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Meditation study shows changes associated with awareness, stress (2011) (news.harvard.edu)
381 points by ekm2 on Nov 28, 2014 | hide | past | favorite | 173 comments

Meditation seems to sound really weird to lot of people but the zen breathing exercises I've done are mechanical and completely devoid of mystical culturally relative concepts.

Simple introductory exercise in meditation for those unfamiliar with it. No mystical chanting required. The only caveat is that it can be as boring as hell. I'm not an expert but this should contain the essentials of a simple zen practice:

Equipment: timer and a comfortable place to sit without interruptions

Time: 10 minutes (or 5, whatever you feel like but try to commit to the timespan you choose). Put the time on the timer.

1. Sit down. The position should be stable so you don't fidget around.

2. Get a good posture: keep you back straight

3. Concentrate on your breathing. Keep breathing slow and deep breaths

4. Count your breaths, mentally, from one to ten, starting from one on exhale, two on inhale etc until you reach ten and go back to one.

5.Start the timer

Proceed until timer runs out.

Try to maintain this: sit still, back straight, rythmic breathing, count each breath.

You may observe thoughts arising. Observe the thoughts but do not get lost in them. You will notice you have been lost in your thoughts because you loose count of your breaths, at which point you just start counting from one. Do not try to block the thoughts.

If you can keep complete count throughout the entire span on first try then that's great!

Any weird sensations you might get are just pointless disruptions created by your mind.

I think this comment was important to me. I've never understood what the fuzz is about, but after reading this I decided "fuck it, why not try?".

I just did a 5 minute one. Genius idea about the timer, wouldn't be possible otherwise. Afterwards I felt 5kg lighter. I will put this in my life toolbox. Thank you.

I'm glad you found it usefull!

The relationship between this sort of meditation and the various schools that use meditation as part of their doctrine seems to me be like the difference between engaging in an exercise and exercising as part of a particular club/school.

Personally I've had a few moment in my life where there introspective skills I've gained from this have probably been for the better.

Not sure if it's from the practice, or just some anxiety relieving placebo effect caused by the practice, though. Seems to be good for me, whichever the underlying effect.

I have been practicing mindfulness meditation for the last 14 months - 30 minutes, everyday and I have to say that it has been virtually the most important skill that I have picked up. Because it's essentailly that - a skill. I was very stressed and the anxiety started to affect virtually every aspect of my life. My family wanted me to seek professional help (take pills), but I decided to try to take care of it myself so I started reading books... a lot of books about the brain, how it works, etc. and this is how I was introduced to mindfulness. Now, 14 months later the effects are so profound that I have hard time imagining what my mind looked like before. The biggest change I have noticed is the ability to not act on thoughts and easily let them go by accepting them. Things that used to trigger me before are just thoughts now: the thought comes, I notice it and it passes. The best word that comes to mind when trying to describe the feeling is ... grounded. I feel grounded, calm.

I know it sounds cliche, but now I realize that it's true that the moment you stop fighing your thoughts and urges, they lose their power. I remember reading things again and aain and could not wrap my head about this concept before.

- Does the anxiety go away? No, but my relationship with the anxiety and stress changed.

IMHO Self-reflection and emotional intelligence are the most important skills one can develop. Because if you develop them, you stop being in your own way and sabotaging yourself and it leads to generally happier life.

This is what I did i nthe last 14 months: - Lay down, close my eyes and observe the sensetion of breathing in my belly. - In the beginning my mind was immediately distracted with thoughts. It took me sometimes a few minutes until I was able to realize that I have been distracted all along. Then I had to force myself to ignore the distrating thought and pay attention to my breathing. It was really hard in the beginning and my sessions lasted usually 15 minutes max. - But as I got better it became easier...now I have no problems to let go of a thought ... even a very emotiaonally charged one. It's like I have a switch in my head.

I have recommended mindfulness to all my friends and relatives and virtually none of them have made more than a few sessions. That makes me sad, because I can see what effects it can have, but there's nothing more than recommending that I can do - it's really a personal commitment.

Your comment is great because I understand it. I've read up on meditation a little here, a little there. It was difficult for me to understand at first. What is meditation? What is the point? What happens when I do it right? When can I tell I'm doing it right? I just completely didn't understand it, and I couldn't find an explanation in any of the books that I read. I was making it out to be very complex. Then I actually tried it. I didn't get it, so I gave up. After my 4th or 5th attempt, I concentrated on my breath and that was it. I grasped a better understanding that time of what all the fuss is about. I was a little better at being in the "now" that time, and I even felt different for a short time afterwards, although I couldn't describe it in words if I wanted... Then I haven't done it again since.

