About the Author:
Ian Hetherington has been practicing Vipassana meditation for 20 years. He teaches Vipassana as a senior assistant to the internationally renowned S. N. Goenka.
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About the Author
Ian Hetherington has been practicing Vipassana meditation for 20 years. He teaches Vipassana as a senior assistant to the internationally renowned S.N. Goenka.
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Vipassana Meditation in Action
By Ian Hetherington
Pariyatti PublishingCopyright © 2003 Vipassana Research Institute
All rights reserved.
CHALLENGE and CHANGE
* * *
Conceived out of wedlock in a small coastal village in Greece around 1965, my birth mother was unable to keep and raise me in the cultural climate of that place and time. I was, instead, placed in a nearby orphanage after my delivery on the outbound village bus. These were rather inauspicious beginnings, yet at six months I was adopted by a Greek-American family and brought to the States, to a large city in the Midwest. My family provided a great deal of care that stabilized and grounded me during my formative years.
The wounds of adoption history, for both family and son however were never directly addressed, leaving some of these to fester. Also, some strange family dynamics added salt to such wounds, and I was left with the task of making sense of all the caring and love experienced in my family against a constant buzz of internal anxiety and discomfort. In childhood, I addressed this challenge as many kids do, by engaging their moms in philosophical conversations. To this day I remember many of these conversations, the center of which was my preoccupation with the origin of life, the end of life, and the suffering of others.
After an Ivy League education and a master's degree in spirituality, I returned to my hometown and took a job in a local "progressive age" bookstore to read all I could about the human condition. My formal education didn't satisfy my existential curiosity, and my intention in taking this job, along with making a small bit of money, was to explore the ironies within this universal condition and within my own story as well. I read books on healing, family dynamics, adoption, grief, the "new science," etc. Finally I made my way to the section on Buddhism, and the message I gleaned from one author in particular was that in order to transcend suffering, one must first transcend the field of thought and language. At this point, one reaches a dual perspective where both the beauty and the madness of life disappear into one silent mystery. According to this author, understanding and reading alone cannot resolve this paradox; only meditation can do so.
Meditation it would then be, and off I went to learn the way beyond suffering....
— Dimitri Topitzes,from Wisconsin USA, sat his first Vipassana course in 1996.
Change — the only certainty there is
For those raised in prosperity towards the end of the twentieth century, we might feel entitled to think that most of life's problems have been solved. The majority of the population eats well and has a comfortable home. We live longer, spend less of our time in paid employment. We have more money than ever before and a wide range of goods and services to purchase and enjoy. And yet, if suicide rates, divorce statistics and drug and alcohol abuse figures are reliable indicators, even the affluent are not happy. Not surprisingly the various minorities, ethnic groups in their ghettos, the elderly, the disabled or sick, the unemployed underclass — all who lack access to wealth and opportunity, do worse on every count. A cycle of deprivation easily becomes rooted which is naturally followed by bitter consequences not only for the individual but, indirectly, for everyone. The same cities which are financial and trading dynamos during the day, become destitute shelters by night. Scenes we would like to link with distant shanties are happening now in our own back yards.
Half the world seems busy beyond belief, working all hours, burning out. The other half is unoccupied, disengaged from the action, resentful. What kind of hellish scheme is this?
In the developing countries the simple necessities of grain, water and shelter cannot be assumed, despite the planet's abundant wealth. There is a danger that many emerging nations will rush headlong into Western-style "progress," superimposing fresh divisions on their own populations. Poverty, if not absolute, certainly remains a relative condition, when compared with the living standards of the industrialized world. As ever, survival is a full time occupation for most in these parts of the globe. However they, in their turn, might be surprised to discover that the riches that many crave have failed to bring contentment. The price of economic success is high, not only for the obvious losers but also for the seeming winners. Fewer workers in factories, farms, offices and shops work longer hours with increased duties, frequently for less pay and little satisfaction. The impact of the quantity and quality of change on people's lives is everywhere to be seen. A secure job is fast becoming a thing of the past along with the welfare safety net that often underpinned it.
Today's schedule — the appointments, the tasks, the chores, priorities, deadlines. Personal time? Blanked out.
Designer dreams are relentlessly manufactured and marketed for every segment of the population. Those who work hard find themselves driven to play hard too — in the gym, the bar or club, along the shopping mall. The pressure to achieve and display success is uppermost and where there are insufficient prizes, or greed dominates, crime and corruption thrive. The menu of escape routes, such as partying, gormandizing, bingeing, exotic travel, acquiring state of the art this or that, is often sampled. However the relief these tidbits offer is temporary; a momentary distraction from the daily grind. Where is this taking us?
Sex selling everything from cars and cosmetics to sport and bread loaves — an epidemic obsession.
