‘You must have a room, or a certain hour or so a day, where you don’t know what was in the newspapers that morning, you don’t know who your friends are, you don’t know what you owe anybody, you don’t know what anybody owes to you. This is a place where you can simply experience and bring forth what you are and what you might be. This is the place of creative incubation. At first you may find that nothing happens there. But if you have a sacred place and use it, something eventually will happen.’
—Joseph Campbell, The Power of Myth
Vipassana means "to see things as they are." It is a form of meditation to help people see the nature of things and keep their minds fresh. I have many reasons to meditate, but the two that made me stick to the practice of Vipassana meditation are: (1) To become the finest version of myself (not said with ego) and be of service to people, which means compassion and kindness are essential and (2) to come out of the cycle of birth and death (bringing this up at the very beginning may seem weird to many, but it is the eventual goal I seek, again not attached to it in a way to have a craving for some sort of salvation). For this you also need to have mastery over the mind and not seek enlightenment in the hope that you will live on. I meditate to have spiritual freedom and yet be tied to living my life and giving to it the best version of myself.
Meditation sets the stage for what is to unfold in your life, and how you will deal with it and those that are in it.
The second point is elucidated by Martin Hägglund in his book This Life. In it, he says, ‘In a world, both my life and the projects in which I am are finite. To be finite means two things: to be dependent on others and to live in relation to death.’ He says he doesn’t want an eternal life, as an eternal life is not only unattainable but is also undesirable as it would eliminate the care and passion that animate one’s life. Many religious traditions talk about eternal life and eternity would make life meaningless.
. . . what I do and what I love can matter to me only because I understand myself as mortal. The understanding of myself as mortal does not have to be explicit and theoretical but it’s implicit in all my practical commitments and priorities. The question is what I ought to do with my life—a question that is at issue in everything I do—presupposes that I understand my time to be finite. For the question of how I should lead my life to be intelligible as a question, I have to believe that I will die. If I believed that my life would last forever, I could never take my life to be at stake and I would never be seized by the need to do anything with my time. I would not even be able to understand what it means to do something sooner rather than later in my life, since I would have no sense of a finite lifetime that gives urgency, to any project or activity.
The sense of finitude—the sense of ultimate fragility of everything we care about—is at the heart of what he calls ‘secular faith’. To have secular faith is to be devoted to a life that will end, to be dedicated to projects that can fail or break down. He calls it ‘secular faith’ because he says, ‘it is devoted to a form of life that is bounded by time. To have secular faith means to be dedicated to persons and projects that are worldly and temporal. Secular faith is the form of faith that we all sustain in caring for someone or something that is vulnerable to loss. A secular faith seeks to postpone death and improve the conditions of life. The commitment to living on does not express an aspiration to live forever but to live longer and to live better, not to overcome death but to extend the duration and improve the quality of a form of life’.7
Why am I going on about what Hägglund is saying? Because he professes exactly that what Vipassana meditation also says, that is, to bring meditation into your life and live it through what you do. The object of secular faith—e.g. the life we are trying to lead, the institutions we are trying to build, the community we are trying to achieve—is inseparable from what we do and how we do it. Through the practice of secular faith, we bind ourselves to a normative ideal (a conception of who we ought to be as individuals and as community). He goes on to mention that the Dalai Lama summed it up perfectly when asked how a Buddhist—for whom the finite world is an illusion and who seeks to be detached from everything that passes away—can be worried about our current ecological crisis. ‘A Buddhist would say it doesn’t matter,’ the Dalai Lama replied. This may seem surprising, since Buddhist ethics famously advocate a peaceful relation to nature and all living beings. Yet Buddhist ethics are not motivated by a concern for nature or living beings as ends in themselves. Rather, the motivation is to be released from karma, with the aim of being released from life altogether and helping others reach the same end. The goal of Buddhism is not for anyone to live on—or for the earth itself to live on— but to attain the state of nirvana, where nothing matters (from a Vipassana viewpoint, where nothing arises or passes). In the same vein, he explains with the example of the Golden Rule. To treat others as you would like to be treated is a fundamental principle in both secular and religious moral teachings. The Golden Rule, however, does not require any form of religious faith. On the contrary, a genuine care for others must be based on secular faith. If you follow the Golden Rule because you believe it is a divine command, you are motivated by obedience to God rather than by care for another person. Likewise, if you follow the Golden Rule because you believe it will yield a divine reward (e.g. the release from karma), you are acting not out of concern for the well-being of others, but rather out of concern for your own salvation. Basically, you have to care for this person as an end in itself and not because you believe it will emancipate you from some karma.
‘Spiritual freedom’, Hägglund explains, is the ability to ask the question: What do we do with our time? He explains we are responsible for upholding, challenging or transforming norms (social norms are not invented by us and these shape the world we live in). We are not merely causally determined by nature or these norms, but act in light of norms that one can challenge and transform. This is what it means to have a spiritual life. Where one can give our life for a principle to which one holds oneself or a cause in which one believes. Instead of being free to engage with the question of what makes our life worth living—the question of what we ought to do with our time—our lives are mortgaged to a form of labour that is required for our survival. To live a free life, it is not enough that we have a right to freedom. We must have access to the material resources as well as the forms of education that allow us to pursue our freedom and to ‘own’ the question of what we do with our time. What belongs to each one of us—what is irreducibly our own— is not property or goods, but the time of our lives.
