Tuesday, June 03, 2014

10 days of vipassana

I started this year with a very strong resolution related to Yoga, zen, meditation and such. One such task on the to do list was attending the Vipassana camp at Igatpuri.

I will admit that I didn't know much of it in advance, that I just read the name from an ex-colleague's blog detailing his experience, and even then didn't go much in depth reading about it. All I knew was that they would provide me lodging, food, and instruction for free, and I would have to live the life of austerity and celibacy for 10 days, and only if I found it useful should I donate towards the cause.

Such were the limits of my ignorance, I thought it was some sort of yoga camp, and told about this course as a yoga camp to my friends and known ones.

Since that person had done the course at Igatpuri, and it came out as the first centre established in India, I also decided to do the course there. (The Gangotri approach for bathing in Ganga).

There were multiple reasons why I wanted to do this course in particular
  1. It had an ideal duration - I don't think habits are formed within 2-3 days, and so 10 seemed like a number that would give a lot of exposure, even if that exposure was beginner level.
  2. I would be able to stay away from mobile, internet, emails and what nots
  3. I couldn't escape even if I wanted to - significant barriers there
  4. The food would have to be better than what I was currently used to eating
  5. If nothing else, I should be able to reverse my time table and successfully form a habit of waking up early at 4.
  6. There would be a complete silence observed by all participants, which meant no one would disturb my peace without disturbing his own.
  7. I would be isolated from my parents, friends and other people; in fact isolated from the whole world as if it didn't exist
  8. I will have enough time with myself in a single stretch to determine my life's priorities
Yet none of them was related to what they taught me over there - Vipassana - the science of observing. In a way I think it was a good thing - I didn't have much expectations, and thus went there as clear slated as possible.
The fact that I had left my job some 2.5 months back, meant that I had had sufficient time to de-attach myself from the previous environment, and now could concentrate on the next things in life.

There were some internal doubts as I started on my journey in the evening of 12th - I kept thinking whether it was a wise decision to spend 15 days on this course, and shouldn't I actually prepare for some interviews instead and get myself a job. Yet the doubts were only minimal, it had been a while since I journeyed on my own and so, I was soon in the zone, ignoring any and every doubt that assailed me.

I got down at Igatpuri at 00.40 in the night, and that was on the highway. I started walking towards Dhamma Giri, which was 2.6 km, since no auto or anything was available in the late hours. I wasn't sure that they would admit me inside in the night. By some luck, a group of teens passed by, and one of them offered me a lift, which I gladly took. He dropped me at the gates, and than warned me it wasn't a good area to hang out at in the wee hours of the night, because of the surrounding forests and wild life. Negligence accepted.

I entered the campus, and at once started feeling the peace inside me. It wasn't something really profound or really drastic, just the freshness in the air, the smell of trees, the sound of the chimes. It was a full moon night, so the moon was shining brightly in the sky, and I have to say I haven't had many occasions to see the moon in that much glory. It was relaxingly beautiful and serene.

After meeting with the guards and explaining to them I was there for the course, I walked in for some 10 minutes, before I reached the inner campus, and here a guard showed me way to a dormitory, where I slept off.

I was reading the book Autobiography of a Yogi, and was somewhere around the middle of it when I reached there. I spent a couple of hours the next day after waking reading another handful of pages, before I had to deposit it, along with my other valuables and trinkets - mobiles, ring, kada and so on. No reading /writing material is allowed, and electronic devices like mobile/laptops aren't allowed either. The first is to cut down any distraction a student might have, the second is to bring down any external communication. All rings, bracelets, amulets etc are also to be removed from the body/possessions and deposited. Finally, all cash keeping aside some 200-250 bucks was also to be deposited, because people were sharing beds in dormitories.

I was aware of these restrictions before hand, so none of them came as a surprise. And I was happy to submit my mobile away, I don't remember a single instance in last 6 years when I had the luxury of not having to answer any calls or check any mails on the mobile for even 2 days in a stretch. This time it was going to be 10 :)

The registration process went like this - Get your enrollment verified - Get a green/white card slip depending on whether you are a new/old student, get your application reviewed/fill another form to detail out why you are doing the course, envelope your belongings, deposit them and an amount of Rs. 200 for the laundry service, and get a token number for both, get a bed allocated. Most people get open dormitories, many get private room dorms with shared bathrooms, some get shared rooms on a 2 or 4 sharing basis, and a few get single rooms with attached bathrooms.

Once the room was allocated, I shifted my luggage from existing bed to the new bedding, and made my stay there.

