Michael Finkel, Men’s Journal Magazine: These are my final words: “Why a camp chair?” I speak them to a man named Wade. Wade from Minnesota. I’m in line behind him, waiting to enter the Dhamma Giri meditation center, in the quiet hill country of western India, for the official start of the 10-day course. Wade tells me that this is his second course and that he learned a valuable lesson from the first. “I’m so glad I have this,” he says, indicating the small folding camp chair tucked under his arm. I utter my last question. It’s never answered. One of the volunteers …
Naazneen Karmali, Forbes: Every day busloads of tourists arrive in Gorai, a seafront suburb of Mumbai, and head to Esselworld and Water Kingdom, two popular theme parks built by Indian billionaire Subhash Chandra’s Essel Group.
Since 2008 the traffic to Gorai has jumped several-fold. Around 10,000 of those people are seeking something other than a ride down a water slide. They are going to the giant golden pagoda. You can see it from miles around rising from the trees in a sharp fingerlike spire aimed at the clouds.
The people are going to the pagoda to sit in Vipassana, an ancient Buddhist meditation style seeing …
Matthew Green, Financial Times: The guru looked troubled. A spry 75-year-old, who could have passed for 60, he usually wore an expression as pure as his ivory robe. Peering into my cell, he watched as I wept harder than I could remember, for a reason my mind could not fathom. Then he beamed. “You are very lucky,” he said. “This is a very big sankara leaving your body – perhaps it was an illness that even a doctor could not cure.”
Perplexing as his words sounded, their meaning would become clear later. All I could grasp then was that the Indian meditation master believed that my mysterious meltdown had taken me a step closer to enlightenment. The Himachal Vipassana Centre clings to the flank of a valley above the town of McLeod Ganj, in the foothills of the Himalayas in northern India, where exiled Tibetans, led by the Dalai Lama, co-exist with a backpackers’ nirvana of hostels, trinket shops and bars. Smiling monks sporting off-the-shoulder purple habits scurry past temples swathed in incense, while earnest-faced Europeans, Japanese and Israelis zigzag along paths of self-discovery. Late-night singalongs of Bob Marley classics with guitar-playing strangers are virtually compulsory; Vipassana is optional. Just as well: it is the closest thing on offer to a Buddhist boot camp…
Was it possible to survive 10 days of meditating in an Indian retreat without speaking, reading or making eye-contact with fellow guests?
I am sitting cross-legged on the floor in a large hall, surrounded by strangers. Sweat is running down my face, and my thighs are bleating in agony. I’m trying to meditate but my mind keeps calculating how long I’ve been here (about five hours) and how long there is to go (about another 100).
It is the first day of my silent retreat in Gujarat, India. I am not allowed to talk throughout the 10 days. In fact, I am not allowed to do much at all: I can’t make eye contact with my fellow meditators, or read, write, listen to music, exercise or do just about anything except sit here on the floor.
My reasons for signing up suddenly seem very foolish. Rather than it being a spiritual quest or an attempt to resolve deep-seated personal issues, I came here hoping…
for fireworks of the meditative kind. I have meditated intermittently for years, and I know that it works.
When I have occasionally managed to keep it up for more than a few days at a time, it definitely makes me a calmer, nicer person, and better able to sleep. On good days, I find it mildly pleasant, but there has always been something missing. Other meditators describe seeing colours, experiencing heightened states of bliss or developing a serene understanding of the complexities of life. That has never happened to me. So, in the hope of bypassing the years of steady effort I suspect may be required, I travelled to the Dhamma Sindhu centre to do a Vipassana retreat, the most extreme form of meditation I know.
Vipassana, which means “to see things as they really are”, is an ancient Buddhist technique revived and popularised by a Burmese-born Indian, SN Goenka. His courses are taught in about 140 centres around the world, all of which observe the same schedule: wake up at 4am, meditation from 4.30am, breakfast at 6.30am, more meditation, lunch at 11am, meditation, dinner (two pieces of fruit and a cup of tea) at 6pm, meditation, a video talk by Goenka, and lights out at 9.30pm. The courses are free, although you are encouraged to give a donation at the end.
