"Every moment of mindfulness means the gradual destruction of latent defilements. It is somewhat like cutting away a piece of wood with a small axe, every stroke helping to get rid of the unwanted fragments of wood."
- Mahasi Sayadaw
Autumn Meditation Course
On September 10th we begin our final online meditation course for 2011. It provides a great opportunity to start learning to meditate or to develop your existing mindfulness practice in the company of others from around the world.
Vipassana Fellowship's courses have been offered since 1997 and they have proven helpful to meditators in many countries. The 90 day course serves as a practical introduction to samatha (tranquillity or serenity) and vipassana (insight) techniques from the Theravada tradition of Buddhism. Intended primarily for beginners, of any faith or none, the course is also suitable for experienced meditators who wish to explore different aspects of the tradition. The emphasis is on building a sustainable and balanced meditation practice that is compatible with lay life.
The course takes place on our special website that offers daily material for each of the 90 days, interaction between participants and support from the tutor. Participants also have access to an audio supplement containing guided meditations and chants to support the online material. The course will be led by Andrew Quernmore, an experienced meditation teacher based in England.
Application details and further information is available here:
Our Parisa support and encouragement programme is for former course participants; if you have taken one or more of our online courses you are eligible to subscribe. We provide themed teachings each month, year round, and access to our latest course. Andrew is also available to respond to support requests.
Understanding and Managing Stress
by Lily de Silva
Stress is a term adopted from engineering science by psychology and medicine. Simply defined, stress in engineering means force upon an area. As so many forces are working upon us in the modern age, and we find it extremely difficult to cope under so much pressure, stress is called the “disease of civilization.” Philip Zimbardo in his Psychology and Life traces four interrelated levels at which we react to the pressures exerted upon us from our environment. The four are: the emotional level, the behavioural level, the physiological level, and the cognitive level. The emotional responses to stress are sadness, depression, anger, irritation, and frustration. The behavioural responses are poor concentration, forgetfulness, poor interpersonal relations, and lowered productivity. The physiological responses consist of bodily tensions, which may lead to headaches, backaches, stomach ulcers, high blood pressure, and even killer diseases. At the cognitive level one may lose self-esteem and self-confidence, which leads to feelings of helplessness and hopelessness. At worst such a person may even end up committing suicide.
In order to understand stress let us consider the various environmental factors which exert pressure on modern man. In this atomic age the very survival of the species is threatened. Nuclear war threatens every single human being on earth, irrespective of whether one lives in a country with nuclear weapons or not. Population explosion threatens man with severe food shortages; at present even a large segment of human population is undernourished while still others are dying of starvation and malnutrition. Environmental pollution causes severe health hazards and mental and physical retardation. Unemployment among the skilled is a growing global problem. The pace of life has become so hectic that man is simply rushing from one task to another without any relaxation. This is really paradoxical in an age when labour-saving devices are freely available and are in use to an unprecedented degree. Competition for educational and employment opportunities is so severe that it has contributed to a fair share to increase the rate of suicide. Enjoyment of sense pleasures has grown so obsessive that it has become like drinking salt water to quench thirst. Constant stimulation of the senses is today considered a necessity, and thus pocket radios with earphones, chewing gum, and cosmetics are marketed everywhere. Sense stimulation goes on unrestrained but satiation is far from achieved. It is no wonder that man, caught up in all this, is terribly confused and frustrated, and his life is intolerably stressful. This is the situation Buddhism describes as “tangles within and tangles without, people are enmeshed in tangles.”
While the above observations were made from the point of view of modern studies and contemporary conditions, Buddhism makes similar observations from a psychological perspective. Man experiences stress and suffering because of five psychological states which envelop his whole personality. They are called nivarana in the Pali language, meaning hindrances. They hinder happiness and overcloud man’s vision of himself, his environment and the interaction between the two. The thicker and more opaque these hindrances, the greater the stress and suffering man experiences. The thinner and more sparse these hindrances, the less his suffering with a corresponding increase in happiness. These five hindrances are the desire for sensual pleasures, anger, indolence, worry and doubt. The Pali Canon illustrates the effect of these hindrances with the help of five eloquent similes. The mind overpowered by the desire for sense pleasures is compared to coloured water which prevents a true reflection of a thing on the water. Thus a man obsessed with the desire for sense pleasures is unable to get a true perspective of either himself or other people or his environment. The mind oppressed by anger is compared to boiling water which cannot give an accurate reflection. A man overpowered by anger is unable to discern an issue properly. When the mind is in the grip of indolence it is like moss covered water: light cannot even reach the water and a reflection is impossible. The lazy man does not even make an effort at correct understanding. When worried the mind is like wind-tossed turbulent water, which also fails to give a true reflection. The worried man, forever restless, is unable to make a proper assessment of an issue. When the mind is in doubt it is compared to muddy water placed in darkness which cannot reflect an image well. Thus all the five hindrances deprive the mind of understanding and happiness and cause much stress and suffering.
