Skyping today with middle schoolers at Magnolia Science Academy in San Diego, I got asked, “What is the weirdest thing you ever did?” Because I was already planning to write this post, I had a ready answer: I once studied Buddhist meditation from a Hindu businessman at a Muslim retreat compound, in the far western desert of India. I could have added, though luckily I didn't think of it, that it was hot, so I was wearing a skirt.
Just out of college, I had painted houses for half a year, then took what money I hadn’t squandered and traveled overland from London, where a college friend was living, to Delhi and then to Kathmandu. I had a backpack-load of books — on yoga, on Indian philosophies, on stuff like that, and I wanted to learn something about meditation. Someone told me the best teacher was S.N. Goenka, an Indian gentleman who traveled around teaching a traditional Buddhist technique. In a natural-food store in Kathmandu I saw a note on a bulletin board saying that Goenka had just left town; his next 10-day course would be in the far western desert of India, a borderland called the Rann of Kutch.
I got there. It took days, by road and rail to Delhi, then south on the railroad and out a spur line that ended at a city in the desert called Bhuj. The city was crowded inside a high wall, and camels loitered by the gate. I took a bus that evening out to the Muslim retreat compound, which also had a wall, plus a single slender minaret. Inside were Hindus, European and Australian hippies, Jain monks wearing face masks, so they wouldn’t breathe in any living creature, and local teenagers whose parents had sent them in hopes that they’d straighten up. And me, wearing blue jeans and a blue buttondown shirt.
The retreat staff put me in one of the monastic cells around the bare courtyard, two to a bare cell — and they told me this was a silent retreat, so please not to speak. In a long hall at the center of the compound, the next morning S.N. Goenka told us to sit and concentrate on the sensations of our breath going in and out of our nostrils. For the first three days, he said, we would do only that. With occasional breaks, we would do that for 12 hours a day.
I wasn’t the model student. They’d wake us at 5 a.m., for early morning individual practice; my cellmate, an earnest young Australian, would start sitting bolt-upright immediately, while I’d roll over in my sleeping bag and go back to sleep until breakfast. And it was hot. Someone took pity on me and gave me a lungi, a Burmese-style wraparound skirt. I have a photo somewhere, taken toward the end of the retreat with a local participant's Indian Brownie camera, of a group of us posed together — that portly local guy in a polkadot shirt, a British man who ran a refugee camp in Bangladesh, and me in my skirt and preppy shirt.
I did sit. And over the first days, Goenka guided us through the very challenging task of concentrating on our breath — have you ever tried to focus your whole awareness on a single spot and keep it there, for even 30 seconds? It is some experience. After those long days, he started us on moving our awareness through our whole body, systematically covering every inch, for an hour at a time. In his evening discourses, Goenka said this meditation technique had been preserved and passed along for centuries by Burmese monks, within monasteries. It now was being taught, by himself and a couple of others, to anyone who would do the work of learning.
Goenka called the goal of this work mindfulness, which he described as the true art of living: being able to inhabit yourself and each moment of your life in honest presence. The meditation technique he called vipassana, which means insight. Many years later, I found the only book in print that shares his teaching as he taught it, The Art of Living, Vipassana Meditation as Taught by S.N. Goenka, by William Hart.
“Each of us,” the book says, “is like a blindfolded man who has never learned to drive, sitting behind the wheel of a speeding car on a busy highway. He is not likely to reach his destination without mishap. He may think that he is driving the car, but actually the car is driving him. If he wants to avoid an accident, let alone arrive at his goal, he should remove the blindfold, learn how to operate the vehicle, and steer it out of danger as quickly as possible.”
Goenka himself had been a wealthy Hindu businessman afflicted with crippling headaches. No one could help him until he studied Buddhist meditation at a monastery in Burma — and that opened him up, not just to ending his pain but to the path he would walk for the rest of his life.
This past Sunday, at age 90, after decades of teaching this meditation, Goenka passed away. In an appreciation of his life on the Huffington Post, “S.N. Goenka, The Man Who Taught the World to Meditate,” author Jay Michaelson writes:
“Goenka was one of many laypeople whose lives were changed by meditation — but he had the widest influence. He was a core teacher for the first generation of ‘insight’ meditation teachers to have an impact in the United States, and through them, to popularizers like Jon Kabat-Zinn, whose Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction program (MBSR) is now taught across the country in hospitals, schools, even prisons.
“Indeed, the very notion that meditation may be practiced in a non-religious, non-sectarian way owes much to Goenka himself. Basically a rationalist and a pragmatist, Goenka emphasized that meditation was not spirituality and not religion, but more like a technology — a set of tools for upgrading and optimizing the mind.”
We called him Goenka-ji, using the Hindu honorific. To the end of his life, he kept on teaching this particular technique, the one we learned in that desert compound. I can’t say I have continued to practice the hourlong meditation that Goenka gave us, but I do still practice. For me, mindfulness meditation has become a living stream of discovery and meaning, running through my life since the evening I walked into that retreat compound in the desert.
I don’t think it is weird, actually. The practice is sensible and simple: just learning to live in the present and to look for the actual reality of our lives. This, I keep learning and relearning, is the essence of what many call spirituality, and what Goenka-ji called the art of living. His own life was a work of devotion, of teaching the path to mindfulness. He walked that path and changed the world.