I did not feel that it was cultish or strong-arm-y at all. Yes, they have rules, but most of them really do help with meditation or they are just cultural rules, which is fine. If I go to church, even though I don't believe it, I'm ok with dressing decently, sitting where I'm supposed to and not yelling in the middle of it. They even tell you that you don't have to chant if you don't want to (I never did.)
Keep in mind that this is all volunteer run, so your experience will vary based on who is managing the course as well as the location of the course. So your experience with a strict course manager/teacher will be different with someone more chill.
I pointed my feet at the TV all the time and no one ever gave me crap about it.
At the end of the day you get 10 days of meditation teaching, lodging and food for free. If you get nothing out of Vipassana, at least you got to learn how to be away from everything for 10 days.
I got that and much more from the experience.
This really shows off the ability to use the Rap Genius platform to annotate writing; I wish there were something like Goedel Escher Bach Genius.
Vipassana meditation is not a resort. You can't even speak with other people. It's just a 10 day, hardcore meditation training.
Plz, don't be a moron. At least look at the facts:
In terms of benefits, consider meditation a tool to understand your mind and to be better able to understand your drives and motivations, and to learn how to focus your attention on various aspects of yourself. What "result" you get from that depends very much on you and your motivations and desires, but what I feel I get from it is a stronger appreciation of the world around me, better concentration, and better impulse control.
A particular a-ha moment for me was how I feel I started noticing when I started rationalizing to myself why I should buy comfort food. It was a distinct feeling of "looking in" and getting to catch my mind in action concocting excuses for why I should give in and buy that chocolate that doesn't fit with my diet, early enough to make it easier to stop them. In other words it feels like it makes it easier to exercise willpower.
Note there's a lot of opinion and feelings here. There is actual scientific data on vipassana style meditation, but I'm a sceptic, and I know full well that some or all of the benefits I believe I see from it could be placebo, or unrelated to the meditation (perhaps it's just because I get more rest), and I certainly haven't measures them. But frankly, I'm also of the opinion that it doesn't matter all that much - if it's a placebo, it's a damn good one, that makes me feel good.
Try it for yourself and see. It is not a big investment in time.
A good and mostly secular introduction free of "woo" is Mindfulness in Plain English. It is available for free in non-DRM'd digital versions here: http://www.urbandharma.org/udharma4/mpe.html or you can buy the paper version of Amazon.
It is notable for very popular amongst non-buddhists, including skeptics/atheists for it's lack of religious content. There are some scattered references to buddhism, but they are mostly providing context and explanation of the background of vipassana, and to me at least, as a lifelong hardline atheist, were not particularly obnoxious.
The Urban Dharma site also have a lot of other introductory resources - I'd particularly recommend the "Introduction to Meditation" audio series by Gil Fronsdal.
I have not done a 10 day sit as described in TFA, but I've had a passably regular Vipassana-style meditation practice for a few years now, and concentration and impulse control have been two major benefits in my life.
One thing that comes with impulse control, but I find valuable enough to merit mentioning on its own, is that I am now much better at letting go of thoughts. I used to have difficulty with intrusive thoughts--fantasies of violence or humiliation that would play on loop in my mind. Now, they appear, drift once through my mind, and are gone. This also applies to getting songs stuck in my head.
For context, I grew up in the Christian church, identify as atheist, and have only a mild intellectual interest in the spiritual trappings of the tradition from which meditation comes to me.
To me, getting rid of attachments means to reduce the impulses that controls my actions "behind my back". It does not mean not caring, but it means noticing that you care, and noticing how that feels, and noticing what the impulses tell you, and then making a decision based on that information rather than just blindly following the impulses.
Often that means acting differently than the impulses tells you because you recognize that other goals you have are better served by not giving in.
Personally I don't believe that means I am abandoning myself, but on the contrary that I am living up to my belief of who I am and who I should be much better by (slowly) ridding myself of compulsions that made (and makes) me unhappy by getting me to act in ways inconsistent with how I want to be.
A lot of human pain and frustration is down to the inconsistencies of self - how we want to do that coding, but end up procrastinating all day and then afterwards feels guilty about it, for example. Maybe that procrastination was nice, and good for us. But we (or I am at least) are happier when we actively make that choice.
I still don't believe I am good at it, but I hope I keep getting better at it.
