Vipassana: 10 day silent meditation

Thoughts prior to entering:
This course demands 10 days (actually 11 days if you count the half day for on boarding and another half for de-briefing) of noble silence (no communication of any form through either speech, gestures, reading/writing, technology or eye contact). Further, the wake up bell strikes at 4am every day and you are in meditation from 4:30m to 9:00pm (11 hours daily excluding breaks/meals time). Forget snacking, there is no dinner for anyone and no meals post 11am. Segregation of sexes and isolated quarters means that homesickness is amplified. There is no exercise routine, also no diary; greens are served, risking a severe readjustment to one’s health and daily minerals/vitamins intake. One rationed piece of fruit hardly compares with the copious quantity and variety that most of us are accustomed to in free life. In addition, this is a Buddhist society catering to primarily Hindus, Christians and people from different faiths, so there is many chances of harm due to ambiguity, confusion and self-doubt.
Clearly, it is no picnic, then why did a narcissist, hyperactive, extrovert did sign up for a white room torture willingly in a course that is centered on sensory deprivation? Isn’t signing up for religious discourses the hobby of the retired & grey?
I interviewed/read the experiences 4-5 individuals who have attended the course earlier. Each one had a unique personal experience. However, the common theme was that everyone wished they had enrolled a few years earlier. Everyone advised me that unless there is full commitment and disciplined following of rules, the 10 days would be a great loss for your time. In addition, I was repeatedly warned not to underestimate the physical and mental challenges that one faces during the course.
First impressions:

  1. There were no idols of Buddha anywhere. You cannot find the large size painting of the founder nor his name plastered all over the place. There were no scriptures on the wall, the leader also did not use any superlative titles like “His divine grace”, “Sri Sri” etc. Nobody was chanting his name or worshiping his picture. The meditation room was a white room free from any colors, symbols or hints of any cult, sect or group.
  2. There was no rate card! For a Hindu, it is hard to experience spirituality without seeing a menu of special services along with their printed prices.
  3. I am used to institutions where your distance from the idol and the time you are allowed to worship it is determined by the magnitude of your donation. Here I was not allowed to buy my extra seconds/minutes with the teacher through a donation. Neither my capacity to donate determined what kind of room/facilities or special treatment I am entitled to.
  4. A migrant laborer working on minimum wages, a foreigner and I shared adjoining rooms and equal treatment. Special focus only for students suffering from addiction/ substance abuse, psychosomatic illness, mental disorders or expectant mothers. It is quite liberating that one’s need rather than status determines the focus one receives.
  5. Out of a batch of 80, only 4 persons opted for Hindi as a medium of instructions and the teacher was more than willing to make special classes for me. Similarly 3 Russian student were being taught in their mother tongue. The school emphasizes on teaching in one’s mother tongue and in very simple language to ease the comprehension and imbibing the philosophy in one’s daily life.

