The gift of Vipassana
By Ayesha Chopra
What the enlightened preach, Vipassana helps us experience, by giving us a technique to remain aware, without attachment to the pleasant, or aversion toward the unpleasant, says Ayesha Chopra
One day during his recent visit, my son Sameer said, “Ma, J. Krishnamurti used to say that meditation is an ongoing moment to moment thing. That there was no need to formally sit down to meditate in a special posture at a set time and place. And Mooji says that there is no need for deliberate, strained observation; that observation and witnessing happen spontaneously all the time.”
“Yes, that’s right,” I nodded.
“So why practice Vipassana?,” he asked.
Sameer is a product of Rishi Valley School in Andhra Pradesh, run by the J. Krishnamurti Foundation India. Spiritual curiosity first sprouted in him when he was still in school but grew strong about seven years ago after he attended a 10-day Vipassana meditation course. The spiritual master who appeals to him the most these days is Anthony Paul Moo-Young, affectionately addressed by all as ‘Mooji’.
My interest in spirituality had sparked in my 20s, when I read J Krishnamurti’s Commentaries on Living. For years I absorbed every word written by him sponge-like. Over the years that spark turned into a flame that continues to burn bright, and now consumes a major part of my attention and time.
When Vipassana happened to me around the turn of the century, my excitement knew no bounds. I felt I had come full circle in my spiritual explorations. I was discovering experientially in Vipassana what I had understood merely intellectually from J. Krishnamurti’s teachings and philosophy.
Now, reflecting on Sameer’s question, ‘Why Vipassana?’ a number of thoughts flash through my mind.
When spiritually evolved people such as J Krishnamurti or Mooji, glimpse the ultimate truth, they are naturally driven to share their knowledge with others. It becomes their single-pointed purpose in life to awaken people to the truth about existence. The manner in which they express it reflects their own experience and the way they themselves realised it, which is often different for each.
When JK asked us to ‘be choicelessly aware’ of ‘what is’ from moment to moment… “to see the false as the false and the true in the false” he didn’t specify how to do that. He ruled out all formal and informal techniques, emphasising that the truth was ‘right here, right now’ and all we had to do was to ‘be choicelessly aware’ of it all the time. When Mooji says, “everything passes like clouds in the sky” and tells us to “just be; do nothing; simply look without identifying yourself with anything” he doesn’t explain exactly how to do that.
Seeing and staying with the Truth comes easily and naturally to the enlightened, but ordinary people need a method – a technique – at least in the initial stages that helps us to remain aware without attachment to the pleasant, or aversion toward the unpleasant. Vipassana offers that method.
Legend has it that upon returning home after attaining enlightenment, the Buddha told his wife Yashodhara that the Truth is right here within us at all times; that one need not go anywhere in search of it.
“So why did you go to the forest for so many years leaving us behind?” she asked, and he said, “Because I didn’t know this fact at that time.” He had to be enlightened before he could realise that fact.
Similarly, for as long as we stay ignorant and unenlightened, and before we can be choicelessly aware of ‘what is’ from moment to moment, we need to know how to observe the constantly changing phenomena while remaining aware and detached at the same time.
Moreover, Vipassana’s goal is not to just get a glimpse of the ultimate reality beyond the illusory cosmic phenomena. As late Shri S N Goenka – the highly respected modern-day teacher and propagator of Vipassana – explained, Vipassana’s ultimate objective is nibbana or moksha –total liberation from the cycle of birth and death. And that is attained only after the individual mind has been cleansed of all karmic accumulations. Purification of the mind by eradicating sankharas is one of the natural results of practising Vipassana meditation.
The divine spark of truth within us is hidden under layers upon layers of sankharas that must be worked through in each lifetime. As long as the seed of a sankhara remains in the mind, even the most evolved must be reborn to resolve and dissolve it before full liberation is attained.
People do not usually pursue something unless it benefits them in some way and Vipassana is a treasure trove for the sincere meditator.
I hasten to underscore that every person’s experience with Vipassana is different. The changes that I have witnessed in myself since I began practicing Vipassana meditation 13 years ago may well be experienced by another person much earlier or much later. It is also possible that someone else may experience something totally different. There is no hard and fast rule governing individual experience except of discovering the deeper facets of reality, which is the same for all, but discovered at each meditator’s own time and pace.
Vipassana meditators are therefore advised not to compare their own experience with others. But sharing an experience often helps to better understand the multifaceted technique and to strengthen one’s daily practice. It is in that spirit that I now share some of mine.
My first 10-day Vipassana course aroused a sense of wonder which still fills me every time I uncover something new during a meditation sitting. When I directly observe the constantly vibrating and changing energy within, notice the impermanent nature of all causative phenomena, and witness the ‘solidity’ of my body dissolve, I am not only amazed and awed but also feel an inexplicable sense of deep tranquility, and can’t help looking forward to the next sitting!
