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founded by S. N. Goenka in the tradition of Sayagyi U Ba Khin






Holistic Education and Vipassana

- By Prof. P. L. Dhar

Education, said Albert Einstein, is that which remains when everything that is learnt in school is forgotten. If we evaluate modern education by this definition, its chief outcomes can easily be identified as aggressive competition, pride and envy. At its best, the modern educational system imparts some professional knowledge and skills, but it lacks any cultivation of heart. The result is only to make the students conceited materialists. Consequently, at an age when children should be dreaming of beauty, greatness and perfection, they now dream about sensory titillation and wealth, and spend time worrying about how to earn money [1]. No wonder that our society today is being devoured by the twin devils of acquisitiveness and unabashed consumerism, with the resultant serious social problems of corruption, strife and violence; and ecological problems such as environmental pollution and the rapid depletion of resources which threaten the very survival of humankind on this planet. Thinkers and philosophers of all hues [1-4], whether in India or abroad, agree that a complete revamping of the educational system is a prerequisite for the solution to these serious maladies besieging mankind. For, unless human beings become harmonized within themselves, through a fundamental change in their animal instincts-which should be the most important purpose of education-all changes in their outer circumstances will ultimately be overwhelmed by their instinctual, animal brutality.

A Vision of Holistic Education

Education should be concerned with the totality of life and not with immediate responses to immediate challenges [1]. Broadly speaking, four different but inter-related aspects of human life can generally be recognized: viz., the physical, emotional, intellectual and spiritual. Holistic education should cultivate all these aspects in full measure. For example, physical education should include not only the performance of physical exercises to keep the body fit, but also the training to use the senses and physical framework wisely.

Similarly, emotional education should emphasize the type of training of mind that develops the positive human emotions of universal love, compassion, forbearance, humility, equanimity, etc., and eradicates the baser instincts such as greed, envy, pride, aggressiveness, etc. In this way, one can establish a healthy relationship with society.

Intellectual education should require not only the development of the ability to think, but also the ability to act independently, rationally and logically on the basis of a deep understanding of the various phenomena of nature.

Finally, spiritual education should cultivate a refinement of the mind, to manifest that elusive "fourth dimension" of the human personality from which springs forth an intuitive understanding of the very purpose of our existence, and a clarity of what ought to be done to achieve it.

It is quite clear that the modern educational system completely sidesteps the emotional and spiritual aspects of the human personality, and caters only to physical and intellectual growth-and this, too, only in a superficial manner. It is not as if the educationists and education planners have not been aware of this deficiency, for as early as 1966, the Kothari Commission recognized the need for inculcating social, moral and spiritual values through education [5]. But the way to achieve this in a composite society like India, where the notions of caste, creed and religion are very strongly entrenched, has defied a universally acceptable solution. There have, of course, been many attempts to impart moral education indirectly through various means such as prayers, discussions and contemplation sessions, etc. Even direct attempts have been made through meditation methods, lectures and discourses in various institutions such as Christian missionary schools; Islamic schools; Anglo-vedic schools; schools associated with the Ramakrishna Mission; ISKCON; Maharishi Mahesh Yogi centres; the Krishnamurti Foundation; and the Saibaba Trust, etc. However, these approaches have not been able to gain wide acceptance.

There exists in India and many other countries today, a scientific method of control and purification of mind which, if properly integrated with the educational process, has the potential of becoming a universally acceptable technique for nourishing the emotional and spiritual dimensions of human personality. This technique, an ancient science of mind and matter, is called Vipassana meditation. Following is a brief description of the technique and how it can be integrated into modern education.

Vipassana Meditation

Viewed from the perspective of holistic education, Vipassana meditation can be described as a technique of purifying the mind of its baser instincts so that one begins to manifest the truly human qualities of universal goodwill, kindness, sympathy, tolerance, humility, equanimity, etc., and simultaneously gains an insight into the true nature and purpose of human existence. This is achieved in a very scientific manner through a systematic cultivation of Right Mindfulness coupled with non-reactivity; that is to say, development of the habit of paying penetrating attention to whatever is happening in our total organism-the body with its five senses and the mind which operates in and through it-without any admixture of subjective judgments or reactions. The quality which purifies the mind at the deepest level is the mental factor of objectivity, or equanimity, which develops from the constant, thorough understanding of the impermanence of all components of the mind-body phenomenon (ref. [8], p.258).

