The Vipassana Diaries

A couple of months back I shipped off to a leafy retreat to spend ten days in silence doing pretty much nothing but meditate. It sucked. It was magical. Here’s how it all went down.

Day 0: First impressions

The girls and boys stood in separate lines. This is as close as the genders would get for the duration of the retreat, a helpful policy for the easily distracted heteros in our midst; tough luck for everyone else. The guy at the registration desk looked up from my application form. His baseball cap read ‘Grateful Dad’. “Ooh, you do genetics? Just make sure you don’t go turning girls into boys and boys into girls, ok?” he joked. I laughed awkwardly.

Rumbling out of town in a run-down bus, heading for the retreat, a friendly young Nepalese guy in a tracksuit struck up conversation with me. He was about to start working for the government as a lawyer, he told me, and attending the retreat was part of a compulsory training programme. Vipassana would teach them morality.

We arrived at the meditation centre, located high an a mountainside overlooking the city. It was leafy with flowery gardens and meandering paths that connected the various dorms and meditation halls. A golden stupa perched higher up the mountain glowed in the sunlight. Signs dotted around the retreat, baring instructions such as “Please do not pass this point”, “Noble silence!” and “Place shoes on the rack” inevitably ended with the cheery postscript “Be happy!”. This struck me as weirdly passive aggressive, but in days to come I found them surprisingly reassuring during periods of frustration.

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Final dungeon?

After surrendering wallets, phones, books, passports, pens – everything potentially interesting – we were directed to our dorms and… that was it. No further instructions were given. My room mate hadn’t yet arrived, so after I unpacked I decided to head outside and explore. I soon felt like I was in a video game. There was no way to measure time, no normal life tasks or objectives in the back of my mind, no reason to talk to anyone (we would all soon be under vows of silence, so I figured I might as well start now).

The sense of exploratory freedom soon mutated however into a more rat-in-a-cage vibe. The domain to roam was actually tiny. I had to spend the next ten days in a three-minute walking radius?

As night fell we were finally admitted to the main teaching hall, taking our vows of silence as we did so. This meant not just mouth silence, but silence of body, speech and mind. We weren’t to communicate by any means, not by gesture or word or even eye contact.

Plot twist: Buddhism! All up in this meditation technique! A booming recording of the voice of S. N. Goenka, the deceased Burmese businessman-cum-meditation-teacher who spread Vipassana to the rest of the world, explained a bunch of things:

  • We were obliged to chant our agreement with the “three jewels” of Buddhism: the Buddha, the teachings and the community. Quite a few Sanskrit words started being bandied about around this point, but I’ll stick to the English equivalents to avoid obfuscation.
  • To my relief, this agreement actually meant agreement with the essence of those things – insightfulness and compassion and such – and not anything worship-like or supernatural.
  • We also had to chant-agree to live by the five Buddhist precepts for the duration of the retreat. The precepts are incidentally perfectly Christiany and Jewy and Muslimy too: no stealing, killing, lying, sex or drugs. Living in this way would ostensibly help build a base of morality. Or something. It wasn’t entirely clear at this point.

Back in my room that night I finally got to meet my room mate. Well, sort of. He was a large balding man, probably in his 30s. I didn’t know his name. The instructions hadn’t been entirely clear, but it sounded like we weren’t supposed to look at each other. I became mildly obsessed with him over the coming days. He had huge gothic writing tattooed across his forearms in a language I didn’t know. What did it mean? Who was he?

But that first night, lying in the dark sensing a stranger across the room, the nagging sensation I got was of sharing my room with a ghost, some spirit from a parallel dimension slightly out of sync with mine. We couldn’t speak or even look directly at each other, but if we peeked out of the corners of our eyes, we knew there was some other being there. If we entered the same physical space, would we pass right through each other?

 

Day 1: Badlands

Technique: Nose breathing

I was awakened in the clutching darkness of 4am by a distant gong. I sleepily dressed and struggled down to the meditation hall along with my ghost to join the ~200 others in spending the next two hours focusing on nothing but the breath flowing in and out of my nostrils. Bluuuurgh. I was exhausted, soon super hungry, and sitting on a cushion wasn’t working. I could only hold a position for about five minutes before my aching hips necessitated a shift. My ghost was on the cushion in front of me and sat there cross-legged, peaceful and completely motionless.

