Vipassana : Experience what's in your head

The Global Vipassana Centre at Gorai

The Global Vipassana Centre at Gorai


For the past few years, I've been trying to make myself go through as many different experiences as I could for the sake of growing as an individual. I thought Vipassana fit the bill for "different experience" and might be a cool thing to try. My parents have both been practicing it for over a decade, and recommended that I definitely try going for at least one course once whenever I got the time, so I thought, why not. I packed my bags and headed out to the Gorai centre (outskirts of Mumbai) for the 10-day course.

What is Vipassana?

Vipassana is an ancient form of meditation that was rediscovered by Gautama Buddha 2,500 years ago. It has since been passed on through the generations from teacher to pupil, and has been preserved in its unadulterated form to the present age.

The goal is simple - to rid the mind of misery and be happy. It does this by rooting out emotions that would make you unhappy at the deepest level of the mind - the "unconscious" level. What makes this technique really great and why it appealed to the cynic in me is that its primary focus is on experiential learning. It’s nice to hear about theories about how to achieve happiness and understand it at an intellectual level, but to really embrace that something is going to make your life better, there's no substitute for experiencing this change yourself. This is why it’s told in the course, repeatedly - you don’t need to take the teacher’s or even Buddha’s words as gospel. What you experience is what you know for a fact is true. That’s what Vipassana provides a path to discovering - the truth of the relationship between mind and matter. The discourses in the evenings that explain the changes are merely a guide for meditators to understand what they're going through - if you don't believe it, that's fine as well. As long as you continue practicing yourself, you'd get all the benefits of doing Vipassana. 

Vipassana is also non-sectarian - anyone from any race, religion, sex or nationality can practice this. While the course is based on the technique discovered by Gautama Buddha, it does not promote Buddhism. You can continue to practice your religion of choice and Vipassana simultaneously. It's only asked that you suspend any other practices or rites during the courses so that you can give it a fair trial, and not misattribute your experiences to something else you were doing at the time. You're your own master after the course is done.

That sounds great, but I've heard it's way hardcore?

As a first-timer, you need to undergo a 10-day course at a Vipassana centre, following a 4.30 am - 9.30 pm regime everyday. You're not allowed to communicate with your fellow meditators or carry any electronics/reading/writing material. While this may seem like a lot, it really isn't as bad as it sounds. It is possible for anyone to get through given a little mental fortitude; the mental fortitude is for practicing the actual technique though. Make no mistake, this is not a vacation, but there’s nothing about the constraints that really bothered me after the initial couple of days there. The restrictions are in place to help make the centre the ideal place to practice Vipassana. I had gone in with an allergic cold, eye infection and my left hand taped up and still made it through fine. Here’s what my personal experiences are with the rules:

  1. No communication: First, to clarify, this is not merely not talking. You're not supposed to communicate via gestures either - no loopholes around this one. You are allowed to ask the teacher questions about the practice, and the volunteers in case you have other material needs. This one was probably the easiest to adhere to. If nobody replies when you talk to them, you're not gonna try doing that too often.   

  2. No electronics, reading or writing materials: I will admit that I was grasping at the air next to me on my first day there to pick up my phone, but that habit died off quickly. There were times during the breaks that I found that I didn't know what to do with myself, so I started playing a game. I imagined the names and gave complete life stories to the people around me, and tried to relate those to what they ended up doing in their free time. I also took plenty of walks around the little park out front, and enjoyed naps during the day. It was peaceful to sit and stare at the rain instead of the glare on my phone screen. Overall, minor inconvenience at worst. 

  3. Simple vegetarian meals, and no dinner: The meals were not elaborate but tasted really good. Like better than home food. The no dinner policy made sense in retrospect since we were just sitting in one spot most of the day. Beyond the morning of the first day, I never ended up feeling hungry.  

Ok, but how do you do it?