An important prerequisite for the systematic practice of Vipassana is scrupulous observance of five basic moral precepts-viz., abstention from killing, stealing, false speech, sexual misconduct, and intoxicants-since any willful violation of these precepts causes violent mental agitation which makes it impossible to observe the mind objectively. Of course, Vipassana practice also helps one to gain the mental strength needed to observe the moral precepts in day-to-day life. While the complete details of this systematic practice are best learnt in a meditation camp under the careful guidance of a teacher, some salient features of the technique and its theoretical basis are explained here.

The foundation stone in the cultivation of Right Mindfulness (or Awareness) consists of paying attention to the body (ref. 8, pp. 254-259]. The practice of systematic self-observation begins by focusing attention on the respiration (ref. 9, p.5), the breath coming in and going out of the body. This practice-called Anapana-is an exercise in cultivation of right awareness, not regulation or control of the breath (such as pranayama or other breathing exercises). There is just a silent "bare observation" of the natural flow of respiration, with a firm and steady attention free from any strain. One observes the length of the breath, short or long. To aid the development of concentration, the student is advised to focus the attention on finer details, such as which nostril the breath is coming in and going out, or where the breath is touching in the area around the nostrils.

The whole exercise is one of observing the reality as it is, without any preferences or reactions. It is quite natural that in the beginning it will not be possible to focus the attention continuously on the breath, even for a minute or two. The habitual tendency of the mind to wander away from the assigned task comes to the fore very quickly, allowing the student to experience for him or herself the turbulent nature of the mind. The student learns to observe this fact itself dispassionately- without feeling dejected about the repeated "running away" of the mind-and once again focuses one's attention on the breath.

With the systematic practice of Anapana for a few days, the concentration increases, and a natural calming and equalizing of the breath takes place. As the breath is very intimately related to the mind, this leads simultaneously to a tranquilizing of the mind-in fact, of the entire life-rhythm [6]. The mind also becomes sharp enough to observe subtler realities of the body-mind complex, e.g., the sensations occurring in the area around the nostrils where attention is focused during the practice of mindfulness of breathing.

This leads us to the next step in the cultivation of Right Mindfulness, viz., awareness of the bodily sensations (ref. 9, p.21). The object of meditation now is body sensation. Sensations occur on the body, but they are felt by the mind. When one is investigating the internal experience of one's sensations, one is actually observing the interaction of mind and matter (Vedana-samosarana sabbe dhamma: Everything that arises in the mind is accompanied by sensation) (ref. 8, p. 253). Moreover, sensations (vedana) provide the crucial link between the impact (phassa) upon the six sense doors and the resultant reaction of craving and aversion (tanha) which is the root cause of all suffering [7; 8, p.255]. This profound discovery is, in fact, one of the most fundamental aspects of the teaching of the master scientist of mind and matter, Gotama Buddha.

The practice of Vipassana consists of "feeling" the sensations throughout the body without any reaction or evaluation whatsoever, thus developing equanimity at a very deep level. This is of course more easily said than done, because our subconscious mind, which is constantly "feeling" the body sensations, has the stubborn, recalcitrant habit of reacting to these sensations in a particular manner. It habitually reacts to pleasant sensations with craving and to unpleasant sensations with aversion, thus strengthening the mind's conditioned tendency to run after sensory pleasure and to run away from pain.

The exercise of awareness and equanimity in the face of the entire spectrum of sensations acts to gently break this habit pattern. One repeatedly observes the sensations as they actually are: constantly changing-arising, staying for some time, fading away, and giving rise to other sensations. Through this repeated practice, the habit of reaction is replaced by an experience of the truth of anicca or impermanence. The student is trained to focus one's attention on the changeful nature of the sensations, thereby gradually correcting the conditioned habit of evaluating them as pleasant or unpleasant. This scientific method of observing the sensations as they really are-without any evaluation based on past conditioning-is what is described by the word vipassana. Vipassana, a Pāli word, literally means "to see things as they really are"-in their true nature, their true characteristic of impermanence (anicca).