There are about 120 of us doing the Gujarat retreat, all but 10 of whom are Indian. The day before it starts, we queue to hand in books and mobile phones, before being shown to our single, cell-like rooms. The following morning, with just five hours of meditation under my belt, I am already experiencing misgivings.
I had been prepared to hate it at times, even occasionally to regret coming, but I hadn’t expected it to be a constant struggle. Worse than the silence, by far, is the pain. No amount of meditation I’ve done before could prepare me for sitting on the floor for 10-and-a-half hours a day. I try everything: more cushions, fewer cushions, two small cushions under my knees, a firmer cushion tilted under a softer cushion, a cushion on my lap to rest my hands on. Nothing helps.
After two days, gaps start to appear in the meditation hall. People are dropping out. We have been warned that days two and six will be the most difficult, so I moderate my expectations and prepare for it to be grim until day seven, when, surely, there will be joy?
In the meantime I suffer. The Vipassana technique involves systematically moving your attention around your body, noticing physical sensations but not reacting to them. If you find your mind wandering, you are told to observe your thoughts and let them pass without joining the conversation. But that is easier said than done. Work, relationships, my parents’ deaths, the novel I had been half-way through, Downton Abbey: all these kept popping into my head.
Every night Goenka encourages us from the television screen, promising a happier, more harmonious life if we learn to welcome both pleasure and pain. “Accept the sensations as they arise, no craving and no aversion, they will pass,” he keeps saying.
Day six is no improvement, and several more people leave. Day seven is awful. As well as the pain, there is the boredom. I realise how much I rely on external narratives to get me through the day – work, novels, films, gossip, Twitter, news, whatever. Here it is just me and my daydreams, which are embarrassingly transparent. By now I know my search has failed.
“The purpose of Vipassana is not to experience pleasurable sensations but rather to develop equanimity towards all sensations,” Goenka says. “Your progress is measured only in how far you are able to face life’s vicissitudes with equanimity, nothing more.”
There is a lot of talk about the vicissitudes of life, and being equanimous in the face of adversity, all of which I find rather quaint. I can imagine how useful that might be, but mostly I’m just counting the hours until I can leave.
Then, after lunch on day eight, everything changes. I enter another dimension. It is as if the boundaries of my physical body have dissolved, setting every molecule free to fly around the room. Everything is glowing red; everything is joyful. It is like the most intense drug-induced out-of-body euphoria, but calm, with no anxiety, no doubt.
So this is it, I think. I picture my fellow meditators sitting quietly around me. Are they feeling the same thing? Why has it taken me so long? I don’t understand what is happening and I don’t feel the need to try. It could be a purely chemical reaction to depriving my brain of pleasure for so long. It doesn’t matter.
The sensations last, with varying intensity, for the remainder of the retreat. On the afternoon of the 10th day the silence is lifted and I try to speak to the others about their experiences, keen to find out if they had these glorious out-of-body sensations too.
A Polish woman, who is in a cell near mine, seems a bit embarrassed by my questions. “That’s not what it’s about,” she says, somewhat dismissively. A Filipino man on his fifth Vipassana retreat tells me that he has never felt any bliss, but doesn’t mind because meditating has changed his life so much.
Back home, my friend Stella, who has done a Vipassana retreat, is more forthcoming. “Oh, you had the orgasms,” she says. “Yes, I had those too, but not everyone does. They’re really not important.”
She is right. What I have to admit afterwards is that sensation-seeking is the very antithesis of meditation. It is not about the colours or the bliss; rather it’s about strengthening the muscle that helps build resilience. A steady practice that leaves you a bit better equipped to pause before lashing out, to rise above perceived slights and not be put off by the usual setbacks. A little more able to face life’s vicissitudes with equanimity, as Goenka would say.
The Whitwell House Day Hospital in Saxon Road, Saxmundham [Suffolk, England], used to look after mental health patients but closed last year.
Planning chiefs at Suffolk Coastal District Council have now given the thumbs up for the building to be used as a silent meditation retreat centre subject to a number of conditions.
It will be run by the Vipassana Trust, a charity which was formed in 1988 and has its headquarters in Hereford.
Most of the the residential courses on offer will be no more than three days long, although some could eventually last for up to 10 days.