Day 1
The generosity and consideration by the personnel of the institutions simply sweeps you of the ground. The food across the 10 days did not have a trace of potato or similar low cost fillers that are typically associated with Mess food. Simple vegetarian, well-cooked nutritious food was served without any limits of how much quantity one should consume. The whole campus was clean and well maintained. I had an independent room with attached bathroom which was impeccably clean. The meditation seat allotted to me was similarly was very comfortable and there were practically unlimited supply of cushions that I could add to make it more comfortable. For a small batch of 70-80 meditators, at least 10-15 assistant teachers, Dharma workers (management) were dedicated to make your stay more fruitful and everybody was eager to help you in whatever way possible irrespective of the hour of the day and how ridiculous your needs were.
Day 2: body pains
It would have been easier if I was chanting a name/mantra or trying to visualize a concept, but here meditation is though self-observation of breath. The philosophy emphasizes on teaching the core crux on religion/dharma void of any fancy crux, packaging or distractions. However making the mind that is used to multi-tasking focus on a single breadth is not easy.
The shame of being physically worse than a frail fellow meditator in his 60s surfaces. Sitting for 15 minute in one posture is a challenge for me and I have never meditated before so naturally second day the ground reality hits hard. The teacher had a simple advice, “happens to everyone. It is not because what you do is physically challenging, but your mind urging you to find a more exciting stimulus for it to process. Drink copious amounts of water and take brisk walk to maintain circulation and ease into transition.”
Day 3: euphoria
Suddenly all the body pains evaporated. I was smiling so much that my lips were aching. I never had such a feeling before and could not explain it. Was it my mind/body’s push to make the meditation a success? Was it because the dilemma about religious preaching and practices were finally answered?  I wasn’t sure and asked my teacher had some earthly advice. “Nothing lasts forever, if you feel like jumping for joy today, tomorrow it will be opposite. Focus on your meditation and maintain noble silence.”
Day 4-5: withdrawal
Home sickness, the restrictions starts kicking in. The dreams start becoming more vivid and the mind starts drifting to thoughts even when I am awake. Some of the remised memories, thoughts, plans as long as 20 years ago came to light. In the words of the Aacharya, the continuous self-examination allows one to critically examine ones sub-conscious. Vipassana was making you increasingly aware of your thoughts, feelings & bias. Cleansing your mind and thoughts is the only goal of the program.
Day 6-7: realization, self-shame and pity
Our reflection is often confined to one’s action, but here the focus is on the thoughts. This sensory deprivation program gives enough time to analyze them and isolate the vices. Day 7, I was almost near a breakdown when my mind was trying to temp me with ill thoughts and I was fighting it back. Trying to sleep was making it worse and inability to talk or find some occupation was making it hard. So rather than pushing the thoughts deep back in the sub-conscious that one normally does, I had to face them and tackle them one by one. It is not a simple exercise but one of the primary reason why I was here. So I went through the motions with the best effort to maintain the five precepts:

  1. to abstain from killing any being;
  2. to abstain from stealing;
  3. to abstain from all sexual activity;
  4. to abstain from telling lies;
  5. to abstain from all intoxicants.

Day 8: magic
Till now I was at least 2 days behind in my progress with the meditation. However, for the first time, I was successfully able to scan the whole body for the first time. It is an experience that was nothing like I have done ever before and there is no words to describe it. I must say that it made my previous 8 days worthwhile. I think getting rid of the clutter that I had accumulated in my mind allowed me to focus and experience this joy. The teacher’s words were a major bummer. The aim is Vipassana is not to experience this joy of meditation but to be able to develop equanimity and not to react to it. I was feeling eternal joy and my teacher was saying not to develop any craving or aversion to it.
Day 9: countdown
I developed a lot of admiration to the philosophy of Vipassana. Why Dharma is non-sectarian in nature. How it has been commercialized by the leaders, why the focus is on the religious activities rather than praising the good traits, thoughts & actions.
I think I stopped learning after day 8. Only think I was able to think of was getting back home and resume one’s daily routine.
Day 10: confusion
The vow of silence was lifted, but speech became difficult. I guess this day was to help ease back into the physical world. They also, gave people opportunity to donate. Irrespective of how generous/stingy you are there is not gratitude or frown from the authorities. None of the 15 odd teachers and helpers in the program got any remuneration or worldly benefit for their time and services. It’s hard to find a true service devoid of any commercial agenda and this is one such gem. The teacher repeated that the best donation would not be money but practicing the learnings in the daily life.
I did a mistake of opening my laptop and Cell phone on this day. Scanning the mail, messages, WhatsApp took away half the day. There was so much I could have learned from the experiences of fellow meditators but the phone robbed me of that. Then I realized how many meetings, lunches I have attended where one/all the participants found the data streamed on the phone more interesting than real life face to face conversation.
Religion by traditional definition is submitting to higher power. A trip to temple or holy place, a grand gesture, a ritual is all designed to beg the higher power for divine intervention. In vipassana the focus in in self-observation and cleansing ones sub-conscious thoughts/ideas… a whole U turn. Acharya S N Goenka’s freeing us to practice whatever we feel right felt strange. The freedom to mix and match based on one’s own comfort level made me uncomfortable as typically religion to me was based on doctrines with little room for free will.
In short, these 10-11 days was a transformative experience. It has made me more conscious of my thoughts, actions, feelings and its implication. I wish everybody would attend and hope that benefit.


