Why Ayurveda? Because Science!

He squinted through a pair of wrap-around sunglasses, the kind one often expects to see on the crowning end of a wheelchair with wings of lenses spread wide and soaring across a sea of wrinkles -- or drool, if the sea had previously suffered a stroke. Or at home in makeshift bingo halls constructed of a dusty old Lions Club because all the Lions and Lionesses were dead and even the Rotary Club (Rotors?) was a shrivelled relic of a more thoughtful and communal age. It's Bingo and iPhones today. Let the neighbours find their problems to be what finally motivates them to pull themselves out of the mud, right? We already have plenty. These sunglasses ("the glass", as it was described on the first day when Ranju suggested he go out and buy some from a local market and he rode across the city instead to get the pair he'd purchased while in recovery) rested on the nose of an individual no more or less nobel than the other hunters and gatherers of new technology. His phone was dimmed as much as possible, to benefit the eyes behind the glass, and although it still processed billions of tiny pieces of data almost instantly before sending them as though magically across the entire planet, he cursed the momentary "Connecting..." as he waited for entertainment from the other side.

I sure hope you're not spending a lot of money on this garbage. Is all of India like this? I dunno, Steve, I hope you don't have a lot riding on this. The veiled criticism wasn't helping a stomach full of medicated ghee (120 millilitres per day, which is provably enough to loosen anyone's bowels, as that is the expected result of its ingestion. It wasn't clear to him as to the intention and those servicing the treatments did not provide much in the way of explanation.) as it sloshed involuntarily against the walls of its present cavity. Another window, but this one raced data across the city from a neighbourhood adjacent to the home of his old-lady sunglasses. How much money have you drained on this project? Project. The notion that the pursuit was somehow enjoyable or a toy like a go-cart built from spare Maruti 800 parts on alternating weekends and probably there were only a few dozen more weekends to go if we could only get the mini-transmission right since we've given up growing the project as we were wont to do in the early days and our heads were filled with dreams of go-cart teams and races rather than the practical matter at hand of simply getting the pile of scrap metal to travel its first kilometre unassisted. At first, the comparison bubbled through his chest and into his throat in a web of thoughts that escaped their generative home but not his mouth. Impotent shouts of explanation burst through his mind until they calmed themselves at their mental reflection: a team of listeners and onlookers who were no more understanding than they had been before. But perhaps Ayurveda was causing him to go Schizophrenic... so at least that's one nugget to tuck away when unskilfully debating its merits, apropos of no particular desire for a useful outcome or conclusion.

Words escaped, as text, since the week had been speechless anyway. They were neither angry nor explanatory, as the imagination had so flamboyantly predicted. They were sad, and a little self-pitying, which was the last image he wanted to convey but somehow the only one available to the vocabulary resting against the back board of the scrabble shelf. A board was filled with words serving little or no purpose, and further constructions beyond that which mired themselves in meaninglessness to a degree the individual words (words. word. shabd. paaaayyyyd. he was mentally muttering, knowing that even without the disadvantage of an unpracticed tongue the Hindi in his head was no nearer to any socially accepted definition of correct (and there were many, which was often a handy way of forgiving oneself for one's ineptitude) than if the sounds had escaped his throat. Now the board rests in the shade of a tree, though the makeup of the game's present state has not improved. The tree towers above familiar buildings and the other side of the conversation takes on a different tone. Do you really believe Ayurveda will heal your optic nerve? No, of course not. I don't "believe" anything I can manage to avoid by way of the little intelligence I have available. Not anger, but annoyance. His fingers trembled, as a clear passage of dialogue with the intent of conveying a message, again, unconveyable, materializing as a desire to ...cook a fish? wash the dishes? build a bird feeder? Perhaps the very typing which manifests the source of the scrabble board. Or is the typing manifest? One can never remember all the way back to the beginning. It was hard enough to acknowledge the confusion under the tree. No, friend. Listen carefully.

Hope. Belief. Faith. These are the siblings of Bitterness, Anger, and Hatred. In fact, they are identical entities if one can find them manifest. But of course one can never remember where to start or what is manifest anyway. So ignore that. Use your imagination and imagine them as sisters, brothers. They are all the children of Fear and Fear is as much You as it is your only opponent. So this will be difficult.

Were you listening? Let me repeat myself as I have done a thousand times not on the board but in these quivering digits: Hope, Belief, and Faith are the children of Fear. They are the enemy of your intellect. And while I am not offended that you might suggest they live within me, as they certainly do, I will try to convey to what degree... in what ....capacity....

The board has words on diagonals now. Damn the space where the rules are written by the rules themselves and damn that space for escaping the prison of my understanding. I have manifested... all of reality itself? The board? The beginnings? Obviously not. Therein lies megalomania and narcissism and a belief (that word again. words. shabd. shabdden.) that the beginnings and ends exist, much less that they can be perceived. No, friends. Curiosity is perhaps at best a word capable of describing the leap from simple consideration to complex execution. Applied Curiosity is Observation. And though the words are probably illegible on the board at this point, another example gurgles out from under the bridge.

Enjoy your yoga retreat! Project. Retreat. If the former, in its greatest moments and wildest misinterpretations, implies some work is being done, the latter does not. None at all. It implies laziness and escapism and selfishness. An understandable conflation, yoga, and Hinduism, and Ayurveda, and magic, and belief, and hope. Expectation. Such an aged thing is bound to have wisdom and scars. The depth and the breadth are what we are to measure, to the best of our ability, to the best of our ability from our current vantage point. Yoga, as far as he can tell, is not a scar this alien practice. The scars and the wisdom are yet to be sorted! Wheat and chaff, ghee and religion. Chaff and wheat, medicine and prayer. Life-long dedication is something he's never understood, but it is one more set to be sorted as to whether or not his belief that retirement planning is an activity of a generation past. Regardless, waking an hour before the break of dawn can hardly be considered life-long dedication. It can hardly be called dedication at all, except to these ideals which are so difficult to convey. Why are curiosity and observation unconveyable? Is it that they require conveyance? A vehicle not yet built? Telepathy? Perhaps only then! Perhaps in the ending the One True Ending we shall telepathically hear all the words and understand not just their their pronunciations and their meanings and their millennial matriculation but their intentions, for in the end they are a vehicle of intention, and we can dig one layer deeper only to find we are not at The End but we are simply watching a trembling finger and perceiving ourselves to understand the hopes and fears which force it to tremble.

