In Buddhist teaching, mindfulness is inextricably tied to an ethical approach to life that upholds virtuous, non-violent action. Image: iStock

Rajkumar Shan, Gaunthi Rajkumar and Rajah Bala were working at the Best One Shop and Post Office in Gloucester, England, when they changed taxi driver Amo Riselli’s life: They sold 50-year-old Riselli a winning lottery ticket – £24.5 million (US$32 million). This year could be the best of his life, but it could also be a time when he experiences the mind’s devious tricks.

This chronicle explores the tricky, strange tides of human nature, and the antidote. The mind can play tricks, as when responding to news of a massive windfall for an overworked taxi driver raising five daughters by himself because their mother died five years ago; or when seeing the sudden downfall of others, particularly people we know.

We might feel pleased seeing good things happening to strangers. The Daily Mail report on cabbie Riselli’s $32 million winnings (his immediate cravings are for a big house, a Ferrari and a trip to Las Vegas) had most of the 1,500 comments from readers saying they felt happy for him.

But with people we know, there could be resentment at their success or that undercurrent feeling of gloating at seeing their downfall.

German, which I chose as my second language in Don Bosco Egmore High School in Chennai, has the word schadenfreude to capture this strange gloating at the misfortunes of a fellow being. The English language has no equivalent.

May this never happen, but if Mr Riselli returns from Las Vegas with his millions vanishing in the gambling tentacles of the Mandalay Bay, Bellagio or MGM Grand, schadenfreude might possess his fellow cabbies seeing his fall, the meteoric multimillionaire crashing back to their ranks.

Arthur Schopenhauer, Immanuel Kant and Friedrich Nietzsche delved considerably into this dark, complex human emotion. The German saying “Schadenfreude ist die schönste Freude,” meaning “Joy or glee from misfortune of others is the best joy,” is different from sadism. Schadenfreude is an instinctive reaction from the dungeons of the mind. In good-natured people, it vanishes like a ghost at the dawn of becoming aware of this negativity.

The antidote to the morbid relish of schadenfreude is mudita, a term in the ancient Indian Pali language describing a special quality: a feeling of genuine joy at seeing the success and happiness of others. No envy, no resentment, no feeling of “why him, and not me?”

Mudita becomes a test of how strong is one’s metta, the practice of generating goodwill for all beings. But like its direct opposite schadenfreude, mudita arises from the depths of the mind – without egoistic self-obsession of always comparing ourselves with others.

Mudita is one of the four great qualities of the mind – along with karuna (compassion), metta (generating goodwill), and upekha (equanimity). These are not Hindu, Christian, Muslim, Buddhist or Jewish principles, but universal qualities for a higher quality of life. We need these qualities for a more beneficial, non-quarrelsome co-existence with others. These qualities can be developed with the self-realization practice of Vipassana.

The ‘Mind Age’ and Vipassana

We live in a “Mind Age” where more people are investing greater efforts to understand who we really are – and our real work in life.

“Mind Age” is a term I coined at the turn of the millennium to describe the next phase of human evolution, following the Internet-powered Information Age.

To understand our complex world better requires a better understanding of our inner world, the working of one’s mind.

To understand others better, to reduce misunderstandings, one needs to understand oneself better and be aware of the self-delusional tricks the mind can play.

The mind plays dangerous, destructive tricks, dangles tempting delusions. What is important can appear unimportant, the harmful can appear attractive; we keep away from true friends and collaborate with enemies. The false can appear true, and vice versa. And when we come to our senses, the damage is already done. We can find ourselves trapped in suffering.

How to be free? Liberation from self-inflicted suffering means separating apparent reality from actual reality. Vipassana enables the penetrating insight to do so.

Whether the bank account shows $32 or $32 million, real quality of life depends on the state of one’s mind – our awareness of actual reality and equanimity to deal with it, however unpleasant the truth.

We take care of the physical body, but the mind too needs daily exercise and cleaning. Mind care needs to be part of personal healthcare.