Movie Reivew: Well Done Abba

Often serious messages can be communicated through a light hearted story and this movie is one such attempt. I recently watched a 2009 release movie “well done abba” a satirical comedy by Shyam Benegal and starring Boman Irani, Rajendra Gupta, Ravi Krishan and Rajit Kapur. The story is about Boman Irani’s quest to avail a government subsidy for digging a well in a drought prone village. His each and every interaction with the bureaucracy results in demand for bribery. Each official has coined a humorous lexicon to negotiate the terms of the corruption which makes the first half an interesting watch.
In the second half, Boman Irani realizes that against a 1 Lakh disbursal from the government, only 8,000 actually reaches him. Frustrated he gathers all the fake proof he has obtained to prove that his “Well has been stolen.” Although, he himself is depicted as illiterate, he has taught his daughter well. Also unlike the conservative Muslim family, she does not wear a veil/burqa making her modern and a true asset. She gathers 75 similar families who have fake documentary proof including pictorial evidence on a well sponsored by Government of Andhra Pradesh. Together they launch a peaceful agitation shaming the bureaucracy and forcing them to construct the well.
The movie beautifully depicts that bribery is futile and even counter-productive. It only results in shrinking kitty to do the actual work and needless wasting of time. It also shows the masses how RTI (Right to information) if used properly can keep the government bureaucracy under check.


CPSE fund FFO 18-20 Jan 2017

As per the prospectus, (kim-cpse-etf-ffo-form)The 5% subsidy is without any lock-in. Also in today’s paper EPFO has been mandated to subscribe to 50% of the total fund offering i.e. 2,800-3,000 cr INR. Add to it LIC and other agencies managed by government. It is likely that there will be a healthy secondary market allowing the investors to exit by 10th of Feb. So there is a cushion of 4-5% on your investment. I guess it is not a bad deal for short term. The question I want to answer is for the long term does it have merits?
I am wondering why each and every one of the stock trades at a discount in the futures market? If markets are efficient, then the future price should be higher to accommodate cost of funds/interest. Will I be better off investing directly in the futures market rather than going through the fund itself?
For those who don’t understand F&O market, open the details of your favorite mutual fund and look at the weight-age of the that fund to these stocks. Most likely it will be less than the weight given by Nifty. This indicates that these stocks are likely to under-perform the market and fund manager can beat the market by staying away.

stock weight spot future price (Feb/March) expected returns
ONGC 24.39% 195.2 193 -1.13%
Coal India 20.57% 307.8 292 -5.13%
Indian Oil Corporation 17.99% 352.25 344 -2.34%
Gas authority of India limited 11.19% 442 435 -1.58%
Power finance corporation 5.59% 137.05 132.15 -3.58%
Rural electrification corporation 5.22% 143.7 137.45 -4.35%
Container corporation 5.05% 1201.95 1189.55 -1.03%
Bharat Electronics 4.33% 1513.6 1505.1 -0.56%
Oil India 3.39% 341.4 335.8 -1.64%
Engineers India 2.26% 153.9 153.5 -0.26%
Total 99.98% weighted avg -2.49%

Take the recent petrol pump swiping chaos. Modi announced a 0.75% cash back on digital payments at petrol pump without ever explaining who will foot the bill. Later on Finance minister waived the 1% transaction charge on petrol bunks without informing oil marketing company, bank, credit card or petrol bunks who will foot the bill. When will government understand that commodities work on wafer thin margins and government has no business in fixing the prices or promotion schemes on behalf of these Navaratna companies.
No wonder while the government keeps on cribbing the energy subsidy bill bankrupting the government, the retail prices for fuel are higher than those in America, where there is no subsidy. Taxes, inefficiency, distribution losses and poor customer service are the black holes where the tax player money is going.
The fund management fee of 64 basis points for a passive fund is high. If there is no turnover, ETF means that the fund manager is under no obligation to sell the holdings to honor redemption, where is the money going. Well it is a separate discussion on how distributor & fund managers are able to corner such a large fees in India.


CPSE ETF fund subsidy

My first reaction was: “What a joke, public sector companies are now planning to make profit.” On a serious note, I am unable to understand why government is providing a 300cr subsidy. the three possibilities:

  1. Government of India is providing a 5% cash incentive to help Reliance Mutual funds raise funds.
  2. This is a market manipulation tactic. 6,000 cr of fresh capital locked in PSU ETF will prop up the price and help GoI realize better proceeds during disinvestment.
  3. This is GoI’s way of compensating the investors for the mismanagement and systematic robbing the investors of PSU companies.

