Meditation rescued me from misanthropy

The atheist is an embattled soul. If we think of those proud to proselytise their atheism today – Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins – we find that they are above all polemicists, wearily prolonging a juvenile rebellion. Popes and fundamentalists are their sustenance. And vice versa.Without the quarrel, both parties might be obliged to move on.

My own atheist period lasted the time it took to escape an evangelical family. My father, an Anglican clergyman, had become involved in the charismatic movement. There were exorcisms and a delirium of tongues and prophesies. In the event, it was such a relief to escape into the world of cold reason that the loss of eternal life seemed a small price to pay. For three decades, I have avoided all futile discussion of the existence of God and the place of man in the universe. The only religious ceremonies I attend are weddings and funerals. Last year, when, over the coffin of a friend’s son, the priest announced that the boy was gazing down on us from paradise, it was evident that not a single mourner could take comfort from these ill-chosen words. The old formulas no longer suit.

But life is long and so much of it lies outside the highly verbal environment in which atheists and believers assert their divisive identities. There is also the silence when walking through fields in twilight, or sitting beside a sleeping child; there is the dismay as ageing parents decline; the mad pleasures of physical intimacy; sickness, déjà vu, dreams. Comes the moment when you are no longer afraid to turn and look at all that lies beyond the metalled rails of career and consumerism. In summer 2008, I amazed myself by signing up for a ten-day Vipassana meditation retreat with the ageing American teacher John Coleman.

I went for health reasons. So I told myself. For some years, an inexplicable condition had walled me up in chronic stomach pains and urinary embarrassments. The medical profession prospected operations to bladder, prostate and intestines, prescribed powerful medications and batteries of intrusive tests. Which turned up nothing. Eventually, and very gradually, I found relief in breathing exercises and shiatsu. It was the shiatsu practitioner who pointed out that the breathing exercises were in fact a form of meditation. Not a word I cared for. “You should go to a Vipassana retreat,” he said. When I objected that this smacked of Buddhism, he laughed. “Just go for the physical benefits.”

I looked it up on the internet: “Vipassana means seeing things as they really are. It is the process of self-purification by self-observation. It is a universal remedy for universal problems.” “Universal” and “remedy”, I thought, were words that, when put together, could only epitomise wishful thinking. Purification, on the other hand, was a concept I couldn’t begin to understand and hence a goal I could hardly desire. As for seeing things as they are, I knew that this meditation was done with the eyes closed.

The retreat was in a monastery-turned-conference centre. After registration, one had an hour to chat before taking a vow of silence. The 70-strong group was a mixed bag: men and women, young and old, New Age and no, posh and rough. As we drank tea together, I found this person was credulous, another sceptical, this boy yearning for mystical experience, that man frightened of losing his mind. When a girl expressed doubts about her ability to sit cross-legged for 12 hours a day, a haggard man in his forties remarked that “the position” was not the problem. It seemed there was a problem, but it was not “the position”.

What then? Not money. These retreats cost nothing. At most, one pays modestly for food and board. In return, you are expected to rise at 4am for a 4.30am start, to accept simple vegetarian food and only two meals a day, to keep silent throughout – in short, to live a monkish life. And to learn this meditation method.

For the first three and a half days, you are instructed to do nothing but sit cross-legged and focus on the breath as it crosses the upper lip entering and leaving the nose. When the sitting position is painful, you are to observe it without thinking of it as your pain; when wayward thoughts disturb your concentration, you are to take note but not attribute them to yourself.

By the evening of day two, I had had enough. Feet, ankles, knees, thighs and hips were weld­ed together in a scorching pyre from which my curved trunk rose like the torso of some broken martyr. Round this carnage, thoughts flitted and circled like bats in smoke.

It would be impossible to convey how many thoughts arose, or how systematically they blocked all my attempts to focus on my breathing. Had my mobile phone not been removed on arrival, I would have called my shiatsu man and told him what I thought about the “physical benefits”.

Yet I didn’t leave. I was as much enthralled as appalled. Sitting still, in silence, I found that an astonishing exposure to my thought pro­cesses was going on. How interminably words dragged one away from the here and now of sensation! How tiresomely self-regarding and self-dramatising the thoughts they formed were. In compensation, there was a growing sense of community with those sitting quietly around me hour after hour, some in deep trouble, as I was, fidgeting and sighing and rearranging their mats and cushions, others seraphically still, beautifully erect and fresh. I wanted to be like them.

On the afternoon of day four, Vipassana proper begins. Having learned to focus and free itself from words, the mind detaches from the breath to move slowly through the body from head to toe and back, exploring every sensation, every absence of sensation.

I had just discovered that when one did manage to fuse mind and flesh in the touch of the breath on the lip, the sense of well-being was immediate, the muscles relaxed, the sitting position became not only possible, but pleasant. Moving away from this to explore the body was like stepping from a cool balcony into a burning house. I would never have imagined that the body could provide so much essentially meaningless pain. Nor that I would have been willing to put up with it.

Coleman became important now. His son­orous voice clicked in and out of the silence to guide us round our bodies with a calm and deeply reassuring charisma. “Let go,” he commanded when we arrived at a point of tension. “Just let go.” Towards day seven, I began to get, very fleetingly, a sense of the whole body flowing together in a state of serene, liquid energy. I had stopped waiting for each hour to end.

But the real surprise of the retreat came with the last meditation before the silence was ended – the “metta bhavana”, or meditation of loving kindness. Outside the meditation hall, moving around the grounds, I had noticed as the days went by that the natural world was intensely present to me in a way that was unusual and moving. The absence of input was allowing for a simple sense of pleasure in being here.

When the old man began the metta bhavana, I found an unexpected generosity welling up in me. There is no point in denying it: Tim Parks is a misanthropist, interminably critical of his fellow man. Yet here I was, feeling something suspiciously like love, or St Paul’s charity. It rose from depths I knew nothing of. And to tap in to it, I hadn’t had to surrender my reason to any belief structure. Just by putting the chatter aside and reinhabiting my body, I had experienced a big shift of feeling. My shiatsu man, I realised now, must have known all along, being a holist, that one can’t just take the physical benefits without undergoing a change of heart.

When the atheists take religion to task for its absurd beliefs or for the damage it has done, we have no choice but to agree. They could hardly have an easier target. Yet the intimations that lie behind religions remain and are not going to go away because someone has written a book denying God. They are part of our reality. How we respond to those feelings, individually and collectively, will very largely define the kind of community we become. One can only hope that they do not crystallise in divisive creeds.

