The following is based on a public talk given by S.N. Goenka in July 1980 in Bern, Switzerland.
Everyone seeks peace and harmony, because these are what we lack in our lives. From time to time we all experience agitation, irritation, disharmony, suffering; and when we suffer from agitation, we do not keep this misery limited to ourselves. We keep distributing it to others as well. The agitation permeates the atmosphere around the miserable person. Everyone else who comes into contact with him becomes irritated, agitated. Certainly this is not the proper way to live.
One ought to live at peace within oneself, and at peace with others. After all, a human being is a social being. One has to live in society-to live and deal with others. How to live peacefully? How to remain harmonious within ourselves, and to maintain peace and harmony around us, so that others also can live peacefully and harmoniously?
When one is agitated, then, to come out of it, one has to know the basic reason for the agitation, the cause of the suffering. If one investigates the problem, it soon becomes clear that whenever one starts generating any negativity or defilement in the mind, one is bound to become agitated. A negativity in the mind-a mental defilement or impurity-cannot coexist with peace and harmony.
How does one start generating negativity? Again investigating, it becomes clear. I become very unhappy when I find someone behaving in a way which I don't like, when I find something happening which I don't like. Unwanted things happen, and I create tension within myself. Wanted things do not happen, some obstacles come in the way, and again I create tension within myself; I start tying knots within myself. Throughout one's life, unwanted things keep happening, wanted things may or may not happen, and this process of reaction, of tying knots-Gordian knots-makes the entire mental and physical structure so tense, so full of negativity. Life becomes miserable.
Now one way to solve the problem is to arrange things such that nothing unwanted happens in my life, and that everything keeps on happening exactly as I desire. I must develop such a power-or somebody else must have the power and must come to my aid whenever I request it-that everything I want keeps happening. But this is not possible. There is no one in the world whose desires are always fulfilled, in whose life everything happens according to his wishes, without anything unwished-for happening. Things keep occurring that are contrary to our desires and wishes. So, in spite of these things which I don't like, how not to react blindly? How not to create tension? How to remain peaceful and harmonious?
In India as well as in other countries, wise saintly persons of the past studied this problem-the problem of human suffering-and they found a solution. If something unwanted happens and one starts to react by generating anger, fear, or any negativity, then as soon as possible one should divert one's attention to something else. For example, get up, take a glass of water, start drinking-your anger will not multiply; you'll be coming out of your anger. Or start counting: one, two, three, four. Or start repeating a word, a phrase, or perhaps some mantra. It becomes easy if you use the name of a deity or a saintly person in whom you have devotion. The mind is diverted, and to some extent you'll be out of the negativity, out of anger.
This solution was helpful; it worked. It still works. Practising this, the mind feels free from agitation. In actuality, however, this solution works only at the conscious level. By diverting one's attention one in fact pushes the negativity deep into the unconscious, and at this level one continues to generate and multiply the same defilement. At the surface level there is a layer of peace and harmony, but in the depths of the mind is a sleeping volcano of suppressed negativity, which keeps erupting in violent explosions from time to time.
Other explorers of inner truth went still further in their search. By experiencing the reality of mind and matter within themselves, they recognized that diverting the attention is only running away from the problem. Escape is no solution; one must face the problem. Whenever a negativity arises in the mind, just observe it, face it. As soon as one starts observing any mental defilement, then it begins to lose all its strength. Slowly it withers away and is uprooted.
A good solution, avoiding both extremes of suppression and of free license. Keeping the negativity in the unconscious will not eradicate it, and allowing it to manifest in physical or vocal action will only create more problems. If one just observes, then the defilement passes away: one has eradicated that negativity, is free from that defilement.
This sounds wonderful, but is it really practical? When anger arises, it overpowers us so quickly that we don't even notice. Then, overpowered by anger, we commit certain actions which are harmful to us and to others. Later, when the anger has passed, we start crying and repenting, begging pardon from this or that person or god: "Oh, I made a mistake. Please excuse me!" Again the next time, in a similar situation, we react in the same way. All this repenting does not help at all.