As Vipassana quickly became an integral part of my daily routine, my view of life gradually began to change. What I had understood at the mere intellectual level before Vipassana, now became a ‘knowing’ through direct observation at the cellular level. I began to clearly understand the interconnection between the body and the mind. I could see how the ego and the illusion of ‘I’ and ‘me’ get set and sustained by our thoughts and actions. That the ever-flowing and ever-changing life-energy is a totally impersonal phenomenon and the entity referred to as ‘I’ is merely one of its many manifestations – transient and substance-less with no reality of its own.
Once that critical insight was gained the process of ‘letting go’ set in. I am gradually beginning to recognise the futility of harbouring the sense of ‘my’ and ‘mine’ not only with regard to people and things but also with respect of thoughts, beliefs and ideas. I no longer grieve, resist or struggle when good times pass, people move away, unwanted things happen and wanted things don’t. Having observed and understood the natural law of impermanence, it just doesn’t make sense to struggle against the unavoidable!
But understanding and surrendering to the law of nature is the relatively easy part. The harder part has been to acknowledge and embrace the ‘dark’ side of consciousness which the relentless piercing beam of Vipassana inevitably dredges up from ‘the shadow’– the part in our subconscious where we push everything that we don’t like to see or accept about ourselves.
It is said that the hardest and the toughest discoveries are those that lead us to higher and more sublime states – and I now have every reason to believe that!
When the regular practice of Vipassana began to penetrate the barrier between my conscious and the subconscious mind, some of what surfaced was not what I wanted to see. Deeply submerged fears and insecurities, inadequacies and naivete, were starkly uncovered and brought forth into the uncompromising light of pure awareness.
At first I struggled, and didn’t want to acknowledge that part. But the truth, once revealed, cannot be shunned for long. One day, during a long sitting, some of the unpleasant and painful memories of past mistakes crept out of obscurity, claiming attention. Tears started to flow, and I sobbed my heart out as overwhelming feelings of shame, disillusionment and disappointment consumed me. I was supposed to be fairly intelligent! How could I have been so stupid and made those mistakes – the judgmental part in me chided! Our subconscious is indeed very kind to absorb the painful memories, making us forget them, so that we may comfortably go about our daily business. But now my painful truth was staring me in the face, and I could no longer ignore it.
Then, just as suddenly as they had started the tears stopped flowing, the sobs subsided and the painful feelings passed. A comforting calmness miraculously enveloped me. I felt safe in the stillness that followed to look squarely at my imperfect self with no attempts to reject or rationalise it. Finally, slowly and lovingly, I embraced it all – the good, the bad and the indifferent.
For days thereafter I was like a placid lake, very quiet and still, letting the subtle changes that were happening within me happen. The image of myself that I had carried and believed in, began to crumble as I gradually came to terms with the ‘new’ me that was not ashamed to be less-than-perfect. Perhaps for the first time I understood what ‘unconditional acceptance’ really meant. I could look directly at my faults and imperfections, and allow the painful feelings associated with them to arise and naturally pass away.
Two significant things happened as a result of this deep cleansing. One was, having unconditionally accepted my imperfect self, I ceased to be concerned with what anyone else thought of me. After all, it was only a game of mental images, and I had seen the falsehood of relating not to people as they are but to the images that we ourselves construct, destroy and reconstruct in our own mind.
The other is, that accepting my own faults and imperfections has helped me to accept the faults and imperfections of others more readily. It is now easier to look beyond someone’s hurtful words and actions, and understand the underlying pain which causes them to say and do those things. It is uplifting to see how genuinely understanding people’s vulnerabilities can turn anger into compassion, criticism into tolerance, and desire for revenge into feelings of kindness and forgiveness. That’s when metta begins to take on a different meaning for me.
Metta (loving kindness or friendliness)
One of the most rewarding parts of Vipassana is the ending of each sitting with ‘metta bhavana’ or the meditation of loving kindness and friendliness. Metta involves generating the vibrations of love, compassion, kindness and forgiveness within which are then radiated outward into the universe.
It stands to reason that we cannot give to others what we don’t have in us to give. How can we love others when we don’t truly love ourselves? How can we be kind to others when we lack kindness for ourselves? In order for us to radiate the positive energy of loving kindness, it must first be available within.
The practice of metta works like a cycle: the more positive energy we generate, the more we have to give out; the more we give out the more pours in. The beauty is that we inevitably become the first beneficiaries of the feelings we generate within us even as we project them outward on to others.
Whichever way I look at it, the benefits of Vipassana are unmistakable. Having ‘tasted’ it I would not trade it for anything in the world. I feel fortunate and blessed to have received this treasured gem from Goenkaji directly during his lifetime. Goenkaji’s words resound in my ears as I find myself thinking, ‘May all who come in its fold find real peace, real happiness.’
Bio: Ayesha Chopra is essentially a seeker and a personal life-skill coach based in New York