A question for you when it comes to anxiety... Do you feel that you control the anxiety much better now? For example, I've developed anxiety when I'm at heights working to the point that sometimes I lock up, and feel like I'm about to start having a panic attack. Do you feel like you can intercept those emotions and react physically in a calm manner?

Well, I wouldn't say that I can control it better. These reactions are way too primitive to be consciously controlled. I simply do not get triggered by the same situations any more ... maybe the mind becomes more resilient and thus the "grounded" and "calm" feelings. There are some pretty good explanations about how mindfulness actually works and how it causes the amygdala (the brain region responsible for emotional reactions) to literally shrink and be less reactive (google it, really interesting stuff). Imagine it this way - you are in a situation, which normally causes you severe anxiety. You start feeling the unpleasant physical sensations, the obsessive thoughts come aaaand ... they simply pass. Like 2 minutes later you don't even remember that you were having them. This is what started to happen to me after 6-7 months of practice. Another thing that I have noticed: The need to mentally rehearse situations, which cause me anxiety, has disappeared. I used to waste a lot of time imagining what I would say, what would happen, etc. but the urge to do it is not there any more.

It is like interrupting a step in a chain reaction. The sooner you can identify and acknowledge one of the steps the sooner you halt or slow the reaction. So you may not be able to stop the initial emotion or thought, but by acknowledging it you may help stop the reaction to that emotion.

Thanks for responding. That makes sense. Very interesting stuff!

I've been meditating on and off for the past 30 years.

For people trying out, there's no need to do it everyday. Don't be stressed out with missing out on your meditation schedule.

Meditate when you can. It's not a race. There is no sculpted body to show off after rigorous workout regime at the gym. It's just for yourself.

I'd argue, that meditation works best when treated like learning to play an instrument or doing sports. Regular practice is where the most benefit can be reaped. Doesn't have to be every single day, but it should be regular. Don't do it once a blue moon and expect any tangible benefits.

> Then I had to force myself to ignore the distrating thought and pay attention to my breathing. It was really hard in the beginning and my sessions lasted usually 15 minutes max.

One thing I recommend is persevering through the "difficult" meditations. It's about being alert and aware, not about being calm and relaxed. Recognize the "distracting" thoughts and let them go each time they arise, don't continue the conversation with those thoughts. Go back to your breathing and just sitting there. Some days those distracting thoughts come more than others, even after 10 years of meditating.

When I met Thich Nhat Hanh in 2005 he said these difficult meditations can be the most rewarding.

Thanks for the comment. Are there any books or resources about mindfulness that you found particularly helpful?

Check out Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind for a good book on practicing meditation. It's not religious, but basically a transcript of a Zen Master's talks on zen and the practice of meditation to his group of students. It's what I recommend to people who want to 'get' meditation.


Not specifically related to meditation, but The Tao of Pooh is still the best book I know of that deals with the concepts behind this stuff. I re-read these books whenever I lose my way, which happens more often than I'd like to admit ;)

I'm currently reading The Instinct to Heal by David Servan-Schreiber [0]. It's not specifically about mindfulness, but so far I found it everything to be what I was looking for when I was looking for writings on these topics. On the internet I've seen a lot of essays pass by about mindfulness, but they're all a bit alike. This book is interesting to me because it gives info about methods I didn't know about, and provides scientific data and references to base its claims. [0] https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/153401.The_Instinct_to_H...

Not about mindfulness, but I highly recommend this book: http://www.amazon.com/Brain-That-Changes-Itself-Frontiers/dp...

I surfed through the links quite rapidly, but I haven't seen any description on what exactly exercises they used. "Meditation" is a term so easily abused, you know. There's quite a few schools calling "meditation" something completely different, some techniques almost opposites (quite literally) of each other. Hell, why to talk about different schools when even Zen has both very different zazen and other meditation practices, which all could be commonly referred to as "meditation" by western people!

So I would hope to see some more detailed explanation of what participants were told to do, which I couldn't see somehow. In other case it sounds only a little more meaningful than "Participating in an eight-week doing something program appears to make measurable changes in brain regions associated with memory".


Looks like Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), a specific practice developed by Jon Kabat-Zinn.

I can't recommend his "Mindfulness for Beginners" book enough. Although I've been "meditating" for years, this book is packed with subtleties that are easily missed. In other teachings, it can be very difficult to separate religious dogma ("all you need is love, man") to the things that actually make a difference, scientifically, to your practice ("bring gentleness and kindness to the process").