“Teach Us To Sit Still” by Tim Parks is published by Harvill Secker (£12.99)

[Tim Parks, New Statesman]
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Interview with SN Goenka

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]
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Take a journey of noble silence

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

[Edmonton Journal]
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Teacher who helped shape American Buddhism is still on a quest

Jack Kornfield says ‘we’re teaching meditation not as a religious activity but as a support for living a wise and healthy and compassionate inner life.’

In 1972, Jack Kornfield stepped off a plane in Washington, D.C., his head shaved and his body swathed in golden robes. He had come home to see if he could make it as a monk in America.

Kornfield had spent several contemplative years at a Buddhist monastery in Thailand, where he lived with few possessions, followed a strict monastic code and retreated each day to the lush forest for hours of meditation.

But in the U.S., he found no monasteries that practiced the Vipassana meditation he had studied. And the precepts he had followed in Thailand — which barred him from handling money and required that he eat only donated food — proved difficult to follow.

He gave up his robes and starting driving a taxi. He dated, got a doctorate in psychology and continued to practice Buddhism on his own terms, using the teachings he had learned to help cope with everyday life’s ups and downs. And with time, he began to help build a new Buddhism.

This distinctly American incarnation encouraged students to find mindfulness in all parts of life, not just in meditation. It was less religion and more practice.

“More and more, we’re teaching meditation not as a religious activity but as a support for living a wise and healthy and compassionate inner life,” Kornfield said recently. “A number of the people I teach don’t consider themselves Buddhists, which is absolutely fine with me. It’s much better to become a Buddha than a Buddhist.”

Kornfield is in Los Angeles this weekend for two events — a talk at the Armand Hammer Museum on Friday night about the psychologist Carl Jung’s journals, and a three-hour meditation class on Saturday at the InsightLA meditation center.

As one of the founders of the Insight Meditation Society, one of the nation’s most popular Buddhist centers, he has led retreats around the globe and has taught alongside eminent Buddhist monks such as Thich Nhat Hanh and the Dalai Lama.

Kornfield is credited as one of the teachers who helped Buddhism take root in the West by making it palatable and relevant for Americans.

These days, there are hundreds of Buddhist centers across the country, and meditation programs in schools, prisons, hospitals and even corporate boardrooms. But when Kornfield helped found the Insight Meditation Society in 1976, Buddhism was still a novelty in America. The small scene was dominated by Asian emigre monks — charismatic Tibetan teachers and Zen masters who taught Buddhism with a samurai-like intensity.

Kornfield and two similarly inclined friends, Sharon Salzberg and Joseph Goldstein, decided America needed a place where people could practice the Vipassana meditation of Southeast Asia and India. More so than is taught in Zen or Tibetan Buddhism, Vipassana calls for a systematic exploration of the inner self.

Together, they bought an old Catholic monastery in the woods of Barre, Mass., and invited spiritual seekers for retreats. In sitting and walking meditation sessions, they encouraged participants to be mindful of their bodies, their breath and the activity of their minds.

Students and teachers wore street clothes, and teachers gave real-life advice on how to live mindfully in the modern world.

Although nearly all students of Buddhism in Asia were monks, most American Buddhist students were laypeople with families, jobs and Western sensibilities. Kornfield knew from experience that they needed their own message.

“Our minds are quite scattered with planning and remembering and tracking and we don’t live much in the present,” he said. “We can be so lost in our minds that we don’t see the sunset over the Pacific, we don’t see the eyes of our children when we come home, we don’t see the garden.”

Kornfield, who sees affinities between meditation and psychology, encourages his students to pair traditional meditation practice — usually sitting — with forms of cognitive therapy.

Some critics have dismissed Kornfield’s approach as “Buddhism lite.” But if his bestselling books are any indication, his message resonates with many people.

Trudy Goodman, who had studied with Zen and Tibetan monks before she arrived at the Insight center in Massachusetts in the late 1970s, said it was sometimes harder to connect with her Asian-born teachers.

“I feel that Jack has changed Buddhism by being a pioneer for the inclusion of our emotional lives in the practice,” said Goodman, who runs the InsightLA center.

In 1988, Kornfield founded the Spirit Rock Meditation Center in the Marin County community of Woodacre, which he still runs. He has a wife, Liana, a psychologist, and a daughter, Caroline, who is on an internship in Cambodia this summer. He opened the center as a place to explore a more family-oriented approach to Buddhism. Among other things, he and others lead classes in parenting and teach introductory Buddhist courses for middle school students.

Kornfield also continues to develop his own practice.

His roving life of teaching gives him plenty of opportunities to practice patience and mindfulness, he said. When he’s home, he likes to spend time in his small writer’s cottage on the retreat center’s grounds. From the window, he can see rolling green hills and a line of bay trees planted along the edge of a stream.

[Kate Linthicum, LA Times]
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Free your mind

Unable to cope with the mounting pressures of work, relationships and society, the urban youth is embracing the idea of spirituality. Narendra Kaushik explores new-age meditation systems that hold the promise of harmony and joy.

Om Parkash Prabhu (28), a social worker who also runs a travel agency in Mumbai, was stuck in a dark tunnel with no light in sight. His stress level had shot up enormously. He would often get headaches and chest pain, and had not slept for several months. But tests in three reputed hospitals of Mumbai and Pune found nothing wrong in his system. Prabhu, the only son of an agrarian couple from Sindhudurg, felt he would die a slow death. It was then that a friend of his, Radheshyam, a documentary film maker, told him about Vipassana meditation. The latter had just returned from Leh after doing a 10-day Vipassana course. Prabhu hardly had an option. He had already tried various streams of medicine and yoga.

Recently, he attended a 10-day Vipassana course in Mclaudganj, the Tibetan settlement above Dharamshala. And the consequences are myriad and nothing but constructive. “Finally, I am enjoying sound sleep. Besides, I feel much more relaxed now,” he says, singing paeans for Vipassana. Prabhu is even learning through meditation to take small setbacks into his stride. “When I was in Mclaudganj, a friend won over a girl I was pursuing back home. But I have no regrets. Let him have the girl, I have Vipassana,” he says, displaying poise of a yogi.