Last night Patrick Elder, from Walpole, near Halesworth, who acted as an agent for the application and practices the meditation technique, said: “Vipassana is based on the techniques taught by the Buddha more than 2,500 years ago. It is not in any way religious – it is open to everyone.
“The courses are quiet retreats and the participants will enjoy silence for the majority of their stay.
“It will certainly bring people into the town and we are excited about the project.
“There is a bit of work that we still have to do but we would be disappointed if we were not up and running before the end of the year.”
Some concerns were raised about the lack of car parking, the risk of flooding and the poor access for disabled people but these have been addressed by the applicant.
The charity is run through donations and there are no charges for any of the courses. “People may or may not give a donation,” Mr Elder continued. “It depends if they feel they have benefited from what they are doing. It is entirely up to them.
“It means the courses are available to absolutely anybody from whatever walk of life, religion, creed or nationality.”
Vipassana, which means to see things as they really are, is one of India’s most ancient forms of meditation.
SN Goenka is the leading teacher of vipassana, a popular Buddhist meditation technique. He was born in Burma to Indian parents and raised as a Hindu. He spoke to The Indian Express Editor-in-Chief Shekhar Gupta on NDTV’s Walk the Talk on how Buddhism changed him and how he brought vipassana back to the country of its origin.
I am at the Dharma Stupa (not far away from Mumbai), an architectural marvel as intriguing as the spiritual practice which it is supposed to be attributed to, vipassana. To talk to me about this popular form of meditation, is its guru, although he doesn’t like to be called that, Guru S N Goenkaji. Every spiritual or religious practice is known after its teacher, and spiritual teachers have now become rock stars. How come in vipassana the guru is hardly known outside the community of followers? Because in Buddhism, you have to work out your salvation. I cannot do anything for you. I will just give you the path, the whole path is there for you to walk. The tradition of the teacher is always like that, that I can’t do anything for you. Praising or making a big idol out of the teacher is not permitted. So, I shouldn’t start that.
Everybody knows vipassana but not many people understand it.
If they know and practise vipassana, my purpose is served. I don’t do anything to make myself popular. Vipassana should become popular.
This is completely unusual. Every other guru has followers chasing him. If he gets off a plane, cars pull up to receive him like a minister.
A teacher should not be made an idol, like a god. He is a teacher. If you want to get any help, you practice what is being taught, that’s all.
Do you respect Buddha as a god or a teacher?
He isn’t god. He was an enlightened person. He was a scientist of the spiritual world. Without scientific apparatus, 2,600 years ago, he had said the entire world or the universe has no solidity. Your body too has no solidity, (it is) mere vibration. Scientists now have started saying this too.
So, you don’t worship Buddha?
No. Even in his lifetime, when people came and paid him respects, he told them that the only way they could pay him respect was to practice meditation the way he taught. He said: I can’t help you. Nobody can help you. Koi Buddh ho jayega, he will show you the path. You have to step on the path. That will give you the result, not the teacher. That is the tradition maintained by a few people in Burma. And that is vipassana.
What does vipassana mean literally?
To observe reality as it is. No imagination, speculation, belief or disbelief is allowed. When people start realising the truth of their body and minds, how they work, they come out of misery. Vinobaji (Vinoba Bhave) had once challenged me. He said he couldn’t believe vipassana could help people be freed of their impurities. Only god can help, he said.
I said, sir, it has helped me. He said he would accept vipassana if it can reform schoolchildren with no discipline and hardened criminals. I said, sir, I am new in this country. You arrange courses, I will teach and let’s see the result. So he arranged a course in his own school. In every sentence, the students there had some abuse or filthy language. They had no discipline. After vipassana, they did not use bad language anymore.
Three years later, the home secretary of Rajasthan also did a course and was impressed. I said you are the home secretary, let me hold one or two courses in a jail. He talked to the chief minister and got permission. Then, Kiran Bedi said you must be come to Tihar (jail). A thousand inmates took part in our sessions. The government even established a centre there.
Tell us about your journey from Burma, your initiation into vipassana.
