Buddha

How S.N. Goenka Changed My Life—And the Lives of Millions More

How S.N. Goenka Changed My Life—And the Lives of Millions More

by  Oct 2, 2013 1:11 PM EDT

S.N. Goenka, who died on Saturday, embodied the teachings of the Buddha, yet insisted on a completely inclusive approach. We could use a man like him right now, writes Sharon Salzberg.

S.N. Goenka, who died September 29, was my very first meditation teacher. I went to India in 1970, when only 18, specifically to study meditation. Goenka-ji had been living in Burma, raising a family and building a successful business, and for many years also deepening his meditation practice. Shortly before I arrived in India, he himself arrived in India in order to visit his mother, who had been ill. Our paths converged in Bodhgaya, the town that surrounds the tree the Buddha is said to have been sitting under when he became enlightened.

S.N. Goenka
Former president of India Pratibha Patil, takes blessings from S.N. Goenka during a ceremony in Mumbai on February 8, 2009. (EPA/Newscom)

I was moved to travel there by an Asian philosophy course I had taken that laid out two pillars of the Buddha’s teaching: first, an unashamed, unafraid acknowledgment of the suffering in life; and second, a conviction that we can do something about our unhappiness. Like many, I had already suffered mightily even by the age of 18—my parents divorced when I was 4, my mother died when I was 9, my father had a severe mental illness—and, like many, I viewed my pain as shameful and isolating, rather than as a source of compassion and connection to others. Not a single person I knew openly admitted that suffering was a part of life, but apparently the Buddha had had no such compunctions.

And there was the revolutionary idea that we can affect our pain—not the pain of circumstance, which might always occur—but we can transform the ways we relate to our own and others’ difficulty to transform our lives. The breathtaking part of the Buddha’s vision was that no one was left out of this possibility—you didn’t have to be a special person or lucky person or have really great parents who didn’t die young or drink too much or struggle with terrible demons. You just had to find the tools (also known as meditation) to change the habits of your mind, and apply them. I left for India the first chance I got.

I met Goenka-ji in January 1971, when I entered a 10-day intensive meditation retreat he guided. I hadn’t meditated before for one single second. Goenka-ji himself fascinated me. He seemed so … whole. It didn’t look like he was shaped by the expectations of others. He talked freely about pain and suffering, yet seemed so happy. He posited a world where we grow closer to one another through our shared vulnerability to change and loss. He so much embodied the ancient teachings of the Buddha, yet insisted on a completely inclusive, secular, contemporary approach. The first night of the retreat he said, “The Buddha did not teach Buddhism, he taught a way of life.”

Goenka-ji was a jolly-looking man with a sonorous voice and fluent but somewhat simplistic English (“Clean up your dirty minds,” was one of his sayings, pointing to the incredibly nuanced purification process that accompanies meditation). He was kind of ordinary yet not ordinary at all. A friend said to me, “It’s like you can see the compassion shining out of his skin.” I had never experienced anyone like him.

He talked freely about pain and suffering, yet seemed so happy.

Though I went on to study with many other teachers and explore several methods of meditation, that first 10-day retreat remains the singular turning point of my life—I’ve never turned back.

Now, more than 40 years later, we live in a world where the United States government has shut down, where we have incredible ways to communicate with one another yet so rarely truly communicate, where the earth itself is nearly overcome by our greed, hatred, and delusion. I think of those timeless truths Goenka-ji spent his life counseling. We have the potential to be whole, without an endless need to acquire more and more. We can acknowledge pain and suffering and still be happy, because we learn to hold life with compassion instead of bitterness. We are all vulnerable and can live as “we” rather than “us and them.” We can participate in spiritual teachings without being insular and separate. We can learn to clean up our dirty minds, so to speak, and not be driven by what we’re simply used to.

Today an estimated 1 million Americans learn meditation each year. There are many styles and lineages represented in that number, but Goenka-ji’s role in that statistic is extraordinary, both through his direct instruction and through the work of those whom he influenced. Even now that he has died, in this very shaky time where we need both inner strength and one another, I would bet that his influence will grow and grow.

