Thursday, January 24, 2008

Mindfulness Meditation in Oakland Public Schools

Quick blog about yesterday.  I spent the morning/afternoon with my friend Megan.  We went to a local high school in the Oakland area where I watched her teach sessions of mindfulness to students.  My job was to provide an extra set of eyes and see if there was anything that I could suggest.  We had lunch afterwards with the program director.  Lots of amazing things happened, students seem to really be impacted by this practice.  Can't really elaborate further in a public context though.

 

In the afternoon, met up with a gentleman I'll call Hugh (for anonymity reasons).  Amazing dude.  Has been the CEO of multiple organizations, now in his 60's or 70's.  He chooses to have no car and no cell phone and remains a fan of simplicity.  He and his wife take daily walks, and about a decade ago he realized that there was a lot of change lying around on the ground.  He started picking it up and giving whatever he found to the local food bank.  When he met us he said he had found and donated THOUSANDS of dollars in this way.  But that was just the start of it.  Then he started telling us his stories.  How even though he and his wife tried their best to remain anonymous, somehow people found out what they were up to, and on many occasions even homeless people were moved to give spare change in the hopes of helping others.  generosity at its purest.  he wanted to see if it was possible to get the word out about doing this to others and have more folks donate in this way to good causes.

 

The evening ended with the weekly Wednesday meditation in Santa Clara.  The thought of the week was on blessings.  Seems like all I've done in 2008 so far is receive blessings.  I can't tell you how much gratitude I have.  Sometimes i just spontaneously tear up for no particular reason other than gratitude.  Tomorrow I have a karmatube meeting and more chances to connect with folks that are being the change they wish to see in the world.  Life is good.  Onward.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Living in Berkeley

Since I got back from my time in heavy meditation, I've been in Berkeley hanging out with Adam and Shephali from new york (who have since gone back to the city - and i miss them a lot) and the entity that is CharityFocus.  I'll be here working most heavily with them throughout this period and so I've found an apartment here in Berkeley where the founder and my good friend Nipun Mehta lives with his wonderful wife Guri.

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Last Wednesday I was again a part of the long-running CharityFocus Wednesday.  There was a gathering of 40+ people who had come to meditate together, share wisdom, and eat in silence.  The 'Thought-of-the-Week' from which we shared posed the question 'Why do you meditate?'  What a great opportunity for me to hear so many varying reasons from people who had started meditating a week ago all the way to actual monks.  And I haven't even yet mentioned the food!  Totally amazing tasting and given from the heart.  All of this is provided by the hosts in a 'gift-economy' fashion.  No money/business cards/etc has ever exchanged hands in over the decade that this has been run, and it has been attended by monks, nuns, world leaders and some of the most financially wealthy people in the world.  The hosts provide with no expectations of receiving (even though they are not independently wealthy by any means).  I am blessed every time I get to attend one of these gatherings.

 

The next day, we met with the co-founders of Zicasso, an online travel planning website.  Brian and Yuchun (alumni of MIT Sloan and Wharton, respectively) started the company wanting to make it easier to plan international trips while going through local trip providers, thus making is simultaneously cheaper and boosting the local economy.  Their network of relationships takes the guesswork and fear out of the process.  The worldwide release will occur shortly, but take a look now for a sneak peek!

 

That same evening, we met with Jean Yao, a wonderful woman, graphic designer of many things in CharityFocus, and who has spent 30 minutes in private audience with the Dalai Lama!  I peppered her with questions as to what that experience was like and what was learned from it.  It was awesome.

 

The next day we (Adam, Shephali, and I) had lunch with a college professor of education and consciousness (Mali) and my friend Megan, who is a former Buddhist nun and currently is one of the leaders in bringing meditation to schools (here's an article about the effort from the NY Times).

 

After this we headed to meet Emmanuel Lee, the founder of GlobalOnenessProject.  There was a bunch of brainstorming and wild performances by Adam, but can't go in to much more depth here.  Keep an eye out for these guys though, their video content is some of the best and most uplifting in the world.