I was a very strong sanatani, very strong Hindu. At a very young age, I became a successful businessman. In Burma, I became president of the chamber of commerce. I became egoistic. I would beat my children mercilessly. I had always topped my class in school. If my children got bad marks, I would beat them. Later, my teacher Sayagyi U Ba Khin said I won’t teach you Buddhism. I will teach you morality. Do you have any objection? How can be there any objection sir, I said. How can you lead a moral life, without control of the mind, he said? So he taught me morality and samadhi and pragya. In 10 days, the migraine I had for 20 years was gone. I did not need the morphine I had been taking for 10 years anymore. But the big achievement was that my anger was gone, and my ego became less.
And you haven’t been angry since then?
Only once, when I had to pretend to be angry to improve a person, who was not able to understand (me).
How is vipassana different from other forms of meditation?
Vipassana is observation of truth. Not the apparent truth. Not your face or your arms. You feel what is happening inside you. The mind becomes very sharp in three days. In those three days, no words are used. Nobody asks you to chant Buddha’s name. Just observe the truth, the breath coming in and out of you. Experience the truth as is the law of nature. From the fourth day, you are asked to observe the whole body, to get different sensations, pleasant sometimes, but mostly unpleasant. A lot of negativity amd impurities well up in their minds. Then they realise what they are doing. They realise they are harming themselves and they start changing. This is how the change comes, with their own experience.
You are not telling anybody to become a monk.
I am not a monk. I am a householder. During Buddha’s time, a large number of monks and nuns, and quite a large number of householders were teachers. Slowly, the householder-teacher system went away. Only the monks remained. The tradition of householders was to be established again. This was the dream of my great teacher. People in India are afraid of Buddhism. But when you go as a householder and start teaching them, and they get results, they will automatically come.
But why are people afraid of Buddhism in India?
There is a wrong impression created in the last 2,000 years that Buddha taught ahimsa parmo dharma. Ashoka, who was the biggest follower of Buddha, gave up his army and violence.
He weakened India…
Which never happened, totally wrong. This was only propaganda to condemn Buddha and his teaching. Later, I studied Ashoka’s writings and then went back to Buddha’s teachings. I realised Buddha had also taught how to defend gantantra, the republic. This is applicable even today. He explained how kings should build a fort and defend themselves.
Vipassana is tough. Do people find it tough to go through those 10 days?
No, it is easy. You just observe your breath and the mind wanders away. Slowly start concentrating and move your body and feel the sensation. Keep on working on that. On the tenth day, when everybody goes back, they are all happy.
But do you encounter many who are not able to take it and run away?
Say one in a thousand. The vast majority don’t go away. They work. I have made teachers from every community.
In Britain, you said there is now a three-month waiting list for vipassana courses, but not so much in India as yet.
In India too, in many of our centres, there are waiting lists. There is a waiting list at the centre here also. I have trained 1200-odd teachers; there are 158 centres around the world and 90 places where there are no centres, but our teachers go and teach people when they call us.
But there is a certain exotica. People know vipassana is a Buddhist meditation technique. They know it came from Burma. Some know that there is one Mr Goenka who’s behind it. Not many know that there is a big stupa outside of Mumbai. But nobody understands really what this is.
Why did you build the stupa?
Twelve thousand people come and meditate here. An old relic of Buddha here and it gives off good vibration.
Let me ask you an ignorant question, If Buddha was not god, if he was a human being, why should a relic from his body provide special vibration?
His whole body had wonderful vibrations when he was teaching. Every part of his body still generates good vibrations.
So a human being can become superhuman?
Certainly. This is what his teaching is there. You can become a superhuman but you don’t become a god or goddess or Brahma. It is not allowed that people come and pay respects to you. You lead a good life, (be) a good example for others.
So you built this stupa here as a tribute to Buddha?
I built it as a tribute to my teacher because he wanted to pay back the debt to India, which is where vipassana originated. He wanted to come and teach here but couldn’t get a passport. I was a Burmese national but I got a passport. So he asked me to do the job. I was sceptical. Who will come to me? I have no method, no shaven head. I am a householder. My brothers were here but they said vipassana is not for our country. Let it be in Burma. They didn’t help me. My teacher said do not worry, those who have done good deeds from the past will come running to you. You won’t have to call them. And within 10 days, courses were arranged.
So you rediscovered India and India rediscovered you and vipassana, something India lost 2,600 years ago.
Quite true. I had feared that people had a wrong impression about vipassana and Ashoka. But they started coming.
