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Vipassana for Hackers [pdf] (github.com)
461 points by hargup 10 months ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 145 comments

This paper is a pretty comprehensive take on Vipassana, so in case anyone's looking for something a bit more general, I'd like to offer a complementary summary based on my own experiences.

Vipassana is a 10-day silent meditation retreat. Silent in this case really means distraction-free, entertainment-free, or stimulation-free. Think of it as the diametric opposite of social news. No noise, no conversation, no instant gratification, no easy pleasures (not even reading, writing or music). You just eat, sleep and meditate, with occasional breaks in between.

During the course you see other students and listen to recorded meditation lessons, but you are, effectively, alone. It's a cultural trope that having nothing but your own mind for company sends you a bit mad, and in my experience that was basically true. Normally you can count on the distraction stream to save you from your own thoughts, and without it you can spend days stuck in ever-intensifying thought loops with nothing to break you out of them.

Which, to me, gets to the heart of Vipassana. It's not really about silence; it's a specific kind of meditation designed to change your relationship to sensation. I think of it like audio engineering: we have a gain control on what we feel, and when the sensations get too much we turn them down until we're comfortable again. The problem is that you turn down everything at once; distracting yourself from painful experiences also distracts you from pleasurable ones. Keep turning the gain down and you eventually end up with a featureless experience: no peaks or troughs, just a flat line.

The reason you start with silence is because you're going to turn the gain back up, and you don't want to blow out your speakers at the first loud noise. The technique focuses on bodily sensations, but since sensations are mental and physical everything kinda comes along for the ride. You spend hours focusing on the most minute feelings until they fill your entire mind and your whole world is an area of skin the size of a postage stamp. It can get pretty intense.

But what makes it too intense? You do. It's not like bad news is painful because it melts your auditory nerves. Rather, you react to the sound, then you react to your reaction, then you react to that reaction and so on until you've built this unbearable feedback loop. Then you turn down the gain because, damn, that was LOUD. But that's bad engineering; you gotta go fix the feedback at the source. And that means unlearning your reactions.

That was my core experience of Vipassana. Turn up the sensation, learn to accept the sensation. Feel more, react less, repeat. Everything I tried to avoid thinking about, I thought about. Everything I didn't want to feel, I felt. I was defenceless as my self-sabotaging thought patterns sabotaged me over and over until I realised I was the one doing it and I could just... stop.

It's easy to dwell on the hard parts, but it was often quite peaceful. I spent an hour watching a family of lizards (they hid until I'd been still for fifteen minutes), another watching the finches chase each other and listening to their tiny wings, and another just looking at trees. Have you ever noticed how green trees are? I don't think I'd seen anything that green since I was a child.

"...when the sensations get too much we [can] turn them down..."

I can only speak for myself but a) realizing this and b) actually figuring out the real noise sources were a (first) breakthrough for me. Not too obvious to figure out when I think back some time.

Has there ever been a study on the efficacy of Vipassana on clinical depression. How do you think this would affect a depressed person? Would it exacerbate their suicidal ideation or will their depression melt away?

[Steven here. I wrote the paper.] No, there hasn't. Vipassana courses generally reject applications from anyone with clinical depression or anxiety as the meditation practice is not meant to "heal" anything but also because it can be a bit intense for anyone... much less someone with a clinical mental health issue.

There are exceptions. I volunteered for a 10-day course in Gujarat last year and 3 of the men attending had clinical depression. A friend of mine has a very serious history of Bipolar Disorder; she was rejected from her first course application but permitted into her second. In all 4 cases, the individual needs a personal interview with the area teacher and a recommendation from that teacher before they are permitted to take the course.

The black-and-white line is "are you medicated?" — medicine is permitted on Vipassana courses with the permission of the teacher but painkillers, antidepressants, and anti-anxiety meds are not allowed for obvious reasons.

This makes such a study (scientifically) impossible; the applicants are heavily filtered so the sample has quite a significant bias. Positive conclusions would also be dangerous: It could be a very bad scene if someone with a very deep psychological issue lied to attend a course because of its supposedly scientific benefits, found in students with much milder mental health issues.

For what it's worth, in these anecdotal cases I'm aware of, everyone found the practice to be extremely beneficial. Zazen, which in most teachings is also a nervous-system-focused meditation, can also be helpful for people with clinical depression.

I was not considered to be someone with a severe mental illness but ended up developing an intense depersonalization + somatoform disorder during a 10 day retreat that I am still struggling to recover from 2 years later. The staff there refused to let me talk to a doctor who was also at the retreat or to call my parents without listening in on the conversation, which made me extremely uncomfortable and caused me to stay there longer than I should have. By the end of it they continued to insist that the Vipassana was the way to fix my problems instead of advocating that I see a doctor.

My experience was an outlier but I feel that for many people an experience like this can do more harm than good. Isolation and sensory deprivation for 10 days is generally not healthy, when we do that to people in prison it can be considered cruel and unusual punishment. I don't think they did a very good job of encouraging those who were having issues to leave and instead made me want to try and 'power' through what I was going through rather than recognizing it as a serious issue.

The way the class is structured is fundamentally depersonalizing- every night they have you watch video lectures that I found to get increasingly bizarre and cult-like, subjecting you over and over to the notion that the Vipassana method is the way to deal with all suffering and eventually talking about how you can manipulate quantum energy in your body and other crazy shit. It was doubly disorienting to be doing this while eating a low-protein vegetarian diet for the first time

There are many, many others who have had negative, damaging experiences like me and the issue is waved away saying "they were already mentally ill and shouldn't have gone" but the fact there are many other ways to get the benefits that meditation offers in a way that doesn't present the risk of manifesting latent mental illnesses.

I really do not believe a 10 day retreat should even be offered to beginners and if so it should be less dogmatic and more sensitive to the possibility that it can be dangerous to certain personalities

I am quite certain there are a number of 10-day retreats that don't go into the cult-like/dogmatic aspects you describe here (that meditation is a cure and controlling body energy and all that) and would be more free about allowing anyone to leave and/or see a doctor.

I have not been to one myself, but I have read countless recollections of others' experiences, and a focus on caring for those attending is often a priority. Your experience sounds like the opposite of that, and as you've said, there are others with similar negative experiences too.

It's sad that it's out there, because I think there are plenty of 10-day retreats that wouldn't be such a problem, but maybe they should be required to be more upfront in setting expectations and better screen for potential hazards.

If you don't mind me asking, who was the speaker in those videos? Did your center have a specific "lineage" or "school" of Buddhism? Was it Goenka by chance?

> There are many, many others who have had negative, damaging experiences like me

Interesting, thanks for shedding some light from a very different perspective. I’m sorry you had to go through this and I hope you will be able to recover quickly.

Can you substantiate the claim or point to more information about a negative experience that came through Vipassana?

Thanks for sharing your experience, I'll steer clear and inform my friends to be weary.

I can see this being beneficial to try before going the antidepressant meds route if given the opportunity. Are there any 10 day retreats in the US? This sounds like a great service to have a retreat in the mountains somewhere in the states for those without the means to travel abroad. Thanks for writing this guide, I may try it.

I heard dissociative or hallucinogenic substances are great for mild depression/anxiety. What are your thoughts on trying those substances to experience a deeper understanding of ones body/world?

I don't think they allow people who have depression to join this course as this is pretty intensive.

Some of the best long time meditators who stumbled upon this path and stuck with it had depression.

The benefits that a regular person gets initially while meditating are pretty cool but not life changing. Like, you tend to get up and clean your room, file for taxes way before the deadline, do your chores without them feeling like chores etc. You also don't react automatically with annoyance etc. Again, cool benefits but not life changing. This is the reason why its hard to maintain regular practice.

But if you have depression, the difference that meditation makes in your life could be large ( Hypothesising) so you have more incentive to stick to the practice and over the years it all adds up and your quality of life might end up even better than those who did not have depression in the first place. Again, this is just my thinking and I am not sure.

If you have depression, you might consider taking some other mindfulness course to get a feel for it.

Arguably, one of the primary driving forces for the popularity of mindfulness in the west was the work done by Joh Kabat-Zinn with Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR).

I'll check it out, thanks for the info.

Not to be pedantic, but a vipassana retreat is a 10-day (though not always strictly 10) retreat. Vipassana is not itself a retreat but a method for seeing the nature of reality.

what would you consider lasting impacts of your experience?

My experience was a loss of sweet tooth permanently. Before I had a lot of craving for sweet stuff and had to fight with myself to cut the craving. After the Vipassana that craving is no longer there like before.

Apart from this one thing, there are no lasting impacts. If I meditate an hour in the morning and an hour in the evening, the effect lasts around 24 hours and I gradually revert back to my original state, so I have to maintain the meditation practice to maintain the results.

