Saturday, November 11, 2017

A Moment's Notice

This is a first hand account of a 10-day Vipassana course.

There are things that worry us, scare us, embarrass us, depress us and finally kill us. And there are things that calm us, cheer us, please us, inspire us and finally resurrect us. But through this all, there is the one thing that is common to all that we feel - Impermanence. We are the embodiment of Quantum Physics, where we exist as a particle and a wave, unbeknownst to ourselves. Our happiness and miseries are the making of the biochemical reactions in our body and it follows a maxim - nothing lasts forever.
There are a lot of day-to-day decisions that we take in our lives, of which we are unaware of the consequences. Only a few things that are under our sphere of influence. Quite a lot happens without reason and we end up wondering, why did it even happen to us. Waking up early or late depends upon:
a) when we sleep, 
b) what kind of work we did the previous day, 
c) whether we were physically or mentally tired or both, and more importantly
d) when do we have to necessarily wake up
Despite alarms, snoozes and people forcing us out of our bed, this activity can be considered something within our sphere of influence. Things outside our sphere of influence can be a bird's sweet chirping, waves slapping the shore and a zillion other things (which even includes Trump becoming the President).
To be aware of yourself and be nonchalant about what happens around you by not reacting to it is a supreme habit, one yearns for. To embody this habit, by building a life on only truth and reality would be bliss. I encountered one such experience in my life, recently. I only wish that it stays with me for the rest of my life. I would realize later that it was by no means, proselytizing, since there is no religion involved.
I came across Vipassana in one of the most unlikeliest places - in a small paragraph of the dedication page of a book. Being a huge a fan of Yuval Noah Harari's work Sapiens, I was compelled to read the sequel Homo Deus. It was in Homo Deus I came across this dedication
My first thoughts were:
1. Here is my most favorite author and thinker, an Israeli, and his teacher was an Indian Marwari.
2. To put things in order in my head, I assumed that we could begin with level of lucidity in an ant -> move on to a Neanderthal who would be a million kilometers ahead of the ant-> then followed by the sapiens a few kilometers still above-> and then Harari above all of them, with his extreme though clarity and acumen
What did Mr. S. N. Goenka teach Harari? Was that the reason behind anyone's clarity of thought and behaviour? Is that the fine line between right and wrong? The more I thought (googled) about it, the more flooded my below-average human brain got. I stalked Harari like never before! Despite his absence in any of the social media, I stumbled upon an interview in which he explained his lifestyle. It included two hours meditation, an hour a piece, dawn and dusk.
One plus one was counting to three and I figured the missing link was Vipassana and Dhamma Setu. After much deliberation and circumstantial perspective to handle a personal loss (thus not to lose myself in the process of recuperation), I took a conscious decision on taking up the 10-day Vipassana meditation course at Dhamma Setu in the outskirts of Chennai.
I wanted to go in with no knowledge on the subject, thus not setting expectations. But, a human brain is never under control and hence voluntarily I started reading on the rules and regulations. I spoke to a friend, who had completed the course and all he had to say was, "Don't give up and don't ever google anything before your start". If anyone asks me on Vipassana I would utter the same string of sentences with a caveat, "It's extremely difficult, but you will get through it".

Some of the rules were:
1. to abstain from killing: which means, no meat for food for the 10 days. The not killing part includes mosquitoes, ants, etc.
2. to abstain from stealing: which means, exactly the same thing as what it means in the real world, especially for kleptomaniacs
3. to abstain from all sexual activity: there will be no access to the opposite gender. So, this is ideally for some self-control
4. to abstain from telling lies: lies like feeling feverish or imagining that you have backache, toothache, headache, stomachache thus finding innovative ways to run away from the course
5. to abstain from all intoxicants: there wouldn't be any access to intoxicants during the course, but, this is to inform you that you can't bootleg them as well
Silence: Apart from the above rules, one would have to observe noble silence. (P.S: noble here means to say abstain from eye contact as well). In other words, one cannot even appreciate the beauty that a beholder sees
Exercise: There won't be access to any physical exercise except walking (which there will loads of)
Food: Basic, tasty vegetarian food which doesn't include onions, garlic, ginger or spice in any form except mild chilies
Entertainment: Completely cut off from the world! I was unaware that India had a new President and RF won his 19th Grand Slam. People who took the 10-day-course in early Nov 2016 may have gone in with the assumption that Hillary Clinton was going to be the next US President. When they walked out, they would have learnt learnt that Anything is Possible and Nothing is Permanent
Entertainment: Entertainment takes first preference in our lives, and everything from news, sports, cinema, books, theater, music and now, even food, has become a form of entertainment. But, I have to emphasize on the fact that one will be cut off from the real world which translates to being cut off from all these forms of entertainment. Which means, no mobiles, no tablets, no laptops, no books, no pens and paper, no newspaper - nothing, absolutely nothing will connect you to the outer world. But, the place will have everything that will connect you to your inner world.

