Why I went to prison for ten days. Personal Leadership.
Updated: Jun 17
For ten days in October 2015, I was locked in a compound in the remote mountains south of Jakarta, Indonesia. They allocated me to a private cell, less lucky ones had to share. They separated men and women. We followed a regimented schedule – a gong wakes us up at 4 am, and bed at 9 pm. We only had two simple vegetarian meals a day, and two pieces of fruit in the evening. It was a spartan living, I slept uncomfortably on a thin mattress with a rickety bed frame, which creaked with my every little move. There was no air-conditioning or fan, and we only had cold showers. All electronic devices had to be surrendered, including mobile phones, as well as any writing materials, including paper and pen. We were not allowed to speak, smile or make any form of eye contact or gestures. We maintained total silence. We have completely locked away from the outside world, plunged into silence.
Every day, we sat cross-legged, eyes closed but alert, for ten and a half hours, followed by another hour and a half of discourse in the evening.
At the end of the ten days, the doors were thrown open, and we were liberated. However, a part of me did not want to leave.
This was a 10-day Vipassana meditation camp. I was intrigued after my father attended the same camp in Malaysia a few months before, and made up my mind after reading the book “The Equanimous Mind” by Manish Chopra, documenting his life-changing transformation after attending the course. I was intrigued by his professional persona (Partner at McKinsey & Co), and was fully sold on how he gained more time, more ideas, more energy at work. And he did not need to wear eyeglasses anymore!
… (with) the productivity increase I am seeing at work and a greater sense of general energy levels, I feel as if I have 28 hours in every day!- The Equanimous Mind, Manish Chopra
To most outsiders, I looked like a confident and happy entrepreneur running a thriving SME. But inside, I was experiencing anger and doubt far too often. I was working very long hours. I often felt guilty about neglecting other aspects of my life - my health, the kids, or just… life.
Despite working very hard, I was not getting the results that I wanted. And so I worked harder. It became a vicious cycle. I knew something was wrong, but I did not know what else to do. Vipassana offered some hope of clarity.
And so I looked for the nearest Vipassana meditation camp, and signed up for the one in Bogor, Indonesia.
For me, the first two days were the most difficult. I was still getting used to the living conditions: I felt claustrophobic in the room, I could not sit still during meditation - I fidgeted and squirmed, I even nodded off a couple of times. And the instructions that were given, although they sounded promising and logical, felt rather incredulous to follow – “Direct experience of reality is essential. Know thyself – from the superficial, apparent, gross reality, to the subtler realities, to the subtlest reality of mind and matter.” I remember thinking “How am I going to survive eight more days of this?” The thought of quitting went through my mind more than once.
Luckily, things took a swing for the better around Day 4. For a start, I stopped nodding off. I was concentrating better, and going deeper into my practice. I began to understand the meaning of “Equanimity”, not just at a cerebral level, but at the experiential level. It is real knowledge, acquired through the first-hand experience.
Equanimity [ee-kw uh- nim-i-tee, ek-w uh-]: Mental or emotional stability or composure, especially under tension or strain; calmness; equilibrium.
The days blurred after that, and at the end, I experienced something. It is a feeling, it is hard to describe. If I have to, I do call it happiness and equanimity. Not the jumping up-and-down kind of ecstasy, but being content with myself – my strengths and glorious imperfections. I also saw a crystal clear vision of the impact that I want to create – “I am on the right path, what I am doing is fundamentally good”. It will still be a tough journey, with no guarantee of success. But I know there is something I can depend on – my thoughts and my actions.
I felt light, I felt happy. I even started enjoying living here. I did not want to lose this.
What I went through is not new. Meditation or Mindfulness is being touted as the latest “it” productivity tool for burnt-out high-flying executives. Steve Jobs did it. Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff and LinkedIn CEO Jeff Weiner do it too.
Meditation more than anything in my life was the biggest ingredient of whatever success I've had. - Ray Dalio, the billionaire founder of Bridgewater Associates - the world's largest hedge fund firm - explained in 2012.
Whether it is Vipassana meditation or a fruit juice detox programs in Bali, they share a similar outcome. It is a very personal journey. It is about thinking deep, piercing through the rational mind and delving into the deepest, murkiest depths of your mind to discover who you really are and what you are destined to do. And when you have that clarity, you start becoming the best possible version of yourself.
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