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January 13, 2019

Vipassana: from battle to surrender

The first time we heard of Vipassana was from marathon training coach in Austin. we were talking about the hardest races to run and he mentioned that the hardest thing he had ever done was attend Vipassana.

I guess the first time we did go to it as a challenge (10 yrs back) and I had written about my experience as a little about the technique then. More recently one of the youth I went with also recorded her understanding of the theory after attending such a course.

Over the years I went for Vipassana 5 times, two times to do the course, once to serve and two more times recently in Dec 16 and Dec 17. In later times the 10 hour sittings a day were physically easier, but every time preparing for Vipassana is like preparing for battle. Not for putting things in order as one is uncontactable for 10 days (you realise quickly and initially with some disappointment that the world moves on fine without you). But, for the wandering mind and the pain the 10 hour sittings (especially Aditan 3 sessions where you can't change your position for an hour).
The mind especially wanders because the technique works with the truth, ordinary bodily truth of respiration and then sensation and settling down the mind itself takes three days or more. There is no visualisation, verbalization, etc.

I started practicing Vipassana when I was seriously questioning organised religion, our mothers were usually at the receiving end of my intensity on the subject. I continued through being an agnostic and now again when we moved to Auroville I was open to having faith again and being a willing servitude of the divine consciousness. Vipassana is a practice of purifying the mind and can be practiced irrespective of the philosophy just as sugar works as well with lemon water or (badam) milk.

In recent years esp Dec '16, Dec '17 I realized that the more the responsibilities I have taken up the longer it has taken to quieten my mind .

This year I came for Dhamma service, it's 10 days you give to serve in the program and help administration of the course. I was given the responsibility of taking care of the main hall, support serving food, organization teacher meetings, requirements of mediators and a few more things that kept coming up :).

In my last Dhamma service at Bangalore it primarily compounding and for most part I attended the course as a regular participant. As I was accountable for the Dhamma hall I thought this will be a good practice to meditate and have some daily happenings and make it a little more lifelike.

However, in the first session the teacher said that I would be required to by and large keep our eyes open, I realised that there will be very little serious meditation that I'll be able to do. Ah well. I did come for Seva. Then the team of dhamma works decided we decided to take turns in meditation. When the first opportunity presented itself for me to meditate I just sort of surrendered something that has been very hard to do before my move to Auroville. I relaxed completely and there were not as many thoughts as I had ever had before. I was not battling against my mind as I had done in the past. I just took the instructions to heart that respiration is already there, the river is already flowing, I just needed to watch it.

When thoughts came they came with a precursors an image, an incident, a sentence and I could smile that my mind was about to drift and smile and tell myself that I'm about to pop (from the matrix) and come back to watching my breath. What distracted me the most we the thought of writing a blog about it not being a battle but a surrender.

What helped was before a session reminding myself that I was not a teacher, principal, technical leader of a group, mentor, community member with responsibilities, I was just a human being who had come to learn to be a witness and learn through this experience.

Also sitting with the teacher and listening to him repeating the instructions again and again suddenly one thing clicked understanding sensation is Anika (temporary) and with choice less observation we improve our equanimity based on observing this reality in sensations. When we get angry we can take a moment and observe the sensations, wait for it to subside and then act.

The entire course was a lot more hectic than I can imagine but sessions were not as much of a battle. They were hard only when I took myself too seriously and one of my ego heads showed up.

I also realized that things I was worried about and noticed that my happiness is really my responsibly and that I have become too serious and need to smile more :) (why so serious, as the joker says in the dark knight, comes to mind).

What also made sense is what the teacher said to one of the students, "don't try to meditate, just meditate".

As I mentioned before technique works on no imagination and no visualization and works with the truth of the moment as experienced by me and helps me train my subconscious mind to change the habit pattern of generation attachment and aversion. And yet, as the ego weakens e.g. in the Bhang state of the total dissolution of the physical body you experience and observe something more than just mind and matter and its obvious interaction.

