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    Meditation movement attracts professionals seeking inner calm

    HOUSTON CHRONICLE ARTICLE ABOUT VIPASSANA MEDITATION

    Meditation movement attracts professionals seeking inner calm

    By TARA DOOLEY Copyright 2002 Houston Chronicle Religion
    http://www.chron.com/cs/CDA/story.hts/religion/1406467
    Writer RAGNA Desai's first experience with silent meditation was a laugh. Literally. "I was almost choking, like something had to come out," Desai said. "I used to go into the bathroom." The experience occurred nearly two years ago at a 10-day retreat in Kaufman near Dallas. Desai had attended the retreat to learn Vipassana, an ancient meditation technique. By the fourth or fifth day, she had figured out how to retreat into silence and create calm and relaxation. A few months ago, she called on the skill when she lost her job -- no laughing matter. "I meditated every day. It was very hard. Negative thoughts were taking over my mind. But you know, on the path, there is light somewhere." For Desai, the light came after two weeks when she found a job as a server at an upscale country club. "I handled it so well," she said. "That was Vipassana." Vipassana means to objectively observe reality, said S.N. Goenka, the leading teacher of the practice. Practitioners trace the method back thousands of years to what they consider the original meditation teachings of the historical Buddha. The practice, they believe, has been handed down by an unbroken chain of teachers. Goenka, who is considered the current teacher in the chain, will speak in Houston Friday. "This type of technique is very essential to give peace in the world," Goenka said in a telephone interview. "This is a time when people need something which will help to keep their mind balanced and peaceful." Goenka, 79, was born in Burma (now called Myanmar) and was a successful businessman. He learned the practice from a government official, and in 1969 moved to India to teach the meditation technique. In 1979, he began traveling to Western countries to teach. Unlike other forms of meditation, Vipassana does not use mantra chanting or require practitioners to focus on symbols or deities to help them concentrate. Instead, Goenka teaches meditators to concentrate on their breathing. Once focused, they attempt to observe and follow sensations that run through the body, from head to toe. Followers of Goenka's teachings are required to participate in a 10-day silent retreat, in which the technique is taught, before starting their own practices. In Texas, the only center is in Kaufman. The courses, room and board are free, although donations of time and money are accepted. "The course is just a primer," said Anoop Agrawal, a medical resident, who practices Vipassana. "It is 10 days to get you familiar with the technique, and the rest of your life is spent trying to perfect it." Those who have completed a 10-day course are welcome to join meditation groups such as the one that meets Mondays at Ramesh Bhutada's suburban home in southwest Houston. On a recent Monday, 16 meditators gather in a second-floor room. The blinds are drawn, and only the rose-tinted light of a setting sun seeps in. Bhutada's wife, Kiran, starts a tape of Goenka chanting in Pali, an ancient Indian language. Switching to English, he tells the meditators to move the tension in their bodies from head to feet and feet to head, resting at particularly tense spots. "See that you feel perfect equanimity," he slowly hums. "He uses the chanting in the beginning to create the environment," Ramesh Bhutada later explained. The serious meditation begins when the tape clicks off. Silence descends. The hum of the air conditioner is interrupted only by the lopsided tick of the ceiling fan. The most restless among the crowd lets out a periodic yawn. "It seems so simple, like nothing," Agrawal said. "When you actually try to do it, the effects of that observation are like tidal waves." At the end of the hour, Kiran Bhutada turns on the tape to hear Goenka as he chants in Pali again and finishes by calling on the group to generate love, goodwill, peace and harmony and to be liberated. After finishing the meditation, "I feel sort of happy and kind of peaceful and like I have accomplished something," said Maya Putra, a freshman at the High School for the Performing and Visual Arts. The 15-year-old joined the meditators with her mother, Komalasari Sidarta. "I have a calm, happy feeling." Although the practice of Vipassana stems from the teachings of the Buddha, it is not a Buddhist religion, Goenka said, but rather a nonsectarian technique. The practice does not emphasize belief in any deity, nor does it require any initiation ritual, he said. It also does not call for any guru-type figure. "The teacher is just showing the path," Goenka said. Indeed practitioners often come from many religions, or none at all. Bhutada is Hindu, and his Vipassana practice has made his religious worship more purposeful, he said. "When (meditation) becomes part of your life, it becomes part of your religion," he said. Bhutada, president of Star Pipe Products, started Vipassana meditation in 1993 as a way to fight the chronic fatigue illness that had him bedridden some days, he said. But the point is not good health, he said. "You should not go for taking care of your health," he said. "That is just a side benefit." The real benefit is a calm mind in a multitasking world, he said. For Bhutada, the technique has taught him to focus more clearly on tasks, improving his memory and productivity, he said. Bhutada is so impressed by the technique that he offers all 160 employees in his company time off with pay to attend the 10-day course. "I'm more happy than I ever was in my life," he said. "I'm more healthy than I ever was in my life; I have more balance than I ever had in my life." Ideally, the practice should be integrated into daily life. For Anita Kinra, that means waking by 5:30 a.m. and meditating for an hour. In the evening she meditates for another hour. "I look forward to it," she said. "Now on weekends I do more than two hours a day." Though practitioners insist that Vipassana is not a religion and Goenka not a guru, the method guides practitioners into a moral code that calls on people to condemn killing, stealing, sexual misconduct and intoxicants, said Nancy Pappas, executive assistant to the president of a credit union and a full-time master's degree student in business administration. But mostly, the meditation allows practitioners to control anger and respond to others in more controlled and gentle ways. "If I have negativity or misery, I need to find a way to eliminate that negativity without passing it on to someone else," Pappas said. "During meditation, these negativities can come off so you don't pass it to someone else. It stops the cycle of negativity and misery. "It sounds like a drop in the bucket when you say it that way, but you can see it in your life." S.N. Goenka will speak on "The Art of Living Through Vipassana Meditation" at 6 p.m. Friday May 17, 2002 at the Adams Mark Hotel, 2900 Briarpark Drive. Admission is free. Tara Dooley can be reached at [email protected]
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