There is no social benefit that I can think of government doling out 300cr of cash to individuals. Whatever be the reason, this 5% subsidy is the only only reason why you can consider this scheme. After all 10k of free money is hard to pass on. Additionally the dividend yield of 4.3% is not hard to ignore. However PSU companies constituting a portion of your portfolio is suicidal and should not be part of part of your long term portfolio.
The argument that investment in 10 companies is very concentrated is also illogical as it is a good diversification. 65basis points as management fee however is very high. However the root question is how much PSU stocks do you want in your portfolio esp when the market is touching 8,400 levels.


Democracy inside political parties

There is not even a shred of democracy or transparency in the political parties today and yet they claim to uphold the secular & democratic values of the country. How can we trust the politicians to reform, bring transparency in the country when their own house stinks more than a cesspool? Why don’t political parties submit audited account books? Why they don’t hold elections to elect their ranks & office bearers? On what basis is the CM candidate is being nominated by each political parties?
Political party leadership is not a personal dominion of a person that be transferred out of free will. It is a leadership position that the office bearers need to elect as part of the mandated organizational elections.
Shashikala’s Wikipedia page is an interesting read, because it has nothing. I was unable to locate any speech of the new general secretary of AIADMK. Except her ability to be a loyal personal servant to Jayalalitha, there is no other merit that makes her eligible for this position.
Mulayam Singh treats the SP as his personal jaggir or fiefdom. Son’s uncles, nephews, even bastards and second wife hold all the positions in the party office. Anybody can be expelled, inducted and re-expelled without any meeting, discussion or deliberation.
Congress is digging an ever deeper abyss for itself. There is a sheer lack of leadership, presence of mind or even a plan in the heads of Rahul Gandhi or any of the spokesperson of Congress. It’s like having a IQ of 50+ makes you ineligible for any leadership position in the party.
BJP has become a one-man band riding high on nationalistic fervor. Opposing Modi is equivalent to being unpatriotic. He has become like the great Banyan tree which does not allow the second level to even breathe. No wonder he is increasingly becoming isolated and is lacking the detailed plan & execution needed to realize his grandiose visions & ambitions.
Indian constitution does not have a concept of chief minister candidate or prime minister candidate and for good reasons. People elect their representatives as MP or MLA and these individuals in turn elect their leaders. However, the leadership selection starts only post forming of the house. Yet in the upcoming elections everyone is projecting the CM candidate, not sure for what reasons.
Ashok ruled an empire with 50-60 million population in 250 BC. Auranzeb ruled a population between 100-150 million people in 17th Century. The Marathas ruled 1740 under Balaji BajiRao ruled ~30% of the country. Today’s India is 1.3 billion citizens and there has been no rural in the world that has ever ruled this large a population. Furthermore, almost each great rural is succeeded by an ineffective heir who only brought downfall to the kingdom. Then why are Indians insisting on bringing back kings, dynasties & fiefdom back to India?


Is it a crime to be rich?

Why should the prime minister need to single out residents of high rise apartment & car owners in his new year speech? I was so disturbed that I waited to hear the congress analysis on the speech. Which was so insipid and a total waste of time that I wonder is there any alternative leader left in the nation?
How much I earn and how much taxes I pay is a concern of my accountant & Income tax department only. I don’t understand why a prime minister has to incite a mob to investigate my tax declarations? What good can come if the vigilante start knocking doors in high rise apartments or stopping cars on the road to do an on-the-spot tax inspection?
We had the French revolution, the communist revolution and even the civil unrest during the land ceiling act during the fifties in India. None of them were surgical strikes and I suspect that several honest tax payers & salaried persons might also suffer because of this.
Enforcement through mob is already on the rise in the nation. So many movie screening, art galleries have been shut down. Valentine’s day is one favorite day where the Bajrang dal & BJP affiliate parties openly demand couples to produce their marriage certificates or witness their wrath? Why hasn’t any mainstream media picked up the impact of a new target that has been painted on the backs of the urban rich.
on a side note: if past is an indicator of future, then this critique of Modi’s speech might shed some light.