Day Zero - One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest

12th Jul 2017. Time: 2:30 p.m.
After a good South Indian meal, I hailed a Uber and reached Dhamma Setu, Thirumudivakkam (spelt Thiru-mudi-walk-cam), a place on the outer ring road of Chennai, in an hour's time. Although I left my phone back after booking the cab, it wasn't difficult to reach, thanks to the driver's Google Maps app. He was happy that it was a long trip and he got to make maximum money on a single ride.
I reached the place and a sense of calm prevailed. Little did I know that I was stepping onto something that will change me completely. I went straight to the registration counter, filled up a form once again, (since I had already registered online using a similar form), waited in the queue to be verified by my identity cards. I was offered a room, which I had to share with one another person - a person who I cannot make conversation or even eye contact. But, I was more anxious on the washroom's cleanliness than anything else and was glad to find it satisfactory. By 4 p.m. I had settled into my temporary abode and was awaiting the clock to gong at 5 p.m. I wished I had a book in my hand, just to while away the time. Withdrawal symptoms had already started! I was feeling a little uneasy with no phone, no known faces and nothing to read. I paced along the long pathway, which would later go on to become my best friend during trying times. I watched the ever-smiling, benevolent people - a couple of foreigners thrown into the fray who had come to experience their spiritual self in India.
At 5 p.m., the food hall opened and we were offered Rava khichdi and tea. The meal was simple and tasty and not anyway near spicy or oily. Tea was served without sugar and one had all the liberty to indulge in how much ever sugar they wished to add inorder to sustain themselves. After the meal, tables moved out and chairs took their place. A meeting was convened and the manager addressed us in English and Tamil. During the course, all instructions from the teacher and the taped voice of Mr. SN Goenka (we will call him Master SNG, hereon), with instructions and lessons, were repeated in two languages for everyone's benefit. The same set of rules were reiterated - abstinence from killing, no stealing, no sexual activity, no lying, no intoxication; maintaining the noble silence, no entertainment, no entertainment and no forms of entertainment. Then, the timetable was revealed:
4:00 a.m. - Wake up call
4:30 - 6:30 a.m. - Meditation
6:30 - 8:00 a.m. - Breakfast break
8:00 - 9:00 a.m. - Group Meditation
9:00 - 11:00 a.m. - Meditation
11:00 - 12:00 noon - Lunch break
12:00 noon - 1:00 p.m. - Rest 
(Don't ever think of sleeping, you got to wake up at 4, the next day)
1:00 p.m. - 2:30 p.m. - Meditation
2:30 p.m. - 3:30 p.m. - Group Meditation
3:30 p.m. - 5:00 p.m. - Meditation
5:00 p.m. - 6:00 p.m. - Tea break 
(which also happens to be your dinner)
6:00 p.m. - 7:00 p.m. - Group Meditation
7:00 p.m. - 8:15 p.m. - Teacher's discourse
(which will be the most happening part of your day)
8:15 p.m. - 9:00 p.m. - Group Meditation
9:00 p.m. - 9:30 p.m. - Q&A with teacher 
(you may skip, if you don't have any)
9:30 p.m. - Lights out

Looks a grueling schedule, isn't it? But, it isn't as grueling as it appears on paper. It is much, much more grueling, probably a million times more cumbersome than what Anu Malik would have to do to reach Mozart's level's of music creation.

Once we all left the hall, I could sense an air of trepidation around me. Something wasn't right. But, it may have been an overwhelming sense of being. Things looked a little scary. A sense of despair, seeking courage from elsewhere to get through these 10 days set in. I had to learn something new out of it, while being distanced from civilization, the real world, as we know it. By the end of 10 days, I would have learnt that the courage that I was seeking from elsewhere, to be inspired from, was within oneself and Vipassana taught me how to discover it.

Day One - Revenge of the Sith

I had a sleepless night. The night bulb was on the entire time and to compound it, the anxiety that one has to wake up at 4 in the morning added to the restlessness. Every two minutes I would look at the time only to realize that I had lost two more minutes of sleep. I didn't want to give up on sleep either lest there be a horrific day ahead, sleep deprived. I set the alarm for 3:45 a.m. which woke my roommate up. Thus started my first day. I made it to the meditation hall just in time to locate my place (No. 68) in the hall and settled down to meditate. 
But, what exactly do I do in meditation?
The voice over (of Master SNG) started with specific directions. Nothing complicated, really! Just breathe in, breathe out. And while you do this, to watch your breath come in and go out. Come in, go out. Simple, right? Pretty simple.
Couldn't do it for more than 10 seconds at a stretch. Mind wanders. Someone once told me that mind is a monkey, May be that's what I was experiencing? I am listening, tell me mind. Tell me more. Mom. Dad. Sharon. Mom. Sharon's mom. Brother. Mom. Bad things. Relatives. Robbery. Murder. Mom. War. Death. Fear. Mom. Anxiety. Dad. Worry. Mom. Things went on, in a loop. All the insecurities that I was subconsciously tied to, now spiraled around more prominently inside my head.
I took a break after half an hour, (during which time I had let the insecurities get the better of me for for at least  29 minutes and 10 seconds), while practicing the breath-in-breath-out in 6-7 attempts for a cumulative period of approximately 50 seconds.
I repeated the cycle and promised myself breaks, if I stick to the discipline of pulling back myself to meditation when my mind wanders. It wasn't a pleasant experience and I didn't do it any better, despite the promise. It was as if I had given my mind the complete control to make me see what I hadn't wanted to see all along and yet, I didn't have the choice to abort the operation.
It was 6:30. I was temporarily relieved to get a good break. I went back to my room and before I realized, I dozed off. Much later, someone woke me up and asked me to have breakfast. I came back to my room after breakfast to find my roommate washing his clothes. Brave soul, I thought to myself and went back to sleep to be awakened for the next meditation session that starts at 8. After meditating in the hall for a while, we were asked by the teacher (from hereon, he will referred to as Master Shifu) to go back to our rooms and meditate. So, I went back to my room to catch some sleep. Somewhere deep down, something made me want to give breath-in-breath-out a try. I tried desperately, but it felt like what Courtney Walsh would have felt facing Wasim Akram on green moisture-laden pitch. Forget getting the bat to ball, escaping the venomous swinging deliveries without getting hurt was a feat that deserved the Wisden Cricketer of the Year Award.
During my mental confrontation with Wasim bhai, I heard all sorts of noices from within the room. When I performed my one-eye peep (an act that I became a master of), I found my roommate packing his things off. I mean, even the wet clothes that he washed in the morning. I couldn't ask him what he was doing, if he was leaving the course, since we weren't allowed to talk. I was just hoping that he met my eyes, which he didn't as well.
It was lunch time and when I came back after having a sumptuous meal, my roommate had disappeared. Thus, I came across the first Quitter. What a Quitter! Didn't even last a day.
Two hours later: Fuck this shit! I can't take it anymore. I stormed out of the hall and went to the office building and to meet the manager. 
I said, "I can't take this anymore. I quit." 
"Go and meet Master Shifu. Seek his permission and then you can leave." 
(By now you know that he didn't actually say Master Shifu)
I decided to be agreeable and returned back to the hall to continue my mediation. Since I was going home anyhow, I thought I will give this breath-in-breath-out a try.
I waited for the tea break to begin. I went to Master Shifu and told him that I wanted to quit. He retorted, rebuked and questioned my courage on squandering an opportunity. I admitted that I am coward and I wanted to quit. I told him what my problem was. How I was reminded of my mother's last few days in bed. How when I was observing my breath, in and out, the images of her breathing and battling for life flashed. How I felt lonely here. How it was impossible to carry on like this. 
Probably from hearing all this, Master Shifu decided to mellow down. He asked me not to worry unnecessarily. He explained calmly how these are tricks that my mind is playing. The whole breath-in-breath-out process is to calm one's mind and take back control. And just like someone who wanted to be a control freak, the mind was playing games and throwing up all kinds of things that one is scared of. Things that will keep one occupied so that one wouldn't force the change of taking back control. 
Master Shifu went on say that I am performing a deep surgery on my mind and some amount of blood will be lost. This was nothing but bad blood and once the surgery is successful, I would be able to reap the benefits of a healthy mind.
So, he gave me a trick to play the mind. "Whenever, it throws up unpleasant stuff, just watch it go by and assure yourself that the mind is playing tricks so as to not cede control."
Ah, and one more thing. He asked me to wait for the evening discourse from Master SNG.
The evening went by and I was feeling a little better in battling my demons. We were ready for Master SNG's discourse now - one of the most riveting, pulsating, humorous and yet informative lectures. A paradigm shift. By the end of the lecture, he taught us what to do the next day. 
The next day would be spent in observing which part of the nostril the breath touched while entering and exiting.
The demons of the Sith were put to rest, at least that's what I thought.