Enjoy your yoga retreat! Okay, I will. It is hard to imagine how ten days spent digesting an overdose of lipids in solitary confinement, with no yoga, mind you, though that's probably for the best as a digestive tract full of fat is likely to expel its contents under the stress of even ordinary physics, could possibly be enjoyed. Maybe therein lies purpose not to satisfy curiosity or to observe anything at all but to educate oneself on the complexities of enjoyment. He leans back. Today's bath was enjoyable. Honesty is key, honesty at all costs. And this particular bit of honesty costs little. Seven days without shampoo left his head a matted, ghee-and-oil-soaked mess to the extent that were this not the final day of enduring such a strange procedure, tomorrow was likely a wakening addressed to his own vomit rather than the Sun or the Sun God or whatever it was he was addressing in the weak hours, the quiet hours, the hours before Earth began to tremble at this particular meridian. Honesty about the concrete is always easy. I woke up early. I didn't do my homework. I hurt your feelings. I hate this food. Fear and the fractals of itself it creates of itself, there's the rub. It is not just frightening for him to think of abandoning ten years of work. It is terrifying. He has lived no other life and neglected even passing interests in the interest of this one pursuit. And while he can wave away the difficulties of others, as is always much easier to wave away the difficulty of others than to wave away one's own, the idea that in eighteen months time he may have to choose to stop reading both horrifies and excites him. To ride this wave of mind is to see a future cooking delicious, healthy meals and teaching yoga or pilates or tai-chi or feng-shui or something else he presently does not know and riding on boats and doing real labour with his hands and feet living a real life using his real body to do real things. And there the wave stops. We ride its crest to a cliff, a waterfall of realization, that none of this is real and has not and may not ever occur. The images remain in the wave as we glance back across the river, but they shift from beautiful cartoon dioramas to disappointed versions of a universe which chose not their path. The shift occurs, ironically, with the second half of the book we hold so dear, in the second half of our instructions, in the second half of the instructions we have given ourselves: truth. Honesty is not truth manifest but our human attempt, manifest. Attempts to be better. Attempts to achieve an unachievable universal ideal. Honesty at the waterfall is human because we are not observing but remembering. I remember the failed surgery. I remember my first glimpse of a blind spot interrupting most of my macular data. I remember the ophthalmologists telling me it was permanent. I remember finding out my left eye is going blind because of the right. These are facts. These are not facts, but memories. Observation gives us facts. Memory gives us a manifestation of ourselves. And conflation of the two gives us confusion. Self-pity, in this case... at least at first. Pity is a child of fear, Anger is a child of Pity, Hope is a child of Anger, Faith is a child of Hope and they will birth one another to no end. It is an incestuous garden.

We are photons and H2O.

Look at this board. Someone has mixed up an academic definition of honesty with a poetic definition of inevitability. Someone has gone back to playing with single-letter tiles. Someone puked on their shelf. I can't not do this. Alright, keep it together, avoid drama. It's not drama, it's intent.

He leaned back. This lean had the character of an awkwardly designed Swedish chair trying to bend forward and backward simultaneously, arse back hips forward lower back inside shoulder blades spread eagle like those damn sunglasses that have nearly fallen in the toilet, an "Indian style" (a choice that surprised Ranju... Ranju? Raju? His name pronounced always sounds like Brinjal but that can't possibly be correct.) toilet chosen originally because it was attached to the largest room but with the unexpected side benefit of making it easier to answer the doctor's questions pertaining to fecal constitution, for perhaps the three-dozenth time, though they have never fallen in completely. Kitty was the only one to ask the direct question, for which he was uncomfortably grateful. The question could be posed so clearly and yet the answer lies in a scrabble board covered in vomit under a tree on a terrace of a painting which never truly touched canvas though it perhaps could and that wouldn't solve anything either. Why are you doing this? I can't not do this. Because curiosity and observation seem so clearly the answer to the faithful of Scientific disciplines like he, The Beginning had to introduce a third (and a fourth, and a fifth, but not yet) to keep the show worth watching. The human capacity to plan is largely what differentiates the creatures from any other. But what is planning if not the imagination? What is the imagination if not fear? And there's the rub.

He leaned forward. He excused himself the tangent, since he'd already come this far and the scrabble board was now tumbling down the waterfall as he realized that he, too, was tumbling and had perhaps ever prior and would ever hence remain tumbling and while falling with the water, which is quite surreal and even more mysterious when devoid of its usual gravitational nature thank you very much relativity, he felt no reason not to indulge the tangent, excuse the tangent, if only for a moment. And so we indulge and excuse. He thinks to his thought process, which is presumably a comedy of visual errors if his memories of the facts were to be believed any time between then and now, which he presumes at this juncture that they were not, and decides that all right no problem I will forgive myself another tangent since we've barely started this one anyway and begins:

IMAGINE! Imagine the future! Too loud, sorry. Imagine 2017. Imagine that the blind spot never gets better. Imagine that the left eye continues to get worse. Imagine the most likely scenario. Imagine it is in my best interest to stop reading, to listen to audio books and save my eyes for truly important things. Imagine I forge a new career, one that does not involve text. Imagine how I might look back on this time period. Should I try Ayurveda? Should I try the 9-month prescription of liver medication the ophthalmologist prescribed with a shrug, stating, "give it a try... it has no side-effects" despite the fact that its list of side-effects is quite easy to google with a Thai-to-English translator (since the drug has only been used to treat nerve damage in Thailand, of course)? Should I try homeopathy? Magic beans? The Power of Positive Thinking? The present option was presented to me and it seemed not wholly unreasonable. It still doesn't, at present. And so I tried it and I am continuing -- continuing to give it an honest try. When I look back from 2017, I hope, I believe, I have faith, that I won't regret trying.

If words serve no purpose but to satisfy their manifest intent, outcomes serve no purpose but to satisfy their manifest curiosity. It is the daily effort of the human being to seek truth, against all odds and its own mental faculties. Humanity drives us to find actions which reveal truth and to reveal truths to ourselves which tell us how to act. This self-referential discovery process may have no end, but to presume we have found The End is almost certainly failure, for skepticism is a tool which can be applied to itself, a knife carving ever sharper, ever finer. The moment we become dismissive of something we do not understand, we have fallen into the same old trap, as we have now made a false god of whatever it is we chose not to reject.

He leaned back. Satisfied with a single writing and a single reading, he submitted his thoughts to an audience he hoped would try their best to understand.

Drugs, meditation, warnings.

I recently returned to work from my second 10-day Vipassana course. After such a course, friends are always curious about the experience. Because Vipassana meditation courses are largely indescribable, the conversation often drifts to one's journey toward Vipassana, and the journey toward meditation in general. For me, this journey has been a mixture of friendships, literature, and drugs. Drugs can be seen as a stepping-stone to my current meditation practice because a few drugs have similar insightful (informational) qualities.

A colleague and I have spoken at length about drugs and meditation in the past few days -- mostly about my reckless drug experiences, since they are easy to describe and that was what he was most interested in. I felt it necessary to clarify what I was saying about my experiences and experiments -- and to colour it all with appropriate caveats. This post began as an email of warning to a group of friends, but halfway through I decided it was better structured as a blog post.

I certainly don't recommend anyone try drugs; as with anything in life, only do what seems safe to you. Carefully judge what you and the people around you are comfortable with. I strongly recommend against experimenting with non-informative drugs, and all drugs fall into this category with enough use. Before I begin, it's worth noting that I have stopped all drug use for this reason, save tea and coffee.

That said, I wanted to solidify my warnings to make sure no one misinterprets what I've said in person about experimenting with informative drugs (hallucinogens) or meditation. My drug experiences and descriptions are limited. I am a very new student of meditation. Take everything I'm saying here with a grain of salt and research your own experiments thoroughly.

I plan to write more about the two most recent meditation courses I've attended once my thoughts on them condense but that's quite another topic.

From safest to least-safe, here's my take:


The "safe" category almost exclusively includes meditation/yoga, and even these comes with caveats. Again, this list is from safest to least-safe.

Zazen at Bodhi Zendo: A few friends accompanied me to Bodhi Zendo (found at Kodai Kanal in Tamil Nadu), and I would never discourage anyone from spending time there. The environment is clean, comfortable, and affordable (300 rupees per day for room, board, and meditation instruction). The people are sweet and gentle, the food is delicious, the Zendo is in a quiet valley, the meditation is light and informative.

Yoga: I've attended various yoga classes. I don't think yoga qualifies as "meditation" at all, but I always feel better afterwards. There's always a risk of physical injury when exercising, but yoga instructors seem generally conscious and proactive about students' safety.

Zazen (generally): Zazen, as taught at Bodhi Zendo, is quite gentle. Zazen meditation elsewhere can have quite strict rules about sitting posture and behaviour in the Zendo, which might make some people uncomfortable. I generally find Zazen practice relaxing but it can also become emotionally intense.

