Monday, December 26, 2011

Food at the Yoga Farm: The yogic diet

Disclaimer: I'm still a newbie on this path, so I might have some facts that are incorrect. If so, please forgive the error and let me know so I may correct it.

In my introductory post about the Yoga Farm, I discussed how my digestive health benefited immensely from food that I ate there. Naturally, I was intrigued by how the food was prepared because the food had the same positive effect on my digestion regardless of the menu.

The diet is a simple lacto-vegetarian diet, but they also avoid ingredients such as onions, garlic, mushrooms, vinegar, fermented/aged foods, and excessive chilis. I later discovered that this is quite a common diet among Vaishnavs (followers of Vishnu), and as such it is commonly referred to as a Vaishnav diet. Yet another name for this diet is the sattvic diet. Followers of ISKCON (more commonly known as the Hare Krishnas) also follow this diet. The goal of the diet is to minimize karmic impact by being non-violent (hence vegetarian), and promote clarity of the mind for advancing on the spiritual path by eating light, fresh, easy to digest foods.

Because of abstinence from onions and garlic, people sometimes confuse this with the Jain diet, but the Jain diet is even stricter than this one and further excludes most vegetables that grow below the surface of the ground such as potatoes.

Additionally, there is a lot of emphasis on fresh food. The life force or prana that we get from the food is highest in fresh foods. The food at the Yoga Farm is usually prepared fresh starting about 2 hours or so before each meal. Any leftovers of cooked food are stored in the refrigerator, and can be reheated and served only once within 24 hours. Anything older than that is composted. Stale food lacks life force and creates heaviness in the mind and the body and that's why it must be avoided. The calories that we get from processed food and the calories that we get from fresh food have an entirely different effect on the mind and the body. It is after this education that I stopped paying attention to the "nutrition information" on packaged processed foods and usually just avoid them altogether.

Finally, the cooking methods are influenced by ayurveda which is a holistic form of medicine from ancient India. They use organic, unrefined oils, and liberally use basic ayurvedic spices such as turmeric, cumin seed, coriander seed, fennel seed, fresh ginger, and mustard seeds that are known for promoting digestion and allowing the body to better absorb nutrients.

More on onions and garlic

Onions and garlic are considered to be disturbing to the mind and hinder the practice of meditation. Perhaps the best article I have seen on the subject of avoiding onions and garlic is "Why no onions and garlic?" by Kurma. A number of Buddhist vegetarians also avoid using onions and garlic.

Personally, I have found several prosaic benefits from avoiding onions and garlic -- no bad breath, food tastes better because the flavors of the underlying ingredients are no longer overpowered by the pungent flavor of onions and garlic, and I have less trouble with heartburn.

Why no mushrooms?

From what I have been told it's because mushrooms grow in the dark and they are a fungus. With respect to food that grows in the dark, wouldn't that be true for vegetables like carrots and potatoes that grow underground?  Not quite.  While the vegetable is underground, the leaves are exposed to sunlight and grow above the ground.

More than just a diet

Of course, the yogic diet is just one of things that is part of the yogic lifestyle. The yogic lifestyle requires being careful of everything that we consume. This includes abstaining from intoxicants such as caffeine, tobacco, and alcohol, but even extends to being careful about what we consume with our other sense organs as well -- movies, books, music, etc. While I've been encouraged to follow the diet because of the more prosaic benefits that I noted above, I'm still not there yet in terms of following the complete yogic lifestyle.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Saving for retirement: A thought experiment

In an earlier post, I discussed worry-free investing which was based upon the work of Zvi Bodie. Determining how much to put away for retirement depends on so many different factors that is becomes hard to come up with a "correct" number. There are so many variables such as:
  • Inflation rate: By this I don't mean just the widely publicized consumer price index (CPI), since one's spending habits may differ quite a bit from the way the CPI weights the various classes.
  • Tax rates: This would relate to current and future income tax rates (federal, state, and local) as well as sales tax rates. This is also affected by where one chooses to live in retirement.
  • Returns on investments: This includes things like interest rates and the movement in stocks and bond prices.
  • Social security payments: With the financial problems facing the government, it's hard to say what sort of payments social security would be able to make in the future.
  • Changes in income: One would normally have more income with age because of experience, but that seems to be changing nowadays with folks losing a job and being forced to accept a lower income.
  • Changes in expenses: As one goes through the years, what we spend on changes.  In younger years, one may not need to spend much.  In middle age there is often added costs of supporting a family.  As we age, depending on our health, there may be a lot of expenses for medical care.
  • Life span: Perhaps the most crucial one. One may not be around during one's planned retirement years!  But it's probably better to leave behind an estate than to live one's golden years in poverty.
But for the purpose of this exercise, we're going to ignore all of that.

Let's say I make 100 pieces of gold for every year that I work, with no change in income, and no loss of income at any point during my working life. Further, let's assume that what a piece of gold buys today, it will also buy n years from now, where n > 0. In other words, a piece of gold will buy in retirement exactly what it buys today. Let's assume that there are no taxes.

Now, for every year I work, I get 100 pieces of gold. Let's say I spend 50 pieces of gold each year and save the remaining 50. Thus, for every year that I work, I have basically bought one year of retirement. In other words, if I work 30 years, I can have 30 years of retirement. If, on the other hand, I spend 25 pieces of gold each year, I have bought 3 years of retirement for every year of work. And if I spend 75 pieces of gold, I have bought only one year of retirement for each 3 years of work. This, of course, ignores the time value of money as well; i.e. there was no attempt to invest the money during the working years, but also bear in mind that any kind of investing necessarily involves risk.

So if we look at the average working life of about 40 years until retirement (age 25 to 65), and we need to plan to live to age 105, a retired life of 40 years, then using this simple example, we need to be able to save 50% of our income. In general, if I work x years, and need to plan for a retirement of y years, then I need to restrict my spending to [x/(x+y)] × 100% of earnings. Put another way, if I save m% of my income each year, then I buy one year of retirement for every (100-m)/m years of work. If we want to account for taxes, then these percentages would apply to the post-tax income.

Perhaps the biggest drawback of this example is that it does not account for social security. At lower income levels, social security tends to replace a significant portion of that income, and would therefore require a significantly lower savings rate. However, at higher income levels social security contributes far less to replacing that income.