Like Prabhu, there are 10 lakh others who have benefitted in one way or the other from the Vipassana in over three decades. According to Dhananjay Chavan, a trained psychiatrist and senior Vipassana teacher, about seven lakh are below the age of 40. Such is the dominance of youth in Vipassana centres that Aseem Chawla (53), former head of a travel company who attended the course with Prabhu in Mclaudganj, felt like the odd man out. “I was the oldest person there. Youth is the ‘in thing’ in Vipassana,” notes Chawla, who lost his reading, writing and talking faculties after a stroke in January 2005, and is now on recovery mode.

Besides Prabhu, Chawla and about a dozen others, the rest of the 80 male and female meditators in Mclaudganj were foreigners from United States of America, United Kingdom, Italy, France, Spain, Russia and other countries that have been rocked by recession, shutdowns and depression. And an overwhelming majority of them was young. Austin (25 plus) from Boston who sat for the 10-day long course lost his job as a waiter before he decided to go on the spiritual expedition. Armando Uribe (24), an architecture student from Mexico, opted to go ‘inside’ after his final examination before exploring the outer world. “I did my first course in Mexico. It helps in a big way,” he claims, looking calm and composed.

What attracts youth in hordes to Vipassana is its non-sectarian, scientific and action-oriented approach. Moreover, it is taught free of cost with charities taking care of boarding and lodging expenses. The technique owes allegiance to no organised religion and promotes no dogmas. P L Dhar, a senior Vipassana teacher and professor of IIT (Indian Institute of Technology) Delhi, credits the meditation technique’s popularity among youth and science community to its problem-solving potential.

“It is devoid of religiosity, rites and rituals. They (youth and rationalists) find it scientific. The spiritual discourses by many other gurus on the other hand, have a strong element of religiosity and devotion,” Dhar contends. He started doing Vipassana in 1985 and since then conducted several courses in Tihar central jail and other places. The popularity of Vipassana among the science community can be gauged from the fact that out of its 1200 teachers, according to Chavan, about one third are medical doctors, engineers, psychologists and psychiatrists.

The meditation technique that teaches one to be aware and equanimous in all the ups and downs of life is taught in over 150 centres in the country and abroad. An ancient technique, Vipassana was supposed to have got lost from India after Gautama, the Buddha, rediscovered it in 6th BC. S N Goenka, the principal teacher of Vipassana, who is credited with setting up the Vipassana centres, brought it back to India from Myanmar about 33 years back.

Practical tools
Like Vipassana, Art of Living — a spiritual NGO spearheaded by Sri Sri Ravi Shankar — also enjoys large following among the youth in India and abroad. Over half of the seven courses run by the Art of Living are designed to help children, teenagers, college students and professionals cope with the expectations in studies, relationships and job. “The needs and demands of the 18-40 age group are quite different from the 40-plus. They are struggling to manage relationships and pressure of studies and jobs. We have practical tools to help them. This is what makes Art of Living attractive to the youth,” says Avinash Tiku, a young, full-time teacher with the NGO, who has taught Yes+ courses (course for youth) in Mumbai, Delhi, IIM Kolkata, Dehradun, Ludhiana and Solan (Himachal Pradesh).

Tiku claims that over 1,20,000 youth in the country practice pranayam and meditation prescribed under the Art of Living courses. Out of these while 60,000 are based in Mumbai, 20,000 come from Delhi. Bangalore, the high-tech metro, contributes over 7000 to the NGO.

The Art of Living, like Vipassana, has nothing to do with an organised religion. It is more of a personality development programme which helps one to de-stress. “There is no religion in it. It is spiritualism. It cleanses, empowers, increases energy level and tells one how to manage time,” says Tiku.

Shreya Saklani, who is pursuing post-graduation in Mathematics from IIT Delhi and has been practicing mediation for seven years, agrees with Tiku. Shreya asserts that regular meditation has upped her concentration and confidence level. “When I was in class 12, I was not doing very well. My mother told me about the Art of Living. I started off with a six-day course and have since done seven courses. It gives me clarity of mind and child-like energy,” she declares. Sumit Manuprakash from Ambala, who is a Bio physics research scholar in the IIT and who has been attending the Art of Living for four years, calls it a stress eliminator.

Nitin Arora, a research scholar in the IIT Delhi and teacher of Yes+ course, claims that meditation can cause miracles. Arora, who did his Masters in Computer Sciencefrom New York, cites his own experience: “I was hit by a bus in Bangalore. My jaw got displaced and I was on a liquid diet for long. The jaw was fixed on its own.” Arora feels that the meditation has helped him get over stage fright. “Earlier, I could not give presentations in class. And now, I address 100 students every day,” he avers. According to him, there are more than 40 Art of Living centres in Delhi and a good percentage of students in the IIT Delhi and the Delhi University practice meditation.

The Art of Living runs courses for children, teens, youth, corporate and other segments of the society in its dozen national and international centres. Besides, the teachers of the foundation teach yoga and meditation in various local centres, universities and other institutes of education. It has its presence in all metros, tier-II cities and even villages (runs Utsav programmes for rural youth). It runs basic as well as advanced courses. All its courses carry a fee. While the minimum fee is Rs 700, the maximum may run into several thousand.

Introspective approach
Unlike the Art of Living, Soka Gakkai, based on Japanese Buddhist sage Nichiren Daishonin’s (1222-1282) humanistic philosophy, is voluntary and involves no fees. Bharat Soka Gakkai (BSG), an affiliate of Soka Gakkai International (SGI), headquartered in South Delhi, is the nodal office of the International NGO in the Indian capital.

The primary clientele of the technique comprises youth. “We have 42,000 members in the country. Out of this 60 percent are youth and women. Since our focus is on inner-self, absolute happiness and stability, and the approach is introspective, pro-active and positive, the youth finds it attractive,” says Navina Reddi, Director General of the BSG. The system involves chanting based on Lotus sutra, considered the highest teaching of Gautama, the Buddha.

Though Soka Gakkai has its origin in Buddhist philosophy, the BSG does not believe in isms. “A person joining us does not become a Buddhist. There is no conversion here. We are an NGO working for peace, culture and education,” Reddi emphasises. The Soka Gakkai is more of an urban phenomenon with half of its membership coming from Delhi alone.