Vipassana: Vipassana (as taught by S.N. Goenka) is almost universally described one way: intense. Really intense. In terms of intensity, Vipassana meditation greatly eclipses any drug experience I have ever had and it can be quite emotionally taxing. I have not found it to be relaxing at all. Be honest when you fill out an application form to attend a 10-day course. If you have clinical depression/anxiety or a history of mental health issues, you will not be allowed to attend. Respect this. You could really hurt yourself.

: Meditation with medication comes with all the risks of medicine and actively changing your body chemistry. I've been seeing an Ayurvedic doctor in Bangalore on a friend's recommendation; I'm pretty sure he will recommend yoga and pranayama at some point (he has for said friend). I'm listing Ayurveda as "least safe" due to the fact that it involves something external (herbal medicine) and the fact that you must place your trust in another person. Conversely, Zazen, Yoga, and Vipassana are all internal and entirely under my control when I try them.


Leaving the realm of exploring ourselves internally, we come to drugs. I'm only listing drugs I have tried and my experiences are quite limited. If you do consider taking drugs, give yourself a lot of lead time to make sure you really want to do it (never take drugs on a whim) and read as much literature as possible so you feel comfortable with what you're getting into. Wikipedia is a good resource for hard facts. Erowid is a good resource for experience reports. Again, I will try to list these drugs in order of ascending danger.

One general caveat: If you do choose to do drugs, do not mix drugs -- especially when trying a drug for the first time. If you are going to experiment with drugs, do so by taking a drug in isolation so you can clearly assess its effects. Mixing two drugs in relatively innocuous doses can cause you serious physical damage. Consider alcohol and Tylenol as an example; mixing any of the drugs listed below will be far worse.

Lysergic acid diethylamide (acid): Being on an acid trip leaves one feeling completely lucid, capable of normal, low-impact activities: reading, speaking, walking, etc. While it did inebriate me, I've found it did not cause me to say anything I didn't mean or do anything dangerous. I've found the experience to be valuable and educational. While taking acid, I have had a strong preference to be "in nature", but I have had no aversion to the city. I have found doing acid with company (sober or otherwise) to be preferable, even if only as a reminder to drink water. Once high, one's attention is turned inward and I haven't engaged in social interactions. Acid eliminates one's appetite, so I've always eaten a full meal beforehand. The effects last 10 to 20 hours.

2C Family (2ci / 2ce): Taking 2ci is very similar to acid. Compared to acid, it was often more difficult to regulate how much I was taking -- particularly if the 2ci purchased comes in a powder which needs to be distributed into capsules myself. It does seem to cause, very consistently, an intense stomach pain as the drug becomes active in the nervous system. This effect occurs about 1 to 2 hours from taking 2ci and once this effect has occurred, there is no appetite so, as with acid, eating in advance has always been important. Again, I've remained lucid and cognisant of my own safety while intoxicated by 2ci. The industrial world (the city) becomes quite uncomfortable, while "nature" -- the woods, the park, or the back yard -- is vastly more enjoyable. Again, it's been useful to have someone around to check on me. The effects last 5 to 10 hours.

MDMA (methylenedioxy-methamphetamine, ecstasy): E is easily the most enjoyable drug I have ever tried. It has remained fully enjoyable every time I have taken it. Mild euphoria and the effect of uninhibited loving feelings are the consistent effects. Experiencing uninhibited loving feelings is informational, but not on a repeated basis; ecstasy quickly degrades into a non-informational drug. Ecstasy consumes serotonin, and I have seen it depress people after its use, though I have never experienced this myself. E is dehydrating. Ecstasy has caused me to behave in ways I regretted, in both sexual and platonic relationships. It has very serious long-term effects (brain lesions / brain damage) but I have never felt addictive effects in its use. Ecstasy in North America is often reported to be mixed with dangerous chemicals; I have only ever taken E independently tested for purity by a friend. The effects last 2 to 5 hours.

Nitrous Oxide: Nitrous is legal, as it is used in commercial whipping cream. For this reason, I've always been paranoid about nitrous, since accidentally purchasing Carbon Dioxide (which come in the same capsules, for the same purpose) would have devastating effects. Though not chemically addictive, because the effects of nitrous are intense but very short-lived, it is psychologically addictive. I have found myself craving the effects of nitrous after the experience has passed. It comes out of the capsule/bulb as a cold gas, which can cause frostbite of the lungs; there are other physical dangers. Taking nitrous requires extensive reading about its physical and addictive dangers. While the experience of nitrous can be informative the first few times, it quickly degrades into a pleasure (non-informative) drug. The effects last about 15 seconds.

Psilocybin mushrooms: The effects are comparable to acid, though I would say my experiences with mushrooms caused me much more mental and physical disability. I have not remained lucid or capable of doing all low-impact tasks. I have said hurtful things while intoxicated on mushrooms and I can see how it might cause a person to engage in physically dangerous activities. Mushrooms do cause variable levels of paranoia. The physical plant is similar in appearance and growing conditions to other mushrooms which are very poisonous and can kill you; I have only ever taken mushrooms grown in a closed environment for this reason. The effects last 5 to 10 hours.

Salvia: Saliva is legal in most countries and has clearly documented effects (see the wikipedia article). I have only experienced the effects from this list. Aside from evoking old memories of childhood, salvia is non-informative and there is little or no "insight" to be gained from its use. One of these effects is to cause such a strong hallucination about one's current physical environment as to completely remove one (mentally) from that environment. While on salvia, it would be very possible to walk into traffic, fall off a cliff, or stab your eye out on a tree branch. I have seen Salvia cause someone to stop breathing momentarily. Salvia is never taken lightly, even by those who are accustomed to it: it has to be taken indoors with all doors locked and away from any stairs or sharp objects. It absolutely must be taken only with the supervision of a sober companion. Because salvia must be smoked, it poses a danger to the lungs. Salvia has no addictive properties whatsoever... largely due to its huge hangover; after smoking salvia, one feels exhausted and depressed for a much longer time than the salvia high lasts. In the following days and weeks, the last thing in the world I can imagine doing is to smoke more salvia. The effects last 10 to 15 minutes.


Marijuana: Marijuana is not chemically addictive but it is very psychologically addictive. At the peak of my Marijuana use it has caused me non-trivial (though temporary) depression. It has caused me a great deal of paranoia, even once the enjoyable effects have dissipated. Marijuana deeply inhibits one's memory and mental faculties; recalling my earliest marijuana use in University, I paid close attention to the damage it was doing to my mental state: I would feel stupid after smoking marijuana for about 3 or 4 days. Because marijuana is primarily smoked (though it's also possible to ingest), it damages the lungs. Marijuana, in my initial trials, was actually informative to me, which was a great part of its appeal. However, it quickly degraded into a non-informative drug I used purely for pleasure. Smoking pot for pleasure lasted for years beyond the point where it provided me any at all, so I consider its psychologically addictive qualities much stronger than they are usually documented. I have said very hurtful things while stoned, though I don't think pot has ever caused me to do anything physically dangerous. Marijuana is more and more acceptable in society as its use increases and I think many people recognize the danger of alcohol and see marijuana as an alternative. Perhaps it is. The effects last 2 to 5 hours (or 3 to 4 days, depending on which effects one is measuring).

