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founded by S. N. Goenka in the tradition of Sayagyi U Ba Khin

 

 

 

 

 

Vipassana-Its Relevance to the Individual and Society

- By Usha Modak

Modern life is moving at such a rapid pace that there is no time even to breathe. Our fiercely competitive world is like a rat-race where, in spite of all the technological and economic improvements and multifarious pleasures, people are still unhappy. Humankind has made tremendous progress in the fields of science, industry, and political systems, etc., resulting in materialistic development. Man is the promoter and consumer of these advancements, which aim at improving our standard of living and total well-being.

But does this really happen? Look at the so-called "developed countries" of the world, which try to ensure a high standard of living. Despite their advances in such fields as health, education and technology, they are experiencing an increased incidence of mental illness, delinquency, crime, drug addiction, alcoholism, and suicide, etc.

Every society is made up of individuals. The individual in a modern society is a victim of varying degrees of stresses and strains. His or her existence is full of constant conflict between the world within and the world outside. The materialistic world holds humans under an hypnotic spell. Engaged all the time in filling their stomachs by earning and spending money, people are slaves of their own cravings, euphemistically called ambition, aspiration, aims or ideals. These, alas, are seldom fulfilled, which causes deep distress, frustration and dissatisfaction, whether one belongs to the "Haves" or the "Have-nots."

Suffering, then, is a common problem of humanity. It is a universal disease, not the bane of any one nation, or persons of any particular colour or creed. So the remedy must also be universal. Vipassana offers such a remedy.

The basis of any healthy, harmonious society is always the healthy, harmonious individual. Only if each individual has a pure, peaceful mind can we expect peace and harmony in the society. Vipassana is a unique technique for obtaining peace and harmony within an individual at the experiential level.

The great sage of India, Gotama the Buddha, discovered-or rather rediscovered-this technique through his deep meditation. He attained enlightenment through this technique and was liberated from all the defilements of the mind. Then with great compassion and love, he distributed it to the suffering mankind. He did not establish any "ism" or "cult." He taught Vipassana-a way to purify the mind of its negativities of craving and aversion.

What is Vipassana?

It is not a rite or ritual based on blind faith. There is no visualization of any god, goddess or any other object, or verbalization of any mantra or japa. Neither is it an intellectual nor philosophical entertainment.

The word vipassana is derived from passa (to look, to observe) and vi (in a special way). It means "observing oneself in a special way". It is a technique that purifies the mind, deconditioning the negativities of anger, hatred, greed, selfishness etc. by self-observation and introspection. It is insight meditation. It is looking at things as they are and not through coloured glasses. It is an effort to change the deep habit-pattern of the mind which dwells in the continuous blind reactions of craving and aversion.

Vipassana is taught in a basic ten-day residential course. The course is very demanding, requiring the student to observe noble silence and follow strict rules of discipline. The daily schedule requires, on an average, ten hours of meditation, with regular breaks. Instructions are given periodically throughout the day, and every evening there is a videotaped discourse by the Teacher, S.N. Goenka which explains and clarifies the day's practice. 

There are three steps to the training given in a Vipassana course. The first is the observance of five basic precepts of morality which, in practice, means abstention from violence, lying, theft, sexual misconduct and the use of alcohol and other intoxicants. In short, observance of these precepts means right action, right speech, and right livelihood. Whenever one violates these, one generates impurities in one's mind. These impurities are the root cause of the stresses and strains from which one tries to gain release.

When you start practicing Vipassana, deep inside you understand that every time you break any one of these precepts, you have started harming yourself, even before you start harming others. When you generate anger, you cannot possibly experience peace and harmony since you feel so agitated, so miserable. This is the law of Nature. It is a universal truth.

The next step is to achieve some mastery over our unruly minds by focusing attention on the natural and normal breath (not controlled and regulated breath as in pranayama). This is called Anapana-sati, which means "awareness of respiration." There is no verbalization or visualization, just observation of natural and normal breath! This concentration helps to sharpen the mind. This helps the meditator to take the next step of Vipassana, where he or she is required to observe the sensations that manifest in the entire body every moment, as a result of the constant and continuous interaction of mind and matter.

Our minds are constantly reacting to pleasant and unpleasant happenings in the world outside. But a deep investigation of the mind through Vipassana reveals that when we react, we are actually reacting to the body sensations that result from our contact with the outside world or our own thoughts. When a thought arises, it manifests as a sensation on the body-pleasant or unpleasant-and one starts to like or dislike it. This is a law of Nature. Soon those likes and dislikes begin to consolidate and develop into negativities of craving and aversion. One starts tying knots deep in the unconscious mind. We create misery for ourselves by continuously reacting to the sensations.

In this technique we train the mind to observe all the sensations with detachment and equanimity-that is, without developing craving for pleasant sensations or aversion towards unpleasant or painful ones. As one proceeds on this path, one experiences that all sensations, whether pleasant or unpleasant, are constantly changing. They are impermanent, (anicca) and essenceless (anatta)-without any substance. This is the inherent nature of everything that exists in the Universe, whether animate or inanimate. One begins to understand experientially, not merely from book knowledge.

When one begins to be non-reactively aware of the different sensations, pleasant or unpleasant, the entire mass of the mind gradually becomes conscious and aware. The barrier between the conscious and unconscious mind is broken, and one stops reacting blindly. The mental purification- cleaning, deconditioning-strikes at the root-level, that is, the unconscious mind, where our deep-rooted defilements are stored like sleeping volcanoes which cause us so much misery when they erupt.

