The Passing of S.N. Goenka

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.

Former president of India Pratibha Patil, takes blessings from S.N. Goenka during a ceremony in Mumbai on February 8, 2009. (EPA/Newscom)

Former president of India Pratibha Patil, takes blessings from S.N. Goenka during a ceremony in Mumbai on February 8, 2009. (EPA/Newscom)

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:

Talking to People About Meditation

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.

What Grows in your Thought Garden?

Scanning the dial of my local radio stations I’ve found myself getting sucked into a religious station every now and then.  Since I live in America, that religion is invariably Christian.  Why, in this supposed land of religious freedom are there no Buddhist, Muslim or Jewish radio stations?  I think if there were we would find very little difference in the core message and directions given in terms of how to live and behave as a good person.  It would also undermine the tacit message that any is the one true religion. Most religions of the world teach love, how not to hate, and those things have to do almost invariably with one’s mental volition or disposition every day — not just in church.

The commentator on this particular radio program spoke in a Christian-specific context, but using concepts of universal happiness which is what intrigued me.  She also referenced the following poem, unattributed:

Your mind is a garden,
Your thoughts are the seeds,
You can grow flowers or
You can grow weeds.

Such a simple, poetic metaphor completely reflects the core teachings in the technique of Vipassana Meditation I practice.  S.N. Goenka speaks of a attendee on a 10-Day Vipassana course who happened to be the Mother Superior of a convent who accused him of teaching Christianity in the name of Buddha.  Goenkaji said “I teach Dhamma!  The law of nature.”  In my readings I’ve found no better example of a law of nature pertaining to both nature and man than the one referenced in the poem above.  Thanks Christian radio!

Sometimes that same radio station has had commentators posturing hate-related exclusionary political positions in the name of Christianity which have nothing to do with positive mental development and connecting to others. In those cases I tune out, but when they speak in terms of creating a better life for everyone, regardless of their personal lifestyle, sexual orientation or religion, it gets my attention.

Universal concepts of creating happiness like the one in the poem above are simply effective, regardless of specific rites, rituals or political positions associated with a given religion.  It requires no sales pitch as it is sensible, and apparent in truth.  It is readily easy to prove too.

What makes a bad day?  Invariably it is having bad, negative thoughts that stress us out and cause our day to be ‘bad’.  It’s not the things that actually happen to us, but how we think about them that affect our happiness. Thinking positively is not as simple as thinking of pretty thoughts and flowers, of course.  It takes practice and discipline that effective and regular meditation practices supports.  Going to church, mosque, temple, the movies or your psychiatrist can get you there too, but it’s likely to be colored with someone else’s biases.

What makes sensation-based Vipassana meditation effective is its focus is solely on the truth of your own bodily sensations, which are tied to your subconscious.  Becoming aware of and accepting them puts you closer in touch with your own personal reality.  Such perspective gives you more personal control, so as to not be taken by surprise or overreact so easily when something good or bad happens. It is also allowing you to see the garden as it is, weeds and all, and, if you’re smart, use meditation as an opportunity to pull the weeds from the garden of your mind.  When all the weeds are gone, all that’s left is flowers.


Deconstructing Misery through Vipassana

I recently attended a 10-day course on Vipassana meditation in Colorado. Although it sounds luxurious and relaxing way to spend some time “away from it all”, it was without question the most extreme, demanding and personally rewarding thing I’ve ever done. I got interested in the idea of doing this from my friend Angela who said a friend of hers had done it and was raving about the experience and how positively life-changing and powerful it was for her.

This wasn’t a retreat in the context of a “business retreat” or a social retreat in any way. It was kind of like what I’d imagine boot camp would be like without all the physical work and psychological manipulation I’ve heard goes on there. The retreat was extremely challenging for me and others, yet only one person out of 55 left mid-way through the course.