You said, "etting rid of attachments means to reduce the impulses that controls my actions "behind my back". It does not mean not caring, but it means noticing that you care, and noticing how that feels, and noticing what the impulses tell you, and then making a decision based on that information"
What role does the fact that you care, feel, and have impulses play in your judgement about whether to perform a given action?
Those facts by themselves do not reveal the matter connected to the cases that you are judging.
That's why I'm trying to confirm your standard of judgement that you apply.
"But we (or I am at least) are happier when we actively make that choice."
What do you indicate by happiness?
You said that it's a tool which can accomplish better understanding. Did you become to understand your mind and what causes you have? You say you have concentration but I'd like to confirm what you can see with your concentration.
In the world, an answer is determined by a question.
Like in math, 1 + 1 is a problem that makes the result 2 according to a fixed formula. If someone finds 1 or 3 from the question then it's either their mistake in calculation or the causes (numbers in question) were misreported.
In terms of understanding my mind, you seem to be very focused on absolute, objective outcomes. It is not that simple. What questions would you ask? And how would you measure the outcomes?
A lot of questions you might ask can only be evaluated by answers your own mind gives you, and you often can't tell if those answers are objectively correct or just rationalizations.
What you can do is observe what you feel (physical sensations, or internal feelings), how you react, what you think, what brings out specific thoughts etc. and try to bring more of your actions under conscious scrutiny and control.
To go back to my example about impulse control and chocolate: If my mind tells me I deserve that chocolate, is it right or wrong? There is no objective truth to that, because the only arbiter is myself, and if there are rules that says I shouldn't have chocolate, they are rules I set myself and rules I am allowed to change.
What meditation as a tool helps with in situations like that, is teach you techniques to "catch" your mind in the act of rationalizations to let you slow down and consciously evaluate those thoughts before accepting them. Instead of accepting that "yes, I deserve that chocolate", I might think "hold on, I have decided to diet; I can have that chocolate, but I'll feel disappointed later that I had it". Or I might go "yes, I do actually deserve that chocolate; I've done very well on that diet, and as long as it is just that one chocolate, it is an acceptable trade off". Neither decision is still correct or incorrect.
It might feel trite and underwhelming, but we tend to walk through our lives following hundreds of impulses a day that we don't question, or even are aware of: We go one route instead of another to get somewhere. We pick one outfit instead of another. We pick certain meals. We say certain things instead of others. We smile at someone, or ignore them.
A lot of the time there are explanations for these actions that are plain as day if you pay attention. You can go through your life oblivious to the reasons, and thus not influence them consciously. Or you can pay more attention and more consciously decide which decisions to take.
The latter is not more correct. But in my experience it feels more rewarding, as I am often able to catch impulses for me to act in ways that counteract goals that I have set myself, and change my behaviour.
One thing I noticed, for example, was how I'd impulsively do small things avoid people to reduce social interactions with people I didn't know well. This at the same time as I was trying to improve my social skills. Consciously paying attention helped me catch those impulses as they were happening and override them.
When you understand consciousness, you can see that it operates in a fixed principle. Everything that you've done and everything that happens to you all accumulates in you. Things that are latent within you produce the phenomenon of your mind when you meet a given thing.
In order to see your mind I just check what you can see by asking you about what you say you know.
If someone says they know something, they must also show people the evidence of what they know.
You talked a lot about the effect of meditation on your mind but you don't inform people what result it has in their life. Nor do you fully realize why you are experiencing peace through that process.
What use is concentration? All the facts and phenomena that appear in people are determined by what existed in them from the past. When people get distracted it's because of their karma inside. But concentration is not the way to suppress karma, and nirvana (peace) is only attainable by fully stopping karma. The fact of the matter is that only awakening to what exists can stop karma. You have to be aware of yourself and awake to what it is all the time in order to differentiate between right and wrong. Concentration doesn't affect your ability to distinguish good from bad.
It's a fact that meditation is not how Gautama Buddha obtained Enlightenment. His ascetic practice was different than everyone around him. And after he opened his eyes through his Enlightenment, he never taught people that they should practice concentration, nor not to think. He guided them in the opposite direction and advised that people should not accept something as fact without the process of thorough confirmation. It doesn't mean concentrating on the questions. It means that you check the answers in the living reality.
I don't really want to be preached to.
