Thursday, November 27, 2008

Revealing What Is: Vipassana Meditation As Taught by S.N. Goenka

By Meera Sanghani



S.N. GoenkaIn the search for spiritual development, we inevitably consider the art and practice of meditation. If possible, we explore and experiment with a variety of techniques until we arrive at the style that meshes with our beliefs, values and personalities. Whether practicing transcendental or Zen meditation, we ultimately seek a sense of inner calm in the face of change.

With a strong desire to grow spiritually and a myriad of meditation options now "on the market," we can, ironically, impede our very good intentions to become better human beings by feverishly looking for bliss. By definition, meditation is deep reflection that invites us into reality, rather than taking us away from it. Meditation is not a hypnotic trance or some esoteric ideology.

Vipassana means "to see things as they really are." As one of the world's most ancient meditative techniques, vipassana is the form of meditation that the Buddha practiced to achieve enlightenment, and this is the method he taught for 45 years throughout the Indian subcontinent. The Buddha never taught a sectarian religion; he taught "dhamma"--the way to liberation--which is universal. If we can understand ourselves inwardly, completely and within the experience of our body, then liberation from burdensome mental habits and patterned thinking is truly possible.

S.N. Goenka, the foremost living teacher of vipassana meditation, addressed participants of the Millennium World Peace Summit in August 2000 and declared, "Peace in the world cannot be achieved unless there is peace within individuals. Agitation and peace cannot co-exist. One way to achieve inner peace is vipassana, or insight meditation--a non-sectarian, scientific, results-oriented technique of self-observation and truth realization. Practice of this technique brings experiential understanding of how mind and body interact…[and] reveals that mental action precedes every physical and vocal action, determining whether that action will be wholesome or unwholesome. Mind matters most."

S.N. Goenka's approach to vipassana meditation is introduced to students during a 10-day course in which participants are requested to abstain from verbal and nonverbal communication with others. Removing the interpersonal interaction affords the opportunity for students to look inward and observe and unearth mental habits. This approach offers insight into how our experience of the "outside" world is influenced by the tools of perception--the body and mind. Only when we undertake the work of looking at how we react (to pain and/or pleasure) can we understand how we may be "wired" for certain behaviors.

I attended a vipassana meditation course in the summer of 2001 at a retreat center in Plano, Illinois. I had heard from relatives and friends about the benefits of meditation; but, of course, experience is the best teacher. It is worth mentioning that the courses (taught all over the world) are free of charge for participants and funded by donations from former students who believe in the value of the vipassana technique. In a retreat setting, away from the bustle of urban living and in an environment in which all my energy could be directed towards self-work, many of my mental habits emerged during our group and individual meditation sittings.

One particular habit that I became aware of related to my father. Though he passed away almost ten years ago, I realized that I maintained a relationship to who he was. For example, without considering my own feelings, I found myself doing things that I knew he would have wanted me to do. This behavior stifled my ability to acknowledge his death and grow as an individual. Vipassana, however, is not some quick-fix for sorrow; but, rather, it allows all experiences, emotions, sensations and thoughts to surface so that we can truly observe them and recognize the change that is inherent to living.

Perhaps the biggest challenge of all during the course was to observe the body's reactions with stillness and the mind's reactions with objectivity. Vipassana meditation can indeed reveal what is.

Every evening the group would view a videotaped discourse of S.N. Goenka, in which he related instructive anecdotes from Gautama Buddha's life as well as shared his own experiences with vipassana meditation over some 30 years. Mr. Goenka also spoke of the way of dhamma and encouraged us to sit through whatever may arrive during our seated meditation, giving it our full attention. Vipassana does not encourage escapism but rather direct confrontation with who we are; and perhaps out of that encounter we can free ourselves from mental bondage.

Every year, over 100,000 people participate in such 10-day meditation retreats under S.N. Goenka's guidance. His relentless efforts to bring the technique to as many people as possible--including prison inmates and corporate CEOs--are evidence of his devotion to vipassana. Most importantly, Mr. Goenka stresses the universality of this practice, whereby ideological differences can be bridged and people of diverse backgrounds can experience deep benefits without fearing conversion.

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