In the context of the above thoughts, when we say enlightenment is possible for everyone, like it was for the Buddha or some of the more realized souls that walk this earth, one should seek enlightenment not to achieve some goal and be attached to it with a craving, but instead ‘seek it to reintegrate or regroup again within communities, to give back’. I haven’t seen enlightenment, I hope to someday. But I know this: Vipassana helps me live a secular faith-based life, just like Hägglund says.
What Is Vipassana?
Vipassana (In the Pali language, an ancient Indian language at one time) means ‘insight’ and to see things in a special way, that is, as they really are. Vipassana meditation is a technique that helps you achieve a ‘fuller’ life. By using the word ‘fuller’, I mean to be happier and to lead a meaningful life. It is mental purification through self-observation.
Let’s explain it in simpler terms: Vipassana helps you gain mastery over the conflict between mind and matter, like the famous expression ‘mind over matter’. However, Vipassana also goes a step beyond this as it helps you understand why you create so much negativity in your life or even the craving for things around you, people, things and situations. It is the ‘key’ to unlock the doors of misery and sets you on the path to happiness. While this may sound like some fairy tale I am weaving at the moment, it is actually the truth. It makes you kinder, happier and a person who can take on a lot in the world we live in. Isn’t that what everyone wants?
You can also go deeper with this technique, that is, use it (over time of course) to get enlightened. What does being ‘enlightened’ mean? The word enlightened comes from the Latin prefix ‘in, into’ and the word ‘lux’ meaning ‘light’. Combine these meanings—‘into the light’—and it describes a person with a sense of clarity and understanding2. I don’t want to take this idea further here as it may trigger thoughts which, perhaps, I’d like you to understand a little later. But you can use this technique to achieve exactly what the Buddha did and yes, if you believe in the cycle of birth and death (the flow of consciousness), you can come out of that cycle. All it really means is that you have to start somewhere, and it starts with the technique of Vipassana meditation.
Vipassana is a practical, non-sectarian meditation technique, free of religious rituals, auto-suggestion, mantras or guided visualization. The technique is meant to assist in achieving the exalted objective of self-realization.
The Buddha practiced this same technique to become enlightened. In a conversation with an aged brahmin, the Buddha once explained concisely what is meant by a Buddha, an enlightened one3: There are not only three characteristics of a Buddha, they are also three objectives we aim at in following the Buddha’s teaching. We follow the Dhamma to fully know what should be known, to abandon what should be abandoned and to develop what should be developed. These are the goals of the path and the three accomplishments that mark the attainment of enlightenment.
‘To fully know what should be known’
What does this mean? It means that, when we refer to our self, it is as this complex structure, with body and mind. We are running from the time of birth to the time we die, attached to a sense of ‘self’ that is actually just an ego extension. If we ask ourselves ‘what is it that I call myself?’, ‘I’, ‘me’, and ‘myself’ are just body and mind extensions which the Buddha classifies as five aggregates: physical form, feeling, perception, volitional formations and consciousness. These are the five aggregates of ‘clinging’ because they are things we ordinarily cling to as, ‘This is mine, this is what I am, this is my true self’.
‘To abandon what should be abandoned’
We must abandon defilements of greed, hatred and delusion (root defilements). Greed and hatred spring ultimately from delusion and ignorance. Thus, to eliminate all the defilements, we have to eliminate ignorance.
When we know that which should be known, ignorance falls away and then greed, hatred and all other defilements fall away. We cannot accomplish this by merely having a desire to do so. We can’t simply expect to think, ‘I want to know that which should be known’ and it immediately becomes known. That’s why the whole practice of Vipassana is a process of walking on the path, like I have for twenty-five years. This does not mean you have to as well, but it does mean you need to, at least once in your lifetime, engage in it to understand how you can also become enlightened. Am I enlightened? I know that’s crossing your mind at the moment. No, not yet, but I do hope to be when I check out of this life or maybe I will need more lives; having said that, I am on the path.
‘To develop what should be developed’
This means to cultivate the path, ‘that which should be developed, that I have developed’—what the Buddha has developed. The path is structured in such a way that it proceeds not suddenly, not abruptly, but in a gradual step-by-step manner to help us climb the ladder to the ultimate freedom of enlightenment.
Vipassana is a universal technique—a way of knowing oneself—which is totally non-sectarian, without any unquestioning faith or connection with organized religion. The Buddha did not coin the term ‘Buddhist’, nor did he claim that the path he was teaching was his discovery alone. The central issue for him was two-fold: the truth of suffering, physical and mental and how to fully liberate oneself from this universal condition. The whole teaching can be summarized in a few short lines:
‘Abstain from all unwholesome actions, Perform wholesome ones,
Purify your mind.’
In conclusion, Vipassana is a technique which has a very practical approach. It not only helps us pass through the vicissitudes of life in a detached way and by being completely involved, but also promotes social well-being. It is, therefore, a science not only of self-development, but also of social development. It is an art of living whereby we learn to live in peace and harmony with our own selves and with others.
To summarize the characteristic features of Vipassana:
- It is a universal technique which can be practiced by anyone belonging to any country, caste or creed.
- It strikes at the roots of our defilements in the
unconscious mind and breaks the barrier between the
conscious and unconscious layers of the mind.
- There is no place for imagination in this technique, no verbalization of any mantra or visualization of any god or goddess or any other object. The practice starts from the experience of the apparent truth of body and mind and proceeds towards the realization of the subtle and absolute truth.
- It is a highly individualistic and experiential method of meditation. One must walk on the path oneself. No one else can make the effort for one or liberate one from the impurities of the mind. Hence there is no ‘gurudom’ in this technique.
- One reaps the benefits of this technique here and now as one progressively becomes a better individual.