Anyway, this is just a thought experiment and is not practical by any means. But I thought I'd write it up nevertheless.

(A few days after writing this post, courtesy of A.Word.A.Day, I found out of the existence of the word gedankenexperiment, which means "thought experiment". Had I known of it before this post, I might have used it in the title.)

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Inspiring words from Steve Jobs

In his commencement address at Stanford in June 2005, Steve Jobs tells 3 stories -- the first is about "connecting the dots", the second is about love and loss, and the third is about death. I found it to be a very inspiring piece filled with words of wisdom. I keep going back to it again and again, reading through the full text. Here are some excerpts:

On "connecting the dots"...
"Again, you can't connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something — your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever."
On love and loss...
"Sometimes life hits you in the head with a brick. Don't lose faith. I'm convinced that the only thing that kept me going was that I loved what I did. You've got to find what you love. And that is as true for your work as it is for your lovers."
On death...
"No one wants to die. Even people who want to go to heaven don't want to die to get there. And yet death is the destination we all share. No one has ever escaped it. And that is as it should be, because Death is very likely the single best invention of Life."

Friday, November 25, 2011

Concert at the Yoga Farm: Stephen Longfellow Fiske

Following the Thanksgiving dinner at the Yoga Farm, and after the meditation and chanting, we had a concert by Stephen Longfellow Fiske. Stephen was an acid rock musician in San Francisco before he became a disciple of Swami Satchidananda, who was a contemporary of Swami Vishnudevananda (the founder of the Yoga Farm) and they both shared the same guru, Swami Sivananda.

Stephen visits the Yoga Farm multiple times a year. He usually has a concert performance on the opening day of the Teacher's Training Course at the Yoga Farm, a month long course where people train to become teachers of yoga in the Sivananda tradition. The courses are held twice a year in May and in October.

I've sat through several of his concerts here at the Yoga Farm and always find his music inspiring even though the concert has more or less the same format and songs every time. This Thanksgiving, he entertained us with songs such as "In my imagination", "Go for it", "Green City", and some peace chants. About the only one I can recognize on a commercial album is "Green City" which is part of his album titled Stephen Longfellow Fiske.

He shared with the us the inspiring story of Andy Lipkis, whose dream was to plant a million trees, and who at the time didn't have a clue as to how he was going to accomplish it, but then went on to found Tree People.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Concert at the Yoga Farm: Jai Uttal

Yesterday evening at the Yoga Farm, instead of the usual discourse following the evening mediation and chanting, there was a concert by Jai Uttal, a Grammy nominated kirtan musician. He was accompanied by Joss Jaffe on the percussions and Dr. Dennis Chernin. The event must have been well advertised as it was very well attended. The Yoga Farm was packed and there were many familiar faces that I have met over the years -- ex-staff, ex-students, etc. I've only seen the Yoga Farm this packed on events such as Thanksgiving.

Jai Uttal's singing filled the room with a lively energy. The format of the songs was call and response. Between songs, he'd tell us stories from Hindu mythology such as the story of Hanuman. At one point, he was in the middle of a story at a really interesting part of the plot and he asked "Should I finish the story or should I sing?" The crowd was unanimous -- "Sing!", they chorused. On the way out, I bought one of his CDs, but I found that it is really not possible to capture the energy of the moment in a recording.

Monday, October 31, 2011

Concert at the Yoga Farm: Latif Bolat

Yesterday evening at the Yoga Farm, instead of the usual discourse following the evening mediation and chanting, there was a concert by Latif Bolat, a Turkish mystic musician. His instrument was the lute, but when he saw the piano at the Yoga Farm, he chose to play one piece on the Piano; he mentioned that prior to becoming a mystic musician, he was an opera singer.

The music was wonderful. And throughout the performance he provided educational tidbits on what the lyrics meant, and the origins of sufism and the music. One of the interesting things that he mentioned was regarding quarreling with God, while he was discussing his book by the same name. He said that one can quarrel with God only if there is true love; if there is fear, quarreling is suppressed.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Concert at the Yoga Farm: Collective Awakening

Yesterday evening at the Yoga Farm, instead of the usual discourse following the evening mediation and chanting, there was a concert by Collective Awakening, a duo of Martin Klabunde and Wing Man Law. They used several interesting instruments -- an adungu, an agokos, and a djembe, a didgeridoo, and tibetan meditation bowls. They have samples of the music on their website and some videos on Youtube.

Two of the pieces I found interesting were Nomad (part of the album Portal Opening) and Amore (which was done as just an instrumental as in the reprise version in the album From the Heart).

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

A story about ego

Back in 2006, I chanced upon a group called Charity Focus. I don't recall exactly how I found it. One of the things they offer is Wednesday evening meditation sessions in the South Bay that are open to all. I had met one of the founders, Nipun Mehta, there and he was one of the several people that nudged me very strongly to take my first 10-day vipassana meditation course. But I digress.

I attended a few of these Wednesday sessions. On August 23rd 2006 they had a special guest, Subba Rao. The following story was told to us that Wednesday by him. I wish there was a transcript of the story as he told it, but since there isn't I'm going to tell it in my own words and hope I can convey the message as intended. Subba Rao himself is a very interesting person, and I would urge you to read this interview.

The story is about man who meditates for many years, even decades, without an ulterior motive. However, on seeing the diligence of his practice, God makes an appearance and asks him to request a boon. He can ask for anything he wants and it shall be granted. The man refuses saying he is meditating just for the sake of meditation itself. To which God says, "In that case, I will grant you a boon anyway. I will grant you the power to heal the sick and the power to eradicate poverty. If you see a sick person and will it, the person will become healthy at once. If you see a person stricken by poverty and will it, the person will become wealthy beyond imagination."

Thus saying, God was about to leave, when the man responds, "Now that you have granted me this power, I must ask for something else." God begins to wonder what it might be that the man has suddenly decided he needs, but nevertheless obliges. So the man continues, "If I should ever exercise this power that you have bestowed upon me, please do not let the thought enter my mind that it is me that is making it happen."

