Meditation for Happiness – Vipassana for the Common Man

Thousands of years ago, Gautama Buddha found that suffering is part and parcel of everyone’s life, albeit in different forms. For some suffering is physical, causing torturous pain. For others, it can be mental suffering manifesting itself in myriad ways.

This reality was termed ‘dukkha’, which means sorrow, misery or sadness by Buddha, an unalterable universal truth tormenting every living being, even though its root cause differs.

Is it necessary to surrender to this ‘dukkha’ and lead an unhappy life, or find solutions to be happy inspite of it?

One road in the pursuit of happiness leads to the famous Vipassana technique of meditation discovered by Gautam Buddha, and popularized in our generation by S N Goenka, an Indian who was born and brought up in Myanmar. He gained access to this centuries’ old technique of meditation from Sayagyi U Ba Khin, who belonged to a chain of Vipassana teachers, passing on the gift of this technique to a small group of people, who took it forward through successive generations. Vipassana though first discovered in India, got lost in its country of origin but continued in its pristine form, in the interiors of Myanmar, passed on from generation to generation, bringing benefit and transforming lives of thousands who followed this path, and from here, spread across the globe.

The Vipassana technique appeals due to its rational, scientific base, devoid of religious leanings, blind faith or iconic leaders wishing to be worshipped as gods themselves, and serves only to improve individuals at the root level, teaching them how to live in peace and harmony with their surroundings, accepting rather than reacting to people and situations, finding contentment all around. There is no cult to join, no push to belong, only a desire to improve the lives of people, and help them overcome their endless cravings and aversions.

It is this that Vipassana meditation seeks to teach us all – how to accept reality just the way it is. Meditation has been the recourse for calming the anxious, racing mind, plagued with thoughts that cause restlessness. There are numerous variations in techniques of meditation but the essence is the same, to build concentration and reach the deepest core of the mind,  constantly looking inwards.

How Vipassana helps

Vipassana helps on multiple fronts, during times of stress, illness, melancholy and helps one sail through difficulties, simply by observing our feelings and emotions, being aware and accepting them, and gradually watch them pass away. This stems from the reality of impermanence, since nothing lasts forever, whatever begins, comes to an end, whatever arises, passes away. What comes today will go away after a period of time, however short or long, and anything that is made, will perish one day. There is nothing like permanence, eternity, lasting forever, and this is true of the tangible and the intangible. It takes us very long to understand our existing state of mind that wants the good to last and the bad to end. But nature is not selective. Anything and everything that arises, also passes away after some time. We are the ones who have to learn to be equanimous, not reacting to either.

Entering the realm of vipassana meditation, is ethereal, and so different from the stressful world outside. The ambience is conducive to feeling a beautiful silence, and meditation brings stillness, establishing an inner calm and the mind begins to move towards clarity. This is partly due to the ability to renounce worldly ties and material comforts, albeit for a short period, abandoning negative thoughts and emotions and letting go of attachments while improving on defilements that plague our lives. The end result is the lightness of spirit and the realization that we actually need very little to survive, and have unnecessarily made our existence so complicated and burdensome. Even as we meditate we have to rise above the feeling of joy when we are able to concentrate or develop an aversion towards the inability to do so.

Vipassana meditation has become a significant topic of conversation, continuing to gain popularity as a meditative technique, and a step ahead of simple mindfulness. Its roots in the teachings of Buddha, help us all adopt Buddhist principles and follow them to lead a highly moral life, which can either be defined as Buddha’s eight-fold path, or as the path of goodness and morality with no room for hurt, harm, dishonesty or negative, devious behavior.

To the layman, Vipassana remains an enigma, often considered a fad, and a seemingly unsustainable way of life. Nothing can be farther from the truth, since Vipassana transforms lives, teaches us to look for solutions within, rather than blaming the world for the problems we face, gaining control over our sharp and overactive mind, and helps us understand the true meaning and purpose of life.

The Meditation Routine – Too Rigorous?