And you are not converting anybody to Buddhism.
No, I am against conversion. In my speech at UN, the first thing I said was that I am for conversion, but not from one organised religion to another, but from misery to happiness, from bondage to liberation.
How many of those who do vipassana actually get changed, fundamentally?
Well, I should say a large number of them get changed. That is how it is spreading. We have no publicity, no propaganda; we don’t charge anything from the people.
And a very simple name like Satya Narayan Goenka, no guru, no shri, no beard, no matted hair.
A spiritual teacher who came to my course, said: “Why don’t you change your name? Satya Narayan Goenka means a Marwari and he is a businessman. What he will teach us? Change your name, say Satyanand”. And lots of people will come. I said I am not here to deceive people. One of my disciples ( I don’t want to name him), he changed his name and started a method. But we don’t condemn that. That is his job. But we never recommend this. This kind of false impression is not moral.
Have you observed the sayings of other popular gurus in India, Sri Sri Ravishankar?
Ravishankar was my student. He signed up for a vipassana course. Now I see him changed. (laughs)
So he is the student you were talking about.
But I don’t condemn. Somebody may like to live like that. Let him.
How does your method differ from say Thich Nhat Hanh’s, mindfulness as he calls it?
Mindfulness can be of many things. You can be mindful of the outside thing, you can be mindful about others, you can be mindful even about your body. But the mindfulness taught in this technique is (to be aware of) the inner reality, because that is related to our misery. One is to come out of misery.
And what about the Dalai Lama, have you followed his teachings?
We are very good friends, but his teaching is little different. They have some rites and rituals like prostrating in front of a teacher.
You don’t encourage that.
Once at a confluence in Nagpur, Dalai Lama and I were invited as teachers. In my speech, I had said that in vipassana, a large number of people start seeing light within three days. He said, ‘Impossible, we take years just to see light’. I asked him to send some of his lamas and let them experience it. He sent two lamas to my course at Varanasi. Fortunately, they both saw light on the third day. They went and reported it. So the Dalai Lama asked me to give a course to his leading lamas. I said yes, but they have to accept my rules and regulations, no more rites or rituals. I went there, some 50 or 60 top lamas took part. The next day, they bowed before me. “These rites and rituals are not allowed,” I said. They said if we don’t do that, we cannot remain lamas. Word reached Dalai Lama, who was staying a few yards away. He sent them a message: “Accept whatever Goenka says. If you think you are committing a sin, consider it mine. But you have to work according to him”. Ten days later, the result was so good that the Dalai Lama met me and said, “All these days, we were under the wrong impression that you were part of the old tradition. You have all the love and compassion for which we are so proud.” So now I say we are very good friends.
And you take him to be a genuine Buddhist?
Genuine Buddhist in the sense that if he comes out of these rites and rituals.
You disagree with rites and rituals.
Yes. I don’t agree with that.
That is the secret of your growing popularity as well because nobody has to change, you haven’t changed.
Quite true. I don’t want people to become Buddhists. We have got a research centre at Igatpuri and there are thousands of pages with Buddha’s verses and nowhere is the word Buddhist mentioned.
So that’s the wonderful contribution you are making. You are bringing back Buddhism to this country. Many congratulations.[via Indian Express]
Buddha taught Vipassana for free to all who cared to practise it 2,500 years ago. Today, the Alberta Vipassana Foundation is teaching this technique for free to all who are determined to give it a try, to see for themselves how it works and to weigh the benefits.
Vipassana in Pali means “insight” to see things as they really are and it has been described by S.N. Goenka as “an art of living.” It is a way of self-transformation through self-observation and self-reflection. Its unique quality is non-sectarian, non-religious and it must be taught entirely for free.
The first 10-day course scheduled in 2010 was held at Camp Kasota in Sylvan Lake, from April 26 to May 7. The course was taught by Goenka on audio and videodiscs. An assistant teacher was there to help students, by offering guidance and answering questions in the practice.
The camp is in a secluded natural environment on the bank of Sylvan Lake. Men and women were segregated and told to respect their boundary areas. Every four students were housed in a heated cabin with built-in bunk beds, quite enough space to sleep in.