A Vipassana retreat experience means different things to different people, but the technique is very simple. What I like about it is the fact that it is simple in concept, and does not require belief in any particular religion or deity. S.N. Goenka revived and refined the technique of teaching Vipassana in the 1970s and continues as the head teacher of the Vipassana Research Institute as of today. Since so much has already been written about the practice of Vipassana Meditation is and how it works (see this article will focus on my personal experience.

At its core, the meditation technique is to stay focused on observing changes in the body as you scan through the different body parts. Any tactile sensation or change in sensation that is perceived is taken note of during the body scans. Any unpleasant sensations are observed with compassion, without aversion, anger, or negative reaction. They are simply observed without moving or changing posture in response to them. The same is true with any positive sensations experienced during meditation. They should be observed, but not sought after or reacted to with craving or clinging.

In a way, it reminded me of giving up cigarettes. The way I was able to do it was to acknowledge what I was feeling whenever I felt a craving to smoke, then let the feeling pass. Easy to do in theory, but when the addiction is strong the mind has powerful and persuasive tricks to keep one locked in the addiction. In Vipassana the goal is to disrupt the behavior pattern of the mind to respond with craving or aversion to experiences.

Leg and back pain are common complaints during most meditation practices. For myself I’ve had an on-going mild back pain that was the result of a car accident that occurred soon after I graduated from college. The accident was my fault – a car in front of me changed lanes suddenly without signaling, and I rear-ended a stopped vehicle it had passed abruptly while doing about 35 mph. Luckily the people in the car that got hit only had minor injuries, but I was in the hospital for several days for a chest contusion as the result of the impact. My back got extremely tight in response in order to protect my chest and I was unable to sleep on it for weeks, needing to sleep only on my side. The tightness in my back came and went throughout the years and was rarely debilitating, but lingered. Some said it was “psychological” pain, which made sense intellectually, but it was never enough pain consistently enough to bother about. It did keep me from doing certain activities, like Aikido, a martial art which involves a lot of rolling around and taking falls as part of the practice.

Sitting in meditation for 10 hours a day, was a different from most activity I had done before. While first learning the technique, after about 30 minutes, the perceived pain in my back, and then legs, was excruciating. After 45 minutes I wanted to scream out in pain on several occasions, but our vow of noble silence prohibited talking or making unnecessary noise, so as not to disturb other meditators. Thankfully, before too long, the technique of observing these sensations without reacting to them either physically or emotionally is explained quite clearly in the daily audio lectures of S.N. Goenka. As I observed the sensation in my back and detached my emotional reaction from it, I was able to see it was not as horrible as it initially felt. I learned how to deconstruct the sensation from what felt initially like “raging pain that was going to kill me if it lasted another second” to something more like “a cold, tight, throbbing sensation just under my shoulder blades that was causing my stomach to tighten”. This wasn’t rationalization, but rather clear observation. I remained connected to my body still, but was able to see more clearly by not reacting to my initial emotional response.

Over time and with regular meditation practice I’ve eliminated the pain response, though a sensation of tightness is still noticeable to me at times throughout the day and during meditation. The main difference is I no longer worry about the pain causing my back to go out. What I’ve determined is the fear was actually more powerful than the “pain” sensation, which no longer has control over me or my activities. Had someone told me this prior to learning meditation, I’m fairly certain it would have made no difference in my ability to control it. Only through meditation and directly experiencing the sensation without reacting to it with fear, anger or negativity was I able to help it to subside.

Seeing all sensations as transitory with the full awareness and acceptance that, as the old proverb about King Solomon says, “This too shall pass,” is what Vipassana is all about. This concept is key to this technique of meditation practice and to Buddhism in general. Also key to both is the idea that misery and suffering are caused by reacting to feelings of blind passion, clinging, attachment, anger, and aversion. The more we react to these feelings, no matter how subtle the emotional sensation may be, the more that reactive behavior is reinforced and made habitual. Even if we don’t act on our emotions, the negative thoughts are still there and are, in fact, a reaction, and the beginnings of misery since misery is all in the mind. Even if we’re suffering from a physical ailment that causes real physical pain, our mind has the incredible power to make the pain far worse, causing us to limit our potential activities and enjoyment of life more than we might if we had a better mental outlook. The technique provides such a better mental outlook for the practitioner, giving our lives more richness and potential.

