Archive for the ‘Insight’ Category

Just before my last meditation retreat in mid-August, I was fortunate to see off my dear friends Uma and Sriram¬†with a dinner and sleepover ūüôā on the eve of their big move back to India. ¬†They were so lovingly persistent and curious in asking about how my retreat went that the answer below finally flowed out over email. ¬†The long story and ‘play-by-play’ still hasn’t found time to come out, so I thought I’d share this semi-concise note to them in a more public forum.
I’ve been grappling with the right way to share my Vipassana experience because I suppose I’m simultaneously concerned about people thinking I’m crazy, and not being sure myself that I’m sane ūüôā ¬†I’ve mentioned it before, but this last retreat was the most difficult and profound sit ever. ¬†To people who have asked thus far, I only shared the difficult part of the story without the other side (which was equally challenging, but not as negative). ¬†Suffice to say that I remembered things, and saw connections, and experienced insights that the rational part of my mind can’t explain. ¬†Greater aspects of the work I have to do in this lifetime, both on the personal, family, and community level became clear to me though I still find my courage in integrating all of that to be less than the seemingly large task. ¬†Perhaps most importantly, it was clear to me that all the identities I/we create for ourselves are false (by virtue of being only partially and superficially true). ¬†They’re just stories, but the extent to which we cling to them is the extent that we take away from the scintillating mystery of who we are in this very moment. ¬†Prior to the retreat, I had this growing and very uncomfortable problem of not knowing who I was–something I had never really felt in my life prior to the last year or so. ¬†After the retreat, I still don’t know the answer, but I’m no longer afraid that I don’t know (and so its not a problem that I can’t explain who I am to people who try to size me up). ¬†That alone has felt liberating. ¬†And I’m less locked in to any story about “me” from any part of my past. ¬†I feel more free, and more fearless, and more committed to staring down my weaknesses and owning up to my mistakes. ¬†
In short, things will never be the same.

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Talking about insights after a meditation retreat seems a bit like walking on a pool of corn starch.  Immersion (in wisdom) would be the expected outcome, but its definitely more titillating to dance along the surface by talking about a truth instead of living it.  The danger is that this dance conveys a deceptive image of mastery, whereas the stillness and acceptance of the truly wise would dissolve any momentary solidity into a natural fluidity and immersion that allowed for much more than a fleeting moment of sensational glory.

So with the caveat of not having fully mastered and integrated my insights, here is a high-level play-by-play of what came out of my last 10-day retreat.

Visualizations & Ideas

During the first couple days of my retreat, I often struggled with intensely vivid and absorptive visualizations or seductively engaging (and often grand) ideas that distracted from the task at hand.  These seemed to burst forth as my breath would become more still, and would make me completely lose track of observing respiration.  When I emerged from that, I found myself ironically making mental to-do lists to capture and drive these flashes despite recognizing the futility of that process. Ultimately, the fireworks display of my mind calmed enough to stay with my breath and not become enraptured and dazzled by these bursts.

Attachment vs. Love

The first and biggest wall I hit was one of deep attachment to my wife.  I found myself missing her so intensely that its fair to say that I was addicted to her presence.  It was very difficult to get to the bottom this at the level of what was happening in my body, and at times disheartening to feel so challenged and ensnared by these feelings.

Despite knowing better at the intellectual level, my love had become confused or conflated with attachment, even driving me to ask the assistant teacher in a moment of weakness if its possible to separate the two.  His answers did not satisfy, but gave me enough to keep pushing onwards.

Almost all of my senses and my mind craved some sort of contact with her, but as I began to slow down and stabilize, I saw beneath my game.  Behind each sensory or mental contact that I craved lay an idea about some sort of quality of hers that I attached to this, and it turned out that it was the quality that I was craving more deeply than the sensation.   But that too is not fully accurate, as every idea I held also carried a subtle sensation which I craved.  There were so many nuances and complexities to this that I did not succeed in fully understanding it myself, but as the game started crack, another reality became apparent.

Stillness and observation of the craving lead to the unraveling of its meaning, and as more of these unraveled, a sensation started arising in my chest that I often feel when I’m experiencing love.¬† Though I did not completely work this out, it seemed that my attachment was actually choking the flow of love despite the attachment somehow tracing back to love itself.¬† What was that hiccup, or twist, that caused the confusion that lead to this spiral of complexity?¬† I did not find a standard answer, but I suspect its a gap in integrity about how to seriously cultivate the qualities I admire in my wife.¬† Contemplating her positive qualities with a concentrated, integrated mind gives rise to both that sensation associated with love in my chest as well as some energy to actually live those qualities with my actions.

