Qualitative Sociology

, Volume 33, Issue 4, pp 469–489

From Abstract Concepts to Experiential Knowledge: Embodying Enlightenment in a Meditation Center


    • Department of Sociology and AnthropologyThe Hebrew University of Jerusalem

DOI: 10.1007/s11133-010-9169-6

Cite this article as:
Pagis, M. Qual Sociol (2010) 33: 469. doi:10.1007/s11133-010-9169-6


How do abstract philosophies turn into lived reality? Based on 2 years of ethnographic observations and in-depth interviews of vipassana meditation practitioners in Israel and the United States, the paper follows the process through which meditators embody the three main Buddhist tenets: dissatisfaction, impermanence and not-self. While meditators consider these tenets central to Buddhist philosophy, it is only through the practice of meditation that the tenets are experienced on the bodily level and thereby are “realized” as truth. This realization takes place in the situated environment of the meditation center, where participation in long meditation retreats facilitates the production of specific subjective experiences that infuse the knowledge of Buddhist tenets with embodied meaning. The paper illustrates how abstract concepts and embodied experience support one another in the construction of meditators’ phenomenological reality and suggests a general framework for studying the variety of relations that exist between the conceptual and embodied dimensions of different types of knowledge.



A tale from the field

On the last day of a ten-day vipassana meditation course, the following story is told. The story speaks of a young professor who was making a sea voyage. On the crew of the ship was an illiterate old sailor:

Every evening the sailor would visit the cabin of the young professor and was very impressed with the learning of the young man. One evening the professor asked the sailor, “Old man, have you studied geology?” “What is it sir?” asked the sailor. “The science of the earth” answered the professor. “No sir” answered the sailor, “I have never been to school. I have never studied anything.” “Old man,” answered the professor, “You have wasted a quarter of your life.” With a long face the old sailor went away. “If such a learned person says so,” he thought, “certainly it is true and I have wasted a quarter of my life.” Next evening the professor asked the sailor: “Old man, have you studied oceanography, the science of the sea?” When the sailor answered that he had not, the professor again said, “Old man, you have wasted half of your life.” Again the old man left with a long face thinking he had wasted half of his life. On the third evening the professor asked the sailor: “Old man, have you learned meteorology, the science of the wind, the rain, the weather?” “No sir” answered the sailor. The professor said “You have never studied the science of the earth on which you live; you have never studied the science of the sea on which you earn your livelihood; you have never studied the science of the weather which you encounter every day? Old man, you have wasted three quarters of your life.” The next day, the ship struck a rock and began sinking. The old sailor came running to the cabin of the young professor and cried “Professor sir, have you studied swimology?” “Swimology?” asked the professor. “Can you swim, sir? The ship is sinking” “ No, I don’t know how to swim.” “Professor sir,” cried the sailor, “ you have wasted all of your life!” (Hart 1987, p. 10).

This story, whose overt content seem to have little to do with meditation, serves as a fable for the practice of meditation. It ends with the following words: “You may study all the ‘ologies’ in the world, you may read and write books on swimming, you may debate on its subtle theoretical aspects, but how will this help you if you refuse to enter the water yourself?” (Hart 1987, p.11).

This story reveals the epistemological stance that vipassana teachers advocate—if you stay in the realm of theory or abstract concepts, you will not reach the goal of enlightenment. By doing so, it highlights an important distinction that is of interest to sociologists: The distinction between embodied knowledge and conceptual knowledge. Whereas in recent years these two notions of knowledge have received attention in the fields of sociology and anthropology, the majority of studies treat them as opposed, and the relations between the two have not been fully explored. In this paper, I would like to bridge these two concepts, by illustrating how the process of acquiring the appropriate embodied and experiential foundation enables abstract concepts to penetrate everyday life. Using 2 years of ethnographic fieldwork among practitioners of vipassana meditation in Israel and the United States, this paper follows the gradual process through which the three central tenets of Theravada Buddhism—dissatisfaction, impermanence and not-self—enter meditators’ phenomenological reality. Through this case, I demonstrate the importance of studying the interaction between conceptual and embodied knowledge, while offering a framework that can be further generalized to other life-worlds.

Theoretical frameworks: Conceptual versus embodied knowledge

How do we know what we know? This question is central to sociological theory. If we take seriously the sociological insight that the world is, at least to a certain extent, an outcome of collective social production (Berger and Luckmann 1966; Searle 1995), then the way in which reality becomes a fact in people’s lives is fundamental to the sociological project. And yet, the answer to this question is not universal or uniform. Different cultures and fields of knowledge may accentuate one kind of epistemology over another (Knorr-Cetina 1999; Glaeser 2010). In the attempt to engage with the existing variety of possible epistemologies, the sociological and anthropological literature offers an analytic distinction between two main ideal types of knowledge: conceptual knowledge and embodied knowledge.

We can trace the idea that knowledge is anchored in abstract concepts back to the Ancient Greeks, and especially Plato. For Plato, the job of the philosopher was to produce abstract universal rules that were directed toward the truth and devoid of any context, passion or personal experience (Nussbaum 1986). Such knowledge, delivered through concepts, propositions or rules, is frequently captured by the Greek term techne (Scott 1998). It involves references to nonconcrete entities that “are neither purely physical nor spatially constrained” (Barsalou and Weimer-Hastings 2005, p. 129). This knowledge can certainly be put into practice, but its main characteristic is its formalized and disembodied nature. Using a set of representations, be they words or formulas, conceptual knowledge can be artificially stored in its entirety, and therefore conceptual forms of knowing do not require a human or embodied dimension (Dreyfus and Dreyfus 1992). This form of knowledge can be delivered from one person to another through purely linguistic channels such as speaking and writing. Modern science has taken the understanding of conceptual knowledge to the extreme when attempting to produce universal logical formulas that are disconnected from subjective or embodied experience (Lock 1993).

Whereas the ideal type of conceptual knowledge captures well certain kinds of knowledge (i.e., written and formalistic knowledge), it does not capture other forms of knowledge that are not based on conscious deliberation or formulation. In order to capture these forms of “knowing,” sociological studies use a second ideal type: embodied knowledge. In opposition to conceptual knowledge, which leads to knowing that, embodied knowledge is about knowing how (Dreyfus and Dreyfus 1992). The Greek term metis captures well the non-conceptual form of knowing that is anchored in the body (de-Certeau 1984). Metis is intelligence based on skills that are cultivated through training and action, such as “how to sail, fly a kite, fish, shear sheep, drive a car, or ride a bicycle” (Scott 1998, p. 313). It therefore cannot be reduced to a set of representations and may not involve representations at all. As Merleau-Ponty (2002 [1945]) claims, embodied skills are learned through interaction with the world, and this interaction produces habitual patterns of action that do not require thought. Take, for example, the knowledge of how to play tennis (Dreyfus and Dreyfus 1999). Such knowledge is hidden in an embodied scheme, or embodied gestalt, and therefore it is impossible to abstractly represent a contextually successful tennis swing. This form of knowledge, claims Bourdieu (1977), is habituated in the body, and comes to life only through practical engagement with the world (see also Mauss 1973).