One thing that stood out on the morning of this day 0 earlier, was a fellow student (uncle actually), who had also arrived early, though not early as me. He had come in at around 7 in the morning, the registration was to begin from 9.30, and so very less number of people had arrived yet. I was going through cycles of waking and sleeping, and one time I saw him enter and go to sleep. Next time I woke up, I saw him coming back after taking a bath, and this time he came to me and said - "Ready ho ja bhau, apane ko sabse pehle registration karana hai. Khoob sadhana karni hai, Single room chahiye apne ko to."

I would later always refer to him as "Sadhana-ji" in my mind throughout the duration of the course (by some criss-cross of fortunes, he had a seat adjacent to mine in the meditation hall, though I was lucky not to share a room or dorm with him).

I had been allotted a single room with bathroom, so I settled in quite quickly, and than started wandering about. I was carrying all the necessities mentioned - soap, shampoo, 10 shirts, tracks, pyjamas, lock, clock, torch, bedsheet, umbrella etc, so had no issues with any of that.

The registration usually starts in at around 9.30, and than it goes on till around 5 in the evening. At 5 we had some light snacks, and after a break of another 45 minutes, all of us assembled at the food mess and started receiving further instructions at around 6.30.

And from this meeting onwards, the "arya maun", or the noble silence began. It meant not only silence of words to fellow course-mates, but also silence of actions and thoughts to them (that is not interacting even via sign languages and trying to not think of answering others). Afterwards, in groups of 70-80 we entered the Dhamma hall, where we administered ourselves the oaths of taking recluse in Buddha, Dhamma and Sangha for the next 10 days.

After a few more formalities, the meditation started at around 8.30, and lasted till 9 PM.

The medium of instruction was audio recordings. We had fairly good seats - around 2.5*2.5 ft squarish cotton fed cushions, with elevated seating to better accommodate hips and legs. There were chairs available for those with medical conditions, though in subsequent days, others also started using them depending on their body limits and mental resolve. There were also cutout chairs available - they don't have the legs, and can be coupled with the seat itself to provide some back rest.
I was able to survive the course without using either, and a lot of people do that, so I think in general one should try to avoid the chair as much as possible.

I didn't carry my wrist watch with me - in subsequent days I would learn that most of the time, you open your eyes much earlier to look at the time if you have a watch with you.

The time table went something like this:

Get up at around 3.50, got out and drink water, walk around for 10-15 minutes, freshen up, brush if time is available.
Go to meditation at 4.30, meditate from 4.30-6.30.
Come back to room at 6.30 and brush and bath, go to mess for breakfast at around 6.55 or 7, have around 65% of my usual breakfast, come back and rest//lie down.
Go back and meditate from 8-9 (I mostly spent this one in a state fighting my sleep, trying to keep it at bay), then meditate again from 9 to around 10.45 (though it goes on till 11, people near you are restless, and soon you also start becoming so by the end of it).
At 11, freshen up, go for a light lunch (around 75% of my usual diet), take a bath, and try to sleep off for around an hour if you can, till 1 PM.
Meditate from 1- 2.15, from 2.30-3.30, from 3.30 to around 4.40 (again, the time was till 5, it just seemed like hollow sitting after 4.40, so I would get out because of restlessness in the environment)
Have a nominal round of snacks (around 60%) at 5, and stroll till 6.
Finally, meditate from 6-7, have pravachan from 7-8.30, and meditate from 8.30-9, ask questions afterwards, and retire to sleep later.

This is the most simplistic time table I can think of, I was unable to sleep during the day after the 3rd day, the night sleep reduced to around 4 .5 hours by end of day 5, and I meditated lesser on days 7,8,9.

I think, on the average, you are supposed to meditate for around 10 hours a day, but if you can manage 50 solid hours of meditation throughout, even those could teach you a lot.

I will endorse the course for its scientific design, a no-bullshit approach, and ease of doing it. In the end, I achieved a lot more than I had thought I would, I found peace, the kind which makes you have tears of bliss, I had a much better sense of understanding of events and actions, and I got answers to questions that I hadn't ever thought I would be asking myself there and then. So effective I found the course to be, I had to intentionally bring down my meditation time since it was happening too suddenly and uncontrollably for me.

On day 10, we had mangal maitri, and after that the maun was broken. I had been able to observe the verbal silence throughout, though the actionable one was broken on some 4-5 occasions, and the thought one I think some 20-22 times. I had also missed 2 morning meditation sessions because of sleep imbalance, but no more.

I got a chance to interact with a lot of people sitting around me, listen to their experience, listening to fables about Buddha from some of them. So much knowledge the people had collectively, it only brought out my ignorance in my face - how little knowledge I possess.

On the next day - day 11, we had our final meditation from 4.30-6.30, after which we took breakfast.