Sunday, October 16, 2011

American Veda

A couple of weekends ago, on my regular Saturday visit at the Yoga Farm, following the evening meditation and chants, instead of the usual discourse, there was a talk by a guest speaker. The speaker was Philip Goldberg and he talked about his book, American Veda.

The book is about how Vedic philosophy has influenced life in America and talks about many of the early spiritual teachers and yoga masters that were responsible for bringing the teachings of the Vedas to the west.

As a part of his talk, he played the following video to show how Vedic philosophy has made its inroads into mainstream spiritual life in America.



Namaste!

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Cars that drive themselves

A few months ago, the Stanford Center for Professional Development sent out an email about a webinar on Design Thinking and the Car of the Future. The webinar by itself is interesting because it discusses innovation in what is considered to be a fairly mature field, but what I found really fascinating was the video of the car that was the result of their work.

This first video shows a self-driven car creating Audi's 4-ring logo in the sand.



The second one is a follow on and shows the climb to Pikes Peak.



We've all heard of cars that can parallel-park themselves, but the reason I found this fascinating was that it brings complete automation to high-performance driving. It makes it clear that the day is not too far when we'll be able to get in a car, program a destination, and have the car drive us there. And in sporty fashion if we so desire.

This could have interesting implications for the world of auto racing. Perhaps in the future, cars will race in competition using computer algorithms instead of drivers.

Update 02/21/13 - Commerically viable autonomous cars?

Just received a related piece of information from IEEE Spectrum -- UK unveils 'affordable' self-driving RobotCar.  Researchers in the UK are attempting to build a self-driving car that will add just $150 to the cost of the base car.

Update 07/10/13 - Smart cars getting hacked

Car with more smarts bring with them another problem -- that of being hacked.  This poses problems in two areas -- break-ins and taking over of the driving controls.  You can read more about these risks in these articles:
Update 5/28/14 - Google's self-driving car

Google blog recently posted the following article -- Just press go: designing a self-driving vehicle.

Related articles

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Sivananda Ashram Yoga Farm

For the last 5-1/2 years, I have spent almost every Saturday evening at the Yoga Farm in Grass Valley, CA which is a Sivananda ashram. There is so much to write about this place that I don't know where to start or how to structure it, but I figure I'll begin with discussing how I found out about it and what drew me there.

In subsequent posts, I'll write more about some of the things that I have learned there including the diet, asana practice, programs and guest performances that I have experienced over my many visits.

First visit

I first read about the Yoga Farm in the January 2005 issue of Sacramento Magazine. I didn't actually visit until many months later in the Summer.

When I inquired about the lineage, I was told that the ashram was founded by Swami Vishnudevanda, a disciple of Swami Sivananda. I hadn't heard of either of them. I now know that Swami Sivananda was a prominent spiritual master who had many famous disciples including Swami Satchitananda who founded the Integral Yoga Institute and Swami Chinmayananda who founded the Chinmaya Mission.

I got a brief tour of the place. I remember the nice aroma of the food from the kitchen as I passed it. I walked along a few of the trails and had a brief chat with one of the visitors that I happened to run into. I remember talking about the stomach problems I was having back then -- acidity, bloating, etc. -- and he told me he had had stomach problems in a previous life as well, but he was now over them because he had learned to just take life as it came.

I thought the place was very peaceful but I wasn't sure what to make of it. I left thinking I might be back some day. But I soon forgot all about it.

Second visit

In May 2006, as I resigned at my job in preparation for a new one, I went through a lot of stress. (I don't deal well with change, and it felt like life had just been tossing me around.) At that time, I don't know how, but I just thought of this place and aroma of the food from the kitchen. I called them and asked if it was OK if I just stopped by for dinner and nothing else. They said that would be fine. So I went there for dinner. The food was all vegetarian (I was vegetarian even back then) and tasted really great. Their Teacher's Training Course (TTC) was in progress and the place was bustling with activity. I chatted with some of the students there and then left. The next morning, I found that the food had an amazing effect on my digestion. My stomach had never felt as good before. And so I went back the next day.

The next day I decided to stay for satsang. Satsang began with a short meditation (about 20 min) followed by devotional chants to music followed by a discourse. I left after Satsang which was around 10 pm. Despite that being a stressful time for me, I slept better than I had slept in months. The chants reminded me of some of the chants I had learned during childhood, but there were several that I didn't know.

And so I returned for the food and satsang day after day for the next 2 weeks.

Saturdays

I then had to start my new job which was in the Bay Area. I wanted to keep coming back to the Yoga Farm to learn more about the Hindu philosophy, the mantras, and of course to enjoy the food which had allowed me to experience what normal digestion was supposed to feel like. As a result, I decided to maintain a weekly commute to the Bay Area and keep my "home" in Rocklin so that I could keep visiting the ashram. I decided that I would visit the ashram at least once a week (every Saturday), and if the effect wears off, then I'd relocate to the Bay Area. 5-1/2 years of visiting almost every Saturday and the effect hasn't yet worn off. I still enjoy the food, enjoy the discussions that I have with visitors and staff there, and enjoy the meditation and satsang. It helps me maintain a balance in my life between materialism and spirituality. It has taught me that there is more to life than the rat race of material existence.

Other days

I sometimes visit on other days as well. Since the schedule is more or less the same 365 days of the year and since they are open to visitors every single day, it takes little planning to visit. Many a day I have spontaneously decided to go up there to spend the evening. I usually get there by meal time, which is at 6 pm and then attend the evening program leaving at 10 pm.

They also have programs around Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year's Eve and that is where I usually go to spend my evenings on those days.

It has truly been a blessing for me to find this community of like-minded people in a spiritually uplifting environment. I have met some wonderful people there and enjoyed many interesting conversations on topics such as food, holistic health, and the meaning of life.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

What are we eating?

I recently saw Forks Over Knives which is a documentary about the health benefits of a whole foods plant-based diet over a diet of animal foods. The movie had interesting anecdotes of people that were able to reverse their illnesses such as diabetes and high cholesterol. However, I didn't think it was as well made as some of the other movies that I've seen about food. As a result, I decided to put together a list of movies about our food. So here goes.
Of these, I'd give Diet for a New America and Food, Inc. my highest rating. Those two are an absolute "must see". In particular, Food Inc. was an eye-opener for me on how a few corporations control the bulk of the food supply in the US, get to dictate the way food is grown and labeled, and ultimately control what shows up on the shelves of our favorite grocery stores.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Trouble with telemarketers?