One can thus gradually train the mind to observe the bodily sensations in an objective manner-without any notion of their being "my sensations"-in the same way as one would dispassionately observe the waves arising and disappearing in the sea. With the practice of this objective observation, the attitude of "enjoyership"-one of the chief manifestations of ego-is thus enfeebled.

The attitude of remaining equanimous towards all internal phenomena arising from the interaction of mind and body is simultaneously strengthened, as the student repeatedly observes the fact of the evanescent nature (anicca) of the mind-body process.

The systematic practice of mindfulness of sensations integrates within itself other important aspects of the cultivation of Right Mindfulness, viz., the mindfulness of the state of mind and the contents of the thought at any given moment (ref. [9], p.25). As the alertness and objectiveness of the meditator increase (by the continual practice of non-reactive observation of sensations), he or she can quickly become aware of the mental reactions which keep arising from time to time. As an adjunct to the main practice of mindfulness of body sensations, a student practises from time to time the bare registering of one's state of mind. One observes the various mental states without self-justification or self-condemnation. This practice reveals the changing nature of the mental states, and thereby strengthens the meditator's conviction about the anicca of all body-mind phenomena.

The most significant consequence of Vipassana practice is that it gives the mind a natural slant towards the goal of full enlightenment, the complete liberation from all bondages. Simultaneously, one develops the steadfast confidence that all hindrances on the Path can be overcome.

Role of Vipassana in Education

We can now understand how Vipassana can fill that vital gap in modern education-viz., the training of mind, leading to a balanced, harmonious and purposeful life. Vipassana meditation imparts a way to observe all the phenomena of this sensory world objectively and impersonally under the penetrating gaze of an equanimous mind. The multifold benefits which accrue from this practice are being discussed at length in this seminar and have formed the basis for research conducted by the Vipassana Research Institute (Igatpuri, India) in many areas of human activity. Here, only those aspects related to the field of education are being discussed.

The attitude of "bare attention" (bestowed by a mind at once aware and non-reactive) slows down the transition from thought to action, allowing the practitioner more time-those crucial few moments- needed to come to a mature decision. The tendency of the base, animal instincts to overpower the faculty of human reason can thus be effectively checked, leading to a gradual reduction in negative traits such as rashness, intolerance, intemperance and aggressive behaviour which characterize modern youth. This emotional education should naturally lead to a marked improvement in the student-teacher relationship, which has been constantly deteriorating over the years due to the corroding influence of a materialistic world view coupled with the negative traits mentioned above.

On the positive side, this training of non-reactive observation of facts, coupled with the insight of anicca enhances one's ability to face the vicissitudes of life squarely and equanimously without taking recourse to such escapist alternatives as smoking, alcohol and drugs, which have become the bane of modern society. This attitude of equanimity also reduces the obsessive preoccupation with indulgence in unending materialistic desires, thereby allowing space for the manifestation of the so-called "higher needs"-the self-actualization needs of meaningfulness, justice, truthfulness, service, love, compassion, etc., which modern psychology recognizes as essential components of basic human needs [10]. Recent research has shown that people able to manifest these "higher needs" are generally much more creative and innovative, because self-actualization needs provide "a more durable fuel for creativity" than the drive for sensual gratification [11].

The observation of mental contents is also a powerful tool of self-education because it reveals to the meditator a very clear picture of his weak points and strong points without doing damage to his self-esteem. The habitual attitude of hurriedly glossing over one's weaknesses, or blowing one's strengths out of proportion, is thus checked. One gradually gains the inner strength needed to overcome one's weaknesses without a need to exercise a violent exertion of will or forceful repression, both of which are harmful in the long run. This candid self-examination promotes honesty towards oneself, increases one's tolerance of others' faults, assists in the development of humility and compassion, and reduces vanity.