I cleaned my room and bathroom, packed my stuff, and then took off. On my way down, I went to the Buddha centre, where a summary of events from Buddha's life was depicted in pictures and text. It was really moving - when I saw the one with the Kheer being offered to Buddha, and realized its significance in that day's breakfast.

Sabka mangal ho.
Sabka kalyan ho.
Sabki swastha mukti ho.

I next proceeded to Triambakeswar, and from their took a snap call to go to Shirdi Sai Baba, and then returned to Mumbai in the night. Once in Mumbai, I met some old friends, visited Siddhivinayak temple, ISKCON temple, met my brother in law, attended a barebone exhibition setup for an audio equipment expo, closed my old accounts, and then I left for B in another eventful train journey, where I was traveling with an unconfirmed but valid ticket and was now at the mercy of fellow passengers.

Govindaa, Govind Govindaa, Govind Govindaa, Govinda Govinda;

PS: Here are some other links if you are interested in reading more about Vipassana:
  1. www.dhamma.org/
  2. http://lunasealife.wordpress.com/2011/07/28/vipassana-what-i-found-in-10-days-of-silence/
  3. http://www.mindbodygreen.com/0-11035/what-i-learned-from-a-hardcore-10-day-meditation-retreat.html
  4. http://anoopsplace.blogspot.in/2011/03/10-day-vipassana-meditation-course.html
  5. https://medium.com/this-happened-to-me/10-days-of-vipassana-d176bc723048
  6. http://www.themindfulword.org/2013/vipassana-meditator-pain-peace/
  7. http://www.beliefnet.com/Faiths/Hinduism/2001/01/Ten-Days-Of-Silence-Inside-A-Vipassana-Retreat.aspx
  8. http://travel.cnn.com/mumbai/play/vipassana-i-survived-10-days-meditation-639422
  9. http://www.updevelopment.org/2012/08/vipassana-meditation-experience/
  10. http://paulosena.com/2010/10/05/my-10-day-vipassana-course-in-igatpuri-india/
  11. http://smritiweb.com/badri/my-experience-at-vipashyana-at-igatpuri/

Sunday, June 01, 2014

The One with the Update

It has been a long time since I last posted about the events this year, so far. So here they go:

The Marriages

I attended 2 marriages this year, one in January, the second in Feb. Both were an experience in themselves.

The first one was at the place of my sister's in laws, so I had to fly the route B-V-K-P (both ways). It was a last moment plan, my father was supposed to be going, but due to his health reason, I decided to go in.
  • I had to spend a lot of time flying, and I had the opportunity to witness a good amount of nature from a distance. I got the chance to watch the seas from high above, and not a single wave was visible, just a slight shimmer that would appear every now and then. I got the chance to see the sunrise, and how the clouds on one side were all lightened up, while those on the other still appeared to be in darkness. I got to observe the rivers from the top, and they all appeared like lines drawn with a pencil by a child.
  • Such was the epiphany of the moment, that I couldn't wonder thinking that if there truly were Gods in the sky, this is how they would see the lands below. And if the rivers and mountains appear that insignificant, what would be the worth of a human? I couldn't stop myself from thinking further, that in that very moment, over the area I was observing, rapes, murders, and other crimes as well as celebrations, moments of joy and other happy  events would be happening at every instance. If God exists, he must be a truly busy person, and there is no need to pester him over aching knees or hair loss or other trivialities.
  • The marriage was in a joint family, and I observed for the first time the merits of the joint family. Its not like everyone is perfect, but all of us are better than the other in one way or the other, and in a joint family, the shortcomings of one can easily be complemented by the strength of the other. The fist is always more powerful than the individual fingers.