Often, in social conversations, one hears people ignorantly wondering how one survives without phones and laptops, television and internet, in silence for a seemingly long duration. It is ten days of peace, calm and quiet solitude, when survival is limited to our own frame, and not beyond, without aides and distractions, not even pen and paper. It is a time to rediscover the potential of the human mind that does not really need any of these addictive belongings that we become so dependent on. We can remember whatever we wish to, we do not need to stay connected and updated all the time, and we are dispensable, the world can continue without us. Hence, we can focus on purifying and cleansing the innermost folds of our mind, rid ourselves of the numerous defilements and overcome the urge to react, and create sensations in some part of the body at all times.

For the sceptics, and self-defined restless individuals, the answer to their query about the impossibility of surviving without books, laptops and phones, is that the course provides abundance of food for thought, unimaginable amount to learn and practice, that none of these would be missed. We walk in for the course not out of mere curiosity, but with complete preparedness that we wish to learn this highly scientific technique and would like to understand the complex mind. The challenge is the prospect of renouncing the world and our relationships for ten days, and adopting the life of a monk/nun for this period. There is no religious conversion, no questions about one’s faith or beliefs, beyond a request to devote these ten days to vipassana alone, and be completely devoted to this deep  operation of the mind focusing only on our breath and sensations in every part of the body. The ten days are tough but get easier with every passing day, and soon we step in to a haven of peace and tranquility, an ideal environment to begin the journey into the deepest recesses of our mind. Life becomes the simplest possible with minimal materials for rest and survival. Which brings us to the realization within the first couple of days, how little we need to survive. We learn to focus on our breath, for the first three days, the simple process of breathing in and breathing out, restricting our focus to a small triangle area between the nostrils and upper lip. And with each hour of breathing practice we are sharpening our mind, scraping off layer after layer of past memories, unpleasant thoughts and unnecessary notes kept in the diary of the mind.

Gradually we reach deep within and from here then we begin to build on mindful awareness to feel sensations however gross or subtle. This begins on the fourth day when the mind and awareness has sharpened and focus is enhanced. This is the Vipassana technique, which teaches us how to focus on sensations on every inch of our body, going deep to the core. There is pain, burning, tingling, sweating or anything else, the idea is to observe and focus on it. It appears like an x-ray of our system as we pass the observation lens over the body inch by inch. And as this happens, the mind gets purer and purer. We let go of negatives, piled up pain and misery, clear the baggage of the past that has burdened us, and layers of these get cleared from the mind, leaving a crystal clear, thinking, observing and pure mind, making us feel lighter, happier, and calmer.

One feels when the course ends, that purity has been achieved for life. Not really, since getting back into the real world means layer after layer of dust and deceit, impurity and negativity, begins to fog the mind all over again.

Meditation – For a mind at peace

The world today is a complicated place and the prospect of a peaceful, harmonious life appears tough and challenging. Our lives are laden with problems and ailments, and most of us remain disillusioned because things almost always, do not work out the way we would like them to. The normative, or what ought to be, seems to dominate and control our minds, more than the positive, that simply states, what is. In simple words, we all find unwanted things happening and we do not usually get what we want. This holds true for the entire human race, across religion, class and stature. Illnesses are more often the cause of a restless mind and all mental attitudes, which trigger disease-causing reactions inside the complex human system, and we watch helplessly as life wilts away.

The problem

But the mind is our own, it will think as we train it to. We overthink, over indulge, overanalyse, and overimagine. We attribute qualities, good or bad, to everything and every action, we pass value judgements as sermons, and often, a simple thought or deed, becomes a discord-causing phenomenon. The result – we seldom see reality as it is. The mind wanders, there is restlessness, anxiety, anger and all kinds of emotions surfacing multiple times in a day. Sometimes we are besides ourselves with anger, unable to control our fury, and at others, we want to cry out of misery, sorrow, displeasure. We are hurt by what others say, and often ourselves say horrible things to others. We raise our hands to hit, or often lash out with our tongues. And after a few minutes pass, we apologize and we are so ashamed of our actions-we had lost control, we weren’t thinking, and were driven by a manic desire to hurt. Such is human behaviour, that torments and upsets. And instead of looking for solutions within, what triggers such strong reactions, such manifestation of frustrations, we tend to blame the external environment, and attribute our outbursts to the outside world. Negatives also create sensations in our body, which appeal or repel, and even the blame game- being able to blame another, triggers an appealing sensation.