A physically disabled person contributes to the world, but a mentally disabled person gets shut in an asylum. Mind matters most.

The mind is a different entity from the physical organ that is the brain.

The mind is there in every atom of your body,” said Myanmar-born Sayagyi U Goenka (1924–2013), the principal teacher of Vipassana. “This is what you will understand by practicing Vipassana. With it, you will make an analytical study of your mind, an analytical study of your matter, and the interaction of the two.”

Vipassana is the practical vehicle of the Mind Age, a powerful process to purify the mind. We change negative habit patterns. Instead of blindly reacting with irritation or anger to others, we develop equanimity to handle the situation with a calmer, more balanced mind.

We can fail at times, carelessly succumbing to the mind’s tricks, as I did in a phase of utter madness, hurting, shocking people closest to me. After saying a heartfelt “I seek pardon,” I start again.

The life-changing truth

On January 31, two special courses were organized in Mumbai to mark the 50th year of Vipassana returning to India from Myanmar, the country that preserved Vipassana after it was lost to India and the world.

The courses were held in the same Pancayati Wadi venue, a tourist rest house in South Bombay where, in 1969,  Sayagyi U Goenka conducted the historic first Vipassana course in India after millennia. He fulfilled the wish of his teacher Sayagyi U Ba Khin, independent Burma’s first accountant general, and a prophecy in Myanmar that Vipassana will return to India and the world 2,500 years after the Buddha’s passing away.

Vipassana is shared free of cost in more than 100 countries worldwide. No fees are charged, in order a) to keep this ancient teaching non-commercial, and b) to reduce the ego of the participant, who lives like a monk or nun on the charity of others for the duration of the course. Courses are run only with voluntary services and donations from previous students.

Vipassana enables one to experience a life-changing truth: Our problems are within, the solutions are within. The apparent reality is we react with craving or aversion to people and happenings in the outside world; but the actual reality is that we react to a biochemical flow of sensations within. Sensations arise when thoughts arise, when our sense organs make contact with the outside world.

We experience sensations arising, changing, passing away, impermanent like everything else in the universe. With equanimity to these sensations, wisdom arises. Why make a big fuss of something so ephemeral, fleeting, impermanent?

The entire story of our life is in sensations, the awareness and equanimity to this inner reality .

The continuous experience of impermanence at the level of sensations and equanimity to it makes the life-changing difference. With experiential wisdom of how things continuously change, negative reactions turn to wiser, positive actions. For the world to change for the better, the individual has to change.

Myanmar-born millionaire turned voluntary Vipassana teacher Sayagyi U S N Goenka during his three-month tour of North America in 2002

Unfortunately, Vipassana is often wrongly called a “Buddhist” practice. So some keep away. Anti-virus software to clean a computer has no religious labels, as a Christian anti-virus or a Muslim anti-virus; likewise this non-sectarian, universal process of Vipassana to remove deep-rooted malware in the mind.

In Mumbai or the Himalayas, for me, Vipassana is the most beneficial hard work I can do.

“And you will fight, won’t you?” asked the venerable Webu Sayadaw (1896-1977) of Myanmar, who had first encouraged the government official Sayagyi U Ba Khin to share Vipassana. “Your [inner] enemies do attack and they attack often and with full force. Are sloth, torpor and laziness friends or foes? What do you do when they come? I think it has been some time that you haven’t fought a battle?”

Through ups and downs, momentary lapses of reason, phases of mad carelessness, weakness and strengths, struggles and success, I can gradually experience inner well-being that not even a billion-dollar lottery prize can buy. Benefits gained are shared with all beings, across eons, across endless time.

Infinite gratitude to all in Myanmar who preserved Vipassana in its purity for millennia – for the happiness, welfare and liberation of many.

(For more information and online applications for Vipassana courses worldwide, go to: www.dhamma.org)

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Raja Murthy

Raja Murthy is an independent journalist who has contributed to Asia Times since 2003, The Statesman since 1990, and formerly the Times of India, Economic Times, Elle, Wisden.com and others. He shuttles between Mumbai and the Himalayas.

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