Systems Thinking and Vipassana Meditation

Over the last few years, I have undergone accelerated learning that has been both theoretical and experiential. While crossing over from the corporate sector to the social sector in 2017, I was introduced to the scientific discipline of systems thinking and, this last holiday season, I had the chance to attend a Vipassana meditation program. Only after going through Vipassana, I realized the strong connection between systems thinking and this form of meditation.

You may wonder why?

The Vipassana program I attended is offered by Dhamma.org which unfolds the teachings of S.N. Goenka in the tradition of Burmese teacher Sayagi U Ba Khin. This technique, initially taught by Gautama the Buddha, has been handed down over centuries.

The objective of Vipassana is to purify one’s mind, particularly the deep recesses of the unconscious. It is taught in a secluded retreat atmosphere where one is required to maintain total silence for about ten days. The program was powerful and helped me attain significant existential clarity.

Let’s move over to systems thinking. I was first introduced to this discipline while attending a leadership program at India Leaders for Social Sector. Prior to this, systems, for me, meant IT, hardware, and software systems. In my corporate career at IBM, we were referred to as systems integrators.

This newfound exposure to systems thinking as applied to social sciences was as intriguing as it was short. I soon embarked on a journey to explore the world of systems thinking and how this could be translated into a thriving planet and humanity. This pursuit got me to enroll in systems enabled transformation programs at RTL Leads, eCornell, and Capra Course.

Common to all systems thinking programs and theories is the quest for arriving at a shared language that helps us refine and improve our mental models of the problem we are solving. Systems thinking is a space for understanding, a meta-cognition which enable our mental models to reflect reality more accurately and to generate the appropriate response or action. Interestingly, the purpose of Vipassana is quite similar i.e., to see reality for what it is but their approaches are from different ends.

Systems thinking concerns itself with our perception of the external world arising from biological structures and evolution. It seeks to integrate the biological, cognitive, social, and ecological dimensions of life through a theoretical framework which has underlying cognitive methods to achieve a unifying vision.

Vipassana, on the other hand is highly experiential, is concerned with internal reality and provides heightened self-transformation possibilities. In life, these two processes are not opposed to each other but rather complementary, and one can continuously circulate back and forth between them. 

To experience a richer, exuberant life, we need to harmonize both the inner and outer dimensions of existence.  When I came out of Vipassana, I saw these two dimensions as one continuum and my own existence as a seamless microcosm of the universe. In their book The Embodied Mind: Cognitive Science and Human Experience, authors and cognitive scientists Varela, Thompson, and Bosch attempt to reconcile our scientific conceptions of life and mind with our everyday, lived experiences while drawing heavily on Buddhist meditative techniques. In doing so, they present a pragmatic approach to bring together human experience with cognitive science.

Systems thinkers, cognitive scientists, and Vipassana practitioners agree that the brain is not the only structure involved in the cognition process but in fact the entire body. All agree that cognition is closely related to autopoiesis or nature’s ability to self-organize. Gautama, the Buddha apparently discovered molecular activity in the body whilst meditating. This molecular activity is self-organizing. Mind and matter, process and structure are inseparably connected.

With Vipassana I got to experience how tightly coupled the mind (cognitive dimension) and body (biological dimension) are and realized that everything in the physical world, mind included, is impermanent. Whilst meditating, we experience and observe body sensations, and these come and go because our body is changing every second, just as the physical universe is changing every moment. During Vipassana, I remembered several incidents in my childhood, my growing up years, and adult life that shaped my mind; further evidence that the cognitive dimension of life is integrated with the social. Vipassana also provided me with the practical ground for realizing how connected humanity is with its ecological surroundings. For instance, we owe our existence to the plant kingdom that recycles carbon to produce oxygen.

The eventual goal of Vipassana is to assume a state of equanimity towards and awareness of life experience which when practicing continuously are the only aspects of existence that lend themselves to permanence. It is a non-sectarian method through which one gets to overcome craving and aversion and, in the process, liberate oneself.  When we get to this equanimous state we can see reality clearly enabling our mind to work best. Equanimity is the sign of individual transformation, the real path to planetary transformation. In addition, planetary transformation requires courageous heart action, which in turn requires clarity of perception of the external world, which in turn requires steadiness of mind. This circularity makes us fully realize what it means to be human and holds potential for our world to be richer in more ways than one.

Feature image © iStock 

Shakti Saran is an Inclusive World Citizen, Writer and Senior Fellow at PYXERA Global. All views expressed are his own.

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