S.N. Goenka: The Man who Taught the World to Meditate

You may not know the name of S.N. Goenka, who died Saturday at the age of 90. But if you've counted your breaths to relax in a hospital, or if you've ever tried to eat, walk, or speak "mindfully," you've felt his influence. He might even have changed your life.

Satya Narayan Goenka did not set out to be a meditation guru. He was an Indian businessman who happened to come across the teachings of a then-radical Burmese Buddhist tradition which had adapted Buddhist meditation practices and taught them to laypeople, like me and (probably) you. That may not seem so radical today, but one hundred years ago, it absolutely was. These techniques had been monastic traditions only - imagine what it would have been like had medieval monks suddenly taught peasants to read the Bible.

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. These are my terms, not his (I discuss this fascinating story of secularization and popularization in my book Evolving Dharma), but the gist is the same. You don't have to believe anything, wear special clothes, or chant special words in order to calm the mind, improve memory, and attain the various other benefits of meditation.

At the same time, Goenka did work within a specific Buddhist tradition, and created a very rigorous format designed to attain certain levels of mental understanding on ten and twenty day silent retreats. To Westerners, he can indeed seem like the very image of the Indian sage, talking about enlightenment while insisting on a very demanding (and inflexible) set of contemplative exercises. Goenka retreats are austere - not only no speaking, but also no reading or writing, and with arduous schedules of concentration and meditation.

Indeed, rather like Bikram yoga, Goenka's method has become something of a fixation for his followers. To this day, Goenka-style retreats are taught by Goenka himself - by video, of course - and it was Goenka's insistence on this point that led some of his leading American students to break from their master and create the forms of mindfulness more familiar to us today. These Americans were ex-hippies, after all. And while Goenka centers have proliferated around the globe, the more flexible techniques taught by his former students (as well as parallel versions from Zen and Tibetan traditions) have had an even wider impact.

That impact has been enormous. Studies suggest that one million more Americans take up meditation every year - mostly in healthcare contexts. These people are not interested in enlightenment or awakening, and they aren't about to spend ten days in silence watching videotapes of spiritual teachings. They're taking up mindfulness (basically, paying attention to present-moment experience in a particular, focused way, whether in formal meditation or in other activities) because they're suffering from chronic pain or post-traumatic stress. Or they're doing it because they work at Google, or Twitter, or Apple, or one of the dozens of technology companies using mindfulness to improve the performance and well-being of employees. This is how the teachings known as the "dharma" have evolved - beyond religion, beyond spirituality, into every walk of life. And S.N. Goenka is largely responsible for it.

America is on the threshold of a mindfulness revolution. As the data regarding mindfulness's economic impact becomes better developed and better known, we are going to see mindfulness offered everywhere - not for reasons of spirituality, but for sheer economics. These technologies decrease healthcare costs, improve productivity, and speed processes of healing. The Buddha may have taught them to lead to enlightenment - but they also save a ton of money.

How this experiment will turn out is anyone's guess. Maybe mindfulness will just be a fad. Maybe it'll last but, like yoga, be limited only to some. Or maybe it really will transform our society. Whatever comes next, all of us who have used it to relax, get well, or just get through the day owe a debt of gratitude to an Indian businessman who passed away last week. Let's take a mindful breath to remember him.