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Book Summary: The Art of Living – Vipassana Meditation as Taught by S. N. Goenka

The Art of Living (1987) details the Vipassanā meditation principles set out by the famed Burmese-Indian teacher S. N. Goenka. As well as describing the techniques of Vipassanā meditation, it delves into the deeper philosophy of Buddhism.


Mindfulness, Happiness, Religion, Spirituality, Spiritual Meditations, Christian Meditation Worship and Devotion, Other Eastern Religions and Sacred Texts, Religion, Buddhism, Philosophy, Psychology, Self Help, Health, Personal Development, Zen

Introduction: Learn to achieve a tranquil mind through Buddhist thought and meditation.

What do you think of when you hear the word “meditation”? In a Western context, it can mean anything from mental relaxation to daydreaming to self-hypnosis. But in true Buddhism, meditation, or bhāvanā, serves a specific purpose: it’s used to focus and purify the mind so that it’s free of suffering and full of insight.

These summaries present the core principles of Buddhism and Vipassanā-bhāvanā, which translates to “insight meditation.” Whether you’re full of anxiety and seeking peace, or simply curious about Buddhist meditation, you’ll learn some practical techniques – as well as the deeper philosophy behind them.

[Book Summary] The Art of Living: Vipassana Meditation as Taught by S. N. Goenka

In these summaries, you’ll also discover

  • how the Buddha was many centuries ahead of particle physics;
  • why there is no “I”; and
  • that attachment is at the heart of all suffering.

You can only benefit from Buddhism through practical application.

There’s a story about a young professor on a ship at sea. Every night, an illiterate old sailor would visit the young professor’s cabin and listen to him talk about many different subjects.

Night after night, the professor would ask the old sailor if he’d ever studied subjects like geology, meteorology, and oceanography. The answer would always be “no.” And the professor would tell the poor old sailor that he’d wasted his life.

Then, one night, the sailor had a question for the professor. He asked him, “Have you ever studied swimology?” The professor was baffled. “Can you swim?” the old sailor asked. The professor couldn’t swim. And, as the ship had just struck a rock, he drowned, while the old sailor survived.

The lesson here is that no amount of study can replace practical experience. When it comes to Buddhism, the same is true. Buddhism will only have a positive effect on your life if you apply its lessons on a daily basis.

The key message here is: You can only benefit from Buddhism through practical application.

The whole point of the Buddha’s teachings is practical application in the here and now. It’s not just intellectual speculation. Buddhism is something to be used every day, like an instrument or tool.

To paraphrase the Buddha himself, being able to recite all the Buddhist texts from memory won’t cut it; if you don’t practice what’s written in them, you’re like a herdsman who counts the cows of others instead of tending his own herd. On the other hand, you may be able to recite only a few of the texts – but if you live your life the way the Buddha proposed, then you’ll reap many rewards.

Applying what the Buddha taught chiefly revolves around freeing yourself from suffering. It’s a pressing concern – one that means acting in the present. But following the path of the Buddha and applying his teachings isn’t just about helping yourself. Society’s problems and neuroses begin at the level of the individual, so freeing yourself from suffering has a broader purpose.

If you have a troubled mind, then you’re likely to affect others around you in a negative way. If you have a tranquil mind and are at ease with yourself, then you’ll affect others positively. It’s at this level that really deep and meaningful change happens – first in yourself and then far beyond.

Individuals aren’t stable entities – they’re things in flux.

On his quest for enlightenment, the Buddha sought to know himself as deeply as possible. But what did he find as he searched his mind and body?

His most powerful revelation was something that particle scientists would only discover many centuries later. He found that, rather than being a permanently fixed being, he was actually an entity that kept changing from moment to moment.

The key message here is: Individuals aren’t stable entities – they’re things in flux.

Take the way our bodies are composed. After meditating deeply and looking into himself, the Buddha came to the conclusion that the entire material universe was composed of particles called kalāpas. These are indivisible units that combine to form matter. He believed that these kalāpas were continuously coming into existence – and then passing away. So our bodies, rather than being permanent structures, are actually in flux.

His philosophy roughly corresponds to what scientists discovered for themselves. The body, which appears solid to us, is actually composed of subatomic particles and empty space. These particles, just as the Buddha proposed, have no actual solidity – they appear and then disappear within a trillionth of a second.

Just as the body is in flux, so is the mind. As he looked deep into his mind, the Buddha discovered that it was made of four processes. These are consciousness, perception, sensation, and reaction. First, consciousness is simply the receiving bit of the mind: it doesn’t pass judgment on anything. Second, our perception identifies what has been seen, and judges it as positive or negative. Third, sensation arises; it’s either pleasant or unpleasant, depending on our perception. Last, reaction occurs, and we act to either prolong the sensation if it’s pleasant, or to avoid it if it’s unpleasant.

