Recently, I returned from a 10-day silent retreat that left me wondering why I hadn’t done it sooner. In fact, I wished I had done it before joining the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), after graduating, and before making any of life’s biggest decisions.
It is not for the weak
All enrollees to the retreat are expected to commit to a strict moral code and a demanding physical regimen. The daily schedule starts at 4 am and closes at 9 pm. It includes time for two meals and a snack, rest, and 10 hours of meditation.
For these 10 days, I felt that I was looking at myself in a mirror through a magnifying glass. I saw the best and the worst parts of myself. Things I consciously or unconsciously had swept under the rug or tucked away deep in my memory came gushing out. It was physically, emotionally, and mentally exhausting. Like most of the meditators—and there were 60-70 of us—I was sleeping like a baby by 9:15 pm.
Be prepared to be changed
This intense experience will change you.
I was at a crossroads in my life and career. I had spent a lot of time researching options, reading books, and soliciting advice from friends and mentors. However, I did not feel an inner peace with the likely direction. I felt a deep urge to look within. This retreat offered that path.
The deep insight, effort, and pain brought a newfound clarity and insight about what I value most, what would make me happy, and how I should spend the rest of my life. In addition to this epiphany, I have noticed an immediate and spontaneous end of bad habits such as overeating and spending too many hours on social media.
Towards the end of the program, when I had personally experienced the fruits of the retreat, I asked myself a simple question: why is this not made available, encouraged or required for all students graduating from high school, or those graduating from college before starting a career, or for professionals in the midst of major life or career decision? After all, it is an ancient practice.
A brief background on the program
Vipassana, the name of this program, is an Eastern practice that has positively impacted millions of people over the last 2,500 years. It was discovered and taught by Gautama Buddha and then spread around the world by his disciples. It is founded on three pillars—morality, mastery over mind, and wisdom.
It is now taught by a gentle, positive, and happy teacher—Mr. S. N. Goenka (1924-2013)—through video lectures and CDs. Throughout the course, he emphasized the non-sectarian nature of the technique. There are no sacred words, images or people to focus on. Goenka was inspirational, demanding, full of humor, and had a powerful way of teaching. He has become one my favorite teachers of all time.
The 10-day experience has affected me profoundly. As the saying goes, “the best time to plant a tree was twenty years ago. The next best time is now.” I have planted the tree and plan to nurture it from now on.
If you are interested, check out Vipassana at a center near you (www.Dhamma.org). Be warned, there is usually a wait list.
Shail Kumar is the founder and president of Nalanda 2.0, a nonprofit policy think tank that aims to make India’s higher education system world-class (www.Nalanda2.org). He is also the author of Building Golden India: How to unleash India’s vast potential and transform its higher education system. Now. (www.shailkumar.com) and adviser to CxOs. In 2017, a Nobel Laureate presented his book to Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Shail is a recipient of Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Kharagpur’s Distinguished Service Award.