Alcohol: The enjoyable effects of alcohol are well known and not worth repeating. Alcohol has a very low LD50 and has caused me to harm myself, directly and indirectly, physically and mentally, on a number of occasions. I have had alcohol poisoning. Alcohol has caused me to harm others, physically and mentally, on a number of occasions. Alcohol greatly inhibits my capacity for self-regulation and moderation, which means drinking alcohol leads to me drinking more alcohol (or it creates the desire to experience other drugs). It also inhibits thought and judgement, leading me to engage in increasingly dangerous behaviour. While drunk, I have behaved in almost every manner conceivable: extremely loving, extremely generous, extremely jealous, extremely paranoid, extremely violent. Alcohol is chemically and psychologically addictive and I have experienced both. Because alcohol is socially acceptable and widely available, it poses even more danger: I stopped drinking after seriously injuring myself (while drunk) at the tail end of two months of very heavy alcohol consumption... even after all that and while I was undergoing surgery for that injury, colleagues and friends lamented the fact that I wasn't drinking with them. Alcohol's ubiquitous nature leaves me to consider it the most dangerous drug I have experienced in depth; society does not consider alcohol a drug. Alcohol has nothing to teach and begins as a non-informational drug. The effects last 1 to 24 hours, depending on the quantity consumed.

Cocaine: I have only tried cocaine on a few occasions. The effects are relatively mild (consider a strong dose of Nyquil), but because they do not last long it poses the same addictive threat Nitrous Oxide poses. Additionally, cocaine is chemically addictive. While I have not been addicted to cocaine, if I had consistent access to cocaine I could imagine how I could have become irreversibly addicted to it. Cocaine has not caused me to behave in dangerous ways: I have not done anything dangerous or said anything out of character while high on cocaine. It lands in this category purely due to its chemical and psychologically addictive properties. There is absolutely nothing to be learned from cocaine -- it's a pure-pleasure, non-informative drug. The effects last about 30 minutes.


Methamphetamine / Crack: I have only tried meth and crack once, each. Both times I have acted violently, become extremely paranoid, and endangered myself and others. They are also extremely addictive. I could not say how long the effects lasted.

Heroine: I have never done heroine (or any other opiate) but I'm adding it to the list because I have seriously considered it and would have taken it had the opportunity ever arose. Thankfully, it did not. In the years following my casual interest in heroine, I have met recovering heroine addicts. In the words of one, "as long as I'm not doing heroine, there is not a second of that goes by where I am not wishing I was doing heroine." That sounds like more than I could handle and I'm extremely grateful I never ran this experiment.


As I mentioned in the beginning, I have completely halted all drug use. Most of my drug use was alcohol, which I have never fully enjoyed, and whatever informational characteristics I learned from and enjoyed in hallucinogens have long-since been eclipsed by Zazen and Vipassana. Both of these activities are not only safe but also provide tangible benefit in my daily life, which is the opposite of the drug experiences I have had.

Despite the initial similarities to informational hallucinogens, meditation also has a quality which is the exact opposite of even the best informational hallucination I have experienced due to drugs: The quality of the meditative experience only compounds and improves; I can't seem to consume or reduce the usefulness of meditation. Conversely, the quality of the drug experience is always diminishing; every experience or experiment I have had with a drug has made the next less enjoyable and less informative.

However you choose to spend your time, do as much research as possible so you feel safe! When you begin experimenting with any new experience, start slowly and carefully, keep trusted friends close at hand, and if all else fails, call your Mom.


Huh? A software cooperative?

I recently wrote about how thankful I am, after a decade in software, to work for an employer which inherently understands my values and the values of all my colleagues. That employer is me. That employer is also all of my colleagues. That employer is nilenso: a software cooperative owned and operated by its employees here in Bangalore.

What is a coop?

According to Wikipedia: "A cooperative ("coop") or co-operative ("co-op") is an autonomous association of persons who voluntarily cooperate for their mutual social, economic, and cultural benefit."

That's a bit vague. This higher-level description of cooperatives includes things like housing cooperatives, social cooperatives (employing the previously unemployable), and consumers' cooperatives (owned by its customers). I won't be discussing cooperatives of this structure, but a housing cooperative is a helpful illustration:

Let's use this cute, orange condo building as a conversation piece. Normally when we think of condominiums we think of the green building: it's entirely owned by a property developer (see the helpful pie chart?). Each condo is sold to an individual and that individual has no ownership or authority over the building as a whole. It's possible for the owner of an individual condo to join the condo board to deal with issues like the noisy neighbour who comes home at 3:00 AM to listen to Taylor Swift remixes. It's not possible for the condo board to prevent that noisy person from purchasing a condo unit in the first place.

The yellow building presents the alternative: each condo owner not only owns their own unit, but also a percentage of the building itself (usually 1/N, where N is the number of condo unit owners). The building is still owned by a corporation. But now, rather than some external entity, the corporation which owns the building is itself owned by the residents of the building. Here, your pink penthouse also gives you a pink slice of the overall pie.

For the purposes of our discussion, the cooperatives we're discussing are profit-seeking corporations  participants of the market economy. Let's use nilenso as a canonical example. Nilenso operates externally as any other business would: an employee in an executive capacity sign contracts with our clients, the company mails out invoices for work we've completed, the company pays rent for office space, the company collects profits. Yadda, yadda.

Internally, however, things are slightly different. Rather than "founders" owning and operating the business however they like, nilenso is owned equally by every employee and operated by an elected Executive. Our salary structure is completely transparent. As are our books. As are all of our business conversations. Large decisions (like hiring a new member -- or firing someone, if it ever came to it) require a two-thirds majority. Since everyone in the company is an owner, everyone also has agency. Want a new keyboard? Need a book? Headphones? Office furniture? Grab the company credit card and execute; there's no one here to babysit you.

To make use of more ridiculous pie charts, ownership in nilenso (and therefore, votes) looks like this:

The usual idea of fun, young businesses run as employee-owned cooperatives probably conjures up images of this guy and his life partner, running their organic, fair-trade, non-GMO coffee roasterie and espresso shop:

That guy looks like a he'd run a solid coffee shop. Or... lumberyard. But he probably won't grow that into a multinational corporation any day soon. Many people don't realize that big coops do exist. Larger cooperatives (like the unimaginatively-named Federated Cooperatives Ltd. of my home country) adjust their structure to handle scale: with thousands of employees, they will have a board in addition to an elected executive. They will have departments and budgets and middle managers. They will look much more like a regular corporation internally than little 12-person nilenso does. But they are still owned and operated by their employees and they are still very much cooperatives. There's nothing about a cooperative which prevents it from being pedestrian.

Why build a cooperative?

Why do we prefer to live in a democracy? We prefer a society in which governance is not military, not centralized, and not dictatorial. We prefer to have the power to fire a government (and government agents) if they aren't acting in the citizens' best interests. Well, a corporation is always governed by someone, and in a cooperative that someone is you. A cooperative is a democracy.

This capitalist democracy is not all that different from the democracy of a nationstate. An executive body is elected and maintains tenure for a predetermined period until the next election is held. Large decisions can be put to a referendum. In both cases, citizens (employees) have agency.

This also lends itself to transparency. A business led by uninformed decisions is a business doomed to fail. If the most important decisions of the business are left to the employees, the employees must have full access to information about its operation: How are salaries structured? Bonuses? What is our P&L? Who is authorizing expenses? Who is responsible for what income? Who is exceeding expectations? How?

From transparency come checks and balances. It's easy to see how an opaque, privately-owned company like Koch Industries could run so far astray of meaningful, productive, progressive business as it has. But even publicly-held companies lack serious checks and balances. Bear Stearns, Lehman Brothers, and General Motors are public financial failures. Public companies are also subject to environmental disaster, contribution to war, human rights abuses, and corruption of politics. Most people don't think of Apple or British Petroleum as inherently flawed or evil. And perhaps they aren't, yet. But when corporate checks and balances are comprised of profit motives alone, it's not impossible to imagine public companies becoming meaningless, unproductive, and retrograde societal scars, like Koch.