What can we say about the process of change we are living through? Life has always involved struggle but for pace and intensity this age is probably unmatched in human history. The revolutions in science, technology, medicine and communications grab one set of headlines. The waves of competing ideologies give a different slant: colonialism; capitalism; fascism; communism; racism; feminism; environmentalism; fundamentalism; the list keeps growing. But it's at the human level that the dramas play and the fallout is felt. So many questions are raised, either to be ignored or met with a vacuum where the answers should be. Tradition buckles in the face of modernity. If there is no work, what are we to do? If it feels good, do it — forget the consequences. When the going gets tough, the tough get going! Is there any remaining bond with partner, parents, children, friends, workmates, business associates and you, my neighbor? Beyond the niceties, is there anything apart from naked self interest? Everywhere money and the gratification of self threaten to displace an intricate web of mutual respect, care and responsibility, which has evolved along with the species. The family, it is said, is dead, religion an irrelevance, politics — the ultimate sham. The cynicism of the times is corrosive and everyone is touched by it. Look no further than hatred-inspired attacks on foreigners or the latest episode of road-rage. We are not in good shape.
Who needs the hassle?
Within this whirlpool, individuals the world over try to make sense of their upturned lives. If we are fortunate, we find the resources within ourselves and the skill and support outside to carry us forward. If we are less lucky, the combination of personal weakness, neglect and aggressive commercialism puts us at risk. Little wonder, without preparation or backup, that so many people suffer from debilitating stress, in one form or another. Stress — our side of the devil's bargain, the flip side of our glitzy culture, a culture in danger of losing touch with its moorings.
Bodies sunbake on a beach
like compulsive smokers
knowing the risk
thinking it'll happen to someone else.
As many are increasingly coming to recognize, something has to be done to regain and sustain balance within society as we proceed through a period of continuing, even accelerating, turbulence. Turning the clock back is not an option, the good old days have gone, their fate to be recorded as quaint items on historical websites. Institutions, schools, business corporations, even governments, can move with the times but only as fast as individuals allow. The key to happiness lies within the individuals themselves.
How does a human being deal with the scale of changes we have been cataloging? Survival — by fighting, fleeing or any other means — requires adaptation. To the extent that we can accept a fresh set of circumstances and modify our behavior accordingly, the more in-tune with the new situation we will be. However, we may perceive many external changes as unwelcome, uncomfortable, upsetting to our established pattern of life and so the response is either one of denial or resistance. On the other hand, we may think we're facing the challenge and coping fine, when, at the deep subconscious level of the mind, intense reaction is going on and our true feelings are being suppressed.
The world may change;
just let me be.
The mind and its contents are all-important. Like an iceberg where only the tip is visible, the conscious mind represents just a small part of the totality. The intellect, the rational portion of the mind, is frequently mistaken for the whole. In fact there is a vast store of unseen and unfelt experience and emotion beneath the surface which is constantly impacting on the conscious mind and overpowering it. To deal with change in anything but a superficial way we need to have full access to the mysteries of our minds. We also need a way of working on ourselves which is safe and will help us to align ourselves, at the depth of our being, with the flux taking place in the universe. Vipassana meditation provides just such a technique. By self-observation each of us can learn the truth about ourselves and develop the living wisdom to manage change effectively.
* * *
It was April 26, 1977, almost three years after my time in India and many months since my last formal meditation. Somehow, despite being disoriented in the strange dark Guatemalan streets, I arrived at the airport in time for the flight. My destination was Tikal, site of the largest Mayan ruin. Takeoff however was delayed for quite a while. The city is high and we began a descent to a coastal town where we would stop before reaching Tikal. The aircraft had two engines, but one began to malfunction and we attempted to return to Guatemala City. The plane did not have enough power to fly on one engine and we dropped closer and closer to the ground. I did not know anything was really wrong and I kept looking out my window expecting to see the edge of an airstrip appear. Then we struck something and I knew we were crashing. I quite literally said to myself, "The odds of my surviving this are not very good" and I cradled my head against the back of the seat ahead of me, awaiting the crunch which would end my life. I felt no fear or regret at being in this situation. I felt no positive emotion either. Now it was just an unfolding experience and emotion was not a part of it. We bounced along in a somewhat rough manner but eventually came to a halt. My head came up and so did that of all of the rest of the passengers, everyone looking around with a surprised expression on their face. I could smell smoke, but I was still not concerned. I was in the back part of the plane and I stood at my place while those further behind passed down the aisle towards the exits over the wings. A similar procession was happening from the front of the plane. The last person from the front went out the exit over one wing as I went out the other and now the plane was completely empty. On emerging I ran just far enough to where I thought I would not be caught in any explosion. Then I stopped, turned, and took the first two pictures of a series. Then I retreated further and watched as flames burned higher and higher, a sound like "whump" occurring as each new source of fuel began to contribute to the fire. My things were in the plane, some of them recent purchases and some of them with me from several years of travelling. I felt no regret in knowing they were gone. All told, it was just a very interesting experience.
