Vipassana literally means ‘clear insight meditation’ - to see things as they really are. It is a common practice throughout the Buddhist world, occurring in many forms and variations. It is especially important to Tibetan Buddhism. To decode the complex, potentially instructive connections between our contemplation and the mystical experiences of life, we must pause for meditative interludes…and practice Vipassana. It is one of India’s most ancient techniques of meditation, which was rediscovered by Buddha more than 2,500 years ago and was taught by him as a universal remedy for universal ills. This non-sectarian technique aims for the eradication of mental impurities and the resultant happiness of liberation. Vipassana is a means of self-transformation through self-observation. It focuses on the deep interconnection between mind and body, which can be experienced directly by disciplined attention to the physical sensations that form the life of the body and by continuous interconnection and conditioning of the life of the mind. It is this observation-based, self-exploratory journey to the common root of mind and body that helps dissolve mental impurity, resulting in a balanced mind full of love and compassion. It is then that our thoughts, feelings, judgments and sensations become clear. Through this direct experience, the nature of how we grow or regress, how we produce suffering or free ourselves from suffering, is understood. Our life then becomes characterised by increased awareness, non-delusion, self-control and peace.
The Vipassana technique requires hard, serious work. There are three steps to this meditation training. The first step is to abstain from killing, stealing, sexual activity, speaking falsely and intoxicants. This simple code of moral conduct serves to calm the mind, which otherwise would be too agitated to perform the task of self-observation. The next step is to develop some mastery over the mind by learning to fix the attention on the natural reality of the ever-changing flow of our breath as it enters and leaves the nostrils. After a few days of practice, the mind is calmer and more focused, better able to undertake the practice of Vipassana: by observing sensations throughout the body, understanding their nature, and developing equanimity by learning not to react to them. Finally, as an advanced practitioner, we learn the meditation of loving kindness or goodwill towards all, in which the purity is shared with all beings. The entire practice is actually mental training. Just as we use physical exercises to improve our bodily health, Vipassana can be used to develop a healthy mind. Of course the results come gradually, through continued practice; it is unrealistic to expect all problems to be solved instantly. Within a few days of practice, however, the essentials of Vipassana can be learned, so that it can be applied in daily life. The more the technique is practised, the greater is our freedom from misery, and the closer our approach to the ultimate goal of total liberation.
The basic premise underlying Vipassana is the recognition that ‘the mind is not my own’. Oh, we may think it is: thinking that ‘these are my thoughts, my ideas, my feelings, my hopes and aspirations’. If so, Buddhism teaches, we are like the donkey who thinks that it is his idea to carry the pack, the ox who believes that he chooses to plough the field, or the rooster who believes that he controls the rising of the sun. By doing so we are behaving like the little children who follow sunbeams and shadows, and soon start to regard them as their own beams and shadows….an extension of themselves. To loosen the grip of this illusion and to free our cognitive faculties, so that we may contemplate better, Vipassana practice requires us to stop following or chasing these shadows - by simply acknowledging and accepting their presence and working to quieten the mind. In just a brief five-minute session of Vipassana we can experience the difficulty, the frightening underlying truth, and even some of the benefits of this practice. Try this: sit up straight; rest your hands lightly in your lap or on your knees; do not close your eyes entirely, but let your lids relax so that the eyes become half-closed; without moving your head, lower your gaze to approximately 30˚ below the horizon; do not look at anything in particular, do not think about or worry about anything in particular; as thoughts come to your mind, as they surely will, simply acknowledge them and let them pass - do not follow them or try to suppress them; do the same for any feelings or emotions - let them pass. Sit silently like this for five minutes. For some this time seems like an eternity. They shift nervously in their seats, occasionally opening their eyes a bit wider or turning their head to see if anyone is looking at them. At the end of the session, slowly open your eyes and gradually return to the consciousness of the room in which you are sitting. How do you feel? Rested, relaxed, energised, centred, focused? Do things look and feel a little differently than they did five minutes ago? Do you find yourself becoming acutely aware of details in the room that had heretofore escaped your attention? Are you perhaps more aware of – do you perhaps even feel more connected to – the people who occupy a space adjacent to your own? If the answer is yes to any of the questions, you have caught a glimpse of the power of Vipassana.