If you want to stop receiving calls from telemarketers, you can register your phone numbers (both land lines and cell phone numbers are accepted) with the National Do Not Call Registry. I have used this for several years now and it really does work. It takes about a month to take effect and is permanent; i.e. you would have to change your registration to start receiving such calls again.

Other useful sites

Friday, May 20, 2011

I am

I am a big fan of indie movies and I happened to watch a really fun movie today -- I AM. It's an interesting documentary that tries to investigate what is fundamentally wrong with human nature that we have so many problems in the world by asking the following questions:
  • What's wrong with the world?
  • What can we do about it?
One of the many thoughts expressed is that we are all interconnected at a fundamental level and the education system that we grow up in teaches us to forget that and instead encourages to believe in, and to celebrate, our separatedness from everything.

The title of the movie is inspired by the following incident. The Times had invited several eminent authors to write an essay on the subject "What's wrong with the world?" Among those authors was G. K. Chesterton and his response was:
Dear Sirs,
I am.
Sincerely,
G. K. Chesterton.
Here is a Q&A with the author after a screening of the film at Google.  I found it quite thought provoking.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

On bad jobs and good bosses

I recently got an email from the IEEE with links to a couple of interesting articles.

With the economic downturn, most people are quick to point out that one should be grateful that they even have a job. Here's an article from Time that suggests that having a bad job is worse than no job!

And wouldn't it be great if more companies tried to do what Google's doing according to this NY Times article on Google's quest to build a better boss?

Update 11/27/15

Came across this interesting article about how to recognize a broken corporate culture.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

10-day vipassana meditation course: After the course

This is one of multiple posts related to my experience at a 10-day meditation course. The first post is here.

I thought it might be appropriate to end this series with a few final closing thoughts, especially given my experience following the last course.

Would I go to another course? I might, but I would not go there with the expectation that it would address any problems in life. I might go there just to deepen my practice and I'll go at a time when I feel life is going reasonably well, rather than when I'm feeling all jarred and shaken up.

Each time that I have taken the course, even though the course instruction is identical (given by audio and video), I have found that I learned something that I had missed previously. So I think there was definitely benefit of going to the course multiple times, but the "new" information was definitely less between the second and the third, compared to that between the first and the second courses. With respect to deepening of the practice, I have found that I'm able to sit longer with less effort following each course. So there has definitely been some value there.

Many of the things that I experienced are perhaps not unique to this tradition. A lot of it probably comes just from being away from the overload of stimuli that our minds and bodies are subjected to constantly when in a normal urban setting.

One thing that I really like about the way these courses are run is that there is no emphasis on money whatsoever. There is a barely a mention about monetary donations and voluntary service during the last couple of discourses. The centers don't accept donations from people that have not taken a course, and even after the course there is very little soliciting. There are many meditation courses that want participants to pay 100's or even thousands of dollars for a few hours of meditation instruction, and here is a 10-day residential course that asks for nothing other than the commitment to follow the code of conduct. It is really quite rare to find such places in this day and age. The only other ones that I'm aware of in the US that operate on similar principles are the International Meditation Center (which is from Goenka's teacher and has a suggested donation of $350 as of this writing) and The Bhavana Society, neither of which I have been to.

All-in-all, I'm grateful to have had this experience. It has definitely changed my view of life.

10-day Vipassana meditation course: Experiences during the course

This is one of multiple posts related to my experience at a 10-day meditation course. The first post is here.

Of all the posts, this is perhaps the post where your experience is unlikely to match mine. The reason is that I have taken the course 3 times and the experiences during the course were very different each time. So other than serving as a log of what I recall of my experiences during the course, they aren't really of much use. Note that we are not allowed to take notes during the course and I'm not big on documenting experiences, so this is really the first time that I've tried to put these memories in writing. They are by no means complete, but I'll try and cover significant experiences.

I'll describe each of the courses separately.

The first course

During the first day of the first course, immediately after the first sit when the period of silence began, I started to feel overwhelmed. I can't describe in words what was going through my mind, but I just felt I wanted to break free. I wanted to speak to someone to ask if they were having a similar experience. I started to feel helpless like an animal that was going through overwhelming emotions but was unable to express itself. I got into bed and things only got worse. When I closed my eyes I started seeing images that didn't make any sense. I had to open my eyes to keep that from happening. Then I felt that I was being brainwashed. I started contemplating leaving the course but remembered that the parking lot was barricaded so it wouldn't be possible to silently leave. Amidst all of these overwhelming experiences, I gave in to chanting. Immediately my mind calmed down. I was able to reason that I would stay for the 10 days but instead I would decide what parts of the instruction I wanted to follow. I could simply meditate the way I had being doing before the course. (I ended up following all of the instructions for practice as given.) Note that we were cautioned very strongly against chanting or engaging in any other spiritual practice during the course, so I had broken this rule.

The next day, during the interview with the teacher, I mentioned this experience and that I had chanted. I asked if that would detract from the benefit of the course. He said I should not have chanted and that the feeling of being "overwhelmed" was due to the mind becoming very concentrated. He said the next time something like that happened, I should just breathe through it. I never did feel as overwhelmed again during the course. In one of the discourses, Goenka talks about how even he had this overwhelming feeling of wanting to leave the course, but was talked out of it. So I guess it's kind of normal to go through that.

By the second or third day, I started to feel a ringing in the left ear. I talked to the teacher about this as well. He told me if I would "know" if it was something that needed medical attention. Most likely it was again a sensation that was always present, but that I was not normally aware of. The ringing continued throughout the course but went away a day or so after the course. In subsequent courses, the ringing reappeared on the first day itself. The best explanation I could think of was that mind becomes very tuned to sensations within the body when at the course because we have cut the external stimuli to a minimum (no talking during the course, not even eye contact with other participants, no reading or writing, etc.).

Next, during the first instruction of vipassana, I felt as if my body was being massaged and layer of something was being removed, almost like a sensation of exfoliation. After a few more days of vipassana, the whole body was filled with subtle sensations and that lasted until the end of the course. The sensations were gone a day or so after the course.