The attitude of Right Awareness coupled with equanimity closely corresponds to the disposition of the true scientist and scholar, which is characterized by clear definition of the subject, unprejudiced receptivity for the facts, exclusion of the subjective factor in judgment, and deferring judgment until a careful examination of the facts has been made (ref. [6], p.39). This practice should therefore be of great help in augmenting the scientific temper.

Vipassana meditation reinforces the scientific outlook in another much more direct way. Every meditator, after some length of practice of mindfulness of sensations, reaches a state where he experiences the whole body as a mass of vibrations. This experience is in line with the quantum-relativistic description of matter [12]. This direct experience provides much more clarity about the nature of matter than the scores of mathematical formulae produced by classroom descriptions.

Another important benefit of the systematic practice-especially of mindfulness of breath, which is of crucial significance in education-is improvement in one's ability to concentrate on a task. As explained earlier, the essence of the practice is to train the mind to keep the attention continuously on an object (viz., the breath), and to minimize the drifting of the mind into futile daydreams, which are the chief obstacle to concentration. The training of observing the mental states also comes in handy. Once such daydreams have arisen (whether during meditation or during normal activity), if one briefly makes these daydreams themselves an object of close observation, their power of distraction is drastically curtailed and they get quickly dispersed. This results in a quick retrieval of concentration.

The attitude of impersonal non-reactive observation is of profound value in the ultimate deliverance of the mind from all bondages, which is the true purpose of spiritual education. To quote Venerable Nyanponika Thera (ref. [6], p.43): "The inner distance from things...as obtained temporarily and partially by bare attention, shows us, by our own experience, the possibility of winning perfect detachment and the happiness resulting from it. It bestows upon us the confidence that such temporary setting aside may well become one day a complete stepping out of this world of suffering. It gives a kind of foretaste, or at least an idea, of the highest liberty, the 'holiness during lifetime' that has been alluded to by the words 'In the world but not of the world.' "

To achieve this objective, the principal requirement is to develop an insight into the basic characteristics of life. Impermanence (anicca) is the fundamental characteristic with which a Vipassana student is continually confronted. As this experience becomes ingrained, realization of the other characteristics-viz., of suffering (dukkha) and egolessness (anatta)-automatically develops, leading one to a clear understanding of the purpose of life and the way to achieve it-the very acme of spiritual education.

Concluding Remarks

It should be evident from the preceding brief description that Vipassana meditation is a purely scientific technique, a universal culture of mind, which does not subscribe to any sectarian beliefs, dogmas or rituals. It should be universally acceptable, therefore, as an integral part of education. Its benefits have been corroborated by thousands of practitioners-both young and old- belonging to diverse castes, creeds, countries and religious beliefs. Vivekananda's dream of evolving a "man-making education" [2] could be fulfilled by the integration of Vipassana into modern education. It is high time that an action plan in the field of education be drawn, at least on an experimental scale, to scientifically validate the efficacy of Vipassana over an extended period.

Some of the crucial issues which need to be addressed include:

  • How to motivate the students, teachers and management of schools and colleges to introduce Anapana and Vipassana, and reduce resistance from unwilling students and teachers?
  • The extent of training needed before authorizing educational staff members to teach meditation in schools and colleges.
  • The format and minimum duration of in-house camps organized to initiate young students to Anapana meditation, keeping in view the practical constraints (especially of overnight stay).
  • How to maintain continuity of practice within the tight schedule of schools and colleges?
  • Should there be a formal course on meditation in the curricula of schools and colleges?
  • How to assess the beneficial influence of Vipassana on teachers, students and the teaching-learning process?
  • How to integrate Vipassana with the student counselling services in the schools and colleges?

A properly thought out action plan if sincerely implemented should ultimately pave the way for the formation of institutions which can impart truly holistic education. Such institutions would make a crucial contribution to developing wholesome individuals and a harmonious society. ¦


Thanks are due to Dr. Kishore Chandiramani for reading an early draft of the paper and making valuable suggestions.


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