Arguably, the distinction between the above two kinds of knowledge is observed quite strictly in sociological studies. As Ignatow (2007) writes, current theories of conceptual knowledge and theories of the body rarely meet. This is in spite of the fact that many ways of knowing include both a conceptual and an embodied dimension. I therefore argue that while the analytic distinction described above is useful, we should pay attention to the ways in which these dimensions of knowledge interact. Through my fieldwork among practitioners of vipassana meditation, I have realized the limitations to keeping a strict distinction between conceptual and embodied knowledge. On the one hand, the teachings of the Buddha, known as Dhamma, are highly theorized, written down in ancient texts and learned through reading and listening to lectures. On the other hand, for the practitioners of vipassana, these teachings become lived reality, or truth, only when they become embodied through the practice of meditation. The “wisdom” of Dhamma, therefore, cannot be captured by the notion of conceptual knowledge, nor is it an embodied, practical and unconscious knowledge in the form of metis. Achieving Buddhist knowing requires both bodily experience and intellectual reflection. It is based on both kinds of knowledge simultaneously.

In order to track the interaction between conceptual and embodied knowledge I return to pragmatist writings on the dialectic between abstract logic and embodied experience. More specifically, I turn to Peirce’s (1960) notions of firstness and thirdness. Peirce was interested in the ways meaning is produced. For Peirce, the process of producing meaning, which he named “the semiotic act,” was based on three modalities: firstness, secondness and thirdness. Firstness refers to the experience of the present, before the past, the future, or other people enter the scene. It holds freshness and novelty that can only be felt and not articulated. Secondness is the experience of a brute fact, the moment in which future and past, self and other, enter the scene. Thirdness is the rule, the generalization, the abstract understanding—the abstract knowledge that I described above (Stearns 1952; Daniel 1984; Rochberg-Halton 1982). Other pragmatists offered parallel notions that capture the distinction between firstness and thirdness. G. H. Mead (1932) distinguishes between immediate experience and symbolic reflection, the former defined as anchored in embodied feelings while the latter is anchored in abstractions. Dewey (1969), who was interested in the field of aesthetic judgments, uses the notion qualitative thought to capture non-linguistic and embodied knowledge, discerning this form of meaning making from abstract, conceptual thought. Despite these scholars’ differences in terminology, the important point is that they all agree that thirdness is built on firstness and that reflection is based on immediate experience. A specific, contextualized semiotic act may reach the level of representations and abstractions, but it begins with embodied experience.

The pragmatic insight that thirdness is anchored in firstness has recently received support from research in cognitive psychology and neurobiology. As Damasio (1994) shows, reasoning and decision making are dependent on emotional reactions that are embodied. Other studies show that words frequently become meaningful when they are “mapped to non-linguistic experiences such as action and perception” (Glenberg et al 2005, p. 115; Stanfield and Zwan 2001; Richardson et al. 2003). Lakoff and Johnson (1999, p. 20) develop this insight by coining the term “embodied concept,” defining it as a thought structure “that is actually part of, or makes use of, the sensorimotor system.” Embodied concepts challenge our common distinction between perception and conception, since in this scheme the process of using conceptions is based on sensory input. As Lakoff and Johnson claim, concepts such as front-back, part-whole, near-far, support, balance, pushing and pulling “would not exist if we did not have the kinds of bodies we have” (p. 36). Even concepts that seem completely abstract are in fact metaphoric and therefore are based on embodied knowledge (e.g., “bad is stinky,” “similarity is closeness” or “more is up”). Abstractions and representations are therefore based on bodily modes of understanding (Johnson 1987; Varela et al. 1992; Prinz 2002).

From this perspective, close links exist between abstract thought and bodily schemes. These links are not necessary universal. Embodied concepts certainly change from one culture to another. As Varela et al. (1992, p.149) claim, knowing is an “ongoing interpretation that emerges from our capacities of understanding. These capacities are rooted in structures of our biological embodiment but are lived and experienced within a domain of consensual action and cultural history.” Embodied concepts are thus connected to cultural frameworks that enable a full objectification of experience. An embodied experience that has not been given a name and an abstract category—that has not reached thirdness—can be called pre-objective (Merleau-Ponty 2002[c1945]; Csordas 1990). The pre-objective, according to Csordas, is not pre-cultural. As I have argued elsewhere, embodied experience carries cultural meaning, since bodily sensations are in themselves a mode of interpretation (Pagis 2009). However, complete cultural objectification of an embodied experience only takes place when that experience and cultural concepts meet, as the concepts enable the experience to become generalized and receive meaning that transcends the present situation.

By integrating the above perspectives we come to the conclusion that firstness and thirdness support one another. As this paper argues, abstract concepts require an anchoring in the body, since only through embodied experience do they become meaningful in lived reality. At the same time, abstract concepts raise embodied experience to a new level of interpretation, allowing it to receive full objectified and transcendent cultural meaning. The following sections illustrate the mutual support of these two dimensions of knowledge by analyzing the process by which practitioners of vipassana meditation embody central Buddhist tenets.

Research setting and methodology

Between 2005 and 2007, I conducted ethnographic fieldwork among practitioners of vipassana meditation as taught by S. N. Goenka in Israel and the United States. First, I conducted in-depth interviews with 60 meditators: 20 in North America and 40 in Israel.1 The interviews were based on a snowball sample, and they were all recorded. In addition, I conducted three to five follow-up interviews with 12 of the Israeli practitioners. With many, I also had informal conversations and interactions in between the interviews. Second, I conducted participant observation in a vipassana meditation center in Israel and, for a shorter period, at one in Illinois. The participant observation was not continuous, and the longest I stayed at the meditation center was 10 days. When spending time in the meditation center, I recorded all of my observations, interactions and informal conversations in detailed field notes. The overall time I spent in meditation centers during this period was 80 days. Last, during these 2 years I attempted to practice meditation daily, turning myself into a subject of sociological inquiry. I followed my own experiences in a detailed personal diary, where I described my feelings, thoughts and experiences as connected to meditation practice. I found that turning myself into a subject of study was extremely helpful when investigating embodied experiences that resist articulation. It allowed me to do an ethnography from the body and not an ethnography of the body (Csordas 1993). It opened my eyes to the phenomenological life-world of the subjects of my study, as I became aware of the nuances of their experience.

Vipassana is a Theravada Buddhist meditation, the predominant form of Buddhism in Southeast Asia. In both Buddhist and non-Buddhist locations, the current configuration of nonmonastic vipassana meditation centers is considered a modern phenomenon (Gombrich 1983). The meditation practice described in this paper is based on a Burmese tradition and is taught by one global meditation organization, Vipassana Meditation as Taught by S. N. Goenka. This is a large organization, with more than a hundred meditation centers worldwide, all of which offer courses free of charge. Meditation courses in this tradition usually last 10 days, while longer meditation courses of 20 to 60 days are offered only to advanced and experienced practitioners.