The course trains an individual to work for their own salvation and indeed one has to put in time and work, but what is often overlooked is that there is grace when you work sincerely. This time I could feel this grace actively supporting me.

A picture of my team of dhamma workers who handled 70 odd meditators.
I don't even know what they do. We just got together and as the teacher said worked beautifully as a team, supported the meditators and went our ways.

March 12, 2017

Change in culture

Four years back when I moved to Auroville I would post one or two puzzles a week on the school notice board at Udavi. I had announced them in the classes I taught and there were always two children U and D in the school (in 10th grade) who would attempt to answer the puzzles. They would discuss the puzzles among themselves and often submit a solution to the puzzles. Sometimes they would have doubts and come and explain their logic to me and ask me to find a flaw.
I did some visual puzzles with arranging match sticks and these some of the 6th graders were interested in, but by and large, I got one or two solutions for the puzzles with barely any discussion about the puzzles.

Last week Naveen took up the exercise of putting up a puzzle a week in STEM Land. There has been quite some discussion about the puzzle - the 9th graders applying algebra to solve it and the younger attempting to do it without algebra. I even noticed a volunteer who has come to learn STEM has been attempting to solve it. 

It remains to be seen how much of this buzz translates to children taking the initiative to submit their queries, especially as we have not marked any prizes for their submissions. Nonetheless, I can see a change in culture, of attempting puzzles, that was missing in the children before.

March 11, 2017

Deep learning...

Someone had recently asked me to give them an example of what I considered deep learning.

The STEM Land (@ Udavi) display that the children in the 9th grade had broken down and a couple of letters were not lighting up. A couple of children in the 7th grade had expressed interest to fix the display. I had walked them through how powering a leg of the display lights up one of the 7 segments (and the decimal point). They had been fascinated by being able to fix something and over a couple of classes went ahead and fixed it.

After fixing the board and seeing it work one of the children was interested in doing something more with the Arduino. What the 9th graders had done was the treat a digit as a unit and light up one digit at a time, etc without changing the essential message of what was being printed. But this child wanted to do more. He wired up the 7 segments to a separate Arduino pin and wanted to control them individually.

He managed to light up a 1 by end of a class. I mentioned to him that this will soon get out of hand if he did not start organizing the code (in a language he was learning) into functions.

Later that day one of my youth asked me to give them an example of deep learning in STEM Land.

The next morning B didn't have a class, but during lunch, he came by and asked me to show him what these functions are. I told him that it was similar to the setup and loop that are already present, but with any name he wanted and they could be called into action when needed, similar to the blocks in Scratch. His face immediately lit up and he said ok, I understand blocks.

He had an activity class after lunch and he sat down to implement what he had in mind. He ran into a couple of errors of syntax (defn of functions needs matching '{}', calling functions in C needs '()' ), but then he did not ask for me for about 45 minutes. Then he came to me and said that he needs some help in extending the functionality. I went up and saw what he had done and realized that he had made a single digit counter that went from 1 to 9 every one second. He had now decided to make a clock out of the arduino and had added a second 7 segment display to get the second digit of the clock he needed. I thought he would have missed the logic of the first digit continuing to run when the second was set, but he had got that logic right and implemented this as well. 

I could find nothing wrong with his program and I think was a little surprised how much he was able to progress in a single session starting from wiring up getting the logic of an entire set of digits right and moving on to the next logically. Perhaps, the issue is with the hardware and we are attempting to draw too much current from the USB and none of the displays were lighting up. The debug continues
...but it gave me an answer to what I presently consider an example of deep learning, taking a concept in an entirely different context from blinking light->fixing a 7segment display->individual control of segments and putting it all together to shift between digits in the hope of creating a clock with very little help from an adult.

Of course, there are not enough outputs in the Arduino to create all the digits of a full-fledged clock and I let him know, but it seemed he was happy with what he could get.