Like I mentioned earlier, the goal of Vipassana is to rid your mind of unhappiness by weeding out the root cause of these - the reactions of your "unconscious" mind to external stimuli. To develop the mind to be sharp enough to actually practice Vipassana, you practice a different kind of meditation the first 3-4 days: "aana-paana". It involves focusing on your breath to increase your level of concentration. 

For the days after that, while practicing Vipassana, you delve deeper and deeper into your mind, trying to gain a grasp and actually experience the processes that generate negativity within. Your senses generate physical reactions within your body that your conscious mind doesn't keep track of. The "unconscious" mind though is constantly aware of these sensations on the body and tends to react in one of two ways - it craves for things that make it feel good, and generates hostility for things that don't. If you crave something and you don't get it, you're sad. If you're averse to something but it keeps coming to you, you're sad. This in a nutshell is why we're not happy - because of the tendency of the unconscious mind to keep reacting. What Vipassana aims to teach is to how one can stop reacting and just observe these sensations as they rise and fall, which they all do.

 The theory on this goes on longer, but in essence, this is what Buddha discovered through experimentation, and others did after him. Again, you don't have to take my or anyone else's word on this - Vipassana wants you to believe in what you experience.  

I'm not going to go into the exact mechanics of how this done for several reasons - I'm a novice at the technique myself, it is difficult to explain the details through just text, and mostly because the technique needs to be actually experienced to learn at even the most basic level. A theoretical description of the technique that isn't accompanied by actual practice would be abstract and easy to dismiss as blabber. It beats the essence of Vipassana. 

I hope I've intrigued you enough to give this a shot, it is a game-changer. Vipassana centres are present throughout the world - 170 of them. Your stay and food at any of these locations is free of cost. I can vouch for the centre at Gorai, it was clean, peaceful and comfortable. The room that I had was better than some places that I've paid for. 

Give it a shot, you won't regret it. Register for a course here.


Learning how to learn

While not strictly relevant to the post, amazing song.

While not strictly relevant to the post, amazing song.

My dad asked me a few weeks ago, "What are you going to do if Android dies out?”. As someone who can really claim to be an “expert” at just Android, I should have browned my pants at the thought. Thankfully, I didn’t. I wasn’t even perturbed. I could even go as far as to say that I was a little excited with the thought of what that tech landscape would look like.

It isn’t a question of whether Android was going to die out, it was just when. This is especially true in the tech industry, where it's ridiculously easy to evolve. And while that could be a different post in itself, it was pretty self-assuring to know that I wouldn’t be stunted then. As much as I try to keep myself at the bleeding edge on Android, I also try to actively broaden my scope of knowledge. Knowing enough to talk intelligently on a particular subject or technology is a big plus in my books. Being a jack-of-all isn’t so bad if you’ve inculcated a mindset of being open to learning about new things. You just need to *roll credits* learn how to learn.

For the past couple of months at Staples, I’ve been doing legwork around setting the stage for a new product that we’re going to roll out this year. A plethora of items had to be checked off by my team to make sure that what we were trying to do was actually viable. Micro-PoCs (proofs of concept) were the order of the day. Whether it was hardware or software, a management or technical tool, we took essentially the same approach to each item:

  • Absorb existing documentation/resources of the item.
  • Set up the environment.
  • Get the barebones, "Hello World" equivalent working.
  • Come back to our use case for the tool. Play around with it enough to say that there were no deal breakers.
  • Document what we learned/ save the project in the safe place.
  • Rinse and repeat.

In our case, this cycle took anything from a couple of days to a few weeks, depending on the complexity of the tool and our own use cases. By doing this, we’ve quickly covered a lot of ground around exploring tech necessary to make our primary product work. And the approach did work. We were able to iterate quickly around items to get critical pieces of information.  This resonated well with what I had read in Little Bets, and what projects like Google[x] were founded upon.

All this isn’t to say that there is no place for those with deep knowledge in subjects. They’re the ones that you call when you need to get sh*t done, and done well. But even domain experts can benefit from knowing just enough about their surroundings.

My academic career might be over, but the learning has just begun.