One line especially made me realise I'd missed something important for years: Be aware "as if your life depended on it". That's about it.

Look for Vipassana or Mindfulness meditation. Perfect for Atheists! http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vipassan%C4%81

I thought "atheist" is an insult, huh… But whatever, it doesn't have anything to do with a topic. Question was about what participants were told to do in this particular study, and other people already pointed it out. And it's not Vipassana.

The goal of meditation is not to get a better brain. As the goal of yoga is not to get a sexy body. These articles and even more the countless yoga ads with young beautiful ladies are really counterproductive from the viewpoint of yoga. They might be helpful from another perspective.

I can't summarize the real goal of yoga properly (meditation is one of the important exercise beside contemplation; the asanas are for preparation only), but it's more to be able to let go of the selfish desires like becoming smarter, getting a sexier body, getting more money, fame, admiring ("Oh, you look so good lately" ... "Yes, you know, I'm doing yoga."). The goal is more to be able to coordinate (not suppress) the desires to avoid doing harm and at the end creating harm for yourself. Meditation gives us insight to where the desires are coming from. Are they essential? Do I need to fullfil them? Or do I need to eat another snickers just because the last one has made my blood sugar go like a rollercoaster?

Actually, I've heard many-a-monk describe meditation as training the mind, so the goal is often to 'get a better brain'. Not to mention, an improvement in the brain's mindset is necessarily linked to physical changes in the brain. Furthermore, a sexy body is often chosen to be sexy because the body is healthy and happy in the first place. These motivations are not superficial in my opinion, but rather natural to the human condition.

Exploring the physical and mental benefits of these practices gives a context for practicing meditation in the first place. It takes many years of meditation to be able to consistently let go of 'selfish' desires (emphasis on the ambiguity of selfishness). Entering a practice without a well-defined reason for doing so makes motivation hard to come by. For most folks, the deeper benefits of meditation are only understandable after much dedication.

Anyway, I believe meditation is a means to more than one end. ;)

"The goal of meditation for me."

"The goal of yoga for me."

You clearly take the spirituality focused route in your yoga and meditation and thats great for you but you can't proclaim that the only right way to do it is your way and everyone doing it for different reasons is wrong.

I think he's criticizing the cultural caricature that accompanies any activity becoming mainstream... but perhaps misdirected as the context in which one finds value isn't really important in contrast to value itself. Perhaps the elegance is in how deeply individual a practice it can be (turning the locus of one's awareness inward).

And to the OP, isn't it great that yoga can hold so much value through both a spiritual and physical lens? I think the mental and spiritual component has a lot to offer, but it's hard to claim that someone pursuing a positive activity, regardless of motivation is a bad thing.

What I've written is nothing that I've thought of be myself. I've tried to describe the goal of traditional yoga, which really contradicts a lot of the modern interpretations.


Here's a great interpretation of the yoga sutras ...


The "goal" of meditation/yoga is UNION with GOD.

Where GOD can be anything of significance to you but to those who have experienced it's "the universe", the Void, the Unborn, the Undying and so on.

It's funny how a lot of ppl disregard this and have no clue about the "occult" (magick!) elements of the Art. When "mystical" experiences happen to them, lacking theory/practice and a proper framework to serve as a foundation, they tend to lose the world under their feet.

Meditation enables the getting of a better brain with the goal of having a better life. Yoga(modern western understanding of the asanas) enables the getting of a better body with the goal of having a better life.

What is this better life? Well, in respect to these two areas, it is a brain with the ability to focus and relax and a body which is flexible and balanced. That's my interpretations anyway.

It's always funny watching peoples' reaction to meditation as a means to an end. People want to meditate for cognitive benefits, but meditation purportedly teaches that meditation should not be done for any particular benefit.

I think the real source of this dissonance is Zen, which tends to center around elimination the ego, or the sense of self. Doing this type of meditation for any sort of benefit seem incongruous, since you're practicing elimination of self with the intention of improving the self.

There are a lot of kinds of meditation though. The weird paradoxical component is kinda unique to Zen, AFAIK. A lot of styles are quite comfortable with the idea of meditating for cognitive benefit.

Even with Zen, I don't think it's incongruous to practice selflessness via Zen in the moment with the intention of applying that skill in other moments to benefit you in various ways.

I think if you are looking for mental self improvement this Havard article may be more appropriate (http://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/regular-exercise-changes-...). The short summary is exercise. Not only do you get your "better brain", but the rest of your body benefits as well.