Dark thoughts enveloped me, thoughts I don’t normally have. Crippling pessimism, anxiety that circled round and round on itself, fear. I entirely forgot that I was meant to be monitoring my breathing. After about five hours had passed (surely it had been five hours), the situation worsened: a recording started playing of Goenka doing this weird chant-singing in Hindi. It meandered, briefly hitting a strong resonant note, waivering unpredictably to some other random pitch, then plummeting to an obnoxious gravelly flapping of his epiglottis. It sounded awful. Worse yet: I soon learnt it would play every day for a full half hour at the end of each session (I calculated the duration by counting how many times I breathed throughout the singing [360] then counting my breaths per minute [18] on an outside wall clock. Little experiments like this kept me sane.)

I began wondering what the hell I was doing there. Had I stumbled into some kind of cult?

Once the gong rang though and we filed out to the dawning day and got some food ingested, my mood changed immensely. I guess to some extent I was just hangry. Ok, maybe it wasn’t a cult after all.

The meditation sessions dragged on into the afternoon, one hour, two hours, small breaks in between, mind constantly wandering, one thought triggering another triggering another – crap! supposed to be monitoring breathing – a breath, a breath, a breath, back into thoughts again without noticing, ow ow knees, shift position.

In between sessions guys sat around blandly, doing nothing. The most nothing-y sitting I’ve seen. Because there was truly nothing to do. I was reminded of stray dogs lying around gormlessly, minds completely empty. During those first few breaks I strolled restlessly around the small grounds, desperate for movement. Or I stretched desperately, trying to prepare my joints for the next session. Or if the break was long enough, I napped desperately. Our schedule only allowed 6½ hours of sleep per night and I was pooped.

During one such afternoon nap, a strangely vivid notion arose in my half-waking mind: what if I was dead? And this was actually purgatory? There seemed plenty of clues. The way we all drifted past each other, ghost-like. The lack of traffic sounds from anywhere. The confined grounds and the misty white emptiness where the view of the city should’ve been, as though this were a simulated mini-world. Why had I signed up for this again? Did I actually remember the bus ride here, or had my mind just invented it? What if the purpose of all the meditation was to come to terms with how we’d died and what we’d done in life, a kind of cleansing of the soul before moving on?

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Pull yourself together, I thought. If you continue down weird thought paths like this you could be very unhinged indeed by the end of the course.

That afternoon, seven hours of meditation in, the point of the breathing was finally explained. We were using it, apparently, to hone our focus. We would be honing this focus sharper and sharper each day. After seven clueless hours of thinking about my nostrils and feeling like nothing useful was happening, this was tremendously exciting: a sense of purpose!

That evening we got our first theory lecture, via an amusingly badly produced video from the ’90s, and our first look at Goenka.

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Despite the laughably crappy production values, in our stimulus-starved existence I was riveted to every word he said. He mostly waxed Buddhist philosophy, peppering the discourse with miscellaneous parables and tales from his experiences in India. He eventually explained that the next day we would be observing which of our nostrils the breath was coming out of more strongly – progression!

And so Vipassana became an unfolding mystery. I didn’t know what the final truth was or where we were heading or really what I was hoping to discover, but each day a little bit more of the puzzle would be revealed, bringing us closer and closer to our true goal.

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Pixar’s Inside Out: children’s films, moral psychology and neurospirituality

My mum likes to remind me how, as a little kid, I cried in the movie Bambi when Bambi’s mother gets killed by the hunter. Looking back, it feels like it may have been one of my most salient developmental moments. Bambi was a kid just like me, a massive mummy’s boy just like me, and I probably didn’t have much of a concept of death up until that point. Maybe Bambi was the very first time I realised that loved ones don’t stay with us forever.

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Shortly thereafter The Lion King came out, and because of my brother’s massive obsession, I was dragged to see it at the cinema three times. It’s hard to mount a compelling defence for staying home alone when you don’t even have armpit hair to back you up. For all my protesting though, the movie touched me deeply. I hated the dastardly Scar. I probably cried every single time I had to watch young Simba hopefully nudging the lifeless body of his father. (I recently re-watched The Lion King for the first time in over a decade, and I still cried when Mufasa died. Whatever. It’s sad!)