The BSG has hundreds of chapters in Delhi. Moksha Nagdev (23), a clinical psychologist in South Delhi who has been practicing the technique since March this year, finds it magical. Nagdev, who specialises in child psychology, was under a lot of stress and guided to Soka Gakkai by her teacher. She says the daily chanting frees her from evil thoughts and stress. “I have got my answers from the practice. I’ve got the right perspective. Now I believe in the power of the mind. The practice gives me my fuel to go through life. I am more aware of my feelings,” Nagdev claims.

Aparna (33), a woman entrepreneur who runs an interactive company in South Delhi, feels Soka Gakkai helps her tackle daily problems. Aparna has been a regular at it for around eight years. What appeals to her is that the system has no guru and does not worship a deity. Nagdev too calls it a ‘spiritual quest’ rather than a faith. The system prescribes no timeframe and is flexible when it comes to daily practice. But it takes no strangers because the Soka Gakkai volunteers meet at an individual’s residence. Reddi says that the chanting of Japanese mantra — Nam myoho renge kyo — may be practiced for 10 minutes to several hours.

Scientology, another system which claims to purge insecurities, painful experiences, self-doubt and despair, is relatively new to India (it arrived only in 2002). It has only a handful of centres in the country (Delhi, Patiala, Chandigarh, Kolkata, and Mohali –one is coming up in Mumbai). But when it comes to attracting youth, it has quite a lot to offer. It has courses on personality development, communication skills, relationships, technology and even ethics. It claims to decode the secret of success as well.

“We have the tools to help the youth. Our experts help people get rid of anger, grief and negative feelings through auditing. Forty to 50 percent of our 20,000 members in Delhi are young professionals and entrepreneurs,” says S Johnson Singh, Public Division in charge in South Delhi centre of Scientology. The fees of the scientology centres are on the higher side with a 25-hour long auditing course costing Rs 10,000.

On the face of it, scientology looks to be a complex practice. Shaily, PRO in the South Delhi centre, admits that a new candidate may find it complex in the first go but will find it easy later. “It is well-defined. There is even a way of how one should read about it,” she argues. According to her, people from all walks of life and age-groups are into scientology. A number of Hollywood film stars including John Travolta, Tom Cruise, Nicole Kidman and Kirstie Alley are said to be promoters of scientology.

Although scientology claims to be a religion and even has a church of scientology in the US, Singh claims it has nothing to do with Christianity or any other religion. “Ours is a non-profit NGO. We teach life improvement skills. Anyone can become a scientologist,” she says.

[Narendra Kaushik, Deccan Herald]
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Self-centred Buddhism

Mark Vernon: Guardian

Western Buddhism can be a serious business. If you travel to Newton Abbot in Devon, and then make your way a few miles further west – through the village of East Ogwell, and then the hamlet of West Ogwell – you arrive at Gaia House, one of the places in the UK where western Buddhism is being forged with impressive commitment. It’s a meditation centre. Run by volunteers, who offer a year at a time to manage the place, it hosts retreats – periods of time, running from a single day to many weeks, during which retreatants meditate.

Silence is the watchword of the house. It’s a mark of the seriousness of the place, and the element visitors are quite sternly asked to respect. Even the library was out of bounds on the three day retreat that I booked in for, along with about 30 others (accommodation is comfortable though lacks privacy). Reading would disturb the inner stillness that the outer observance is designed to engender. It would spoil the quality of the silence that together we were pursuing.

Meditation is the central activity of this style of Buddhism, and insight meditation in particular, the kind in which you are encouraged to develop an ability to hold your attention on one thing, usually your breathing. Apart from mealtimes and an hour doing household chores, the day is devoted to it: three quarters of an hour sitting in the meditation hall, followed by three quarters of an hour doing walking meditation – the same activity of concentration conducted whilst walking very slowly, and focusing on the sensations in your feet. Then back to sitting meditation. Then more walking. It adds up to about 7 hours a day.

The mind repeatedly and routinely wanders, of course. But you’re not asked to attempt to control it. Rather, you are to become aware of the fact, and then draw your attention back to the breathing or the walking. Most of the meditation periods pass easily enough. A handful were a struggle. One was a real joy. But what’s it for? What is meditation supposed to deliver?

The retreat was led by two teachers. They topped and tailed the sitting sessions with a few helpful words, and were also on hand lest any participants develop problems, an important safeguard as prolonged silence can be unsettling. One of them also gave a talk on the second evening, and she explained the central Buddhist doctrine that meditation is designed to address: the reality of suffering.

Suffering here is meant in a broad sense, everything from the faintest feeling that something is wrong, to the profound injuries that human beings inflict on themselves and each other. It’s a worldview that is humanistic and tragic. The first of the Buddha’s noble truths is that life is suffering. It’s called a “noble” truth since that realisation is also the first step towards an ennobled life, namely one in which the suffering can cease.

That’s where meditation comes in. It’s a technique designed to develop mindfulness, the awareness and acceptance of suffering existence. Meditation itself needn’t always be painful. It might be pleasant, even elating. But the aim is neither to cling to experience, nor to reject it, but rather to know it as it is. Hence, the “insight” in insight meditation. “To understand all is to forgive all,” the proverb says, and the Buddhist version would be, “To understand all is to let go of all”. It just takes practice.

It’s religion as a kind of therapy, and points to one of the reasons that Buddhism is finding such a ready audience in the west. Modernity has damaged many egos, perhaps as a result of the Enlightenment teaching that we are autonomous selves, capable of self-creation, control and consolation. Only, it turns out that we are not so self-sufficient. Hence, if that’s right, the spread of loneliness and alienation, stress and depression. Western Buddhism is developing a radical remedy for this condition. Look closely, it says, and you’ll see that the self is an illusion. Let go of that, and liberation follows.

It is a plausible gospel to many, and committed Buddhists, like those at Gaia House, are devoting themselves to deepening the insight. My time in the place was good: how can a city-dweller not gain much from the silence? However, I did come away with questions. And they sprang from the nature of the project.

The raison d’être of Gaia House is the wellbeing of the those who come to stay in it. That seems like a pretty good raison d’être, and it is. However, it comes with risk. Meditation-as-therapy flirts with narcissism when it is devoted to observing yourself, for that can lead to self-absorption and self-obsession. It’s a danger inherent in any community devoted to a particular task, though perhaps more so in one that lacks a reference point beyond the individuals taking part.

