Twitter chief Jack Dorsey recently wrote about a 10-day silent Vipassana programme he had attended on his birthday at Pyin Oo Lwin, Myanmar. Elaborating on his experience with the 2,500-year-old meditation form, Dorsey tweeted, “Imagine sitting on a concrete floor cross-legged for an hour without moving. Pain arises in the legs in about 30-45 minutes. One’s natural reaction is to change posture to avoid the pain. What if, instead of moving, one observed the pain and decided to remain still through it?”
Dorsey is not the first Silicon executive to take up the programme – a number of top-ranking executives across the world and in India, though to a much lesser degree, are taking up Vipassana – considered to be a fairly gruelling technique.
So what is it about Vipassana that is drawing people to it? We speak with Ramnath Shenoy, Vipassana meditator for over 25 years and a volunteer teacher with the Vipassana International Academy, to find out more about the ancient form of meditation, rediscovered by Gautama Buddha and propagated by Burmese-Indian teacher of Vipassana meditation, Satya Narayan Goenka.
What is the ultimate purpose of Vipassana?
Vipassana is a simple, scientific way to achieve real peace of mind and to lead a happy, useful life. Vipassana means ‘to see things as they really are’. It is a process of mental purification through self-observation. We all experience agitation, frustration and disharmony in our lives. When this happens, not only do we suffer ourselves, we make others miserable too by our behaviour.
We all want to live peacefully, within ourselves and with those around us. Vipassana enables us to experience peace and harmony within, by purifying the mind, freeing it from suffering and the deep-seated causes of suffering. Step by step, the practice leads to the highest spiritual goal of full liberation from all mental defilement.
In today's world, where distractions are numerous, how can one practice mindfulness?
I think distractions have always been there in one form or the other. We have to accept this fact and try our best within the circumstances. By the practice of Vipassana, one learns to tune out the distractions and focus on the task at hand.
It is the lack of mindfulness that makes us do things which lead to our suffering. By practising mindfulness, we train our mind to be aware and thus do the right action at all times and in all situations.
Vipassana trains you to be non-reactive to sensations - how can this be achieved?
The first step is to be aware of sensations, this itself is a big challenge!
To achieve this, one practices concentration in the first three days of a Vipassana course by observing one's own breath, without trying to control or change it in any way. Once concentration is developed, one practices awareness of ordinary, physical, bodily sensations. One then practices equanimity towards these sensations - not to react with craving or aversion but to accept them as they are. At the experiential level, one understands the impermanent nature of these sensations and one accepts them with calmness. We use these sensations as a tool, to break the habit pattern of generating craving and aversion.
For all this, of course, one has to join a 10 Day course where the technique is taught systematically and one learns under proper guidance.
How should you prepare yourself to practice Vipassana? Should any precautions be taken?
There is no special preparation required to practice Vipassana. One just needs to go with an open mind and with the firm determination to try it out with all sincerity.
With regards to precautions, one has to be careful not to mix techniques. For 10 days, you have to give Vipassana a fair trial without mixing it with anything else you may have learnt. Also, if someone has the habit of smoking or drinking, then one should try to give it up sometime before the course so that there aren’t any severe withdrawal symptoms during the course.
How does Vipassana help one deal with grief or death?
No purpose is served by crying over the demise of a dear one - that person is not going to come back. By such an action, we generate misery for ourselves and also send thoughts filled with misery towards the person who has passed away. The whole atmosphere around us gets permeated with this misery.
Vipassana trains the mind to remain equanimous and face all the challenges of life. Rather than generating misery, we learn to remain calm and generate goodwill, for the departed one and for the members of the family.
Vipassana, as a form of meditation, is still not that popular, why do you think that is so?
Although taught by the Buddha over 2500 years ago, Vipassana was lost in the country of its origin. About 50 years ago, my teacher, Mr Satya Narayan Goenka came to India and conducted the first course in Mumbai, primarily to teach his mother and a few others. There was so much demand for more courses that he ended up moving to India!
Since then it has been spreading, first in India and then around the world. Vipassana is now taught in all continents, at over 200 Centers around the world. One can only put in one's efforts to establish oneself and hopefully, more and more people will benefit from this technique.