Seeing animals lose parents is distressing, and so is seeing evil triumph over good. These are very simple moral messages that anyone can relate to, even prepubescent kids. We’ll return to this point shortly.

Fast forward to 2015, and the latest children’s blockbuster is Pixar’s Inside Out. If you haven’t yet seen it yet, bookmark this page and go watch it ASAP. It received a rating of 98% on Rotten Tomatoes, plus it’s Pixar so you already knew it would be good. Also, spoilers be coming.

The film follows the development of an American girl named Riley from birth until the age of 11. That sounds kind of dull, and it possibly would be if it weren’t for the twist: Riley is only a surrogate protagonist. The real action takes place inside her brain, where a bunch of anthropomorphised emotions – Joy, Sadness, Fear, Disgust and Anger – caper and banter and ultimately control all of Riley’s thoughts via a “cognition” control panel.

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The gang at the control panel: Anger, Envy, Joy, Fear and Sadness

The film colourfully explores other aspects of Ripley’s cognition such as memory formation and loss, abstract reasoning and dreaming. The narrative is delightfully engaging, but the most significant aspect of Inside Out is an implicit message it carries which is both surprisingly scientifically accurate and spiritually profound, as well as representing a major advancement in the broad moral history of children’s films. Before we get to what it is –

The broad moral history of children’s films

There are many ways in which humans are socialised and morally wired during their developmental years. Obvious influences include school, parents and religious teachings. However, it’s possible to overlook the significant role played by stories, including those told in TV shows and movies. Humans are powerfully predisposed to respond to stories. This is why they are heavily exploited in marketing and may account for why one death can be a tragedy when a million is just a statistic. The stories told in movies, and their moral messages, may truly affect people’s long-term world views.

For example, I grew up on a diet of Bambi, Captain Planet and Pokemon. These days I’m a vegetarian environmentalist with a weird compulsion for collecting sets of things. Coincidence, or something more significant?

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Could they be any less subliminal?

If it’s true that children’s films can have a meaningful impact on moral development—and admittedly this is extremely difficult to demonstrate experimentally—then we might have more cause for optimism about the upcoming generation than we realise.

The popular children’s films of the past few decades (almost of them Disney) are extremely diverse in the situations and moral issues they address. Compare Sleeping Beauty with Peter Pan, The Little Mermaid with Aladdin, etc). For all their diversity though, a few underlying themes stand out to me as pretty much constant:

  1. There is a clear delineation between good and evil characters. There is never any doubt that Captain Hook, Ursula the Sea Witch and Jafar are baddies. They look evil and everything they do is evil. A motive isn’t necessarily needed for being a baddie; some characters just are that way.
  2. Old timey gender roles. This one is a bit obvious since movies are products of their times, but it bears consideration nonetheless. A heterosexual romance is almost always involved, it’s generally a male protagonist who saves the day, and it’s always happily and monogamously ever after.

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Along with a slew of other moral values such as individualism and self-reliance, these are the messages that the previous generations grew up hearing. And, these are the generations now controlling governments and institutions the world over: governments that base foreign policies on a concept of evil baddies, and institutions that fail to see the justice in marriage equality.

Something happened in the past decade though to take children’s film morality in a radically new direction, and that something is largely Pixar. Check out the following major releases:

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The issues explored in these films are so much more complex than those of 20th century Disney, it’s hard to overstate it. Compared to narratives based on good defeating evil and old timey gender roles, consider the messages these films might be sending:

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Humans run the risk of rendering Earth uninhabitable, mindless consumption strips people of their humanity, artificially intelligence machines may one day possess every bit as much humanity as humans do—or conversely, they might enslave us through an innocuous mistake in their programming (see: the paper-clip maximiser and Wait But Why’s The AI Revolution)

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Even in the best case scenario of marriage and happily ever after, there will still be hardships such as miscarriages and death, if you’re not careful it’s possible to go your whole life neglecting to ever pursue your dreams, old people can also do interesting things, scientists tend to get tiresomely hung up on their life’s work

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Even loving healthy relationships can deteriorate because of personal burdens, there is such thing as moral ambiguity! (people can have reasons and experiences that lead them to destructive behaviour), there are also charismatic sociopaths to watch out for who can seem benign at first, girls can save the day just fine without the help of a prince

And now along comes Inside Out, taking things to a whole new level again by exploring one of the deepest moral and existential issues there is: neurospirituality.

