Life

Vipassana: 100 Hours of Mind Debugging

If you’re not a programmer then debugging may be a new word for you. It means cleaning out the bugs, i.e., fixing your software program so that it does what it’s supposed to do and more importantly doesn’t do what it’s not supposed to do.

A debugger is a tool that makes the computer slow enough so that a human can see what’s brewing inside that computer’s mind. More specifically, you can mark the lines in your program (called breakpoints) where debugger will halt the execution temporarily and wait for you to press the continue button. And while it’s paused, you can literally scour the computer’s mind and see what it’s up to.

Put simply, in debug mode you freeze the computer’s brain to sneak a peek.

I think there’s a lot of similarity between debugging and meditation. What debugging does to the computer, meditation does to the human brain. I heard this analogy first from Naval Ravikant — a famous public thinker, entrepreneur, and angel investor. In his interview with Shane Parrish, Naval said —

I try to keep an eye on my internal monologue. It doesn’t always work. In the computer programming sense, I try to run my brain in debugging mode as much as possible…I put my brain in debug mode and just watched every little instruction go by.

If I had one wish, the most important thing to me would be I would constantly be running my mind in debug mode. I would literally be watching every single thought I have and letting no reaction pass without it being stopped, inspected, strip searched, examined, understood, and then let go.

All my life I have been curious about meditation. In the past two decades, I have tried several meditation methods but the motivation to continue never lasted for more than a few days.

Unlike meditation I never need the motivation to read books. And every year I stumble upon at least one book that brings a dramatic shift in my world view. Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens was one such book I read in 2015. I have re-read it multiple times since then. So it piqued my interest when Harari — an Israeli historian — dedicated his second book Homo Deus to an Indian meditation teacher S.N. Goenka.

A little digging revealed that Harari had been a long time student of Mr. Goenka. Apparently, he visits India every year for a 60-day silent Vipassana meditation retreat in a place called Igatpuri.

Vipassana wasn’t entirely unfamiliar to me. I first read about it while skimming through Osho’s books in my father’s library. I was a teenager then and other important things were racing through my mind, so I forgot about Vipassana.

It’s said that Vipassana is an ancient technique which was discovered by Gautam Buddha. In this meditation technique, one concentrates on his or her own breath. In India, Vipassana meditation was made popular by S.N. Goenka. While her tenure as Inspector General (IG) at Tihar Jail, Kiran Bedi brought in SN Goenka to reach Vipassana to Tihar prisoners. This was later made into a documentary called Doing Time, Doing Vipassana. A must watch.

About the Course

Mr. Goenka was born in Burma in 1924 in a Marwari business family. By his late twenties, he was an accomplished businessman. The turning point came when his lifelong problem of migraine was completely cured during a 10-day Vipassana course. After spending the next 14 years assisting his Vipassana guru, Mr. Goenka relocated to India in 1969 with just one goal — spread this technique in his motherland.

Although he passed away in 2013, Mr. Goenka’s version of Vipassana is taught in more than 50 countries across the world.

Compared to many other meditation techniques, initiation into Vipassana is not easy. It demands ten days of uninterrupted commitment. That’s a tough requirement upfront and many never try it just because of this first hurdle.

After quitting my job last January and moving into a more flexible work routine, I had one less reason to postpone Vipassana. So in April last year I enrolled in the 10-day Vipassana meditation course in Dhamma Vipula (Navi Mumbai).

The first-timers do the introductory 10-day course. It’s a residential program and you are required to stay at their premises for all ten days. That’s no big deal, right? But what if I tell you that you’ll also be cut off from the outer world. Completely. They take away your mobile phone and switch it off for ten days.

Wait there’s more. You have to maintain noble silence for ten days, i.e., you can’t talk to anyone (not even with gestures). Avoid eye contact and don’t return smiles! You can’t read or write anything. The idea is to avoid any external cue that could trigger an avalanche of thoughts.

The only thing you do there is sit cross-legged and meditate for 10 hours every day.

The facilities at Dhamma Vipula were pretty good. The meditation hall and the rooms are all air-conditioned. The food was hygienic; the premises was clean and very well maintained. They provide you everything so that you can focus on meditation.

Another surprising thing about this program is that it doesn’t cost any money. The stay, the food, the course fee — everything is taken care of. The organization runs on donations. And interestingly they accept donation only from those who’ve done the course.

The Routine

The day starts very early. You’re woken up at 4 am by a gentle morning bell. By 4.30am you’re required to be in the meditation hall. Then you meditate until 6.30 am. Breakfast time is from 6.30am to 8 am.

