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24 Oct 2019 | 15:15 | San Basnayake

Headaches, I mean the physical ones, are so common that it is extremely rare to meet someone who has never had one. Infrequently, headaches may be a manifestation of an underlying significant disease of the brain like an infection, a bleed or a tumour but the vast majority of headaches are benign, mostly of nuisance value. Of the benign headaches, migraine is the most troublesome and in rare instances, can be debilitating.

Migraine is a severe headache felt as a throbbing pain at the front or side of the head which, on occasions, may be associated with other symptoms such as nausea, vomiting and increased sensitivity to light, sound or both. It is a common condition, often starting in childhood, affecting around one in every five women and around one in every 15 men. In spite of being a common condition, the exact cause is unknown and is thought to be the result of temporary changes in the chemicals and blood vessels in the brain. Around half who experience migraines also have a close relative with the condition, suggesting a genetic role. In some attacks are precipitated by triggers like stress, tiredness and certain foods (chocolate) or drinks. In women, it can be associated with periods. Treatment of migraine revolutionised with the introduction of the group of drugs known as ‘Triptans’. The other drug used is pain killers like paracetamol and anti-emetics (drugs that prevent nausea and vomiting) like ‘Stemetil’.


Some may wonder why a retired medic whose speciality did not embrace migraine is writing about it. Well, you are not likely to believe, if I said that intractable migraine led to the spread of mindfulness meditation across the world but that is exactly what happened; the fascinating story of Satya Narayan Goenka. It is well worth listening to him on YouTube, which has many programmes of his, the best being "The Buddha - Super Scientist - Discourse at IIT Bombay"

S N Goenka was born in Rangoon, Burma to a rich Indian Sanatana Hindu family in January 1924. He was a successful businessman and a leader of the Hindu community in Burma, delivering lectures on Hinduism regularly. In 1955 he started getting debilitating attacks of migraine which were resistant to all the drugs available at the time, needing regular injections of Morphine. In desperation, on the recommendation of a friend, he sought the help of a reputed Vipassana teacher, Sayagyi U Ba Khin (1899 - 1971), who also happened to be the first Accountant General of Independent Burma. Ba Khin had studied Vipassana under the great teacher, Saya Thetgyi.

Goenka met with a refusal from Ba Khin,  who had said: "I do not want to belittle a technique that helps you overcome all suffering by treating your migraine. If you want to do it, do it fully and I can teach you"

Goenka has replied "But sir, I cannot do it as I am a devoted Hindu. I respect the Buddha as an avatar of Vishnu but cannot embrace Buddhism"

Ba Khin had then questioned Goenka whether Hinduism is against ‘Seela’, ‘Samadhi’ and ‘Panna’. Goenka had to admit that it was not. Ba Khin has replied "That is all the Buddha taught and, therefore, you can practice Vipassana. Anyway, we do not believe in conversion to Buddhism"

Prior to starting the ten-day course of Vipassana meditation, Ba Khin had given a little book and turning the first page itself changed Goenka’s attitude. It said "Do not believe" which took him by surprise as he was brought up in a tradition ‘to believe in the words of the gurus’. At the end of the ten-day course of meditation migraines were easing off but, more importantly, he realized what an ego-centric person he was. By continuing meditation he was able to see above mind and matter; he could see things as they were and he realized that Vipassana is above the level of intellectual, emotional or devotional.

After training with his teacher for 14 years and having realised the value of the technique, Goenka came to India in 1969, after handing over his business to the family, to reintroduce Vipassana that had been lost for over 2000 years. Shortly before his death in 1971, Ba Khin authorised Goenka to teach and his ten-day courses attracted many around India and abroad. When a course was held at the ashram of Mahatma Gandhi, some participants who had been associated with Gandhi had suggested he sees Vinoba Bhave, considered to be the spiritual successor to Mahatma Gandhi.

When he told Vinoba Bhave that Vipassana purified the mind, Vinoba Bhave has replied: "I do not believe it as the purity of mind can be achieved only by the mercy of God" and had thrown a challenge to Goenka, to prove by changing the behaviour of unruly school children and prisoners. He demonstrated convincing results with school children but no prison would allow him to conduct a course, as he insisted that he lives with the prisoners for the ten days of the course. No one was prepared to imprison him, even though he requested them to do so!