 

For the rest of the afternoon and into the evening, we first went to the Buddhist Monestary and met with the Abbott monk Rev. Heng Sure.  This is a man that did not lie down for 25 years and maintained a vow of silence for 6 years.  His bowing pilgrimage is the stuff of legend.  Just happy to be in the same room ;)

 

The rest of the evening was spent at a dinner with guests who were involved in various yogic activities, including one gentleman, Jonathan, who had spent 35 days in zen meditation and had done a 4 day 'vision quest' (no food, constant meditation, enclosed in small circle in open space) in the middle of death valley.  crazy!

 

Saturday we go straight to visit and learn from Prasad Kaipa.  He is an IIT ph.d. physicist turned Apple Computer fellow turned college professor turned CEO coach.  We spent the afternoon together and he told us about how to 'ignite the genius within' ;)

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Since then I've hung out with great friends Pavi (the link is to the best poem i've ever read), Viral, and Ragu before coming back here to Berkeley, and have also been working on some top secret CharityFocus stuff.  Will keep that under wraps until the time is right ;)

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

My Life As A Monk (with Fiona Apple lol)

Annicha! Annicha! Annicha!

The powerful words of my sensei still ring in my ears. It is the Pali word for impermanent/changing. I'm still reverberating from the sound.

I just got back from one of the most intense experiences of my life. I rung in the new year of 2008 by trekking to the woods in the foothills of the Sierra Mountains in central California for an intensive meditation experience. I went with my friends Nipun, Paul, Shephali, and Adam. From then until now I subjected myself to living as a meditation monk. I would not be exaggerating by saying this has been one of the most challenging experiences of my life.

The concept of the experience is to cut down sensory stimulus to a relatively extreme point and then to intensely focus on present moment experience. The idea is to sharpen the mind through the process to be able to be more acutely aware of present moment and experientially recognize the impermanence of all phenomenon.

The rules and regulations were very constricting:

-noble precepts: no killing (vegetarian/vegan food only), stealing, sexual activity, lying, or intoxicants (drugs, alcohol, tobacco, caffeine, etc)

-noble silence: Noble Silence means silence of body, speech, and mind. Any form of communication with anyone, whether by gestures, sign language, written notes, etc., is prohibited

-contact: complete segregation of men and women, no physical contact of anyone (male or female) during your time there)

-food: 2 meals, 6:30am breakfast, 11am lunch. that's it.

-outside contact: no contact of any sort, including laptops, cell phones, letters, visitors.

-entertainment: no music or instruments, no reading/books, no writing, no laptops.

when you cut out this much stuff, basically all you are left with is sleep and meditation, and this is what happened. You turn in all of your personal items: cellphone, wallet, keys, books, writing materials, medication, electronical items. I had nothing for the entire time except for myself and my own crazy head. my daily schedule was as follows:

4:15 am
Morning wake-up gong

4:30-6:30 am
Meditate in the hall or in your room

6:30-8:00 am
Breakfast and Introspection

8:00-9:00 am
Determination meditation (no moving allowing)

9:00-11:00 am
Meditate in the hall or in my room

11:00-12:00 noon
Lunch

12-1:00 pm
Introspection, walk outside

1:00-2:30 pm
Meditate in the hall or in your room

2:30-3:30 pm
Determination meditation (no moving allowing)

3:30-5:00 pm
Meditate in the hall or in my room

5:00-6:00 pm
Tea and introspection

6:00-7:00 pm
Determination meditation (no moving allowing)

7:00-8:15 pm
Meditate/Listen to discourse

8:15-9:00 pm
Determination meditation (no moving allowing)

9:00-9:30 pm
Mundane activities (shower/shave/etc)

9:30 pm
Sleep

As you can see, this adds up to about 12 hrs of meditation every day with no real respite for days and days, not to mention no knowledge of ANYTHING outside yourself due to absolute silence in all ways.

