The Science of Vipassana Mediation
A Scientific Discussion of Vipassana Meditation
with Dr. Paul R.
by Luke Eden
Photo by Jennifer Lindell
While the notion of framing a discussion of meditation within
the scope of the scientific worldview may seem an inherent
contradiction this is precisely the dialogue which Dr. Paul R.
Fleischman -- a widely recognized psychiatrist and lifelong
student of Vipasasana meditation -- brought to the campus of
Emory University in early November.
Fleischman -- who graduated from the Albert Einstein College of
Medicine, trained in psychiatry and later served as
resident at Yale University School of Medicine, has been honored
with the American Psychiatric Association's Oskar Pfister Award,
and is widely published on the subjects of psychiatry, religion
and meditation -- began a lecture series at Emory before a
diverse crowd of students, scientist and meditators. In his
lecture, The Scientific World-View and Vipassana Meditation,
Fleischman outlined the "basic science of meditation -- that is,
taking meditation to the deepest substrate of our world of
science ." Fleischman's lecture focused exclusively on Vipassana
meditation, a thousands-of-years-old form of meditation which
focuses on impartial observation of bodily sensations.
According to Fleischman, "during the 20th century, revolutions
in physics and biology transformed our vision of the world and
of ourselves, creating increased insight into the scientific
basis for Vipassana meditation practice."
His lecture, divided into three parts, gave a basic description
of Vipassana meditation, provided a background in theoretical
science ranging from information theory to cosmology, and
finally delivered a fusion of concepts culminating in a
description of the science of Vipassana.
As Fleischman described it, "Vipassana is that meditation which
is defined as meditation on the sensations of one's own body.
Vipassana is not allegiance to a religion. If you meditate on
the sensations of your own body, it is completely non-sectarian.
You don't have to believe in anything beforehand, all you have
to do is observe the sensations of your own body."
It was this objective, non-sectarian, and, most importantly,
pragmatic nature of Vipassana which attracted Fleishman to the
school of meditation. While at times conflated with Buddhism or
other ideological belief systems, Vipassana meditation -- which
was taught by the Buddha more than 2,500 years ago and spread
throughout nearly all of India -- is a form of guided
observation, focusing exclusively on the sensations of the body.
The technique is taught in highly structured, immersive
residential courses of "sustained, focused, relatively
unrelenting meditation for 10 days." As students are guided
through ever deeper levels of awareness, the Vipassana technique
exposes concepts of impermanence and eternal flux on an
"When you observe the sensations of your body systematically,
continuously in a guided manner ... you become aware of
sensations that you were never previously aware of ..." said
Fleischman; " ... every human being who meditates on the
sensations of their body will come upon a particular phenomena,
of the multiplicity, the subtlety, and the infinitesimal
duration of every sensation."
Vipassana meditators have experienced these phenomena for
generations, yet Fleishman's lecture sought to bring the
insights of contemporary science into this ancient tradition.
"I am here ... to give an intelligent explanation of how I
understand Vipassana, given the fact that I've spent my life in
a scientific discipline with a scientific worldview," he said.
"I spent my life trying to create a language ... to make a
seamless explanation of meditation and the scientific worldview,
which were otherwise seen as antithetical."
Fleischman's goal to create a scientific language for the
discussion of Vipassana has a direct link to the desires of his
teacher, S.N. Goenka. Currently the premiere teacher of
Vipassana, Mr. Goenka has taught hundreds of thousands of people
the Vipassana meditation technique and has played an
instrumental role in the internationalization of Vipassana. A
Indian businessman born in Burma, Mr. Goenka discovered
Vipassana in the tradition of a Burmese Vipassana master
teacher, Sayagyi U Ba Khin. Mr. Goenka trained with U Ba Kin for
fourteen years before settling in India, where he has helped to
re-establish the tradition of Vipassana.
"Vipassana as we know it in the world today ... is heavily
dependent on Mr. Goenka's enormous effort from approximately
1970 to the present to spread Vipassana across the world,"
Fleischman explained. "Mr. Goenka had two very strong volitions.
One was to keep Vipassana pure, to not change it -- to spread
around the world the actual, authentic ancient tradition as he
had learned it without adding anything or taking away anything.”
"The second volition that Mr. Goenka had was that Vipassana
should be understood by the modern world in terms of science. He
wanted our scientific 20th century revolutions to provide a
language for understanding Vipassana and he wanted it clear that
Vipassana was compatible with and definitely not antithetical to
the modern worldview."
To this end, Fleischman provided a scientific framework for the
discussion of Vipassana. Drawing on cosmology, quantum physics
and the theoretical origins of the universe, Fleischman posited
a link between the nature of the universe and the bodily
phenomena exposed through Vipassana. The experiential revelation
of impermanence -- of the constant arising and passing of
sensation -- which Vipassana brings is, in Fleischman's model,
our own window into the nature of the universe itself. What
experienced meditators may recognize as the sensation of
impermanence Fleischman sees as a link to the constantly
shifting nature of the cosmos.