I've done the same program at the same location, and it's really not cultish at all. Essentially you're not allowed to do anything that would distract you (or others) from meditating, and that's it. (E.g. you're not allowed to talk with others or eat junk food, as with most similar programs.) The teachings obviously come from a certain sect of buddhism, but that's why you're there. Yes, Goenka does make some counterintuitive claims about the underlying nature of the universe, but the basis for those claims are phenomenological experiences that people have had while meditating; they come from the same set of experiences that you yourself will have if you stick with it.
There are certainly a few aspects that are less than ideal, e.g. there isn't really any way to get medical advice if you need it apart from just quitting the program. But other than that it's hard to complain. It's free, the food is amazing, the quality of instruction is very high, the people are great, etc.
I ask this very non-rhetorically - do you believe that this is a totally natural convergence of thought, or is it possible that this is the progression of thought that this particular set of guidance will lead you toward?
Happy to answer, but I'm not sure I understand the question -- could you rephrase?
> Yes, Goenka does make some counterintuitive claims about the underlying nature of the universe, but the basis for those claims are phenomenological experiences that people have had while meditating; they come from the same set of experiences that you yourself will have if you stick with it.
To rephrase the question - do you think that these experiences are convergent, in that anyone with enough discipline to meditate for long enough will have them, or do you think that these experiences are the result of Goenka's guidance?
To further the question, are you saying that the "counterintuitive claims" are something at which (again given enough practice/discipline) we all would arrive, or just that we would all share something similar to the experiences that they were born from?
I think they are specific to the technique, but not the teacher. E.g. someone doing concentration meditation (as opposed to insight meditation) is going to have very different experiences.
I don't think the fact that different spiritual techniques yield different experiences says much about their validity though. After all, you could easily consider normal everyday life to be a spiritual technique that yields a certain set of experiences.
"To further the question, are you saying that the 'counterintuitive claims' are something at which (again given enough practice/discipline) we all would arrive, or just that we would all share something similar to the experiences that they were born from?"
I think that for every technique there is a set (in the mathematical sense) of experiences that can be experienced via that technique. And every time you practice the technique, you're basically picking out an experience from that set at random (though certain experiences need certain requisite skill levels). So if you were skilled enough and had enough practice then your odds of having a given experience would increase, but they'd probably never be 100%.
You can see that though, for example, with the Johns Hopkins psilocybin trials, the odds of having some mystical experience over the course of two high-dose sessions are about 80%. Some people might be floating through the universe, others might experience the sum total of everything that ever can and will and has happened from every perspective, others might life a life review, others might relive their birth, etc. But the more times you do it, the more of these experiences you will eventually have.
I'm an Atheist myself. And on the 7/8th day I had what I would call a strange dream. I was practicing Vipassana on the bed as I could not get to sleep. Suddenly I've fallen asleep and dreamt of being someone else on a distant past. After some time I woke up not knowing where I was and what was happening.
For anyone 'spiritual' enough that would be a 'past life experience'. But the thing is. I don't know why, but while there, every dream seems a lot more "real".
I think it has something to do with all the silence involved. You can't speak, and the center itself is very quiet (far from any urban center).
On the 11th day (when you are allowed to talk with other students) I've found out that it was very common indeed.
So I think, yes, with enough practice every one will have similar experiences. But these experiences will mean different things for different people.
> the people are great
On balance, it's pretty chill. Even the people who totally buy in and devote huge portions of their life to this organization are mostly just really into meditation (as opposed to, say, devotion to the organization or the man behind it). Though some of tactics are kind of strong-arm-y, the emphasis is always on getting you to practice a very simple, effective form of meditation
I feel like a huge benefit to meditation is that it allows people to arrive at their own conclusions. But what I worry about is that the "guidance" you'd receive in situations like this is more guidance to a set of predetermined ideals or conclusions, rather than guidance into how best to find your own. It's incredibly hard to do anything so deeply introspective without bumping up against existential issues. I feel like having someone guide you through this process requires a ridiculous amount of trust in how they value your individualism.
As an anecdote, my wife just competed her 200 hour yoga teacher certification which included a two day retreat to an ashram. Like you said about being told that the chanting is not rite or ritual, they constantly said that yoga isn't spiritual or religious. But in surveying the whole of yoga there are definitely parts of it that are at least "mystical" if not religious. For some of it you can just say "they're not being literal, this is metaphorical" but other parts, such as the chakras, are hard to see through that lens [Edit: as another lesser-known example, see mudras, hand  or otherwise]. And then even where there isn't any mysticism there is plenty of "holistic" discipline or rigor being taught.