I went to a Zen Buddhist temple for a week-long retreat a couple of years ago. Their schedule [1] was basically this:

1) 3:25a: 108 deep bows. Basically, this is going from a standing position to fully prostrate, 108 times. This is quite a workout. This awakens the body. 2) 4:00a: chanting. This is done in ancient Chinese, and you honestly have no idea what you are saying. It's not important, though. This awakens the mind. 3) 5:00a: Sitting meditation. This brings the other two together. This awakens the self.

What I took away from this experience was that the benefits of exercise when combined with meditation are quite powerful.

[1] http://www.musangsa.org/english/sub04/sub04_4.php

Why the implied either/or? Why not do both meditation and exercise?

It's a personal choice. For me there is definitely an implied or because I struggle to make time for exercise as it is. I also prefer almost any form of exercise over meditation. :)

I think many people (including Siddhartha or Buddha) used to walk for meditation. If that's the case, and you practiced mindfulness while exercising it might be possible to do both at once.

Often when you hear of great athletes, especially great endurance athletes like Michael Phelps, they talk about how they don't think about the whole X meters or Y miles at once. They focus on performing the next stroke or next step or next pump of the pedal perfectly. This to me, as a layman, sounds similar to the idea of focusing on the next breath as is a common practice during some types of meditation.

When I used to meditate I used to like to let my mind wander, then focus on breathing. Or vice versa. And many people prefer guided meditations.

As there are so many types of meditation I do not see any reason to believe that some types might overlap with exercise quite comfortably. Guided meditations might be more difficult because it would presumably be harder to both focus on the next stroke and focus on the meditation, and I guess that goes as well for the wandering mind meditation (you really don't want to run absentmindedly in NYC where I live, maybe in the country or even suburbia it would be more feasible).

Anyways, I guess to me it doesn't seem like it has to be an either or but could be one activity. If Siddhartha can do it, so can we :-).

I should start running again though, that's great exercise!

I've competed in powerlifting competitions twice, each time with 3-4 months of regular training beforehand. The second time, during the entire meet I had an out-of-body sort of experience. My awareness narrowed to just myself, the barbell, and the lifting platform, and I felt like I was merely observing my body as it went through the motions.

Intense competitive athletics is certainly conducive to focus that is likely similar to meditation. One book that I found somehow helpful or comforting was http://www.amazon.com/Zen-Art-Archery-Eugen-Herrigel/dp/0375.... I found myself following similar practices, by which I mean I would approach the barbell, get set up, and then wait until my body spontaneously performs the lift.

Walking meditation e.g. as described in 'Mindfulness in Plain English' is slow and deliberate, and I don't think one can get much physical benefit out of it.

I'm no expert but I think concentration is only part of the picture. This can be concentration on the breath, or concentration on a physical activity as you describe it. The other part is using the highly developed concentration state for the actual (mindfulness) meditation, which is pretty hard if you're moving around, at least for a beginner.

I'm talking about Vipassana practice, which is all I know about. As you say there are many forms of meditation.

edit: I used the word 'deliberate'. I should say seemingly deliberate. To be exact, it's not about deliberation or thinking at all.

You get your "better brain", but from doing/having done both, the benefits are very different. They are not substitutes for each other.

I've been using the Headspace app (https://www.headspace.com/) for a few months now and LOVE it. I highly recommend giving it a try. They have a free introductory course you can try too.

What does it do, and how does that help you?

For one, it gives you 10, 10-minute meditations for free, so you get a sense of what the whole enterprise is about without laying down any cash. For some (many?), that's all you need to get going.

Second, having listened to quite a few guided meditations, I find the Headspace guy (I think his name is Andy) to be one of the best. The meditations strike a near-perfect balance of helping direct my energy and attention in a way that doesn't draw attention to himself or his voice/delivery. i.e. he gives excellent guidance and gets out of the way.

There are different types of meditation styles. I had experience with a type of meditation mentioned in the article. It is known as mindfulness meditation. Even in mindfulness meditation there are different approaches. Mine is mindfulness through the awareness of bodily sensations.


This is the 10 day course I underwent. It is pretty brutal and intense. You meditate for 8 hrs a day in total silence for 10 days.


The mindfulness meditation consists of two parts. Part 1 is concentration or Anapana. Part 2. is Vipassana which is awareness through bodily sensations.

The first 3 - 4 days are spent in Anapana. You simply observe the incoming breath and outgoing breath. That's it. The problem is that your mind gets hijacked into the past or future frequently. All you have to do is observe the incoming breath and outgoing breath. After a few seconds this new habit pattern of the mind gets disrupted. You don't get frustrated or despondent because this is the way the mind works. You keep bringing your mind back into the present by focusing back on your breath.

