There are certain turning points in your life. My first trip to Jaipur, India, and the 10-day Vipassana meditation retreat was one such point.
In 2004, my company had essentially gone bankrupt (they didn’t call it that, but our pay checks were arriving about half as often as they should). I went on vacation, and soon as I walked out the door, I knew I would never return. I actually became a massage therapist for about 6 months before moving to London to study for my MBA. Here I was, 26 years old, studying abroad, a bit scarred from my bankrupt company, and not knowing what I wanted to do.
An MBA program typically isn’t a good place to figure out what one wants to do. If you want to become a consultant, a financial analyst or an investment banker, the degree will help get you there. But those didn’t interest me.
I went to business school because I wanted to start my own company. I still do. Or at least, start my own thing. London Business School has a renowned entrepreneurship program, although, in retrospect, Imperial’s business school was much more practical. As was Babson, which offered me a full scholarship; but London sounded so much more exciting, than a suburb 30 minutes outside Boston.
Back to Jaipur, India. I had finished my first term of the MBA, and already knew I wasn’t really in the right place, and was frustrated not knowing what I want to do, or how I would get there. This meditation retreat added a whole new dimension of awareness.
At the root of the Vipassana meditation, is an understanding of suffering – how we create unnecessary pain by continuing our craving or aversion towards the experiences that arise. And you own it. Nothing in the world outside ever makes you unhappy, and here’s a technique that drives that point home.
In a way, the realization behind the meditation practice sucks, because you become responsible for your own suffering, and can’t blame it away on the external world (which, let’s admit, is really fun to do). But it’s also wonderful for the same reason, because when you are the only one responsible for your suffering, you can do something about it.
I was suffering because I wasn’t in the right place, and I didn’t know what I wanted to do: but my first insight was to separate this into two issues. The first part was that I didn’t know what I wanted to do – Vipassana doesn’t really help with this. The second part was that I was suffering because of my indecision.
My life was a bit of a mess throughout the MBA. I didn’t have much direction and felt stuck. That lack of conviction and insecurity made it difficult for me to find a job… I spent a year doing side projects just trying to survive in an expensive city before I found a job.
The real benefit of the meditation sit didn’t sink in for some time. Learning how to sit regularly and integrate it into my life has not been a “snap-of-the-fingers, now-I’ve-got-it!”, sort of a thing. But 10 years later, and I’ve finally established a daily sit in my life. And the changes are subtle but astounding.
Sitting and meditating regularly is daunting. It is a habit that requires dedication and faith, because it is a long process separating suffering from the rest of the equation, and changing the habit of suffering. You need to learn how to remain balanced when you don’t like what you’re experiencing – and at the same time still living your life. It’s a tricky balance.
I often think of the scene in the movie “Kung Fu Panda” – the wise turtle explaining to his disciple Shifu that he must give up the illusion of control. Shifu responds indignantly and asserts that he can control when the fruit from the peach tree falls, and similarly control where he plants the seed. But the turtle laughs, agreeing to his student, and points out that, however much Shifu may want an apple tree or an orange tree, he will still get a peach tree.
Our life is much like that. For whatever situation might arise, we have a certain outcome already in mind, and we constantly push and manipulate what we can do to achieve it… and then get frustrated when we don’t get the results that we want.
The point is that the frustration isn’t necessary. This is suffering. Vipassana doesn’t teach you to stop working towards your desired outcome – but to detach the frustration. The result is, you take much clearer action (and often much more fruitful, successful action), without the burden of the suffering that you’re adding to the equation.
I’m not sure where my life will take me, but I feel I’m much more conscious now of what seeds I’m planting for the future. And this started with that meditation sit in Jaipur, India. 10 days which influenced my life to come. A seed was planted, and while it took time to grow, it did grow.
Also published on Medium.