We never seem to realize that we cannot control every element beyond our physical frame, and we can only control our own reaction to situations, circumstances and incidents. Controlling reactions to the extent of becoming totally nonreactive to statements and situations is one of the toughest endeavours, requiring self-control, the ability to think and act rationally, and being mindful. This is a long journey and often takes years, since at every step, every minute of the day, things do not happen the way we want them to, and external forces act to create frenzy and anxiety. We expect wonderful things to happen, expect life to be smooth sailing, and nothing untoward happening. The culprit here, is expectation of the best and the easiest, without chaos, ripples or problems, a craving for the joyful, and an aversion for the unpleasant. Expectations reflect a mind set that is far removed from reality. Somehow the concepts of good and bad entrenched deeply, impact our thinking and make us expect. The words -I wish, I hope, I pray, I want…are all manifestations of our expectations which define our actions and activities, not to mention being “I” focused.

The end result is a turbulent mind, restless and searching for solutions to life’s problems, a search for peace, calm and contentment. The search lands people in religious pursuits, chanting and praying, visiting shrines, temples, mosques and churches, joining cults, following new age gurus, reading and finding intellectual explanations, in the real physical world that we exist. Dogmatic rituals, chanting of hymns, idol worship, are often instilled early in life and we tend to blindly follow them, without ever questioning their use, validity, need or purpose. Many have deep religious beliefs and others treat prayer and worship as an insurance policy that can be encashed. Perhaps we lack that faith in ourselves and feel the need to have some thread to hold on to, some faith that will tide us through difficult times, and are convinced that prayers help us achieve our goals. Despite all this, the majority is not able to find the elusive peace and contentment.

We go about the business of living, frantically running, ticking activities off a long list, and end up with physical exhaustion and are mentally drained. The mind is on what we call ‘a short fuse’, reacting strongly at the slightest provocation, switching off from the current task at hand, flitting from one issue to the next, and not managing to do justice to any, least of all to its own self.

The Goal

A mind at peace, not in turmoil, composure and calm demeanour at all times, unaffected by pain or suffering -is the ultimate human goal. But the trials and tribulations of daily life prevent us from achieving this and we find ourselves stressed and agitated, sleepless and restless, unable to focus, even as we invite lifestyle diseases to plague us internally.

Introspecting individuals while searching for solutions, and exploring avenues that will help them find peace and contentment, realize that the solution lies within not without. The journey inwards in the deepest folds of the mind is not easy and if scientifically pursued repeatedly and consistently, is bound to yield results. The starting point is a conscious effort to be aware, to be mindful, focussing on every action, and giving it full attention. This is even tougher in today’s world where multitasking is the norm, and starts at a young age. We allow our children to eat while watching television, study with music playing in the background, sleep as we sing or read to them. As parents we feel that the ends justify the means-the child must eat properly whether he or she likes it or not, studies and learns while his/her favourite song plays, and sleeps soon enough. In reality we are distracting him/her from the principal task, and he/she spends the rest of his/her life deviating from mindful actions and working with distractions.

To be aware, to live in the present, not adding weight of judgements, to actions and statements, is all important. We treat every simple statement as a loaded complaint coming with the baggage of the past. We are often told to address only a current issue and find a solution to the current problem. But we begin with the past history, which often changes the current picture. As in everything else, whatever arises, passes away. But somehow we never let the negatives pass away-we let them fester, and grow-negatives like anger, attitudes, and habits which are the outcome of repeated actions. As they say-whatever you practice, grows stronger.