It helped me come out of alcohol and drug addiction (not after a single 10-day course, mind you). It's helped me a great deal with long-standing anger issues. I find myself much more lucid and generally more effective; my decision-making capability is a lot sharper than it was 5 years ago.

Some effects which coincide with my Vipassana practice that I would say are hard to attribute to it (but I'd be tempted) include: calling my parents more often, giving people my attention more meaningfully, an improved diet, and better results from exercise.

Excellent review, thank you. You capture the vividness of it very well.

I will add a disclaimer, if you are talking about Goekna / Dhamma.org retreats. They are absolutely not just about technique or dogma-free, despite their marketing. They are overtly religious and the entire retreat is couched in hand-wavy woo.

The retreat itself was amazing. I went to one in Quebec. Excellent facilities, crystal clear skies (it was -25 C out), very soothing place. Food was excellent and overall, the physical aspects were not nearly as trying as I was expecting (though my back was kill after a couple days). I would recommend bringing a sleep aid if you are used to not sleeping so early (they are accommodating). I went a few days without using it, but it is hard to meditate after a sleepless night.

I was very excited. The place had been hyped up as dogma-free. Sam Harris's Waking Up book seemed to encourage it. No mystical teachings. Just a great practice. No communication. No speaking, writing, reading. Not even eye contact to avoid non-verbal communication. I love the idea.

The moment I first sat. . . well, here is the type of sound they pump in: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GqEWTlaweaM

The reason for this, in their words, is that the chanting of ancient Pali gives off good vibes. Next, they ask all the students to start repeating phrases in Pali. It feels incredibly cultish at that point. The voice of the instructor during key meditation lessons is intentionally over-accented (you can hear Goenka speak just fine at other times). In other languages (not English) the instructions are clear and concise. Only in the original recordings do you get this woo-y voicing.

Finally, you do get sustained language, in the form of the nightly discourses. After having no other serious language input, every night there is an hourly discourse. By that time you're dying to relax a bit, and if you're like me, desperate for communications so that even a cereal box label would be spellbinding.

The lessons are very anti-science and very religious. Goenka explicitly states the purpose of meditation is to purge your deep-seated sins (sankhara I believe was the word he used) so that you can re-incarnate better. He was clear to point out that the study of physics is unnecessary because Buddha had discovered physical secrets long ago. Literally, he makes a point that Buddha determined the vibration of subatomic particles (even though the numbers provided are wrong, and the premise is nuts). He even goes out of the way to criticize a scientist involved in the work of the cloud chamber, saying that the scientist was always unhappy and thus should not have bothered trying to discover things.

Even the non-anti-science parts are a bit off. At one point, during a lecture on not murdering any living being (acceptable, sure), he goes as far as mentioning that "a cat killing a mouse is not following its true nature". Questioning these things gets you a warm smile with a condescending dismissal.

Here's an example of the course: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oJxuIMGC9s4

I only mention all this because HN readers are probably less woo/religion minded than most, and Dhamma.org portrays it as no-woo when it is full of it. The annoyance caused me to drop out of the course on day 6 as I could not stand the indoctrination side of things. Physically I was fine and enjoying the structure.

But... I would still recommend it over nothing. I would prefer a retreat that had the structure and setup but without the dogma. If you cannot find such a place nearby (Goenka's retreats are everywhere), well just know going in that you will need to deal with all this and ignore the dogma and not be upset. Consider it additional training. Maybe try hanging out with people praising homeopathy and not saying a single negative word as preparation for the kinds of things you're going to feel?

I would also note that Sam Harris's guided meditation (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OboD7JrT0NE) was quite instructive, after reading his book. You do not have to buy into his overall views or be "a proud atheist" to enjoy the book nor his meditation part.

Thank you. Your experiences seem to mirror my own, I was very disappointed when I learned that the vipassana course was full of woo-woo, despite proclaiming not to be. In addition, it kind of messed me up for quite a while afterwards, so I could not recommend it, despite finding some of the sensations I experienced during the course to be interesting. There are almost certainly going to be meditation retreats that teach you the same techniques without the religious indoctrination, which is what I wished I'd found.

Leaving on day 6 was probably a good move. I stayed the full 10 days but the course didn't get any better by the end.

For those that haven't done it before, there are three types of meditation that are taught at a 10-day Goenka Vipassana retreat. The first two, Anapana and Vipassana, are both very interesting and are experiences I would recommend, but the third, Metta, is basically in woo-woo territory. Metta can be described as "positive thoughts" meditation, as opposed to Anapana and Vipassana (which are both about increased self-awareness). Close your eyes, wish for world peace, now you're doing Metta. If you can find a meditation retreat that teaches Anapana and Vipassana without religious dogma then I would recommend giving it a go, but I could not recommend going to a retreat led by Goenka. YMMV.

I was also angry about the religious content. I almost left the course on day 3 because of it. Then I realized that I wasn't really angry at the course. I was re-living my anger at my parents who indoctrinated me with their religion when I was a child. Then I decided to work hard on the technique, since it is a way to deal with anger. I'm glad I did.

I'm sorry that you left on day 6. Day 7 is when I started to make real progress. In one of the recordings, the dude (Goenka) says that your first 10-day course is like lancing open an infected wound, letting all the pus out; painful but ultimately beneficial. That is an accurate description of my experience. Starting on day 7, I was finally able to reduce the negative emotions associated with certain ideas and memories. So I let myself touch those ideas and memories and worked hard to apply the technique. This was extremely unpleasant, but I could feel myself healing emotionally. It was the most difficult experience I have ever voluntarily gone through. But it was worth it. I'm much less angry now. In the year since I took the course, my life has gotten a lot better because of the skills I learned in the course.

I found Metta to be very difficult. And several weeks later I realized why: I couldn't bring up kind thoughts toward anybody, even toward myself. I have been judgemental my entire life, toward everyone and especially toward myself. It's the result of strict authoritarian parenting. After becoming aware of my judgemental tendencies, I've noticed that they cause a lot of problems for me. I'm still really bad at Metta, but I think it helps me be less judgemental. If you can't do Metta, then you will benefit from finding out why you can't do it.

I'm glad you found the course beneficial.


> "I'm sorry that you left on day 6."

..., just to clarify, I previously stated ...

"I stayed the full 10 days but the course didn't get any better by the end."

It was the GP who stayed for 6 days.


> "If you can't do Metta, then you will benefit from finding out why you can't do it."

I have no problem in accessing feelings of compassion, I just don't want to be forced to do it. In my opinion, obligation can take the joy out of anything, and forced love doesn't make any sense. As soon as we seek to control love we kill it. It's far better to be remove the barriers that hold you back from experiencing it, and just let it happen naturally (again, just in my opinion).

The main issue I had with the course was that Goenka was steering the experience towards a certain set of interpretations of the experience. What I wanted was to be taught the technique and then be left alone to find what it uncovered. In my opinion, meditation is a personal experience, and I did not think it helped to frame the experience in the way Goenka did, especially as the people going through the retreat are likely to be in a vulnerable position (isolated, limited human interaction, limited time to adapt to new experiences). For me, attending the course was a mistake, one that I only grew from as I overcame the damage it caused through finding other teachers that I could connect with, but that being said, if you found the course beneficial I'm glad for you, I'm not trying to diminish your experience. I hope you can continue to find personal insight through meditation.

I think that's sort of a mis-characterization of Metta (not accusing you of ill intent, to be clear), but I'm not sure how it's taught by Goenka, maybe it was demonstrated poorly.

In my experience, it has been to try to wish good things towards all beings (the cessation of suffering that is essential to Buddhist philsophy), from those that are easy to love (family friends, etc) all the way out to those that are the most difficult to wish good things for (those that wrong you, prisoners, generally those we view as "less"), and its intent is not like a prayer, where you're trying to ask a deity to make it happen.

It's more like Anapana/Vipassana in that it is a self-work- trying to find more compassion, trying to cultivate that towards all beings and overcome the difficulty and roadblocks that keep us from doing so. I have found Metta at times to be more profound than the rest of the practices, or at least unique. It's maybe the one practice that has made me question my stance on eating meat and has helped re-align my thoughts regarding treating "the least of these" with compassion instead of retribution, negligence, etc.

I think it can be useful without any woo-woo aspects, and I've seen it taught in practical terms multiple times.

> "I think that's sort of a mis-characterization of Metta (not accusing you of ill intent, to be clear), but I'm not sure how it's taught by Goenka, maybe it was demonstrated poorly.