  • All in all, the trip made me realise how insignificant I as an individual was in the grand scheme of things. I realized that I had changed a lot from who I was just 2 or 3 years back, and now was the time for the next step in life, whatever it may be.
The second one was of a college friend at my hometown. Once again, I had to switch flights B-M-J.
  • I had made an initial screwup of booking my onward ticket of 13th Feb, and return ticket of 17th Mar, which I realized only 2 days before my departure. Luckily, another return ticket was available to me at some discount, so I ended up planning for 2 trips, one immediate, another a month later.
  • I had one view out of the windows in particular which I will remember for a lifetime. It was during M-J where I had a 4 am flight. It was still dark of the night, so for a while after the flight took off, we were just above the moonlit clouds. It was a cloudy night, so there were clouds spread around for miles like big bundles of cotton. But the best part was, that it was a full moon, and the moon was shining brightly, and so all the clouds appeared milky under its halo. The clouds were themselves very intricately shaped, with spherical domes and what nots. And soon, it was time for sunrise, so after a while, I could see the yellowish red clouds from the other set of windows. Thus, on my left were still the milky clouds, whereas on my right were the red morning clouds. Such was the peace in both the scenes, that I couldn't stop myself from thinking that how much time we spend worrying about our stupid daily chores, when life can be so beautiful and peaceful when viewed from the top. All in all, it felt like I was flying on a divine confluence, and beauty was all that ever existed.
Everything has a role to play
  1. Two incidences come to my mind, from around January that I would like to log here.
    • The first is about the value of carpeting and noise cancellation in meeting rooms. I sat in meeting rooms which were bare in terms of sound proofing, and the noise level was consequently very high. After spending an hour down there, I appreciated the value of those carpets and decor, which I would usually write away as designer items.
    • The second was during the internet and hardware problem we were trying to solve, that I came to realise how internet infrastructures are usually laid, and how much of that has been abstracted in the world of 3G data cards on our mobile which work at the tick of an option. It was fun exercise and great learning experience designing the network topology that could work in our case, figuring out the components etc on my own, reading manuals and data sheets, spending close to a week on stuff that seems so trivial and non existent from the top, yet is a science in itself when experienced.
The resignation

I had been feeling the stagnation for a while, hardly working on any technical things in the last 4-5 months before my resignation. There was also this nagging feeling, that somewhere somehow, I wasn't learning enough, and that I could actually do a lot more, and learn a lot more. 
Additionally, I had been hoping to take some time off after my father's health scare last year and plan for the next move. Finally. I wanted do some travelling, and ram through other items on my accumulated bucket list, I turn 25 this year.
So, I resigned at the end of February. Some drama happened before and after the resignation. But in the end, whatever happens, happens for the good.

What I have done since
I spent some 3 months since doing random stuff (mid March-current)..
  1. Reading my emails
    I spent a week during my last month, reading each and every mail in my office email account. It was an experience in itself, and I got to re-live the past 15 months again.

  2. Cooking and food
    I learnt to cook a variety of food (mostly dals), but hey, its the permutations that count. I also developed fruit habits, finding stuff that works, and when it works, from where it works.

  3. StackOverflow and other StackExchange sites
    I crossed the badge/bounty count I had in my mind for the year. I spent a fairly significant amount of time reading up about workplaces and project management, which should give me sufficient context for wherever I next move.

  4. Running
    I started running on a treadmill, and was able to sustatin it for around a month. Starting from 2.0 km in 20 minutes, I was soon able to do 3.0 km in 22 minutes.

  5. Poker
    We had an mutual friend stay with us for over a month at our flat, which provided me an excellent opportunity to learn and understand poker better from him. I learnt the lingo, started guessing the chances, and was able to predict the cards that other players had. The high point was winning 6k bucks in an online tournament. An advice to remember - "Jab tumhara hand hit ho jata hai, to tum low betting karte ho, aur jab nahi hota, to high bets call kar dete ho. Yehi dikkat hai naye players ke sath - are bhai jab hand hit hua hai to bet karo na, darr kyu rahe ho".

  6. Books
    The count for this year stands at around 40, which keeps me just in reach of the 100 books target for the whole year.

  7. Social experiment on Linkedin and Facebook
    So sometime early April, I used an anagram of my name to create a linkedin account. Along with that, I created a mail account, and facebook account. The accounts were barebones, I hid all education, work experience fields, just seeded them with some random likes, posts.
    Now this linkedin account I created - I was able to grow it to 500+ connections in less than a month, out of which some 400 are tech recruiters. Close to 160 work in the big 4 in the US. The network strength I have is close to 27M. FWIW, my original account has 900+ connections, built over 2 years, with network strength of 11.5M.
    I had somewhat similar experience with Facebook. I've removed the accounts, but I can now see how the social media world is not built on solid principles, and in fact amplifies any kind of negative opportunities in society. Not just the good(social connection), but the bad (impersonation, fake information) have been also been scaled.

  8. Games
    It had been a while since I played any good game, so I spent some time playing and finishing Age of Mythology and a bunch of other games again.

  9. Vipassana
    I had started this year with a resolution to read zen koans, and attend the 10 day meditation camp at Igatpuri. I devoted some time to the first on my tablet, while I have just finished the second one last week only. 

  10. Videos on YouTube
    Till some time back, I used to think of Youtube mostly as a distraction, full of videos meant to distract you, and through suggestions make you reach either cat or adult videos. Not anymore.
    In this period, I have spent a significant time watching videos on how stuff is made series and understanding role of technology in industries.

  11. Friends
    I met a good number of old friends, both from the school and from college. I also made a few new ones along the way. One thing that surprised me was the perception my school friends still had of me. It was humbling to hear the good and (mostly) the bad about my self from years past.