Great, cheerful talk by Ajan Bram touching upon self-realization, mindfulness, human nature, and meditation.
While I never met the man in person, I learned meditation from him. Taking advantage of the increasingly affordable video recording technology of the early 1990s, Vipassana teachers worked with Goenka-ji to record his “Dhamma Talks”, which are still used to train new students to this day.
Training people to remove themselves from suffering is serious business, and Goenka-ji did it well. By providing training passed down from Burmese monks and from the words of the Buddha himself, Mr. Goenka distilled 30 day meditation retreats into 10 days of hard, but empowering training for those opting to participate.
In Goenka’s approach to Vipassana meditation, which is the central means to enlightenment in Theravada Buddhism, they are so concerned with following the instructions of the Buddha literally, that most teachers go on to become scholars of the ancient Pali language. This allows them to understand the meditation instructions given in the 2000 year old transcriptions of the Pali Canon and Tipitika from the Buddha himself, which had previously been taught through oral tradition. Goenka-ji maintains that the Burmese monks kept the instructions free from their own interpretation throughout the years, unlike many other sects of Buddhism.
I’ve already elaborated on my experience with learning the vipassana technique in this web journal. Here’s an account from another “old student” who learned from Goenka in the 1970s:
This quote seems most relevant and on-topic for Independence Day.
“We must train our minds to understand that not everything someone says or does is the truth. We have the ability to believe or to not believe what is being reflected upon us from those around us.
When we come into contact with a mean-spirited person, we must feel compassion for them because those who are reflecting pain onto others are struggling within. We must also keep ourselves safe by seeing and practicing the skill of not believing everything someone says to us. By not taking things personally, we can develop a deep love for ourselves through knowing that it is our thoughts and perceptions of ourselves that create endless possibilities or the opposite, boundaries due to our lack of confidence.
We can create our own journeys of pain or pleasure when we no longer leave others in charge of how we feel.”
Borrowed from http://buddhasayings.com
It is because mental negativity is addictive and feeds on itself.
The Buddha taught that whenever any kind of negativity arises in the mind (anger, hate, jealousy, or sadness in particular), the solution is to observe the physical sensations associated with the emotions and face them.
Physical sensations associated with negative thoughts might be a faster heart beat, harder breathing, blushing, muscle tension, stomach pain or any number of biochemically driven, fight or flight responses. Rather than immediately picking up the bottle, a doughnut, drug, or other mechanism for escape, recognize these signs, and be with them for a moment when they arise. Feel the feeling and know it will pass.
As soon as you start to observe this state of mental impurity objectively, it begins to lose strength and slowly withers away. At first this requires patience, but over time and with meditation practice it happens faster.
But how to observe it objectively? The trick is not to focus on the object or cause of the negativity (be it a person or event). Focusing on the object of the negativity will cause the negativity to multiply and build strength. Once you know what the cause is and have learned from it, dismiss the cause and focus on the sensations. Realize it is in the past and you are in the present. See how these thoughts are harming you and allow yourself to let go of them.
This allows the mind to break the biochemical cycle of anger, and disrupt the root cause of misery and be happy once again.
Just one of the many, many gems of wisdom I’ve taken away from S.N. Goenka’s Dhamma Meditation training through his famous 10-day retreats which I attended two years ago this month. One important fact about these meditation courses which I like is they are non-sectarian in nature. While it stems from the teachings of Buddha and how he reached enlightenment 2500 years ago, it is not about selling Buddhism, or classes. They teach a universal meditation technique with the goal of greater mental focus, gratitude, and happiness in daily life.
Just as a rocky mountain is not moved by storms,
so sights, sounds, tastes, smells, contacts and ideas,
whether desirable or undesirable,
will never stir one of steady nature,
whose mind is firm and free,
who sees how all things pass.
- Anguttara Nikaya 6.55
“Women can change better’n a man,” Ma said soothingly. “Woman got all her life in her arms. Man got it all in his head.”
“Man, he lives in jerks – baby born an’ a man dies, an’ that’s a jerk – gets a farm and looses his farm, an’ that’s a jerk. Woman, its all one flow, like a stream, little eddies, little waterfalls, but the river, it goes right on. Woman looks at it like that.”
That was Ma Joad from Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck. I’ll never forget the ending of this great John Ford movie with the surviving family members driving off into the richly toned black and white sunrise in their old truck. Beat up but still running because it had to, I would argue that truck symbolized their lives.
Goenkaji had great advice for we who live in our heads too. He said, in effect:
Whenever negativity arises in the mind, just observe it — recognize the physical sensations associated with the negative emotions, and face them. Accept them for what they are.
Do not focus on the object person or event associated with the negativity, or the negativity will multiply. Observe the sensation, and let it go.
Mental impurities cause unhappiness. As soon as you start to observe a mental impurity, it begins to lose its strength and slowly withers away. Once all unhappiness is eradicated, all that’s left is happiness.
Paraphrased from the Art of Living, by S.N. Goenka.