Everyone seeks peace and harmony, because that is what we often lack in our lives; from time to time we all experience agitation, irritation and disharmony. And when we suffer from these miseries we don’t keep them to ourselves; we often ‘distribute’ them to others as well - unhappiness permeates the atmosphere around someone who is miserable. We ought to be able to live at peace with ourselves and with others. After all, human beings are social beings, and must learn to deal better with each other and live well in society. But how are we to live peacefully? How are we to remain harmonious within and maintain peace and harmony around us, so that others can also live so? In order to be relieved of our misery, we have to know the cause of our suffering. If we investigate the problem, it will become clear that whenever we start generating any negativity or impurity in the mind, we are bound to become unhappy. This mental defilement or impurity cannot coexist with peace and harmony. How do we start generating negativity? Again, by investigation, it will become clear that we become unhappy when we find someone behaving or something happening in a way that we don’t like. When ‘unwanted’ things happen, we create tension within, tying ourselves up in knots. Some unwanted things keep on happening throughout our life, and our resultant negative reaction makes our entire mental and physical structure so tense that our life becomes miserable. Now, one way to ‘solve’ this problem is to ‘arrange’ that nothing unwanted even happens in our life, that everything keeps on happening exactly as we want or desire. For this, we must either develop the requisite ‘power’, or someone who has that power must come to our aid. But we know that this is impossible. There is no one in the world whose desires are always fulfilled and in whose life everything happens according to his or her wishes, without anything unwanted happening. The more reasonable way would be for us to see how we can stop reacting blindly when confronted with things that we don’t want or like. How can we stop creating tension, and remain peaceful and harmonious? In India, as well as in other countries, some wise saintly persons over the years have studied this problem of human suffering and found a ‘solution’: they believe that if something unwanted happens and you start to react by generating anger, fear or any negativity, then, as soon as possible, you should divert your attention to something else. For example, you should get up and go drink a glass of water – the chances are that your anger will begin to subside. Or, you should start counting, repeat some ‘mantra’ (words or phrases), or call on your earthly or heavenly god(s). By diverting the mind, you’ll be freed of negativity to some extent. The mind begins to feel less agitated. This solution still works. However, it works only at the conscious level. In fact, by diverting the attention you are pushing the negativity deep into the unconscious, where it continues to generate and multiply the same defilement. So, while on the surface there is a layer of peace and harmony, in the depths of the mind there is a sleeping volcano of suppressed negativity, which sooner or later may erupt in a violent explosion. Other explorers of the inner truth went still further in their search and, by experiencing the reality of mind and matter within themselves, recognised that the diverting of attention is only helping us to run away from the problem. They rightly believed that escape is not a solution, you have to face the problem. Therefore, whenever negativity arises in the mind, just observe it…face it. As soon as you start to observe a mental impurity, it begins to lose its strength and slowly withers away. In its simplest form, Vipassana cries ‘time out’ to the stream of cognition and concern that constantly berates our being. In the quiet space that remains, we find an inexplicably virginal, untapped, unused, unassuming and unspoiled abiding awareness. “How can this be?” a student will sometimes ask. “I thought I knew my mind, but now I find that the mind I thought I knew may not be mine at all. The self I thought I knew – the ‘me’ identified with thoughts and feelings that float across the canvas of my mind– may not be real at all. More pointedly, this self, even if real, and which I took to be me, is not me’. Such is ‘awareness’. Students who engage in Vipassana immediately before an exam find that their anxieties dissipate, their minds clear, their memories crystallise, and they are better able to focus and concentrate on the task at hand - which helps improve their performance far more than a last few minutes of desperate cramming. Given the cultural biases of different religions, one of the nice features of Vipassana is that it is both unobtrusive and portable - it goes wherever you go. All you need is a reasonably quiet place, though with a little practice even external noise will cease to be a barrier. With a bit more practice you may find yourself going on Vipassana walks - sometimes called ‘walking meditation’. It is an eminently practical practice.
Dr. Rajesh Bhola is President of Spastic Society of Gurgaon and is working for the cause of children with Autism, Cerebral Palsy, mental retardation and multiple disabilities for more than 30 years. He can be contacted at email@example.com