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.