All traditions of vipassana practice are based on the well-known satipatthāna sutta—the sutta (Pali for sutra) on the foundation of mindfulness. In this sutta, the Buddha offers four objects of awareness: the body, sensations, the mind, and the contents of the mind. The specific vipassana practice discussed in this study follows a tradition that emphasizes awareness of two of these objects, the body and sensations. A second popular version of vipassana meditation also teaches embodied awareness, but does not accentuate body and sensations over the other two objects of mindfulness (e.g., Cadge 2005; Jordt 2007; Cook 2009). While many of the claims in this paper are relevant to both traditions, the emphasis on observing bodily sensations is unique to the teachings of S. N. Goenka (Pagis 2009).

Since I found considerable similarity when comparing the Israeli and North American cases, this paper uses examples from both countries. All participants came from middle to higher socioeconomic backgrounds, and more than 90% had attained at least a bachelor’s degree. The sample of interviewees that participated in this study begins with people who just completed their first meditation course and ends with those who have participated in long meditation retreats of 60 days. In general, I found that the participants in this study could be separated into two groups. The first is composed of people who return to ten-day meditation retreats. For them meditation is mainly a tool for self-cultivation, and they show little interest in progressing on the Buddhist path towards enlightenment. The second is a core of more serious meditators who see Dhamma as their chosen way of life and have taken longer meditation courses. Whereas the examples used in this paper are taken from both groups (each example representing multiple other examples that appeared in the data), the large majority of instances of embodying Buddhist tenets appeared in interviews and conversations with serious practitioners who took meditation courses longer than 10 days.

Buddhist philosophy and central tenets

When referring to knowledge, Buddhist philosophy emphasizes one kind of knowing: wisdom, also referred to as saving or liberating knowledge (panna, in Pali).2 This wisdom is the ultimate goal of those who “are engaged actively in a Buddhist specialist’s life, which includes the practice of meditation” (Collins 1982, p. 91). This form of knowledge or wisdom is frequently regarded as non-dualistic, being in the realm of the body and the mind simultaneously and leading to enlightenment, a state beyond mind and matter (Collins 1998). However, if we look at the teachings of the Buddha, we can locate two paths that aim to lead to this form of wisdom: theory and practice (Bielefeldt 2005). The theoretical side of the teachings is a highly philosophical scripture about the true nature of reality. The practical side of the teachings is the practice of meditation, which aims to reveal this true nature of reality. While scholars of Buddhism acknowledge the two aspects of the teachings of the Buddha, the question of how these two aspects interact is rarely discussed. Since most Buddhist scholars “talk about what Buddhists ought to do, rather than about what they do,” a common assumption is that Buddhist practice merely reflects the theoretical side (Bielefeldt 2005, p. 233, see also Cassaniti 2006). Therefore, the process by which practitioners come to realize (or fail to realize) liberating knowledge on the level of the body is largely neglected.

Utilizing the analytic distinction between conceptual and embodied knowledge, I would like to suggest that the path towards wisdom can be seen as constituted by two kinds of epistemologies: the first is conceptual knowledge of the tenets the Buddha taught, and the second is embodied knowledge based on the experience of meditation practice. The application of this analytic distinction enables us to capture and analyze the experience of meditation practitioners, without assuming that the practice simply reflects theory. As I shall show, the conceptual dimension of Buddhist knowledge is crucial in supplying guidance to meditation practice and enabling certain embodied experiences to make Buddhist sense. On the other hand, without the embodied dimension, Buddhist knowledge cannot be validated on the level of the individual—it cannot enter a practitioner’s phenomenological reality. The following analysis, therefore, offers a fresh perspective not only on knowledge, but also on the embodied process through which Buddhist wisdom is realized.3

In order to follow the relation between embodied and conceptual knowledge in the practice of vipassana meditation, I chose to concentrate on the three tenets central to the teachings of the Buddha. These are dissatisfaction impermanence and not-self (in Pali: dukkha, anicca, anattā, Rahula 1959). Dukkha is frequently translated as “suffering,” but in relation to Buddhist thought it is better translated as “dissatisfaction,” which in Buddhist philosophy represents the constant state of all living creatures who are not enlightened. According to Buddhist philosophy, dissatisfaction arises from the nature of living creatures to feel craving and to suffer when they do not have what they crave. The teachings of the Buddha are aimed at liberating the individual from the nature of dissatisfaction, through the reduction of attachments and cravings. The second tenet is anicca, impermanence. This tenet is closely related to dukkha, since impermanence is an important cause of dissatisfaction. According to Buddhist philosophy, nothing is permanent and everything is in constant change. This impermanence characterizes both the world as we experience it and ourselves. Every situation we are in is bound to change at some point. Health, being with loved ones, satisfying desires—these are all pleasures that are bound to pass away. Our inability to accept this and our tendency to become attached to impermanent things is a source of suffering.

The third tenet, and probably the most difficult one to grasp, is anattā, usually translated as “not-self” or “no-self.” From a Buddhist perspective, the entity we tend to call “I” is made up of five impermanent aggregates: the body, sensations, perceptions, reactions, and consciousness. Each of these aggregates is in constant change, arising and passing away. Consciousness, for example, is just a stream of thoughts with no entity behind it, captured by the Buddhist phrase “thought without a thinker.” For the sake of convenience, we can call these five aggregates “I,” but the true nature of the aggregates is that they are impersonal and ephemeral. However, since we do not understand the impermanent and essence-less nature of these aggregates, we tend to attach ourselves to and identify with all of them, or one of them. Such identification leads to clinging and attachment, as we refuse to part with one or more of these elements we think of as “I.” The path of dhamma leads to a realization that there is no essence or stability behind these aggregates and that “they are not the same for two consecutive moments” (Rahula 1959, p. 23).

The above three tenets are central to the Buddhist point of view. And yet, according to Buddhism, merely believing in these tenets will not lead to salvation or enlightenment. As Collins (1982, p. 19) writes in regard to the tenet of not-self:

It is thus, according to Buddhism itself, only a first step cognitively to pay allegiance to the denial of self. To “realize” the truth of it personally—both to understand and to make it real—involves an affective change in the personality and psychology brought about by long and arduous practice.

As written above, the “realization” of the truth is referred to as wisdom. Buddhist texts offer more than one way to enter the field of wisdom and eventually reach enlightenment. In the Theravada tradition, vipassana meditation is considered the central practice that will lead a person on this path. In the last century, with the rise of mass meditation movements, we have witnessed a rise in the popularity of vipassana meditation (Jordt 2007; Cook 2006). In these movements, vipassana meditation is frequently advocated as a technique that follows scientific methods, since the practitioner herself explores the reality within herself and eventually experiences the truth. Meditation practice is presented as a laboratory-like environment in which certain aspects of reality are exposed.

To adapt the analogy of a laboratory, like the construction (or exposure) of scientific reality (Latour 1999), we can follow the construction of Buddhist reality during meditation courses and practice. Since the epistemic stance of Buddhist philosophy accentuates embodied experience, Buddhist reality is exposed by supplying a situated environment that leads to certain experiences. These experiences are crucial for the realization of wisdom, and are necessary for Buddhist concepts to be able to receive a meaningful role in practitioners’ everyday life. Without this embodied base, Buddhist concepts remain an abstraction and cannot enter lived, embodied reality.