By the 7th or 8th day, I had another somewhat jarring experience. I had a feeling of being in a time warp -- the clocks had moved forward several years, I was in old age surrounded by some of my friends who were also old, the previous generation (our parents) were all gone, my friends' children were all grown up, and all of my life seemed meaningless -- all of the things that I worry about incessantly just didn't seem to matter.

Towards the end of the course, a fear started to emerge -- a fear that the course hadn't done anything for me and that it didn't help address any of the problems that I was hoping for it to address. I felt as miserable and fearful as I did before the course. I discussed this with the teacher and he said the course is supposed to help give us strength to deal with problems in life, so I should just trust it.

There was a lot of physical pain during the course. Even though I was used to sitting without a cushion at home, I simply couldn't do it here without a cushion. Early in the course, during the anapana phase, I discussed the issue with the teacher. He said that we should just stay focused on the breath, and that once we get to vipassana it would get easier to deal with the pain since pain is "just another sensation". I found this to be somewhat true in that when doing vipassana we do become aware of the reactivity of the mind to the sensation of pain ("I want this to end, I want this to end, ...") and as the instruction of the course says, we need to break that reactivity and simply observe. The difference between being aware of the pain but being detached from it versus simply ignoring the pain is very subtle and hard to express in words, but it is something that the course teaches us to experience.

By the end of the course, I felt I had physically aged a few years. The body, even though it was in physical pain from sitting so much, actually felt more supple instead of tense. And there were subtle sensations all over the body.

With respect to food, I found that I lost my appetite as the days progressed. Initially, I'd eat fruit in the evenings, but by the 3rd or 4th day, I just didn't feel like eating any. I lost about 15 lb during the course and I haven't got them back since.

On leaving the course, at a physical level the ringing the ears and the subtle sensations were both gone within a couple of days at most. When trying to do the scanning as required by vipassana, the body felt dead. I immediately became aware of the effect of being away from external stimuli that we are inundated with in the regular world. While I didn't feel any kind of "aha" experience in the mind, there was definitely a shift in the subconscious mind. A number of situations that would normally cause me to become reactive and angry simply didn't have that effect. That doesn't mean that there was nothing that would upset me; rather it took a lot more to get me upset and I would look back in retrospect at various situations and say "oh, that statement is something that would have normally upset me before".

The second course

The second course was no where near as profound in terms of experiences as the first one.

I arrived at the course a day late (a luxury afforded only to "old students"!) because of some work commitments. When I got my seat assignment and went to look for cushions there were none. All I was able to get was a couple of blankets. As a result I struggled to find a comfortable posture, and this was the time when I switched from sitting on my ankles to sitting cross-legged for meditation.

Even in this course, I had a lot of trouble sitting still even though I had been practicing regularly at home. When I discussed this informally with the course manager after the course (not an official interview with the teacher), he said it might be because I'm combining it with a strong morality practice while at the course. In the discourses, Goenka seems to suggest that pain (and other undesireable sensations) arise because we are practicing as we should and that is how the technique works. During this course, I signed up for maybe one or two interviews with the teacher and the only question I recall asking about was that I felt my eyes drying up during meditation (which happened during normal sits as well) and teacher recommended using eyedrops (which I don't really use even now).

I had the ringing ear problem appear on the first day itself. And I also experienced the subtle sensations all over the body. And just like after the first course, both of these were gone within a couple of days of leaving the course.

I was traveling a lot for work around the time of the course (both before and after) so I didn't notice any significant changes either at the conscious or subconscious level other than that I was able to sit for longer periods of time more easily. But overall the feeling was quite positive.

The third course

I should mention that at some point (a year or so after the second course) I started feeling my life getting "too difficult". I also used to feel a lot of eye-strain after scanning the body (perhaps because I was trying to point my eyes as I moved the attention to different areas of the body). As a result I stopped the practice of vipassana in daily meditation and instead just continued practicing anapana.

I had the same difficulty with sitting in the third course as I did at the second course. I found it very painful despite sitting quite regularly.

As with the second course, I had the ringing ear problem appear on the first day itself. I also experienced the subtle sensations all over the body. And just like after the first and second courses, both of these were gone within a couple of days of leaving the course.

I left the third course feeling more anxious than I was before the course. As a result it sent me down the path of questioning -- Is the practice of vipassana right for me? I almost immediately fell back to anapana for my morning sits. I can't bring myself to completely stop practicing meditation (perhaps meditation is addictive!), but since then I have researched several other paths but none seems to appeal to me. For now, I'm happy with just doing anapana and occasionally using the principles of vipassana to observe sensations that arise, but I do not actively scan the body.

In summary

As you can see, there is quite a vast difference between what I experienced at each of the courses. So I don't think it is realistic for one to "look forward" to any of these. In talking to several other participants, I found quite a degree of variation in the experiences. Some folks had similar experiences, other had experiences that I would consider bizarre, and yet others had no such experiences.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

10-day vipassana meditation course: The technique

This is one of multiple posts related to my experience at a 10-day meditation course. The first post is here.

The purpose of this post is to give the reader a flavor for what the meditation technique at the course is like. It is by no means extensive enough for one to use as a guide for correct practice. And there is always the possibility of doing oneself more harm than good by practicing incorrectly. While the information below is correct to the best of my knowledge, I can say for sure that is it is not complete. Further, I may be wrong in thinking that even what is presented is correct. So please do not use this description as some kind of instruction manual.

There are 3 meditation techniques that are taught during the course -- anapana, vipassana, and metta -- and they are each introduced at different times during the course. Let's look at each of these in more detail.

Anapana

The course begins with the technique of anapana. Anapana is a Pali word that literally means "in breath out breath." (This translation was not provided during the course; I found it by doing by doing a web search, so it may be incorrect.) The goal of this technique is to develop the concentration of the mind to the point where vipassana can be performed.

