J. Krishnamurti, 21st February 1974, 8th Conversation with Dr. Allan W. Anderson, from the the series “A Wholly Different Way of Living“.
Real compassion is not just an emotional response; it is a firm, thought-out commitment. … True compassion does not stem from the pleasure of feeling close to one person or another, but from the conviction that other people are just like me and want not to suffer but to be happy, and from a commitment to help them overcome what causes them to suffer.
— Dalai Lama
Click here to learn more about Anjana the chimp caring for the tiger cubs.
(Photo © Barry Bland / Barcroft Media)
One full week has gone by since I came back from a 10 day Vipassana Meditation retreat. It’s time I write a detail documentation of my understanding about the concept, my experience, and the after effects of the course.
What is Vipassana?
Vipassana is a Pali term (derived from Sanskrit Vipashyana) that would mean clear vision, to see clearly, to see things, people, situations, thoughts, feelings, etc., as they are, not how you suppose these are or how you want these to be.
For example, when there is a pain in some part of your body, generally the mind exaggerates the pain and suggests you all kinds of fears, and that’s what causes most of the suffering. When you remove these fears and stop the mind from reacting to pain, you look at the reality of the situation as it is, accept that there is pain, know that the pain is impermanent, and so there is equanimity, calmness, and peace of mind. That’s the end of suffering. And the pain eventually goes away, much quicker when you look at it with an equanimous mind.
Similarly, in a relationship with a person, your mind generally doesn’t look at the person as they are. You have an image about this person based on past experience and there are expectations about how you want this person to behave. The mind created image and expectations you have about this person prevent you from looking at the person as they are right now. As long as you can’t look at the person as they are, there is no communication at the deepest level and such a relationship is bound to fail. People keep changing. When the mind accepts this fact and looks at the person as they are, there is better communication, better understanding and better relationship.
It’s all about being in the present moment and being totally aware of your mind, body, feelings even as you work, as you drive, as you walk, as you talk to a person, etc., When there is such total awareness of the present moment, unnecessary fears drop off themselves and life gets better.
What is Vipassana Meditation?
It is easy to understand this concept, but when you try to apply this in everyday life, there is resistance from deep rooted habits and past impressions stored in your sub-conscious mind, you can call this karmic burden, or sanskaras (or as Buddhists call, sankharas). So, it helps to stay away from all distractions, just sit down and be with yourself for 10-20 minutes everyday, just be aware of yourself, your breath, the feelings in your body, your being (of course, this cannot be generalized, there could be people born with very little sanskaras and they don’t need to sit down to meditate this way, to them the whole life is meditation). When you sit down and meditate this way, the past impressions from your sub-conscious mind come up and you directly deal with them. When you stay totally aware in the present moment, these impressions evaporate. Regular practice of such meditation once or twice everyday for 10-20 minutes makes it easy to stay aware the rest of the day.
You may want to dive deeper and do this kind of meditation for days together and take out very deep rooted impressions and complexes. This is where you can take up a systematic practice of Vipassana Meditation developed by Gautama Buddha. At this day, there are various Buddhistic schools offering Vipassana Meditation courses. The kind of 10 day Vipassana course I went through is being conducted by Mr. SN Goenka and his group. He says that the course and format in which he is conducting was handed down directly by Gautama Buddha, preserved by a tradition of Burmese teachers over the last 2500+ years. There are good reasons to believe him, but most importantly, the method still works.
My experience of the 10 day course
Now, why at all I attended this course? For the past 3 months or so, I have been hitting a stagnation. Outwardly all has been well, no problems, but at a deeper level it seemed as if I’m caught up in some kind of endless loop powered by deep rooted impressions. The problem is too abstract and subtle to describe in words. I have been practicing meditation for years and I knew the right thing I had to do was to go deeper into myself instead of trying to fix external things or just running away from the problem. I tried to do this myself, go into deep meditation, but it’s extremely difficult to do this myself at my place with all the distractions. That’s when I came to know about this 10 day course. I’ve heard about this course years before and I thought 10 days of silence and meditation is too much for me. But this time it came to me at the right time and I took it up at the first available opportunity.