Dissolving attachment and the craving behind it was not a diminishing of my love for my wife, but instead a return to a more natural, healthy, and productive state that allowed me to feel and express love more strongly and purely.

One Job In Life

Prior to this retreat, some pretty solid and heavy things were arising on the cushion at home, sometimes leading to real difficulties in day-to-day life.¬† Part of my intention behind this 10-day was to do the ‘heavy-lifting’ there so life at home would be smoother.¬† But after a multi-day struggle with spousal attachment, I discovered that I didn’t have much choice in the personal issues I chose to work on over the next 10 days.

We’re often approaching life with a ‘plan and execute’ strategy, full of to-do lists that never seem to end.¬† Yet there is a harvest of our past actions ripening at every moment, often with both good and bad fruits.¬† The inattention towards what seeds one cast in the past and their respective germination times means that we’re never certain about the harvest we can expect in the moment.¬† And dealing with that unknown harvest of results is half of the job to be done at any point in time.¬† In this sense, the work chooses you.¬† Life decides to drop a challenge in your lap, and that makes it YOUR challenge.

In another way, the work is all the same.  Observe everything that is arising at any moment in time.  Is it good?  Does it lead to happiness for oneself and for others?  If so, amplify it and push it out into the world so others can also benefit.  If not, recycle it back into the soil of the mind to nurture something more wholesome.

We have one job to do: examine the quality of the fruits (or results) we’re receiving, and pay close attention to the quality of the seeds (or intentions) we’re planting.¬† When we perfect that process, I suspect that everything else gets taken care of.

Hard Work

Growth happens outside of our comfort-zone.¬† We all know this, and so we push ourselves when we want to grow.¬† But we’re often too pushy, too impatient.

I discovered that when I got too hardcore about pushing my limits and intensity on the cushion, it turned out to be counterproductive.¬† It was exhausting, and made me not want to work as hard the next day.¬† If I had to quantify it, I would say that 80% of maximum intensity is optimal to stimulate progress.¬† Anything less, and you could definitely do better by working harder.¬† Anything more, and you’re on the burnout trajectory.

I also discovered that some things seem like hard work because we’re looking at them through aversion-colored glasses.¬† Its a worthwhile effort to keep examining the lens of our perspective, because every so often, the those lenses shatter and that which seems so difficult actually turns out to be very easy.

That said, I think I only averaged about 70% maximum intensity, and I’m open to the idea that this whole calculus could just be the machinations of my own laziness and comfort-seeking.

Anyone else have insight with regard to hard work?


The idea that continuity of practice was the key to success really hit home on this retreat.¬† I started maintaining my ‘vipassana practice’ even during meals and breaks and was initially struggling with the amount of ‘hard work’ this entailed.¬† After a little bit of burnout and some of the prior insights, another insight on the continuity problem struck.

The phenomena occurring at the level of body and mind are continuously flowing.  The only thing that stops is our attention toward what is happening.  And that attention turns out to be more a matter of choice than a question of hard work.  Attention moves away because we decide that its more interesting to focus on something else instead of ourselves.

The moment that I recognized that I myself was a fascinating, unknown, scintillating mystery, there was nothing more interesting than what was happening at the level of my body and mind.¬† That leap couldn’t have happened without spending time practicing equanimity, otherwise the mystery of who and what I am and how I work gets lost in roller-coaster journey of discovery along the way.

Once these continuity and related insights struck, I was able to watch and observe myself for much of the waking hours for many weeks after my retreat.  To observe myself became a choiceless choice.

That said, several months later, it now takes some stronger effort and intention to maintain this, and my continuity has sputtered.

Meditation and Integration

The process of meditation is actually a process of deepening integrity, getting more closely aligned with the truth of the moment.  How do we miss that truth?

Various thoughts and ideas flash and splash through our conscious minds but beneath them is a more vast and subtle reality.¬† Just as the ripples on a lake or the waves in an ocean represent only a surface phenomenon, our conscious mind turns out to be the very surface of something immensely more powerful beneath the surface.¬† So long as this great force hiding below is outside our understanding, its also outside our control.¬† Despite our best efforts, we’re ultimately at its mercy so long as we remain on the surface.

Meditation deepens this understanding of what lay beneath the surface.  Equanimity helps to tame it.  And wisdom helps us master it.  Just as light becomes a laser when all its waves are synchronized, harmonizing our conscious mind with our subconscious mind make our words and actions come from a space of deep integrity and thus deep power.

