Sunday, September 14, 2008

Vipassana Meditation

Vipassana is a meditation technique originally taught by the Buddha. It is meant to promote peace and harmony in ones life and eliminate the agitation, irritation, and disharmony one often experiences. The link above provides a summary of the principles underlying the technique. These principles are discussed at greater length in the book The Art of Living (note: this is unrelated to the Art of Living courses one hears about). The technique itself is taught in a completely free 10 day course held at various locations around the world (see the Vipassana site for details of a course near you).

I was introduced to Vipassana by my father. He has been practicing Vipassana for over 15 years now. My father is the most spiritual person I know---not religious in a traditional sense, but rather someone who was always searching for the higher truth. He says that of all the things he's learnt, Vipassana has been by far the most beneficial. This is high praise indeed.

I've read The Art of Living and have heard a series of lectures by S. N. Goenka, the person who has been instrumental in spreading Vipassana in India and around the world. From everything I've read and heard, the technique sounds very compelling. There's no hocus-pocus. It's a very concrete technique, with very concrete reasons for why it works. I'm not going to try to distill the essence of the technique here; for that I refer you to the above sources for an authoritative and comprehensive treatment (but I'm happy to talk to you about my understanding if you're interested).

An important point, emphasized by Goenka, is that reading books or listening to lectures is no substitute for actually practicing Vipassana. A good friend of mine, Raj, recently had the good fortune of actually attending a Vipassana course. Here's what he writes about his experience:

Just got back from Vipassana. 11 days of living like a monk in silent meditation. It is wilderness survival training for your mind. Training your mind to survive on its own and manage your anxieties, fears and other strong emotions without the support of conversation, reading, television or any contact with the outside world. You learn how to control your subconscious mind to recognize and control your cravings, desires and attachments. It is frightening to realize the depth and strength of the roots of your cravings. As you try to teach your subconscious mind to be equanimous to cravings, these deep rooted desires literally surface in waves that get amplified as they bounce around in your head without any of the usual distractions to dampen their intensity. Your mind feels like it is going to snap, much like the suspension bridge bearing the army garrison that did not break file. The first few nights I literally woke up sweating in my eight by eight cell surrounded by the ghosts of physical manifestations of my cravings swimming around me in the darkness. It starts getting better after about the fourth day.

That sounds like a pretty intense experience! (And, yes, he's a rather good writer!) I've been wanting to do the course for some time now. I almost attended a course back in 2004, but a minor emergency at the last minute intervened and I chose not to attend. Now, almost 4 years later, I'm finally getting around to fixing this omission : I'll be attending a course starting next week (assuming, of course, there are no emergencies this time!).

Friday, September 12, 2008

Google's Search UI

I wanted to make a note of a couple more Google blog posts that point at some more cool technology. No, I'm not talking about Chrome or the Chrome comic book. Rather, I'm referring to two recent posts by Ben Gomes. In the first post, Ben talks about the principles that guide the design and evolution of the Google search user interface. Of course, any talk of the evolution of the search interface raises a natural question:

A common reaction from friends when I say that I now work on Google's search user interface is "What do you do? It never changes." Then they look at me suspiciously and tell me not to mess with a good thing. Google is fine just the way it is -- a plain, fast, simple web page. That's great, but how hard can that be?"

Turns out it's not as easy as it may seem. Ben discusses a number of principles that guide UI development and provides several examples of the principles in action. One of the most interesting points he makes is related to the goal of search: get you to the web pages you want as quickly as possible. ... This goal may seem obvious, but it makes a search engine radically different from most other sites on the web, which measure their success by how long their users stay. We measure our web search success partly by how quickly you leave (happily, we hope!).

A key part of UI development is experimentation on live traffic. In his second post, Ben describes a series of UI experiments ranging from big, prominent changes to tiny, subtle ones.

... we test almost everything, even things that you would think are so small that we could not possibly care (nor could they possibly matter). In fact, small changes do matter, and we do care.

Check out these posts for a glimpse of the care with which the Google search UI is designed.
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