Once through with the rules, the speaker moved on to explain the daily schedule, which was also posted on a huge poster outside both dining halls so there was no ambiguity about it! He went on to explain that we would be woken up at 4 am and that a full day of meditation would start promptly at 4:30 am with a break for breakfast from 6:30 to 8:00 am, group meditation from 8:00 to 9:00 am, followed by instructions, check-in on individual progress and more meditation before breaking for lunch and rest from 11:00 am to 1:00 pm.
Individual meditation would then begin from 1:00 to 2:30 pm, group meditation from 2:30 to 3:30 pm, brief instructions, more meditation till tea-time which would be from 5:00 to 6:00 pm and then group meditation from 6:00 to 7:00 pm followed by evening discourse and final meditation until approximately 9:00 pm with a short break in between. There were two 30-minute slots for formal Q&A with the conducting teacher from 12:00 to 12:30 pm and 9:00 to 9:30 pm. Lights out at 10:00 pm. Sleep time from 10:00 pm to 4:00 am. Repeat the same process for ten full days.
This was when the task that lay ahead, and for which we had all willingly signed up, truly sunk in. At this point, the speaker genuinely proceeded to ask if there was anyone who wanted to opt out of the program and leave the camp, and said that the organizers would completely understand and not be in the least bit offended. However, once we had agreed to the ground rules and complete adherence to the demanding schedule, there was no turning back and that we couldn’t leave at any later stage in the program until its full completion.
The “welcome to the boot camp” briefing was finally over for the trainee cadets. I heard a little shuffling of feet and wondered if anyone would actually get up and leave. No sir, every one of the 104 (63 men and 41 women) students stayed put in their respective chairs.
There was pin-drop silence at this point in the room and the speaker put down the microphone to take questions. One of the female students asked whether we could take notes during the evening discourse. The speaker gently responded that the idea was for us to simply listen and absorb the process so note-taking was not permitted; besides, the room where the discourses would take place was too dimly lit to allow for any writing.
A few other questions were about logistical provisions. Someone wanted to know if they could be contacted by their family in the case of an emergency. The speaker explained that all incoming calls would be dealt with at the main office by the teachers based on the nature of the situation, but reminded us that the goal was to avoid all outside contact so we could experience a completely immersive program free of distractions.
I was dying to ask when they were going to talk about dealing with business-related stress as there had been no mention of it in the daily schedule outlined earlier and it had certainly been one of my chief motivations in attending this special executive curriculum. I raised my hand sheepishly knowing I risked looking like a corporate brat but went ahead and asked what was on my mind anyway. The speaker smiled and said the course was exactly the same one offered in all the Vipassana centers around the world.
I was grateful that someone else asked the follow up, “So what’s different about this executive program?” I was surprised by the explanation that the “executive” aspects of the program were basically the nicer accommodation (i.e., single air-conditioned rooms for students) and the laundry service! The executive camp provisions were such that people from the business world who were used to a luxurious and comfortable lifestyle didn’t feel discouraged from attending the program because of material discomforts.
A breath of despair escaped me as I sat back in my chair, thinking that my primary expectation about learning to relieve work-related stress wasn’t likely to be addressed through this program after all. All the same, I wasn’t about to become the first student to get up and walk out. Besides, where would I go for the next few days if I left the camp? Back to Singapore, or stay in Mumbai as my wife still had another week of work and I was technically supposed to be vacationing.
I had already activated my out-of-office email response and had no desire to deactivate it, now that I had an opportunity to switch off completely for ten full days at a stretch. Reconciling myself to the prospect of an email-free existence for over a week, I forged ahead to the meditation Dhamma Hall for the introductory session.