"The first thing we need to understand is that we are products
of the universe and that we’re products of the atomic phenomena
by which the universe has been formed and continues to form," he
asserted. "When we look at a person who introspects not
cognitively, but sensorially ... this person is in contact with
those hydrogen atoms that are oscillating in the thermal
jostling that accompanies all matter. This oscillation is
occurring in our body."
Fleischman largely framed his discussion of cosmology and
theoretical physics within the realm of information theory, a
comparatively modern school of scientific thought which he
posited has brought about the "biggest change in cosmology and
the understanding of our bodies and the universe." Much broader
in scope than circuit boards or machine code, information theory
is a branch of applied mathematics focused on the quantification
"Information, in information theory, means a constraint that
moves things to the left or right or that selects between the
number zero and the number one. That is, information is a
choice-making division between two alternatives," explained
Fleischman, going on to discuss the impact which this scientific
perspective has had on cosmology.
"According to information theory, gravity is the information
that is guiding the formation of the cosmos into galaxies,
stars, planets, super novas -- all that is done on one piece of
information and that information is 'Come together, right now.'"
Information, then, becomes the controlling force of the
universe. Every aspect of the universe, from the most
spectacular act of celestial creation to the slightest swerve of
an electron, is governed by informatic laws -- be they anything
from gravity to electromagnetism to the Pauli Exclusion
Principle. A Vipassana meditator's experience of impermanence,
then, becomes a microcosmic experience of the universe's
impermanence -- the information which guides its incessant
In Fleischman's words, "a person who is attuning their attention
to their body is in touch with the informatic basis of the
universe as it is contained in, organizes and systematically
creates our body."
While we may be governed by simple laws at the atomic level, our
bodies are an infinitely complex biological system. As
Fleischman pointed out, "there are more cell divisions than we
can imagine or understand going on in our bodies all the time,
and those cell divisions are happening at every single moment of
our lives." Yet this phenomenon, too, is bound by informatic
law. The bits and pieces of information bound in our DNA,
hormone levels, brain chemistry and innumerable other components
of our bodies dictate development and guide our growth as we are
continuously and unceasingly re-created.”
It was with this understanding of the informatic basis of both
the cosmos and our own physical frames that Fleischman's
synthesis of science and Vipassana was unveiled.
"The scientific basis of meditation is that we are products of a
living, dynamic, incessantly self-transforming, informatically-based
universe that is alive inside of us," he said.
"The universe is constantly informing us and manufacturing us.
Even our mind, which we tend to experience as a personal
possession, is actually a mind that is downloading the mind of
And yet despite this inexorable adherence to universal law,
Fleischman's message was not one of determinism. For while we
must be informed by the universe, we also have the capacity to
add information via our choices.
"Each choice that a living being makes, that choice adds
information to the universe, because in the universe,
information is a series of choices ... a human being is making a
choice and that choice is shaping the universe by moving small,
little discrete pieces of information," said Fleischman.
"Meditation is a process of not only recognizing that we are a
part of the universe ... but it’s also a process of recognizing
that we're constantly choosing -- constantly re-shaping our
Karma, you could say, or constantly participating in the
informatic nature of life.”
This state of constant, dynamic awareness -- a life in constant
harmony with all beings irrespective of life's vicissitudes --
is a critical component to the practice of Vipassana. While the
term Vipassana is used predominantly to refer to a form of
meditation, there is more to the practice than what happens on
the cushion. Vipassana means "to see things as they really are"
and it has been described by Goenka as "an art of living." As a
form of meditation, Vipassana can take one to the depths of his
or her own mind. As an art of living, Vipassana can open a
pathway to a life of peace, harmony and compassion.
"When one meditates, one meditates on the a simple awareness of
the arising and passing of all the sensations. But when one
stops meditating, one lives dynamically. Meditation is ... an
exhortation to a dynamic way of life -- a dynamic way of life in
which choice is present at every moment," said Fleischman. "The
awakening of the awareness of our universal nature and our
connection to all other beings is intrinsically coded into us,
and once we stop being busy, once we observe, we find that a
Fleischman's lecture featured series four stops in the
southeastern United States. His lecture in Atlanta was organized
by the Emory Collaborative for Contemplative Studies on behalf
of the Southeast Vipassana Association. In addition to Emory,
Fleischman spoke at the University of North Carolina Asheville,
The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and at the
Morris Center in Savannah, Ga. The southern United States is
served by the Southeast Vipassana Center, which is located in
southern Georgia outside the City of Jesup and offers 10-day
courses in Vipassana meditation. More information on the center
can be found on-line at
www.patapa.dhamma.org and information on worldwide
course schedules can be found at