Infusing abstract concepts with embodied meaning

Embodying dissatisfaction

Though every person who arrives at a vipassana course has experienced dissatisfaction in his or her life, this experience usually does not suffice as a base for realizing dukkha. Dukkha, after all, refers to a much more encompassing understanding that every attachment will lead in the end to suffering. Therefore, from a Buddhist point of view, pleasure and discomfort are two sides of the same coin. Every habit, pleasure and comfort to which one becomes attached is a potential source of dissatisfaction, since the moment it disappears suffering will begin.

In order to embody dissatisfaction, meditation courses are built in a way that mirrors back to the students their attachments and love of comforts. This is achieved through changing the temporal and physical patterns to which their bodies are accustomed. During meditation courses, the students wake up at 4:00 in the morning and begin to meditate at 4:30 am. They have breakfast at 6:30 am and then lunch at 11:00 am. This early lunch is the last substantial meal of the day. At 17:00, the new students receive a snack, while the experienced meditators receive only lemon water. The participants, therefore, are introduced to a new order of eating and sleeping, one that is very different from their daily life. As Rachel,4 a vipassana practitioner, described a typical course experience,

Some people say they are hungry in the beginning of the course, and then the hunger goes away. For me it is the other way around. In all my meditation courses I was very hungry. And it becomes harder as the days go by—in the beginning I feel I have some reserves, but as the time passes I feel like I am disappearing. And I have pain. In the last course I had hard pains in my knees. It was very difficult.

The pain that Rachel described arises from the long hours of meditation. During the course, the participants meditate in a sitting position for 11 hours a day, and therefore frequently experience pain and soreness. During these sittings, the meditators are asked to observe their breath or their bodily sensations and avoid thinking or contemplating.5 Out of these 11 hours, 3 hours—one in the morning, one in the afternoon and one in the evening—are called aditan sittings. Aditan means strong determination, and during these meditation sittings the participants are asked to keep still and not move while meditating. These hours are the ones in which the experience of dissatisfaction is truly revealed. In one of the meditation courses I took I recorded my experience of one of these sittings:

In the beginning it all felt fine. I was sitting silently observing my breath and my bodily sensations. In fact I felt quite calm. After thirty minutes my leg started aching. I wanted to move it but remembered that I must stay still. And then I felt that a fly was walking on my hand. I almost opened my eyes to check if this was really a fly or my imagination. Now all my attention was on feeling that fly. I completely forgot about the leg. The movement of the fly was extremely irritating. I felt it move around, and was wishing so hard I could scratch my hand. I don’t know how much time passed but it felt like forever. Then suddenly the fly was gone and I could go back to observing my breath and sensations. After a few minutes of relief, my leg started aching again. This time the pain was unbearable so I decided to move the leg just a little bit to relieve the pain. I did not stretch the leg; I just moved it very slowly so my other leg would not press on it. I felt such a relief. However, one minute later the leg started hurting again in its new position. It was as if the pain would not leave me.

The experience of a painful meditation sitting, an experience common to all meditators, teaches the practitioner an important lesson. You feel pain in your leg and attempt to release it, and then your back starts aching. You stretch your back to relax the pain, and then the leg starts aching again. Dissatisfaction becomes an embodied reality, as you realize how your body is attached to comfort, how unaccustomed you are to new positions, and how your body constantly urges you to move and end the pain, yet constantly produces new experiences of dissatisfaction.

Since from a Buddhist point of view pleasant experiences can also be a source of dukkha, embodying dissatisfaction is not limited to negative sensations such as pain. The realization that pleasures and positive sensations are also a part of dukkha is considered a more advanced step in embodying dissatisfaction. For example, as a meditator continues to watch the pain and discomfort for longer periods, the typical experience is that the pain dissolves into subtle sensations and disappears. This experience brings about a feeling of bliss and peacefulness, an experience considered in Buddhist teachings to be an obstacle to progress on the path towards enlightenment. The meditation teacher specifically warns against this experience in the meditation course, advising that one develops attachments to these feelings, attachments that will only lead to more suffering. These sensations, he explains, will also pass, and pain and discomfort will return. And yet, it is common for students to hope for the subtle sensations. Dina, a vipassana practitioner, recognized this tendency during her fourth meditation course: “In the fourth course I realized that I am not really observing sensations, but instead I am searching for pleasant sensations, and if I have hard sensations I observed them wanting them to turn into pleasant sensations. And this wanting, this wanting to turn them into pleasant sensations, was an important part of my pain.”

From a Buddhist perspective, Dina’s realization is considered an important moment in the gradual embodiment of dukkha. She began to realize that pleasant sensations are a source of dissatisfaction and that, in fact, the expectation of pleasant sensations worsened her experience of pain. She came closer to realizing the Buddhist wisdom that the pleasures and comforts of life are not opposite to dissatisfaction and suffering, but instead only produce more dukkha. Though she certainly had conceptual knowledge regarding the nature of dissatisfaction, as this nature was explained in the lectures in every meditation course she took, only in her fourth course did she actually experience it. And still, when I asked Dina about her stance towards positive and pleasant sensations, she said that she nevertheless did not have the full realization that these are dukkha. She still frequently found herself satisfying her desires and searching for comfort.

Longer meditation courses of 20 days or more seem to trigger stronger embodied experiences that are described by practitioners as dukkha in its full force. These experiences are deep enough to accompany the meditator into his or her everyday life. This is partly why long courses require a period of preparation: only after taking five courses of 10 days, and practicing at home for 2 hours a day for a year, can practitioners join a course of 20 days. When Peter returned from his first 20-day course he described his emotional state as follows:

I tried to watch TV and it was Special Victims Unit in Law and Order in which some 16-year-old girl in Queens dies and it turns out she was in porn movies and HIV positive and she infected like the entire population in Queens, and then there was this show about children who were locked in a basement, and I just felt—this is just terrible, this is so sad, so bad, I felt horrible emotionally and physically. And I just said, this is not getting easier! Since in the 20-day course you get a chance to understand the enormousness of the task, in which you have to stay with dissatisfaction and bad sensations in every waking hour—and you can’t switch it off, there is an effort required to stay with physical sensations—and this is why it is such an enormous task, since anything else you can turn off from time to time. And that really scared me. And there is this thought about your sense of dukkha—and I felt, why do I want to know more about dukkha? I have enough of that, does that mean that everything in my life is going to taste like sand, is going to have a bitter after-taste? And this is the emotional stage with which I came back.

Peter’s description illustrates how the two dimensions of knowledge, the embodied and the conceptual, support one another in the complete semiotic act that leads to the understanding of dukkha as a transcendent, generalized aspect of reality. The experience that Peter described was new to him. He was taken by surprise by its depth. For the first time he truly tasted the bitter quality of life, which was an experience of firstness. There was nothing abstract in this experience, since, as Peter described it, he “felt horrible, emotionally and physically.” In Csordas’ (1990) terms, this experience was pre-objective, being both spontaneous and physical. Yet this experience did not stay in the realm of firstness. If we follow the process of objectification that took place, we see that while reflecting on this embodied experience, Peter used an available cultural frame, the one offered in vipassana courses, in order to give the experience its fully objectified cultural meaning. He therefore moved from firstness to thirdness, connecting between embodied experience and abstract concepts.