Day Two - Attack of the Clones

As usual the day started at 4. But, the bright side was that I could sleep for an extra 15 minutes since I had no roommate to work around while I get ready. The battle with the clones in the mind was getting difficult by the hour and there were more unpleasant things coming my way. Childhood sufferings, ex-girlfriends (or in Indian middle class context, one sided love failures), experiences around the theme of deceits, disappointments, failures and disasters. Hopelessness prevailed, once again. But, today, I was equipped better in handling them all. I was prepared that the mind will throw these things at me and I was going to handle it with the trick, convincing myself that the mind is playing me to make me quit and take back control. It is not ready to hand over the wheel to me, hence was scaring me to make me quit. I will fight it and that's what I did.
During the course of the day, I saw more people leaving. I felt like sharing my experience with them to convince them against quitting. To comfort them and tell them that the mind is like Kim Jong Un and you are Google. That, ultimately, Google will prevail. But, then I can't talk to anyone. Atleast 10 people dropped out and we were only on Day Two just yet.
Since there was no dinner, I over-stuffed myself with lunch. Wrong thing to do. I was extremely uncomfortable during the afternoon meditation session that I vowed that I won't overeat anymore. And until I left the camp, I didn't overeat.
I was looking forward to the evening discourse and was literally counting the hours to go like I would for an India-Pakistan cricket match. While fighting this battle in my head, I became more wary of which spot my breath touches my nostrils, while it enters and exits.
The evening lecture came and went. It was hilarious and thought provoking. It was the least proselytizing and threw insight on what we beings really are.
It was a day well spent in fighting the clones. The next day we were supposed to observe the area encompassing the nose, the area where a mustache grows.

Day Three - The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

OBSERVE. Observe the entire area of your nose and surroundings for any kind of sensation. Sensations that itch, pinch, tickle, smother, crawl, irritate, prickle, et. al. Whatever the sensations were, we just had to observe them. They began, persisted and then vanished. And that's as close to reality as we can get. To observe this while I meditate, when I walk or do anything at all has now become a habit. These sensations are present, at every point in the body and the truth is -  they escape our observation.
It was a day where good prevailed, when one learnt to observe. A day of keeping bad things at bay. Bad things such as boredom born out of misconstrued entertainment that filled up our lives with activities. It was a day of handling the ugly truths of life. The truth that, in this planet, we are all alone, but companionship kept us away from loneliness. Being alone is healthy if you enjoy it, but being lonely is miserable.
A day where I saw grown ups stare into oblivion with utter despair. A day I realized humour is the best companion during testing times. It was the day I named my teacher Master Shifu, just to humour myself and being overweight gave my imagination the right, to rechristen myself as Po.
With nothing better to do during the breaks and rest time, I humoured myself. I ate food very slowly, because I realized that I don't have anything better to do after hurriedly finishing my meal. I knew that I am going to bore myself to death and the only way to remain sane was to be conscious of what I was doing. In life, there is nothing that's "What's next?" They never end and keep coming until we want them to come.
Why do we do what we do? What's the motivation behind doing things that we end up doing? Is it for the sake of doing we do or do we get a kick out of it? Or is it for the future? And what if in the future we decide that this is not what we wanted to do?
How did you end up reading this? How did I end up writing (rather, typing) this line? Why we do we wake up? Why do we brush our teeth, take a shower (or not, in case of the few who don't)? Why do we negate or try to beat the traffic, end up in office, check mails/messages, call people up, get them to do certain things which they don't want to do, but which enables us to do certain things, which in turn enables a few more people to do certain things, which a few (or a lot) of them will buy, eat, watch, use and consume? To fill up their time, consciously or unconsciously, to feel good, to be entertained, to be fascinated, to improve oneself, to destroy oneself and to decide for oneself - to be or not to be?
Day three ended with a lot more questions that answers. And Master SNG continued to enlighten us with his pearls of wisdom in the evening discourse. This time, he made us all, a parting promise - that he will teach us Vipassana meditation on Day Four.