You do this for 8 hours a day for 3 to 4 days with breaks in-between. What you realize is that with persistent effort you can actually stay in the present for quite a while. Your mind becomes very concentrated.

Now, this concentrated mind is a tool. With your powerful concentrated mind you start observing the area under the nostrils and above the upper lip. You become aware of an interesting phenomenon. There is an interplay of a multitude of sensations spontaneously occurring in that region. The sensations feel like tiny extremely weak electric currents zapping through on the surface and disappearing. Or it could be a weak throbbing and itching sensation. Sometimes you get the feeling of the area under investigation being in a state of tension. It doesn't matter what the sensation is like. What matters is that you are aware of these sensations.

The remaining days you try to stay in the present via bodily sensations.

Now, instead of just focusing on the area under the nostrils and above the upper lip, you start scanning the whole body from the top of the head to the tips of your feet and then you realize that these sensations are present throughout your whole body. Again, the same thing happens. You start scanning the body beginning from the top but your mind tries to hijack awareness from the present into either the past or future. Again, you just smile to your self without getting frustrated and patiently and persistently you bring the mind back into the present moment.

You do this for the remaining days. Now there are two important things you will experience via mindfulness meditation.

1. The mind and body are very deeply connected. The sensations you feel through out your body react to the contents of the thoughts present in your mind. Some traumatic event from your distant past surfaces up while you are meditating. Your natural reaction is to get caught up in it. Your bodily sensations change in response to that. Now, instead of getting caught up in it you just try to observe the sensations and try to be equanimous. This leads to point#2.

2. All the sensations you experience are impermanent. Your entire body is in a state of flux and so is your mind. Any sensation no matter how pleasant or unpleasant is only transitory. There is no need to crave pleasant sensations or flee from unpleasant sensations because they are all going to change anyways.

This is how you rewire your brain by persistent mindfulness meditation. You teach your mind not to fall into old patterns and to try and be equanimous.

I went to one of these and got freaked out because it's an unmistakable cult.

The teachers on the podiums up at the front is a creepy psychological hack, the recorded chanting they play while you meditate is hypnotic programming, the 2 hour video lectures of the great leader convincing you of his religion being your only stimulation, the bowing and mindless chanting from the regulars being passed off as "optional for first timers."

Many of the people there mentioned they go several times a year, with that glassy eyed obsessed stare. At least one person mentioned they had moved their home to be near the group.

I tried to skip a session because I didn't get enough sleep and the management came and got me out of my room. That's when I knew it was time to leave.

Also, if you leave early, you get excommunicated and blacklisted.

The point of all this is to make you unquestionably loyal to the group and to become an evangelist, which is how these things become so popular.

The danger of cults is that if you go for long enough you can permanently lose your identity and self respect. It's probably not actually possible to 100% master the skill of meditating painlessly, which undermines your confidence and makes you more determined to achieve the enlightenment they promise, which exposes you to more brainwashing and makes you more submissive to the great leader, etc.

They do at least provide a source of protein and the food was pretty good.

The technique itself is pretty useful, and after the 4 days of silent nonstop meditation reality felt really weird and everyone in the outside world looked like an impulsive idiot being emasculated by their smartphones. This feeling lasted a few days and then wore off.

I'm sure the effect lasts much longer if you do the full 10 days. I'm pretty sure you would get that same effect going through any very intensive and stressful course and avoiding anything fun or distracting, and the culty brainwashing stuff is totally unnecessary.


YMMV I guess. I did a similar course and the religiousy aspects did put me off a bit (bowing and prostrations), but the leader did explain there was no worship involved and that the practices were to remind you of what you wanted to aspire to. He offered the techniques and said they worked for some people but not others, and to take what worked best for you. Maybe your videotaped guy was too pushy?

We did have to read some Buddhist verses every morning which was incredibly boring, but hey ho, it was a Buddhist retreat so I expected something along those lines. And anyway, it provided a chance to be aware of the resistance I have to organised religions.

> the recorded chanting they play while you meditate is hypnotic programming

I probably wouldn't put it like that, but if the chanting didn't induce some sort of effect it would be pointless to do anyway. "Programming" isn't it though.

> I tried to skip a session because I didn't get enough sleep and the management came and got me out of my room. That's when I knew it was time to leave.

I got tired with the 5am starts, but the discipline is something I find lacking on a normal weekend so overall I found the experience valuable.