However, the conceptual frame of dukkha did not merely serve as a prior “mental category” (Zerubavel 1997) that was not influenced by its implementation. The experience itself, as an embodied and sensual event, left its mark on Peter. It changed the way Peter understood dukkha. Dukkha was suddenly enormous, encompassing, taking over every moment of life. When I talked to Peter again a few weeks later, he told me that the strong feeling of dukkha had weakened since the end of the course. But, Peter continued, the memory of this feeling did not disappear. Whenever he thought of dukkha, that emotional feeling with which he had ended the course arose in his body again. Utilizing Lakoff and Johnson’s term, dukkha had turned into an “embodied concept.” To recall, an embodied concept is a thought process that is based on information coming from the sensorimotor system. An embodied concept, thus, involves both thinking and feeling at the same time. For Peter, to think dukkha and to feel dukkha had become merged. The concept was no longer abstract; it was now engrained in the body.

Realizing impermanence

Since vipassana practice involves observation of the present moment, it brings about a new phenomenology of time in which change plays a central role. Therefore, many meditators find the realization of anicca the easiest of the three Buddhist tenets. Dan, for example, was quite familiar with the notion of impermanence before he arrived at a vipassana meditation course. He had read Buddhist texts in the past and felt that it was a concept that he could easily connect with. And yet, as he told me, meditation really taught him what impermanence is all about. As he said,

For me it [impermanence] is something that has been in my consciousness for a long time, at least since I first encountered Buddhism. But I feel like I feel more what anicca is about through meditation—I understood it pretty well on the intellectual level, but it was so easy for me to forget. And I would put it in words, but then forget—and now I remember it more. It is not a complex concept. I not only understand it more, I think I understand it more often.

The realization of impermanence begins with the first experience of meditation. In the first 3 days of vipassana meditation courses, the students are asked to concentrate on breathing. Only on the fourth day do they start turning their attention to sensations in the body. When attempting to concentrate on breathing, novice meditators usually find that they are unable to do it for more than a few seconds. You attempt to concentrate on the breath, and a few seconds later you find that your mind has wandered away. You bring it back, and it wanders away again. When the meditator becomes aware of the places the mind wanders to, he or she usually finds a constant, chaotic movement between places without any order or logic. Realizing this chaotic nature of the mind, with its constantly changing objects of thought, is the first experience of impermanence.

The structure of the meditation course increases students’ probability of encountering impermanence. During the meditation course, the students are asked to abstain from speaking, reading, or listening to music. They can speak with the meditation teacher once a day if they want to, but these conversations are limited to only five minutes. The students are therefore given very few external objects that can engross the mind. In such conditions, it is common for the mind to start wandering continuously, from thinking about the past to thinking about the future, from being happy to being sad, and these changes can happen quite rapidly. Take, for example, an incident I witnessed in the meditation hall during one course. Rina, a young woman sitting in the second row, started giggling. She attempted to keep her mouth closed, but the bursts of laughter could be clearly heard. After a few minutes her laughter suddenly turned into loud sobbing. Her whole body trembled and tears ran down her cheeks. She was trying to control her crying, but again had no success. She opened her eyes and looked at the teacher’s assistant, who came to her and whispered in her ear that she could leave the room if she wanted. She left the room sobbing.

The emotional instability that Rina experienced is quite common in meditation courses, and therefore can be used by practitioners as a lesson regarding the transient nature of emotions. When I spoke to Rina at the end of the meditation course she said that after leaving the meditation hall she walked around the yard until she calmed down, and in fact, after the incident she experienced a strong peacefulness that stayed with her until the end of the course. When I asked her why she laughed and cried, she said that she had not searched for the cause of these emotional states. She added that this experience led her to realize the meaning of the idea that all emotions and sensations are just coming and going and to understand why one should just observe them calmly. Through attaching the conceptual frame of impermanence to her emotional state, Rina was able to produce a generalized rule, to enter thirdness. Giving a Buddhist meaning to this experience led Rina to accept it as progress on her path towards wisdom and thus supplied support and motivation to her practice.

When observing bodily sensations, as the participants in these courses do from the fourth day onwards, the experience of impermanence is amplified. The observation of the present moment brings out the subtleties of experience that are commonly ignored in everyday life. For example, as mentioned above, a common experience of meditation is the dissolution of pain into subtle sensations. In everyday life, when experiencing pain one usually moves in order to actively produce change. In contrast, while in meditation, one is asked to passively observe the impermanent nature of sensations. This observation reveals surprising nuances, as the pain turns into an amalgam of sensations that are not necessary painful. As Maria, after taking her second meditation course, described it:

I was sitting and experiencing all this pain, and all this notion of impermanence seemed ridiculous to me—I mean, maybe this pain will go away one day, maybe when I die, but there is no way I am going to wait for this moment. But then, as I continued observing the details of the pain, it slowly disappeared and all these subtle sensations appeared. It was amazing.

Maria’s description can help us understand the importance of conceptual knowledge in the process of attaining Buddhist wisdom. The fact that Maria engaged with the concept of impermanence even before she experienced it explains why she easily accepted the feeling of bodily dissolution as “amazing.” However, the same bodily experience can also be interpreted as frightening and unwelcome. Sara described this well: “I got to a point that in the meditation I felt that everything is constantly moving and changing, the sensations, and nothing felt solid in my body, and it was really scary so I immediately moved so that feeling would go away and I would have something stable to hold on to.” The awareness of the Buddhist tenet of anicca enabled Maria to give the experience its full vipassana meaning, so the experience made Buddhist sense and was not a random unpleasant event. For Sara, who did not attach the notion of anicca to her experience, the meaning the event carried had little to do with Buddhist wisdom. Instead of realizing that everything is impermanent, she moved in order to regain stability. Since in order to advance in meditation one has to observe such experiences for long periods without moving, the conceptual frame of impermanence is extremely important in supplying guidance and structure to the practice, motivating the practitioner to continue to meditate regardless of the pleasantness or unpleasantness of the experience.

In long meditation courses, the experience of impermanence continues to deepen. I spoke to Dora a week after she returned from her second 20-day course. The main difference she mentioned when comparing this course to the shorter courses she had taken in the past concerned impermanence:

In the long course I could feel anicca. How everything changes. How my moods, emotions, sensations change all the time. I was really with anicca. I don’t think that in a short course I ever felt it so clearly. It is something you can only experience in a long course. Now, for example, I cannot feel it. Maybe if I sit and meditate I could feel it, but not in the same depth as I did in the course.

Dora’s description implies that as one becomes more proficient in meditation, one is able to feel impermanence more “clearly.” This account is similar to descriptions of perfecting other embodied skills, in which there is a move from “thinking” to “feeling.” According to Dreyfus and Dreyfus (1999), learning a skill involves a move from rule following to embodied knowledge. Novice practitioners, therefore, tend to rely on rules and prescriptions, while proficient performers no longer require these abstractions, since the knowledge has become completely engrained in their bodies. For example, when learning to drive a car the novice is very conscious of the rules (e.g., changing the gear when reaching a certain speed); however, these rules disappear when one becomes a proficient performer and can react appropriately while driving without thinking about it.