Buddhism puts forward a methodical plan of action for the gradual elimination of stress and the increase of happiness and understanding. The first step recommended in this plan is the observance of the Five Precepts comprising the abstention from killing, stealing, illicit sex, falsehood and intoxicants. Stress is greatly enhanced by guilt, and these precepts help man to free his conscience of the sense of guilt. The Dhammapada says the evil-doer suffers here and hereafter; on the other hand, the man who does good deeds rejoices here and hereafter.
Buddhism firmly believes that evil increases stress while good increases happiness. In addition to the observance of the Five Precepts throughout life, Buddhism advocates the periodical observance of the Eight Precepts by laymen. These additional precepts attempt to train man for leading a simple life catering to one’s needs rather than one’s greeds. A frugal mode of life where wants are few and are easily satisfied is highly extolled in Buddhism. It is the avaricious and the acquisitive mentality that is responsible for so much stress that we experience.
The next step in the process of training is the control of the sense faculties. When our sense faculties are uncontrolled we experience severe strain. We have to first understand what is meant by being uncontrolled in the sense faculties. When a person sees a beautiful form with his eyes, he gets attracted to it; when he sees an unpleasant object, he gets repelled by it. Similarly with the other senses too. Thus the person who has no control over his senses is constantly attracted and repelled by sense data, as during waking life sense data keep on impinging on his sense faculties constantly. When pulled in different directions by sense stimuli, we become confused and distressed.
Our sense faculties have different spheres of activity and different objects, and as each sense faculty is a lord in its own sphere, and as they can severally and collectively dominate man, they are called in Pali indriyas, meaning “lords” or “masters.” If we allow the sense faculties to dominate us, we get terribly confused. If we assert ourselves and control our sense faculties, we can have unalloyed pleasure (avyasekasukha), so called because this pleasure is uncontaminated by defilements. It is also called adhicittasukha, meaning spiritual pleasure. Whereas sense pleasures increase stress, this type of spiritual pleasure reduces stressfulness and increases peace of mind and contentment.
The third step in the management of stress is the cultivation of wholesome mental habits through meditation (bhavana). Just as we look after and nurture our body with proper food and cleanliness, the mind too needs proper nourishment and cleansing. The mind is most volatile in its untrained state, but when it is tamed and made more stable it brings great happiness. Buddhism prescribes two fundamental meditative methods of mind-training called samatha and vipassana, calm and insight. The former is the method of calming the volatile mind, while the latter is the method of comprehending the true nature of bodily and mental phenomena. Both methods are extremely helpful for overcoming stress. The Samaññaphala Sutta explains with the help of five appropriate similes how meditation reduces the psychological stress caused by the five hindrances. The man who practises meditation gains a great sense of relief and it is this sense of unburdening oneself that the similes illustrate. They are as follows: A man who has raised capital for a business by taking a loan, prospers in business, pays off the loan and manages his day-to-day affairs with financial ease. Such a man experiences a great sense of relief. The second simile portrays a man who has suffered a great deal with a prolonged chronic illness. He gets well at long last, food becomes palatable to him and he gains physical strength. Great is the relief such a man experiences. The third simile speaks of the relief a prisoner enjoys after being released from a long term in jail. The fourth is the slave who gains freedom from slavery. The fifth simile speaks of a well-to-do man who gets lost in a fearful desert without food. On coming to a place of safety he experiences great relief. When the stress caused by the five hindrances is eliminated from the mind, great joy and delight arise similar to the relief enjoyed by the men described in the similes. The best and most effective way of overcoming stress is the practice of meditation or mental culture. But as a prelude to that at least the Five Precepts must be observed.