In my experience, it has been to try to wish good things towards all beings (the cessation of suffering that is essential to Buddhist philsophy), from those that are easy to love (family friends, etc) all the way out to those that are the most difficult to wish good things for (those that wrong you, prisoners, generally those we view as "less"), and its intent is not like a prayer, where you're trying to ask a deity to make it happen."

I believe Metta was described as "loving kindess" in the course. My characterisation of "positive thoughts" was just a simplified version of that.

If you get benefits out of Metta, that's fine, I hope you continue to do so, it just doesn't sit right with me. Desire to love and love are two different things, if you already feel it you don't need it, and if you seek it then you hold yourself back from feeling it. That's how I see it, but if you found benefit in the practice of Metta that's a good thing, and I hope you continue to find benefit from doing it.

Well, regardless, thanks for a different perspective on it.

The important distinction between the Goenka retreats and other dogmatic religious organizations is the instructions to only accept what you find palatable...you're free to pick and choose what you find valuable and what you can validate through personal experience and ignore the rest. If you'll remember the story of the kheer and the cardamom seeds, it's meant to encourage you to be as skeptical as you feel you need to be to get value out of the retreat.

Also, your comment on the sleepless nights makes me realize that you misunderstood the non-meditation periods in the same way that I misunderstood them during my first 10-day. I thought if I wasn't meditating, I was 'off' and mostly just passing time until the next session. But what I realized in my second 10-day was that there should be no down time. If you're not sitting and meditating, you should be walking and meditating, eating and meditating or showering and meditating or whatever and meditating. If you're lying in bed and can't fall asleep, you meditate. And what I found was that it didn't matter how much I actually slept because lying prone and meditating was as restful as sleep. If you ever try it again, try doing it without the notion of any down time...meditate through all of your actions as well as the prescribed meditation periods.

But I agree that the anti-science (and pseudo-scientific) parts were unfortunate. I served a 10-day after having attended twice, and was somewhat upset to see that they only made available traditional Chinese medicines to students and wouldn't even allow basic Western medicine (aspirin, immodium, etc). At one point, we had an elderly man who ran out of his high blood pressure medication. During a meditation session, his pulse rate spiked (~190 bpm) and he started freaking out. After following the teacher's advice and trying a traditional Chinese remedy (which, of course, did nothing), I finally suggested something with an actual basis in science (dipping his face in cold water to activate the mammalian dive reflex). That got the situation under control until an ambulance could arrive.

>you're free to pick and choose what you find valuable

This is what they say, and sure, they cannot force you. But if you do this, they criticize and condescend, telling you you're like a child not eating all his food and that when you grow up you'll find everything they say is correct.

And Goenka is very clear that the goal of Vipassana is improving reincarnation.

There is one point where they say something, maybe literally "we do not teach dogma, only truth". Saying it does not make it so! They'd be much better off not trying to convince people they aren't pushing such beliefs than being misleading about it.

As far as sleep, I tried meditating. Both there and afterwards. I do not find it as resting as sleep, and found myself drifting off while meditating during the rest of the time. What happens in my case is that I'll be awake in bed until 3-4am then finally sleep. This is fine if I don't need to get up at 5-6. But I understand this is personal and I should have fixed my sleeping habits before arriving.

For students, they seem far more tolerant of medication, probably for liability.

> But if you do this, they criticize and condescend, telling you you're like a child not eating all his food and that when you grow up you'll find everything they say is correct.

I am sure this depends a lot from center to center and the one I went to (Sweden, beautiful location) was not like that at all.

The parable in question, about the child not eating the "black stone" in his pudding, is one that many people report hearing. It might have been in one of the discourses.

I must stress that the individuals and teacher in person were wonderful people and I've absolutely nothing against them. The main issue, without slighting the dead, is Goenka's part. Including the condescending parable.

I would probably go again if I can't find a non-goenka course. But I'd listen to all the discourses and get my annoyance out ahead of time and consider the chanting to be an added difficulty.

I recognize this annoyance you have and would say just that everything else that comes up during the retreat (annoying person next to you coughing all the time etc) is part of the exercise. Observe and accept your reaction and keep on practicing. It is all part of the process. This does not mean that you have to accept all the contents of the discourse as truth or correct or agree. You are listening and meditating, use it as practice.

And no one's going to bust you for not participating in chanting.

I'm not affiliated with any sect and haven't been on a Dhamma.org retreat but I felt compelled to write that you can try to understand where they're coming from.

A 10-day retreat may give you glimpses of what is possible (that there's more than meets the senses) but that is only the beginning. This stuff (meditation and yoga) has been practiced and researched rigorously for thousands of years before being introduced to west. Iinm the many literature spells out pretty early that it's all about purifying your existence. Body, mind, soul, whatever.

Some of the things in the eastern (buddhism, hinduism, jainism, taoism) lore are more metaphorically true than in a very narrow strict literal sense. Some of it it can be understood experientially more so than to be taken on blind faith.

I have to say I really like what Sam Harris is doing and follow his podcast. He certainly has pushed me further into meditation and he seems to have had many insights into the nature of consciousness and did a lot of LSD so he has been to places for sure. Yet sometimes I have wondered if he has missed out something fundamental given his very narrow focus on stuff. Maybe I should listen to his three podcasts with the meditation teacher Joseph Goldstein again...

> it's meant to encourage you to be as skeptical as you feel you need to be to get value out of the retreat.

On the other hand, if you're spotted walking slowly back and forth along a line, you'll be criticized for introducing walking meditation. So while Goenka retreats might encourage skepticism (this has not been my experience), they severely discourage experimentation. They are highly authoritarian environments.

The teacher in my center even encouraged meditating while walking when I asked. I saw other students doing the same and no one made anything out of it. Same in Japan, where I also sat. Sounds like an unfortunate interpretation at the particular center you where at.

I have to laugh a bit when you guys complain that they talk Buddhist metaphysics at Buddhist meditation retreats.

For a view on what the Buddha himself suggested about how to evaluate claims, see the: Kalama Sutta[1].

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kalama_Sutta

No, the complaint is that they make a big point about only being pure technique, no faith, dogma, etc. Then they act like any other place. If they were honest about it from the get-go, then it wouldn't be worth mentioning.

Fwiw, not all Buddhist monasteries or organizations do anything like this. I've been to retreats at a Shambala center and at one of the monasteries in Thich Nhat Hanh's Plum Village network and they were very secular.

I also went to the one in Quebec!

I couldn't agree more. At one point they try to assert that the technique is completely scientific, and has been proven by some physicist.

I took it all seriously because I wanted to see how deep I could go. The effects were pretty far out, but I can't say that they were beneficial.

10 days of camping will be far more beneficial.

I did a dhamma retreat in India in 2008. I did not notice any of the things you mentioned. I don't know whether they changed any of the instructions in the meantime, but for me it was an immensely insightful, at times painful and scary experience. Learning about Buddhist philosophy was a side bonus (although I don't remember much of it), which I always understood as imparting lessons and enriching my own mental models (why did they reach conclusion x or theory y?) but not necessarily literally true. There was no nlchsnzing back then (except for saying "Sadu Sadu" to express to oneself knes whic's compassion for all licing creatures. Maybe local versions are different despite the recordings?

> The moment I first sat. . . well, here is the type of sound they pump in: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GqEWTlaweaM

It would be torture if I were forced to listen to this. Apart from all the religious baggage involved, the vocals are incredibly pitchy. For the minute I tried listening to this, I twitched at each phrase. This won't be calming for the soul at all.

yow! Torture indeed. I'd be running for the hills if I had to listen to this every day. Maybe it is there to validate you are learning the technique. If you can keep calm while being subjected to this, you've learned the technique ;-)

Everything in the Goenka system of Vipassana is "open source". You can listen to the discourses and decide for yourself whether it feels too much like a sect.

And this is precisely what makes it friendly to the Hacker mind-set.

Most religions are fairly open source and not really hackerish.

Does Dhamma org actually publish the discourses? I got the feeling they were only available via the retreats, but have been leaked.

They are published (not leaked) on YouTube in video format. They're also written down and published as a book:


"Art of Living" can be off-putting thanks to its use elsewhere. It took me a long time to realize that "Art of Living" as Goenka uses it has nothing to do with (Sri Sri) Ravi Shankar's church or the business he's built on top of it. Ravi Shankar was actually a student of Goenka's who went on to sell meditation later in life with The Art of Living Foundation. There's no connection between the two organizations.

(Vedic) Hinduism historically was not: scriptures were only transmitted orally; the priests made sure to recite quickly/mutter so onlookers (onhearers?) could not get hold of the texts.

All of the Vedic texts have long been published at this point so this is no longer the case.

Thank you. You are spot on with the quackery! This matches my experiences in participating in a course in Germany.