According to the Buddha, because these processes occur rapidly and continuously, our mind has an even more ephemeral nature than our body. And because it is ephemeral, there is no stable “I,” or permanent identity.

In a way, we’re like a river. Even though we might give the river a name – like, say, the Thames or Ganges – it’s never the same thing from moment to moment. It’s always flowing, just as we are. As you’ll learn in the next chapter, recognizing this state of impermanence is vital to freeing yourself from suffering.

To alleviate suffering, become less attached to yourself and the world.

So, both the Buddha and modern scientists are united in the belief that we’re always in flux – that our bodies and minds are fundamentally ephemeral.

That doesn’t change the fact that we are attached to a permanent idea of ourselves, our identities. Most of us believe that the “I” is fixed – that our bodies and personalities endure from one moment to the next. But the Buddha believed that this attachment to ourselves and the world around us is the cause of our suffering.

The key message here is: To alleviate suffering, become less attached to yourself and the world.

This attachment takes on a number of different forms. First, there is the attachment to the ego and the image we have of ourselves. For most of us, the “I” is the most important person in the world. We think of ourselves as magnets, surrounded by iron filings. We arrange the world, like those filings, in a pattern centered around ourselves. Unfortunately for us, everyone else acts like they’re magnets too, so we find ourselves in conflict with others and the patterns they enforce on the world.

The second form of attachment is to what we think of as “ours.” We become attached to our possessions because they’re associated with us. They help support the image we have of ourselves. Last, there’s the attachment to our views and beliefs. No matter what those beliefs are, we cling to them because they, too, help support the idea we have of ourselves.

How do we form these attachments? As we go through life, we undergo the four mental processes mentioned in the last chapter: consciousness, perception, sensation, and reaction. In reacting to the world around us, we like or dislike it. Attachment is formed when we like something; it’s also formed when we dislike something and become attached to its opposite.

But what’s the problem with forming these attachments? Isn’t it only natural to become attached to your identity, your friends and family, possessions, and beliefs?

Unfortunately, we forget the central truth the Buddha discovered: that we exist in a state of impermanence. Everything that we are, and everything that we know, passes. So as we go through life, growing more and more attached to everything, we suffer deeply when we begin to lose it all.

Attachment, then, is the root of our suffering.

Practice sīla to eliminate suffering.

The Buddha proposed a number of practices that would lead people away from suffering and toward nirvana. Nirvana is a state of perfect peace and happiness. It’s freedom from what is known as samsara, which is the cycle of birth, suffering, death, and rebirth. As a part of the process to reach this state, the Buddha advised practicing sīla, or “morality.”

The key message here is: Practice sīla to eliminate suffering.

Practicing sīla means refraining from all words, deeds, and actions that harm other beings. This is easy enough to understand and to justify. In fact, these are the rules of most societies.

But practicing sīla is also about protecting ourselves. We abstain from harmful behavior because doing bad things, like stealing or injuring other people, will cause a great deal of agitation in our minds. And that agitation will lead to deep unhappiness later on.

Sīla allows us to achieve a peaceful state of mind. When we live in a wholesome way, by bringing happiness to others, we’re much more content. And as Buddhism requires those practicing it to deeply examine their minds, it’s necessary to cultivate a peaceful mental state. Just as it’s impossible to see the bottom of a turbulent pool of water, an agitated mind is hard to peer into.

So how exactly do you practice sīla correctly? First, you have to practice right speech. This means avoiding lies, idle gossip, setting people against each other, backstabbing, and speaking in a harsh way. Right speech is gentle, kind, heartwarming, well-timed, and truthful.

Second, you should act properly. This means avoiding what the Buddha called “impure acts” – things like killing other living things, rape, adultery, and intoxication. Right action means nonviolence, kindness, and seeking the good in all living things.

Finally, you’ll need to have a right livelihood, which abides by the same principles as right acts. This means a job that doesn’t cause harm to other living things, or encourages others to do harm. Any livelihood that means killing, directly or indirectly, is not a right livelihood. Likewise, a job that involves selling alcohol or drugs, or that promotes gambling, is not a right livelihood either. The aim is to stop propagating suffering in the world.

Practicing sīla, then, is a kind of common sense; it’s intended to protect yourself and others.

Practicing bhāvanā, or meditation, will lead you to a state of equanimity.

By acting, speaking, and working in a way that doesn’t bring harm to ourselves or others, we stop the spread of suffering in the world.