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Sharon Salzberg is cofounder of the Insight Meditation Society (IMS) in Barre, Massachusetts. She has been a student of meditation since 1971, guiding meditation retreats worldwide since 1974.  Sharon’s latest book is Love Your Enemies: How to Break the Anger Habit & Be a Whole Lot Happier, co-authored with Robert Thurman. She is a regular contributor to The Huffington Post and is also the author of several other books including the New York Times Best Seller,Real Happiness: The Power of Meditation: A 28-Day Program (2011), The Force of Kindness (2005), Faith: Trusting Your Own Deepest Experience (2002), andLovingkindness: The Revolutionary Art of Happiness (1995). For more information about Sharon, please visit: http://www.SharonSalzberg.com.

 

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The Morality of Meditation [Research]- NYTimes.com

The Morality of Meditation

Olimpia Zagnoli
Published: July 5, 2013

MEDITATION is fast becoming a fashionable tool for improving your mind. With mounting scientific evidence that the practice can enhance creativity, memory and scores on standardized intelligence tests, interest in its practical benefits is growing. A number of “mindfulness” training programs, like that developed by the engineer Chade-Meng Tan at Google, and conferences like Wisdom 2.0 for business and tech leaders, promise attendees insight into how meditation can be used to augment individual performance, leadership and productivity.

This is all well and good, but if you stop to think about it, there’s a bit of a disconnect between the (perfectly commendable) pursuit of these benefits and the purpose for which meditation was originally intended. Gaining competitive advantage on exams and increasing creativity in business weren’t of the utmost concern to Buddha and other early meditation teachers. As Buddha himself said, “I teach one thing and one only: that is, suffering and the end of suffering.” For Buddha, as for many modern spiritual leaders, the goal of meditation was as simple as that. The heightened control of the mind that meditation offers was supposed to help its practitioners see the world in a new and more compassionate way, allowing them to break free from the categorizations (us/them, self/other) that commonly divide people from one another.

But does meditation work as promised? Is its originally intended effect — the reduction of suffering — empirically demonstrable?

To put the question to the test, my lab, led in this work by the psychologist Paul Condon, joined with the neuroscientist Gaëlle Desbordes and the Buddhist lama Willa Miller to conduct an experiment whose publication is forthcoming in the journal Psychological Science. We recruited 39 people from the Boston area who were willing to take part in an eight-week course on meditation (and who had never taken any such course before). We then randomly assigned 20 of them to take part in weekly meditation classes, which also required them to practice at home using guided recordings. The remaining 19 were told that they had been placed on a waiting list for a future course.

After the eight-week period of instruction, we invited the participants to the lab for an experiment that purported to examine their memory, attention and related cognitive abilities. But as you might anticipate, what actually interested us was whether those who had been meditating would exhibit greater compassion in the face of suffering. To find out, we staged a situation designed to test the participants’ behavior before they were aware that the experiment had begun.

WHEN a participant entered the waiting area for our lab, he (or she) found three chairs, two of which were already occupied. Naturally, he sat in the remaining chair. As he waited, a fourth person, using crutches and wearing a boot for a broken foot, entered the room and audibly sighed in pain as she leaned uncomfortably against a wall. The other two people in the room — who, like the woman on crutches, secretly worked for us — ignored the woman, thus confronting the participant with a moral quandary. Would he act compassionately, giving up his chair for her, or selfishly ignore her plight?

The results were striking. Although only 16 percent of the nonmeditators gave up their seats — an admittedly disheartening fact — the proportion rose to 50 percent among those who had meditated. This increase is impressive not solely because it occurred after only eight weeks of meditation, but also because it did so within the context of a situation known to inhibit considerate behavior: witnessing others ignoring a person in distress — what psychologists call the bystander effect — reduces the odds that any single individual will help. Nonetheless, the meditation increased the compassionate response threefold.

Although we don’t yet know why meditation has this effect, one of two explanations seems likely. The first rests on meditation’s documented ability to enhance attention, which might in turn increase the odds of noticing someone in pain (as opposed to being lost in one’s own thoughts). My favored explanation, though, derives from a different aspect of meditation: its ability to foster a view that all beings are interconnected. The psychologist Piercarlo Valdesolo and I have found that any marker of affiliation between two people, even something as subtle as tapping their hands together in synchrony, causes them to feel more compassion for each other when distressed. The increased compassion of meditators, then, might stem directly from meditation’s ability to dissolve the artificial social distinctions — ethnicity, religion, ideology and the like — that divide us.