> Maybe try hanging out with people praising homeopathy and not saying a single negative word as preparation for the kinds of things you're going to feel?

Honestly, the day when silence is broken was hard to grok. The vast majority of participants were deep into esoteric and quackery themes and had a religious admiration for the teachings. Critical discussion is not exactly forbidden but usally swept away.

It's also powerful, I remember speaking that day to someone more sceptical than me at the time and trying to calm him down. In retrospective he was right and I turned into an advertising machine the following weeks - I realized that only quite a while later.

The topics and language used in the course also had a lot of pseudo-scientific topics (even quoting engineers) that are hard to dismantle on first sight.

That beeing said, it's still worth the experience and it was comfortable but be ready to get exposed to all kinds of quack.

At first the supposed religiousness of it annoyed me too - but over time it sat ok with me. If you think about it, the audio course they use for the sessions was recorded back in the 90s, and back then this was refreshingly religion free. Lots of the work on meditation (things like Search Inside Yourself) which have completely reduced the amount of religion in it, are very recent compared to Goenka's course, so I think you have to take it as a product of its time. With a partial Indian background, a few times I've tried Indian writing on meditation, etc, and it is so seemingly intricately bound up with religion (almost to the point of superstition), that to extricate it as much as Goenka did for the vipassana course I think is still great work.

Unfortunately I have to agree that it does attract a lot of participants who want to believe in magic and superstition. I was very disappointed when the course was over and I found this out. Perhaps that is why Goenka is very clear in the recordings to be skeptical and only take what one finds useful from the practice.

Thank you for writing this. Echoes my thoughts but I never bothered to write it down. I participated in a 10 day retreat in California, and was also turned off by the pseudo-science and science-bashing. I almost started back on day 4, but stayed on because my friend who had come with me stayed on. In the end, I am glad I completed it. But the pseudo science bits left a bad taste in my mouth, and I couldn't continue with the practice. I think I learned a lot from the 10 day course, and may be I will try it again in future, though.

[Author of the paper here. I am not the OP, though.]

The post on religious-ness / culty-ness has quite a few replies and I thought I'd bundle up my thoughts and experiences here, so here goes:

## Goenka / chanting / Pali / Hindi ###################################

I definitely had a negative response to the chanting and to Goenka himself on my first 10-day course. The teacher's response of "the chanting provides atmosphere" was pretty unsatisfying. Worse than the chanting, I found myself really hating Goenka. At times he was "cute". At times he was serious. I felt like I was being played and it really rubbed me the wrong way. However, I did find I was seeing utility in the meditation by Day 6 or 7, so I stuck it out. After my first course, I was so horrified by the experience and turned off by the cult-like atmosphere that it took me two years and a lot of research before I returned to my second 10-day course.

By the end of my second course, I had really not come to terms with the chanting. As a monolingual English speaker living in Bangalore, it really had the religious overtones of Hindu shlokas. It was quite a bit later that I started reading translations of the Pali used in the chanting. There are two things to note here:

1) The Format: Pali, like Sanskrit, was probably spoken in a sing-song manner. Although we don't know what either sounds like today, the rhythmic chanting is basically Goenka's best guess. [Aside: there is one village in Karnataka which still speaks Sanskrit natively but the language is obviously not the same Sanskrit spoken 3000 years ago.] Like it or not, the chanting is likely the "correct" way to verbalize Pali.

2) The Content: To my English ears, the Pali still sounds like cult music, even though I know what it says now. But all the Pali chanting is a repeat of the instructions given in Hindi and English; there is nothing said in Pali which you aren't otherwise hearing as part of the course instruction.

A note on call-and-response chanting: "Sadhu Sadhu Sadhu" is the only chanting students are offered to (optionally) participate in. This is less than any other school of meditation I have tried.

After sitting 5 courses, I am now quite comfortable with the chanting. Particularly for English speakers, it will take some getting used to. Listen to it on YouTube before taking a course if it concerns you; if you find it too weird or off-putting, don't take a course. If you find it weird but tolerable, you can probably ignore it when you attend your first 10-day course.

## This Really Feels Like a Cult Guys #####################################

My worst Vipassana "cult" experience occurred on my third 10-day course. One of the volunteers ruffled my cushion after the 2-hour Vipassana session on Day 4. I had curled up into a ball after a very painful meditation. He had decided it was necessary to break noble silence to tell me not to touch the soles of my feet to the cushion. It was my third course but I almost walked out.

You will run into people like this. The courses are volunteer-run, and some of those volunteers will believe in magic crystals and energy waves and crap like that. Some of the volunteers will be CEOs and scientists. The mix is pretty hard to avoid. Vipassana attracts every sort of person from every walk of life. Try to be tolerant.

After that awful third course experience, I decided to take my Vipassana experiment outside of India. As a Canadian living in Bangalore, I wasn't sure if the cult-like appearance of some of the students had more to do with India or Vipassana itself. I did my fourth course in Japan and found the volunteers and the atmosphere to be MUCH less culty. After that, I served (volunteered) for my first course back in India — in Gujarat — I wanted to see if it was any more cult-like on the inside.

What I found while serving was a huge relief. Yes, some volunteers you meet are "looking for something"... sometimes they are serious Buddhists or responding to an Orthodox Hindu upbringing with something they felt countered that (like many New Atheists today). This was still off-putting, obviously. However, the senior volunteers (one fellow who had done a 60-day course) and the teacher were fantastic. Their only concern was the safety and well-being of the meditators: When you get 200 people in one room for 10 days, there's a good chance someone will have a medical issue. Thankfully the teacher for the female side was a doctor. All the volunteers worked tirelessly for 12 days. I myself found I was working harder than I ever had in my life. The older ladies working in the kitchen were lovely. The teacher had a great sense of humour and was very approachable. Behind the scenes, I didn't see any cult-like behaviour at all.

This is one thing I find (perhaps unfairly) reassuring: Most of the teachers I have met are either doctors or PhDs. The inexperienced volunteers may be new age spiritual quacks but the people who have clocked 20,000+ hours meditating Vipassana are not.


## The Discourses Seem Religious ################################

I am quite happy to drop 90% of the theory and I intentionally left 100% of the theory out of my paper. It's not necessary. I haven't found another community with a comparable practice or environment and I am quite certain at this point that self-taught meditation isn't enough for me.

There is a very good chance this isn't true for you.

I wrote the paper with the interest of poking at peoples' curiosity. I have learned a number of yogic meditations, I have sat Zazen (including 7-day Sesshin), I have tried Tibetan and Thai Forest meditation practices. Vipassana is, far and wide, the most systematic meditation practice I have encountered and after years of meditating, my first 10-day course (as difficult as it may have been) was the first time I really saw not only how to meditate but why to meditate. A 10-day Vipassana course is self-described as "The Kindergarten of Vipassana"; as far as curiosity goes, it's a great way to get your feet wet.

Yes, Vipassana courses include Buddhist philosophy... but not much of it. Expect to encounter much more (and much worse) through Thai Forest, Sinhala, Zen, Chan, and Tibetan traditions. Also expect to find out much later. The advantage of a 10-day Vipassana course is that all the spiritual gobbledygook is laid out on the table, up front: "Here, take it or leave it." With other schools of meditation (Yogic, Buddhist, and "Secular") I have found there's a lot more concealed from students early on. It varies. The Thai Forest Tradition doesn't hide much but they will certainly water down their beliefs to keep you engaged. Tibetan sects have explicit "secret" and "magical" practices. Not for me.

Clojure is the least-worst programming language I have ever used in earnest.

Democratic governments based on proportional representation are the least-worst political structures I am aware of.

Vipassana is the least-worst school of meditation I have found so far.


## Ugh, Reincarnation #####################

Although a person can leave reincarnation out of the picture completely, one can take stock of it in Theravadan terms as a thought exercise: If there is no "I" and no "self", what is there to reincarnate? If I am "reincarnating" constantly, moment to moment, just what is consciousness and what is the stream of consciousness?

"There is a becoming of continuity, but no continuity of becoming." - Whitehead

...I would suggest spending enough time with this quote and all its surrounding literature to understand precisely what it means (and why it is correct) before bothering with the concept of reincarnation.

Reincarnation is not very interesting, no matter how you look at it, which is precisely why I left it out of the paper completely.

## Sam Harris #############

I'm not a huge fan but I appreciate why some people enjoy his writing. His guided meditations are pretty light — don't expect to get much out of them.

## Other Literature ###################

"The Core Teachings of the Buddha: An Unusually Hardcore Dharma Book" — I didn't like this and I don't recommend reading it but if you are going to try it, sit a couple thousand hours first... without experience to back it up, this book is far too easy to misinterpret.