It occurred to me through my exchange with a teacher this week that kids who do printmaking will have the distinct advantage to learn, first-hand, the process of cause and effect which impacts not only art, but all aspects of our lives. Sometimes things happen within the studio you have no control over, or that you don’t notice before running it through the press, which can result in massive changes to the print. Sometimes for the better, sometimes otherwise. While we can’t always control all variables in artwork or in life, meditation teaches us it is how we react to those changes that is the important thing.
When a print comes out brilliantly, do we take credit for it, and allow our ego to get all puffed up? Do we view it as a blessing from the universe to bring a smile to our day and to others? More importantly, do we look closely to determine why it worked so well this time, so it can be repeated?
When a print comes out ugly do we get angry and tear it up immediately, or do we calmly try to analyze what went wrong? Are we able to learn something about the process by seeing how the outcome could have been controlled better? Do we try to use it in another project? Better yet, do we promise ourselves to keep trying to do better, accept the outcome, and then move up and away from the negative emotions associated with the outcome?
I was not sure if I wanted to post this to my photogravure printmaking blog or this one, but it wound up here as I found it to be more of a spiritual exchange than a technical one.
No, the problem is not guns, though I’d still prefer not to have them in our society.
The problem is the inability of the average person to control their reactions to anger, sadness, jealousy and hatred. Our culture in America provides no effective way of dealing with these emotions. Instead we have guns, football, reality TV and other expressions of violence and primal feelings that allow us to release — and enhance and extend — these natural, yet unhealthy poisons in our blood.
Having guns freely available provides the average person an easy, illusory release from these emotions if they get too heavy, as an addict might use a drink, a pill or a needle. By using something external to solve an inherently internal problem, the problem becomes deeper – both for the culture as well for as the individual.
“Slay anger and you will be happy,
slay anger and you will not sorrow.
For the slaying of anger in all its forms with its poisoned root and sweet sting — that is the slaying the nobles praise; with anger slain one weeps no more.”
The technique of Vipassana meditation was proven 2,500 years ago to be the best solution to this troublesome problem plaguing the human condition. The Buddha saw the problem quite clearly and through the process of discovering it through meditation, solved it for himself through meditation. He also went on to teach thousands of people the technique to help them end their suffering too. The suffering caused by such discontentment with others and our situations can grow to become insurmountable, causing us to turn to harmful, “solutions” like a gun or a bottle. While the emotions are temporary the effects of a gun are often tragic and irreversible. Seeing our problems for what they really are, as opposed to how they feel to us is the key to prevent unwholesome reactions to unwholesome feelings about our problems.
In describing Vipassana meditation to a number of people this weekend I was met with a common theme. Most of them said they thought meditation would be boring, and that’s why they weren’t interested in doing it. But when asked about what they thought the benefits would be, they said things like “bliss”, “relaxation”, and “supreme enlightenment!”. While that may be true of some practices, the Vipassana approach taught by S.N. Goenka delivers not just relaxation or bliss, but something much more powerful: simple “happiness” through developing one’s ability to concentrate the mind.
Sometimes the response to this is “But I’m already happy.” (ergo, I don’t need to learn to meditate). There are of course varying degrees of happiness. Most people have something gnawing at them, even in the most serene environments. That subtle feeling of discontentment that something could be just slightly better, and so they move to change things so it can be, and then again and again until the objective is no longer to be at peace with the place and moment, but to make things better. This discontentment, it is often said by scholars in Buddhism, is what the Buddha really meant when he refers to ‘suffering’. Sure suffering could be the result of a larger physical or emotional problem, but it can also be the result of your tea being not quite hot enough, if the mind allows you that kind of focus. Maintaining charge of one’s mind to not allow unhappiness to enter into the sphere of their mental environment results in pure happiness, by definition. Easier said than done, so that is why we practice meditation.
One person asked me if meditation was like going on a hike where you’d think about things as they came to you and observe the world outside with awareness, as well as the pain growing in your feet and different parts of your body as time passes. After some consideration I answered no, that I didn’t think meditation was like going on a hike because the objectives were different. People can go on hikes for many different reasons and, like meditation, there are physical and psychological benefits to both. However meditation in the style I practice has the main objective of mental purification, not being aware of your environment, although that skill may improve through the practice of meditation too. By combing through the physical sensations (pleasant and unpleasant) and learning to accept them in a safe environment of focus, we eventually grow to also accept things pleasant and unpleasant outside the confines our bodies with acceptance. This is how the practice works. It was clear that the person asking the question was not happy that their analogy of hiking and meditation was not embraced. She really wanted to be told that she was okay without meditation in her life because she liked and benefited from hiking, I suppose.