> Many of the people there mentioned they go several times a year, with that glassy eyed obsessed stare. At least one person mentioned they had moved their home to be near the group.

Yeah, some people can get a bit over-excited - but the benefit of it being a silent retreat is you don't have to listen to them go on about it :-)

TBH if you found a decent teacher you'd probably form a different opinion. I think these retreats need to be taught very delicately to emphasise the practices while not pushing a dogma or religion on you.

Yeah. One of the smartest things I heard is from Huston Smith. Somebody asked him the relationship between religion and spirituality. He said, "Religion gives spirituality historical traction."

I'm pretty antireligious, so I get why bobsgame was creeped out by the historical-traction aspects of their practices. (People tried to force me to be Christian in my teens, so I've got a bucket of fuck-you ready whenever I feel the slightest religious pressure.) And if one doesn't feel safe, one should get up and go. But many people teach meditation in ways that are either low on religion or consciously eschew it.

I'd add that it is worth playing with some of the practices regardless. Chanting, for example. The mock religion "Church of the Subgenius" have redone the hare krishna chant to use the Three Stooges:

    Larry Curly Larry Curly
    Curly Curly Larry Larry
    Larry Moe Larry Moe
    Moe Moe Larry Larry
Meditative chanting like that (which, for clarity, I do at home, not in somebody else's temple) is a really interesting experience. It made me more open to occasionally joining in with other people's religious practices; knowing the experience I was less worried about getting sucked in.


Setting aside the large dose of crazy:

My issue isn't with Christianity; it's with the people who tried to bully me into becoming a Christian.

My interest in Buddhism is in the philosophy and certain of the techniques. I have no interest in the religious aspects of it.

so you are into buddhist "philosophy" and "certain techniques". But you consider yourself agnostic probably? Or atheist... And of course you don't see any contradiction here.

you know why the cults are out there? Because people who don't believe in God are ready to believe in anything. Wandering from yoga classes to self-improvement new-agey seminars and paying the top dollar for the privilege.

Picking and choosing from a technique here and a convenient piece of philosophy there doesn't sound like solid approach to spiritual life.

Treating your soul like cart in a convenience store where you just throw-in whatever looks good is plain naive, immature and wrong. Besides, Yoga, buddhism fashion and other New Agey fashions are so passe: they peaked in 80s/90s. Are there still people treating this seriously?

I'm sorry but this is the lowest form of spirituality I can imagine. You probably would be better off omitting this spiritual junk food of new age instead altogether.

There is no contradiction. Some flavors of Buddhism are theistic; some aren't. The core is nontheistic: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/God_in_Buddhism

Your concern about treating spirituality like a buffet is not without merit; Huston Smith, making that analogy, pointed out that some people faced with a buffet eat only fried food and deserts. Others, understanding nutrition, eat wisely.

Your leaping to assumptions about my approach based on a few short sentences makes you look like a loon with an axe to grind. Your refusal to sign your name doesn't help. Suffice it to say that whatever the flaws in my approach to navigating the world, taking spiritual advice from anonymous ranters is not one of them.

> But you consider yourself agnostic probably? Or atheist... And of course you don't see any contradiction here.

Buddhism is nontheistic, so no contradiction...

> You probably would be better off omitting this spiritual junk food of new age instead altogether.

In favour of what?

>> But you consider yourself agnostic probably? Or atheist... >And of course you don't see any contradiction here. >Buddhism is nontheistic, so no contradiction...

Buddhist friend from Japan claims otherwise. Many Gods in Buddhism. Taking the religion and cutting out whatever not convenient so Westerners will still pay for the privilege. That's what they did to promote buddhism in US and make money on it. Still it is like puzzle with missing pieces then.

You know Jesuits (yep, these evil dudes) have their own ways to meditate, their own way look on things like economics (gold standard has been widely discussed among Jesuits since middle ages), etc. One could take whatever is convenient there too, say there is no God, and just end up with some kind of philosophy. My point is that it's not like in your own civilization you don't have some deep thoughts or ways to meditate, it is just that they aren't fashionable at the moment. Or maybe christians are too focused on Jesus Christ to notice all this stuff that was developed within this religion across centuries.

>> You probably would be better off omitting this spiritual junk food of new age instead altogether. >In favour of what?

Something closer to our own civilization. I think I believe in God. I go to church very rarely though. I'm not deep believer. I hate all the bad things Catholic Church has been doing. Especially to children. But Im not obsessed with them too. I'm not a good Catholic at all. But for me changing this altogether to be more Eastern would be a mistake. You are still under influence of a religious thought. The difference is that it is foreign to the culture where you function daily. It's like changing big comfortable armchair for a wooden chair. Maybe you don't want to sit at home at all, but still better to have an armchair.

