Art of Living: Vipassana Meditation as taught by S. N. Goenka

William Hart, Embassy Books

Meditation is now mainstream, monetized, big business. So here is something quite different, and authentic. A few rare teachers, deeply committed to reducing human suffering, continue to teach without monetary expectations. Every endeavor does require financial support. For the deeply respected vipassana teacher Satya Narayan Goenka, this support comes from volunteers, private donations, and sale of books. His teachings have been compiled into The Art of Living, written by William Hart.

Vipassana is a Pali (language used by Gautama Buddha) word derived from Sanskrit. It is commonly translated as “insight.” Vipassana is an essential teaching of Buddha: in fact, the word “Buddha” comes from the Sanskrit word buddhi, meaning a higher intelligence or higher awareness. Buddha is one who has awakened to his higher awareness and is enlightened by it. There are many vipassana meditation methods. The one taught by Goenka, the subject of this book, is the one he learned in Burma from his teacher Sayagyi U Ba Khin. The book explains the heart of the teaching which is taught over a 10-day retreat.

“Suppose you had the opportunity to free yourself of all worldly responsibilities for ten days, with a quiet, secluded place in which to live, protected from disturbances. In this place the basic physical requirements of room and board would be provided for you, and helpers would be on hand to see that you are reasonably comfortable. In return you would be expected only to avoid contact with others and apart from essential activities, to spend all your waking hours with eyes closed, keeping your mind on a chosen object of attention. Would you accept the offer?”

The Art of Living is a well-organized, well-written book. It explains the teachings of vipassana, this particular method, as it is actually experienced by people. There are numerous family members and yoga friends who have attended this retreat with great benefit.

The book is not a scholarly work, nor does it give meditation practices the reader can do at home. Instead, the book tells you what the retreat is about and what to expect. It gives a flowing progression of how the retreat and the experience unfold from start to finish. There are ten steps, ten chapters, for the ten days of retreat. Each chapter explains the teaching for that day beginning with The Search and ending with The Art of Living. There are some questions and answers at the end of the chapter, selected from past retreats. Each chapter is accompanied by a story to better illustrate the message of the chapter.

Is it possible that Eckhart Tolle could have been inspired by the following statement from Goenka: “The universe exists for each of us only when we experience it with body and mind. It is never elsewhere, it is always here and now.”

Consider the following excerpts and the yogis will be reminded of all that they have learned in yoga and know in Yoga Nidra, Tattwa Shuddhi, Antar Mouna, and Chidakasha Dharana (methods taught by Satyananda Yoga):

“if ignorance arises, reaction occurs;
if reaction arises, consciousness occurs;
if consciousness arises, mind-and-matter occur;
if mind-and-matter arise, the six senses occur;
if the six senses arise, contact occurs;
if contact arises, sensation occurs;
if sensation arises, craving and aversion occur;
if craving and aversion arise, attachment occurs;
if attachment arises, becoming occurs;
if the process of becoming arises, birth occurs;
if birth arises, decay and death occur, together with sorrow,
lamentation, physical and mental suffering, and tribulations.
Thus arises this entire mass of suffering.”
—Chapter 4, The Root of the Problem, p. 49

All sankharas are impermanent.
When you perceive this with true insight,
then you become detached from suffering;
this is the path of purification.
—Chapter 7, The Training of Wisdom, p. 97

(The author explains that sankhara here means both the blind reaction of the mind and the result of that action (in yoga it is called karma.)

“Impermanent truly are conditioned things,
having the nature of arising and passing away.
If they arise and are extinguished,
their eradication brings true happiness.”
—Chapter 8, Awareness and Equanimity, p. 110

“What is yoga in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras?
Yogaschitta vritti nirodhah
Yoga is the elimination of mental fluctuations, or
To block the patterns of consciousness.”
—Swami Satyananda, Four Chapters on Freedom

What are these fluctuations or patterns of consciousness? The reactions, small and big, constantly generated by the mind are the fluctuations of the mind—like/dislike, good/bad, happy/sad, pain/pleasure, success/failure. These reactions are based on a set of patterns of programs/conditioning in consciousness developed over time as a process of “growing up.”

“The conditioned thinking generates reactive conditioned thoughts
The thoughts generate reactive conditioned words and action
Words and action generate reactive conditioned thoughts.”

A situation is neutral: the cause of suffering is the reaction to it—my first important lesson in yoga. Everything else has just been an illustration of that lesson now when I look back. Stop the reactions—when seeing, just see; when hearing, just hear; when smelling, just smell; when tasting, just taste; when feeling, just feel; when doing, just do. That is what the sutra now means to me. Nothing added or subtracted.

It all fits and is simple as that. What I like is the simple directness in this book. Reading Goenka’s insights has brought greater insight into many yogic practices mentioned earlier. It has certainly enhanced my understanding of them and connected many dots that were unconnected.

Almost every teacher seems to claim that their method is better than others, more superior—another pattern of consciousness due to programmed conditioning? I see striking similarities with some differences in approach.

The Art of Living is worth reading over and over again.

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