He persevered and finally in 1975, Ram Singh, Home Secretary of the Rajasthan Government who had taken part in one of his programmes, gave him special permission to conduct a programme in Jaipur jail. When he went for the programme he was horrified to find that the prisoners were brought in chains, as they were murderers. When he insisted that shackles be removed it was done but jailors armed with guns were stationed during the sessions, with strict orders to shoot to kill if any suspicious movement occurred. Guns were not fired and two courses were conducted with convincingly good results. Since then prison Vipssana programmes have spread far and wide and two excellent films, based on these, are available on YouTube:

  1. "Doing Time, doing Vipassana", a film made in 1997 by two women filmmakers from Israel focussing on the Vipassana programmes done in Tihar Jail, New Delhi, one of the harshest jails in India, where one programme was conducted for 1000 prisoners.
  2.  "The Dhamma Brothers", a film made in 2007 about the Vipassana programme in a high-security prison in Alabama, USA.

Vipassana courses, started by Goenka in the tradition of Sayagyi U Ba Khin, are held at 289 locations in 94 countries, of which about 163 are permanent Vipassana meditation centres. There are centres in the US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, France, the United Kingdom, South Africa, Japan, Iran, Turkey, Nepal, Myanmar, Thailand etc. There are 56 centres in India and 3 in Sri Lanka; Anuradhapura, Kandy and Kosgama. Goenka trained about 1,300 assistant teachers to conduct courses using his recordings, and about 120,000 people attend them each year.

There are many teachers of Mindfulness meditation but Goenka explains his approach as follows:

The Buddha never taught a sectarian religion; he taught Dhamma - the way to liberation - which is universal. Therefore, Vipassana is non-sectarian and open to people of all faiths or no faith. ‘Liberation’ in this context means freedom from impurities of the mind and, as a result of the process of cultivating a pure mind, freedom from suffering. It is an experiential scientific practise, in which one observes the constantly changing nature of the mind and body at the deepest level, through which one gains a profound self-knowledge that leads to a truly happy and peaceful life.

One of Goenka's ambitious projects, the ‘Global Vipassana Pagoda’ was completed in 2008 on the outskirts of Mumbai which he hoped will act as a bridge between different communities, different sects, different countries and different races to make the world a more harmonious and peaceful place. The Pagoda contains the world’s largest pillar-less stone dome structure and has the largest single-span stone dome in the world, twice as big as the Basilica of St. Peter at the Vatican. At its centre is a circular meditation hall, 280 feet in diameter, which has a seating capacity of 8,000.

The speech he delivered on 29th August 2000, in the United Nations General Assembly Hall in New York to the participants of the Millennium World Peace Summit is, in my opinion, one of the classics of modern times on par with "I have a dream" speech of Martin Luther King Jr. Though it may lack the flair and the fero city of the King speech, it was delivered with the passion to a continuously applauding audience. This too is available on YouTube but will reproduce a few paragraphs of particular appeal to me:

Religion is religion only when it unites, religion is no more religion when it divides. Religion is not for dividing people but it is for uniting people. So much had been said about conversion; for conversion and against conversion. I am for conversion, I am not against conversion, but conversion not from one organized religion to another organized religion; no, conversion from misery to happiness, conversion from bondage to liberation, conversion from cruelty to compassion. That is the conversion needed today and that is what this organization should make a point to implement.
Our ancient country, had not only given the message of peace and harmony to the world and to the humanity but Enlightened persons have given the method, the technique how to have peace,how to have harmony. To me, to think of peace in the human society, we cannot ignore individuals. If there is no peace in the mind of the individual I can’t understand how there can be real peace in the human world. If I have an agitated mind, I have a mind all the time full of anger, ill-will, hatred and animosity how can I, give peace to the world.
Conversion should be from the impurity of the mind to purity of the mind. How people get changed, such wonderful changes come; no magic, no miracle, is a pure science of observing the interaction of mind and matter within ourselves: how the mind keeps on influencing the matter of the body and how the body keeps influencing the mind. If you keep on observing, keep on observing, we understand the laws of nature so clearly, that as and when I generate negativity I start suffering and as and when I am free from the negativity I start enjoying peace and harmony. That can be practiced by one and all; the wonderful tradition, the wonderful technique given by the Enlightened one in our ancient country and spreading the world even today. People from different communities, different traditions, different religions they come and learn this technique. They got the same benefits. They continue to remain, Hindu as Hindus, Buddhist as Buddhists, Muslim as Muslims and Christians. There is no difference, human beings are human beings. What makes the difference? But a big difference comes, they all become spiritual people full of love, full of compassion; good for themselves and good for others. When I generate peace in my mind the entire atmosphere around me gets permeated with vibrations of peace. Anybody who comes in contact with me starts enjoying peace. This is the real conversion which is necessary, nothing else.

The great Vipassana teacher, Satya Narayan Goenka died in September 2013, at the age of 89 years, but left a lasting legacy by elevating the status of the Buddha from that of a religious leader to that of a unique human being; one who found the way of exploring the human mind for self-realization, a gift to all mankind.

By Dr Upul Wijayawardhana.