The Path to the Goal

Shaking off the past, living in the present, being mindful and equanimous, all require a desire for self-improvement through introspection, looking within. This is where religion, faith, belief and following godmen begins. Millions are turning to some form of meditation, mindfulness practice, chanting, seeking refuge in dogmatic religious practices, or following of the hundreds of spiritual gurus who claim to offer solutions to problems and promise a happier life. Only a select few seek rational, scientific solutions through self observation that takes us on a journey to the very core of our being.

Meditation is a journey inwards, not along an external path, that takes us into the deepest folds of our minds, look at the defilements that plague us, the endless layers of negatives that torment our soul, and the baggage of the past that bow us down. As we sit in concentration, be it by focusing on our breath, or chant, or sing or pray, the purpose is the same. To break the chain of thought, focus on the present and veer the mind away from its state of turmoil, frenzy and anxiety.

Meditation is a technique, a skill that can be learnt and perfected to observe something that exists, be it the breath (the incoming breath and the outgoing breath), an external object (perhaps a deity), a point like a dot in the center of the forehead, a mantra or verse that is repeatedly chanted, and so on. The purpose is the same, to observe what exists, without judgment or emotion, and eventually being able to understand the reality better than before. The idea is to calm the mind, slow down the pace of racing thoughts, relax and eventually reach a state of ‘thoughtless awareness’. It signifies peace and quiet, sitting still and nearly motionless in a place so quiet, that one can hear one’s own rising and falling breath.

Skeptics would compare meditation to sleep, since both involve quiet, motionless stillness, except that while meditating one is totally, completely aware, alert, and focusing within rather than without, with a mental state that has no room for the past or the future. It does not make the mind a switch that can be turned off and on, it is something that the mind learns and perfects, and ever after, learns to be alert and aware, observes but does not always react, and tries to stay in the present moment.

Meditation helps us improve our focus, resolve our doubts, fears and insecurities, get rid of our stress and anxiety which impact our health, and helps us lead a better life, and also simultaneously improve the environment around us, since we learn to get rid of vices, bad habits and defilements.


Yangon-A Place to Learn Meditation

Living in Myanmar is a different experience. The whole country is quieter, calmer than the rest of bustling Asia, beautifully, naturally green, with an unparalleled aura of peace. This is seen even in its biggest cities like Yangon and Mandalay, which have all the features of buzzing commercial centers, and yet have a soothing effect. It’s the tranquil air that touches deep, and most who experience it, opt to stay on. A far cry from lives many of us have left behind, to set up homes in Yangon, we now shun the noise, frenzy, stress and rush that is a part of daily lives in places not far from here. Many of us have turned to Buddhist meditative practices, and now understand how little we need to survive, and while we have not yet renounced material belongings, the craving for more, has dissipated.

The peaceful ambience has to be witnessed and experienced in person, to comprehend what it means to have a calm existence, without any rush or frenzy, without noise and pollution, without panic and chaos of multitasking which at best, yields half-baked solutions to multiple issues. The people also appear so calm and gentle by nature, there are no loud haranguing voices, no shouts and fights, only soft sounds of conversations even in cafes and tea shops. This can be attributed to their Buddhist beliefs, with 90% of the population following Buddhism. Meditation is a way of life, an essential that they turn to, frequently, and most people try to take a few days off annually, for mediation retreats in monasteries in some part of the country.

Myanmar’s association with Buddhism and meditation is centuries old, actively supported by royalty down the ages, and meditative practices were passed on from masters to disciples, generation after generation, and never getting lost. The Vipassana technique of mediation, though originated in India, continued only in Myanmar in its pristine form, while getting lost for centuries where it started. Today, mediation in various forms is spreading all over the world, and many of those carrying this torch have taken their first steps on this path, in Myanmar.

Yangon then, is the ideal, perfect place to learn meditation, with its numerous meditation centers offering comfortable though basic living facilities, and these too, free of cost. Any donation made to compensate for expenses is highly appreciated but remains optional. It is only if one goes for a mediation course that combines yoga, nature walks and meditation and is organized by travel agencies, that one has to pay, depending on the duration and quality of living quarters.