Although from a Buddhist point of view reaching liberating knowledge is not a process of skill acquisition (since the Buddhist tenets are not prescriptions for action), we can still adapt Dreyfus and Dreyfus’ model in order to shed light on the process by which impermanence becomes embodied. If we return to Maria’s description, we see that as a novice practitioner, she engaged with the concept of impermanence, analyzing it, wondering how and whether it would appear in her meditation. The abstract concept was prominent, as she was thinking about impermanence but not feeling it. In opposition, Dora, a more advanced meditator, began her description with the words “I could feel anicca.” For her, anicca was an embodied experience that came naturally to her during the meditation course. She did not analyze it, nor rationalize it. Feeling impermanence had turned into an embodied skill that could be used and exercised.

Dora’s description also emphasizes the fact that feeling the Buddhist tenets in their full capacity is an experience limited to the context of a meditation retreat. I will return to the question of contextualized and situated forms of knowing later in the paper. Still, though Dora could not feel impermanence in every moment, impermanence as a lived reality was central to her life. When we talked about her life, she referred to impermanence quite frequently. For example, when she was having trouble at work and was feeling upset about it she would say, “Yes, you know, I am upset, but it will pass.” When I asked her if she used this insight regarding impermanence when she spoke with friends and family about their troubles, she said she did not: “People do not want to hear that it would pass. You have to experience it in order to understand it.”

Experiencing not-self

Of the three Buddhist tenets discussed here, not-self is considered to be the most difficult to experience. After all, the personal experience of the self, known in Buddhist philosophy as “the conceit I am,” is a natural human tendency (Spiro 1993). The story of a monk named Khemaka illustrates the difficulty of attaining a not-self experience (Rahula 1959: 65). Khemaka was in the high stages of his practice, and his disciples asked him if he had reached nirvana (in Pali, nibbāna). He answered that he had not, since while he acknowledged and experienced that none of the five aggregates have the nature of “self,” he still experienced the feeling of “I am.” He explained this feeling using the metaphor of a flower. The smell of the flower is neither in the petals, nor in the color, nor in the pollen—it is the smell of the flower. In a similar way, the experience of “I am” is not in any one of the aggregates, but is a feeling in regard to all five (Collins 1982, p. 95). While Khemaka understood that there is no need to identify as a self with the thought or consciousness that takes place, he still felt the feeling of “I am,” and therefore was still not fully liberated in the Buddhist sense.

The notion of not-self and the idea that “there is no I” are mentioned a few times in vipassana meditation courses. Still, in the interviews I conducted this notion rarely came up naturally. When I specifically asked about it, many meditators did not recognize it, and if they did, they gave interpretations that were not aligned with Buddhist doctrine. The more advanced meditators did show fluency in the meaning of the concept, but commonly added that this tenet did not relate to their experience and remained at the abstract level for them. When I asked Dora, who had taken two 20-day courses and more than a dozen ten-day courses, if she was familiar with this notion, she answered,

I found it difficult to connect to this notion emotionally. I connect to it intellectually. I think that this is how it is, that there is not “I,” it is just a system that nourishes itself. But the whole point is to be in an emotional state in which you have no attachments, in which it does not matter—now something is happening that I want, and now something is happening that I don’t want, and all this does not matter since this is the system and it’s karma. And I am not there—I have a lot of “I,” a lot of things I want or don’t want.

Like Dora, many meditators consider not-self to be a concept that has not entered the level of experience. Some meditators even warned me against trying to act according to the notion without yet realizing it as a reality. Daniel, for example, said, “I think I had experiences in which I tried to act as if there is no ‘I’ and it hasn’t helped at all, and in fact it just put me deeper into suffering, since it was not coming from the authentic belief that there is no I, it was coming from ‘I should believe that there is no I.’” Such a way of acting is considered by Daniel and other meditators as erroneous, since it only reflects an attachment to a concept and does not come from a lived reality of not-self.

How does one embody a concept that is so far from one’s everyday natural experience? One way is through meditating on the impermanent status of the body (Collins 1994). One of the more advanced meditation courses is called the satipatthana course. In this course, the mahasatipatthāna sutta, on which the practice of vipassana meditation is based, is read and interpreted. In this sutta, the Buddha speaks of the impermanent and decaying nature of the body. He recommends going to a charnel ground to watch the rotting corpses: “When he [the monk] sees a dead body that has been thrown in a charnel ground, dead for 1, 2 or 3 days. Swollen, blue and festering, regarding his own body considers thus ‘Indeed, this body is of the same nature, it will become like that and cannot escape it.’”6 The sight of the rotting bodies brings with it wisdom regarding the impermanent, essenceless nature of one’s own body.

Whereas the modern practice of vipassana meditation does not include observations at a charnel ground, in the more advanced courses students are urged to meditate with awareness of the impermanent materiality of their bodies. In fact, in the first years that the satipatthana course was offered, it included a video screening of an autopsy, thus bringing the students closer to the experience of observing rotting bodies. The screening was abandoned due to the negative reactions of some students, and yet the spirit of such contemplation on the material and impermanent state of the body was retained. After completing a satipatthana course, Rachel, who had been meditating for 3 years, felt that she had gotten a glimpse of what not-self is all about. As she said, “I was sitting in meditation going through my body, and I was feeling the bones, the teeth, the muscles, the flesh, all this flesh, and suddenly you realize that this is all there is, just bones and muscles and teeth and fingernails and it is all rotting away, every minute it is just rotting away.”

Deep meditations can also bring people closer to the realization of anattā. Frequently these experiences are considered a mere taste of what a full realization of not-self would feel like. Josh, for example, who took a 30-day meditation course, described an experience he had a few times while in deep meditation as follows:

For me that can happen primarily in meditation as I recognize the solution [the realization of not-self], and then it comes to me—what here is solid? What here is lasting? What is going to stay when this body falls away? And I don’t have an answer, the only answer that comes up is again something that I can’t really try to explain, it would be silly to try and explain…and you know, at a certain point I say, ‘Jesus, everything is hollow here—what the hell is going on?’…not that I have experienced the solution, but it is an extrapolation of what I feel now.

Advanced meditation courses, therefore, provide experiences that can be interpreted, or to use Josh’s word, “recognized,” as resembling the experience of not-self. However, not all advanced meditators go through these experiences. In addition, in contrast to the relative ease with which advanced meditators attach the concepts of dissatisfaction and impermanence to their embodied experiences, not many practitioners interpret a feeling of hollowness as implying that there is no “I.” Only in one of my interviews, conducted with a senior teacher who had taken meditation courses of 45 and 60 days, did a meditator speak passionately of an experience of the disappearance of the feeling “I am”:

There is nothing here—you understand that this is just a sequence of happenings. It is not me that is recognized with this name, with what I like, with my personality. Nothing! It all disappears. And you understand it both when looking to the past and when looking to the future. This fixation of yours on your name is totally temporary—it is just a block in an ongoing sequence to which you suddenly give a specific name and you are so identified with that name—this is I and this is mine.