When I was a child (maybe 8 year old) I was slapped in face by a priest during mess. Others, friends saw it. It was because I wanted to leave the mess. Because I was feeling really bad/dizzy. The point to understand is that this priest is a really, really bad christian. He isn't God.

If you want to pick and choose. At least do it within your culture. Pick and choose values in your own culture that make sense to you.

Omit these bad Christians who hurt you. I'm sure there are bad buddhist monks who hurt their own too. See through that. Might be intellectually interesting.

Gold Standard and Jesuits: they figured out that fiat money always ends up with inflation (stealing the value of money by the King/Government). So they figured gold standard is good as it makes stealing money from people more difficult. Now, just imagine the parallel between this and for example what many modern economists say. They might not even know that a lot of libertarian economic thought had its roots in Jesuits "philosophy". Religion touches every aspect of our lives. Should FED be abolished? There were guys in habits thinking about it 500 years ago. Just saying it is cool to see these parallels within your culture. If I studied buddhism instead I wouldn't be able to see them. Not sure if bddhism has anything on money standards or economics.

But again, I write this, and will go to church rarely. Christianity is just important part of our culture. It is school of thought too. But instead of insulating you from the world (i.e. issues, economy, whatever), it is strongly embedded in it. It actually defined our culture whether we like it or not. For Jesus Christ we have Marxist priests. How they connect the two, I don't know, but shows you how deep some of these philosophies can be, even though we are not aware of them.

> Buddhist friend from Japan claims otherwise. Many Gods in Buddhism

> For Jesus Christ we have Marxist priests. How they connect the two, I don't know

> Not sure if bddhism has anything on money standards or economics.

For someone who knows next to nothing about either religion they're talking about, that sure was a long post.

Anyway, in case you want to learn anything about something "far from our civilization" (as if everyone on this site was in the western world...), there are many kinds of Buddhism, and many of them are atheistic (which makes sense, seeing as the Buddha himself denied the existence of any creator Gods: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/God_in_Buddhism )

This works both ways. Atheistic forms are there along deity ones. And still this or another way this makes you a Buddhist which IS a religion. Atheistic Buddhist is an oxymoron, I hope you understand at least this much

> Atheistic Buddhist is an oxymoron

No, it is not. To be an athiest has nothing to do with religious inclination, it has to do with lack of belief in god(s). It's right there in the word: a-: lack of; -theist: one who believes in a deity. A Buddhist in the vein of the Buddha, who did not believe in god(s), is an atheist.

So you are a religious person after all?

I'm not.

Most of the definitions I've found define religion as in terms like 'belief in a supernatural power', or 'worship of gods or similar higher powers'.

Buddhism is not involved with either. I see it really as little different to going to the gym. Do the correct practices consistently and see results. No magic, no worship, no blind beliefs, just steadily progressing and seeing results...

Are you Buddhist? Yes! Are you religious? No!

This is as idiotic as:

Are you vegetarian? Yes! Do you eat meat? Yes!

I did a full 10-day course and it was everything but a cult. I can see how one can perceive it as such, but my impression was entirely opposite - there is strong, effective and well-tested self-improvement methodology dressed into a tiny sliver of Buddhist religion. The dressing makes it easier to digest for some people and is easy to ignore for others.

The freak-out is not unusual, a friend of mine left in a hurry reporting something remotely similar to claustrophobia. She never mentioned being banned or anything like that, and I'd surprised if it happened. My other two friends shrugged off the whole experience. Yet another acquaintance reported permanent reduction in anger, and completely giving up alcohol, which was previously a problem. Myself I became less "jumpy", less likely to be frightened by a sudden noise or such. There were otherpositive effects like reduction in compulsive eating, but they worn out in about 6 months. None of us ever went back, and I only get an occasional email from them.

> I went to one of these and got freaked out

That's the problem, you freaked out and left, even though they ask everyone multiple times at the beginning whether you are ready to stay for the full 10 days.

As someone who took more than one of these courses I can say that the single most important thing you should do during your first course is not quit. Strange things start happening to people when they are put into an environment where they can't do anything but eat, sleep and meditate. Your mind starts playing tricks on you and you start reacting to your thoughts. Wave after wave of anger, joy, confusion, happiness, sexual fantasies, tranquility, fear, etc, come and go. It's like your mind switches to different modes. You don't notice this during normal life, and that's the real beauty of these courses and centers. To give you an opportunity to observe all that is happening in your mind.