Supporting this view, recent findings by the neuroscientists Helen Weng, Richard Davidson and colleagues confirm that even relatively brief training in meditative techniques can alter neural functioning in brain areas associated with empathic understanding of others’ distress — areas whose responsiveness is also modulated by a person’s degree of felt associations with others.

So take heart. The next time you meditate, know that you’re not just benefiting yourself, you’re also benefiting your neighbors, community members and as-yet-unknown strangers by increasing the odds that you’ll feel their pain when the time comes, and act to lessen it as well.

David DeSteno is a professor of psychology at Northeastern University, where he directs the Social Emotions Group. He is the author of the forthcoming book “The Truth About Trust: How It Determines Success in Life, Love, Learning, and More.”

The Morality of Meditation – NYTimes.com.

Mindfulness meditation: It may be essential, but, boy, it isn’t easy – latimes.com

By Mary MacVean

March 30, 2013

On the third day of silence and meditation, I said just 14 words, all of them in the course of chopping vegetables for dinner.

Days two, four and five were not much different.

I’m not the quiet type. But this was my idea. So earlier this year, I drove most of a day to reach Spirit Rock Meditation Center in Marin County to immerse myself in the practice of mindful meditation. To be still, clear of worry over career, my teenage sons’ futures, the renovations of our old house. To see whether I could stop — just stop — for five days and perhaps for a little bit each day afterward.

Not talking turned out to be easy.

Meditation, however, is hard work.

Defining ‘mindfulness’

In the last decade or so, meditation has gone mainstream — practiced by buttoned-down professionals, prison inmates, public school students, Hollywood celebrities, even the military and, reportedly, Bill Clinton. It’s being studied by scientists for its effects on blood pressure, depression, pain and attention problems. In our racing-forward lives, we are reaching back thousands of years for wisdom about living.

There are hundreds of forms of meditation, but among the best known in the U.S. is mindfulness meditation, and that’s what I embraced at Spirit Rock.

Diana Winston, who lived for a time as a Buddhist nun and now is director of education at UCLA’s Mindful Awareness Research Center, defines it: “Paying attention to present moment experiences with open, curious attention and a willingness to be with what is.”

It’s spiritual but not religious – the way many people view their place in the universe these days. The idea is to gain clarity, wisdom and freedom, to end up feeling compelled to behave with integrity and compassion.

There were nearly 100 of us, who paid $460 to $885 (on a sliding scale) for the retreat called “Essential Dharma Meditation.” Our days were scheduled from 6 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. with sitting meditation, walking meditation, eating meditation, working meditation (chopping vegetables was my daily chore). No reading, no writing, no cellphones.

Getting started

Mark Coleman, one of my teachers at the retreat, says people typically arrive at Spirit Rock “exhausted [and] burned out.” After a couple of days, “this gets exaggerated, because we start feeling how completely exhausted we are. But “people usually leave feeling buoyant, grounded, more clear. Brightness in their eyes. Body more upright.”

When I checked in, I was assigned to a room with a twin bed, folding chair, bedside table and the smallest sink I’ve ever seen. I zeroed in on the only electronic item in the room and instantly thought to turn on NPR. But then I remembered: silence. It was just a clock, not a radio.

I felt apprehensive. I missed my husband. But I didn’t miss my BlackBerry.

Walking outside, a few minutes before dinner, my worries were calmed by the rolling, grassy hills and the wide-open sky. At least the setting was beautiful.

Meals were vegetarian, buffet style, simple but fresh and delicious. We bused our dishes, lining up two at a time to scrape every last bit for compost. One of the few sounds at meals was that particular clink of utensils hitting Corelle dinnerware. I especially appreciated the silence at this time: no pressure to chat about hometowns, jobs, families.

After dinner, we heard from the teachers at “dharma talks,” lectures on the practice of meditation, the Buddha and the retreat itself. (While we yogis, as the teachers call us, were silent most of the time, the teachers were less so.)