"Mindfulness in Plain English" — This is a great (and light) starting point. Very introductory, though.

"Satipattana: The Direct Path to Realization" — This is a great book for examining a core Buddhist text from many angles. If you want to compare Goenka's teachings to others, this is a good starting point.

"Nothing Special: Living Zen" — Ostensibly about Zen practice, I found this book to be a huge help in understanding what was going on with my deeper meditation experiences. Highly recommended.

"The Mind Illuminated" — I have a copy but I haven't read it. I've heard great things and this comment thread has encouraged me to go back and read it. Thanks. :)

## Vipassana is Anti-Science ############################

Most Vipassana teachers seem to be PhDs. Goenka was a well-educated businessman. Many students on courses I've attended have been neuroscientists or neurosurgeons and they didn't take issue with the course material.

I'm really not sure where or how anyone has experienced "anti-science" in Vipassana courses. Even on my first course, when I found everything Goenka was saying rather distasteful, I didn't interpret his little understanding-the-depths-of-particle-theory-won't-bring-you-happiness anecdote to be "anti-science".

Are the tiniest sensations in my body representative of quarks, strings, or leptons? Probably not and I don't believe it... but no one's asking me to, either.

## In Summary #############

I wrote this paper with the intention of eliminating all spirituality, pseudo-science, and even Buddhism itself from the equation. I find Vipassana very helpful in my life, regardless of its Buddhist origins. I do not find the nature of the teaching to be too offensive. I expect many hackers to be in the same boat.

That said, if Buddhist philosophy freaks you out, do not attend a Vipassana course. Also, I noticed that a few people have referred to it as a "retreat". Vipassana courses are not "retreats" and one should not expect them to be an escape from normal life. Join a Vipassana course fully expecting to work harder than you ever have.

Hope this helps someone while reading the paper and this comment thread. Thanks for reading and if you have constructive criticism on the paper itself (which is a work-in-progress), please feel free to tweet at me or email my address in the PDF.

https://twitter.com/deobald https://toot.cat/@deobald

Sorry this was so long-winded. :P

I greatly appreciate your responses. Putting it as least-worse is a great idea. Had someone told me up front that it would still have religious aspects, chanting, etc. maybe I'd been more likely to stay instead of feeling mislead/broadsided. Or maybe I'd never have gone.

I think your comments here would be a great addition to your paper. These aspects are a huge part of the course and something I didn't feel was well explained at all. If someone is going to react negatively to the trappings of the course then it seems better that they hear of it before they take two weeks to travel to a centre.

Agree that Sam Harris stuff is in no way a replacement. It was his stuff that lead me to go to Vipassana in the first place.

Thanks again.

I highly recommend the book Mindfulness in Plain English if you're interested in meditation.


It strips away a lot of the "woo woo" kooky stuff and clearly explains what meditation really "is". I just finished re-reading it, and must have highlighted every other sentence.

For people interested in what meditation really "is," at least from a Buddhist perspective, Ven. Thanissaro is worth a look. Among his many excellent books is Right Mindfulness: Memory & Ardency on the Buddhist Path

> For the past several decades, a growing flood of books, articles, and teachings has advanced theories about the practice of mindfulness which are highly questionable and—for anyone hoping to realize the end of suffering—seriously misleading. The main aim of this book is to show that the practice of mindfulness is most fruitful when informed by the Buddha’s own definition of right mindfulness and his explanations of its role on the path.


His approach got me past some serious blockages in my practice.

Ṭhānissaro Bhikkhu++

Also, Sujato Bhikkhu;

http://santifm.org/santipada/wp-content/uploads/2012/08/A_Hi... - "A History of Mindfulness", large pdf

http://dharmafarer.org/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2009/12/... - "Satipaṭṭhāna Mūla: A reconstruction of the 'original' pre-sectarian Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta", small pdf

I love what he's tried to do with A History of Mindfulness. Incredibly ambitious and creative!

What I expect to be in a similar vain is "Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion".

While I enjoyed reading it and it helped me make sense of a lot of things related to meditation, mindfulness and spirituality in general, I can't say I felt every other sentence was highlight worthy.

The chapter on spiritual frauds was however very enloghtening.

I highly recommend the guided meditation that goes along with that book, Waking Up: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OboD7JrT0NE

It has helped me attain the deepest level of meditative state, where I am almost aware of my consciousness as a separate process from the constant sensory input. Becoming an observer, empty-head.

On another level, I've found it very settling in times of emotional turmoil.

I did have a near panic attack from the book when he makes somewhat of a case that both hemispheres of our brains might be independently conscious, with one permanently silenced as control of the body is held by the active one that controls our body. A prisoner in someone else's body, literally, with no way to interact with the world. It is pure physiological horror. But alas I cannot do anything about (other than try to talk to that other entity and see if it can trigger some sort of response?) so no use getting worked up? The world is full of day-to-day cruelty and it's not my fault.

Harris's point is that there are only speech centres on one side of the brain. Both hemispheres have sensory and motor cortices and control of half the body, so the sense in which the right hemisphere is silenced/held prisoner is that it can't generate or understand speech.

If "you" are setting out to converse with the neighbouring regions of your brain, which in my experience is a worthwhile endeavour that does pay off, it'll have to be through visualisations, symbols, images, daydreams, imaginings.

Like any adult language-learning, there are a bunch of practice exercises before you're ready to converse in vivo. As a way in for you: first get a bunch of spare attention through your meditative practice. Then use it to work on visualisation of familiar places like your house/neighbourhood until you can move around fluently. Repeat with a request like "find something red" and notice when a part separate from your monologue locates it without effort/searching. Then start making broader requests for imaginary landscapes or situations and see what replies you get. Be a kind, accepting, fearless conversation partner. Look for surprise and speed as markers of authentic responses from elsewhere than your monologue.

This is a great reply, thank you. I thought Harris was also explaining that full motor control remains by "me" until the corpus callosum is severed. Hence patients being unaware that their other hand is writing notes.

Do you have any further reading or information on communicating with the other hemisphere?

Gunaratana is much more practically oriented than Harris: Here's how you do it, here's what you might experience, here are some problems and potential approaches to them. It also steers clear of cynicism and hostility.

Could you briefly explain what spirituality without religion is? How is it different from psychology?

Not OP but as an atheist for me spiritualism was made concrete when after a meditation session I intuitively knew and felt that myself and the world were the same. I watched at some familiar trees through my windows and felt I and them were the same and actually existed. This sensation brought me great joy and calmness. And then it passed, I was myself again, and the world was again separate from me.

This was some two decades ago. I've never felt anything like that after that, but the memory of the sensation is still very strong.

No drugs. Just the most basic 'lie-down-relaxed-and-watch-at-a-dot' exercise. And wham.

It was pretty cool. I was an adolescent back then and I had decided several years before that logically religion was total BS. Had I been religious I'm sure I would have interpreted my experience as being in direct communion with God. But, I interpreted it as a neurological response to my meditation - which did not make the experience any less spiritual.

The experience did not reveal anything new to me, but it made me feel the truth that we all are one and connected, philosophically speaking.

Feeling is something purely logical discourse seldom provides. This experience was pure feeling. Like, I intuitively feel my legs are part of me. I felt the whole world was part of me. Now, this is at the same time true - or - false. We are made of the same atoms and are interconnected through our actions and the laws of physics. At the same time, it's a bit silly to describe oneself extending beyond ones body. So, one can choose was I enlightened by a fundamental truth or was I just a bit silly after a brief session of neurohacking.

Well, people used to interpret experiences with hallucinogenic substances as religious/spiritual (some still do). Would you say that your own experience fundamentally differs? Obviously you didn't ingest chemicals but other than that, is the end result substantially different?

The original question, to which I answered, was, that what does non-religious spirituality mean? I described what a spiritual experience felt like to me.

So, I suppose the key here is the personal experience.

I'm sure there are a lot of ways people can have deep spiritual experiences without them interpreting it as communicating with divine forces.

I didn't mean to try to belittle you experience in any way.

The one thing I am tying to validate / invalidate is weather "spiritual" as used by non religious people, is mere hacking of our delicate physical and chemical machinery.

Uh, no, I didn't understand it as belitteling. I think you raised a fair point in the context of this discussion. I don't think we have very good syntax yet to discuss these things.

I don't know, but I have a gut feeling the spiritual awe one gets from one religious sacrament or another and getting it through other means are the same thing.

Effectively, the way I see it, religions claim something that is universal and publicly available as under their domain. It's like a guy came and wanted to resell the air you breath back at you.

Similarly I feel drug afficionados are sometimes overselling their hobby as the one key to the mysteries of the universe.