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The neurospirituality of Inside Out

If you’ve never heard of neurospirituality before, it’s essentially an ever-expanding intersection of agreement between the radically unrelated fields of neuroscience and spirituality. It considers the neuroscientific basis of spiritual experiences such as meditation and contemplation of the Self. The term neurospirituality seems to have been coined in this 2005 journal article, which predictably and annoyingly is hidden behind a pay wall (but that’s a conversation for another day).

It turns out that neuroscience and spirituality are by no means as incompatible as one might assume. Both seek to understand human consciousness—that voice in our head that we call our “Self”. One discipline does it externally and experimentally, while the other does it internally and experientially. To find out what the neurospiritual view of Self is, there may be no easier and more enjoyable way than by watching Inside Out.

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Long-term memory: damn daunting when you see the scope of it

The film repeatedly cuts back and forth between Riley in the physical world, where she plays and interacts like any normal child, and the inside of her brain, where we see that her every thought and emotion is actually triggered by some anthropomorphised emotion pulling a lever or fiddling with a memory. All the emotions and other characters inside her brain have unique personalities and interests which frequently conflict and undermine each other.

Early in Riley’s life, Joy manages to hold sway over the other emotions and Riley’s infancy is consequently mostly happy. As Riley matures and things start to go wrong in the physical world though, emotions like Sadness and Anger wrest more time for themselves at the control panel of her consciousness. This directly directs Riley’s feelings and behaviours. In addition to all this, dream monsters and imaginary childhood friends get up to trouble in other parts on her brain, and mischievous maintenance workers in her long-term memory repeatedly trigger an annoying ad jingle, setting Riley to humming the jingle in the real world.

Let’s consider these plot devices from both the neuroscientific and spiritual angles.

The neuroscientific angle

The science in Inside Out is excellent, and was achieved by Pixar following in the footsteps of Interstellar and conferring with actual scientists in storyboarding the film. This is a practice we will hopefully see a lot more of in the near future.

Every day of Riley’s life, hundreds of memories form. When she goes to sleep at night, these memories are siphoned away and either stored in her labyrinthine long-term memory or discarded into a pit of forgetting. This accurately reflects the critical role that sleep plays in memory consolidation. Even memories that make it to Riley’s long-term memory aren’t safe indefinitely, as old ones that she stops caring about gradually fade to grey and get dumped, just as in a real brain. In one giggle-inducing moment, several containers of facts and opinions get knocked over and jumbled together, something we probably all do more often than we care to admit.

An interesting decision was to depict Riley’s emotions as gendered: Joy is female, Fear is male etc. While the producers surely couldn’t have known this at the time, a landmark brain imaging study just published found that “human brains are comprised of unique ‘mosaics’ of features, some more common in females compared with males, some more common in males compared with females.” I.e. most people’s brains really are mishmashes of typically male and female parts, regardless of their biological sex. Whichever part of the brain is responsible for fear (and it may not be the amygdala after all), it’s now completely plausible that an 11 year-old girl could have a ‘male’ Fear character.

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Not all the brain’s workings in Inside Out are depicted entirely accurately. Perhaps most misleading is the portrayal of memories as self-contained and immutable¹, rather than conceptually linked and constantly being rewritten. But Inside Out fundamentally aims to be a fun children’s movie, and by that metric the science is superb.

For all its cute and clever explorations of cognitive processes, Inside Out‘s most profound message is this: there is no single ‘Self’ controlling Riley’s consciousness. There is no ‘Riley’ inside her own head, no character that could be described as her will or volition. Riley’s mind is a plurality. Thoughts, feelings and memories pop up because one of the characters in her brain decided unilaterally to make it happen. And this is exactly how neuroscience thinks the brain works.

Do you feel like a unified Self? If so, you might like to read about some experiments that have been conducted in patients with the two hemispheres of their brain severed, so-called “split-brain” patients. In these subjects, it appears that the two halves of their brain can process information independently, have separate desires, and even reach moral judgements differently. If this is how the brain works, which one is the real ‘you’? Or consider this Nature article, which concludes that “different mental processes are mediated by different brain regions, and there is nothing to suggest the existence of any central controller”. All of our minds are pluralities with no core Self to be found.