Turns out that the inner process has a basis in our neuroanatomy.¬† In our cerebral cortex, much of the rational, deductive part of the mind resides in the forebrain, and just behind this, at the boundary of the frontal and parietal lobes lay the the prefrontal gyrus, home of the primary motor cortex.¬† This region of the brain has what is called a ‘homunculus’, or little man embedded in it– essentially a representation of the sensory surface of our bodies.¬† As we pass our attention up and down the surface of the body, our attention is actually passing up and down this small ridge in the brain.

But our brains are vastly interconnected.  Sensation is connected to so many layers of cognition, memory, and conditioning.  Moving through sensation, we start to unravel and understand these complex interconnections in our consciousness, and the extent to which we are not overpowered by what we uncover is the extent to which we can go still deeper.

Our neuro-impulses are also electrical phenomena.  The repeated conscious movement of attention starts to generate a field that harmonizes other neurons the way that a magnet will make ordinary iron magnetic after repeated contact.  Very loosely, I suspect that this collective, dynamic, electrical harmonic property of the brain is the kind of integrity that happens through a deepening practice.  And that the ability to consciously move our attention through ever-larger portions of our neuro-anatomy is the basis for the opening of these subtle and seemingly infinite realms of consciousness.

Eventually, the space between what you think and what you feel and what you do becomes smaller and smaller until you become a fully integrated person, with each thought or word or action coming from the depth of your being and resonating with every fiber of who and what you are.

Its a long journey, but the process is beautiful enough to keep me returning to the cushion over and over again.

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Its the title of a recent Current TV Vanguard episode that literally gets to the bottom of the 2.6 billion people worldwide who lack access to a toilet.  The topic is covered in an authentic, bold, and balanced way that is informative, shocking, disgusting, even entertaining at timesРa must watch for anyone curious about the daily reality of 40% of humanity.

Featured early on is long-time InSPIRE friend Vimlendu Jha, of Sweccha, who takes Adam Yamaguchi on a tour of the Yamuna river.  Once sacred, its of course now a blackened, bubbling stew of sewage and industrial waste whose stench makes Adam lose his breakfast on its banks. Mixed in with the drama and cinematographic excellence, sanitation legends like Dr. Bindeshwar Pathak of Sulabh International and the charismatic Jack Sim of the World Toilet Organization are also featured prominently, though their compassionate spirit do not quite transmit through the script and editing.

While I laud Current TV for leading with programs like this, I wonder how far the same resources would go on a very different target audience.¬† Viewers in the West are edu-tained by such programs, but the impetus to act, if there is one at all, is dulled by a half-world’s distance from the problem and a lack of connections and savvy about how to engage with the issue.

Yet as a creative systems thinker, the program got my head and heart churning.

When we launched Lok Darshan in Gujarat’s largest slum, the very first program had an edu-taining segment on the need for toilets.¬† Narrowcast simultaneously with Manav Sadhna and the Environment Sanitation Institute’s toilet-building campaign, we heard of a large increase in inquiries and requests for toilets.¬† Though we did not have the bandwidth to actually measure our impact, it became immediately clear that the bottleneck in delivering on the demand was first limited organizational capacity & manpower, and then funding which came from both the NGO via the Gujarat Gov’t and a private donor from Singapore.¬† However, it was clear that edu-taining media was quite powerful when well-designed and targeted.

Some time later when working on few films for Gram Vikas,¬† Joe Madiath (the founder / executive director) and I discussed an idea inspired both by our success with Lok Darshan and with IDE’s success in marketing irrigation pumps across Bangladesh & N. India.¬† Why not create a Bollywood-like film that could be broadcast on a mobile van where the storyline ultimately edu-tained villagers into collectively signing up for sanitation?¬† After all, this is what Gram Vikas did anyways through countless meetings with village leaders across Orissa. Why not scale the messaging to move from supply-push to demand-pull?

Of course, Gram Vikas had no funding for the project and we did not have the expertise to make an appealing Oriya language film.  In addition, their deep and narrow focus means that its unlikely that they would ever have the idea or initiative completely on their own.

Enter Arvind Singhal.¬† He’s made a career of studying entertainment-education and social change.¬† A friend recently introduced us to his work with a stack of books and an offer to connect us personally if we’re interested.¬† The first chapter of one of his (long) books features Jasoos Vijay, a detective story with 125 million regular Doordarshan viewers in N. India that has successfully deconstructed social norms, values, and beliefs around HIV/AIDS.¬† At the time of the study, 5% of the audience had reported a positive change in their sexual behavior as a result of the program such that the cost per behavior change was 5 cents.¬† Like all change, I suspect that this first ripple has a much bigger actual impact that is perhaps immeasurable.