I don't mind if someone is religious or likes to do drugs. What I don't like, is that one or another claims something that can gained by other means as belonging to their dominion.

The major religions are especially intransigent and arrogant about this in their creed - claiming things that belong to all men and women to belong only to one sect or another - thus poisoning themselves doubly by first trying to fool those outside of their creed, and then being intellectually dishonest of their own experiences.

> The one thing I am tying to validate / invalidate is weather "spiritual" as used by non religious people, is mere hacking of our delicate physical and chemical machinery.

It really is, if our minds are entirely a manifestation of the brain.

What makes "mere hacking" different from true enlightenment?

Is it just the perspective of the one who has the experience? As Tim Leary said: The caterpillar cannot understand the butterfly.

One is rational and comprehensible, the other one isn't. At least that is how I read "spiritual" and "enlightenment"

I'd like to take a stab.

We all carry around a default metaphysics -- a deep belief structure about the nature of reality. It is possible to transcend these beliefs in a way that allows you to grok (not just understand) that they're not supported in the way we normally assume. That transcendence is often accompanied by an overwhelming gratitude, joy, awe, and wonder that are normally inaccessible.

Of course, our belief structures almost always come rushing right back, and so we interpret the experience in terms of our metaphysics ("oh, it was just brain chemicals"), but part of us understands the sense in which this is just a story.

Do you think humans are exclusively entitled to "grok"? Can ants transcend as well or was reallity waiting for us to come along and access the normally inaccessible?

I honestly have no idea whether ants are conscious let alone can become enlightened. I try to treat them well but I'm not planning on teaching them to meditate any time soon :)

During "the inaccessible," assumptions about an objective or pre-existing reality fall apart as well. From within the standard materialist metaphysics it seems rather unlikely that we're special (or that meditation even does anything "transcendent" besides jiggling around some neurotransmitters).

You might find some value in this video. You are asking an important question and lay people nearly always mis-explain it.


Its basically about why spiritual things are good for you, and how the feelings you experience during such spiritual things do not need religious / supernatural explanations.

It's different from psychology as it doesn't try to explain / cure things like child development, depression, bipolar disorders or most of the other multitude of subjects that psychology works with.

I would say its an inquiry into the nature of your conscious experience, using meditation. Most meditation seems tied up with religion to greater or lesses extents. Sam Harris tries to do away with that.

Some people have already posted his insight meditation which is worth trying. (Maybe try a bit of more basic breathing meditation first so you realize how distracted you are getting with your thoughts before trying - you will likely get a lot more out of it if you can keep your mind from jumping around).

I would say the difference with psychology is that psychology is based on external observations and predictions, while "spirituality" is your own internal experience. They are completely different.

Another interesting book about meditation is The Mind Illuminated:


by Culadasa (John Yates):


He has both a scientific and a meditator background. Not checked the book out in depth yet, but going to.

I’m no expert on meditation, but I read/listened to several teachers until I found a few that would explain it without the “woo woo”.

A conclusion I came to about how it is taught is that besides some teachers being brought up on woo woo, many seem hesitant to teach it in direct, clear terms because understanding what it is creates goals in your mind and goal-directed thinking is counterproductive to the process.

So, the teacher being vague and woo-woo works out great for many students. But, for me, and I expect many people here, it prevented me from even getting started. Now that I have what I think is an understanding of the goals, I’m happy to meditate with a limp rather than not at all.

> goal-directed thinking is counterproductive to the process

This may be a Western influence. Not exactly a corruption, but a tendency to emphasize the "goalless goal" aspects of spiritual practice, because they align with the German Romantic philosophical strains which underlie most of the "woo" between the Enlightenment and modern contact with Buddhism.

It's worth keeping in mind that the Buddha's seminal talk was about ending suffering. It's hard to get more goal-oriented than that. And while chasing after a goal is a mild form suffering in its own right, it's hardly the right place to start.

Thanissaro has a great book with an extended argument about this, surveying the German Romantic foundations of Western "woo" and their influence on Western teaching of Buddhism, Buddhist Romanticism.

> An in-depth study of the pervasive influence of early Romantic thought in shaping the way Buddhism is taught in the West, and of the practical consequences of following the Romantics rather than the Buddha in approaching the problem of suffering and stress.


It's based on a much shorter essay, "The Roots of Buddhist Romanticism"


> Many Westerners, when new to Buddhism, are struck by the uncanny familiarity of what seem to be its central concepts: interconnectedness, wholeness, ego-transcendence. But what they may not realize is that the concepts sound familiar because they are familiar. To a large extent, they come not from the Buddha's teachings but from the Dharma gate of Western psychology, through which the Buddha's words have been filtered. They draw less from the root sources of the Dharma than from their own hidden roots in Western culture: the thought of the German Romantics.

Another highly relevant essay of his for goal-related practice is "The Agendas of Mindfulness"

> ...as described in the Pali texts, meditation is a very pro-active process. It has an agenda and works actively to bring it about


I have also enjoyed "Buddhism Without Beliefs" by Stephen Batchelor. It breaks down which parts of buddhism are socio-cultural concepts inherited from the cultures where it developed and what is the core wisdom.

I read that and its good. The meditation subreddit say that "The Mind Illuminated" is similar but better (I haven't read it yet).

I am curious did you augment the book with anything else and if so do you have any recommendations for that?


Mobile friendly pdf link, because for some reason mobile github just shows a "This file is too big to show. Sorry!" with no raw file link.

Is there any reason why is this shared as link to github page?

While opening on desktop Firefox (Linux) first the tab froze, then whole browser, and now the PC is completely unresponsive, with the disk in full write, i guess the swap is getting filled.

First off: Thank you for the mobile-friendly link! I didn't realize this would work... I'd always just interpreted the broken PDFs on phones as "GitHub has a bug". ;)

This wasn't really "shared" on GitHub... this is a work in progress. A colleague of mine (the OP) posted a link to my paper without asking me about it. I've shared it on Twitter before, which may have given him the impression that the paper was complete.

I do plan to put the paper up on a website with some additional material (anecdotes, other meditation resources, etc.) this summer. Apologies for the current format.

> why is this shared as link to github page?

Because it's for Hackers.

I would highly recommend The Mind Illuminated as a solid instruction manual for beginners who want to start meditating at home.


I'd second this. It really is a phenomenal book. For me, the most interesting thing about it is it would probably be a terrible meditation guide for a lot of people I know. But if you have the approach/learning style that's typical of folks on hacker news, it's the best book there is--because of its emphasis on clearly elucidated concepts, consistent use of language and terms, ample neuroscience-oriented background, and an "actionable" progressive approach.

For me, its key feature was that I found it more actionable than other sources that I'd found online. I prefer it to 'Mindfulness in Plain English'. However, to be fair, I haven't read the entire text, so I don't think that I can make a fair comparison.

Edit: The author of the book is Culadasa (Dr. John Yates, PhD), whose profile mentions that he was a neuroscience professor at one point in his life. I haven't verified this.

His profile: http://culadasa.com/about/

There is some skepticism about the 'professor' part. No one can locate the colleges at which he supposedly taught neuroscience.

A reddit discussion.


I second this and will add a recommendation for Mastering the Core Teachings of the Buddha, which is legally and freely available here http://integrateddaniel.info/book/ It really has the flavor of "meditation for hackers," whereas The Mind Illuminated's flavor seems more "meditation for engineers."

The above is an affiliate link, if you care about such things. Here's one that isn't: https://www.amazon.com/dp/1501156985

Nearly two years later, I can say that taking part in a Vipassana retreat has had a tremendously positive effect on my psychological state. I went from being in a state of what I later realized (after the retreat) was borderline depression and rife with anxiety to being extremely calm, collected, and happy.

The meditation was nice, but it's the overall message that underlies the meditation that I found essential: Anicca—everything is temporary. It gives you a mental toolset for dealing with the world that cuts away the weight of the day-to-day in a difficult to articulate way.

Here's my personal take written soon after my return: http://www.ryanglover.net/articles/vipassana

Talk from the same author: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1BWYqHbF00c

Somewhat related is Thomas Metzinger’s The ego tunnel. Metzinger is an applied philosopher, directly examining what is consciousness as can be determined and backed up with neuroscience. I loved Antonio Damasio’s the feeling of what happens, and the ego tunnel is like that on steroids, with years extra work from scientists making progress on teasing out distinctions you didn’t realize were there. There is zero ‘woo woo’, and instead a fascinating set of theories on what exactly consciousness is, why it feels the way it does, what science can tell us now, and what remains unknown. For me it is super fascinating from the point of view of why Vipassana works.

I watched a youtube talk with Thomas Metzinger recently. The interviewer asked if he meditated. His response was "yes" (for a significant number of years that I can't remember), "that's how you can tell if someone is serious about the study, and not just interested in an academic career". I found that comment really interesting.