The very first thing, they stress the importance of silence and the five percepts (just for the 10 days), and as you go on for the first 2-3 days, you appreciate the importance of this discipline, it helps you. The schedule was hard, at least during the early days. Regular practice of yoga (of the acrobatic type) and meditation for years has made my body supple and flexible, but sitting down for 10 hours a day with closed eyes (of course, with breaks inbetween) was still hard. But not to worry, the first three days is just the preparation, the actual technique starts only on the fourth day. So, by that time, you are prepared, even you’ve not had any meditation experience in the past.
There was a lot of physical pain for the first 2 days. Pain in my right knee, ankles, right side of my neck, partly due to subtle errors in my posture and partly because my sensitivity has increased. I tried changing posture, but each posture has its set of pains. There was a particular session where all I did was to change posture every five minutes, and I even tried sitting facing different directions, I even thought of requesting a chair. But soon I realized it’s just the mind playing tricks, for there were people, much older in age but without much experience in meditation sitting cross legged and trying sincerely. So, I decided I’ll stick with a posture that’s most comfortable for me despite any pain. It helped. As I persisted, gradually the posture got corrected by itself and pain slowly died away. It became clearer and clearer that every negative/hard thought contracts some muscle in the body. Contraction over a longer period of time gives pain (and contraction over longer and longer periods of time becomes disease). As I relax within, the physical contraction too relaxes and the pain is gone.
As you go on, there are good sessions where you feel absolutely peaceful and there are sessions where the mind is totally distracted. One session feels absolutely pleasant, a few hours later there is total pain, and then again all is good. Emotions go high and low, and slowly you learn to remain equanimous with all that you experience.
The past impressions, especially the negativity, comes out layer by layer. Now, when I say negativity, you can’t so much identify the content of the negativity. Most of the times you can’t identify what kind of events in your past put that negativity into your system. For example, the sixth day of my course, there was a big wave of negativity. Every small disturbance made me angry. A little cough from the person sitting next to me made me so angry that I felt like smashing this person’s head into pieces. Everything seemed so irritating and I couldn’t find out why, I started doubting the whole process and felt like running back to home. But then, I knew this is bound to happen, this is to be expected, and if I leave it half way it wouldn’t make my life any better. Later into the evening, the negativity was gone and I started feeling compassion in me again. All the while I didn’t know what actually put that big chuck of negativity into my system, but I knew it’s always been there hidden inside.
There are other times, you can actually identify the negativity. For example, towards the 8th or 9th day, I felt like I was in school again. As with any child, when I was a very little child, there was a certain fright when it came to the class room, teachers, blackboard, etc., a certain kind of going into the shell. All those feelings were coming out and I was surprised it was still there within me.
And it’s not just about negativity and pain, there were also hidden layers of pleasure in the form of craving for some external object.
How do I feel after the course? Would I recommend it to others?
During the course, after the first 3-4 days, it felt absolutely fantastic that I wanted to recommend this course to anyone and everyone I know. But when that big wave of negativity came in during the 6th day it all reversed and I was actually thinking of recommending against anybody from taking the course. After that again it felt good. Even during the 10th day, there were reversals of my opinion about the course. So after I came back, I did not want to hastily tell something about the course to anybody. I wanted to give my feelings some time to stabilize. Reality hit hard immediately after I came back from days in silence and peaceful environment, and it felt a little difficult. One week on, I find myself more relaxed than ever before, more easy, more confident. I see that I used to try a little too hard previously. I see that my awareness and presence has grown. For example, even as ride my bike in heavy traffic, or as I sit in front of the monitor and solve a problem, I immediately sense whenever there is a little contraction in some part of the body. This sensing itself immediately relaxes the contraction and I see that my mind too becomes relaxed. All the physical pain and emotional pain experienced during the course have gone completely. The cravings too have gone down considerably. I’m feeling much lighter physically and relaxed inside and outside.
So would I recommend this course to others? Yes, but for best results you should commit you will go through the full 10 day course no matter what. Nothing bad really happens during the course, but at times during the course your mind magnifies every little problem and tempts you to quit. Leaving it halfway doesn’t make your life any better. Also, it helps you get the most out of the course if you go into it with an understanding of what this is all about. I suggest you read Eckhart Tolle’s book “The Power of Now”. Eckhart Tolle doesn’t speak about this course, but it’s the same concept. Also practice awareness during everyday activities, for example, when you wait in a queue, travel, drive, go up and down in an elevator, just become aware of your breath, note what happens in your body, how you feel. This kind of ‘practice’ during everyday activities of life eases you into regular meditation everyday if you need it, and if you need it, into such a 10 day meditation course.
