Most people come to psychotherapy because they’re stuck with intense feelings they can’t overcome or a problem they can’t solve. Vipassana (insight) meditation offers a method for addressing such difficult issues. The method I’m proposing divides and conquers by separating the problem into digestible pieces, exploring one at a time, then leaving it alone to analyze the next piece. When all parts have been examined they are put in perspective and solutions emerge.
To illustrate the method in an entertaining way I’ll start with something different than the usual examples of ending procrastination, raising self-esteem and so on. Instead I’ll illustrate its use from my hobby of collecting espresso machines. Then I’ll review how the method is applied to more stressful life issues.
A Collector’s Dilemma
Recently a friend notified me of a Gaggia Orione vintage espresso machine offered at a very low price. I really wanted it but had strong misgivings too. I thought I would put it out of my mind but it was disturbing my sleep! So I got out of bed to work it out using Vipassana meditation.
First, though, I suspect most of you don’t collect vintage espresso machines. So here’s some background. While recovering from World War II, Italian artisans created a revolutionary way to make deliciously creamy and concentrated coffee known as espresso. “Espresso” denotes the method and speed of pressing hot water through coffee grounds to make deliciously rich and creamy nectar called “crema caffe.” Achille Gaggia helped pioneer this method, having bought a 1938 patent for pressing the water through ground coffee with a piston.1 During a golden age from about the late 1940s through the 1960s, he and his company were among the innovators of spring-loaded piston espresso machines for commercial and home use. Their finely tuned engineering was only surpassed by the eccentricity and beauty of their enclosures. These machines were sculpted fantasies in chrome just like the automobiles of that era.2 By the 1970s the decorative frills had receded but some machines retained the elegant piston design where a spring was cocked and released with a lever. The classic Gaggia Orione model was still made being manufactured. And that machine was available for the taking a couple of towns from me. Its proud new owner shared a photo for this article. What makes this machine so special is the vintage commercial lever “group,” a massive piston and brew chamber built for temperature stability and engineered to last for decades in a busy cafe. Did I really want that monster on my counter? How could I afford to pass it up?
Gaggia Orione photo courtesy of Nathan Paik, 2012.
Applying the Vipassana Method
So I shuffled into my office and settled into an easy chair to meditate. I took a couple of minutes to concentrate only on my breath while letting thoughts come and go without attending to them. Then I considered each emotionally charged issue one at a time to the exclusion of the others. I also adopted a stance of not knowing what my final decision would be. This helped me focus more effectively on each item.
Here are the thoughts I analyzed with related emotions:
The first big hesitation:
1. I’ve collected several vintage machines to equip my home and two offices. I don’t have an unlimited budget and don’t want the collection to take over my house.
2. How often does an Orione become available? A few times a year, including eBay. So, these are rare. I’m certainly tempted.
3. How often can you find one in good shape for $600? Maybe once every two to three years. It is an opportunity.
I now knew my felt responses for the first three items. I put each aside after considering it and was ready for the next.
4. What is the reputation of such a machine, its ability to brew first-class espresso? There are none better. It would be really nice to have this, even if it has to live in the garage!
But … I feel some strong resistance. What is it?
5. Do I need it? Will it offer capabilities that aren’t provided by my other machines? Well, no. My Conti Prestina is a small commercial lever machine that will provide the same quality drink, consistently, shot after shot, and limitless steaming capability. And it is even more rare. So, I don’t need it to brew a better espresso.
6. The Conti Prestina takes up less space on the counter. In my modest home that’s a big plus.
7. The advertiser writes it will need thorough servicing. This would be a big project and take several months of weekend time. Do I want another demanding project? No! This is a big hesitation no matter what it costs.
8. I would like to spend more time doing other things. There’s a long list, from writing articles like this to visiting with friends and day trips in our beautiful San Francisco Bay Area.
Yes, but … can I really let this opportunity pass? I still wasn’t sure I could let it go!
Two enticements considered next:
9. Is it more attractive than my Conti Prestina? Yes, with its classic looks. Not on my counter with its much larger size. This is kind of a wash but still favors the Orione.
10. It would be a shame to let this opportunity go to waste! I feel that strongly. But wait. I have another idea. I can alert my friends who are collectors. The opportunity will not go to waste. This was when the solution emerged. I had made up my mind.
I alerted friends about its availability and felt at peace. Later I met the young man who bought it with the hope of opening a small coffee business. I’m glad he has this unique machine and can share it with friends and customers, including me. I can admire it but I don’t have to own it.
Of course I’ve just described the temptation of a hobby. This is not a crucial decision unless the hobby becomes hoarding. Let’s see how the Vipassana Method can be used for truly important decisions.
The Vipassana Method Applied to More Critical Issues
Consider what other decisions may be eased using the Vipassana Method:
• Do I stay in this relationship?
