Q: Can you describe in practical terms what is happening in the body and in the mind, how this law of cause and effect works, and how this change can help us?
Sayagyi U Goenka: The Buddha said that understanding the Dhamma is nothing other than understanding the law of cause and effect. You have to realize this truth within yourself. In a ten-day Vipassana course you have the opportunity to learn how to do this.
This investigation of truth pertaining to matter, pertaining to mind and pertaining to the mental concomitants, the mental contents, is not merely for the sake of curiosity, but to change your mental habit pattern at the deepest level of the mind.
As you keep progressing, you will realize how the mind influences matter, and how matter influences the mind. Every moment, within the framework of the body, masses of subatomic particles which the Buddha called 'kalapas' arise and pass away. How do they arise?
1) The material input of food is one cause for matter arising.
2) The atmospheric conditions around you is another cause. One begins experiencing how matter helps matter to arise and pass away.
3) The third cause for matter to arise is the mental conditioning of the past or accumulated past sankharas.
4) The fourth cause of matter arising is because of the present conditioning / reactions of the mind, present sankharas.
Thoughts cause a biochemical flow in the body. The quality of the mind is according to the content of the mind. For example, when a mind full of (sexual) passion, anger or fear has arisen, you will notice that as such a mind arises, it helps to generate certain type of subatomic particles. This type of biochemical flow of impurities is called kama asava.
With practice of Vipassana - as a very objective scientist - you are observing your own mind and matter phenomenon, observing the truth as it is, how the law of nature works. When this biochemical secretion of kama asava starts, it influences the next moment of the mind with more passion. Thus this kama asava turns into a craving of passion at the mental level, which again stimulates kama asava, a flow of passion at the physical level. One starts influencing and stimulating the other, and the passion keeps on multiplying for minutes, at times for hours together. The behavior pattern of the mind of generating passion is strengthened because of the repeated generation of passion in the mind.
Not only passion but also fear, anger, hatred, and craving - every type of impurity that comes in the mind simultaneously generates an asava flow which keeps stimulating that particular negativity, that particular impurity, resulting in a vicious cycle of suffering. You may call yourself a Hindu, or a Muslim, or a Jain, Buddhist, or a Christian - it makes no difference- the process and law is applicable to all without discrimination.
Merely understanding this process at the intellectual level will not help to break this cycle, and may even create difficulties. Your beliefs from a particular tradition may look quite logical, yet these beliefs will create obstacles for you because the intellect has its own limitation. You cannot realize the ultimate truth merely at the intellectual level. The ultimate truth is limitless, infinite, while the intellect is finite. It is only through direct experience that we are able to realize that which is limitless, infinite.
Even those who have accepted this law of nature intellectually are not able to change the behavior pattern of their minds, and as a result they are far away from the realization of the ultimate truth.
This behavior pattern is at the depth of the mind. What is called the "unconscious mind" is actually not unconscious; at all times it remains in contact with this body. And along with this contact of the body a sensation keeps arising, because every chemical that flows in the body generates a particular type of sensation. You feel a sensation - pleasant, unpleasant or neutral - and with the feeling of this sensation, you keep reacting.
At the depth of your mind you keep constantly reacting with craving or aversion, and generating different types of sankharas (habit pattern / conditioning of the mind), negativities, impurities. The process of multiplication of misery continues. You can't stop it because there is such a big barrier between the conscious and the unconscious mind. When you practice Vipassana you break this barrier. Without Vipassana the barrier of ignorance of what is happening within remains.
At the conscious, intellectual level of the mind, one may accept the entire theory of Dhamma, of truth, of law, of nature. But still one keeps rolling in misery because one does not realize what is happening at the depth of the mind. Sensations are there in your body every moment. Every sensory contact with the outside world results in a sensation. This isn't a philosophy, it is the actual truth which can be verified by one and all with the practice of Vipassana.
On the surface the mind keeps itself busy with outside objects, or it remains involved with games of intellectualization, imagination, or emotion. That is the job of your "tiny mind" (paritta citta), the surface level of the mind. Therefore you do not feel what is happening deep inside, and you do not feel how you are reacting to what is happening at the deeper level of the mind.
The practice of Vipassana breaks the barrier of ignorance. One starts feeling sensations throughout the body, not merely at the surface but also deep inside because throughout the entire physical structure. Wherever there is life, there is sensation. And by observing these sensations you start realizing the characteristic of arising and passing, or 'anicca' (Pali language). By this understanding, you start to change the habit pattern of the mind.
Nothing is permanent, everything changes. So why generate misery by reacting with craving or aversion to that which is constantly changing?
For example, you are feeling a particular sensation which may be due to the food you have eaten, which may be due to the atmosphere around you, which may be due to your present mental actions, or which may be due to your old mental reactions that are giving their fruit. Whatever it may be, a sensation is there, and you are trained to observe it with equanimity and not to react to it. But you keep on reacting because of the old habit pattern.
You sit for one hour of meditation, and initially you may get only a few moments when you do not react, but those few moments are wonderful moments. You have started changing the habit pattern of your mind by observing sensation and understanding its nature of impermanence. This stops the blind habit pattern of reacting to the sensation and multiplying the vicious cycle of misery. Initially in an hour you get a few seconds, or a few minutes of not reacting.
But eventually, by practice, you reach a stage where throughout the hour you do not react at all. At the deepest level you do not react at all. A deep change is coming in the old habit pattern. The vicious cycle is broken: your mind was reacting to the chemical process which was manifesting itself as a sensation, and as a result, for hours together, your mind was flooded with a particular impurity, a particular defilement, and speeding towards misery. Now it gets a brake for a few moments, a few seconds, a few minutes. As the old habit of blind reaction becomes weaker, your behavior pattern is changing. You are coming out of your misery.
Again, this is not to be believed because the Buddha said so. It is not to be believed because I say so. It is not be believed because your intellect says so. You have to experience it yourself. People coming to these Vipassana courses have found by their experience that there is a change for the better in their behavior.