By Bill Hedberg with the assistance of Jessie Shaw
During a recent ten-day course of Vipassana meditation, the fourteenth course I have completed, I was struck by how strongly this ancient meditation tradition correlates with the principles of SR and how it illuminates the gifts of SR’s founder, Stephen Gilligan. As this article will discuss, the experience gave me a greater understand of SR concepts like centering, felt sense, effective suffering and proper naming. And it underscored my conviction to the importance of having a daily practice that cultivates kinesthetic awareness and sensation. Without having this “feeling” capability and a practice to help develop it, I question the ability of any therapist to initiate a healing, transformative process with their clients.

Vipassana Meditation is a technique of introspection said to be practiced by Gottama, the Buddha, twenty-five centuries ago. As taught by E.S. Goenka, it is practiced as a ten-twenty- or thirty-day course that involves a vow of silence, strict social segregation, and a ten-hour per day practice of meditation. It is hard core to say the least!

During the first three and one-third days of the ten day course, the student is instructed to narrow his awareness to the approximate one square inch area beneath the nostrils and above the upper lip. From whatever distractions or mind chatter one might be seduced to explore, one returns again and again to an awareness of this area and the breath that passes by it. In language of SR, this would correspond to the art of centering. In the Vipassana meditation course, it is merely a preliminary step. The intention of this instruction during the first three and one-half days of the course is to deepen the level of awareness to a crucial distinction that a sensation. In my opinion, there is a distinct difference between mere “awareness” and the ”awareness of sensation.” “Awareness” is a spatial representation related primarily to the proprioceptive aspect of the nervous system and its ability to pinpoint spatial location and communicate it to the conscious mind. “Awareness of sensation” goes beyond a sense of spatial representation to what Neuro Linguistic Programming refers to as the sub modalities of the kin-esthetic representational system, i.e., pressure, temperature, tension, pain, etc. (Bandler, 1979)

As the days of the retreat progressed with hour after hour of meditation and its increased focus on kinesthetic sensation, I kept recalling Dr. Gilligan’s reference to a study done at Stanford University’s Psychiatric department. It determined that the single greatest indicator of a client’s success in therapy was to have a “felt sense” for the problem (Gilligan, 1997). The fact that I had heard this phrase, “felt sense” mentioned and discussed in each of the SR supervision groups I had attended over the past five years, struck me as extraordinarily significant in my heightened state of consciousness. What is felt sense? And more specifically, what is the sense itself and why did a client having that sense have greater proclivity for success from therapy? The assumed explanation is that the client is undergoing a unique phenomenon related to the specific therapy issue as if there were a “click” between the client’s conscious mind and the specific issue at hand manifesting in the “felt sense.” I don’t agree with this explanation. I believe that the client having a “felt sense” experience is more likely an indicator that the client, through her life practice or life experience, has cultivated a specific capability a capacity to feel something experimentally because of a heightened awareness of kinesthetic sensation. If this latter perspective is true, then the role of the therapist is psychotherapy would be altered. The role of the therapist might be, in an extreme case, to treat the client in relation to a specific issue. However, from a broader and perhaps more critical perspective, the role of the therapist would also be to assist the client in cultivating what I believe is the teachable skill of self-awareness the capacity to sense the kinesthetic sensation related to each emotional experience. The first step in this learning process would be the same skill we were developing and practicing here at the course: acute awareness of kinesthetic sensation in the body.

Developing this skill is equally relevant for therapists. All of us who have attended SR supervision groups have undoubtedly attempted to second-guess the directions of Dr. Gilligan’s analysis. We want to have the cognitive reassurance and blessing of our personal process by coming to, in advance, the same conclusions, proper naming and insights of which Stephen seems capable. I have often been amazed at how off I have been. An analysis of Stephen’s language describing his process, which he has explicitly encouraged us to practice, is to feel within our own body the experience of what I refer to as “our animal’s” response to the client. This is first and foremost a kinesthetic experience. Our animal, which may also be referred to as our unconscious, is capable of extraordinary awareness. It is only a question of how to gain access to what awareness. Establishing a practice that focuses on the awareness and feeling of kinesthetic sensation is the first step.

At the completion of the first one-third phase of a Vipassana course, one begins to take the cultivated awareness of kinesthetic sensation (or “felt sense”) and extend it throughout the body using a body scanning process (head-to-toe, and toe-to-head). The intention of this six day portion of the course is to begin to deepen awareness of the kinesthetic sensations associated with the various emotional states we experience, and to begin cultivating a state of equanimity for all these emotions and feelings present in the body. During the course of the Vipassana training, it is a profound understatement to say, that one is visited by every emotion known to man (sadness, joy, rage, fear, etc.) along with each one’s primary kinesthetic experience. With each scanning pass through the body, one notices the various feelings, emotions and kinesthetic sensations passing through. They arise and they fall. It is during this extended part of the course that one learns simply to observe them.