While this may seem an uncomfortable concept, what does spirituality have to say about the matter?

The spiritual angle

According to spiritual teachings stretching back 2500 years to the time of Buddha, the Self (that thing in your mind that feels like ‘you’) is an illusion. It is actually a stream of spontaneously arising thoughts and feelings that your mind clumps together and erroneously interprets as a unified persisting identity.

While the growing accessibility of scientific ideas to the general public has been a wonderful advancement for humanity, one distasteful side-effect has been New Agey spiritualists co-opting and misrepresenting these ideas. In the case of neurospirituality though it’s the other way around: science is co-opting a spiritual concept, or at least happily supporting it.

One of the three core tenets of Buddhism is No-Self, a believe which, as we’ve just seen, has been supported by the latest neuroscientific findings. As noted by Quartz, “Some scientific researchers have recently started to reference and draw on the Eastern religion [Buddism] in their work—and have come to accept theories that were first posited by Buddhist monks thousands of years ago.”

Think about that. Way before a single living human being had any clue that heliocentricity or DNA or neurons or sporks could be things—back before anyone even knew that the freaking planet was round—Buddha was relaxing under a tree pointing out a neuroscientific truth that it’s taken us until now to confirm.

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“No biggie, you’re welcome.”

(Interestingly, the other core tenets of Buddhism are Impermanence, which agrees eerily well with quantum mechanics and Suffering, perhaps better translated as “lack of lasting satisfactoriness”, which recapitulates the observed psychological phenomenon of the hedonic treadmill. Either Buddha landed some crazy lucky guesses, or there really must be something to meditation huh?)

So, with children’s cinema kicking off in 1937 with Snow White, which features a cheery outlook on what would today be deemed sexual assault, almost 80 years later we’ve arrived at Inside Out, which explores the profoundest neuroscientific and spiritual insights yet achieved by humankind.

The social significance

While this may be well and good, an obvious question is: will children even be able to understand it? The concept of an absence of Self is, after all, supremely unintuitive and difficult even for highly educated adults to grasp. Will children be able to draw the connection between Riley’s haphazardly emergent consciousness and their own?

One of the psychologists who advised the creators of Inside Out gives a touching example of just such a case:

“I got an email from a mom who took her highly functioning autistic boy to the movie, and seeing the movie was the first time that this young guy had insight into his emotional difficulty. He said: “Mom, I know I have anger, fear, and disgust, but I really struggle with sadness and joy—I don’t know where they are.” And she said it was their breakthrough moment.”

It would be fascinating to find out how many children interpreted the film so literally or found similar personal relevance in it. If you too have a child who has seen Inside Out, please leave a comment below about their response.

Finally, what would the ramifications be of a society that broadly understood and accepted the truth of No Self? Well, a lack of Self is very closely related to concepts such as determinism and there being no such thing as free will, so we may see an upsurge in these beliefs. While many people find such ideas superficially scary, public figures such as Daniel Dennett and Sam Harris have argued elegantly for why they needn’t be: Even if you were always destined to do every single thing that you do done, it still feels as though you’re in control. You can still act, plan, exercise compassion, learn etc. There’s no reason to resort to apathy or fatalism.

One likely policy shift in such a society would regard the criminal justice system. A lack of free will removes any rational justification for shaming or punishment, at least on moral grounds². The justice system could form policies based of pure pragmatism: how can we most effectively deter crime? Given the predispositions of this or that criminal cognitively, is rehabilitation and reintegrate into society possible? If so, how can it most effectively be achieved?

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One children’s film won’t single-handedly launch a spiritual and cultural revolution. But shifts in values and world views can and do gradually occur with the changing moral zeitgeist. And with such excellent influences as WALL-E, Up, Frozen and Inside Out becoming increasingly commonplace (especially amongst little humans who are still compiling their moral frameworks), it’s hard not to get a tiny bit excited for the future of civilisation.

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¹In Inside Out the main emotion associated with a memory can change, but the details of the event seem to be kept constant

²This doesn’t mean punishments wouldn’t still be used, but that the rationalisation would be different, and likely also the execution. Punishment would only be seen as justified or useful insofar as it influenced future behaviours.