I lunched quickly and went back to my room to think through a few questions I intended to ask at 12:30 pm after the formal Q&A session open to all students was over, as I had prearranged a private meeting through the server managing the course. I headed up eagerly to the Dhamma Hall at 12:20 pm so I might get an extra minute or two with him in case he wasn’t meeting with another student and I could also catch the tail end of the official Q&A period.
Ironically, he had been waiting for me in his sleeping quarters, which also served as his office for private meetings, while I was counting down the minutes to 12:30 pm in the Dhamma Hall waiting for him to arrive. Another friendly server came to the rescue and escorted the conducting teacher from his room to the Dhamma Hall.
Making himself comfortable in his meditation seat, he asked with genuine and caring interest “poocho?” (“What do you want to ask?” in Hindi).
I knew I could do a lot with 25 minutes of one-on-one time and got straight to work. I started with thanking him, and Goenkaji, and the servers for the gift of creating an environment for me to learn this life-changing technique. As the words left my mouth, I noticed that they didn’t feel like a perfunctory “thank you”, but true heartfelt gratitude, more authentic than I had ever expressed to anyone before.
He nodded in acknowledgment and said I was lucky that my wife was a believer in the benefit of Vipassana as it can be hard to sustain the practice after returning home if the spouse is not supportive, or worse, downright dismissive of the technique. It was as if he had read my mind about wanting his practical advice on how to maintain the continuity and discipline towards meditation after leaving the camp.
It was my turn to nod with acknowledgment and I said that I was beginning to experience a lot of the benefits described in the discourses and also along the lines of what I had overhead from his Q&A conversation with another set of students about unleashing memory and creativity.
He then asked me how educated I was and whether I had any training in mathematics. I didn’t understand the implication of his question and also didn’t want to sound egotistical about my doctorate in engineering and high interest and skill in quantitative and analytical subjects. I mumbled something to the effect that I had a PhD and that mathematics had been one of my favorite subjects in school.
My dissolving sense of ego stopped me from adding the side-bar tidbits about my technical skills that I would typically include when such a question came up in the past. It turned out to be a good idea not to harp on my mathematical abilities because he had asked the question for a much simpler reason.
I later reflected on how preconditioned I was, whether due to upbringing and schooling in a hyper-competitive environment or because of my own insecurities, to layer in extra credentials and accolades when asked a simple question about essential qualifications! Perhaps my mind was always in the mode of proving to the other person (or clients) that I (or my teams) were well qualified for the job at hand or perhaps my years in the US had trained me that modesty was not a valuable virtue in the cut-throat business world in which I operated.
He had simply wanted to explain a concept using two orthogonal axes, which is why he had asked if I knew mathematics! It was a fair question to ask because people from all walks of life—from artists to businessmen—were likely attending the course and they wouldn’t all have needed a background in mathematics to conduct their respective lines of work.
He then went on to explain that I was moving favorably along a hypothetical horizontal axis of ashubh (inauspicious) versus shubh (virtuous or auspicious), which was a sign of progress. He then described the orthogonal vertical axis of ashudh (impure) versus shudh (pure), along which I also needed to embark upon journeying from the bottom upwards. It was a very simple and powerful framing for an important and relevant juncture of where I was and what I needed to move towards in order to be continuously equanimous and happy.
I had drawn countless such 2 x 2 diagrams for my clients and explained how they needed to avoid the lower left quadrant and figure out ways to move into the upper right. It was time I understood the 2 x 2 grid that was going to help me resolve the fundamental issues of my own life.
It was clear that these were two distinct and orthogonal axes and the conducting teacher had used the perfect framework for this mathematically inclined business consultant to expound on a key concept. I was tempted to ask about his educational background but decided to stay on course with my questions and also not to take the liberty of inquiring about the credentials of my respected teacher, who seemed well into his eighties.
I asked next about not wanting to give up my drive to achieve big goals in life. He explained that I absolutely shouldn’t give up my dreams and must persist with my chosen line of work and truly excel at it. He gave me his own example of coming from a middle-class family in rural Gujarat and building a decent-sized business with his own efforts, enough to afford a comfortable bungalow in Juhu, one of the more desirable addresses in Mumbai. I felt somewhat reassured that the learnings of Vipassana could be applied within the existing set-up of my life and work.
He could sense there was more behind my question and went on to say that what was important is to not get anxious or upset when we don’t achieve our goals exactly as we had expected or wanted them to play out, nor get attached to specific desirable outcomes versus thinking more holistically about what we might learn when things don’t turn out as planned.
He further emphasized the importance of being reflective and remaining equanimous when things don’t go our way and not to blame ourselves or others in such situations. Most importantly, he stressed that we not mistreat or disrespect others when there is an unexpectedly unfavorable turn of events, regardless of what we might believe about their responsibility in those outcomes. He also clarified that kriya (action) is completely different from pratikriya (reaction) and Vipassana teaches and enables us not to react in a harmful manner towards ourselves or others. And yet, it was perfectly normal to continue taking actions that were consistent with one’s sense of purpose with a balanced and equanimous mind.
It felt in that moment as though I had been living my life thus far like an inanimate object subject to the laws of Newtonian physics. The third law of motion states, “Every action has an equal and opposite reaction.” The physics of feelings and emotions were slowly beginning to crystallize in my mind. I could see three possibilities in the case of human emotionality when encountered with a stimulus (or action):
- Respond with a proportional or disproportional reaction (typical for most)
- Do not respond with any action and remain equanimous
- A further step, if we manage to remain equanimous, is to respond to all situations with a compassionate mind.
It seemed that the conducting teacher could tell that some mental jigsaw puzzle piece must have fit perfectly somewhere in my mind. He went on to say that now that I had understood the practice with which I could rid myself from the vikārs (defilements like anger, fear, lust, greed, dishonesty etc.) in my life, it was time to also turn my attention to address some of my vichārs (underlying core beliefs, perspectives, guiding principles, and values). This is what would help me decondition my mind away from the sensitivities to which I had been a reactive and Pavlovian victim for most of my life.