The instruction of anapana is given at the first sit in the evening of day of arrival at the course and this is all that we do during the first 3 days of the course. We begin with trying to sense the in-breath and the out-breath and keep the mind focused on observing the breathing no matter what comes up. The basic instruction is to observe the natural breath without trying to control it in anyway, or without wishing it to be any different. As the practice progresses, we gradually narrow the area of focus to the area inside and around the nostrils, to just the nostrils, and finally to the sensations on the area between the upper lip and the nostrils. The smaller the area of focus, the sharper is the concentration of the mind. If we are able to keep the mind concentrated on this area continuously for a minute, then we can be considered ready for the practice of vipassana.

For nearly 3 whole days all we do is focus on the breath regardless of whether we are just sitting in meditation, or whether we are walking, eating, lying down, etc.

Vipassana

On the afternoon of the 3rd day, the first instruction for vipassana is given. Vipassana is a Pali word that literally means insight or wisdom. Practicing vipassana is supposed to cultivate these qualities in the meditator.

Once the mind is sufficiently concentrated, one may switch to practicing vipassana. In vipassana, we systematically scan the body from the top of the head to the feet in a specific order observing the sensations on each and every part of the body. We are told to observe the sensations as they are no matter how pleasant or unpleasant. The mind must remain equanimous; in other words, there must be complete lack of craving for, or aversion to, any particular sensation. As with anapana, there are several stages. Initially, the scans are slow and the sensations are mostly gross (i.e. large areas of pain or tightness, lack of sensation, etc.). With progress, the sensations become more and more subtle (a sense of particles vibrating) and the speed of scanning is increased. Next, if one gets to the stage where the entire surface of the body is covered in subtle sensations (complete absence of gross sensations) then one begins to scan inside the body. Eventually, if one gets to the stage where subtle sensations are being experienced all over the body, both inside and on the surface of the body, then one is said to be experiencing the state of bhanga or dissolution (i.e. a dissolving of the body into its particles). In this state the mind has been able to pierce through the illusion of apparent or gross reality in which the body appears solid and unchanging. And should one make it to this state, we are told to remain very alert so as not to develop a craving for the sensations observed (it is supposed to be an extremely pleasurable sensation) or we will fall back into the misery that results from the mind's addiction to craving and aversion.

The practice of vipassana regardless of what state one is in is really all about observing sensations without resorting to craving and aversion. Craving and aversion are the habit pattern of the mind which are the cause of misery and suffering. Practicing vipassana is supposed to rid the mind of this habit pattern allowing us to be free from misery.

The practice of vipassana continues from Day 3 until the morning of Day 10.

Metta

The third technique of meditation is metta. Metta is a Pali word that means loving kindness. According to S. N. Goenka, the 10 days of vipassana is like performing a deep surgical operation of the mind. The practice of metta is used to close the wound and apply healing balm.

Metta practice begins on the morning of Day 10. This practice is about generating feelings of loving kindness for all beings. It is stressed that metta is as important as vipassana and that one must always follow the practice of vipassana with a short metta practice.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

10-day vipassana meditation course: Course schedule and instruction

This is one of multiple posts related to my experience at a 10-day meditation course. The first post is here.

We are now ready to dive deeper into some of the details of the course.

Course timetable

First off, even though the course is called a 10-day course, it actually requires 12 days -- the day of arrival and the day of departure are not included in the 10-days. For the actual 10 days of the course, the timetable is listed here, and is reproduced below.

4:00 am - Morning wake-up bell
4:30-6:30 am - Meditate in the hall or in your room
6:30-8:00 am - Breakfast break
8:00-9:00 am - Group meditation in the hall
9:00-11:00 am - Meditate in the hall or in your room according to the teacher's instructions
11:00 am-12:00 noon - Lunch break
12:00 noon-1:00 pm - Rest and interviews with the teacher
1:00-2:30 pm - Meditate in the hall or in your room
2:30-3:30 pm - Group meditation in the hall
3:30-5:00 pm - Meditate in the hall or in your room according to the teacher's instructions
5:00-6:00 pm - Tea break
6:00-7:00 pm - Group meditation in the hall
7:00-8:15 pm - Teacher's discourse in the hall
8:15-9:00 pm - Group meditation in the hall
9:00-9:30 pm - Question time in the hall
9:30 pm - Retire to your own room -- lights out

As you can tell, there's a lot of meditation time in the schedule -- over 10 hours! All of this is sitting meditation, either at your assigned seat in the meditation hall, or in your room. Walking meditation, as taught in some other schools of meditation, is not permitted. The only time that we are allowed to take walks is during the breaks. If they notice too many people violating this, the course manager will put up a large notice outside the meditation hall.

While this is more-or-less the same schedule for all of the 10 days, there are some slight variations. On the 10th day, silence is broken and the schedule differs quite a bit. Any changes to the schedule are usually communicated quite clearly -- there is a notice board in the dining hall where the "schedule of the day" is posted.

Let me now talk about each of the activities listed above in more detail.

Wake-up bell

The bell is usually rung by one of the old students that has volunteered to do this. They go around all the cabins ringing the gong-style bell. In my experience so far, there are many people that continue sleeping past the wake up bell. You have a steady continuum of actual wake-up times between the wake-up bell and breakfast time. How strictly they try to enforce it depends on the course manager, but I think it's pretty easy to sleep past the wake-up bell and first meditation session. I wouldn't recommend it though -- part of the purpose of the course is learning how to deal with the resistance of the mind to discipline.

Meditation sessions

If you pay careful attention to the schedule, there are 3 types of meditation sessions.
  • Meditate in the hall or your room: These sessions are where you can meditate on your assigned seat in the hall or in your own room. The meditation hall is typically only 50% occupied during these sits. 
  • Group meditation in the hall: These are groups sessions where all participants are required to be in the hall. If you're not in your assigned seat, the course manager or one of the course servers will come looking for you! Empty pods are indicative of students that may have left the course (either because they are "old students" sitting the course part-time or because they are "new students" that decided not to complete the course), or they may have moved to the back of room so they can rest against the wall (towards the end of the course many people migrate to the part of the hall where they can rest their back). 
  • Meditate in the hall or in your room according to the teacher's instructions: During these sits, everyone is required to be in the hall at the start of the sit. We start the sit together and then the assistant teacher will either require "new students" or "old students" to continue to be in the hall, while the other group can either continue with their meditation in the hall or in their rooms. The individuals of the group that are required to stay back are called by name to come up to the teacher and are asked a question about the practice; e.g. "Are you feeling sensations in the body?"
Some time around the middle of the course, participants are told to maintain adhitthana during each of the 3 1-hour group sittings. These are "sittings of strong resolve" where the participants are encouraged to sit as still as possible with no significant adjustment to the hands or legs and eyes closed, no matter what comes up. The reason for this is that even the slightest movement of the body creates ripples in the mind and that affects the depth of meditation.