When I went to her graduation ceremony one of the fellow students told me that the biggest thing that she got out of the training was the knowledge that when we die, our energy lives on. While this is literally true, she clearly meant it in a very spiritual sense.
As a complete outsider it's hard not to see this in a religious light. To the issue of trust in those who are guiding your introspective thoughts, I see this situation as a huge barrier.
You don't need help to do this. You don't need a magic tree, or to be in India to do this. Just sit quietly and meditate. Quit putting obstacles in your way and just do it. Forget teachers, instructors, gurus, priests, yogis, etc and just do it.
While meditation is incredibly simple, it is far, far more difficult than just sitting quietly. Meditation is observing and (hopefully gently) directing your mental focus.
Try it sometime for 10-20 minutes. Sit down someplace quiet, close your eyes, and choose some very simple thought to focus on. Try to keep your mind from flailing about. It's incredibly difficult. There's absolutely no way I could make it through a 10 day exercise like this without guidance.
Some people do this for specific purposes such as working out a problem that they're having, or just promoting attentiveness, and sometimes it's just a matter of exercising general discipline so that other discipline will follow outside of meditation.
In support of my original comment, this is the easiest place I've found to apply the lens of metaphor. People will talk about meditation in terms of energy, vibrations, and flow. If you just think of these terms in the context of focus - the intensity, oscillation, and well, flow of focus, it gets a lot easier to accept.
To answer your "what types of guidance" question directly, there are all kinds of non leading guidance to be given. Simple examples include "sit someplace comfortable," and "don't feel guilty should your mind start to wander."
I have done it for 10-20 minutes. I have done it for 30 minutes. And 40. And 45. And 1 hour and half.
It is difficult every time. No one said this is easy.
Over time, I have learned to be able to observe the ... discomfort and "difficulty" as an arising object, and allow that to pass by.
I started from having extreme difficulty sitting for 1 minute.
As for "easier to accept" -- that is not acceptance. Acceptance is acceptance. There is no easy or hard about it. Thinking that something is "easier to accept" is a subtle form of aversion.
Finally, what you talk about with "focus" and "flow of focus" -- that is concentration, that is samadhi. Vipassana is insight, and while it uses a minimum level of concentration, you're not trying to hold a particular focus. You're observing the fundamental nature of reality.
In the last two days I have begun to wonder if I should find a good teacher. I find it _insanely_ hard to hold my focus for that ten minute period. However much I try, I often catch myself thinking about something else - without realising how I got onto that train of thought. I then try to steer my mind back.
The other thing I noticed is that I don't know if I made any progress at all over the last week. I don't know if I am trying the right things or whether just sticking to this will some day bring about an improvement.
This makes me feel that though no one can be _made_ to learn anything, a good teacher can definitely make one learn faster (and in some cases learn what one may otherwise be unable to figure out by oneself).
(Gil Fronsdal, Introduction to Meditation)
They're a good secular introduction to mindfulness meditation. (Gil Fronsdal is a buddhist, but in this series he takes great care to avoid mixing the religious aspects with the meditation teaching, to the extent of jokingly referring to the "b-word")
I've also mentioned "Mindfulness in Plain English" elsewhere: http://www.urbandharma.org/udharma4/mpe.html
Both of them address the problems you mention. And actually they're not so much problems as your perception of them are - you get better by practising observing and guiding your attention back to your breath (or whatever other object of focus you choose), and you get that practice by constantly losing focus.
Some people will experience it getting much worse after a while, even. After a few weeks I went through a period where I'd get really intense "monkey mind". That is, I'd sit down to meditate, and my mind would go completely crazy. All kinds of things would pop into my head, including totally ridiculous and pointless concerns, and concentration was impossible.
Then I had a period where I'd get an intense feeling that I hadn't set my alarm (I was meditating before I had to leave for work, and this feeling indicated that I was running late, and needed to look at the watch immediately). If I looked at my watch, the feeling would still reassert itself a few minutes later. I had to look at my watch several times, and confirm and reconfirm that the alarm was set and the countdown running before I started meditating to weaken the feeling, and then still spent weeks overcoming the desire to look at my watch before it finally subsided.
