Arguably it doesn't make sense to consider that meditation styles can be classed as winners or losers. But, hey, that's no fun! So in this post I'm going to choose a winner after considering a question I got in an email message recently:
Do you have any opinion as to whether vipassana is more or less equal to RSSB's simran?
Well, of course I have an opinion.
I'm a blogger. Opinionating is what I love to do. I've got opinions on just about everything. Heck, on one of my other two blogs I rated the grocery carts at the three stores in south Salem (Oregon) where I do the weekly shopping for my wife, dog, and myself.
First, let's get some terms defined. Vipassana is a Buddhist meditation practice that is basically what is now called "mindfulness." Sure, there's more to it than that, as discussed in a Tricycle article, "What Exactly is Vipassana Meditation?"
The distinction between Vipassana meditation and other styles of meditation is crucial and needs to be fully understood. Buddhism addresses two major types of meditation. They are different mental skills, modes of functioning or qualities of consciousness. In Pali, the original language of Theravada literature, they are called Vipassana and Samatha.
Vipassana can be translated as “Insight,” a clear awareness of exactly what is happening as it happens. Samatha can be translated as “concentration” or “tranquility.” It is a state in which the mind is brought to rest, focused only on one item and not allowed to wander. When this is done, a deep calm pervades body and mind, a state of tranquility which must be experienced to be understood.
Most systems of meditation emphasize the Samatha component. The meditator focuses his mind upon some items, such as prayer, a certain type of box, a chant, a candle flame, a religious image or whatever, and excludes all other thoughts and perceptions from his consciousness. The result is a state of rapture which lasts until the meditator ends the session of sitting. It is beautiful, delightful, meaningful and alluring, but only temporary. Vipassana meditation addresses the other component, insight.
Simran is one component of the Surat Shabd Yoga meditation practice taught by Radha Soami Satsang Beas (RSSB), along with other sects that fall into the general category of Sant Mat. Simran is the repetition of a mantra, so it falls into the Samatha or concentration category, as noted in the passage quoted above.
The other components of Surat Shabd Yoga are dhyan, visualization of an image (usually the face of the guru who initiated the practitioner), and bhajan, listening to a supposed celestial or supernatural sound.
The simran part of Surat Shabd Yoga is what I was asked about, but what follows really is a comparison of Vipassana and Surat Shabd Yoga in general.
I practiced Surat Shabd Yoga diligently for about 35 years, meditating every day from 1 1/2 hours to 2 1/2 hours. For the past 15 years or so my morning meditation has been Vipassana/mindfulness oriented.
The key difference between Vipassana and Surat Shabd Yoga is the goal.
As noted in the passage above, Vipassana, or mindfulness, aims at being clearly aware of whatever is present within one's consciousness.
It isn't other-worldly, unless sensations of another world are present. Typically awareness of the breath is used to calm the mind, though thoughts and emotions aren't rejected in mindfulness meditation, since they can be another object of awareness.
Surat Shabd Yoga, on the other hand, is very much other-worldly. The goal is to withdraw one's consciousness from the outside world, including sensations of one's own body, and bring awareness completely "inside."
Once there, at the eye center or Third Eye, supposedly one's soul consciousness rises to higher realms of spiritual reality, considered to be five in number.
Now, I've used supposed and supposedly to describe Surat Shabd Yoga meditation, but not to describe Vipassana or mindfulness meditation.
This points to the central reason I consider Vipassana to be superior: it deals with what is actually present in consciousness, not with what might be there. Surat Shabd Yoga, on the other hand aims at leaving this world behind in order to gain a supposedly better one.
Even the simran or mantra repetition aspect of Surat Shabd Yoga has an other-worldly connotation, since the Five Holy Names repeated by the practitioner supposedly are associated with characteristics of the aforementioned five higher realms of reality.
So the benefit of Surat Shabd Yoga meditation is much reduced if, as I consider highly likely, the supernatural regions it posits actually don't exist.
Meaning, if there's no supernatural side to reality that human consciousness can become aware of, then Surat Shabd Yoga basically is Samatha or concentration. There's a benefit to being able to concentrate on a mantra or image to the exclusion of other sensations, thoughts, emotions, and such, but otherwise the Surat Shabd Yoga practitioner isn't doing anything special.
Ah, that word, special.
This points to another reason why I now much prefer Vipassana/mindfulness meditation. There's nothing special about it, nor is there any claim that it's something special. It's simply an attempt to recognize whatever is happening with as clear an awareness as possible.
As I frequently hear on my Daily Calm guided meditation via my iPhone's Calm app, "breathing in, know that you are breathing in; breathing out, know that you are breathing out." (Also, as I've noted in a blog post, when locking my car, know that I am locking the car.)
So mindfulness is a universal approach to living.
In a very real sense, there's nothing higher or lower, better or worse, desirable or undesirable. If we're happy, we know we're happy. If sad, we know we're sad. Judgement is absent from Vipassana meditation, as I understand it.
If the mind wanders, we know our mind is wandering. When the mind is concentrated, we know our mind is concentrating.
By contrast, my experience is that Surat Shabd Yoga practitioners -- at least those in the RSSB organization -- consider themselves to be on a very special path that leads to God-realization. The RSSB teachings claim that those initiated by the guru, who is viewed as God in human form, are "marked souls."
Marked, that is, by God as deserving of being put on a path that is guaranteed to lead to God-realization within a maximum of four lifetimes (which entails a belief in reincarnation, obviously).
The Surat Shabd Yoga goal of leaving this world behind to find a better one within the depths of one's consciousness also encourages an unhealthy disdain for everyday life among many devotees. The RSSB guru sometimes is adored more than an initiate's own family, in line with Jesus' supposed saying:
"Anyone who loves their father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; anyone who loves their son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me." (Matthew 10:37)
Bottom line: I'm enjoying my meditation much more now that I've switched to a Vipassana/mindfulness approach. I feel more in touch both with myself and with other people. I no longer consider that I'm on a special spiritual journey leading to the highest divine realm that people who practice other forms of meditation are unable to reach.
It feels good to simply view myself as an ordinary human being living an ordinary life.
But if God or a supernatural divinity actually does exist, seemingly Vipassana meditation will help me be mindfully aware of it, should that divinity deign to make an appearance in my consciousness.
UPDATE: I neglected to mention another reason I prefer Vipassana/mindfulness meditation now. In accord with Buddhist teachings, Vipassana leads to a realization that there's no "self" inside our head, no enduring essence, nothing separate from ever-changing experience.
Surat Shabd Yoga, on the other hand, assumes we have, or are, a soul that is unchanging and eternal, even though there's no convincing evidence of this. So in addition to assuming that supernatural realms of reality exist, Surat Shabd Yoga also assumes that the soul exists.
I want to know reality as it is, as clearly and fully as possible. Fantasies about what could be, but isn't, can be fun to engage in (that's why movies and novels are so pleasing), but they shouldn't be taken seriously.