The second leg of meditation starts at 8 am and goes on till 11 am, followed by a 2-hour lunch break. The third session is the longest — 1 pm to 5 pm. Snacks/tea is served from 5 pm to 6 pm. That’s the last meal of the day. No dinner.

After another hour of meditation, i.e., from 6 pm to 7 pm, the discourse starts. It’s a 90 min video recording of Mr. Goenka talking about Vipassana. Although all those lectures are available on YouTube, they won’t make much sense unless you’re doing the meditation. The discourse videos looked boring when I tried watching them before the course but during the course I sat through them with a lot of interest.

So over ten days I spent more than 100 hours sitting in meditation — the longest debugging session of my life.

The Technique

First three days you learn Anapana meditation. In this you simply focus on your breath as it comes in and goes out. Of course, the mind like an unchained monkey would runaway every few seconds. The moment you realize that mind has wandered, you gently bring it back to the anchor — your breath.

What does it mean to focus on breath?

Just observe how the air is flowing through your nostrils. Where do you feel the touch of air inside your nostrils? Is it flowing via left nostril or right nostril? Does it feel warm or cold?

You don’t try to control your breath. The idea of Vipassana is to see reality as it is. Watch the breath as it is. Don’t try to change or control it in any way.

Two things happen when you focus on the breath. First, it calms down the mind. Second, it improves the ability to concentrate which is essential during the latter part of the course.

From the fourth day onwards, the real practice starts. It requires you to mentally scan the body and focus on the small sensations arising in the body. These sensations are always there but years of ignorance have desensitized our mind to these micro sensations. And that’s what Vipassana does. It slowly trains the mind to catch these little physical sensations.

What do I mean by micro sensations? It could be an itch, a little vibration, a small tickle, a sensation of tingling, or even pain. The trick is to observe these micro sensations without judging them and without wishing them to go away. Just see them as they are happening.

Over a few days, as the mind becomes sharper, you’d realize that our body is a ball of micro sensations. It’s like a pond where thousands of pebbles are constantly creating countless ripples.

How Vipassana Works

The fundamental cause of all anxiety, according to teachings of Vipassana, are two things — Craving (राग) and Aversion (द्वेष). It’s the basic nature of our mind — oscillate between craving and aversion. And these two are rooted deep into the subconscious mind. All anxieties arise either because we’re craving for something or because we don’t want something.

The reason why self-help and positive psychology methods don’t have a long-lasting effect is because they don’t give you access to the subconscious. They only work on the level of the conscious mind.

Now our subconscious is tightly coupled to our body. Any disturbance in subconscious usually comes out in the form of bodily sensations like a sudden burst of anger.

The teachings of Vipassana claim that observing bodily sensations gives access to the subconscious.

Observing these sensations reveals a pattern. And that pattern is — every sensation arises, lingers for some time and then dissolves. No sensation persists forever. And that’s the fabric of reality — Impermanence (अनित्य).

This further leads to the understanding that developing a craving or aversion towards anything is useless for everything is impermanent. The object of your desire or hatred will not last long so what’s the point of longing for it or being averse to it. Everything shall pass.

Yogi Berra said, “In theory, there’s no difference between theory and practice but in practice there is.”

Reading the theory behind Vipassana is one thing and knowing it through your own experience is something else. That said, the ten-day course doesn’t guarantee the realization. It may take a long time, sometimes years. I think very few people have dramatic experiences in their first ten days. Both Mr. Goenka and Yuval Harari experienced something extraordinary in their first brush with Vipassana which hooked them for life.

Personally, nothing groundbreaking happened to me during my time at Vipassana. But it wasn’t a disappointment because I went there with very low expectations. I just wanted to experience it firsthand. I was curious to know how would it feel being cut off from the world (the Matrix) for ten days. I wanted to know how it feels to remain silent for ten days.

Should You Do It?

I don’t know. If you like experimenting with new things, I guess there’s no harm in giving it a try. Ten days off the grid and in silence is profound on its own.

The first immediate benefit that people experience during Vipassana is a feeling of calmness and peace. So if anxiety is tormenting you, then you should give Vipassana a chance.

They recommend that one should do two hours of daily meditation (one hour in the morning and one hour in the evening) for at least one year to be able to derive any meaningful benefit out of it. I don’t know if this claim is true because I never continued Vipassana practice after the course ended.

I think Vipassana is not a magic pill. It’s a technique, a practice, a tool to train the mind.

So that was my experience of running my mind on debug mode for 100 hours.

If you’ve done Vipassana, I would love to hear about your experience. Please leave a comment below.