Transparency and a self-regulating system won't be perfect, of course. Cooperative oil companies still have refinery explosions and oil spills. An employee-owned company distributes the greed of an individual "founder" to its entire staff, rather than eliminating it. But it would take formidable collective greed for a cooperative to brush off environmental & safety issues, buy politicians, or hire an international contractor known for its human rights abuses. On the other end of the scale, the agency provided to members of a cooperative make "corporate social responsibility" a daily activity, rather than an afterthought. At nilenso, we think collectively about our office waste, how we treat our contractors, and how we interact with our local community.

Perhaps, as a software developer, you don't care about the environment. Maybe you don't care about the company's financials or the sales cycle or improving the local community. Cool. You are perfect for a cooperative. What do you care about? Good coffee? A parking space? A gym membership? Software licenses? Conferences? Coops have you covered. Join, speak up, and change the company into what you want it to be. Remember: a coop is your company, in the most literal sense. Technology companies love to proclaim "this is your company", "we want you to be your own boss", and "we want entrepreneurs". But this is all hand-waving unless it means something legally.


If running a cooperative interests you, I'd like to provide fair warning that starting and running a cooperative is not without its own set of difficulties. At nilenso, it took us months to figure out our executive structure. Prior to that, we held a lot of referendums and decisions were made slowly. Finding a structure that works for you will take time.

A "Cooperative Corporation" is a specific legal entity, and nilenso isn't an internationally recognized Cooperative Corporation. India's Cooperative laws are antiquated, to say the least. Most of the cooperatives in India are either agriculture firms or small banks, and most of the laws are targeted at agri-business. A generic Cooperative Corporation in India requires a minimum of 50 (or 60, depending on which government document you read) employees and cannot own an international subsidiary. That's a big ball of nonstarter for us.

Your country might have similar restrictions  or you might just prefer the flexibility of starting a cooperative under another category of legal entities. Our lawyer recommended we use an LLP (Limited Liability Partnership), so our first partnership agreement looked like this:

This works well enough. The LLP can own international subsidiaries (like our California-based C-Corp), can contain any number of employees-as-partners, and we can write up the partnership agreement to reflect the structure we want for the corporation. With every person who joins or leaves nilenso, we rewrite the partnership agreement to add or remove them.

While everyone in nilenso owns (1/N)% of the company, we strive to make it a meritocracy: we have salary bands and everyone is slotted into a salary band based on her/his skills, experience, and contributions to the company. The partnership agreement doesn't affect anyone's finances, since all remuneration is through the salary structure.

Uncommon is the only other software cooperative in India that I'm aware of. They've taken another, totally valid strategy: They are structured as a Private Limited corporation. Rather than partners, every employee of Uncommon is a director and rather than a static salary structure, every employee takes home a salary corresponding to the work they've delivered that month.

Hiring and firing is one of the most difficult aspects of running any business, but it's even more difficult with a cooperative structured as a partnership. Decide procedures for employee on-boarding and exits before you start  then write them down. It's tempting to believe a team of friends will always be as happy and cohesive as they were on Day One... but it's a delusion. You are running a business and it's going to grow or fail. Either way, be ready.

Last but not least, a coop can't receive venture capital since that would mean the company was no longer owned by its employees. There are ways around this through child companies, joint ventures, and the like. But for someone like me who's not keen on the VC scene anyway, it's not really an issue. For us, this meant having enough cash in the bank to get nilenso off the ground in the first place.

What is nilenso?

Over the past year, the twelve of us have decided what nilenso is: Our primary focus is building increasingly sophisticated software. This past year, we've made wonderful tools of devops automation, distributed computing, machine learning, and multi-variate testing. Our tools and skills will only get more interesting and what defines "interesting" is decided by us! As a group, our office is excited about using this toolset, particularly through open source, to enhance essential services: water, food, housing, healthcare, education, scientific exploration.

But what we're excited about goes beyond software. We've made the nilenso office a space where we want to be: We have a library packed with books and meditation cushions. We have a washing machine. We have a nap room. We get healthy, homemade food catered for lunch in environmentally-friendly tiffins. We are investing in the education of our contract staff (cleaning and security). We have a composter for food waste and we recycle everything else. We have secure bicycle and car parking. We have delicious South Indian coffee. Over the next year, we'll change this so that nilenso is the kind of company we want in 2016.

That all describes what nilenso looks like more than it describes what nilenso actually is. Nilenso started as an experiment. None of us were sure if a software cooperative made sense or if we could make it work. After a year and a half, nilenso has grown from an experiment to an idea we want to share. We encourage you to try it out, criticize it, expand on it, and tear it apart. Resilient software systems are made through flexibility and by facing unforeseen obstacles. Resilient businesses are likely to be made of the same stuff.

What would your technology cooperative look like?

Welcome, gratitude.

I recently suffered the most severe injuries of my life - I experienced a retinal tear and detachment which led to multiple surgeries. Those surgeries themselves have permanently damaged my vision and physically deformed my right eye. While I was recovering, I was unable to read, use a computer, or watch video. Oh. And I was in California, on business. The surgeries prevented me from flying so I was unable to go home to India or home-home to Canada. When one is confronted with such restrictions, a strategy is required.

The strategy recommended by everyone I spoke to was familiar: distraction. "You can't read? You should watch movies!" "You can't even watch TV? You should definitely get some audiobooks." The familiar imagery of a sick child surrounded by books, video games, and constant television stood in stark contrast to the time I spent trapped in a Marriott. I meditated. I bathed. I ate. I thought.

Thus far, I have been on 4 silent meditation "retreats". Being entirely alone with one's self is difficult, even when life feels perfectly balanced and content. To attempt such a "retreat" on my own in the midst of my first medical trauma was to oscillate on an emotional sling. This mental and emotional cha-cha danced over both habit and interpretation. In pondering the latter, I arrived at some conclusions which rang truer the more I pondered them.

Habit and emotion was the first constant struggle I encountered. It took a surprising amount of patience to acknowledge, even for a moment, that the accident leading to my retinal tear was entirely my fault. If I fixated on any of the factors leading up to the surgery, I'd find myself externalizing blame for hours. My reptile brain was furious and anxious to pin the blame on the optometrists who refused to sell me contact lenses, the distractions I had encountered riding home that night, and even my friends.

Acknowledging and accepting that the accident was entirely my fault turned out to be only half the battle. Yes, I had decided to ride a bicycle after drinking with friends, with glasses on, late at night, in the dark. Yes. "I" had made these choices. But who was "I"? Was the me of a month prior so much worse a person than I was in the moment of remembering? Was the me of the past worthy of my anger and disappointment? Day by day, I came to see externalizing blame and time-shifting blame to be quite similar. The past is undeniably immutable and yet we humans seem prone to lament and regret the decisions and experiences which created the immediate world we now live in.

Whenever I became obsessed with externalizing the causes of my feelings, I found the only real emotion I would ever hold on to for an extended period of time was anger. Feeling sad? Find a reason to be angry about the thing that "made me sad". Feeling anxious? Don't worry! That emotion is easily stomped on by a good bout of rage. Feeling fear? Humanity has long since proven the best solution to sources of fear are to destroy them. And if we're powerless to destroy mosquitoes buzzing in our ears, the very least we can do it sit around and hate them passionately. As weeks passed, my eye stopped bleeding and eventually lost its sensitivity to the light so I could go outside. But while trapped inside I was vexed by a world of violence, a temporary home in a country with a savage healthcare system, topical police brutality, an ignorant march of Atheists creating A New Religion, global warming, and -my god!- my hotel room didn't have recycling!