Examples now abound in media for social change at all ends of the spectrum.¬† Video Volunteers has expanded and scaled their community video unit model into a people’s media channel. Lok Darshan lives on through the instrumentality of MaM founders Meghna Banker and Madhusudan Agrawal.¬† Microsoft Research spun off Digital Green, a media-powered peer-to-peer farmer education network.¬† Avaaj Otalo uses radio broadcasts and a voice-enabled system to allow farmers to access timely agricultural information and knowledge.¬† Planet Read subtitles Bollywood songs in the same language to improve literacy.¬† And these are just a few examples from the South Asian context.¬† This phenomena is spreading all over the world, often funded by wealthy donors and agencies in the West.

So could this approach work for toilets?¬† The answer is “maybe”.

The competency of building demand for toilets and sanitation is different than managing and constructing them well.  One organization is unlikely to have both competencies because of the numerous social and financial obstacles to this enterprise, creating a familiar chicken & egg problem often seen in the developing world.  You have to both create the demand for your service, and deliver it at market-creating price, similar to what Aravind Eye Hospitals did with cataract surgeries.

The strategy on paper, regardless of how difficult or seemingly impossible, can be worked out.¬† Summoning the compassion and integrity to make it happen is the challenge.¬† So often, those who have cultivated the spiritual foundation don’t go further toward the practical implementation processes of a legitimate social enterprise.¬† And without rigorous internal processes, no strategy on paper really works.

And that stinks.  Literally.

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She wanted to buy our loft bed.  The secret was that we were selling it for three times what we paid for it.

I knew that she was either recently divorced, or that she broke up a close relationship.  She was buying this bed as a result of moving out of her prior home.

I knew her new home would be a 440 sq. ft studio.¬† Quick mental math made me think that her ‘studio’ was actually a tiny 20′ x 22′ garage converted into living space in a house built in the 60’s or prior.¬† The cheapest form of housing available.

I knew that she recycled cans and borrowed money from her mother to pull together the cash for this purchase.  I knew that she drank too much Coca-Cola.  She thinks she likes it, but its also just about cheapest form of calorie in the grocery store, especially when purchased by the case.  And the cans you save from all that soda let you hide the fact that you actually collect many more to make ends meet.

She was a misfit.¬† The kind of person who would have been at the bottom of the social hierarchy in high school.¬† Neither beautiful, nor intelligent, nor athletic, nor musical, nor artistic, nor quirky, nor perky, nor funny, nor rebellious, nor much of anything else.¬† Not really picked-on because she wouldn’t be worth the trouble.¬† The kind who had one secret friend and skated by beneath the detection of both teachers and fellow students.

My wife instantly felt bad for selling the bed to her, and asked if we could lower the price in Gujarati.¬† I replied that we’d see if she negotiated.

But as we were loading her vehicle, I was concerned that we had not yet discussed money, much less transferred its possession.  I was resistant to helping.

The truth is that this woman made me feel uncomfortable.¬† She was close to the end of her capacities–feeling lonely, lost, and hurt by the world– but not yet broken beyond the point where she lacked to ability to ask for help.¬† She was struggling, barely above water in every dimension of life, afraid she might drown at any moment, and eager to grab on to anything that could keep her afloat.

She needed a friend–a break, and I was afraid to be either.¬† I could not let her see how much I felt her pain because I was afraid that any display of compassion or kindness would lead her to latch on for dear life.¬† And once she grabbed on, I would not have the heart to push her away despite how much of a burden she became.

I couldn’t be responsive because I was afraid of being responsible.¬† I didn’t want the burden of doing what I knew to be right.

So I put on a disinterested expression, and loaded the car.  I deflected conversation.  I avoided eye contact.  I tried to get her to do some of the lifting, but did much of it myself anyways.

And it worked.  She gave us the full price we asked for.  No negotiation, or even hint thereof.  Though we were selling it for three-times of what we bought it for, it was still less than one-third of what a new one would cost.  For all she knew, we were already doing her a favor.

According to the values of the market, everyone was winning in that moment.  We were selling an item we had used for 9 months at a profit, and she was buying something she needed at a huge discount over retail price.

Yet according to the values of the heart, everyone was losing in that moment.  I was causing my wife and I to suppress our instincts of kindness and compassion, and this woman who so desperately was in need of some kindness and compassion was walking away empty-handed and empty-hearted from two people who try to live those values.