Religious houses in a Christian tradition would be different, in theory at least. Ultimately, they don’t exist for the wellbeing of the occupants, but for the glory of God. That nurtures a way of life that has less to do with the self, and more to do with the service of something greater. You have to believe in God, of course. That many don’t, and might say they are “spiritual but not religious”, must be another reason why Buddhism appeals. But I did wonder whether a God-centred spiritual practice might offer a better way to get over yourself, and in turn offer a more satisfying “therapy”.

I suspect this is a key paradox with which western Buddhism is currently grappling: the practice that tells you the self is a delusion could, in the modern context, deepen the very attitude it seeks to dislodge. It’s a risk compounded when self-concern is arguably the secret of western Buddhism’s current success.

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“Self, meditating,” by Robert Wright

New York Times: This Friday I’m heading up to rural Massachusetts in hopes of getting born again — again.

Six years ago, in the same locale, I attended my first and only silent meditation retreat. It was just about the most amazing experience of my life. Certainly it seemed more dramatic than my very first born-again experience — my response to a southern Baptist altar call as a child, which I wrote about in this space last month.

I came away from that week feeling I had found a new kind of happiness, deeper than the kind I’d always pursued. I also came away a better person — just ask my wife. (And neither of those things lasted — just ask my wife.)

So with the retreat approaching, I should be as eager as a kid on Christmas Eve, right? Well, no. Meditation retreats — at this place, at least — are no picnic. You don’t follow your bliss. You learn not to follow your bliss, to let your bliss follow you. And you learn this arduously. If at the end you feel like you’re leaving Shangri-La, that’s because the beginning felt like Guantanamo.

We spent 5.5 hours per day in sitting meditation, 5.5 hours per day in walking meditation. By day three I was feeling achy, far from nirvana and really, really sick of the place.

I was sick of my 5 a.m. “yogi job” (vacuuming), I was sick of the bland vegetarian food, and I wasn’t especially fond of all those Buddhists with those self-satisfied looks on their faces, walking around serenely like they knew something I didn’t know (which, it turns out, they did).

Yes, the payoff was huge. But it’s unlikely to be as big this time around. It’s famously hard to replicate the rapture of your first meditation retreat. Last time, during the first half of the week, my apparently prescient unconscious mind kept filling my head with that old song by Foreigner, “It feels like the first time, like it never will again.” I’ve never especially liked that song, and during those first few days it joined the list of things I hated.

What I hated above all was that I wasn’t succeeding as a meditator. Now, as the two leaders of this retreat were known to point out, you’re not supposed to think of “succeeding” at meditating. And you’re not supposed to blame yourself for failing. And blah, blah, blah.

Well, they were right: To “succeed” I really did have to quit pursuing success, and quit blaming myself for failing. And some other things had to go right.

And what was “success” like? Well, to start at the less spiritual, more sensual end: By the time I left, eating the food I’d initially disdained ranked up there with above-average sex. I’m not exaggerating by much. When I first got there, I didn’t understand why some people were closing their eyes while eating. By the end of the retreat, I was closing mine. The better to focus on the source of my ecstasy. I wasn’t just living in the moment — I was luxuriating in it.

Also, my view of weeds changed. There’s a kind of weed that I had spent years killing, sometimes manually, sometimes with chemicals. On a walk one day I looked down at one of those weeds and it looked as beautiful as any other plant. Why, I wondered, had I bought into the “weed” label? Why had I so harshly judged an innocent plant?

If this sounds crazy to you, you should hear how crazy it sounds to me. I’m not the weed-hugging type, I assure you.

And as long as we’re on the subject of crazy, there was my moment of bonding with a lizard. I looked at this lizard and watched it react to local stimuli and thought: I’m in the same boat as that lizard — born without asking to be born, trying to make sense of things, and far from getting the whole picture.

I mean, sure, I know more than the lizard — like the fact that I exist and the fact that I evolved by natural selection. But my knowledge is, like the lizard’s, hemmed in by the fact that my brain is a product of evolution, designed to perform mundane tasks, to react to local stimuli, not to understand the true nature of things. And — here’s the crazy part — I kind of loved that lizard. A little bit, for a little while.

Whether I had made major moral progress by learning to empathize with a lizard, let alone a weed, is open to debate. The more important part of my expanding circle of affinity involved people — specifically, my fellow meditators.

At the beginning of the retreat, looking around the meditation hall, I had sized people up, making lots of little judgments, sometimes negative, on the basis of no good evidence. (Re: guy wearing Juilliard t-shirt and exhibiting mild symptoms of theatricality: Well, aren’t we special?) By the end of the retreat I was less inclined toward judgment, especially the harsh kind. And days after the retreat, while riding the monorail to the Newark airport I found myself doing something I never do — striking up a conversation with strangers. Nice strangers!

My various epiphanies may sound trite, like a caricature of pop-Buddhist enlightenment. And, presented in snapshot form, that’s what I’m afraid they’re destined to sound like. All I can say is that there is a bigger philosophical picture that these snapshots are part of, and that I had made some progress in apprehending it by the end of the retreat.

The “apprehension” isn’t just intellectual. This retreat was in the Vipassana tradition, which emphasizes gaining insight into the way your mind works. Vipassana has a reputation for being one of the more intellectual Buddhist traditions, but, even so, part of the idea is to gain that insight in a way that isn’t entirely intellectual. Or, at least, in a way that is sometimes hard to describe.

On Thursday night, the fifth night of the retreat, about 30 minutes into a meditation session, I had an experience that falls into that category, so I won’t try to describe it. I’ll just say that it involved seeing the structure of my mind — experiencing the structure of my mind — in a new way, and in a way that had great meaning for me. And, happily, this experience was accompanied by a stunningly powerful blast of bliss. All told, I don’t think I’ve ever had a more dramatic moment.

This retreat is coming at a good time for me. In June I published a book that I’ve been feverishly promoting. Publishing and promoting a book can bring out the non-Buddhist in a person. For example, when book reviewers make judgments about your book, you may make judgments about the reviewers — ungenerous judgments, even.

Also, you’re inclined to pursue the fruits of your activity — like book sales — rather than just experience the activity. Checking your Amazon ranking every 7 minutes would qualify as what Buddhists call “attachment.” And attachment is bad. (Oops: I just made a judgment about attachment.)

In fact, in general I’ve been living like someone who hasn’t been meditating with much regularity or dedication, who has strayed from the straight and narrow. It’s time to start anew.