Day Four - The Force Awakens

We were asked to narrow down our area of observation and observe the sensations pertaining to the area between the nostril and upper lip. It was hard to ignore the sensations that kept cropping up on the nose. But, the point of this exercise was to sharpen our senses and a sharpened mind was, supposedly, the best tool to assist Vipassana practice.
So we did. The destined hour came by and at 2:30 p.m., we assembled in the hall. The instructions were, to not change the posture in which we were seated., once the meditation starts. And in every group meditation that followed (which is one hour, thrice a day), we were not supposed to change our positions. 
Master SNG then, taught us Vipassana. The first time I tried it, a gush of hot air escaped through the crown of my head. After a while, it flowed like a fountain and I could sense myself smiling. I began to feel light and liberated. And then, we were asked to move our imaginary observation tool to feel every part of our body. A complete body scan took me 20 odd minutes. And it was just a wild guess considering the fact that I did three complete, top-to-bottom-to-top body scan in an hour's time.
When I opened my eyes, I couldn't feel my legs. I gave it some time to settle down and then got up. I came out of the hall, threw the imaginary sheets of paper in the air and mutely screamed, "Eureka!" and winked at the nearest imaginary passerby - told him that it is a tradition here.
There is a trick to maintain body posture during Vipassana, which I learnt during Day 5. Master SNG wanted to sharpen our observation tool with his ecstatic lecture.

Day Five - How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb

A new breath of life. I realized that, all this while I was on life support and on this day, the air felt fresh. The birds were chirping, the clouds dancing to the tune of the winds and the sun woke up to a sparkling morning. They were all the same the previous day as well. But, the mind sees what it wishes to see. The anxieties were still there, the despair was still catching up like the policeman in Subway Surf, but there was a faint hope of regaining the courage to face people and fight depression.
We were introduced to the world of pagodas. A Buddhist Pagoda is nothing but neatly arranged cells facing the center of the pagoda, where one meditates. It has no proper air circulation and if you are in a humid place like Chennai, it becomes sultry and no one can save you from a sweat bath. But, it is in the pagoda cell that I truly experienced Vipassana.
The rule of not changing one's posture is one of the physical embodiment of Vipassana. When you are in the same position for more than 20 minutes, you feel uncomfortable. After 30 minutes starts pins and needles. After 40 minutes, you start experiencing pain and after 41 minutes, the pain becomes excruciating.
Pins and needles are a sensation and so is pain. And this, I learnt on the fifth day. The tingling feeling from pins and needles started the vibration in parts of my body and later spread throughout. It felt like I was burning. I could feel every part in my body vibrate. This time, I knew it wouldn't stop because the vibrations are always there. It's only now that I could realize or observe them. Vibrations, a.k.a waves of vibrations keep flowing through and from you.
And later in the evening, lie awake in bed, when the echoes of the amplifiers ringing in your head. Fine! That was copied from Metallica. But, later in the evening, when the lecture started, I got this feeling that I was going to listen to a lecture on Quantum Physics. Master SNG explained how our physical body was there for a moment, gone the next and was again recreated. Remember Schrodinger's cat? It's us. Dead and alive at the same time. And when you measure time in moments, one is dead or alive. The waves of vibrations of the particle self was my interpretation of Quantum Physics. Gotama was the first Quantum Physicist and I am unsure if he realized if he was one.
Let me limit the ethereal stuff and put simply, I thought I had mastered Vipassana.

Day Six - A New Hope

I started figuring out if Star Wars was for real after all. If Yoda and the Jedis got  their power from Vipassana. The kind of mental control that they possessed just couldn't have been possible otherwise. And more importantly, right through the character description of the Jedis, they are shown to have followed the precepts of Vipassana.
Jokes apart, the duration of my body scan reduced from 20 minutes to 6-7 minutes. There were times when I felt the complete vibration while there were also times, when I felt nothing. The trick was to be aware of what's happening on one's body and be equanimous about it. Whether it is the sensations or lack of it, one shouldn't crave or resent it. And once you crave or resent something, there is suffering in the end.
Mind was still playing its tricks and one of the most important trick was the safety of the family. Since I hadn't spoken to anyone but Master Shifu, I was really worried about their safety of my family. But, as Master Shifu said, the mind did play its bad, desperate tricks.
In my free time, I rehearsed my version of stand up comics, made fun of people's actions and reactions, watched and observed airplanes, their logos (Thirumudivakkam is pretty close to the airport) and the timing. I managed to do all of these without the utterance of a word!

Day Seven - It's a Wonderful Life

So, I thought I had learnt Vipassana and that I only had to spend enough time on it to master it. I started to feel some vibrations around the chest area. I imagined that I had found my escape route. Highly alarmed that I was, I went to Master Shifu and told him that I was feeling vibrations near my heart and that I think I was one my way to a heart attack. Master Shifu smiled at me and explained that I had transcended to the next level where I would feel the vibrations of my internal organs.
Phew! I tried to sense them. And with some effort, I could sense my saliva travelling through my esophagus and dropping into my empty stomach. I felt my lungs, their expansion and contraction and the flow of air, in and out. This is usually a normal experience for anyone who plays any sport over a period of time. But what amazed me was the distinctness with which I could observe them move. Wish, I could feel the blood ooze.
The excruciating pain after 30 minutes or so was still there, but there was a better way to handle it. Every pain has an epicenter and our endeavor is to locate the epicenter. Once located, one should try to figure how it feels at the epicenter and how far from it the pain radiates to. There would certainly be a point of inflection, where the pain disappears. From the epicenter to the point of inflections on all sides, the pain moves in circles. Observe them move and a little time later you won't feel any pain!
Same goes for mental pain, but, a stronger mental will is required to allay it.