The other end of the emotional sling was more productive and the sling did reach this productive end on occasion. While trapped alone with my damaged eyeball, anger was most often a thin veil for fear. My Aunt had sent me an email (read to me by a friend, since I couldn't read it) describing neurological research which placed fear and gratefulness on two ends of an emotional spectrum which could not be tied up simultaneously, thanks to limitations of the human brain. It appeared she was right. While it was easier to fantasize about changing the world into a more beautiful, more scientific, more peaceful place it was not all that difficult to be thankful for the world I was presently experiencing. Similarly, while it was easier to fantasize about having my sight back it was not impossible to be thankful for what sight I still had. With every moment of gratefulness came another. Meditating on gratefulness for a few hours a day, constantly returning to feelings of gratefulness when I was distracted by fear, the moments began to snowball. Soon, full days were spent distancing myself from feelings of fear and anger, even while I was in very intense pain. The distance wasn't rejecting emotion or burying it, however. It was a genuine disinterest in indulging those hateful fantasies I had in prior days.

What I found interesting about gratitude was that it left me surveying where I was, what I was doing, and how I viewed the exciting opportunities which lay ahead. Where anger became narrowing and obsessive, gratitude appeared to grow boundlessly and open new doors to thought and creativity as it went. I had shifted my focus from emotion to interpretation.

I began to ponder my ideals, my philosophy, and my "spirituality" (for lack of a better term). Having recently watched Carl Sagan's original "Cosmos" series, the notion of the Cosmic Calendar, in which the existence of the universe spans one calendar year and the existence of homo sapiens sapiens spans eight full minutes, I began to linger on the idea of human progress viewed under a 200,000 year lens. Previous visualizations of the scientifically observable universe (such as scaleofuniverse.com) always left me feeling utterly insignificant, as though the time scale of the universe were so large as to exist beyond comprehension. The scale of the Cosmic Calendar was comfortingly familiar: I had experienced one year and knew what it felt like. I had experienced milliseconds and knew what they felt like. The scale presented me with a foundation for the consideration of my own actions which did not reduce me (and everyone else) to the infinitesimally small.

I've spent much of my life in search of moments where I felt relevant: scoring a goal, making someone laugh, getting a raise, making a new friend, convincing others of my opinions, demonstrating my intelligence or strength or stamina. Structured as events, every success is ephemeral. Structured as events, my relevance is fleeting. Structured as participating in a continuum, my relevance is not only constant but does not require my superiority over another person in any way. While exploring this idea, it became apparent that the difference between perceived relevance as an aggregation of events and perceived relevance as participation in a continuum was the role of the individual, the self. In the former case, individualism mirrors my fears. The goals and accomplishments of the past are increasingly narrowing of what defines success in the future; my next accomplishment must outstrip my last. In the latter case, individualism is a paradox and mirrors the joy and gratefulness attached to the opposing end of the emotional spectrum. On a 100,000-year timescale, our efforts are collective, cooperative and our "selves" are limitations of perception provided for us to overcome. Within this paradox, the limitations of my "self" are yet one more thing to be grateful for: I get to overcome my self-perception. While held in these moments of intense gratitude, self-reflection could be identified in no other way. On a superficial level, where in the past I've believed myself to observe argument objectively, such joy found in the concept of self-destruction appears nihilistic. I am convinced it is not but to state otherwise without evidence is to ask the reader to indulge in faith or to admit defeat in my ability to dissect what I've observed. Without taking either of those two roads, I hope to unravel that paradox in future essays.

"Where am I? What am I doing?" is a common reflective question for anyone, but particularly for women and men who work in technology. We love to change jobs every year or three, and in my experience a grass-is-always-greener (giag) approach rarely fails. The grass often is greener. Persistent gratefulness changes the answer to this question, though. Where giag says "jump ship!", gratitude says "try steering this ship first."

As a partner of an employee-owned technology cooperative, I get to help steer the ship. I can see that the experiments we run and the conclusions we draw directly influence our collective understanding of what we are building together. Everything we build together lives on a continuum of progress: the entirety of our business, a significant part of our individual lives, and a tiny (but not inconsequential) part of humanity. As I found in quiet moments alone in a darkened room of a Marriott, the consequence of gratitude is to find another source of gratitude. I am very fortunate to be where I am and I'm increasingly thankful for the opportunity to see what's next.

Ceci n'est pas une pipe.

A description of a doctrine without words is not a doctrine without words.

Over the last few days, the internet saw a layered explosion of conversation regarding Adria Richards, and a conversation which happened near her at PyCon 2013. To me, it looked like this:

The first circle represents the initial event. The second circle represents Adria's public reaction. The third circle represents the reactions of HackerNews, Twitter, Playhaven, SendGrid, Anonymous, 4chan, and the internet at large to Adria's reaction. The fourth circle represents the analysis of the internet's reaction. And, for the sake of brevity, the last circle represents the analyses of this analysis. Some where in the middle of that rainbow pile there was some introspection. (Aside: I consider all of these articles worth reading.)

I'm the sort of person who likes to believe I'm above such flame wars, even before I know what they are about. And it was easy for me to nurture that unproductive belief in a little log cabin of silence. Fortunately, I was brought into a conversation in our office and knocked off my little throne of self-righteousness. Someone said something. Someone took offence. Someone else took offense on behalf of the offended (and, of course, themselves). It was discussed and the Original Someone took offense to the implications of that discussion. That's when I stepped in to "help out". Now our picture looks like this:

I've shrunken our original semicircles to avoid a hyperbolic 3364 x 1740 PNG.

No need to thank me, friends. Glad I could help.

Keep in mind that this was a respectful and lucid discussion; everyone I work with is intelligent and thoughtful. But look at those layers: none of us could possibly share a context. It was difficult to nail down what we were even debating most of the time. Our own emotions? A specific incident? The reactions to an incident? The state of our industry? The incident as a microcosm of our industry at large? The state of gender roles and sexuality the world over? Some muddied mix? Anything we'd unravel seemed to hide another layer of experiential and emotional complexity which would quickly bury us again.

It wasn't until hours after Tejas stepped in and suggested we all take the weekend to sleep on it that I realized I was making precisely the mistake I presumed everyone else was making. I believed I understood. I believed I had clarity. I believed if they would just listen to me I could show them the answer. Specifically, I believed I had the one piece of advice everyone else was missing: "Maybe you should take some time to reflect on how she might feel." The irony still hurts.

I will continue to participate in this conversation. (And the related conversation about stopping rape, as it is ultimately more important.) Many of the links in this chain are ugly links. When a conversation is itself about our understanding of one another -- and thus how we treat one another -- those ugly event-links are (a) pointers to discussions we need to have and (b) proof the conversation is valuable, because we haven't stopped hurting each other yet. The recursive nature of the conversation shouldn't scare us but it might suggest we speak carefully.

But before I participate in the conversation, I'm peeling back all ten layers and taking stock: Who am I? A healthy, educated, middle-class, white man. I will never be a woman and I do not have the imaginative capacity to understand what a woman feels. I will never be another person and I do not have the imaginative capacity to understand what another human being feels. I can learn by listening with an open mind, even if I will never perfect my understanding. How beautifully this dovetails with my position of privilege! It's the perfect time to shut up and take some of my own medicine: Reflect.

How do I really see other people? How do I really see myself? When do I judge you? When do I desire you? When do I reject you? Why? When my perceptions take life in my actions and my words do you feel threatened, comforted, intrigued, or confused? Why? Which link in the chain am I? Am I making things better?

. . .


defining the test for rubymonk

I wrote some time ago about defining the interface for rubymonk. Glancing at it again that post was a bit rambling. Sorry. However, it did introduce a concept I've been mulling over for the last half-decade: re-framing all software in terms of automation. Robots. I'll start with RubyMonk as an example, and then move on to others and counterexamples.