Even though it’s been handed down from the Buddha, it should be obvious by now that this ‘practice’ is absolutely non-dogmatic, non-sectarian it’s just plain common sense. Everyone, from businessmen to labourers, prisoners, police personnel, actors, Hindu monks, Buddhist monks, Christian nuns, atheists, people in their 20s, people in 80s, married, unmarried, men, women, even pregnants, all take up the course, so anyone can do it.
Ultimately, it’s not so much about the course or the method or the ‘practice’… it’s about becoming more and more aware of all that’s happening in and around you, it’s about looking at things, people, situations, thoughts, feelings clearly, as they are.
So, that is it. Have I left out anything? Please ask.
Those who are resolute in this path (of Karma Yoga) have one pointed mind. Many-branched and endless are the thoughts of the irresolute.
— Bhagavad Gita 2.41
You feed your energies to whatever you pay attention to. A karma yogi knows this and s/he does not dissipate his/her energies. A karma yogi takes up a worthy purpose, puts all his/her attention into the purpose and gets it done.
Even physical science has plenty of examples to illustrate the power of focus and attention. When a paper is exposed to sunlight, nothing happens. But when the sun’s rays are focused using a lens into a single point of the paper, so much energy goes into the point that it burns. A piece of iron as such is nothing. But when the polarity of particles in the iron piece is aligned, it becomes a magnet.
We know that the objects of pleasure and pain vary from person to person and time to time, ultimately pleasure and pain have no reality, these are just notions of mind created by habitual responses of the mind and associations. But when we pay too much attention to the thoughts that try to convince us that the pleasure and pain are real, the reality of pleasure and pain grows in our life. When pursuit of pleasure and denial of pain becomes the dominant reality of one’s life, it’s one miserable life. A karma yogi knows this and so is focused only on the purpose at hand, he/she is not infatuated by the notions of pleasure and pain.
Swami Vivekananda says,
Take up one idea. Make that one idea our life — think of it, dream of it, live on that idea. Let the brain, muscles, nerves, every part of your body, be full of that idea, and just leave every other idea alone. This is the way to success.
After impressing upon Arjuna about the wisdom concerning the Self-realization and the analytical study of the nature of the self, Sri Krishna now goes on to speak about the Yoga of unattached action (Karma Yoga).
So far, the wisdom of Self-realization has been declared to you. Now listen to the wisdom of Yoga, endowed with which, O Arjuna, you shall break through the bonds of Karma. (Bhagavad Gita 2.39)
We have seen so much about the unreality of pleasure and pain. Actions motivated by pleasure and pain only lead us to bondage. Unattached action is the only way out of this bondage.
What is pleasure and what is pain?
Let us try to understand this more deeply. What is pleasure? What is pain? Why does the mind run after pleasure and run away from pain? What is unattached action? Let me try to explain as much as I have understood based on my limited experience and study. You don’t have to agree with this explanation, but try to understand, experiment and validate it for yourself. Feel free to disagree, add up, clarify.
Have you ever observed your mind and your thoughts when you are happy? Have you observed that when you are truly happy, the mind is undisturbed and peaceful, there are no thoughts, you are totally aware in the present moment?
And have you observed your mind when you are in pain? When you are in pain, the mind is disturbed and uncontrollable. It is very difficult to focus the mind when it is in pain, it is very difficult to be in the present moment.
So, happiness is when your mind is undisturbed and in a state of awareness in the present moment. Pain is distraction of the mind. When you are in pain, you step out of the present moment. Conversely, when you step out of the present moment, you experience pain.
But does the state of your mind and your ability to be aware in the present moment depend upon some external object you think to be pleasurable (or painful)? This belief that ‘pleasure comes from external object’ just a habitual response we have built up over time, right? It’s just a habitual response, just a conception of mind. It cannot be real because the notions of pleasure and pain vary from person to person, from time to time. When you realize that pleasure and pain are not real, they are just notions of the mind, you break away from your dependence on the external object in order to be happy, you get back to the wisdom that happiness is the true nature of your Self.