Experiencing not-self is therefore a process that requires intensive and continuous meditation. Since this concept is extremely distanced from daily reality, for most meditators, not-self remains an abstraction and has little anchoring in the body. Some believe they can imagine what such an experience would feel like. Others feel very removed from this experience. Again, knowing the concept and the theory, in this case, is not a guarantee of reaching a full realization of not-self. This realization only takes place when a meditator finds the right embodied experience and utilizes the conceptual frame in order to move from firstness to thirdness. These instances of realization infuse the concept with embodied meaning, thus connecting not-self to the realm of lived reality.

Situated knowledge: From the meditation center to everyday life

As illustrated in the above examples, once certain subjective experiences meet the right abstract concepts, the Buddhist tenets receive embodied meaning and can start playing a role in meditators’ phenomenological reality. However, these moments of realization, when meditators experience dissatisfaction, impermanence and not-self, take place in the specific situated environment of the meditation center. Though vipassana meditation can be practiced every moment in every place, only in long meditation retreats do practitioners reach a deep embodied understanding of the Buddhist tenets. Therefore, the wisdom attained through meditation falls under the category of situated knowledge, meaning knowledge that is realized and enacted in specific environments or situations (Haraway 1988). How, then, does Buddhist wisdom enter practitioners’ everyday life?

To develop our understanding of Buddhist knowledge as situated knowledge, I return to the laboratory analogy suggested above. Sociology of science has long recognized that scientific reality is realized in situated places, usually in laboratories. The realization of scientific facts may be moved from one laboratory to another, but cannot be enacted outside of these particular spaces. As Latour (1983 p. 155) writes: “Scientific facts are like trains, they do not work off their rails.” In fact, one of the main strengths of modern laboratories lies in their separation from nature, such that the complexities of nature can be put aside and the materials under study can be represented, processed or reconstructed (Knorr-Cetina 1992). Laboratories offer a network of “sterile” places, all identical to one another, where scientific reality can be “validated” again and again under supervised conditions. This separation between nature and the laboratory is central to modern science. However, once scientists attempt to transport the knowledge attained in laboratories back to nature, tensions arise (Kohler 2002).

A meditation center is not much different from a laboratory. Just as the power of modern laboratories lies in their separation from nature, so the power of meditation centers lies in their separation from daily life. Like laboratories, meditation centers are places where the complexities of life can be put aside in order to analyze self and reality in a relatively “sterile” environment. Meditation centers are very similar around the world, having almost identical spatial and temporal arrangements (Pagis 2010). The strict control over the temporal, spatial and social conditions in meditation centers increases the probability that they will produce certain embodied experiences that lead to the realization of Buddhist tenets. Last, the fact that this realization is situated in a particular environment produces a tension between that environment and other spaces—specifically, between the meditation center and everyday life.

In order to ease this tension, Buddhist philosophy explains reality by separating it into two types—the ultimate and the conventional. Ultimate reality is exposed through the practice of meditation, where the meditator experiences dissatisfaction, impermanence and not-self. Conventional reality is the reality perceived in normal, everyday action, where selves are permanent and the body is stable. These two realities are in fact two perspectives on the same reality. Ultimate reality is considered the appropriate perspective in the context of meditation practice, while conventional reality is the appropriate perspective in the context of daily action and social interaction. Even after experiencing ultimate reality, when moving from the meditation center back to everyday life, one has to change back to a conventional perspective, since one may have difficulties acting in daily life while experiencing one’s body dissolving into subtle sensations, or while constantly experiencing deep dissatisfaction. For instance, in one incident I observed, a practitioner could not stop feeling subtle sensations in his body even after completing a course. During the course, experiencing these sensations was understood as a realization of impermanence. Once the course had ended, the practitioner was terrified by the fact that these sensations kept haunting him. He walked around the meditation center looking quite startled and was afraid to leave. At the recommendation of the teachers he stayed at the meditation center one more day, and by the end of the day the sensations had calmed down and he was able to return to normal, daily reality.

Still, the distinction between ultimate and conventional reality is not supposed to be strict. The fact that one reality is named “ultimate” and the second “conventional” implies that one perspective (i.e., the ultimate one) is superior over the other in terms of reflecting “truth.” Therefore, from the perspective of Buddhist philosophy, the soteriological ideal is that with progress in meditation one learns to shift back to the perspective of ultimate reality even outside of the meditation center. In order to reach liberation a certain level of understanding of ultimate reality must remain with the practitioner even when he is acting in conventional reality, constantly reminding him that the way he is currently experiencing life is merely conventional. In order to achieve such a state, while at the same time managing the tensions between daily life and meditation retreats, practitioners allocate a separate time and space in daily life for reactivating ultimate reality. This is done through daily meditation practice, usually for 1 hour in the morning and 1 hour in the evening. During this daily practice the meditator temporarily renounces the interactions of everyday life, moves to an isolated room (practitioners usually have a designated meditation corner in their homes) and meditates.

To continue the analogy to science, we can think of daily meditation sittings as “labscapes.” Labscapes, according to Kohler (2002), attempt to bridge the laboratory and nature by creating a hybrid—a lab located in the middle of nature. In a similar way, daily meditation provides a semi-sterile environment in which one can renounce social interaction and resurrect Buddhist wisdom. This semi-sterile environment is based on an imitation of the conditions of the meditation center: a temporal and spatial renunciation from daily life through sitting in an isolated corner, turning off the phone, dimming the lights, and concentrating on sensations for 1 hour without interference. This daily shift back to ultimate reality enables practitioners to maintain a fresh embodied understanding of Buddhist wisdom. Former vipassana practitioners who no longer meditate find that with time, liberating knowledge turns into a mere memory, and the perspective of conventional reality becomes so convincing that they no longer remember that it is merely conventional. If one wants to continue “to experience it in order to understand it” (as Dora stated above), one must keep up daily practice. Daily meditation practice usually does not lead to the same deep embodied experiences that practitioners encounter in long meditation retreats. As Dora described above, “Maybe if I sit and meditate I could feel it, but not in the same depth as I did in the course.” Still, practitioners of vipassana report that daily meditation allows them to access a moderate version of these experiences, and enables them to re-experience, at least partly, dissatisfaction, impermanence and not-self.

With progress in meditation, ultimate reality starts penetrating additional spheres in everyday life. Very advanced vipassana practitioners meditate during every available moment—when waiting for an appointment, when driving or when eating. They no longer require a separate space and time in order to resurrect Buddhist wisdom. In fact, many report that even without conscious decision their attention turns to their bodily sensations. For them, the distinction between the meditation center and daily life is no longer strict. As a very advanced practitioner who had attended retreats of 30 days told me, “In the beginning there was this shock every time I completed a meditation retreat and returned home. But after participating in long retreats, and with meditating at home, there is no longer a big difference between a retreat and daily life.” Advanced practitioners may not feel dissatisfaction, impermanence and not-self in every moment, but whenever they choose to, they can turn their attention to their body and shift back to ultimate reality. The embodied understanding of the Buddhist tenets thus accompanies them in their daily life.