• What’s the best treatment option for my father’s serious illness?
• Do I send my child to an expensive private school or public school?
• Do we really want that house? Should we keep searching or can we do without?
• My career feels stalled. What’s my next direction?
• As a leader or manager, how do I decide what issues to take on and which ones aren’t ready for change?
These are just a few of the issues that may be helped by this process. Let’s briefly consider the first item to illustrate what to do if a solution doesn’t quickly emerge.
Choosing a life partner isn’t easy. We can be attracted to many people, but it seems only a few romances have what it takes for the long run. Here’s a typical dilemma. “This new guy I’m dating seems really special. I’m starting to fall for him. But is he the one?” May you be one of the fortunate ones to have this kind of “problem”! Still it isn’t straightforward.
Start by dividing this question into its parts. Let’s say you’re strongly attracted but you’re from very different backgrounds. You also have different career plans. You get along really well and have never had an argument. But this is a new relationship. You’ve recognized these elements and will explore them one at a time. The first item you consider might be something like this:
“When I’m with him I feel really special. He seems to anticipate everything I want. And he’s so kind. But we’ve only been dating for a few weeks. Is this the way he’ll be next year? Five years from now? How can I tell?”
You’ve taken a feeling and linked it to something he does. Good. Now you can consider that. And doing so brings up useful questions you can start to answer.
“I think I’ll ask him about earlier relationships. Since he’s still single they broke up for some reason. Did he leave them or did his partner walk away? What was his childhood family like? Did his parents stay together? Did they love each other?”
Some of these questions won’t be answered right away. But at least you’ll know whether to get closer or give it more time. Of course you’ll explore some of the other considerations we’ve just listed. But let’s move on to a different kind of challenge, one that’s more intense and scary. What do you do when faced with something truly overwhelming?
What if a loved one has just been diagnosed with a late stage cancer? You’ll be faced with these kinds of questions:
• What treatment will yield the best quality of life for the longest time?
• Does he want to fight to live if this requires very aggressive treatment?
• How do I deal with my emotions while being the most supportive for my loved one?
• What help will I need and from whom?
• How will I deal with other family members who have their own strong opinions?
You can divide these concerns into smaller parts. But you could frequently feel overwhelmed. For most people this situation is too activating to expect otherwise. The Vipassana Method is useful if you’re rested enough that you can gather yourself and meditate on an issue at a time. But there may be times where reaching out for help and practicing basic self-care are all you’re capable of, which is certainly okay. What can Vipassana help you do?
The divide and conquer principle takes the weight of the larger decision off your shoulders so you can stand the intensity of considering alternatives. As a creative method, putting the other issues on hold to concentrate on one at a time allows an incubation 3 process where the thoughts sort themselves out, eventuating in an “aha” experience. From the perspective of Buddhist thought, focusing awareness on an object of contemplation cultivates non-attachment. One flows more gracefully through life’s challenges with less distraction. And adopting a stance of not knowing the final outcome allows beginner’s mind.
Summary of the Vipassana Method
Here is a summary to help you can make challenging decisions using this method:
1. Recognize that a decision has become difficult because it involves conflicting thoughts and feelings.
2. Set aside an uninterrupted time and quiet place to think it through.
3. Analyze each factor one at a time.
4. Be non-attached to a preferred outcome when analyzing each factor.
5. Upon realizing one’s stance about an item, set it aside.
6. Analyze the next factor.
7. Repeat until you’ve covered all considerations.
8. At this point you may have reached your decision. If not, see whether you feel unsettled because you need more information.
9. Gather additional information and cycle through the preceding steps.
The first example I gave was about something as simple as a good cup of coffee. This serves as an apt metaphor for taking a short break to get perspective in an alert and relaxed state. This is the essence of the Vipassana Method, to step back from the weight of a decision, and give yourself the time it takes to think things through. Then you can feel at peace that you’ve made the best choice given the information at hand.
To schedule a first appointment please select this link. Although experienced with emergencies, that is not my practice focus. I work with people who can reliably cope, are not at risk or in crisis, do not have thoughts of self-harm, and are seeking to grow.
1. Maltoni, E. (2009).
2. To view examples see www.EspressoMadeInItaly.com.
3. People familiar with the creative process will see that this is a way to achieve creative solutions. Creativity commonly includes stages of Preparation, Immersion, Frustration, Incubation and Illumination. For more, see Moustakas and Vargiu in references below.
Maltoni, E. (2009). FAEMA Espresso: 1945-2010. Collezione Enrico Maltoni ®, Forli-Cesena, Italy.
Moustakas, C. (1990). Heuristic research: Design, methodology, and applications. Newbury Park, CA: Sage Publications, Inc.
Vargiu, J. (1977). Creativity. In Synthesis, 3-4, 17-53. Redwood City, CA: Synthesis Press.