The cultivation of positive emotions such as loving kindness (metta), compassion (karuna), sympathetic joy (mudita), and equanimity (upekkha) is another means of conquering stress. Strained interpersonal relations is one of the common causes of stress in household life and in the workplace. Loving kindness is the positive wholesome attitude one can cultivate with benefit for oneself and others in all interpersonal relationships. Compassion is the emotion with which one should regard and help those in distress. Sympathetic joy is the ability to rejoice in the joy of another. It is difficult for a man of mean character to entertain this attitude as the joy of another brings jealousy to the mind of such a person. Where there is jealousy there is no unity, and where there is no unity there is no progress. The cultivation of these positive emotions stands for both material and spiritual progress. Equanimity is the attitude to be adopted in the face of the vicissitudes of life. There are eight natural ways of the world that we have to face in life. They are gain and loss, fame and lack of fame, praise and blame, happiness and sorrow. If one trains oneself to maintain an equanimous temperament without being either elated or dejected in the face of these vicissitudes, one can avoid much stress and lead a simple life with peace and contentment. We cannot change the world so that it will give us happiness. But we can change our attitude towards the world so as to remain unaffected by the stresses exerted by events around us. Buddhism teaches the way to bring about this wholesome change of attitude.
(excerpt from BPS Wheel 337-8, Sri Lanka. For Free Distribution)
by Ananda Pereira
"As in ocean mid-deeps
No wave arises, but all is still —
So be still, unmoved;
Pride let the bhikkhu nowhere entertain."
— Tuvataka Sutta, Suttanipata
Deep down in the sea, where the sea is really deep, half a mile, a mile, two miles below the surface, all is still. Here there are no tempests, no storms. There is none of the fuss and bother that beset surface waters and shallows.
So it is with people who have attained Ultimate Deliverance. So it was with the Buddha and the Arahants. They had reached the Final Peace. Never again, for them, the flurry and turmoil, the longing and anxiety, the feverish, meaningless activity of the worldling.
The Buddha, in the stanza quoted above, advised all bhikkhus to be like that. The advice holds good for lay folk as well. Although the worldling has not attained that Final Peace, he can, by sedulous cultivation of calm, experience as it were a shadow of that stillness.
Why should he cultivate calm? The answer is simple. When one is in motion, it is difficult to judge motion in one’s environment. Travelling in a moving vehicle, another vehicle, moving at the same speed in the same direction, seems to be still. An object that is actually still, like a tree, seems to be moving. One’s impressions of one’s environment are conditioned by one’s own movement. It is so with the mind. When the mind is restless and flurried, it is difficult to realize the deep eternal Truths. Things that are actually changing are accepted as constant. Things that are actually constant, such as the Truth of anicca, dukkha, and anatta (impermanence, suffering and soullessness) are not perceived at all. The mind keeps rushing with changing phenomena, so busy and occupied that it is unable to see clearly or deeply or truly.
So the Buddha advised stillness. The whole system of samatha-bhavana (meditation for calm), as taught by the Buddha, has this one object in view. The mind, when purified of all sensual thoughts and concentrated on a kammatthana (subject of concentration) becomes utterly still. It also grows very powerful, so powerful that such feats as levitation, clairvoyance, clairaudience, thought-reading, remembrance of past lives, and so on, become possible. But these are merely by-products of samatha-bhavana. The one and only object of such meditation is stillness—stillness which leads to clear, deep, true vision.
Lay people, in their daily lives, are badly handicapped when it comes to meditation. It is not so much the actual duties of the layman that interfere, though these do take up a large proportion of the layman’s life. But the worst handicap is worry. We tend to worry about what we have done, are doing, and intend to do; about what has happened, is happening, and is likely to happen. This worry, says the Buddha, is useless and foolish. How can one stop it? Illustrations help. In times of worry and flurry one can think of the Buddha’s own illustration—the mid-deeps of the ocean, where all is still. So thinking, one can become less excited about the fussy little things that cause worry.
(excerpt from BPS Wheel 45-6. For Free Distribution)
Sati Haus, Germany
This autumn our friends at Sati Haus have retreats in meditation in daily life with Revato Axel Wasmann, yoga and calligraphy with Byong Oh Sunim, and traditional Thai massage (Nuad Thai) with Sakhorn Boudewijn. The retreat centre is beautifully located in the Lüneburg Heath and is easily accessible from Hamburg.
The Vipassana Fellowship Newsletter is published about 10 times each year and is sent only on request and to previous participants of our courses. Vipassana Fellowship is an organisation dedicated to the dissemination of accurate and useful information on meditation practices as found in the Theravada tradition. Our next mailing will be in September. Our site can be accessed via the vipassana.com and vipassana.org domains.
Newsletter © Copyright 2011, Vipassana Fellowship Ltd. (Registered in England No. 4730782).