Thousands of years ago, Gautama Buddha found that suffering is part and parcel of everyone’s life, albeit in different forms. For some suffering is physical, causing torturous pain. For others, it can be mental suffering manifesting itself in myriad ways.
This reality was termed ‘dukkha’, which means sorrow, misery or sadness by Buddha, an unalterable universal truth tormenting every living being, even though its root cause differs.
Is it necessary to surrender to this ‘dukkha’ and lead an unhappy life, or find solutions to be happy inspite of it? One road in the pursuit of happiness leads to the famous Vipassana technique of meditation discovered by Gautam Buddha, and popularized in our generation by S N Goenka, an Indian who was born and brought up in Myanmar. He gained access to this centuries’ old technique of meditation from Sayagyi U Ba Khin, who belonged to a chain of Vipassana teachers, passing on the gift of this technique to a small group of people, who took it forward through successive generations. Vipassana though first discovered in India, got lost in its country of origin but continued in its pristine form, in the interiors of Myanmar, passed on from generation to generation, bringing benefit and transforming lives of thousands who followed this path, and from here, spread across the globe.
The Vipassana technique appeals due to its rational, scientific base, devoid of religious leanings, blind faith or iconic leaders wishing to be worshipped as gods themselves, and serves only to improve individuals at the root level, teaching them how to live in peace and harmony with their surroundings, accepting rather than reacting to people and situations, finding contentment all around. There is no cult to join, no push to belong, only a desire to improve the lives of people, and help them overcome their endless cravings and aversions.
It is this that Vipassana meditation seeks to teach us all – how to accept reality just the way it is. Meditation has been the recourse for calming the anxious, racing mind, plagued with thoughts that cause restlessness. There are numerous variations in techniques of meditation but the essence is the same, to build concentration and reach the deepest core of the mind, constantly looking inwards.
How Vipassana helps
Vipassana helps on multiple fronts, during times of stress, illness, melancholy and helps one sail through difficulties, simply by observing our feelings and emotions, being aware and accepting them, and gradually watch them pass away. This stems from the reality of impermanence, since nothing lasts forever, whatever begins, comes to an end, whatever arises, passes away. What comes today will go away after a period of time, however short or long, and anything that is made, will perish one day. There is nothing like permanence, eternity, lasting forever, and this is true of the tangible and the intangible. It takes us very long to understand our existing state of mind that wants the good to last and the bad to end. But nature is not selective. Anything and everything that arises, also passes away after some time. We are the ones who have to learn to be equanimous, not reacting to either.
Entering the realm of vipassana meditation, is ethereal, and so different from the stressful world outside. The ambience is conducive to feeling a beautiful silence, and meditation brings stillness, establishing an inner calm and the mind begins to move towards clarity. This is partly due to the ability to renounce worldly ties and material comforts, albeit for a short period, abandoning negative thoughts and emotions and letting go of attachments while improving on defilements that plague our lives. The end result is the lightness of spirit and the realization that we actually need very little to survive, and have unnecessarily made our existence so complicated and burdensome. Even as we meditate we have to rise above the feeling of joy when we are able to concentrate or develop an aversion towards the inability to do so. Vipassana meditation has become a significant topic of conversation, continuing to gain popularity as a meditative technique, and a step ahead of simple mindfulness. Its roots in the teachings of Buddha, help us all adopt Buddhist principles and follow them to lead a highly moral life, which can either be defined as Buddha’s eight-fold path, or as the path of goodness and morality with no room for hurt, harm, dishonesty or negative, devious behaviour.
To the layman, Vipassana remains an enigma, often considered a fad, and a seemingly unsustainable way of life. Nothing can be farther from the truth, since Vipassana transforms lives, teaches us to look for solutions within, rather than blaming the world for the problems we face, gaining control over our sharp and overactive mind, and helps us understand the true meaning and purpose of life.
The Meditation Routine – Too Rigorous?
Often, in social conversations, one hears people ignorantly wondering how one survives without phones and laptops, television and air conditioners, in silence and even without eye contact, eat breakfast at 7 and the last meal of the day at 11.30 am. It is ten days of peace, calm and quiet solitude, when survival is limited to our own frame, and not beyond, without aides and distractions, not even pen and paper. It is a time to rediscover the potential of the human mind that does not really need any of these addictive belongings that we become so dependent on. We can remember whatever we wish to, we do not need to stay connected and updated all the time, and we are dispensable, the world can continue without us. Hence, we can focus on purifying and cleansing the innermost folds of our mind, rid ourselves of the numerous defilements and overcome the urge to react, and create sensations in some part of the body at all times.
For the sceptics, and self-defined restless individuals, the answer to their query about the impossibility of surviving without books, laptops and phones, is that the course provides abundance of food for thought, unimaginable amount to learn and practice, that none of these would be missed. We walk in for the course not out of mere curiosity, but with complete preparedness that we wish to learn this highly scientific technique and would like to understand the complex mind. The challenge is the prospect of renouncing the world and our relationships for ten days, and adopting the life of a monk/nun for this period. There is no religious conversion, no questions about one’s faith or beliefs, beyond a request to devote these ten days to vipassana alone, and be completely devoted to this deep operation of the mind focussing only on our breath and sensations in every part of the body. The ten days are tough but get easier with every passing day, and soon we step in to a haven of peace and tranquillity, an ideal environment to begin the journey into the deepest recesses of our mind. Life becomes the simplest possible with minimal materials for rest and survival. Which brings us to the realization within the first couple of days, how little we need to survive. We learn to focus on our breath, for the first three days, the simple process of breathing in and breathing out, restricting our focus to a small triangle area between the nostrils and upper lip. And with each hour of breathing practice we are sharpening our mind, scraping off layer after layer of past memories, unpleasant thoughts and unnecessary notes kept in the diary of the mind.
Gradually we reach deep within and from here then we begin to build on mindful awareness to feel sensations however gross or subtle. This begins on the fourth day when the mind and awareness has sharpened and focus is enhanced. This is the Vipassana technique, which teaches us how to focus on sensations on every inch of our body, going deep to the core. There is pain, burning, tingling, sweating or anything else, the idea is to observe and focus on it. It appears like an x-ray of our system as we pass the observation lens over the body inch by inch. And as this happens, the mind gets purer and purer. We let go of negatives, piled up pain and misery, clear the baggage of the past that has burdened us, and layers of these get cleared from the mind, leaving a crystal clear, thinking, observing and pure mind, making us feel lighter, happier, and calmer.
One feels when the course ends, that purity has been achieved for life. Not really, since getting back into the real world means layer after layer of dust and deceit, impurity and negativity, begins to fog the mind all over again.