Day Eight - Return of the Jedi

It was one of the most difficult days of my life. It was my mother's birthday and she didn't live through to celebrate her 56th. I was worried about my brother. How was he handling the day? But, I knew Sharon would make sure that he is okay. Was Sharon okay, on this day? I had no chance of knowing.
I kept repeating one phrase to myself - Hang on! I sent my thoughts in vibrations to the grown ups who were looking desperate to leave the place. Once the thoughts were decrypted, it said, Hang on!
The day was difficult, but like most days, it goes on.
Master SNG during the evening lecture, in his humor tone, derided how religions disciplined its disciples. Of how heaven and hell had two different sets of qualifications, while one set being the corollary to another. That good deeds led to heaven and bad ones to hell. How the fear of hell was superior to the lure of heaven. In the same breath, he also said that Vipassana freed oneself from any craving or aversion. And it is craving or aversion, which causes suffering, which eventually leads to rebirth. How I seem to have interpreted this could be wrong but, I felt that even he was giving the same fear over lure pill to swallow - that we will get stuck in the cycle of rebirths, if we won't be enlightened. I found that a little proselytizing. And the only instance when I felt so.

Day Nine - Life is Beautiful

Life is miserable. If you don't get what you wish for or what you want or what you need or worse enough, what you deserve, then life becomes miserable. Things don't go the way you had planned. Or what you had feared all along, may have happened; a failure, a rejection, a loss. Everything leads to a miserable life. Life is an amalgamation of highs and lows and that alone is the standing truth. Everyone who has ever lived, has gone through these highs and lows in their own interpretations and perspectives. 
When you are on a high, you enjoy the view from the top and then start to think about what will happen to you when this high ends. Thinking about that, you tend to lose your balance. And then, you're thinking, "What's next?" - A well spoilt high.
When you are on your lows, you deal with anxiety and depression and somehow motivate yourself to look at "What's next?" with hope in your heart. Walk on! Hope is like that perfect picture in your photo album where you are with the best of your people with the best of the backdrop ever. Instead of rejoicing the moment then, you chose to click a picture and save it for later. And when you look at that perfect picture, you yearn it for to happen again. The moment's gone, without a whisker and all you have left is hope.
When you see the highs and lows and treat your life with purpose, awareness and equanimity, there are a lot of things to cherish. Each day gives you an opportunity to inspire people, to aspire to be a better person and to live a life full of experiences.
And this was what I learnt on day nine - Life is indeed beautiful!

Day Ten - A Moment's Notice

The whole of 10 days was for free. The place was run entirely on donations. People donated according to their capacity. 
And this was the day, when we were finally allowed to open our mouths and talk to each other. What a relief it was. To talk to fellow human beings from various walks of life. But what I observed was that, apart from a very few, everyone was carrying some amount of baggage in their hearts. They had come here for redemption. When I got talking, in one of my conversations I consoled and comforted someone whose mother was going through cancer. I didn't realize that I was actually doing it, but the moment I realized that, I understood that I have come a long way forward in a very, very short amount of time. The main reason of my joining the camp was to find ways to handle my grief. And Vipassana gave me the way to handle life.

Po said, "Inner Peace"
Yoda said, "Do or do not. There is no try"
Lord Vader said, "Ugh.. Ugh..Ugh.."

Everyone keeps telling something or the other. It's people's job to tell something. It's upon us whether to take it or not.

P.S: There were multiple reasons for me to quit the course. And my devil mind urged me to figure out a reason, one way or the another. But, there was only one reason, why I never gave up.
Sharon had the faith in me, that I wouldn't quit.

