First, here’s a high level summary of the technique and goal of Vipassana meditation as a primer. Basically, you use your own body sensations to internalize the belief of impermanence and stop the negative feedback loop of craving and aversion. You do this by first sharpening your mind to feel those sensations (using a separate meditation called Anapana Sati). You then use Vipassana to experience these sensations, both positive and negative, without reacting to them and maintaining equanimity. The long term goal is obviously enlightenment, but the byproduct is an extremely sharp mind that is able to feel any sensation throughout the body and free of the emotional turmoil that cravings and aversions generate. The reason you look inward is because while concentrating on an object or word does help quiet a busy mind, it doesn’t allow you to sharpen it. Also, wisdom gained through first hand experience is the most tangible and visceral.
Vipassana meditation experience
As part of my self exploration process, I decided to attend a 10 day silent meditation retreat in Kandy, Sri Lanka. I wasn’t new to meditation and had some experience with guided mindfulness meditations, but I had fallen out of practice when it no longer served my immediate needs. My goal was to learn the tools to quiet and sharpen my mind, but it was interesting to hear the ideological aspects of the practice because so many of them resonated with me. The course requires you to agree to a strict set of rules during the 10 days: no speaking, reading, writing, watching/listening to media, exercising, sexual activity, or eating after noon. You can read the full Code of Discipline here. While the courses are free of charge, people are encouraged to give a donation at the end of a stay that is commiserate with costs and what was gained from the course.
Since each person’s experience is unique, I won’t spend too much time explaining mine. In short, I found the vow of silence easy to maintain, but it was very difficult for me to avoid making eye contact with others. The dietary restrictions were also manageable. This might seem minor, but I was completely unprepared to sit completely still for such long periods. At times the pain was so intense that it caused severe nausea. In general, I felt content, peaceful and proud, though I had some moments of serious frustration. My three biggest negative traits all reared their ugly heads during the process: detachment, impatience, judgement. It will take time to see if ongoing practice helps me temper at least the latter two of those tendencies.
As for sharpening, the results were swift and exciting to witness. The first time I sat for meditation, I had multiple trains of unrelated thoughts competing with my efforts to focus on my breath. I could feel my breath enter and exit my nose, but that’s about it. Pain and tension were often a distraction. By the last day, I was able to focus for long periods of time and set aside occasional stray thoughts when they arose. Not only that, but I was able to feel subtle vibrations throughout the surface of my body and pin point particular spots for further inspection. I’m not sure what combination of factors contributed to this, but I felt a sense of lightness that I can’t remember ever feeling before.
One set of dots that clearly connected for me during the retreat was the relationship between internalizing the inevitability of change to resilience. The discourses spent a great deal of time on these topics along with attachment. The first two are already well established in my mind, but I hadn’t considered the role of attachment (or lack thereof) to the recipe for resilience. I certainly practice this as well, but it has caused me the most friction. There is a fine line between avoiding attachment (positive) and being perceived as detached (negative). I bet most of my friends, even the closest ones, have felt this detachment at one point or another and distanced themselves from me as a result. Not sure how to address this, but being conscious of it is a good first step.
Seeds for innovation
Without diving too deeply into the theology around Vipassana, there was one core belief of the practice as it was taught to me that I struggled to accept. Perhaps some can be chalked up to nuances of word definitions or changes in word usage over the years, but it definitely raised red flags for me as a designer and innovator who has spent the majority of my career in start-ups. My understanding is that the practice considers passion an enemy of progress on the path to enlightenment. They believe compassion and devotion are keys to success and that these intentions should provide the necessary drive to push forward. It might be that passion is perceived as too ego-centric while devotion is more altruistic. Fair enough, but I think ridding yourself of passion seems counterintuitive. You need the momentum to change as well as share the teachings with others. Compassion feels too passive to provide this drive. Not only that, but I believe passion is fuel for innovation and other wholesome pursuits. On a similar note, ridding yourself completely of aversion also seems extreme. We have instinctive reactions that help us avoid danger that are very valuable. Maybe the intent is to remove overreaction and unnecessary reactions, but how does one train the mind at the deepest level without impacting all responses? Dissatisfaction, like passion, is a seed for innovation. This formula from 15 Commitments of Conscious Leadership speaks directly to this issue:
(vision x dissatisfaction) + next steps > resistance = change
It emphasises the disconnect I felt between the Buddhist meditation teachings and the ingredients for innovation. Without dissatisfaction (aversion, pain points), there’s rarely enough momentum for change. Pain points are often the nuggets of data that we gather in the design research process to guide our decision making process. Assuming that dissatisfaction never actually reaches zero, you still need a great deal of vision (desire, passion) to overcome resistance to change in the absence of dissatisfaction. One could argue that everything is perfect as is but could be “even more perfect”. I like this explanation as it relates to new ideas (it’s great, but it’d be even better if…). Not sure how I feel about this explanation as it relates things more complex and substantive like innovation. One could also argue that sometimes change is unnecessary and perhaps even wasteful. Regardless, the use of meditation to foster innovation is increasingly common. This explanation of how desire or passion fits into buddhist meditation resonates with me, but this idea was not expressed during the course I participated in:
“Sometimes taṇhā (craving) is translated as “desire,” but that gives rise to some crucial misinterpretations with reference to the way of Liberation. As we shall see, some form of desire is essential in order to aspire to, and persist in, cultivating the path out of dukkha. Desire as an eagerness to offer, to commit, to apply oneself to meditation, is called chanda. It’s a psychological “yes,” a choice, not a pathology. In fact, you could summarize Dhamma training as the transformation of taṇhā into chanda. It’s a process whereby we guide volition, grab and hold on to the steering wheel, and travel with clarity toward our deeper well-being. So we’re not trying to get rid of desire (which would take another kind of desire, wouldn’t it). Instead, we are trying to transmute it, take it out of the shadow of gratification and need, and use its aspiration and vigor to bring us into light and clarity.”
The recommendation is to meditate for 2 hours every day, 1 hour in the morning and 1 hour at night. Honestly, I’m happy to be meditating for at least 30 minutes 3 times a week at the moment. While the value is immediate and obvious to me, there are many other activities that also provide me with positive reinforcement that take time (such as sleep, exercise, eating home cooked food and maintaining close friendships). At a basic level, meditation has certainly provided me with increased clarity and sense of presence that has proved useful in both personal and professional settings. I’m not there yet, but wouldn’t it be amazing to enter the flow at will? I can’t even imagine how significantly it would impact my productivity!
Meditation has also improved my emotional intelligence, which is another hot topic these days with the publicity around Google’s Emotional Intelligence course. For example, I notice my immediate gut reaction to actions, words or visuals and can use that knowledge in the moment to either control a rash response or help guide interactions to desired conclusions. It has also made it easier to spot these emotional reactions in others. With an increasingly diverse and interdisciplinary workplace, this can significantly help communication and minimize misunderstandings. I don’t think I have to spell out how impactful this can be for personal relationships.