We started our first sitting meditation with the direction to attend only to our breathing. If you lose track, teacher Howard Cohn said, just return to it, without judgment — one of many easier-said-than-done instructions I heard during my five days of silence.

I breathed in, expanding my chest. Suddenly, I was sorting out details of a dinner I was giving when I got back to L.A. Oops. Back to the breath. One breath, maybe two, and my mind was off again, wondering about my son who was on a trip to Israel.

via Mindfulness meditation: It may be essential, but, boy, it isn’t easy – latimes.com.

Meditation: Stress Reduction or Induction? | North Coast Journal | Humboldt County

(Feb. 21, 2013) What [the Buddha] taught … the path that we think will lead us to happiness leads instead to sorrow.

Donald Lopez, Professor of Buddhist and Tibetan Studies, U. of Michigan

Every week or so, I receive an email announcing the latest scientific finding about meditation or, as it’s usually termed, “Buddhist meditation.” Not only is the practice now a proven remedy for stress and anxiety, but meditation lowers cholesterol, decreases the risk of heart attacks and strokes, counters addiction and eases depression. All good, no doubt. I’ve seen it for myself. For instance, I lead meditation sessions in our local county jail, and I’ve seen both dramatic and more modest results, as the simple process of sitting quietly appears to help inmates to accept a fresh sense of ownership of their situation, rather than seeing themselves as victims of raw circumstance. Where before they knew only boredom and despair, they come to see opportunities such as reading, education, discussion, growth. And in my own life, time and again, personal grief has become lighter and sadness has turned, unexpectedly, into humor while sitting. So I don’t doubt the psychological and physiological benefits claimed for meditation.

What I do question is whether any of these payoffs have anything to do with Buddhist meditation. Of course, professing something to be “Buddhist” is about as useful as claiming, “The Buddha said such-and-such.” In the latter case, we’re asking a lot of oral tradition. The first Buddhist writings (the Gandharan Texts) date from the first century CE, which puts them between 300 and 800 years after the death of the historic Buddha, depending on which tradition you believe — if, indeed, there was a “historic Buddha” in the first place. Google that phrase, and you’ll see how flimsy the evidence is for an actual founding teacher of Buddhism, rather than a committee of sages.

And what is “Buddhism,” for that matter? A term invented by European missionaries and travelers 400 years ago, who noted the similarity between statues they saw in China, Japan, Ceylon, Siam and Tibet, and came up with the one handy umbrella term. (Ten thousand Indian beliefs and rites suffered the same fate when Westerners, coining the word “Hinduism,” proclaimed them all to be aspects of the same religion. Today’s scholars are a little more rigorous in their taxonomy.) I don’t know how Tibetan lamas, with their bells and incense, robes and rituals, feel about being lumped in with “sit-down-and-shut-up” Zen practitioners, for instance, but I suppose it works both ways. Easterners probably have no trouble seeing Mormons, Holy Rollers, Quakers and Egyptian Copts as slightly different manifestations of something called “Christianity.”

In any case, I doubt if any flavor of Buddhism would recognize what often passes for “Buddhist meditation” nowadays in the U.S., with its emphasis on stress-reduction and therapeutic healing. The goal of traditional Buddhism is quite the opposite, seeking (as Donald Lopez puts it) “to create stress and destroy complacency” in order to smash the mind — a far cry from healing it. So there’s your choice: Meditate on your path to serenity and low triglyceride levels; or meditate to realize there is no path, there’s nothing to “get” because, in the words of that fount of human wisdom, the Old Milwaukee beer commercial, “It doesn’t get any better than this.” The Big Guy couldn’t have put it more succinctly.

Barry Evans (barryevans9@yahoo.com) has been meditating since 1970. He still hasn’t a clue what it’s all about.

via Meditation: Stress Reduction or Induction? | North Coast Journal | Humboldt County.

 

Lewis Richmond: Is Meditation Narcissistic? on Huffington Post

Is meditation narcissistic? The short answer is: it depends. The act of sitting in silence, eyes closed or facing a wall, attention focused on the inner landscape of breath, body and mental activity, could at least be characterized as self-absorbed — some might call it navel gazing. The term “navel gazing,” which the dictionary defines as “useless or excessive self-contemplation,” was originally a concentration practice of Hindu Yoga. Jack Engler , a psychotherapist and Buddhist teacher, has written extensively about the wrong use of meditation by psychologically unbalanced people. In the book “Buddhism & Psychotherapy,” he speaks of those who “practice meditation in the service of defense, rather than self-awareness.” Engler’s contributions are part of a growing literature about the many ways that the goal of true meditation can be subverted by those with a distorted motivation.