Interesting that you mention Thomas Metzinger. I learned about him via a podcast he did with Sam Harris (who's mentioned on this thread a few times), titled "The Nature of Consciousness"[1].

From my faint recollection, Metzinger was refreshing to hear and had tighter explanations. And he called The Hard Problem of Consciousness[2] (as popularly defined by the Australian philosopher / congnitive scientist, David Chalmers) as "boring". I'm forgetting the details as to why, but it's all in the podcast.

Thanks for the mention, I made a mental note to revisit Metzinger's work, but haven't gotten around.

[1] https://samharris.org/podcasts/the-nature-of-consciousness/

[2] http://www.iep.utm.edu/hard-con/

Cool quote from the beginning section "Computing Sidebar: LISP":

"The machine at the bottom of your consciousness is a strange loop. Having a look at this strange loop is a lot more fun than reading about it."

Awesome. Great style and expectation-setting in the intro portion. From my perspective as a programmer, occasional Vipassana-practicer, and not-speed-reader, and having read only the intro portions, this has piqued my interest enough to sink time into reading.

The phrase "Strange loop" was coined by Hofstadter, who has written a lot of enjoyable explorations of the philosophy of mind:


"Godel, Escher, Bach" being his most well-known, but he has a number of other very interesting works as well.

Thanks. Just added "Godel, Escher, Bach" to my reading list.

For those who are interested in roots and origin of mindfulness, should take a look at original Anapanasati Sutta (https://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/mn/mn.118.than.html). Anapanasati Sutta is the main source from which all the modern literature related to mindfulness has been derived. For more detailed explanation of sutta, listen to talk on mindfulness of breathing (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p4NR3nn4nfM).

you could just use the meditation algorithm, and meditate by yourself for 10 (or however many) days for multiple multi-hour sessions a day, and avoid having to sit through Goenka's religious meanderings, weird sound tracks and cultiness.

Check into a cheap hotel during non-tourist season, sometime in the mountains or near a lake or sea. Switch off the phone. Eat + meditate + sleep * 10 days (or however many you want). Et voila. You get all the benefits without all the cultiness.

Vipassana is a technique. You master the technique by doing it. Attending a cult's course is one way of doing it.

Whether it is the optimal method is open to debate. The key seems to be to spend long hours practicing the technique for many days (vs 30 minutes a day). I'm not convinced proficiency in the technique can only by attained by a retreat with a specific organization.

One can learn to program in Clojure (say) by attending a 10 day course by $ClojureGuru. One can also learn to program with a book and a laptop, and occasional questions on irc. Both methods work, and have different trade offs.

Personally, I learned Vipassana (and Jhana) meditation by myself, by reading and experimenting. I've since encountered advanced Buddhist mediators (abbots of Buddhist monasteries etc) who 'confirmed' I'm "doing it right" (fwiw, I wasn't really looking for validation or advice, it just came up in conversation). They didn't seem surprised I taught myself. So I doubt it is that uncommon. If the only way to learn to 'hack' is to attend a 10 day course, that isn't much of a 'hack' in the first place.

I strongly push back against the "only way to learn is be attending a 10 day course" idea. Other than this, I enjoyed reading the paper, Steven is an excellent writer.

My 2 cents. YMMV, as it should.

PS: I do admire the grit of anyone who actually completes the 10 day retreat, not so much the meditation as enduring all the culty BS. As grit training, it probably works ;-)

PPS: I have no belief in the religious dogma of any Buddhist school. I just think the techniques are useful

> Personally, I learned Vipassana (and Jhana) meditation by myself, by reading and experimenting. I've since encountered advanced Buddhist mediators (abbots of Buddhist monasteries etc) who 'confirmed' I'm "doing it right" (fwiw, I wasn't really looking for validation or advice, it just came up in conversation). They didn't seem surprised I taught myself. So I doubt it is that uncommon. If the only way to learn to 'hack' is to attend a 10 day course, that isn't much of a 'hack' in the first place.

Very commendable. Could you please share what you read that was most effective. How much did you practice every day. A brief overview please?

In retrospect, the best book I should have read was Shaila Catherine(spelling?)'s "Wisdom Wide and Deep", which sets out a full practice program based on the (Theravada) Buddhist texts Abhidamma and VishuddiMagga. This is about as hard core a book as you can find. Richard Shankman's "The Experience of Samadhi" is a much more lightweight alternative on just Jhana (and not Vipassana iirc), nowhere as deep but an easier read.

In reality, I had to piece together 'algorithms' from random sources and test them out. The basic instructions for jhana and vipassana meditations I ended up with match with those in SK's book, though her path involves getting into extremely deep states of jhana before switching to Vipassana, wheras I developed both skills in parallel (which is a valid method and used by other Buddhist schools)

I used to meditate 2 to 4 hours a day (more on self set 'retreats'). These days I meditate about an hour to 90 minutes per day. I'm not interested in going beyond basic jhana and vipassana and did not do 'skeleton meditation' , 'corpse meditation' etc, because at that point, - about the middle of Shaila's book - the meditations begin to seriously embody Buddhist dogma about the nature of reality and purpose of life etc, specifically ways to 'shake loose' your identification with your body, and so on. I have no wish to be 'liberated' from 'samsara', or otherwise be a full time Buddhist monk or the equivalent, so I stopped with achieving the ability to do either Jhana or Vipassana meditations for a few hours at a time.

I use these purely in a non religious fashion, as 'weight training for my mind' and am happy with my limited achievements.

Even at this relatively minor level of practice, things begin to get funky at the edges, as Steven's paper illustrates.

I completely agree with you, but as someone as have gone multiple times for 10-day courses what I like best about that is the organization/community as a whole, I learned a lot from serving maybe even more then just sitting actually my first glimpse of Jhana was while serving, you also have access to a very experienced teacher to talk and ask questions, and that its all free and the food is excellent, so really helps a lot. If you are able to do a course by yourself I have no doubt it can be a much deeper dive into reality.

Something that is in the core teachings of Vipassana for me is that everything is just a matter of perspective, there is that no-judging perspective where you find equanimity everywhere.

I totally agree that a community centered effort, with expert teachers etc, would be exactly what a lot of folks need. I have no problem with whatever structure works for anyone.

I was just pushing back a bit against the "only way" phrase in the paper. I'm just saying, from direct personal experience, that one can learn on one's own.

There is the essence, and then there are the superficial details.

e.g: you don't really have to sit cross legged on the floor to learn the technique, just because ancient Indians or Burmese people did.

You can sit on a chair or stool, with your back straight, and feet flat on the ground, hands on your knees, and your meditation (Vipassana, Jhana, whatever) will work just fine.

This is not to say that learning to not move around in a painful position isn't worth learning, just that it has little to do with the core technique itself.

When you learn by yourself, (as you correctly point out) some things are easier, and some things are more difficult, than when learning within a community structure.

As I said above, I really enjoyed reading the paper.

TLDR: I had a manic psychotic (bipolar) episode triggered on a vipassana course. This was with zero history of mental illness (before or after)

Be quite careful with Vipassana, especially if you're not used to regular meditation. It's not just a "silent" retreat in the sense of not talking. Also, no eye contact, no reading/writing and meditating 10 hours a day. It's a seriously stressful time for your brain.

I did the course, and I had a manic psychotic episode as a direct result. I made some audio and put it on a blog I started while manic [1]. It details what the course was like, what it was like to be manic (totally awesome! ;), what it was like to be depressed (absolutely awful) and getting better.

I'm not saying don't do the course, I'm not saying I didn't do something wrong with the technique, I am saying be very very careful and don't think there can't be downsides. I was off work for a year and it took about 3 years before I felt "normal" again.

[1] http://livingvipassana.blogspot.com/

Wow, thanks for sharing. Very interesting. Were you new to practicing meditation? I could definitely see why ten days would be harmful, its almost like solitary confinement.

Yip, basically totally new to practicing meditation. Utterly naive ;) I actually think it should be a requirement that you undergo a 1 3 or 5 day course first, before they allow you onto a 10 day. Unfortunately, you have to do the 10 day first, before they'll let you do a shorter course.

I did give the organisation this feedback, but, I don't imagine any changes were made.

I also think they should have a trained psychologist to assess people when they're leaving (I would have been picked up as unwell I think as I was definitely manic when I left). Hey ho.

for a LISP using meditation practicing hacker reading this is incredible, the same insights written down by someone else.

> You do not feel physical sensation, consciously or subconsciously, without an accompanying thought or emotion. this is true. When really connected with your body, mind and emotion you see these are interlinked. The body follows thought and emotion, suppressed emotions are kept in the body. Your body feels emotion before you consciously recognize it.