RubyMonk has quite a sophisticated back-end. The details aren't important for this discussion, but it is essentially a virtual sandbox which quickly and safely executes any programming language (not just Ruby) in isolation, preventing that code from interrupting other users' exercises, other processes running on the RubyMonk servers, other files on said servers, or the clean operation of rubymonk.com itself. Once this sandboxing technology is in place, the interesting question is no longer "how do we run arbitrary code submitted from a browser?" but "how do we teach someone Ruby?"

Everyone on the RubyMonk team has taught Ruby to classmates, colleagues, kids, and friends. The activity of "teaching Ruby" is a known quantity. In the world of yesteryear, however, these lessons always involved our physical presence. From our teachers we have learned how to recognize certain categories of mistakes and how to introduce a correction. From them we have also learned when not to correct someone -- sometimes feeling the pain of a mistake is more memorable. Conversely, they taught us to identify frustrations and to step away from an exercise when it becomes too emotionally taxing. They taught us to ask the right questions when someone doesn't appear to understand a concept. Or to employ humour, analogies, and anecdotes to colour a subject. Finally, they taught us to teach. And so, when we work with a new programmer, we also teach them to teach.

This is an incredibly human endeavour, teaching. But all software is an immaterial robot. We need to bridge the divide. How does the RubyMonk robot work? Today, when you attempt an exercise on RubyMonk, you are learning from an interactive book: first you read a blurb about lambdas or ActiveRecord or your topic de jour. Next, the robot quizzes you by offering up an exercise. Your solution to the exercise is sent to the RubyMonk server and executed against a small battery of tests -- each of your test results is returned to you with a brief explanation. If you pass all the tests, you pass the exercise. So what are we missing? Well, we can't teach you TDD with this method yet -- how do we test a test? And if the solution to that seems obvious, how about teaching SQL? Prolog? Portuguese?  Calculus? And once you solve those problems (and we largely have), the real challenge emerges. So far the robot does not recognize categorical mistakes. The robot does not infer when to let you suffer through a mistake to make it stick (perhaps thankfully!) nor does it know when to tell you to step away for a tea break and give your mind a rest. It doesn't ask the student dynamic exploratory questions on difficult lessons. It doesn't remember the last time it forgot the order of parameters to the signature of Enumerable#inject.


The challenge of RubyMonk -- as is of all useful software -- is to replace a human being. And while the task of teaching is surely orders of magnitude more complex than the task of photocopying documents or playing your favourite David Bowie track, the goal remains the same: Build robots. Free up human time. iTunes is a robot. Prismatic is a robot. RubyMonk is a robot.

I've only been back in the startup world for one year. There's a lot of great stuff going on around the world right now. The last time I lived in India there was no Cleartrip or Redbus, which are robotic replacements for travel agents and telephone booking. Online banking was a non-starter. In 2013, every country seems to have technology covering the basics. The better technology companies are geo-agnostic or are striving to be. I don't want to hire a robot I can't take with me to Thailand (it's always fun to see which part of my Rdio collection is missing when I land in a new country... but I'd still prefer if it were all there). The world is getting smaller and faster and more overwhelming -- but thankfully a generation of nerds is fighting to smooth the transition for you. When we can't build a robot to help you, we'll fight the antiquated laws which stifle progress. At least, some of us will.

I see a divide between the inevitable future of beautiful, helpful robots built by a new generation of businesses (and non-profits, for that matter) and the ephemeral world of peculiar toys established on a misguided premise. This hit me in the face as I read through The Lean Startup, agreeing with everything Ries had to say but feeling a peculiar unease throughout the entire book. Why was I getting such a barfy feeling in my guts reading a book of sensible advice? It only occurred to me once I'd finished that most of his experience was drawn from building IMVU, which was a robot version of human... what, exactly? I'm not sure, either.

It's a good thing for those of us in the startup world that there is money to fund such endeavours: GroupOn, Instagram, the iPhone-ordered-artisanal-bread-aged-cheese-local-ingredient-biodegradable-packaging... grilled cheese sandwich. A cornucopia of startups whose primary customers are other startups. (Ever read a short story by an English Lit major about an English Lit major who suffered from writer's block during a short story assignment? Yeah. That.) A thousand other companies that lack a real goal, a real business model, a real raison d'être. If those companies can find enough money to feed their employees, surely so can those building software which solves real problems.

At C42 Engineering we're currently working on a process to help us identify meaningful problems and gaps in the solution space. We'll publish everything about this process because there are big, hard problems left to solve. And each of those problems is an opportunity for someone to build an elegant robot. We can't wait to see yours.

An Atheist's Glimpse of God

One of the benefits of working for a startup like C42 Engineering (where I help build rubymonk.com -- the name is a coincidence) is the broad range of experiences available, both in and out of the office. Thanks to our flexible work environment, I was able to travel to Himachal Pradesh for a couple weeks of experimenting on myself as a break from experimenting with software. I know not everyone enjoys such benefits, so let me start by saying this: I am thankful.

An introductory course in Vipassana meditation is 100 hours of meditation practiced over 10 days. I took this course in late 2012 and it was simultaneously the hardest and most interesting thing I've ever done. In the months since I took the course, I've tried dozens of times to explain the experience in print and in person. I've consistently failed.

With that in mind, let's all just agree this article will also be a failure. Low expectations will prevent us from taking things too seriously and prevent me from talking too much. Hopefully.

The Problem

I haven't identified with atheism since I was an angry teenager but in 31 years on Earth, I've never put faith in something greater than myself. That's fine. I've never had much faith in myself, either. The bigger things aren't missing out on much. I've called out this fact because I expect my retelling of my experience to sound considerably religious, even though I am not.

I ask the same questions we all ask. Who am I? Who are we? Where are we from? What is our purpose? What is my purpose? How can I help? Usually my answers come in the form of pithy quotes from scientists whose attractive wisdom I've come to wish was my own. Other answers I've found in secular interpretation of religious and philosophical tomes: the bible, the torah, the quran, the tao te ching, the writings of chuang tzu, calvin and hobbes, dr. seuss. And though many of these answers are momentarily comforting, I've spent the majority of my life in a state of philosophical discontent.

I'm a middle-class kid from Western Canada. I have a loving, supportive family. I couldn't ask for better friends. Ninety percent of Maslow's pyramid has been taken care of for as long as I could remember, leaving me to arrogantly believe it's my responsibility to improve this world, even if I have no idea how to do so.

Enter Meditation

I didn't start meditating for some spiritual or mystical purpose. I started out of arrogance: "Sit there and think about breathing." Yeah. That sounds pretty easy and relaxing. I bet I'll be good at it.

Once I realized that meditation is incredibly difficult, arrogance transformed from my reason for attempting meditation into my reason for continuing to try: After a while, I noticed that it did start to relax me. Not during meditation, of course: the meditating part was still insanely difficult. But if I meditated for half an hour before work, I found myself occasionally enjoying the unpleasant bus commute. Sometimes there was a marked change in my behaviour for the first few hours of the day. I was less arrogant. I was less of a jerk in general.

Anyway, that's pretty boring. The point is: meditation is hard. To make this point clearer, I've set up an interlude so you can meditate if you've never tried it before. It will only take 10 minutes, which is relatively short compared to the 6000 minutes of an introductory vipassana course.

Meditation isn't usually very complicated. Try this for ten minutes:
  • put your hands on your lap, close your eyes -- don't move or open your eyes until you hear the 10-minute gong.
  • focus on your breath; feel it wherever you can -- in your nose, in your throat, in your lungs, in your diaphragm.
  • distracting thoughts will come up; just ignore them. when you notice you've been distracted, gently let go of the thought and focus on your breath again.
  • if you get really distracted, breathe hard a few times so your breath is easier to focus on.
  • don't feel disappointed or defeated when your mind wanders... it's just what happens.
  • make sure you hear a gong sound when you click "Start"; the timer only works in modern browsers (HTML5).