Conclusions: Towards a generalized framework

Taken together, the above stories of meditators’ experiences reveal the process through which abstract Buddhist concepts become embodied. Even though meditators are familiar with the Buddhist tenets, they regard these tenets as concepts understood on the intellectual level. In order for these concepts to become a part of the phenomenological reality of vipassana practitioners, they need to be experienced. Meditation courses and practice produce the conditions that enable these experiences to take place. Changing the habitual patterns of the body in terms of food or sleep produces an experience of dissatisfaction, the concentration on present sensations produces an experience of impermanence, and giving attention to the decaying nature of the body produces an experience of not-self. Meditation practice, therefore, supplies the necessary conditions for the process of matching embodied experience with philosophical concepts.

As this paper has demonstrated, the process through which abstract Buddhist tenets enter phenomenological reality requires an interaction between embodied and conceptual knowledge. Novice practitioners are aware of the Buddhist tenets, but do not yet have the embodied base, or the skill, to enact them. Advancing in meditation increases the probability of encountering certain embodied experiences that carry the potential to be interpreted as instances of Buddhist ultimate reality. In each such instance, practitioners of vipassana immerse themselves in bodily experiences that are difficult to articulate, and then build on their conceptual knowledge of Buddhist tenets in order to interpret their experiences, moving from firstness to thirdness. The final outcome of this process is that the abstract Buddhist concepts are infused with embodied meaning and thus can start penetrating meditators’ daily life.

To recapitulate the interaction between conceptual and embodied knowledge presented in this paper, I would like to suggest three analytical characteristics that enable us to situate the current case study in a more generalized framework. These characteristics are relativity, directionality, and mutual influence. Relativity refers to the ratio between the embodied and conceptual dimensions of knowledge. When practitioners begin to meditate, their knowledge of Buddhist tenets is relatively conceptual. As they continue, the embodied dimension of their understanding of the tenets grows, and while the conceptual dimension does not disappear, its centrality diminishes. This progression also reveals the directionality of the process of knowing presented in this study. In the case of vipassana, some level of conceptual knowledge precedes the acquirement of embodied knowledge. Therefore, though in each of the events analyzed we witnessed a move from firstness to thirdness, from an embodied experience to a generalized rule, the overall directionality of the process of knowing is from abstract concepts to embodied knowledge. This directionality is connected to the particular nature of the mutual influence these two dimensions of knowledge exert on one another. As illustrated throughout the paper, embodied experience refines and influences one’s understanding of Buddhist concepts. However, this influence has limits. Embodied experiences that are encountered during meditation do not lead to a complete alteration of the Buddhist concepts. Advanced vipassana practitioners rarely build new theories regarding reality—they usually adopt the theories provided by Buddhist philosophy.

Taken together, these three analytical characteristics compose a suggestive framework for studying the interaction between conceptual and embodied knowledge in different life-worlds, thus enabling a generalization of the current case study. Relativity helps us to determine the comparative importance of each dimension of knowledge in a specific process of knowing. Embodied skills that need to be practiced and enacted require a firm embodied base. In fact, many of these skills may not require a conceptual dimension at all, as they are completely engrained in bodily schemes (e.g., a successful tennis swing). Salvation religions or soteriological philosophies, such as Buddhist philosophy, require a conceptual dimension that gives their practitioners structure and a goal but that cannot become fully meaningful without verification through embodiment. On the other hand, we all possess conceptual knowledge, such as the knowledge that electrons exist, that is based on only a limited and partial embodied foundation. Such relatively abstract concepts, I suggest, play a small role in most people’s everyday practice and action. However, for the physicist, in whose daily work electrons play an important part, the same knowledge would have a relatively larger embodied base.

Directionality reveals the temporal dynamic of processes of knowing. Many skills that are learned in adulthood begin with conceptual knowledge. Medical surgery, or psychoanalytic training, begins with a few years of acquiring relatively disembodied knowledge; only after the conceptual groundwork is set is the embodied side of this work introduced. Learning to drive or to play chess frequently begins with learning the rules, and only after long practice does the skill become embodied (Dreyfus and Dreyfus 1999). Other processes of learning have an opposite directionality. Artists may draw pictures before they learn the rules of perspective. A young boy or a girl may first fall in love, or feel sexual attraction, and only later learn the conceptual cultural frame that explains these experiences (Shweder 1994). Of course, with the current portrayal of romantic love in popular culture (e.g., in books and movies), it is common to find young adults who have a clear conception of romantic love before they actually experience it.

Last, a variation exists in the mutual influence that the embodied and conceptual dimensions of knowledge exercise over each other. For example, in the case of ballet training, conceptual knowledge is crucial in influencing the way embodied knowledge is cultivated (through instructions and corrections), but abstract concepts and rules completely disappear as one becomes a proficient performer (Kleiner 2009). Soteriological philosophies enable embodied knowledge to refine and give meaning to the conceptual frame, but they are rarely open to a complete transformation of it. Scientific knowledge, on the other hand, in its ideal form, is constantly open to revisions. Thus, although scientific knowledge is heavily based on taught rules and propositions that enable one to learn specific skills, the ideal purpose of enacting these skills is to build and change abstract rules, sometimes leading to the construction of a completely new conceptual frame.

To conclude, this paper has illustrated the role of both conceptual and embodied knowledge in the construction of vipassana practitioners’ phenomenological reality. By keeping the analytic distinction between conceptual and embodied knowledge, but at the same time examining how these two dimensions of knowledge interact, we open sociological study to the variance existing in processes of construction, production and maintenance of knowledge. Further research is required in order to fully expose the variety of relations that can exist between these two dimensions of knowledge and, thus, the variety of epistemologies that conjure different life-worlds.


Interviews in Israel were conducted in Hebrew. Excerpts from these conversations were translated by the author.


Buddhist thought includes many different schools and interpretations. When I use the term “Buddhist philosophy” in this paper, I refer to the teachings of the Buddha, known as Dhamma, as they appear in the seminal texts of Theravada Buddhism. These texts were written in Pali, the scriptural language of Theravada Buddhism.


Until recently, such a study was not possible, since meditation practice was mainly a monastic practice not shared with outsiders. The recent popularity of meditation practice among lay people enables us to approach this question empirically, through following ethnographically the gradual process by which Buddhist wisdom is cultivated. See also Cook 2006.


The names of all interview subjects, as well as some details of their personal lives, have been changed to provide anonymity.


As I have written elsewhere (Pagis 2009), vipassana meditation is based on embodied self-reflexivity, one that avoids entering the realm of symbolic interpretation (i.e. the realm of thirdness), thus not searching for the cause or meaning of sensations. In the examples presented in this paper, the interpretations of experiences as connected to Buddhist tenets take place through discursive reflexivity that follows meditation practice.


Mahasatipatthāna Sutta, (1985) India: Vipassana Research Institute, p. 15



I wish to thank Claudio Benzecry, Monika Krause and two anonymous reviewers for constructive insights and suggestions on an earlier draft. This research was supported by a predoctoral fellowship from the Lady Davis foundation.

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© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC 2010