Thursday, March 08, 2007


I recently attended a 10 day meditation retreat in Onalaska.

The course teaches Vipassana (loose English translation: 'insight'), and comes with quite a rigorous code of discipline (including no talking/reading/writing) for the duration of the course - which makes it a bit of a daunting endeavor to undertake. Nevertheless, at the recommendation of a few friends, I decided to go for it.

In line with what I had heard from friends, it was probably one of the most difficult things I've done in my life. Also in line with what others experienced, neither the 'noble silence' (see code of discipline) nor the limited meals and early wake up time (scroll to the bottom of the page) were as difficult as I thought.

While I was preparing myself for days of peaceful introspection followed by tumultuous emotions, this was quite the opposite. It ended up being a harrowing mental and physical experience (lots of thoughts, and pain respectively) that made it exceptionally difficult for the first few days.

The course was really an introduction to a theory of consciousness as espoused by Gautama Buddha, along with a technique that allows you to validate portions of that theory for yourself through direct experience. Obviously one cannot hope to completely understand consciousness within 10 days - no matter how rigorous the experience - but I feel as though the things I experienced first-hand allowed me to validate enough small pieces of the theory that I'm willing to not disbelieve the rest and trust that continued meditation will allow me to validate it for myself.

It's a little hard to attempt to lay the theory out here. But from mentioning it to a few people, it seems that it has enough in common with modern neuroscience, that it doesn't sound completely implausible. Specifically, I was recommended the book On Intelligence and told that some of the theories laid out there are very in line with the parts of the theory that I learnt.

In addition to that, I had a really cool conversation with someone who knows a lot about bipolar and the framework provided some interesting and different (no comments yet on whether they are useful) insights on what bipolar may mean.

Anyways, I know 10 days is a long time to take out of one's schedule, especially to sit quietly in one spot all day. But I think it was a fantastic experience. If you are a neuroscientist especially, I think you'd absolutely love going through this experience.

On a very very different note, A thought occurred to me today which I had to share. There are people that say that you make your own destiny and yet there are those that claim to be able to predict your future. I think I have an analogy that helps reconcile these into something that makes sense to me.

I've read many times that time is like a river. Always flowing, but always 'there'. In a whitewater course, one learns the very very basics of reading a river. Diagrams like these (scroll down) help tell you how bends, rocks, and changes in width of a river can affect its flow. Presumably if you know enough about the topology of a river, you can make a pretty educated guess about the strength and qualities of the currents at various points along it. And yet, nothing is preventing a big rock from rolling down the cliff and into the river and completely changing its flow. Or from erosion increasing the width and thus decreasing the strength of the current in a given place.

So if time, and life, are really like a river; then maybe there are people able to see the entire river at once and make fairly accurate predictions about downstream currents, given its current topology. But nothing prevents you from throwing a big old rock at the point of the river that we call 'now', and completely changing the downstream currents.

On that note, back to coding and attempting to start a successful business...

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