In the official opening of the camp, we took vows to abide by the code of disciplines — to abstain from killing, stealing, sexual activity, intoxicants and speaking falsely throughout the entire course. We had to observe Noble Silence — to abstain completely from communication with others, except teachers, whether vocally or physically by glances and gestures.
Food was vegetarian, but pretty decent in varieties and variations, with international flavours and including a dessert. All meals were served buffet style. There was no dinner, but a tea break at 5 p.m. The donations from previous students, who have completed a 10 day-course, funded the program. In fact, volunteers from that group managed the program and performed daily chores, such as cleaning bathrooms, washing dishes, mopping floors, cooking and preparing meals.
The course program was a rigorous 10 continuous days of intensive meditation training. Each day began at 4:30 a.m. and ended at 9 p.m. Every day was heavily scheduled, with three compulsory one-hour sessions and a two-hour discourse session.
On the evening we arrived, the practice of Anapana meditation was taught. It entails observing the natural breath coming in and out of the nostrils without regulating or changing the breath.
The following two days, we continued to observe our normal breathing as we learned to let our minds become calm, sharp and sensitive.
On Day 3, everyone had to work on normal breathing while paying close attention to any sensations in the small area between the nostrils and the upper lip.
Day 4 was Vipassana day, spent simply observing sensations throughout the body from the top of the head to the tips of the toes — the whole body. The goal was to understand the impermanent nature of these sensations while developing equanimity by learning not to react to them.
From Day 5 to Day 9, we were not allowed to open our eyes, arms or legs in all three, one-hour group meditation sessions. This was called The Sitting of Strong Determination. We continued to observe sensations, piercingly and penetratingly sweeping through each and every part of the whole body.
On Day 10, we learned loving kindness meditation to develop our noble qualities and share them with all beings. Noble silence was lifted after morning group sitting.
In essence, our cravings and aversions come from the experience of body sensations. Sensations arise when a sense object comes in contact with sense doors. People do not crave chocolate, but the decadent taste sensation that arises from eating it.
The teaching is to feel the sensation and yet not to relish it; to remain equanimous and detached from it. By mastering this, we come out of old habits that create bondages and misery for ourselves. It is a practice of letting go.
Thirty students ranging in age from 20 to 60-plus completed the 10-day course in May. It was inspiring yet encouraging that a good half of the students were young people. They felt that the course was challenging yet rewarding, too.
It was indeed a simple mental exercise that keeps the mind and body healthy and happy. In a troubled world, it’s important to observe our sensations with equanimity, and with an understanding of their impermanent nature, so we can at least alleviate our insatiable appetite for material abundance.
For course schedules for 2010 in Alberta from Alberta Vipassana Foundation, go to ab.ca.dhamma.org.[Edmonton Journal]
To many people, the word “mindfulness” excludes the imagination, but, as Bodhipaksa explains, there are powerful insight practices that involve mindfully imagining our connection to the wider world.
For many years I’ve been practicing a meditation known as the Six Element Practice.
The Six Element Practice is an insight meditation involving reflection on our own impermanence and interconnectedness.
For some practitioners of the most common form of “insight meditation” — that taught by S. N. Goenka, and by various teachers of the Insight Meditation Society — the notion of reflecting on our experience in the way that we do in the Six Element practice can seem odd, and even contradictory to what they understand of meditation and of mindfulness.
In the form of meditation they practice, thoughts and images may come up, but they are to be observed without interference and allowed to pass. The impermanence of thoughts and images is noted but thoughts and images themselves are not actively cultivated. S. N. Goenka states in one of his books, “Vipassana uses no imagination,” and the variations of the phrase “no imagination is involved” are scattered throughout his teachings. In the Six Element practice, in contrast to Goenka-style vipassana, we do in fact consciously cultivate the arising of thoughts and images. We mindfully reflect and imagine.
Images spring into my mind, evoked by the words I’m speaking
In the Earth Element reflection, for example, we call to mind everything solid within the body. This includes some aspects of the body that we can directly sense, such as the mass of the muscles, the hardness of the teeth, and the resistance offered by some of the bones. But being aware of what is solid in the body goes far beyond what we can directly sense, and takes us into an awareness, for example, of the internal organs, the bone marrow, and even the contents of the stomach and the bowels—all things we are asked to become aware of in the traditional descriptions of the practice. These are things we can’t perceive directly, and so we have to imagine them. In the Buddha’s day people would be familiar with anatomy from seeing animals butchered, and from seeing bodies in charnel grounds. Nowadays we can picture those organs in the mind’s eye by drawing our experience of illustrations we may have seen in books, magazines, or on television programs.