I noticed this experience a few weeks ago.

I was having big trouble getting to sleep and my partner's snoring was agitating me. I decided to relax and meditate.

I noticed myself trying to "cure" my agitation. I decided to accept it. But then I realised that I was forcing myself to accept it. Instead of some 'conscious decision', I eased into just being conscious of it. I just felt it and it washed away, replaced with a feeling of pure contentment I've never experienced before. That applied to "trying to sleep" too.

I slept well not long after that. It was a profound feeling.

Vipassana has helped me with so much physical and emotional discomfort and pain, precisely in this way.

An excellent Podcast on awakening is Deconstructing Yourself - https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/deconstructing-yourself/...

Is it available outside of iTunes?

> The only way one can learn the technique of Vipassana is to take a 10-day course

Is this really true? I agree that a large amount of people may not be able to learn the techniques outside of a retreat setting, but I think it comes down to the individual and is different for each person

This is completely untrue. Vipassana, which means "insight meditation," is a core Buddhist practice which is far broader than this one teacher and his course. If you read the wikipedia article [0] on the branches of Buddhism that emphasize Vipassana, you'll see that S.N. Goenka gets a mention ("...as well as nonsectarian derivatives from those traditions such as the movement led by the late S. N. Goenka"), but it is in no way limited to Goenka's school or his course.

As a Buddhist who is very passionate about Vipassana from the completely different angle of Mahasi Sayadaw and American teachers like Sharon Salzberg, Jack Kornfield, and Culadasa, this thread is more than a bit frustrating!

For Boston area folks, the Cambridge Insight Meditation Center is one example of a great place to learn this type of meditation practice, as well as about Buddhism more generally if you are interested.

[0] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vipassana_movement

I cannot say it is true because I would not consider myself learned. I will say that the 10-day retreat thing comes off very culty, and it is in their interest to encourage the course. They've built a massive monument apparently funded by donations: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Global_Vipassana_Pagoda

See my other comment for my more in-depth review. There is certainly a better way to learn than the Dhamma.org 10-day courses, but it might not be readily available in any form today.

It depends what you really mean by 'learn'. I have heard it said that there are certain levels of insight that you can gain only after meditating constantly for a long period of time such as 10 days.

You can however certainly learn how to get started, and reap benefits, from Vipassana in just 20 minutes a day.

I have been meditating for maybe 6 months now but just for between 10 and 45 minutes a day (and not consistently). I I haven't come close to the level of depth described in the article. I guess its possible but the intensity of such a course must help.

I, too, meditated for 10-30 minutes a day for about a year before attending a Vipassana retreat and had the same experience. Even upon returning from the retreat and meditating 30 minutes in the morning and 30 in the evening, I was not able to replicate the experience of the course. I returned and served for three days last fall, during which time I meditated for 3-4 hours a day and began to approach the feelings once or twice.

I had a limited experience with this type of meditation/abstinence. I called it something like "pleasure/ sensory reduction" and sought to re-sensitize myself to stimuli. I didn't talk, accept by accident or for my part time job for 2 weeks. It was an excellent experience. My main take away was that we often are compelled to speak but it adds nothing and is somehow typically better remaining silent where you instead become a better listening. So my experience may have been more to do with the social dynamics of speaking. I also abstained from other forms of pleasure, all drugs and mindless recreation things (TV, music etc) which continued for 3 months afterward but I worked on writing and music projects or anything I deemed productive rather than mindless. The whole experience was interesting but I returned to my normal state soon after as though it had all been a dream. I think a true silent retreat would give you a more internally focussed experience which would be wholey different. Either way you may benefit. Try to experience lower-level stimuli for extended periods as there is a tendency to filter out (or turn the gain down on) experiences when we bombard our senses constantly.

Interesting article. Not written in the same way but an interesting earlier HN post on similar topic: https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=8877737

-- I think Indians(maybe Asians) get this detachment philosophy as a cultural gift. Practicing it is of course a different matter. But it is easier for me to understand (or at least not have too many doubts about) the Samkara/Sanskara/Karma thing. For example, when the linked article (100 Hours of Meditation in 10 Days — My Stay in Buddhist Prison) talks about the saliva-swallowing or a lady sobbing, it does not raise too many questions in my mind. Although Naipaul has written about its ill-effects (India A Wounded Civilization))

The term(detachment philosophy) is used loosely.

IIRC, it (detachment) is called vairaagya in Sanskrit. I remember from reading the Bhavagad Gita, that Krishna says to Arjuna, that abhyaasa (practice) and vairaagya are key. (I've used my own version of the spelling of those words to emphasize the pronunciation, since I don't know how to put those accent marks on top.)

>IIRC, it (detachment) is called vairaagya in Sanskrit.

Just remembered, I think the word used was dispassion (in the English translation of the Gita that I read), not detachment, although the meanings are about the same.

This is by far the best I have read on Vipassana so far. Great approach and scope and good breakdown.

I went to four-five retreats but have kind of fallen out of practice in recent years.

I will begin to send this when I know people who are going.

There is more information on the method from this documentary Doing Time, Doing Vipassana:


It documents the use of Vipassana as a reform measure at a harsh prison in India and traces the impacts it had on some of the inmates there.


Glad the pdf doesn't include the annoying baby nor the occasional father head covering the presenter.

Parents that bring babies to public events bring out the aggro-nihilist in me.

Vipassana is the ultimate form of Stoicism. A great way to dissociate from problematic feelings, instead of addressing them head on. :-P

I can't speak for Vipassana, never having tried it, but I think that's an unfair characterization of stoicism (but perhaps not of some who claim to practice it?).


nice overview; albeit quite technical. I actually wrote a vipassana how-to app that teaches the process: http://www.guidedmeditationtreks.com/vipassana.html

I am always curious about how much meditation can affect our brains. In pop science and pop culture, we see a lot of overestimation about meditation affects on our brains. But what is the scientific perspective on meditation?

As someone who has practiced over 19 years very intensively, my opinion is that pop science and culture overplays the effects of moderate meditation (say 30 min per day) in a short term and mostly misunderstand the effects of long term meditation.

The starting assumption of a secular meditator (like me) usually is that we want to develop some abilities. You are you, just better.

If you meditate a lot, or very long time, there comes a point where you realize that it's not just developing cognitive abilities. Your motivations and perspective change as well. It's not just you doing meditation practice. The practice is also working on you. Eventually you are going towards direction where you don't want to go and it can create lots of negative feelings, including fear and hopelessness (sometimes called the Dark Night of the Soul). This is the end of the road for many people. They lose the interest and do something else.

I think it's easier for people of religion because they have innate trust that everything is going towards something better and others have done the same.

> Eventually you are going towards direction where you don't want to go ... this is the end of the road for many people.

It sounds like you're saying that moderate meditation is overrated, and more intense meditation is outright detrimental in the long term. That is surprising to me. Is this an inevitability? Did you experience this, and how did you push through it?

What he's describing doesn't sound detrimental to me; it sounds like facing the truth, which might be a very dark place, but it's what we'll all end up facing eventually.

And of course, there is probably something behind that too, of which I have no idea.

>>Did you experience this, and how did you push through it?

Apologies for chiming in, but the simple answer is that "you" can't. That is, if you believe that there is a "you" that can push past this barrier, then you will fail. It's an impossible task. Where you go after that realization is up to "you." ;)

Not detrimental. Good medicine can taste bad when it works. Especially if that was not your expectation.

Short therm meditation experiences are mostly overrated. I think even little a day regularly 20-30 minutes has good effects if you make it a habit that you don't give up.

A quick Google search turned this up. May be helpful: https://www.thoughtco.com/buddhist-meditation-and-the-dark-n...

You may uncover so much mud that you stumble and fall but if you're so inclined you just need to remember to get up and keep going every time.

> Eventually you are going towards direction where you don't want to go and it can create lots of negative feelings, including fear and hopelessness (sometimes called the Dark Night of the Soul).

Can you elaborate on this?

How do you know it's overestimation if you haven't seen the scientific perspective?

By doing it and experiencing it yourself.

Try pubmed if you want peer reviewed science.


As far as I know there isn't even a scientific consensus on a definition of meditation, let alone what its exact effects are. There are thousands of studies, but high-quality ones seem to be rare. I also get the impression that the literature is heavily biased toward a handful of relatively recent traditions or techniques (e.g. many, many studies are specifically on Transcendental Meditation or Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction).

This episode of Sam Harris' podcast may be a good starting point.


seems getting that pdf on mobile is impossible?

Zero problems here with Opera on Android. Are you sure you are using a real browser?

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