As mentioned earlier, walking meditation is not allowed during the course. There are walking paths but these are mainly used for getting light exercise during the breaks.

Does everyone really have to sit for all 10 hours? While that is what the schedule says and what the course organizers would like you to do in order to do justice to the time spent at the course, there is no one policing course participants to see if they are actually meditating during all of that time. Other than the required sitting periods identified above, many people spend time in their room meditating for only parts of those periods and perhaps taking short naps in between. The things that are probably not tolerated are taking walks or doing personal chores during those times. When I took my first course, I had trouble getting to 6 or 7 hours of meditation and that was by the end of the course. In the following courses, I was actually able to sit for most of the scheduled meditation time, although whenever I had the option, I chose to be in my room rather than in the meditation hall.

Method of instruction

All of the meditation instruction for the course is provided by audio recording of the voice of S. N. Goenka. Every meditation session is guided. Most sessions are a repeat of instructions previously provided. The exceptions are the 3 1-hour required group sittings. Any new instruction is provided at one of these, typically the one in the afternoon. The technique is presented in a very step-by-step fashion starting with very simple instruction and slowly build up until all aspects of the technique have been covered.

There is no official publication (paper or audio) that contains the instructions provided during the course. The only way to get this instruction is to actually attend a course.

Q&A sessions

There are 2 Q&A sessions every day. One is in the afternoon after lunch, and the other in the evening after the discourse. The afternoon one is a private session with the assistant teacher in a dedicated room and requires prior sign-up earlier in the day -- there is a sign-up sheet available during breakfast and lunch. In the evening session the questions are public in the sense we just queue up in front the teacher in the meditation hall and ask our questions.

There is strong emphasis that the Q&A sessions are for clarification of the technique only and not for philosophical discussion. One of my friends that I had talked to before taking the course told me I should take full advantage of the Q&A session. During my first course, I signed up every day for the afternoon Q&A session for multiple reasons:
  • I just wanted to say something after a whole day of silence! 
  • To get feedback from the teacher about my interpretation of the previous day's instruction and to fine-tune my practice of that instruction. 
  • To get tips on dealing with any distractions (emotional and physical) that were affecting my ability to practice.
Personal time

There are very few slots for "personal time" during the course. There are short breaks between the sessions during which people usually take short walks and a few longer periods during which people try and schedule showers or official naps (as opposed to the unofficial naps that are sometimes taken during scheduled meditation time!).

Evening discourses

The evening discourses are provided are by a video recording of S. N. Goenka. Everyone is required to be present in the meditation hall during the discourse. Following the discourse, there is a Q&A session and one may ask clarification questions about the discourse from the assistant teacher.

The discourses are supposed to go hand-in-hand with the "practice" providing the "theory" portion. It explains in detail things like the basis of technique and the importance of morality in the practice. Without understanding of the theory behind the practice, it may become hard for the course participant to appreciate the reason for the strict code of conduct required by the course. I found the information quite useful and S. N. Goenka is definitely an engaging speaker, something which I experienced at the time I heard him speak at DeAnza college. There are several videos of him on YouTube, for example this one which is an introduction to the course.

A summary of the discourses given on each of the 10-days of the course is available in html form (free) and in print form. If you search on the 'net, you'll probably even find a pdf copy of it. Finally, it's also available as a collection of DVDs as well. From an introductory standpoint, I personally think that the Art of Living: Vipassana Meditation by William Hart is a better place to start.

Meals

There are 2 meals served during the day -- breakfast at 6:30 am and lunch at 11:00 am. There is tea and fruit at 5:00 pm. Fruit is only supposed to be taken by new students. Old students are not supposed to eat anything after lunch.

The diet is lacto-vegetarian - no meat, no eggs, but milk/cheese/yogurt are present. They do try to accommodate special requests to the best they can (usually by asking you to skip the items that don't meet your criteria). Being in the US, the breakfasts usually consist of a variety of hot and cold cereals, regular milk, yogurt, soy milk, rice milk, bread (with a toaster), butter, peanut butter, jelly, and fruits. Lunches usually consist of rice and/or pasta, vegetables, and salad with some sort of theme like Indian, Mexican, or Chinese.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

10-day vipassana mediation course: The first day

This is one of multiple posts related to my experience at a 10-day meditation course. The first post is here.

I took my first course at Dhamma Mahavana in North Fork, CA. I was only about 4 hours away from the center by car so I drove myself. For those coming from out of town, a ride-share page is provided to try and coordinate rides which is especially useful for those flying in to a nearby airport. The centers tend to be in remote places and getting there by public transport can get quite expensive.

On arrival you have to checkin at the registration desk and get a room. As I mentioned in my earlier post, you have to fill out a paper version of the registration form that you filled out when you first registered for the course.

Room assignment

At this particular center, there are older dormitories with bunk beds and regular twin beds, and there are newer residence buildings with individual cells. There is a lot of emphasis on isolation, hence the individual cells. From what I know, most of the newer accommodations at existing centers tend to be individual cells. On my first course, I was assigned a bed in one of the dormitories and at my second course (also at the same center) I was assigned an individual cell. Regardless of the type of accommodation the bathrooms were shared. They have wheelbarrows to get your luggage from the car to your room.

Orientation

At around 5 pm on the day of arrival is a light meal followed by an orientation. In the orientation, we are told about the code of conduct, and various course logistics such as the location of the men's and women's areas. We are also asked once again to commit to beingat the course for the full duration and are given the opportunity to leave should we decide that it might not work for us. We are also told about the names of the assistant teachers for the course, and are introduced to the course managers -- one for men and one for women.

The course manager is the one that you are supposed to talk to about any logistical problems during the course and things like not feeling well, etc.