- On doing a variety of practices
- “This is not me; this is not mine, I am not this”
- Guided meditation: The six element practice
- You are the universe become conscious of itself
Similarly, in the Earth Element reflection we call to mind the solid matter in the outside world. When I’m leading others through the practice I usually draw attention to some examples: the solid floor that supports us and the building covering us, the ground below, rocks and boulders, the distant mountains, the trees and other plants in our environment, buildings, vehicles, the bodies of people and animals, etc. As I say these things out loud for the benefit of students, I find that images spring into my mind, evoked by the words I’m speaking. Sometimes, in order to cultivate a sense of the solidity of the external Earth Element I’ll recall or imagine grasping a handful of soil, or hefting a stone in my hand, or pushing against the rough bark of a tree trunk.
Einstein once referred to our sense of separateness being a kind of optical delusion of consciousness.
Imagination allows us to see aspects of reality that aren’t immediately obvious to the unaided senses. Our senses end up fooling us because they’re unable to directly perceive process. When I become mindful of my body, aware only of what is available to my raw senses, I can be fooled into thinking that my body is more static and separate than it is in reality. Einstein once referred to our sense of separateness being a kind of “optical delusion of consciousness.” He was using the words “optical delusion” as a metaphor, but the metaphor is actually very accurate. When I look at my body I see a boundary separating self from other. I also see something that is relatively unchanging. This is what my senses present to me—the body as a “thing.” And yet in my imagination I can recall the way in which my body has come into being by ingesting nourishment and how what constitutes my body is constantly changing from being “self” to being “other.” By recollecting in my mind’s eye the various ways in which the elements flow through my body, I find I can have a truer perception of what the body is: something that is not separate and not static.
Imagination helps us to see truths that our unaided senses cannot detect.
All this, however, rather goes against a certain idea of mindfulness, which is that it involves being aware only of what arises in our present moment experience, such as the sensations being presented to our bodies and any thoughts and feelings that arise naturally. In the Buddhist tradition, however, the mind is considered to be a sixth sense, so that when we reflect on our internal organs or on the solidity of the earth we are simply paying attention to the present moment experience of our visual and tactile imagination. Mindfulness can include these things.
And imagination can be a valuable gateway into insight. It allows us to, in Rilke’s words, go into ourselves and see how deep is the place from which our lives flow. Imagination helps us to make the invisible visible, and to see truths that our unaided senses cannot detect.
London Evening Standard: If you have ever watched Tiger Woods play golf, you know the look. Brim pulled down over the eyes, which are locked on some point far down the fairway.
Despite all the hubbub, he is locked into the moment.
His opponent stands off to one side gnawing his knuckles, knowing another defeat is just a few holes away. Credit meditation for Woods’ extraordinary focus.
An essential part of Tiger Woods’ success is what he calls “staying in the present” and not letting his mind wander off to hoisting a trophy or depositing another million-dollar cheque.
While other golfers may live in the future, at the moment Woods plays his shots, he is apparently free of the conscious worry which plagues the weekend duffer.
And he puts much of this down to meditation and the Eastern philosophy, mostly Buddhist, he learned from his Thai mother.
In addition to his early morning workouts and hours on the driving range, he also meditates daily.
The value of meditation has long been known to those who practise it. David Lynch, the director of Blue Velvet and Wild at Heart, established a foundation for “consciousness-based education and world peace” inspired by his 30 years’ practising transcendental meditation.
Lynch’s ambition is for children to spend one class a day “diving within”, so they can better deal with stress and be more creative throughout their lives.
In the United Kingdom, William Hague has credited his meditative practice with helping him ride the roller coaster of politics.
With so much stress in the economy, meditation is also gaining popularity with business executives.
After the past couple of years, who couldn’t use half an hour a day to tame what Buddhists call “the wild horses” of the mind?