But it all passed, and while I don't meditate as often as I like to, it's gotten a lot easier with time. That is not to say it is easy, and as with pretty much everything else, you can always push further into more advanced practices. But you get to a stage where you feel that you are actually meditating rather than fighting off total chaos in your mind, and that makes it a lot easier to want to sit regularly.
Note that I'm not saying you shouldn't find a teacher. By all means. But you can make a good start by yourself, and you can find a lot of good (and free) guidance online as a starting point.
It is helpful to get help -- someone holding space for you can be very helpful -- but ultimately, this is between you and you.
Here is a synopsis of a story that is told on retreat:
A man goes to see the Buddha and says,
"Oh, Buddha I have heard that you are an all knowing sage, I have traveled far to see you. In my village the holy men can't seem to come to an agreement. Some say that after we die we are reborn here or in another realm, they believe that the soul is eternal. Others believe that there is no soul, and that after we die there is nothing. Can you please put this issue to rest, we have agreed that whatever you tell us is the truth and we will stop our ceaseless argument."
The Buddha smiling responded gently,
"Endless are the arguments of the mystics. Do you see the leaves in the forest? They represent the sum total of my knowledge."
The Buddha paused and picked up a handful of leaves from the forest floor.
"These leaves... They represent the knowledge that is relevant to the cessation of suffering in this lifetime. This is the knowledge I teach."
The Buddha as described in Theravada Buddhism was not particularly interested in specific beliefs but rather in providing practices that help humans to suffer less.
The Buddha spent a lot of time criticizing the establishment, and was distrusting of practices that left people with unprovable conclusions (i.e. the knowledge that, "when we die, our energy lives on.")
I've left these two URL's in a couple of other comments - take a look at my other comments in this thread for more explanation. But these are gentle, non-preachy and non-strong-arm-y introductions:
http://www.urbandharma.org/udharma4/mpe.html (Mindfulness in Plain English; free e-book, or you can get the printed version of Amazon)
http://www.audiodharma.org/series/1/talk/1762/ (Introduction to Meditation; MP3 recordings of a course held by Gil Fronsdal)
I share your scepticism. I'm a lifelong atheists, and though long fascinated by meditation, what kept me away for the longest time was the religious / spiritual baggage that comes with a lot of the teaching resources.
I'll say this for the chanting: by the time it starts up at about minute 55, it is the sweetest sound you can possibly imagine.
- The overzealous assistant has his own thing going on, and so do you. That's actually an AWESOME interaction to have. How do you feel about it? Where is coming from your body? Good fodder for vipassana.
- The Trappist monks has the same practiced with a different set of cultural bias. Something to investigate.
- You can look up Daniel Ingram's book, Mastering the Core Teachings of the Buddha. It's a little advanced, but the coolest thing about his book is that the framework he talks about is flexible enough that you can see the underlying practice regardless of cultural biases.
- When you reach a tipping point of realization, you find yourself not at all bothered by these cultural biases or little difference. The essential practice is still the same.
- The conservative morality and reincarnation falls out of the insights people have doing these practices. Ingram has a great teaching, that morality is putting the realization you received on the cushion in every day life. It might manifest as conservative, it might not. The important thing is that *you* are living the realizations you received through your practice. The labels, conservative or otherwise, eventually fall away.
- Likewise, it is quite all right for you not to believe in reincarnation. You do this long enough, you start finding things about incarnation cycles. Until you've had those experiences, that one is a tough one to swallow for most people. And why should they accept it when they have not directly realized it?
I'm allergic to coercion too. I did discover to my delight ... and horror ... that no one in the world can force you to be mindful ;-)
Even though some rules like not pointing the feet, segregation etc. look very rigid. But they make perfect sense as you understand the concept behind it all.
The rules are made so that there is as little disturbance as possible to your meditation practice. In an ideal meditation retreat of this kind, a person stays alone and meditates alone. So some rigid rules are made to help create such a condition.
The best thing what I liked was I did not have to believe in anything to start with. You benefit a lot if you practice the meditation and forget about understanding every piece of information.
There's enough literature out there that you can give vipassana a try on your own. It may be harder to be honest about yourself, but you don't have to meditate in a group or at a retreat.
If you are in the SF Bay Area, the Insight Meditation Center in Redwood City is the home for Gil Fronsdahl, cited above.