mind.
Two things happen. One-his mind gets concentrated on the flow of
respiration. Two-he becomes aware of the relationship between his mental states and the
flow of the respiration; that whenever there is agitation in the mind-anger, hatred, fear,
passion, etc.-the natural flow of respiration gets affected and disturbed. He thus learns
to simply observe and remain alert, vigilant and equanimous.
The patient is advised to continue practising the technique on his own,
twice daily-in the morning and in the evening, each session lasting f6r about thirty
minutes. The therapist reviews the progress of his patient from time to time,
simultaneously counselling and motivating him to undertake a regular ten-day Vipassana
meditation course. The patient is thus encouraged to continue to strive for his personal
autonomy9, that is, to take personal responsibility of his own health and well-being.
Vipassana's ability to tranquillize the human mind, changing its
turbulence to calmness with increased vitality, makes it a positive mental health measure
and an excellent human potential development method. The meditator becomes free to live
for higher values, richer goals: loving-kindness, compassion, sympathetic joy and
peacefulness. Vipassana thus leads people from narcissism to mature, social love, to a
life of altruiSM3 and this personal transformation becomes the catalyst for social change
More scientific research needs to be pursued on the role of Vipassana,
both as a self-regulation strategy for specific psychotherapeutic and psycho-physiological
aims and as a discipline and way of life for deep self-exploration and transformation. The
various psycho-physiological changes with Vipassana ought to be studied with the aid of
modern sophisticated instruments. Also, long term prospective studies on meditators,
besides multicentred controlled clinical trials of this technique, need to be conducted to
clarify which individual types and health disorders respond to and benefit from the
practice of Vipassana. Such endeavours will make "Health for AW' a more realistic
. Fleischman P.R., "The Therapeutic Action of Vipassand' and
"Why I Sit," Buddhist Publication Society, Kandy, Sri Lanka, 1986.
. Fleischman P.R., "Vipassana Meditation: Healing the Healee'
and "The Experience of Impermanence," Vipassana Research Institute, lgatpuri,
India, 1991, 3-15.
. Goenka, S.N., "Altruism: Quintessence of Religion," in Issues
of Biomedical Ethics - Proceedings of the Festival of Life International Congress, December
1988, Bombay; Editors: Vas C1 & de Souza E1, McMillan India Ltd., Delhi, 1990, 95-102.
. Goleman D., "Meditation and Consciousness: An Asian Approach
to Mental Health," American Journal of Psychotherapy, 1977, 30: 41-54.
. Hart W., "The Art of Living"in Vipassana Meditation as
taught by S.N. Goenka, Harper and Row, New York, 1987.
. Maslow A.H., Motivation and Personality, Harper and Row, New
. Neki J.S., "Psychotherapy in India," Indian Journal
Psychiatry, 1977, 19(2): 1-10.
. Shostrom E.L., "Comments on Test Review: The Personal
Orientation Inventory," Journal of Counselling Psychology, 1973, 20: 479-491
. Surya N.C., "Personal Autonomy and Instrumental
Accuracy," in: Psychotherapeutic Processes, Editors: Kapur M., Murthy VX,
Sathyavathi K., & Kapur R.L., N.I.M.H.A.N.S., Bangalore, India, 1979, 1-19.
. Thray Sithu Sayagyi U Ba Khin, The Real Values of True Buddhist
Meditation, Buddha Sasana Council Press, Yegu, Rangoon, Bunna, 1962.
. "Vipassana Research Institute: A Reader International Seminar
on Vipassana Meditation," December 1986, Igatpuri, India, 1986.
. "Vipassana Research Institute: A Reader: Seminar on Vipassana
Meditation, Relief from Addictions, Better Health," November 1989, Igatpuri,
. "Vipassana Research Institute: A Reader: International
Seminar on Vipassana Meditation and Health," November 1990, Igatpuri, India,
. World Health Organization, "Health for All," Sr.
No. 1, Geneva, 1978.
--- o0o ---