Sometimes you're just sitting around waiting for time to pass, and the faster your mind goes (and it goes FAST), the slower the subjective experience of time becomes. Not only that, but meditation is no slacker activity. There's not even a moment to slack off. The SECOND you're not observing your mind, your mind starts flying around from one random thought to the next. You have literally zero moments rest for those 12 hours.

The actual activity of meditation was very focused. The first several days I was asked to observe my breath. Literally just focus on air entering and leaving the nose. For 12 hrs a day. For days on end. What this did was focus and sharpen my mind to experience sensations that otherwise went unnoticed. The remainder of the time was used to utilize that sharpened focus to be attentive to sensations on the body and recognize what exactly was going on in my system.

When my time there ended, I was taught a 'metta' meditation, which is where one's heightened attention/awareness is used to spread feelings of love outward. I'm not a really emotional person, but for the first time in over a decade, this experience had me sobbing. I mean absolutely uncontrollable.

As I was leaving, I noticed that on the woman's side of the monastery was Fiona Apple, who apparently was having a nun experience of her own. Apparently we had meditated 10 feet from each other for the entire time in the main hall and I had not known. She seemed like a nice girl. I was surprised initially, then I remembered what Nipun told me last time he was here. His roommate had been Rivers Cuomo, the frontman for Weezer.

So, obviously, this is not a standard way to spend a couple weeks, and I've gotten a lot of questions as to why I'd do something like this. There's a couple reasons:

-my friend Nipun said it's a good experience. i had no idea what I was getting into, but it seemed like it would test my limits and I trusted him, so i went with it.

-I wanted to learn more about the depth of myself. I don't know about anyone else, but I see in myself that A LOT of the time, i respond with blind reactions to things. I judge them. good, bad, bad, good. everything is given a label. I also realized that because of those labels i wanted what was good and didn't want what was bad. I wanted to know more about that. why do i do that? It obviously is the reason that i have ups and downs in my life, but there was no real rationale for it occurring. That desire to understand played a large role as well.

Now that I'm out of there, I'm thinking to what i'm going to take with me from this experience. I think 3 major elements stand out:

-1: my ego is HUGE. its an amazing intricate carving i have made of what i believe 'birju' is. and as the carving includes labels such as 'humble' and 'modest' and 'other-oriented', it is incredibly difficult for it to leave.

-2: present moment awareness is an evolving state. I sat and meditated for a hour on many days for the past 10 years. It brought me a sense of understanding what was happening in my life and awareness in general. sitting in the manner i've been sitting through this time period, i've realized that i became aware of A LOT more that was happening. some of the cravings and aversions that are there and lead to unconscious decision making don't make themselves known until you sharpen your mind to an obscene level.

On an experiential level, this meant that I started feeling sensations on my body that I had never experienced before, and also recognized that whatever it was that I was experiencing was constantly changing, not lasting. Seeing this kind of shifts my focus to understand even more and more about how things I want in this world are really just cravings and aversions to sensations felt on my body... cravings and aversions that result from sensations that are really quite temporary. makes me wonder why I react to the sensations at all sometimes.

-3: I'm not as materially simple as I thought. I was previously of the mindset that I was a very simple person who could live with only the bare necessities and I've be just fine. When actually put in a position where all i had was the BARE NECESSITIES, i was really thrown for a loop. I really how much I crave connection with others, how much i crave laughter, how important it is for me to feel I have a full stomach.

Overall, this was a very humbling experience. I feel like I got through something that pushed me to a level I've never been pushed before. I don't know if I'd ever do it again, and to be honest, I'm kind of afraid to think about it. But who knows what will come of it. Right now, I know that awareness is really important in life and this is an excellent way to sharpen awareness.

I'm going to be in SF for the next little while continuing to meditate and working with CharityFocus...