One of the most prominent advocates of meditation is William George, a Harvard Business School professor and board member at Goldman Sachs. George started to meditate 35 years ago while running the medical devices firm Medtronic.
He calls meditation “the single best thing that happened to me in terms of my leadership”. He says that it “enables one to focus on what is really important; and I haven’t had high blood pressure since the Seventies”.
Pointing to the recent financial crisis, George told Bloomberg News: “I think meditation in these times has an important role to play.
“If you take Wall Street versus Warren Buffett, he has made much wiser decisions than Wall Street has.
Now, I don’t know if he’s a meditator, but he’s calm, thoughtful and he stays clear. Wall Street’s trading floor is exactly the opposite.”
Firms ranging from Apple to Google and organisations such as Nasa offer free meditation classes to their employees these days.
It is regarded by these firms as far more than Eastern quackery or a luxury like free cappuccinos.
Meditation not only helps focus but it is also an effective preventative treatment of stress-related illnesses that cost businesses billions every year.
Google has held regular meditation sessions at its offices around the world for the past two years.
The firm believes that it helps employees develop their “emotional intelligence”, which in turn benefits the company.
Jon Kabat-Zinn, the head of the Stress Reduction Clinic at the University of Massachusetts and one of meditation’s greatest champions, calls meditation an act of love, towards oneself and others.
He is a particular favourite at technology firms.
During his talks, he often brings a tennis ball and drops it to signify the act of dropping into the moment.
He argues that greater knowledge of the mind, attained through meditation, helps business people sweep away the tacit assumptions which so often lead to problems.
In a modern society where so many people suffer from attention deficit disorders, he says, it is all about doing, with little recognition of being. The consequence is that people struggle to rest their minds.
Three years ago, the Dalai Lama supplied 12 Buddhist monks to a team of American neuroscientists so they could study the neurological effect of meditation.
The scientists found that by meditating for tens of thousands of hours, the monks had altered the structure and function of their brains.
It appeared that the monks’ brain waves oscillated at a different rate from those in people who never meditated. They were capable of much more focused thought.
The research was called into question by other scientists but it did prompt a wave of interest in how humans might be able to use meditation to change the function of their brains for the better.
One of the most popular forms of meditation for corporate types is Vipassana, which translates as “insight”.
There are Vipassana centres all over the world, founded by SN Goenka, a Burmese entrepreneur. An introductory retreat involves 10 days of “noble silence”.
Days begin at 4am followed by 11 hours of private and group meditation interspersed with meals and lectures. Once they leave, students are advised to meditate twice a day.
Keith Ferrazzi, an expert on networking and author of the best-selling book Never Eat Lunch Alone, says that the 10-day Vipassana meditation is the one time of year when he stops networking and clears his mind.
The key to networking, after all, he says, is “not being an asshole”.
People are more likely to want to know you if you exude the calm and confidence of the seasoned meditator.
The documentary, You Be The Sky, Kiran Bedi’s initiative to highlight the vitality of meditation and humane management in prison and policing, was screened in the Triveni Kala Sangam. The film highlighted the success of Vipassana, a form of meditation, in fostering change and empowering people physically, mentally and spiritually.
You Be The Sky is an initiative of the India Vision Foundation, a trust chaired by Bedi. The trust, with its objective as ‘‘save the next victim’’, deals with issues of prisoner reform, drug abuse prevention and crime prevention among others.
The film has been funded jointly by the trust and Bedi’s friends, and directed by Lavlin Thadani, whose first production, Karmawali, was screened at Cannes Festival.
One of the lead protagonists in the documentary, Bedi, spoke of the enormous change she had witnessed in prisoners and the police before and after Vipassana. The film also features S.N. Goenka, Vipassana teacher who spread the meditational technique across the world and Raju, and ex-convict who is now a Vipassana instructor.
Expressing her attachment to the film, Bedi said that she had lived the film in the course of her life, and that it was a part of her.
Vipasanna, which draws its inspiration from Lord Buddha, is a an ancient form of self enhancement and reform, “it is what Gautam used to become Buddha. It makes you a Buddha within”, remarked Bedi.
The film is to be screened across the globe and the initiatives to screen the film in parts of Europe are already underway. It will also be screened at the UN this November. To further the effort of making this documentary public, a time slot on television is also on the cards.