How did that go? Was it difficult? If you found it easy, try this twenty minute timer.


You are amazing.

The Material

The course is completely free of charge. The course center is spartan. The stone buildings have no ornamentation. There is no text beyond the essential. ("Breakfast is served at 6:30AM.", "Toilets this way.") There is no imagery whatsoever, not even a little stone buddha statue. Males sleep in little huts on one side of Camp Goenka and eat on the male side of the kitchen. Females sleep on the other side of Camp Goenka and eat on the female side of the kitchen. Everyone meditates together in a big hall.

The course is taught by recorded video and audio, which gives the drab surroundings an extra-culty feel. All vipassana centres worldwide use the same video, so one hopes Mr. Goenka records a new one in high-definition before he dies. The DVD used for the course already looks dated; in a couple decades it will resemble Scientology recruitment videos from the 1970s... in medium, if not in content. Some of the instructional audio involves chanting. I'm not a fan but by the end of the course I was accustomed to it. The chanting, as it turns out, is little more than the instruction repeated in Pali.

What happens on a vipassana course is very simple: You meditate. There are breaks in the day to eat, sleep, poop, shower, and walk around. Sometimes a dog would wander through the course centre and we could pet him. That was exciting. Sunset was the only daily sensory event of note.

What doesn't happen on a vipassana course? Everything else. Just in case you were wondering, you can't: talk, read, write, exercise, eat your own food,  use the internet, use a phone, or look anyone in the eye. Some monastic rules (precepts) also apply: No killing (even mosquitoes), no stealing, no sex, no masturbation, no lying, no smoking, no drinking, no drugs. Thankfully, when so much is forbidden, some rules cancel each other out! It's easy to avoid telling lies when you can't speak. Though you can speak to the instructor and the volunteers, so there are one or two daily opportunities if you're really jonesing to tell a delicious lie.

Every day follows the same format. Vipassana centers exist in most countries across the globe and the course is run identically in each one:

Though it's never explicitly mentioned, the course is effectively broken up into three equal parts:

Days 1 - 3: Anapana (breathing) Meditation. These first three days are spent mentally staring at your nose. It's not as boring as it sounds because it's excruciatingly painful. Sitting still for ten hours a day hurts. "It will be painful." was the forewarning of the instructor when I complained about my knees. He was right. By the third day, I had experienced the greatest physical pain of my life.

Days 4 - 6: Vipassana (insight) Meditation. These next three days are spent learning and practicing vipassana. It's basically an extension of Anapana: rather than focusing explicitly on the skin beneath the nostrils, scan every bit of skin over the entire surface of the body. Over and over and over. Somehow, this actually calms the pain caused by sitting still for ten hours a day. The pain is not eliminated but it becomes much less significant.

Days 7 - 9: Deep Vipassana Meditation. The last three days of "serious" meditation are where things get weird. Surface scanning gives way to deeper penetration of the body. Physical pain takes a back seat to the volcano of emotion and memory one opens up after six days of attention turned inward. On Day 7, one girl ran out of the hall to sob and howl loudly in the courtyard. After the morning meditation on the ninth day, I broke down and cried in a way I haven't felt myself do since childhood. The meditation hall was so utterly silent on this ninth day it was almost impossible to believe this was the same crowd that was shuffling and burping and grunting and coughing and farting their way through the beginning of the course.

Day 10: Vipassana and Metta Bhavana. Noble silence is broken: we can talk and look each other in the eye again. The businessmen of the crowd are back on their Blackberries. Writing utensils emerge and some return to the book they abandoned nine days prior. As senses return and the intensity of meditation is visibly dulled, the world becomes real again. Each meditation ends with a few minutes of Metta Bhavana (loving-kindness) meditation.

For the following week, I also meditated twice a day at the vipassana centre. Everyone seemed to experience strange physical effects during the course but most of mine appeared during this period. Toni (a friend I'd met just before the course) found her hearing was so sensitive in the days following the course that the sound of a crowded restaurant was deafening. Pieter (a friend I met just after the course) found his sight was increasingly crisp each day until the tenth. 

The most peculiar physical reaction I had during this period was that as long as I was meditating twice a day, I slept comfortably on my back. I have never slept on my back in my entire life. I woke with no lower back pain for the first time as an adult.

The most surreal physical observation I made during this period was twofold: I started to feel deep into my body, on occasion. Once, into my bronchial tubes and the tops of my lungs. Another time, while lying down, I could feel the blood coursing through my cardiovascular system with unnerving clarity. I am a fragile little blood sack.

The Immaterial

Those concepts outside the realm of the physical are, out of interest, those which I tried to impress upon others in the months following my course. This is the section where I will fail, in case you thought I was doing a good job of explaining the experience thus far. I'll do my best but in the end I can only suggest that, if you are at all curious, you could try an introductory course yourself.

"It's strange that the very act of thinking about something makes it impossible to see it." -- Pieter Jan Visser

I didn't have words to describe this until my conversation with Pieter. In the last three or four days of the course, I started to see things. My eyes were closed, of course... and the "things" weren't really visual. However, far in the distance, on the horizon of comprehension, I saw -- briefly and for the first time -- something which resembled my beginnings. I don't know much about this thing beyond what Pieter said. To know it, to think about it, to try to understand it... was for it to disappear. I think it may have been recursive: defined in terms of itself. I can't tell you why or how.

Such a thing... this non-thing, born of nothing, apropos of nothing, ceasing to exist in the presence of anything else, is the closest I've ever come to experiencing anything religious or spiritual in my life. And yet, the process of discovery felt more scientific than anything else. Through sheer observation -- in the necessary absence of effort, suggestion, idea, word, colour, sound, smell, or taste -- an unadulterated reality appeared. It was strange and new but somehow it made sense.

Where this non-thing was very small and very hard to relate, the other idea which appeared toward the end of the course was much clearer: the meditation became an allegory, a microcosm, for the world around me. The past is immutable; why worry about it? The future is unknown and impossible to predict; why worry about it? Planning is not worrying, mind you. Just make plans with these two truths in mind. Meditation is terrific practice since there's no need to plan -- I just get to try my hand at avoiding worry. As an incredibly anxious person, this can be surprisingly informative.

A second microcosm becomes obvious after some time: After eight or nine days of internal monologue, I noticed that the way I treat myself is much like the way I treat others. Distraction was frustrating, my frustration with distraction was frustration with myself, if I was angry at the distraction I was angry with myself, and the anger never helped. Calmness and rationality prevailed every time. Gentleness. I had to be gentle with myself or I did more harm than good. I'm not certain, but I suspect it's true of my interactions with the world I live in as well.

And with that, my failure to explain my experience is almost complete. There's much I've missed. The hours of the course I spent doubting the motives of the instructors, the meditation itself, and my own sanity in signing up for such a thing -- all these doubts were quenched. My unexpected reaction to intoxicants when I returned home -- I still enjoyed them. My seeming inability to lie to myself by the end of the course -- I ask myself hard questions all the time but I apparently don't always answer from the heart. My frustration with the inclusion of Buddhist beliefs such as reincarnation, kalapas, and omniscience -- we were told to ignore these beliefs if we so chose; I ignored them. And still more remains.

Rather than exhaustively discussing every aspect of the experience, I'll leave you with what attracts me most to this bizarre practice: It is ordinary. There are no tools: Just sit down. There is nothing to see: Just close your eyes. There is nothing to believe in, nothing to talk about, nothing to do... yet it was more informative than any conversation I've had or book I've read. There is no literature to read, no philosophy to ponder, no behaviour expected of you. There are no gods, there are no drugs, there is no magic... yet it was more intense and revelatory than any acid trip.

As the Zen kids say: "Just sit."