Craving is pain
Eckhart Tolle says, “Stress is caused by being ‘here’ but wanting to be ‘there.”’ When the mind is caught up in the ignorance that pleasure (and pain) depends on the object outside, it is ever distracted. An ignorant mind cannot stay in the present moment. It always craves after more pleasure, it always runs after something that it thinks will bring more pleasure. It is here, but wanting to be ‘there’. When there is craving, the mind has stepped out of the present moment and naturally it is painful. All you need to do to be happy again is to get back to your Self, accept the present as it is, get back to the undisturbed state of awareness and presence. But the ignorant mind erroneously thinks that the pain will go away only when the object of craving is attained.
Eventually, the object of craving comes into your life sooner or later. When this happens, you are momentarily happy because having got the object of pleasure, the craving stops, the disturbance of the mind is gone, the mind gets back to the present moment. But the mind is still ignorant and it still attaches pleasure with the object outside. So the happiness lasts only for a limited period of time. All things pass, this too shall pass. When the object of pleasure is gone, the mind due to its ignorance gets disturbed again, feels the pain again, and thinks the pain is because it has lost the object while the reality is that pain has come because the mind has stepped out of the present moment. The craving starts once again. The cycle of pleasure and pain continues.
Lost in the cycle of pleasure and pain and ignorance…
The mind is caught up in this cycle of pleasure and pain as long as there is ignorance of attaching pleasure with an external object. As the cycle repeats itself again and again, the ignorance gets strengthened, it becomes extremely difficult to get out of this vicious cycle. When we are caught up in it for too long, the ignorance permeates so deep, almost to the core of our being that it becomes an addiction, we are at the mercy of the object that we have attached pleasure with.
When we are caught up in this cycle of pleasure and pain and ignorance, all our actions are governed and dictated by the pleasure principle. We have lost control. Actually, what we have been talking so far is very simplistic, in reality it is much more complex. There are many many external objects we depend upon for our happiness in various degrees. So the mind is always distracted, it runs after one object and suddenly it runs after another. It is tossed up and down by hundreds and thousands of different motives. Very miserable state.
In order to get out of this misery, we simply need to shed the ignorance, we need to understand that pleasure does not come from the object outside, happiness is the true nature of the Self. But it’s not that easy for many of us. It’s easy for the mind to understand conceptually, but when the ignorance has penetrated much deeper into the layers of habits, emotions, beliefs, reality and even coded into the DNA of the physical body, it is very very difficult to root out the ignorance.
Karma Yoga, the yoga of unattached action
Fortunately for us, the Bhagavad Gita proposes a method that can help us break out of this bondage. It’s called Karma Yoga, the Yoga of unattached action. Counter attack… simply stated, you don’t allow your actions to be dictated by the pleasure principle. You just do what needs to be done for the good of the world irrespective of whether the action brings pain or pleasure. Pleasure should never be the motive of your work. The motive should always be do good for the world. You should never care about the rewards you may get, perform good actions just for the sake of doing it. Never let the conceptions of pleasure and pain control your actions. As you go on this way you get more and more control over your actions and your life, your mind becomes more and more focused, you become less and less controlled by the pleasure principle.
The task may seem enormous, but we just need to give it a start. Start small, just start helping people without any expectations. You don’t have to go too far, just start by unselfishly helping your friends and people in your family. Just do things that needs to be done and does good to the world, refuse to be controlled by pleasure, but always know that such unattached action will ultimately do good to you by helping you take complete control of your life. When you taste even a little bit of the superior pleasure of breaking away from ignorance and wrong beliefs, no getting back. The momentum builds up slowly and steadily. It’s the beginning of the end of your ignorance. Even a little bit of this Karma Yoga does not go waste. As Lord Krishna says,
In this, there is no loss of effort, nor is there production of contrary results. Even a little of this practice protects one from great fear. (2.40)
Okay, but does this mean we should not enjoy life, should we always remain stone faced? Not at all. Appreciate the beauty of life, smile, laugh, enjoy. Enjoy things as they come along, but gracefully let go when they go away. Accept the present moment for what it is. Enjoy life, but don’t lose yourself. The trick is to be aware all the time and catch the mind when it’s about to fall into the trap of ignorance.