At the end of my first retreat, still reeling from that Thursday-night experience, I told one of the meditation teachers about it. He nodded casually, as if the insight I’d had was one of the standard stops on the path to enlightenment — but far from the end of the path. Through truly intensive meditation, he said, the transformation of your view of your mind — and your view of your mind’s relationship to reality, and your view of reality itself — can go much deeper than I’d gone.

That would be interesting! But this week I’d settle for half as deep.

Robert Wright, a senior fellow at the New America Foundation, is the author of “The Moral Animal,” “Nonzero” and, most recently, “The Evolution of God.”

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The Centrality of Impermanence

flowing waterIf there is just one thing you should learn about this world, anicca is it. It may be an exaggeration to say that anicca, or impermanence, is the core of the Buddha’s teaching, but when we look closely at this single idea, the whole of the Buddha’s teaching begins to open up.

In Buddhism, impermanence is one of the three “marks” of existence, along with dukkha and anattā, or unsatisfactoriness and no-self. Together, these three marks form the core of a Buddhist conception of reality. Understanding this reality is often described as tantamount to awakening.

Indeed, in Vipassanā meditation we are taught to note, or to simply direct the mind to “see” these three marks in all of our experience. To fully see these marks in a way that is unshakable, in a way that you simply cannot forget, such that your every experience of the world resonates: “anicca, anattā, dukkha” is to be awakened. This is no easy task of course, requiring perhaps lifetimes of effort. But this insight alone is enough to cut the roots of ignorance that tie us to cycle after cycle of repeated suffering.

As if to emphasize the centrality of insight into the three marks, the Buddhist Jātakas (birth-stories) describe numerous beings who gained awakening through the realization of these three marks without hearing any teachings from a sammā-sambuddha, or fully and perfectly awakened one. These beings became known as pacceka-buddhas, or solitary awakened ones, because they neither followed another Buddha’s teachings nor taught others what they had discovered. So even from the early Buddhist texts we are taught that one can become awakened without following any “Buddhist” path per se, by simply gaining insight into the three marks of existence.

 With insight into impermanence the very foundations of our suffering crumble  

So why is impermanence in particular so important? Because, as Ñanamoli Bhikkhu points out in his Buddhist Dictionary, ”It is from this all-embracing fact of impermanence that the other two universal characteristics, suffering dukkha and no-self anattā, are derived.” This may be helpful because so much is said and written by contemporary Buddhists about dukkha and anattā in isolation from the more fundamental fact of anicca. And many discussions on these topics, including my own at times, quickly spin off into abstraction, technical details, and heady philosophy.

And yet in the actual practice of meditation the “mark” that is most easily experienced is that of impermanence. With a stilled mind everything is experienced rising and falling. All is impermanent, from the pain in one’s knee: dancing, throbbing, pulsing, fading – to thoughts and ideas: arising as if from the clear sky and fading again into it without a trace, leaving behind pure clarity (or just more thoughts!). Watching this flow, the apparent “solidity” underlying our typical samsāric experience begins to crumble. If you’re anything like me, that solidity comes back a few minutes after most meditations, but experience of anicca is now undeniable.

With insight into impermanence the very foundations of our suffering and sense of a permanent, unchanging self crumble. Obviously, if all is flow and change, then this goes for our “self” too. Our suffering is a result of thirsting after and clinging to bits of the world that we wrongly believe will give us lasting happiness. Realizing anicca, our grip on all of this is loosened. This was described to me once by the young daughter of one of my friends in grad school. “We learn to hold that which we love not like this,” she said, holding out a closed fist in front of her, “but like this,” and she turned her hand over, slowly extending her fingers.

 …insight dissolves the very linchpin of samsāra  

To work at stilling the mind to directly perceive anicca is to traverse a path to openness, acceptance, and a welcoming attitude toward life.

This work may be done in many ways. Calming meditation, such as mindfulness of breathing certainly forms the most widely taught foundation. Further techniques are numerous and are best pursued with the assistance of a teacher. The best known route in the West is the “path of wisdom,” which directs the student’s stilled mind directly at anicca. However, this path is not for everyone. Buddhaghosa, in his Visuddhimagga, describes how the “path of faith” works in Buddhism, drawing the practitioner by the heart, not so much the head, into direct confrontation with the changing nature of all experience. Peter Harvey discusses the rise of the early “Cult of Relics” in stating that, “Buddha-relics can be seen to remind devotees both of the impermanence of the Buddha and his entry to the deathless (nirvāṇa); they are a presence that reminds them of the absent Buddha…”

Thus we see that it might not be such an exaggeration to call insight into anicca the central goal of Buddhist practice, whether it is through the path of wisdom or the path of faith. We can trace the route back from suffering, through clinging and our mistaken notions of a permanent, unchanging self and lasting happiness in things of this world, to this one fundamental aspect of experience as it truly is. When we truly “get” impermanence, the cycle of ignorance and what follows begins to unravel. We might say that this insight dissolves the very linchpin of samsāra.

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Opening to insight

Flowers at various stages of opening

Fundamentally, we don’t know anything about anything. How then can we even begin to cultivate insight into how things really are? Author, practitioner, and Dharma teacher Kamalashila suggests how we can learn to open up to reality.

It is late summer and 10:22 in the morning.

I am in my room in Birmingham. Just a few yards away, framed in the open window, are the upper branches of a luxuriant copper beech, its leaves displaying to the eye subtle, dark greens (olive, patinated bronze) as they reflect the morning sunshine.

The fine outer branches shift almost imperceptibly, shedding complex darker shadows within.

The tree is full of beech nuts, and the leaves on a few small branches have already turned a dead, uniform orange-brown. In such a calm moment as this, I can enjoy describing to myself the rich detail of a beautiful object.

But do I see it as it really is? There is a framework of assumptions that we impose on the reality we perceive. “It” “is” “10:22” “in” “the morning.” “I” “am” “in” “my” “room” “in” “Birmingham.” Just a few yards “away,” framed “in” the open window, “are” the upper branches of a luxuriant “copper beech.” These accentuated words point to ideas that we use continually, ideas with which we make sense of life. We built them up painstakingly, over the long years of childhood.

See also:

Yet on each of the countless occasions that we have uttered these names and prepositions, we have to skip over fundamental problems that arise in communicating our experience.

We don’t really know anything at all

We forget that we are raising matters concerning being, time, space, and form — matters which we profoundly do not understand. We do not even know what the word “is” implies. We don’t really know anything at all.