The difficulty is that I am not aware when a defilement starts. It begins deep at the unconscious level of the mind, and by the time it reaches the conscious level, it has gained so much strength that it overwhelms me. I cannot observe it.
Then I must keep a private secretary with me, so that whenever anger starts, he says, "Look master! Anger is starting!" Since I don't know when this anger will start, I must have three private secretaries for three shifts, around the clock; or rather, four of them to give staggering holidays!
Suppose I can afford that, and the anger starts to arise. At once my secretary tells me, "Oh, master, look! Anger has started." Then the first thing I do is slap and abuse him: "You fool! Do you think you are paid to teach me?" I am so overpowered by anger that no good advice will help.
Suppose that wisdom prevails and I do not slap him. Instead I say, "Thank you very much. Now I must sit down and observe the anger." Is it possible? As soon as I close my eyes and try to observe the anger, immediately the object of anger comes into my mind, the person or incident because of which I became angry. Then I am not observing the anger. Rather, I am observing the external stimulus of the emotion. This will only multiply the anger. This is no solution. It is very difficult to observe any abstract negativity, abstract emotion, divorced from the external object which aroused it.
However, one who reached the ultimate truth in full enlightenment found a real solution. He discovered that whenever any defilement arises in the mind, simultaneously, two things start happening at the physical level. One is that the breath loses its normal rhythm. I start breathing hard whenever a negativity comes into the mind. This is one reality which everyone can experience, though it be very gross and apparent. At the same time, at a subtler level, some kind of biochemical reaction starts within the body-some sensation. Every defilement will generate one sensation or the other inside, in one or another part of the body.
This is a practical solution. An ordinary person cannot observe abstract defilements of the mind-abstract fear, anger or passion. But with proper training and practice, it is very easy to observe the respiration and the sensations, both of which are directly related to the mental defilements.
The respiration and the sensations will help me in two ways. First, they will be my private secretaries. As soon as a defilement starts in the mind, my breath will lose its normality. It will start shouting: "Look, something has gone wrong!" I cannot slap the breath; I have to accept the warning. Similarly, the sensations tell me: "Something has gone wrong." I must accept this. Then, having been warned, I start observing the respiration, the sensations, and I find very quickly that the defilement passes away.
This mental-physical phenomenon is like a coin with two sides. On the one side is whatever thoughts or emotions arise in the mind. On the other side are the respiration and sensation in the body. Any thought or emotion (whether conscious or unconscious), any mental defilement manifests in the breath and sensation of that moment. Thus by observing the respiration or sensation, I am indirectly observing the mental defilement. Instead of running away from the problem, I am facing the reality as it is. Then I will find that the defilement loses its strength; it can no longer overpower me as it did in the past. If I persist, the defilement eventually disappears altogether and I remain peaceful and happy.
In this way, the technique of self-observation shows us reality in its two aspects, outside and inside. Previously, one always looked with open eyes, missing the inner truth. I always looked outside for the cause of my unhappiness. I always blamed and tried to change the reality outside. Being ignorant of the inner reality, I never understood that the cause of suffering lies within, in my own blind reactions.
It is difficult to observe an abstract negativity when it arises. But now, by training, I can see the other side of the coin: I can be aware of the breathing and also of what is happening inside me. Whatever it is, the breath or any sensation, I learn to just observe it, without losing the balance of the mind. I stop multiplying my miseries. Instead, I allow the defilement to manifest and pass away.
The more one practises this technique, the more one will find how quickly he or she can come out of the negativity. Gradually the mind becomes freed of defilements; it becomes pure. A pure mind is always full of love, detached love for all others; full of compassion for the failings and sufferings of others; full of joy at their success and happiness; full of equanimity in the face of any situation.
When one reaches this stage, then the entire pattern of one's life starts changing. It is no longer possible for one to do anything vocally or physically which will disturb the peace and happiness of others. Instead, the balanced mind not only becomes peaceful in itself, it helps others to become peaceful also. The atmosphere surrounding such a person will become permeated with peace and harmony, and this will start affecting others too.