Likewise some who practice meditation of a different style sometimes grow defensive when I point out the differences between our approaches and the core objectives of Vipassana: To come to terms with one’s personal reality as a path to real happiness. There are no external devices of conscious imaginary visualization to provide temporary emotional happiness in Vipassana. In Vipassana, these things actually work against the objective of observing and accepting reality. It is hard work, but most people want their results to be pleasant and immediate while meditating instead of training to fortify the mind against unhappiness, like one might train the body through yoga or lifting weights against physical inflexibility and weakness.
It’s a tentative balance when talking with others about the practice. No one wants to think their current lifestyle and pursuits are inadequate. The acid test is, can you maintain the balance of your mind and level of happiness during good times and bad with this practice? The truth is paradoxical and is therefore somewhat had to convey in conversation to those who don’t already get it: Only by accepting the pains and inadequacies in our lives and embracing them are we free to be truly happy.
As a web developer I wish writing software were as easy as thinking and making it happen, as with art. The more complex the system, the more one small change has repercussions effecting potentially all aspects of the system.
When you think about how many things have to happen in order to drive yourself to the store and buy a bottle of soda, if you broke down every required action into steps, there are probably 50 or 100 or even 1000 individual steps allowing you to do the “one” task you want to do. In software each of those things has to be written and all possible use case scenarios accounted for and tested so nothing breaks. Yet we naturally just think of any action we perform in working with existing software as one thing.
Software models reality, which in actuality, is way more complex than our amazing brains give credit for, because it can process and make adjust naturally to things at lightning speed. In software every single thing must be written.
Likewise, meditation is a step-by-step process that slows down the mind to focus on each part of the body and analyze it in terms of sensations, but without judgement or attempting to fix it. For me, like most people, this is the hardest aspect of Vipassana meditation.
In part 1 of this article, I wrote a little about where akido and vipassana meditation intersect, but mostly about the mechanics involved in testing for my personal reference. In this installment, I discuss more about how the two practices overlap and enhance one another.
Had my rokyu test last night, and all went well. Collin also tested and did a great job as my uke (attacker). While my technique may not have been perfect, I was focused and the experience of testing brought me to a greater level of commitment having performed acceptably in front of about 30 aikidoists. Looking forward to the feedback from the judges on how I might improve, which is one of the most valuable parts of getting such an evaluation. I will be eligible for the next rank (gokyu, or 5th kyu) in March.
In my last post I wrote about the difference between meditation and aikido practice in terms of one being solitary and the other interactive. While true that meditation is a solitary pursuit and aikido is mostly done with others, the goal of the Vipassana path I follow is to eventually integrate the vipassana technique of maintaining mental balance (through awareness of feelings and sensations) into everyday life and thus improve our interactions with others all the time. By paying attention to changes in physiology when experiencing mental conflict in meditation – breathing, heart rate, sensations on the skin – we can focus on being aware of that genuine experience in our bodies instead of getting stuck in a loop of “imagined” experiences and our reactions to these imaginings, in order to calm the mind. I use the word imagined because however bad or good the situation, our memory and impressions, and subsequent reactions to them are often different when we’re feeling strongly about something, than if we had more objectivity. This has been proven time and again when interviewing witnesses from crime scenes and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) patients — our memory of a situation and its circumstances becomes distorted the more we mentally relive a powerful experience. In other words, our tendency is to blow things out of proportion and overreact, at least internally if not externally when we’re not focused on the moment.
Similarly aikido, while martial in essence, is meant not just to provide physical skill and balance when in physical conflict with others, but also mental skill and balance internally, where our reactions to conflict originate. Keeping the mind focused and sharp while jolting and exhausting the body through continuous throwing, falling and hitting the mat can prove to be a challenging exercise and quite different from the more subtle focus required during the physical stasis of meditation.
In aikido one of the goals and challenges is to respond to attacks with an appropriate level of response. The first part of the word Aikido means “match” or “harmony” — according to Miriam-Webster: ai- match, coordinate + ki breath, spirit + dō art, way. If someone attacks with moderate force, breaking their arm would be an excessive and inappropriate response. Likewise responding weakly would be inappropriate, not to mention ineffective. Aikido practice prepares us for both mildly threatening as well as deadly attacks and helps us to discern the difference and respond appropriately – mentally and physically.
To not respond excessively based on exaggerated impressions, rather than the actual level of force in harmony with the attacker and their attack is a difficult thing to master, and where Vipassana meditation practice can help us to improve aikido. The mental/physical response is not just a matter of responding to the attack itself in a vacuum, but also has to do with our current, as well as our past reactions to similar situations. For example, if the attack is coming from a person who has hurt me before, or if the person or style of attack reminds me of being hurt or rendered ineffective in the past, I may have a prejudiced reaction to the attack. Mental reactions (verbal or physical) will increase or decrease in intensity, sometimes quite inappropriately, based on these imagined conditions rather than the actual conditions.
People come to aikido for different personal reasons. For me at least, aikido practice provides a place where Vipassana practice of maintaining mental focus is able to be challenged, tested and improved upon in a generally safe, physical environment, in addition to being great exercise and a way to meet fascinating people of all ages with mutual goals of self-improvement.