Book Summaries Psychology

The Art of Living Summary (7/10)

The Art of Living: Vipassana Meditation is based on the teachings of S. N. Goenka’s, who’s teaching emphasized that the Buddha’s path to liberation is universal and scientific. He was an influential teacher and played a key role in establishing non-commercial Vipassana meditation centers globally.

Vipassana is about gaining intellectual insight about yourself. In recognizing the ephemeral nature of your thoughts, and in learning equanimity, you can free yourself from unnecessary suffering.

Craving as the Source of Unhappiness

We suffer because we crave, and we crave because we have built habits that make us crave things – whether they are food, money, sex, or drugs. The more we satiate our cravings, the more we react to our thoughts automatically, the stronger these impulses become, and the less satiated we will feel, and the cycle continues.

That is why the Buddha advised against indulging in drugs or casual sex. Doing so will lead us to self-reinforcing loop that will make us eternally miserable, since these impulses will never be satisfied. The drug addict will constantly seek greater highs, the sex addict will constantly seek more orgasms.

This does not mean you should deprive yourself from pleasure completely. Someone who does this will rob themselves of joy, energy and motivation. But too much indulgence will lead to a decadent lifestyle and a corrupted mind.

There is a misconception about meditation, in that it promotes a lazy, unproductive lifestyle. Quite the opposite. Vipassana is not only very difficult and effortful, but it helps you focus on the present moment, to ignore distracting thoughts about the past and the future. It is necessary to plan, and important to reminisce, but doing this all the time is counterproductive. Unfortunately, the default state of our minds is to think about the past and future.

Filling the Bottle of Oil

A mother sent her son to the marketplace with a ten rupee note to fill her bottle of oil. The son did so, but before he returned, he tripped and dropped the bottle, spilling half the oil. He returned to his mother in shame and frustration, “Oh I lost half the oil! I lost half the oil!”

The mother sent her other soon to the marketplace the next day with another ten rupee note to fill her bottle of oil. On his way back, the son fell and spilled half the bottle of oil. When he came back, he was happy. He told his mother, “Oh, look, I saved half the oil! The bottle could have broke but it didn’t, and I saved half the oil.”

Then the mother sent another son to the marketplace with a ten rupee note to fill her bottle of oil. And this son tripped and dropped the bottle, spilling half the oil. But when he returned home, he told his mother, “well, half of the oil was saved, and half was lost. Now I shall go to the market and work hard for a day to earn five rupees, and I will get you this bottle filled by the end of the night.”

This story describes Vipassana. It is neither pessimism nor optimism, it is realism, optimism, and hard work.

Equanimity and the Transient Nature of Thoughts

When you refuse to live in the moment, you will never be able to achieve equanimity (or balance). Recall that the two conditions to becoming free is by gaining equanimity and recognizing the transient nature of your thoughts. But neither is enough on their own. It is only by doing both that you cut off the sources of your misery, which will allow you to become free of the negative conditioning of the past.

If you only learn equanimity, to silence your inner urges, then you suppress your impulses, but you do not get rid of them, you do not cut their source. You appear calm and collected on the surface, but underneath, there is a flurry of subconscious activity that is waiting to explode. It is fascinating that Buddha had this insight long before the invention of psychoanalysis.

And if you only accept that your thoughts are transient intellectually, without learning how to maintain balance, then you will not cease to suffer, to be pulled this way or that by immediate sensations and urges.

There are several stages you need to pass through before going through Vipassana, or intellectual liberation, and this includes a practice that existed before the Buddha (who achieved the final stage of liberation). You must first learn to focus on your breaths and your physical sensations before you can learn to mediate on thoughts.

One of the ephemeral sensations you feel is pain. If you focus, you will notice that pain is not constant. Instead, it ebbs and flows. And like everything else, it too will pass. The way your body works is that it will call to your attention whatever is most urgent, but if you are overly sensitive to every sensation, you will feel debilitated. Meditation will help you observe pain as it is, and this will make you more immune to its effects. You will be better accustomed to dealing with discomfort.

Through Vipassana, you will gain insight into yourself, and into the irrational attachments that you have. We are all conditioned to be addicted to different things, whether social acceptance, admiration, physical pleasure, or intoxication.

This Will Also Change

There is a story about two Indian brothers, who had a rich father. When the father died, he left behind a great fortune. At first the two brothers lived in the same house, but soon they started to argue and bicker. Eventually, they decided to split the wealth 50/50. But they also found a secret compartment where their father hid two rings. One was a diamond ring and the other was silver ring worth only a few rupees.  

The older brother got greedy and wanted to take the diamond ring, so he told the younger brother that this ring was not his father’s but was for his forefathers, who passed it on to the eldest son in each family. The younger brother accepted, and he took the silver ring. He reasoned that the silver ring would not be valueless if it was hidden alongside such an expensive item. He examined the ring closely, and found an inscription, “This will also change.”

The two brothers then separated and lived their lives independently of each other, experiencing the ups and downs of life. The older brother felt elated during spring, losing his mental balance, and when the winter came around, he felt into a depression, again losing his mental balance. He became tense and was unable to sleep. He finally resorted to electric shock treatments, sleeping pills, and stronger drugs.

As for the younger brother, he enjoyed spring when it came. He did not run away from it. But he looked at the ring and remembered that “this too will change” so when things did change, this did not affect his mood very much. He did not lose his mental balance, and lived a happy, peaceful life.

Vipassana is a way out of your past conditioning, it is the rejection of whatever you have inadvertently been programmed to desire. This does not mean you will be free from desire, but that you will more aware and in control of what you want, and what you are doing at each moment. And it does not promote optimism or pessimism or inactivity. It promotes a combination of optimism and realism, which will cause you to work harder, but more calmly.

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"Silence is the best expression of scorn" - G.B. Shaw

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