As I type this, I’m trying to think of the proper way to make amends.¬† I could find out her new address and anonymously get $20 to her.¬† But she needs far more than money.¬† I could invite her over for pizza with friends, but is it fair to disrupt this kind of social gathering with someone who is so deeply needy?¬† I could resolve to not repeat such a mistake, but is it enough to be aware of my own failure without rectifying the current one?

More than that, I just don’t know what the “right” level of response is.¬† On a subtle level, my ego tells me that I’m nothing like this woman.¬† Yet when I pay close attention, I see that I’m just like her.¬† We both want–we both need the same things to feel whole and complete.¬† Pure air, water, food, friends, and work.¬† To love and be loved.

And in my darkest hours, I hope to be worthy of the kindness and compassion of people who know that we’re all the same.

Its time to earn what I wish for…

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As the soft yield of water cleaves obstinate stone,
So to yield with life solves the insoluble.

It is said, “There’s a way when there’s a will,”
But let life ripen, then fall,
Will is not the way at all:
Deny the way of life and you are dead.ÔĽŅ


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Elephants were the most powerful, unstoppable animals known to the ancient Indians so its no surprise that Lord Ganesh, the elephant-headed son of Shiva and Parvati, is one of the most worshiped deities of the Hindu pantheon.¬† What is quite surprising is the genius with which the deity was conceived.¬† While I do not possess a complete grasp of the epistemology, I’ll attempt to deconstruct several salient aspects of Lord Ganesh.

All Hindu deities are rich in mythology, philosophy, and symbolism.¬† The mythology is most accessible to the masses, and conveys moralistic ideas meant to encourage behaviors for a stable and happy society.¬† In the case of Lord Ganesh, one key moral conveyed through the mythology is respect for one’s parents.¬† The lesson comes through a story where Ganesh triumphs over his younger brother, Kartikeya (aka Skanda aka Murugan, the god of war) in a ‘race around the world’ by circumambulating his parents and conveying that his parents are his world while Kartikeya tries to circumnavigate the globe.

Ganesh goes around his parents while his brother zips off on his own vehicle, the peacock

The philosophy of the deities is accessible to the educated and intellectual class, and conveys psychological ideas or concepts meant to be contemplated or meditated upon to reveal the nature of the mind, mind-body complex, or beyond mind-body construct.¬† Exploration of this dimension often necessitates navigating between ‘objective’ and ‘subjective’ experience,¬† into and out of the uniquely personal and rational.

"Lam", the seed sound of the muladhara chakra

In yoga philosophy, Lord Ganesh is the ruler of the muladhara chakra at the base the cerebrospinal axis, and is the remover of obstacles in life and the spiritual path.  To validate or appreciate this idea beyond blind acceptance as a (bizarre or unusual) religious belief requires submission to a specialized and specific discipline of internal investigation, usually through meditation.

The symbolism of a deity conveys wisdom, and relates to the processes the wise engage in to eradicate personal and collective suffering, and move towards liberation or enlightenment.  These aspects of a deity are often the most subtle, and while the intellectual classes may be able to decode or interpret the symbolism, only those who have walked the path have the subjective experience of the truth or natural law being conveyed.  One symbolic aspect of Lord Ganesh is his vehicle: a mouse.  The whisper of wisdom behind this symbol hints that the largest, most powerful things depend on the smallest, most seemingly trivial things.

Put in another way, Ganesh is the juggernaut of a revolutionary event or phenomenon in black swan theory, while his mouse is all the little things we overlooked that brought us to toward the unexpected inevitability.  The elephant power of Ganesh is the emergent properties arising from the interaction and interference of tiny things.

Often missed mouse at Ganesh's feet

The wisdom of Ganesh is about the power of small as one of the most significant and overlooked forces for personal and collective evolution (or destruction).¬† His mouse is a reminder to subdue the ego which seeks the grand and personal, and recognize that the unstoppable co-creation manifesting in small ways from moment to moment is a process for which no individual, no matter how brilliant or powerful (or diabolical), can take full credit.¬† Simultaneously, this wisdom says that if you want this unstoppable ‘elephant power’ behind you, then the small and humble processes of the mouse are its vehicle.

There are many other symbols, philosophies, and mythologies concerning Ganesh and the degree to which even one deity can be explored is utterly staggering, further speaking to the genius of their conception.  As with all Hindu deities, they are rich with microcosmic depth which reveals macrocosmic reality and open to a wide range of subjective and objective interpretation, so any exploration of the wisdom of Ganesh must necessarily be only the tip of the iceberg.

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