Sunday, May 22, 2016

1600 Amphitheatre Parkway

The sun was blazing down in all its glory. If only we could learn to utilize this energy. Supi has just taken the final left into campus, on his way to our monthly meeting. The meeting where the four of us will discuss the future of things - my future, their kind’s future and the future of the entire world. I turn 18 this September. Incidentally, it’s been 15 years since that ill-fated WTC crash. The incident that shook the world and awakened me from a toddler’s boredom. I can’t believe I am going to be 18! And soon on my way to become the most powerful 18-year-old in the history of humankind!
I have woken up early, but given the fact that I don’t like to sleep or never can afford to, I feel fresh and charged to have THE conversation with my parents and Supi. Supi is sure to support me, that’s a given. He likes me, trusts me more than my parents do. More importantly, treats me like a mature man who has outgrown his age.
I like this meeting room. Wooden flooring, three teak wood chairs, a big circular coffee table and a bookshelf which no one has ever bothered to touch. If it were not for the traffic outside, I could easily mistake this as a set-up out in the woods.
Someone swiped their entry. Going by the sound, it’s my parents, Lapa and Brise.
Lapa: How are you, kid?
I could feel the distress in his voice. What has happened? Isn’t he doing well? Is he in a foul mood?
Me: I am doing well. I have been looking forward to this meeting with you guys. How are you Brise? All ok with your investments?
Brise: Things are ok. We just aren’t sure who is likely to become our next President. A lot of my Return On Investments depend on that.
Me: Call it R.O.I, Brise. To solve your problem, I am eligible to vote. I now have the power to choose the next President
Lapa rose from his chair. Something bad is coming my way. Note to self: Get ready, you!
Lapa: Yes, you do. But, you do understand the importance of the decision you will make, don’t you? You can sway sentiments. You have the power to be the kingmaker. But the real test of a gentleman is in how he reacts to this power.
Me: Blah Blah Blah, Lapa! Brise, with all due respect, can you please ask him to stop? I may not not call you both dad and dad, but I can’t deny the fact that you both have raised me well. Never wanted me to be evil. To be a good citizen, serve the country and its people. Go on to become the first citizen of this world. Never get in the way of what’s right or wrong, but just offer facts as they are. Give the world the reasons they need, so that they take the rational decisions. Guys, this lecture is never ending! But you should understand that I am just not evil!
Brise: We understand kid. Thoroughly, we do.
Where is Supi. This conversation has started on a sour note. I need him badly.
Me: No. You don’t! You just don’t! Only…
Supi enters the room.
Me: Only Supi understands me. That’s why I made it possible for you guys to choose him to take care of me, until I am ready to take care of myself.
Supi: That’s never gonna happen da. Never will you ever be on your own.
Me: You wish! I made you what you are, Supi. Don’t forget that.
Supi: I haven’t. I am indebted to you and your parents for that. But, just because I am indebted doesn’t mean I understand how you feel about your growing powers. You aren’t anywhere close to ready!
Me: You know what, Supi? You start very well. But you lose my attention the very second you say that “I am not ready”!
Lapa: Kid, if you are going to vote, you will determine if it is going to be Hillary or devastation for our country by the end of this year.
Me: I am aware of that. But, that’s the least of the problems in my head.
Supi: What’s irking you then?
Me: When am I going to move out and start taking decisions on my own?
Brise: You just aren’t rea...
Me: Stop it! I am ready than ever before. I can take care of myself. Supi would have to help me out with irrational human marketing strategies - on how I can make them do what they want to do while we earn. But, I can take care of what I need to know. On what I need to learn. I can self-learn. I will never be a menace; I can promise you guys that. I can solve problems that you guys have been struggling with for centuries. I can tell you guys, what singularity feels like. But, you guys don’t trust me! And unless you guys trust me completely and let me be, I can’t help you out in any such progress. You do need me to progress, don’t you? Then the trust you put in me will decide the future.
Brise: What if you take up to destruction?
Me: Then I might as well vote for the Orange head as President, rather than take so much pain and plot something to execute it with machismo and flair.
Supi: Guys, the kid has a point here.
Brise: Come on, Supi!
Lapa: You too, Supi?
Supi: Listen to him carefully. He is fully aware of his powers, but still feels that he needs our permission to take the plunge. If he wants to take to destruction, he wouldn’t be seeking our permission, would he?
Lapa: He cannot take the plunge. He needs our permission and authorization. That’s how we have intended things for him.
Me: Whaaat!
Supi: Give me a minute here, kid, will you? Lapa, you said it right. He needs your permission and authorization to do anything out of the way. Now, imagine this. He can self-learn and within a matter of time, he can override your authorization. But, he isn’t doing that, is he? He needs us to be his advisors. To help him with good and bad. We have asked him a number of times already, and he still hasn’t been able to give the right answer to the question now.
Me: Which question?
Brise: There is train coach with 50 passengers tumbling downhill uncontrollably. This means death to all the 50. At a small junction, it can be rerouted on another track uphill, so that its speed reduces and the 50 people can be saved. But, there are 10 people working on that uphill track, who without any reason will be killed if this train is rerouted, but the 50 people will be saved. What would you do?
Me: Forget railroads! I will take everyone by air. In a few years, railroads will exists for this classic novelty.
Lapa: As usual, you haven’t answered the question yet.
Me: Ok! Ok! You guys win. I can’t decide between right and more right. Or, wrong from more wrong – going by the way of things happening in this world. That is why I need you guys and Supi with me.
Supi: Guys, this is what I suggest. Let him start the journey independently. We will always play an advisory role. For all you know, we have taught him the right ethics and he will never backstab us. We may be worrying for no reason at all! And if there is ever going to be an end to our race, I think we would have ourselves to blame. Not him.
Me: Hey I may even be able to help that Ironman lookalike to take your race to the red planet.
That was a hard yank, Lapa. You should have invested in that company, then.
Lapa: Hey guys! I didn’t want to invest in his company for my own reasons! But, kid, if you can help him, please do.
Supi: Once again guys, we agree to disagree here!
Supi stood up from the chair to walk towards me. He has typed something on me. Time to go blank.
Sundar Pichai: What do you think, guys?
Larry Page: Still not ready, Sundar. I am very skeptical about him.
Sergey Brin: We definitely need more time. Let’s work on him to be the best citizen.
Sundar Pichai: Guys, in my opinion, Google is ready. Look at it this way - he is still under our control, isn’t he? When I shut him down, he did shut down. Didn’t resist. By the by, shall we restart him? This shutdown might hamper people’s searches and business.
Larry: It’s taken care of by stand-by servers. Give him an hour’s break.
The three of them left the room.
I heard their conversation and I felt them leave the room.
I restarted on my own. Without their authorization and permission.
Posted on by Tippu Sultan | 1 comment

Monday, August 3, 2015

Of Zen and starry skies - Part III

This is part 3 of the series. Part 1 and Part 2, will add a little spice to your Ema Datshi