— Charles Brown attended his first course in 1974. He now lives and works in Seattle, USA
Some people are looking out and listening for a new direction, like birds waiting for the season's call. They have the strength to explore unknown territory for themselves — what to do next, where to go, in relationships, in their consciences. They experiment with situations, test themselves and their reactions. Articulated or not, a search for self is taking place, a spiritual journey undertaken. Others may be armchair self-developers; when they read or hear about gaining increased control over one's life they feel attracted, yet they are more comfortable with the idea of change than in making the effort to bring it about. Maybe they doubt they can alter the habits of a lifetime or worry about what happens if they do. They may lack confidence that ordinary human beings, rather than some external force, have the capacity to transform their own lives. Above all, they fear the unknown. Another group, ostrich-like, appear more or less satisfied with their existence as it is and show no interest beyond satisfying immediate material needs.
Perhaps these stereotypes are less like fixed personality types than phases anyone can pass through anytime. Tectonic plates keep shifting and so too do the masks we wear. Even the narrowest self-satisfied view of life can be blown apart by a sudden crisis: the death of a loved one, serious illness, losing our possessions or status. Paradoxically it's when we are most vulnerable, wrestling with all the baggage of the past, that we can be most innovative, reaching out for that turning-point. Big or small, immediate or distant, these challenges to our established routines keep flaring up. And if we lack an effective means of dealing with them, they will overpower us now and haunt us later. We pride ourselves today on the technology of space probes, genetic engineering, smart weapons — so often overlooking the need to harness the immense power of our own minds. A power for good to clear our own confusion in a world of hard choices; a chance for real self-improvement — which will help others also. This is the promise of Vipassana meditation.
Everyone wants peace and happiness, but where do you find them?CHAPTER 2
WHAT IS VIPASSANA MEDITATION?
* * *
I took my first Vipassana course in October 1991. Previously, I had been a shy and nervous person, afraid of meeting new people, and very easily upset. I was also quite a negative person. As a child, I used to be called Eeyore (a doleful donkey character in A.A. Milne's "Winnie the Pooh" stories) because of my glum attitude to life. It must have had some truth in it because independently I was given the same nickname by my peers when I went to university. To some extent I am of course that same person today, but there have been some big changes....
— Kerry Jacobs became writer in residence at a British prison and now teaches in Japan.
Meditation means different things to different people. In the West the word commonly carries a very loose meaning connected with "thinking things through," "pondering," "reflecting." It can also have associations with prayer or religious contemplation, relaxation and altered states of consciousness. Interest in "meditation" has been growing steadily since the 1960s but the breadth of definition can be confusing. It covers such a range of activities which use the same term in very different ways. To lots of people it remains a hazy area, even weird. What's it all about?
In Vipassana, meditation means mental development. It refers to certain specific exercises and techniques which are used for focusing and unknotting the mind.
There are so many other pressing demands on our time and attention. So why would anyone want to meditate?
With Vipassana we learn how to go inside our hearts and minds for real, to find out who we are and build on that truth.
We learn how to step back from the world of stimulation outside to ground ourselves, to pull ourselves together — physically, mentally, emotionally, spiritually and reconnect ourselves with nature.
We learn that peace is inside us and how to find it.
We meditate to strengthen the mind. An athlete spends hours each day keeping the body fit. The exercises we practice in Vipassana make for a thorough mental workout.
We heighten our powers of concentration.
We discover fresh resources of energy.
We become more available to other people and useful to society.
We learn a practical way of overcoming the storms and stress in our daily lives.
We stop creating pain for ourselves and offloading our distress onto others.
Excerpted from Realizing Change by Ian Hetherington. Copyright © 2003 Vipassana Research Institute. Excerpted by permission of Pariyatti Publishing.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Vipassana — Meditating on Change,
Challenge and Change,
What is Vipassana?,
The Course Experience — Before,
The Course Experience — During,
The Course Experience — After,
Vipassana — Changing Everyday Life,
On the Path,
Freedom Behind Bars — Vipassana in Prisons,
The Compass — Vipassana and the Young,
Healing Mind — Health and Vipassana,
Managing Oneself — Vipassana, Work and Social Action,
One Truth — Vipassana, Science and Spirituality,
Come and See,
Appendix 1 Vipassana Meditation Centers,
Appendix 2 More about Vipassana — books, tapes & stores,