In our daily dealings with others we disregard this great ignorance we hold in common, devastatingly basic though it is. Otherwise, everything anyone said would entail long, irresolvable discussions on metaphysics. Everyone tacitly agrees to put these matters aside, since we cannot readily understand them. Yet they really are mysteries. We do not understand what a copper beech, or any particular object, truly is. Of course in the ordinary way we do know that a copper beech is a “tree.” It is a large woody perennial “plant,” with a distinct trunk, giving rise to branches or leaves at some distance from the ground.

Yet do we really know what a plant is? Yes, a plant is any living “organism” that typically synthesizes its food from inorganic substances, possesses cellulose cell walls, responds slowly and often permanently to a stimulus, lacks specialized sense organs and a nervous system, and has no powers of locomotion.

But then what is an organism? The dictionary explains that unless it happens to be an “animal,” an organism can be any living “plant.” But we have only just seen that a “plant” is a living “organism.” So all we can discover is that a tree is a plant, which is an organism, which is a plant, which is an organism.

We must wonder, sometimes, if there is any way to see reality as it is. Religions may tell us that we cannot expect to, that such an idea is hubristic, even blasphemous. And the accepted materialist theories about life all miss this point. So the mystery eventually becomes too much; it appears that we can only speculate – which seems idle, a waste of time. Most of us end up taking the position that we (whatever we are) just need to get on with living (whatever that might be).

The way we see our existence is thickly colored by the emotions and assumptions we hold, and leaves little room for compassion. Our world is perceived in a flickering half-light of wants and dislikes, and accounted for by an unquestioning common sense. We are so used to this perspective that it is difficult for us even to realize there is any problem. We repress the uncomfortable awareness that we understand nothing about life.

 …when death and other exposures to reality force open our eyes, we can bear to look at them only briefly, if at all

What can set the seal on this repression is that pain and fear often accompany our glimpses of reality. Despite the childhood years spent learning about life and developing an urbane adult shell, we have still not fully adjusted to it. For when death and other exposures to reality force open our eyes, we can bear to look at them only briefly, if at all.

We really cannot bear much reality. It shakes the jelly at our core when friends or lovers separate from us, or when they die. Such experiences can be like lightning striking at night. Seeing for an instant just how much what we relied upon was founded on wishful thinking, we are reduced to a bare and naked state, in a vast, unfathomable universe.

Yet life must go on. Numbly, we piece it back together. It is the old, old story: human existence is fragile, uncertain and inexplicable. Samsara, the endless cycle, is profoundly unsatisfactory. So it is a definite relief when, soon enough, the terrible questions are washed over by familiar concerns: work, chat, shopping, washing-up, bedtime drink. We welcome the crack in reality closing again. Yet, as we return to normal we know something has been lost. Along with the relief of returning to daily life, we feel once more imprisoned by a wall of unknowing.

Can there be a middle way between the unbearable intensity of reality and the unbearable dullness of ignorance? If there is, it must somehow be through relying on something real, and not on wishful thinking The path that transcends these painful extremes is the Dharma. Buddhist practices, because they arise out of an insight into reality, are effective in helping us to come to terms with it.

The cultivation of insight requires two qualities known as samatha and vipassana. Through a long-term development of samatha (which broadly means calm), the mind becomes strong, happy and confident.

Along with that strength comes greater receptivity, so we’re more able to see things as they are, without being seared by the experience. The ability to look is samatha; the actual seeing is vipassana. It is not that reality as a whole is intrinsically painful, but that we are not sufficiently large or awake to sustain the totality. In our weakened state, the light streaming in through the crack is too intensely brilliant to sustain; yet we know it is an opportunity, as an experience of a universal truth.

…the light streaming in through the crack is too intensely brilliant to sustain

We can take up this opportunity if we begin to cultivate that calm, receptive strength. Through so doing, we shall eventually become strong enough to sustain the sight of the total reality. Some degree of such a vision is to be expected in more experienced meditators, whose senses are somewhat calmed, and who look closely at their experience.

Vipassana can be induced by meditation, and that is generally the way it is cultivated. But insight into reality can arise anywhere, at any time, when circumstances make us question our assumptions about reality.

This may be sparked by some critical occurrence like a death, or a relationship ending. But it may arise at a quiet moment when our thoughts come together at a single point — we see that all things really are impermanent and we experience, as in a vision, what this central reality implies for our human potential. These experiences seldom arise, however, unless the mind has been prepared over a long time by meditation.

Having created a foundation of samatha, we generate vipassana by reflecting on the Dharma with the mental lucidity conferred by that tranquil state. Achieving this tranquil state requires considerable preparation in the rest of our life. We can prepare in a general way by cultivating mindfulness, and following a more ethical way of life. This brings integrity, consistency of character, and a buoying happiness.

We take the integration deeper by regularly practicing samatha meditations, such as the Mindfulness of Breathing and the Metta Bhavana.

At the same time as establishing this foundation in samatha, we also cultivate a second foundation of Wisdom, in its preliminary stages. That is, we learn about the Dharma, and reflect repeatedly on what we have learned. We mull over what we hear and read, make sure we understand what is being said, apply that to our own experience, ask clarifying questions, and in this way cultivate a thorough understanding of what the Buddha taught.

These two preliminary stages of “learning” and “reflecting” prepare the ground for Wisdom itself. Learning and reflecting on the Dharma are strands of spiritual life that one never stops cultivating. To examine afresh our understanding, even of the most elementary aspects of the path to Enlightenment, always bears fruit. Our appreciation of the Dharma is enriched as it gradually loses its tendency to literalism.

To examine afresh our understanding always bears fruit

Along with meditation, reflection is the most important Buddhist practice. Given some understanding of the Dharma and regular meditation, it is quite easy and natural to reflect. It is a more or less spontaneous activity, provided we are not too distracted. But it is more difficult to create a mental environment in which reflection can happen.

Nearly all of us are deeply addicted to filling our time with activities. This habit not only allows us no time simply to sit and sift our thoughts as they disentangle themselves and spread out in the mind, it also stunts our ability to reflect. Understanding needs an inner space in which to unfold.

If we can see the importance of developing the inner life of our thought, then that will naturally become our main priority. All other Buddhist practices will then aid this project of deepening reflection. Mindfulness (of body, feelings, mental states, and mental objects) will particularly help as a focus, as we notice our response to every experience, and remind ourselves in each response of our overall aim.