Motivation indeed is the key. While “right meditation” is the eighth spoke in the wheel of the eight-fold path, “right motivation” is the second. When Gautama, the Buddha-to-be, confronts Mara the Tempter, he dismisses Mara by saying, “You are not striving for the welfare of the world.” In other words, Mara — who could be seen as the narcissistic shadow of the Buddha — lacks correct motivation. Mara wants the fruit of spiritual practice to satisfy his own selfish needs for power, status, security or perfection. Perhaps today’s Western practitioners leap a bit too quickly into the innerness of meditation without a thorough grounding in all the other spokes of the Path — “right view,” “right intention” and so on.

These days I am growing less fond of this prefix “right,” which is a legacy of 19th century scholarship. To my ear “right” is a bit superior-sounding and moralistic. I have come to prefer simply “Buddhist” — Buddhist view, Buddhist motivation, Buddhist action, Buddhist speech, Buddhist livelihood, Buddhist effort, Buddhist mindfulness, Buddhist meditation. There are other paths; this is the Buddhist one. Each of these eight spokes are important; each supports the others and helps keep Mara-like self-absorption at bay. Emphasizing one at the expense of the others is not salutary.

The prince Siddhartha left the palace and took up the life of a monk not because he needed more adulation, wealth or influence (he already had those things) but because he wanted to clearly understand the causes of suffering and how to assuage it. In many places throughout the Sutras, the Buddha says this, “I teach suffering and the cause of suffering.” In other words, Buddha strives for the welfare of the world; that is his work.

This concern for the suffering of others is not an idea; it is a deeply emotional response. Siddhartha was upset by the suffering he saw, a powerful emotional reaction that changed his life. This is described often in Buddhist scripture. The Vimalakirti Sutra begins with the news that the Bodhisattva Vimalakirti is sick. When the disciples of the Buddha go to visit him, Vimalakirti explains that he is sick because all sentient beings are sick. And in the “Guide to the Bodhisattva Way of Life ,” Santideva says that while an ordinary person experiences the suffering of others like a grain of sand in the palm of the hand, for the Bodhisattva it is like a grain of sand in the eye. Suffering is painful; the Bodhisattva feels that pain on behalf of others.

Meditation practiced in this spirit and with this motivation is not at all narcissistic; in fact, it is narcissism’s opposite. Neuroscientists are now looking at the brain scans of people with strong narcissistic tendencies, and are seeing anomalies in the region of the frontal lobe having to do with emotional response. It is not clear yet how this might relate to Buddhist practice, but it supports Jack Engler’s observations about people who practice meditation to armor themselves against feeling.

Buddhist Motivation is not some elementary or preparatory practice to be left behind once meditation begins. Cultivating Buddhist motivation is a lifelong endeavor, because the tendency to slip into self-aggrandizement does not necessarily diminish as one’s spiritual prowess grows. In fact, it can increase. In many meditation traditions — including my own school of Zen — every period of meditation begins with a recitation of the four Bodhisattva vows, and concludes with a dedication to the welfare of all beings. Buddhist meditation doesn’t happen in a vacuum. It is not navel gazing; it is deeply relational.

The Eightfold Path was designed to be practiced as a seamless whole. Otherwise things can go awry. Any single practice or effort can go off the rails. Mara’s stratagems are indefatigable and ingenious. The ego constantly looks for ways to bend the benefits of the practice back toward the self and its selfish needs. It helps to have other people — practice companions, good spiritual friends and teachers — to watch you and point out where you might be veering off.

One contemporary Japanese Zen teacher, when asked by a student what was the most important principle of Zen practice, replied, “Look under your own feet.” We must ask, are we standing on solid ground, or on quicksand? This question is the continuous life koan of every seeker of the truth and every aspirant for wisdom.

via Lewis Richmond: Is Meditation Narcissistic?.