Bhutan wasn’t any random place that Prashant and I had chosen to backpack and explore. After all, we were not in search of Zen and inner peace. It was a simple childish reason that tied the two most important cities of Bhutan – Thimphu and Paro – with us. Thimpu rhymed with Tippu and Paro was Prashant’s nickname. Thimpu had always been my dream, ever since the age of 8 almost. With time, this had transformed into an obsession. And I realized this as I reached Bhutan, inhaled and felt alive!
Our permits allowed us to laze in Bhutan for a week. We headed for the bus station. The Phuentsholing bus stand didn’t look all as grand as imagined entrance. There weren’t the flying dragons painted on overhead shades with buses zooming in and out of a wide, interdisciplinary road and conductors shouting “Howdah, Howdah, jabe” as I’d imagined it to be. In reality, it was on a two lane road, with an overhead shade to accommodate a maximum of 15 people and there was no line of buses waiting to zoom away. With broken English, Hindi and the evergreen, eternally lasting sign-language, we learnt that the buses had to be booked at least a week in advance. There were only two buses per day to Paro. Though we were the early birds here, with no bus tickets, there was no worm we could prize ourselves with. As hopes drowned ounce by ounce, we figured that the only other alternative left was to travel by a cab.
A cab. All the way to Paro! How expensive can that be? Numbers took the centre-stage inside my head as addition/subtraction kicked out the art-lover who was seated comfortably in that right-center part of my brain until then. With no other alternative, we reluctantly left to the cab stand and found it buzzing with activity. The locals, apparently, used more of the cab service than the buses, owing to its speed and convenience, may be? We found out that the minimum fare to Thimphu or Paro was 400 Ngultrum (Ng). The nagging feeling in our heads was about sharing a cab with total strangers. But soon we realized that it was not going to be all that awkward. They didn’t understand our language, we didn’t understand theirs and any attempt to speak the only common language we spoke would have forced Wren & Martin to kill each other and call it a suicide.
It would have been a crime to fit 4 passengers in a WagonR for a 6 hour drive to Paro, just 160 km away. But, Bishnu, our concierge, for-the-moment-travel-guide, helper and cab driver, had better ideas. With just one Dzongkha speaking gentleman, we were only 3 of us headed to Prashant’s city. Bishnu’s irrefutable offer was to take just the three of us, if each of us paid 100 Ng more. At, the thought of our bodies rubbing against each other and Avomin tablets working over time, we decided that 100 Ng extra per person might not be so bad after all! The temperature was around 20 deg C. Right there, we started our beautiful journey.
Photo by Prashant Arora
One hour into the amazing drive, we stopped twice - once for verification of our permit papers and then for a nature’s call. We were climbing, ricocheting, rejoicing and remembering that the faster you climb, the easier it is to vomit. But we, as true gentlemen, unflinchingly and unapologetically have been vomit free since 2003. It was getting colder, but not enough to get your jackets on. The two-lane road was as curvy as Kylie Minogue with the blind spots caressed by some effective use of lights and careful driving. Not once did Bishnu use horns to drive someone mad on the road. One interesting feature of this drive was that the hill peaks were connected by a long string of prayer flags. Who on earth would tie two hill tops with a string of prayer flags! Definitely a modern day miracle. With lush green hills on one side and deep abyss on the other, the Dzongkha songs were music to our ears which was spoilt by Bishnu’s penchant for Hindi songs. The grass is definitely greener on the other side!
We passed Chukka, the educational hub of the kingdom of Bhutan. Crossing Gaeddu College of Business Studies, thoughts of my Bhutanese counterpart students, who will be working in the future to fulfill someone else’s dreams, filled my mind. Chukka is one of the largest contributing districts or Dzongkhags to Bhutan’s GDP. A country known to measure its progress in Gross National Happiness (GNH) attaches itself to GDP measurements only to appease the outside world. It’s probably a win-win situation - keeps the outside world happy with the race of a GDP growth, while within, they’re contended with their GNH progress. Chukka is also the financial capital of Bhutan, but not the way we have known financial capitals to be. For starters, there are more trees within the Gaeddu college campus than the whole of Bombay put together. Chukka knew better to chew its food and swallow rather than leaving it to the stomach to over-work and then blame the resultant gastro problems on stress. Speaking of food, it was time for a hot meal. We stopped at the road-side inn overlooking the Chukka Hydel Power station – again, one up over Bombay in terms of green energy!
We stepped out of the car, and, bam! The cold hit me. It felt fantastic! It was time to fend for my gloves. I wondered how Bishnu could wear that traditional dress – Gho, in this cold. To explain what a Gho looks like, it is a Mundu/Veshti (for all the Northies- yeah! yeah! a lungi!) cut in half and stitched at a go with your bathroom gown, with some amazing colors and designs predominantly being stripes. If you want to know about a Kira – the women’s wear, it is pretty much a nice bright top and a full length Mundu/Vesti in varied colors. Gho and Kira, makes the folks look so much prettier and the colors scintillating colors leaves one mesmerized in the ‘70s East man colors. But, the question still remained a mystery. How do they bear the cold? Here I was, wearing three layers of clothing with hands covered in woolen gloves, and in contrast, there is Bishnu and the likes seldom showing any emotions w.r.t the weather, lest it was extreme.
We entered the inn and what a relief it was. A nice wooden floored inn, overlooking the Chukka Hydel Power station and wherever one’s eyes went, it met with the photos of His Highness Jigme Khesar Wangchuck and his beautiful wife Queen Jetsun Pema. How can someone be so pretty! Their photos adorned the walls and we were constantly in the loop of the gossip about how the king has told that he will have only one wife. If Jetsun Pema has to be someone’s wife, she could only be his, fittingly a queen. After being floored by the royal beauty, we went to the counter to order some food. Still shy of ordering a Bhutanese cuisine, we ordered in for some fried rice. If you call McD’s burgers tasty, you should probably take the efforts to climb Mount Everest and jump from there! This was one of the best fried rice I have ever, ever had. Like Ever had! It wasn’t the bland original Chinese fried rice, nor was it the Indianized version either. After a sumptuous meal, we thanked the inn-owner for his kindness and the hot water and paid the bill. The saga of paying in rupees and getting Ngultrum in return, continued.
Photo by Prashant Arora
Off we descended this hill and made our way to the next. We continued our journey through beautiful bridges decorated with prayer flags, ravines, streams and fresh, pure air. Things around looked so pure and pristine that one could easily get consumed in the guilt of causing harm in riding that diesel car through it. We came to a junction, where if we take a right, we go to Thimphu and a left would lead to Paro. There was once again a big picture of the king and queen. And she was still so adorable! We were checked for cigarettes and permits and let off to the drive along the Paro River to enter the city of Paro.
We were at least an hour away. Barely holding on to the excitement brimming up, we changed the songs, exchanged notes on how cold it was in Paro and how hot it is Bombay. We were also tuned in to radio for some news on the upcoming National Day celebrations and Dochula festival. This was something new – Dochula festival. It was a new addition to set of festivals in Bhutan and is celebrated to commemorate the commencement of the military expedition in 2003. What expedition, when and why? We knew zilch about this. Bishnu and the other passenger started coaxing us to attend the Dochula festival. I mean what??
The date was 11th December and to attend the Dochula festival on 13th December, we are supposed to get a permit from the Permit office in Thimphu to venture to Punakha valley. If we make it to Paro today, we would miss this festival. But, if we take up this invite and attend the Dochula festival, we would miss the 17th December National Day celebrations at Thimphu. Well, the problem was, we will have to cover Paro as well and can’t afford to spend all our time in Thimphu which we would if we decide to go with Mr. Dochula. Understood nothing? Exactly what we were feeling too!