This is what the Buddha taught, an art of living. He never established or taught any religion, any "ism." He never instructed followers to practise any rites or rituals, any blind or empty formalities. Instead, he taught to just observe nature as it is, by observing the reality inside. Out of ignorance, one keeps reacting in a way which is harmful to oneself and to others. Then when wisdom arises-the wisdom of observing the reality as it is-one comes out of this blind reaction. When one ceases to react blindly, then one is capable of real action, action proceeding from a balanced, equanimous mind, a mind which sees and understands the truth. Such action can only be positive, creative, helpful to oneself and to others.
What is necessary, then, is to "know thyself"-advice which every wise person has given. One must know oneself not just at the intellectual level, at the level of ideas and theories. Nor does this mean to know oneself at the devotional or emotional level, simply accepting blindly what one has heard or read. Such knowledge is not enough.
Rather, one must know reality at the actual level. One must experience directly the reality of this mental-physical phenomenon. This alone is what will help us to come out of defilements, out of sufferings.
This direct experience of reality within one's own self, this technique of self-observation, is what is called Vipassana meditation. In the language of India in the time of the Buddha, passana meant to look, to see with open eyes, in the ordinary way. But vipassana is to observe things as they really are, not just as they seem to be. Apparent truth has to be penetrated, until one reaches the ultimate truth of the entire mental and physical structure. When one experiences this truth, then one learns to stop reacting blindly, to stop creating defilements. Naturally the old defilements are gradually eradicated. One comes out of all miseries, and experiences happiness.
There are three steps to the training which is given in a Vipassana course. First, one must abstain from any action, physical or vocal, which disturbs the peace and harmony of others. One cannot work to liberate oneself from defilements in the mind while at the same time continuing to perform deeds of body and speech which only multiply those defilements. Therefore a code of morality is the essential first step of the practice. One undertakes not to kill, not to steal, not to commit sexual misconduct, not to speak lies, and not to use intoxicants. By abstaining from such actions, one allows the mind to quiet down.
The next step is to develop some mastery over this wild mind, by training it to remain fixed on a single object, the breath. One tries to keep one's attention on the respiration for as long as possible. This is not a breathing exercise; one does not regulate the breath. Instead one observes the natural respiration as it is, as it comes in, as it goes out. In this way one further calms the mind, so that it is no longer overpowered by violent negativities. At the same time, one is concentrating the mind, making it sharp and penetrating, capable of the work of insight.
These first two steps of living a moral life and controlling the mind are very necessary and beneficial in themselves. But they will lead to self-repression unless one takes the third step: purifying the mind of defilements, by developing insight into one's own nature. This, really, is Vipassana: experiencing one's own reality, through the systematic and dispassionate observation of the ever-changing mind-matter phenomenon manifesting itself as sensations within oneself. This is the culmination of the teaching of the Buddha: self-purification through self-observation.
This can be practised by one and all. The disease is not sectarian, therefore the remedy cannot be sectarian: it must be universal. Everyone faces the problem of suffering. When one suffers from anger, it is not Buddhist anger, Hindu anger, Christian anger. Anger is anger. Due to anger, when one becomes agitated, it is not a Christian agitation, or Hindu, or Buddhist agitation. The malady is universal. The remedy must also be universal.
Vipassana is such a remedy. No one will object to a code of living which respects the peace and harmony of others. No one will object to developing control of the mind. No one will object to developing insight into one's own reality, by which it is possible to free the mind of negativites. It is a universal path. It is not a cult. It is not a dogma. It is not blind faith.
Observing the reality as it is, by observing truth inside-this is knowing oneself at the actual, experiential level. And as one practises, one starts coming out of the misery of defilements. From the gross, external apparent truth, one penetrates to the ultimate truth of mind and matter. Then one transcends that and experiences a truth which is beyond mind and matter, beyond time and space, beyond the conditioned field of relativity: the truth of total liberation from all defilements, all impurities, all suffering. Whatever name one gives this ultimate truth is irrelevant. It is the final goal of everyone.
May all of you experience this ultimate truth. May all people everywhere come out of their defilements, their misery. May they enjoy real happiness, real peace, real harmony.