Neuro Linguistic Programming has long made distinction between two classes of sensation: “kinesthetics” (sensation) and “meta-kinesthetic” (the feelings about feelings, or the experience of emotion) (Bandler, 1979). It is common knowledge in both Vipassana and Neuro Linguistic Programming that a purely kinesthetic experience precedes the emotional interpretation (or meta-kinesthetic experience) (Hart, 1987). It is the tenet of Vipassana that by being “present” or aware of the kinesthetic sensations of these meta-kinesthetic experiences, one is more capable of being present with the actual experience or emotional state (Hart, 1987). It is what SR refers to as “effective suffering, “i.e., recognizing and accepting the suffering as an unavoidable and helpful part of living I the world and growing as a person (Gilligan, 1997). In the language of Vipassana and the teachings of E.S. Goenka, I believe that “effective suffering” is synonymous with the state described as equanimity: an awareness of sensation with neigher craving for a different one nor aversion to the one that is present (Hart, 1987). It is a state of merely “being with” whatever sensation, emotion or feeling is present, without aversion to or adoration for it. This state is what the great science fiction writer, Robert Heinlein, referred to as a “fair witness”: An individual who when seeing a cow in a pasture, would describe it as a four-legged animal with white spots on one side (Heinlein, 1961). It is the belief of Mr. Goenka that by feeling and observing these “emotional experiences” with the grounding of a non-judgmental state of equanimity that they arise and pass away in an increasingly diminished manner. Ultimately one is left with a kind of peacefulness regarding not only these emotions, but also regarding the “content of the issue” that set them in motion to begin with. As I sat through these last six days of the course, I experienced this transformative phenomenon again and again. And I could only agree with Mr. Goenka’s belief that the essential principles in healing and personal transformation are the dual gifts of equanimity and depth of awareness of kinesthetic sensation.

All that I have discussed thus far has health primarily with kinesthetic sensation. However, Neuro Linguistic Programming positis that the structure of subjective experience (the process of thinking) is represented by three complementary systems: visual (images), auditory (sound and inner dialog), and kinesthetic (kinesthetic primary and meta-kinesthetic) (Bandler, 1979). Thus, the next question that arose for me during the final days of the course was what is the role of language or imagery in the therapy process? In answer, the SR concept of “proper naming” began to stand out for me. In my experience, the naming process allows us, on some level, to relax into the felt experience of our emotions. Without a proper naming, it is almost impossible to bring awareness to the sensation level of an emotional experience. The anxiety associated with the unexplained sensations in one’s body (“What is this? Is it safe?”) makes it exceedingly difficult to rest awareness (human presence) on the physical location of the sensation. In short, the anxiety makes it nearly impossible to achieve a state of equanimity and therefore, be present. With proper naming, the anxiety disappears as if in a magic “poof,” and one is finally able to be present and to feel into the kinesthetic sensations of the emotions. I do not fully understand this miracle of proper naming, but I have experienced its power countless times. It is an integral component of good therapy. It is the key that allows us to touch and feel the sensations associated with past trauma so that the natural healing process of life can begin to occur. Verbal exchanges and conversation in the therapy process, from this perspective, do play a significant role, but serve only as a means to an end. These verbal exchanges never become an end in themselves, which I believe is often the case with more cognitive based therapies.

Finally then, the ten-day course ended and I left with an afterglow from the many hours of meditation and the ongoing feeling of deep kinesthetic sensation. The experience also provided me with a n enhanced, “felt sense” understanding of many SR concepts that now blossomed with new meaning. I felt renewed in body and spirit. And my beliefs about the nature and importance of kinesthetic awareness expanded exponentially. I now even more strongly knew that the capacity to feel, to be aware of kinesthetic sensations is, by no means, a given. Neither is it digital (on/off). Dissociation from the sensations in our body is measured in degrees. As anyone attempting a 10-day Vipassana course will testify, one’s “felt sense” the ability for our conscious mind to penetrate into the sensations of our central nervous system is a capability, a skill that must be cultivated and recommitted to on a second-to-second basis. The conscious mind will offer every possible distraction to distance itself from suffering in the body. The idea of “renewal” seems highly appropriate. In my experience as a human being and professional dance, I have found that the capacity to sense and be truly aware of kinesthetic sensation must be renewed each day like some sort of battery. Without a period of time each day dedicated specifically to cultivation of this kinesthetic awareness, one’s capability quickly dissipates. Thus, for me meditation, or perhaps more aptly, kinesthetic body scanning is a daily practice. It is my cultivation of full spectrum feeling and an ability to connect with others in a significant and often profound way. It demands daily renewal. Don’t leave home without it.


Bandler, R. and Grinder, J. (1979). Frogs Into Princess: Neuro Linguistic Programming. Moag, Utah: Real People Press.

Gilligan, S. (1997). The Courage to Love. New York: Norton.

Hart, W. (1987). The Art of Living: Vipassana Meditations as Taught by S. N. Goenka. San Francisco: Harper

Heinlein, R. (1961). Stranger in a Strange Land. New York: Berkley Medallion Books.