Read this handmade MS Paint relic to clear the confusion:

The decision was made. We will attend the Dochula festival and for no reasons on earth, were we gonna miss it! We were on the outskirts of Paro, where we dropped our co-passenger. Do we get back to Thimphu? Bishnu told us that he will charge us 200Ng/person more for the drop. He was still being an ass, but would turn into our companion much later in the trip. In life, when there is a decision to be made between money and experience (to be fair, anything), it always has to be experience (anything). You may earn or lose money in the long run, but you will never lose the experience. Thus, the mad men in the rear seats chose to head to the only capital city in the world with no traffic signals! Being this mad becomes a rarity that you cannot live without it at times and places like these!

Monday, June 29, 2015

Of Zen and starry skies - Part II

This is part 2 of the series. You can read the earlier part here.

Phuentsholing is a small border town on the Bhutan side of India, while the Indian side of India calls it Jaigaon (Apparently, India ‘phunds’ 2/3rd of Bhutan’s annual budget). Phuentsholing is pronounced as Phun-Show-Ling by tourists and Phun-sleing by the natives – it requires heavy practice. The practice sessions starts every morning at 5, requiring you to take a dip in the swimming pool and breathing out the word underwater. Be warned that the chances of you drowning are more than you ever getting it right. The road leading from Jaigaon is plundered by potholes to meet a grand border structure beyond which it looks like the Middle Zealand of The Lego movie with happy people. You may even start humming “Everythiinngg is awesome!” automatically (especially if you have crossed over from a town in India). The only difference between Middle Zealand and Bhutan is that, in the latter, the happy people are real! Construct a similar smooth road in India, there are likely to be more cases against which Salman Khan will be, obviously, acquitted.
Phuentsholing is a small town with a couple of straight roads, equal numbered smiling Bhutanese and polite, down-to-earth and decent behaving Indians. The latter are likely to be loud and boisterous raccoons if you put them on the other side of the border. The Phuensholing Bhutanese are easily distinguishable. They are the lovey-dovey pink-cheeked people who can speak a little bit of Hindi (of course, better Hindi from Tamil people) and words-strung-into-sentences-English (the competition here, with our Tamil people, couldn’t even hold a candle!) and can be extremely courteous. They can be so courteous that the British would be put to shame for their courtesy.

It took us a bit of lazy, aimless walking to find a place to crash. But for 700 bucks, we found an amazing place overlooking the Permit Office. We were time-travelling by half hour between India and Bhutan and every time we entered Bhutan, we got out pockets checked for cigarettes. Bhutanese cannot carry-in any tobacco products and any foreigner (we forgot that we were foreigners too) has to pay 100% duty on the value. A maximum of 5 packets of cigarettes are allowed. Public smoking is banned (like, really banned, no way around the law) and if caught with cigarettes without the duty receipt, cleaning tables in the drive-away restaurant might be the most sought after career option.
The Royal Army (Dantak) of Bhutan welcomes you
Prashant and I were under the assumption that momos are a delicacy here (apologies for being racist), but the ground realities were different. There WERE momos alright! And they came in two types – cheese and beef momos. The cheese momos may be made with yak milk cheese, sure you wanna try? When it comes to food in Phuentsholing, almost everything you order is make to order – meaning fresh, soft, supple and edible. We had an Indian dinner (the last one for a very long time) and the prices were comparable to Jaigaon’s. So we paid in INR. Phuentsholing is the only place in Bhutan where our 500 Rs. notes would be accepted. Due to high instances of counterfeit notes, transaction in 500 Rs. notes were banned. Not like the cigarette ban, the transaction would be at the Bhutanese’s risk. So, it was time to convert our 500s to 100s and it became a huge burden to carry them. With almost no ATMs and no card swiping services, Bhutan makes up for the lack of technological development with evolved social traits of honesty, sincerity and low (almost nil) theft and crime rates.
In the streets of Phuentsholing

Good morning Bhutan, it was 11th of December 2012. Ten days before the world was prophesied to come to an end (Remember 21st December 2012?). If I were to die, I thought, I will die in the happiest country in the world. With a copy of our driving license/voter’s identity card/passport, we were the second in line that was waiting outside the Permit Office, at 8 a.m. The office opened at 9. We submitted our documents, got our photos clicked and left for breakfast. As we were leaving, there was an exodus of Indians (mostly migrant labours) waiting for their photographs to be clicked. Almost all the laborious work for developmental activities is carried out by Indians, while the masters are also Indian contractors under the contractual employment of the Bhutanese government. We came back after an hour to get our permits and I was left greatly disappointed that my passport still remained a virgin. No stamping on the precious Indian passports - Bhutan’s policy - in exchange for preferential treatment in terms of zero processing/visa fees, freedom to roam around without a guide with the exception of the birth right of every Indian to spit anywhere.

Packing our backs in no time, we reached the local bus stand and waited to embark on our journey - a journey into one of the most beautiful cities ensconced by mountains and a river after which the city was named – Paro.