The reason this technique of meditation works is sensation can be experienced on both the conscious and subconscious equally well. We know this is true since we respond to sensation even when we sleep: A mosquito, for example, which we swat at, or the mosquito bite which we scratch even when in deep sleep. In Vipassana we use the body as a framework to create an environment to demonstrate how emotional sensations are no different from physical ones in that we can choose to respond or not to respond to them (when conscious). It is within our power, and although there is nothing wrong with reacting to physical sensations in real life, there are negative consequences in reacting to emotional sensations – both on the subtle level as well as in the extreme.

Here’s an example: One thing I noticed after the course was that during meditation I had been attempting to sit very straight, thinking that would minimize the stress on my back and make it easier to sit longer and avoid the extremely unpleasant sensation I was still feeling in my back to some degree. When I realized I was forcing my posture to be too upright in response to the fear that I’d experience unpleasantness, I realized I was actually bringing the unpleasant experience on myself. So I began starting the practice by slumping over a little, as I was used to doing. I had actually been preemptively reacting: The very thing we were instructed time and again not to do if we wished to experience success with Vipassana! Since this revelation I’ve experienced much more pleasant sensations while meditating and the perception of the pain in my back has all but gone away completely.

I think the most difficult thing about the course, about practicing meditation, and about life in general, is resisting temptation to expend energy thinking about the past or worrying about the future. In my case, my mind is constantly distracted from focusing on the present sensations by thinking about what I will do the minute I’m done meditating or in the next week, month, year, etc. Thinking about past offenses others have committed against me or that I’ve committed against others is also a sticking point. The difficulty comes in realizing these are all illusions, however, illusions that generate real emotions that result in a mental as well as physiological effect. Thinking about the past and generating anger, fear, excitement, and hundreds of other feelings where there is nothing really happening and there is nothing to address causes unnecessary agitation in the mind and tension in the body. We think about past and future events and generate emotions about things that do not exist in the here and now, while meditating and while proceeding through daily life. Dispelling these incarnations of past and future experiences and the associated emotions allows us to see reality clearly in terms of what’s really happening now, this moment, in our presence, and not just what is in our heads. Again, easy to understand, but to really know this lesson and benefit from it requires meditation practice to avoid sliding back to reacting to the illusions, which is the animal nature of humankind at work and what Goenka calls the “wild, untrained, monkey mind”. We’re all born with it, but we can come out of it, according to the teaching and according to my personal experience.

Although the religion is not explicitly preached about during the meditation course there is a lot of chanting in the ancient Pail language of India by Goenka during the audio lectures to mark the end of meditation practice or discourses. The phrasing of the language and chanting with long, drawn out vibrations of his voice were weird at first, but I grew fond of hearing them by the end…especially since it meant I could soon get up and stretch out, get fresh blood to my back and limbs, and go pee.

Would I take the course again? Absolutely. Although it’s not going to be useful for everyone, especially those who don’t surrender fully to the training experience, I strongly believe anyone would benefit greatly from it. It was a gift to be able to go. If you can see the necessity for positive change in your life, and can make the time, be prepared to work very hard for long hours every single day. It is definitely no vacation. You will not be spoon-fed, or hand-held, though the environment provides everything you need to live, learn, and work. You’re very much on your own, which, if you’re like me, can be exciting until you realize there is nothing external to distract you away from your goal when things get difficult. No TV, internet, music, writing, reading, talking or interacting with others. There are, however, many things internal: negative thoughts, doubts, fears, body pain, emotional pain, learned behaviors, and skepticism to distract you, if you let them. The reward is having the opportunity to face yourself and your own personal demons, undistracted for ten days, and learning a very well-developed and ancient technique for deconstructing and eradicating your own personal misery and suffering.