The assistant teachers are the ones who run the meditation sessions. They are also the ones who answer specific questions that one may have about the technique. There are two times in the day when one can ask questions of the teacher and I'll write more about this when I discuss the course schedule in a later post. It should be emphasized that they really are assistant teachers. The main teacher for the course is S. N. Goenka himself; the meditation instruction is provided via an audio recording and the discourses are provided via a video recording.

Seat assignment

Following orientation is a short break after which everyone assembles outside the meditation hall. There are separate entrances for men and women. The course manager starts calling names and assigns seat numbers; each one of us goes into the hall and occupies our assigned seats. That seat is the one that you use for the entire duration of the course. The teachers sit in front facing the rest of the hall, the course managers and the servers sit in the first row, and seats are typically assigned such that "old students" are towards the front, and "new students" towards the rear of the room.

The "seat" is simply a square foam cushion with a cover on it. There are additional cushions provided. The cushions are usually all gone by the second day of the course because people in pain keep adding different kinds of cushions.

When I took the course the first time, I picked up only one cushion. I found the base foam cushion very uncomfortable. Instead I chose to get rid of it and used a couple of blankets to take place of the cushion.

It would have been really nice to get some instruction on posture. Unfortunately none is provided and newbies tend to really struggle with trying to find the right posture. without correct posture, it becomes very difficult (almost masochistic) to try and hold steady for long periods of time. Fortunately, I had been meditating for some time and had been alerted to the issue about posture and already had a "favorite" one. I just had trouble being comfortable in that posture on the original base cushion and had to replace that with blankets.

From this point on, there really won't be an opportunity to speak so even though you'll be surrounded by the same group of people you won't be able to say a word to them!

The first sit

Following the seat assignments, there is a brief video discourse during which Goenka repeatedly refers to the course as a "deep surgical operation of the mind". He says it is bound to bring up unpleasant experiences and we should make a firm resolve to stay for the entire course no matter what unpleasantness we may have to deal with so that the operation can be brought to a proper completion rather than being halted abruptly.

After the discourse, there is audio instruction during which everyone is asked to formally make a request for instruction of the technique. The first steps of anapana are taught by taking everyone through a guided meditation.

Following the first sit, the period of "noble silence" begins for the next 10 days.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

10-day vipassana meditation course: Registration

This is one of multiple posts related to my experience at a 10-day meditation course. The first post is here.

Registration for the course is quite easy. They have a website with online registration. You select a center -- they have several all over the world. Each center has its own course schedule posted. Even though the centers all teach the same course, they are actually supposed to be autonomous; each center maintains its own finances and has its own managing committee, all of who are unpaid volunteers (at least as far as I know).

Course availability

For each of the courses they list availability for men and women. Even if a course is wait-listed, there is usually a very good chance of being accepted in it. Because there is no charge for the course, there is nothing to be paid at the time of registration. As a result, many people register and then cancel later because they cannot make it. Courses around holidays such as Thanksgiving and Christmas fill up quite fast.

Once you have taken a full 10-day course, you are considered an "old student" (as opposed to a "new student"). As an old student, you are eligible to sit courses part-time (i.e. only attend a part of 10-day course), but even with old students, they usually give preference to those that want to sit the full 10-day course. Only old students are eligible for serving at a course and for enrolling for shorter duration courses (3-day and 1-day courses) and longer duration courses (30-day and 60-day courses).

Registration form

Once you decide on a course, you fill out the online registration form. You will be asked to read the code of conduct before filling out the form. There are a few weird things about the information that is requested. They ask about current spiritual practices and other forms of meditation that the applicant may have been exposed to. They ask about psychological health, medications, etc. I wasn't ever questioned about things I wrote but it's possible they may be trying to determine the suitability of the applicant to participate in such a course -- it is after all quite physically and psychologically demanding.

One thing I would recommend with the registration form is copying & pasting a copy of the responses. I didn't do that and I kind of regret it. If you go for subsequent courses, or if you cancel and reapply later, then you will have to answer all of the same questions again. Also -- and this is really weird -- you have to fill out the same form again in paper form when you arrive at the course.

Once the registration form is submitted you get contacted soon after, usually within a day or two, about whether you have been accepted into the course or placed on a waiting list. If registering for a course far in advance of the course date you will be requested to confirm your intent to attend two weeks before the beginning of the course.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

10-day vipassana meditation course: Overview

In prior posts, I discussed my journey into meditation and various meditation techniques that I have been exposed to. This next series of posts are an attempt to capture my experience at a 10-day Vipassana meditation course taught by S. N. Goenka. I've attended 3 of these so far. The first one was in May 2007, the second was in July 2008, and the third was in June 2010. I took the first and second courses at the center in North Fork, CA, and did the third one at a newer center in Kelseyville, CA. This account is mostly about my first course, but I'll point out things that were significantly different between the courses.

I was quite apprehensive before the course, both because of concerns about being brainwashed, and also about the physical and mental discomfort that I knew would result from sitting for several hours of meditation each day. However, I decided to sign up anyway, because I was really attracted to the teachings as described to me by friends and acquaintances that had taken the course, and I expected it might transform my life. The latter despite often being told not to look at meditation as a quick fix to all of one's problems. For more about why I even got into meditation to begin with, you can read My journey into meditation.

I should mention a few things that I feel helped prepare me for the course. First, I personally knew several people that had taken this course. Of these I knew 2 quite well so I had the chance to ask several in-depth questions about the course including the type of instruction and the physical and mental strain induced by the course as well as what benefits I might get from attending it. Second, I had read The Art of Living: Vipassana Meditation by William Hart which is a Q&A-type discussion between the author and S. N. Goenka. That book does not give any clue about the actual course instruction but rather discusses the foundations of the technique and how it is designed to work. Finally, I had been meditating regularly for 5 years by the time I took the first course, so I had been exposed to what meditation was like, and the struggles of mind and body with being able to sit still and silent; however, as I was to find out later, meditating for such extended periods as done during the course is quite different and results in a very different experience.

I'll be discussing my experience in separate posts:
I should note that these posts are simply a description of my experience and can hopefully serve as a guide to what one might expect should they decide to take the course. It is not an attempt to persuade anyone to, or dissuade anyone from, taking the course.