Developing the inner life of thought is an essential preparation for meditation, because through it we move towards a synthesis that allows us to have faith in the possibility of Insight. This is not an intellectual synthesis, even though we could probably formulate some aspects of it verbally. It is a kind of knowing, yet its character is also emotional and volitional, so that with it comes sufficient confidence for us to open to whatever the truth might be.

Freedom from emotional conflict is essential if we are to do this, because the method of cultivating vipassana is to open the mind to some crucial point of Dharma, such as the truth of impermanence. It is a considerable step, and we must want to take it.

Nearly all of us are deeply addicted to filling our time with activities

To be effective, this opening up must be carried out when our minds are calmed and purified by dhyana, the conflict-free concentration brought about by samatha meditation. Thus in our samatha practice we need to have moved, at least to some extent, beyond conflicting emotions.

We have to entrust ourselves to the samatha practice in order to concentrate the mind, and move beyond the distractions of craving, anger, dullness and excitement — tendencies always present in ordinary consciousness. It is only in a mind unified and elevated by dhyanic meditation that vipassana contemplation can be nurtured and matured, through openness, into Wisdom (prajña).

It is obvious that the mind is now in a quite different condition than at the preparatory levels of learning and reflection, when we are thinking out our understanding with the ordinary, relatively distracted mind. With vipassana in the context of meditative absorption, the mode of contemplation is uniquely light, flexible and spacious. It combines potential for lucid thought with great receptivity.

In this way we rest our mind on some aspect of the Dharma, perhaps the “emptiness” that is said to characterize all phenomena. A tree, a plant, an organism, a being, a Buddha: does any “thing” have a nature of its own, and if so what is that nature? There can be no fully satisfactory verbal answer. Yet our willingness to relax and open ourselves to the truth, cultivated over years of practice, may tip the balance so that truth is glimpsed and begins to light us up from within.

It is encouraging to know that Buddhism makes us happy, yet this form of happiness cannot be relied upon

The Buddha saw things as they actually are. His teaching is a way to cultivate the same insight into reality, and that insight is the aim of all Buddhist practices, from Right Livelihood and skillful communication, through mindfulness, to the various kinds of meditation. We easily lose sight of this aim. Left alone with Buddhist practice, we tend to grind to an agreeable halt at the foundations, at the happiness that comes from skillful actions and states of mind.

It is encouraging to know that Buddhism makes us happy, yet this form of happiness cannot be relied upon. Our skillful mental states are not permanently established; there is a danger that when circumstances change, our confidence and habitual goodness may deflate like a punctured bubble. Only Wisdom, once developed, provides a reliable response to the ravages of impermanence.

Morality and happiness, important as they are, are insufficient in themselves; happiness can even be so intoxicating that it obscures spiritual vision. So if we never develop insight, we will sooner or later lose the conditions for our happiness. In the end, in a large and unfathomable universe, it is our openness to wisdom that really matters.

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Research: Naming negative emotions makes them weaker

naming emotionsWired Magazine reports on research that’s of relevance to meditators — especially those that use the vipassana technique of “noting,” where we name the most prominent aspect of our experience, saying inwardly, for example, “anger, anger” when we recognize that that emotion is present.

Meditation generally, and the technique of noting in particular, helps us to stand back from our emotions and to recognize that they are transitory events passing though our consciousness. Without this ability to stand back from our emotions we can easily become engulfed by them and we identify totally with them. Instead of experiencing anger we simply are angry.

It’s akin to flying in an airplane. When the plane is inside a cloud this is similar to being engulfed in an emotion. Everything you can see is cloud; everything you experience is filtered through the emotion. When the plane rises above the cloud you can see it from the outside; you can sense not only the emotion but also aspects of yourself outside of the emotion, including your relation to the emotion itself. The emotion is therefore weaker and has less of a hold over us.

Perhaps all those blog posts you wrote about your breakup really did have a purpose.

Naming feelings takes some of the emotional impact out of them by engaging a brain region that aids self-control, according to new research.

In a clever series of experiments, UCLA psychologist Matthew Lieberman found that labeling a picture of someone who looked angry as “angry” reduced the negative emotional feelings that most people feel when viewing such a photograph.

“Putting feelings into words activates this region that’s capable of producing emotional regulatory outcomes, which could explain why putting feelings into words dampens them down,” Lieberman said in a presentation at the American Association for the Advancement of Sciences annual meeting on Saturday.

While plenty of psychological treatments have involved talking about one’s feelings, Lieberman’s work is some of the first to demonstrate the underlying neural basis for the therapeutic nature of talking something out. The research is based on the idea that engaging a part of the brain that aids in self-control, the right ventrolateral prefrontal cortex, helps put a damper on feelings, no matter how you get that part of the brain involved.

First, the researchers had subjects view photographs of men and women with some positive and some negative facial expressions. The negative facial expressions tended to stimulate activity in the amygdala, a region of the brain associated with processing emotions.

The researchers had the subjects play a simple game while looking at the photos. If the photo was of a woman (and 80 percent of the pictures were) they pressed the “go” button, but if the picture was of a man, they didn’t press the button — their brain had to intervene to inhibit the motor response of pressing the button. Simply exerting self-control over the motor function by not pressing the button led to reduced negative emotional response. The idea is that the self-control area of the prefrontal cortex turns on and helps all forms of self-control. They call this “inhibitory spillover.”

In the next set of studies, they had one set of people label the photos with simple gender-name matching — match Seth to the picture of a man, not Sarah. Another group was asked to name the emotions on the faces of the people in the pictures. The subjects who named the emotions experienced less negative emotion associated with negative images. By focusing on the emotions in the pictures to label them, the subjects engaged that piece of the prefrontal cortex and “down regulated” their intensity.

It’s important to note that the regulatory effect didn’t come from increased self-awareness about one’s relationship to the emotion. The more tightly regulated emotional response was practically a side effect of the cognitive task of labeling the emotion in the face. The researchers postulate that the same principle is at work when you talk about your feelings: it’s the bare fact of labeling your emotions that counts, not whatever conclusions you draw in the course of verbal expression (or poetry writing).

It’s possible that these techniques could be used to treat fear-based conditions from arachnophobia (fear of spiders) to zemmiphobia (fear of the great mole rat).

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