However, our problems often begin as trouble in the mind. We can try and control our actions and speech all we like – but if our minds are still full of anxieties and cravings, then it’ll all be in vain. At some point, this imbalance will reveal itself. So, to bring equanimity to the mind and harness its powers, the Buddha proposed bhāvanā, or meditation.

The key message here is: Practicing bhāvanā, or meditation, will lead you to a state of equanimity.

How do you practice bhāvanā properly? Just like with the practice of sīla, there are some concrete rules. You’ll need to train yourself in right effort, right awareness, and right concentration.

Let’s first look at right effort. To meditate, you’ll need to sit down in a comfortable position and close your eyes. At first, it’s likely that you’ll have a distracted mind – an obstacle you’ll encounter when looking deeply into yourself.

What you should do, then, is focus only on your breathing. This will be difficult; your mind will stray to other thoughts. Maybe you’ll start thinking about what you did yesterday, or the cramp in your leg. To practice right effort, gently draw your consciousness back to your breathing – again and again.

Next is right awareness. One of the main causes of suffering comes from an inability to connect with the present moment and the reality of our lives. We lose ourselves in reveries about the past or future, in fantasies and illusions. Practicing right awareness means bringing ourselves back to our present. Again, this can be done by focusing only on the breath.

And when you do this, you’ll learn to read your mental state by the nature of your breathing. If your mind is troubled or anxious, your breathing will be fast and rough; if it’s calm, the breath will be soft and natural. This will help you connect yourself to the present.

Last, there is right concentration. While deep concentration is one of the aims of meditation, there are other types of concentration that aren’t helpful. For instance, focusing on sensual pleasure or phobias isn’t right concentration. Right concentration means a focus only on the breath, with a mind free of desires, fears, or other thoughts. It means connecting with the here and now in which you exist.

Cultivate paññā, or wisdom, to attain peace and freedom from suffering.

Cultivating morality and practicing meditation are key to attaining a peaceful state of mind. But without training the mind in wisdom, or paññā, this state of mind will remain elusive.

Wisdom might seem like a difficult thing to learn – often, we consider people naturally wise or not. But the Buddha believed that wisdom can be cultivated. To do that, he suggested right thought and right understanding.

The key message here is: Cultivate paññā, or wisdom, to attain peace and freedom from suffering.

Let’s begin with the idea of right thought. Quite simply, this means a calmer, more objective frame of mind, free from craving and aversion. This is the first step on the path of wisdom.

While you need to prepare yourself with right thought, true wisdom comes through right understanding. This is the kind of wisdom that can only be found through experience – not just speculation.

There are three types of wisdom: received wisdom, intellectual wisdom, and experiential wisdom. Received wisdom is what you’ve heard from others. Intellectual wisdom is found in books and teachings; it’s not your own insight, but an intellectualized version of received wisdom. Experiential wisdom is that which is discovered in the experience of life itself.

Both received and intellectual wisdom have their uses. In fact, society wouldn’t function very well if we all had to rely on experiential wisdom. For instance, you don’t need to jump into a fire and experience the flames to know that it’s very hot! But, when it comes to walking the same path as the Buddha, developing experiential wisdom is essential.

This can be cultivated through Vipassanā-bhāvanā, which translates to “insight meditation.” It entails focusing on physical sensation during meditation – objectively and without passing judgment. Why sensation? Because it is through sensation that we encounter reality, and the truth of everything that is. Ultimately, there is nothing other than sensation.

We notice how our sensations, whether pleasant or unpleasant, arise and disappear. By maintaining our focus, we learn, really learn, how ephemeral we are. As sensations come and go, we understand that there is nothing permanent in this world. There is certainly no “I,” or anything that can be called “ours.”

The kernel of wisdom that Vipassanā-bhāvanā imparts is that suffering can be avoided if you let go. Let go of the ego, the “I,” and everything it clings to, and you will attain real peace and happiness.

Final Summary

The key message in these summaries:

Buddhism is for practical application in the here and now. Through morality, meditation, and the cultivation of wisdom, it can help bring tranquility and an end to suffering. At the heart of our suffering is our attachment to permanence and stability, whereas the truth of life is impermanence and flux. Vipassanā meditation can help us realize this truth – and attain true peace.

And here’s some more actionable advice:

When sitting still in meditation, learn to accept your aches.

A large part of Vipassanā meditation is about achieving equanimity. The next time you feel discomfort when in a meditating pose, learn to accept any aches with calmness. Register them as just another sensation that will pass with time – like everything else in this world!

About the author

William Hart has studied Vipassana for many years. Since 1982, he has been conducting Vipassana courses in the West as an assistant teacher of S.N. Goenka.

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