To attain a stage which is free from these sleeping volcanoes, one has to walk on the Path oneself. It does not happen overnight. One needs a long and sincere practice of Vipassana with a proper understanding of the technique. As you progress on the Path, you learn to observe more objectively your own impurities of anger, hatred, envy, pride, jealousy, etc. more objectively.

Vipassana is, therefore, a process of self-purification through self-observation and introspection. It is a technique of non-verbal, self-administered "psychoanalysis" in that it sets into motion the process of tension-release. One is able, as it were, to operate on one's own mind and observe it as a witness. There is, therefore, no "gurudom" in this technique. You have to tread the Path yourself. No one else can do it for you.

One does not become a seasoned practitioner by taking just one ten-day course. The ten-day course only gives you a framework. It should be followed by regular practise in daily life and by taking more ten-day courses as boosters to help one become established in the practice. It is only then that one reaps the real benefits and realizes the full potential of this technique. There are longer courses of twenty, thirty and forty-five days which enable students to get further established in the practice. Practising seriously over a period of time, the mind gradually gets liberated from the negative habits of craving and aversion and their offshoots such as jealousy, ill will, selfishness and greed. One becomes peaceful and harmonious and then distributes this peace and harmony to others.

How does Vipassana help in daily living?

The progress on the path of Vipassana is not measured by how many courses one has taken, or how many years one has been practicing, but by how equanimous one has become in daily living. You reap the benefits of Vipassana here and now. The first attack is on the ego, which begins to melt progressively as the cleaning process starts.

One student reported that during his stormy adolescent years he had acute differences of opinion with his parents. He left his parental home in great anger, never to see them again. He had not seen them for nearly ten years in spite of their several attempts to contact him. When he came for a Vipassana course, his ego began to dissolve and he began to perceive his own shortcomings. He felt extremely miserable, but was able to consider his parents' point of view. He was able to see the situation from different angles, and not only through his coloured glasses. He decided to write to his parents and tell them of his whereabouts, return home and talk it over with them.

Mere advice and counselling do not help. It is only when our perception begins to change that we are able to observe a situation in its totality. As the layers of mental impurities begin to peel off, through the practice of Vipassana, there is greater clarity of thinking. We begin to develop better judgment of people and situations. This, in turn, helps to improve our relationships with other people. We become less and less demanding of people: family members, children, neighbours, colleagues, subordinates, etc. With greater clarity of thinking our decision-making ability, both in private and work life, becomes more appropriate and effective.

Another student who was a nurse reported how Vipassana helped reduce her nervousness. She was attached to the Crisis Department of a hospital. The sight of blood and mauled bodies of accident cases would simply paralyze her. She could have asked for a transfer from the department, but she decided to face the problem and not run away from it. With regular practice of Vipassana, she gradually became more stable and balanced. This greatly impressed the doctors and her colleagues. Her work in the service of her patients was now more effective.

When our minds undergo a cleaning process, our capacity to work increases many-fold. The energy that was being consumed in our struggle with tensions, emotional blocks, and a narrow-minded ego-centred way of living-this now gets channelled more profitably. Our work efficiency increases both qualitatively and quantitatively.

A commonly expressed doubt is: Does this technique with its emphasis on equanimity make one inactive? No, it does not. A responsible person in society has to be full of action. What goes away is the habit of blind reaction. We learn to take proper action with positive feeling.

Apart from the purification of the mind, which is the primary goal of the technique, the meditator also experiences gains at the physical and psychological level. Many common ailments such as hypertension, headaches, ulcers, acidity, etc., are very often psychosomatic. These are automatically cured as a by-product of the cleansing process of Vipassana.

Many drug addicts and alcoholics have found a total cure as a result of regular practice of Vipassana.

Many students who practise Vipassana regularly, keep reporting that their concentration, memory and ability to grasp the material they read has improved tremendously. One student who had given up his college studies midway and was on tranquillizers is now free of pills. He went back to his studies and has now completed them.

All these gains are only by-products of the cleansing process of Vipassana. They should never be the motive for the practice of Vipassana, as this is a devaluation of this exalted technique which takes human beings to such great heights in liberating the mind of its impurities.

Vipassana, if practised correctly and with proper understanding, progressively makes one a better individual. This, in turn, enables one to make a positive and constructive contribution to the society in which one lives. One learns the art of constructive social living which promotes positive social interaction.

Concluding remarks

Vipassana is a technique which has a very practical approach. It not only helps us to pass through the vicissitudes of life in a detached way, but it also promotes social well-being. It is, therefore, a science, not only of self-development but also of social development. It is an art of living whereby we learn to live in peace and harmony with our own selves and with others.

To summarize, the characteristic features of Vipassana are:

  1. It is a universal technique which can be practised by anyone belonging to any country, caste or creed.
  2. It strikes at the roots of our defilements in the unconscious mind and breaks the barrier between the conscious and unconscious layers of the mind.
  3. There is no place for imagination in this technique, no verbalization of any mantra or visualization of any god or goddess, or any other object. The practice starts from experience of the apparent truth of body and mind and proceeds towards realization of the subtle and absolute Truth.
  4. It is a highly individualistic and experiential method of meditation. Man must walk on the Path himself. No one else can make the effort for him or liberate him from the impurities of the mind. Hence there is no "gurudom" in this technique.
  5. One reaps the benefits of this technique here and now, as one progressively becomes a better individual.