March 07, 2017

Second STEM Land at Isai Ambalam

We started a second center of STEM Land at Isai Ambalam School on 1st March. The children at the school had been learning the games and puzzles and had set up stalls to engage those who had come. Some had created small projects like a name board with a welcome sign to a few 5 graders explaining a small LED circuit with a switch and a resistor, to games that the children had put up.
The 9th graders from Udavi had come for the inauguration and also brought their own games, rubiks cubes, etc to show the younger ones at Isai Ambalam the spirit of STEM land.

The opening is well documented in the following posts.

I wanted to talk about one moment of the opening ceremony when the entire Aura Auro team (7 people) were at the entrance. We could see all the people engage with the stalls and no one noticed any of us missing or all of us had gathered together. I just let it soak and we waited for a few minutes before starting the silent clap that slowly gathers steam till everyone was paying attention.

The best moments of a teacher are the moments when you are no longer needed.

March 06, 2017

Multiplication tables with children who never learnt it

There are children who are able to hold their fort without knowing the multiplication tables in the calculations in Mathematics. Some are quick at addition, some remember specific tables and extrapolate quickly. They survive till 9th grade where powerful mathematical concepts are introduced with milder calculations and are able to generally manage.

However, for most children for whom the number sense has not landed and are slow with calculations, the lack of knowing the tables is a serious hindrance in survival and any possibility of enjoying mathematics.

We took up the challenge of identifying 7th, 8th (and 9th) graders who did not know their tables. We worked with the children in identifying what they already knew - generally the 2, 5 tables. For a couple of children, the short-cut for the 9 tables was quick and they were comfortable with using that quickly. Some have the hand rules for 6x6 onwards, but it appears too slow for practical use. The table tricks were kludgy and not used e.g. some knew methods to write down the 7 tables, but it was too easy and not practiced enough to be usable in action and certainly not at random.

The common issues for children were 3x6 to 3x9, 4 tables, 6x6 to 6x9, 7x7 to 7x9, 8x8 and 8x9. I looked at a demo of the Vaughn Cube. Now, the demo is public domain and looking at the video it is easy to figure out how it works. They have given enough in the video (unknowingly?) to figure out not just how it works, but work out the details of the method. The rest of the post is about our Indian hack of the same and what we did with it.

The idea is simple, replace mathematical facts with objects that you need to remember in a 3-D room. The sounds t(1), n(2), m(3), r(4), l(5), ch(6), ka(7), f(8), p(9) are memorized in simple ways. An advantage of an object between two number is that it both 3x7 = 7x3 are the same. Iya one of the children who had a lot of difficulty with learning the tables announced that other than the 8 and 9 tables he knew everything. When I drew a pic of the 9 tables on his request he suddenly realized 9x3 = 3x9. Hey Anna, 9x3 is the same as 3x9. Then he noticed that all the other objects were also familiar, this makes the table so much easier he added. I had attempted to convey the same to him earlier and when I shared his Aha moment with his teacher she remarked that she had told him as much many times. I guess, it doesn't matter how many times someone tells me something, it only matters when I get it.

What we did with it. 
1: Game: Figure out as many of these combinations by watching the video. As it gets tedious, use the skip forward and back feature to make it a little interesting.
2: Exercise: Practice with what you know and find out what is missing.
3: Project: Make a mini project in Scratch that shows the objects as you type in the questions.
4: Practice, Practice, Practice
5: Project: Make a game that tests rigor by asking tables at random, build on it to time yourself. By now I have quite a few kids who want us to test them because they have gotten so good at it.

Some notes, 
- With some practice, the children who had given up on the tables in the past were able to remember tables.

- However, these are mathematical facts and it lacks a logical framework that children can work with when things go wrong. e.g. if the child remembers the wrong object it can be an absurd result.
- I'm still sticking with when all else fails (flash cards, logic of knowing 5 tables, knowing squares and adding and subtracting) perhaps give visualization a try.