What a 10 day Vipassana course taught me about entrepreneurship
10 days of total silence — no talking, no reading, no writing, no gestures, no music and of course no electronics. 10 days of living like monks and nuns in spartan settings, eating basic food. 10 days of no entertainment, shopping, or any other material excesses. 10 days of only meditation. 10 days of I, me and myself. Pretty much sums up what a Vipassana meditation course is all about.
I had heard about Vipassana from a friend several years ago and somehow it had lodged itself in my mind. But spending 10 days in total silence seemed like a humongous challenge and I wasn’t sure I was up for it. And so I kept pushing back that thought into a quiet corner far at the back of my mind every time it surfaced. A few months back though, I decided to test myself, took the plunge and signed up for the course. At the time of signing up, my only goal was to get through the course unscathed. Not only did I survive, I actually learnt a lot of valuable lessons that I was able to apply to my entrepreneurial life.
Vipassana is the meditation technique developed and taught by Buddha himself. Vipassana quite literally means ‘to see things as they really are’. It is a process of self transformation attained through an intense process of observing oneself. For the first 3 days of the course, we are taught to observe our breath — feel the air going in and out of the nostrils. Then, we graduate to observing the subtle sensations on our body — the pricks, the throbs, the pulsations and of course the pain. The pain! Nothing had prepared me for the intense pain that I experienced during the course. Sitting cross legged in one place for close to 9 hours a day is by far the hardest thing I have ever done. Vipassana says all sensations are ephemeral in nature i.e. they appear and disappear. Like the worries and joys we experience in our lives. What Vipassana aims to teach is the art of observing both the highs and the lows with equanimity. Without reacting to it.
Now what could a meditation course teach me about entrepreneurship? Quite a lot it turned out!
The course is a completely free course and runs on donations given by well-wishers. At the start of the course we hand over all our mobile phones, wallets and other valuables to the caretaker. Simple vegetarian food is prepared by dedicated staff and served by volunteers. On the very first day, when I picked up the plate at meal time and walked over to be served, a wave of gratitude swept past me. Gratitude for those who had so donated earlier so that we could attend the course now. We take our ability to buy our own food and take care of ourselves for granted all the time.
As an entrepreneur, gratitude is one emotion that we ought not to let go. Be grateful for the wonderful employees that you have. The employees who have dedicated their careers to make the shared dream come true. Be grateful for the customers who have trusted you enough to give you their business. Be grateful to your family and friends and others in your network who have enabled your ambition.
Inspiration can come in any shape, form or size — you have to be ready for it.
With close to 9 hours of meditation a day, forget about all the spiritual enlightenment you are supposed to be getting. A very real and immediate side-effect is intense pain all over your body. I was staying in a shared accommodation with 3 other women and one of them was from small town India. She was a simple woman, with limited exposure. Unlike the other suave, sophisticated women who were also part of the camp. While we were talking about what to expect from the course, she seemed especially nervous about the upcoming days. My sense of ego inflated to about twice or thrice its usual self. I thought to myself, that, with all the regular workouts, trekking and cycling that I was doing, I ought to be extremely fit physically. And sitting for 9 hours a day should not be a huge issue. But, before the sun went down on the first day, my ego took a major beating. I was absolutely not able to bear the intense pain in my back and shoulders and had to lean against the wall for most of the day. My very nervous roommate, on the other hand, sat still like a statue the entire day. From that day until the end of the course, I looked up to her for inspiration whenever the thought of giving up came to my mind.
There are hidden sources of inspirations all around us. As an entrepreneur, we have to learn how to unearth them. Lowering our sense of ego and having the mindset that we always have something to learn from those around us puts us on the fast track.
When you learn to accept things, it becomes so much easier.
Now before this course, I would have said all this is just a bunch of Zen mumbo jumbo. For the first few days of the course, pretty much all I could think of was the pain and how unbearable it was. We had the opportunity to ask questions to the teacher as a group and almost everyone kept asking about the pain in their back or legs. The teacher would say just observe the sensations with equanimity. Where can you be equanimous when you have such intense pain? And so for most of the initial days I kept expecting some sort of a magic to happen and for the pain to disappear and nothing of that sort really happened. I think it was only on the 7th day it hit me that the pain had an important role to play. Instead of expecting the pain to vanish, observing it calmly, meant that you are training your mind. Training it to take the good and the bad in the same way, instead of reacting to it. Once I understood this, I stopped being anxious and nervous about the pain during each meditation session. Instead I started getting curious about it. Why was it paining in a particular spot? Why not in others? What posture works best etc., And just as the teacher had promised it did get better, I was able to sit through the meditation sessions a lot easier. Getting the anxiety out of my mind and accepting things made the experience so much better.
As an entrepreneur, there is no dearth of challenging situations that one has to handle. If we get caught in a “why me?” mindset, the going is guaranteed to only get tougher.
Dig a little deeper and you will be surprised at what you find
During the initial days, the pain in the back got quite unbearable and I started dreading every meditation session. I tried to stretch my back using every yoga pose I knew in an attempt to feel better. Nothing really worked. Once I learnt to accept things as they were, I found that it was easier to follow the instructions and observe the sensations throughout my body. This did not mean that the pain disappeared. It did mean though that I was not as affected by it as I was before. As I started observing the sensations in my body with sincerity, I noticed a tight muscle on my right thigh. And whenever I passed through this area, the pain in the back disappeared. It was an ‘aha’ moment for me. The actual problem had not been with my back at all but with the muscle on my thigh. With this realisation, I started focusing on stretching my legs after each meditation session. And indeed, the pain in my back got significantly better. My poor back had been overcompensating for a weak thigh muscle all this time.
This is probably one of the most powerful lessons for the entrepreneur in me. Whenever faced with a problem, it is imperative to dig a little deeper to understand the root cause.
Do you only have your sales manager to blame for a dip in the sales or do you have to revisit your value proposition and product positioning? Are you not able to hire the right talent because you feel you are not able to pay top dollars or are you not casting your net in the right place? Is there an increase in customer escalations recently because your customer support team is not doing its job? Or have there been some critical bugs that have slipped through in the product. A quick and immediate reaction to any situation robs us of the opportunity to do a deeper analysis and come up with robust solutions.
Several of these observations are not new and also not unique. There is a lot lot that has already been written about meditation, mindfulness and its benefits. For someone who had hardly meditated before this course, getting such an experiential lesson in these tenets has been extremely valuable. Humans have the amazing power of transfer learning i.e. learning one experience and applying it to something else. What I learnt during the Vipassana course has been something I have been able to carry forward to my entrepreneurial self as well. Entrepreneurs amongst all others, lead hectic lives with a million things on their To Do list. One of the most important items on this list ought to be an appointment with themselves.