What is Meditation all about

There is always an urge to improve as human beings, meaning that we would like to get rid of our bad habits, vices, negative thinking patterns, and develop a pure mind, far removed from venomous thoughts, ill-feeling towards others, and never wanting to hurt or harm anyone by our words and actions. This is possible only if we develop a razor-sharp mind that stops us before we make a wrong move or utter hurtful words, develop empathy and move towards a high level of purity that touches the core of our being. Meditation is the only way to self-purification.

Asian cultures have inculcated a need for spiritual elevation as one gets on in age. However, in recent years, the spiritual journey for many, begins once they cross twenty and seek a meaning and purpose in life, beyond the material and the mundane. All the meditation centers have a significant number of disciples in their twenties, and some even conduct special courses for teenagers.

Our lives that focus on the physical and material cause only pain, misery, jealousy, craving and aversion. Spirituality and its pursuit lifts us above these. Meditation is the route to freedom from all misery-causing factors, like the ego, which is often the root cause of all negative sensations and aversions in our body. Forgetting the “I” and overcoming self-importance is the only way we can reach the stage of non-self. In the present age, self has become most important and all our actions are about self-gratification, the rest of the world ceases to matter.

Mediation helps us make our mind calm and through introspection, looking inwards rather than outwards, we achieve peace. It involves different ways and methods, though the end goal is the same, achieving peace and rising above misery. One can focus on an object, a part of the body, an action like walking, but all the time, being mindful. One practices moment to moment awareness of the physical and mental state, observing every sensation that arises and passes away. This helps us understand how impermanent everything is, every feeling that comes, goes away, whatever begins will come to an end. We observe and we understand, and eventually imbibe this well enough to apply this truth to every aspect of our daily life.

Meditation need not stretch for 24 hours, day after day. It has to be learnt, and then practiced, preferably daily, whenever one can spare the time. It does require quiet surroundings to facilitate concentration, at least initially, till one has reached such an advanced stage that noise and surroundings no longer distract.

Meditation Centers in Yangon

There is always a long waiting list of prospective students of meditation, both local and international. Before enrolling at any center, it is important to know the precise meditative practices taught and practiced at each of these, and see which one we resonate with. Some teaching walking and sitting meditation, both being an exercise in mindfulness.

All the centers have comfortable living quarters, separate for men and women, provide simple, nutritious food, and basic facilities to accommodate new and old students. The rooms do not have any phones and it is generally recommended to not carry laptops, smart phones, books or reading material. Communication with the outside is possible through the office which has international calling facilities, fax machines etc. Doctors are available for medical emergencies.

Most centers teach Vipassana using the Mahasi Sayadaw method. Dhamma Joti Vipassana center was set up by S N Goenka and follows the tradition of Sayagi U Ba Khin. In most centers it is possible to receive instructions in English as well. Every year, thousands of international and local students of all age groups enroll for courses in these centers. The daily practice begins at dawn though timings of different centers vary, and continue till nearly 10 pm, with breaks for food and rest. There is time for individual mediation and group sittings, and teachers are available for improving the meditation technique and resolve doubt. For the few days spent in these centers, living is confined to one’s own physical frame, where one focusses on mindful actions of oneself, and not interact with others at all. Even eye contact is avoided.

Students are expected to adhere to the rules and regulations of the center, follow the eight precepts, practice noble silence, and eat twice a day, abstaining from eating after noon time. Beverages are offered in the evening. This gives us a sense of how little we need to survive, and how wasteful our lifestyle is, in the outside world. This may appear tough as an outsider, but once we step in, the purpose spurs us on, and the focus is on learning alone.

Some of the mediation centers in Yangon are listed below:

  • Dhamma Joti Vipassana Center
  • Chanmyay Yeiktha Meditation Center
  • Mahasi Sasana Yeiktha Mediation Center
  • Panditarama Meditation Center
  • Shwe Oo Min Dhamma Sukha Yeiktha
  • International Theravada Buddhist University

For those wanting complete solitude away from the city, can opt for the few forest retreats in Myanmar, like the Pak Auk Forest Monastery in Mon State, and the Panditarama Forest Monastery not far from Yangon.