Although I experience this before, it still happens to me when I take a course and start wondering what am I doing here, this is a waste of time, this is all a cult, a scam, etc. Nope, it's just my mind reacting :) That's how you learn, I don't think there's another way to silence the mind.

>I tried to skip a session because I didn't get enough sleep and the management came and got me out of my room.

That's their job. It's not a holiday and you are there to work hard. In fact I can easily say that my first course was the hardest thing I've done in my life, it was just brutal. But my mind felt much clearer, I had way less anxiety and just felt kind of happy.

You have two comments on HN, one linking to one of these ten day courses, and now this one defending it, nothing else. You may want to be a bit more active, and on other topics, if you want to be seen as credible.

Here is a write-up of my experience doing that particular 10 day meditation course, which I'm surprised to discover wrapped up almost 10 years to the day: http://weblog.squareapple.net/archives/2004/11/26/art_of_liv...

Uh, that's exactly how brainwashing works.

Which one did you go to?

Theres a lot of different people offering 10 day courses, and most I've heard of don't force the religious aspect on you.

You can go and not give a damn about it, and just do the mindfulness part, which is pretty intense in itself. (IF you are doing a vipasna course)

10 days of not speaking to anyone else, (really, even avoiding eye contact) - its rough on a lot of people.

Video lectures during the meditation? That sounds bad... the only things that I think would be acceptable are guided meditations, where you focus on different parts of your body, or moving your energy or whatever. If they legitimately had video lectures unrelated to instruction or chanting that seemed to have an agenda, I would also have left.

Personally, I think the only thing you should hear during meditation is nothing. A guided relaxation process is fine for a half hour but after that you need to leave people to their thoughts (or lack thereof :). I wonder if you would have felt better at a more Zen-style meditation where anyone talking gets hit with a stick? That's the kind of place I would want to go.

There are no lectures during meditation. There are some instructions given prior to meditation sessions the first few days of the course, and then again on the final day where "metta" meditation is introduced. There are video lectures every evening which are more or less based on the 4 Noble Truths.

I have attended two of these courses, and have benefited extremely from them, and I know they try very, very hard to make sure that they do not become a cult. They are very anti-cult, and I think it is important that this remains a priority.

I was diagnosed with panic disorder and no treatment worked, but after attending a course I was able to get it under control.

The responses here are very interesting. I would think mindfulness would increase empathy, but many of them appear to be sidestepping your experience.

Was your course at one of the centers listed on dhamma.org ?

Isn't it strange that people are using meditation to make more money, achieve material success, perpetuation of "self". The very idea of self that meditation is supposed to examine.

I will never understand western obsession with finding meaning in everything materially. Idea that if it doesn't give you something in return then its meaningless.

Good instructors start with people where they are. If someone is greedy, then you have to explain to them how what you want them to learn will help them satisfy their greed. Otherwise they'll just ignore you.

Here, for example, you'll note the pitch is that it's easy to improve one's brain, of great appeal to nerds. And it's backed up with high-tech science, a great draw to we technical people.

As a long-time meditator, I could happily talk about how it has improved my ability to make software. Deep awareness of my sensations and subtle reactions has made me very good at understanding exactly what parts of user interfaces work and what don't. The increased patience and focus is great for dealing with complex software. The greater self-awareness has helped me avoid things like gold-plating and architecture astronautics because I'm better at sorting out my motivations. I'm way better at noticing when I'm really too tired to be coding, so I create a lot fewer bugs. Et cetera, et cetera. If somebody starts because of that, great.

But knowing a lot of other meditators, I think the reason people start is relatively unimportant. As with almost anything deep (e.g., fitness, science, math), serious study and practice change you more deeply than you intend. More deeply than you can even understand when you start. For example, many people take martial arts classes because they crave the power to beat people up. But we don't have a problem with karate students roving in packs and attacking people because long study teaches them self-control, teaches them the limits of violence, the proper use of power. Similarly, even if people start meditating in pursuit of self-enhancement, they can't help but be changed more deeply.

We start with people where they are.

Seems to me me you're juggling several straw objects here. Obsession? What's your evidence for this? Who knows what people are finding meaning in, and not necessarily reporting that finding to you? People's internal life sometimes remains internal with certain elements permanently so.

I may be wrong but I suspect that you don't want to understand; rather you want to find fault in a raw naive meme that you think is held by a group of people - 'westerners'.

Sorry, I didn't mean to offend you. I was just criticizing western thought that so dominates our world today. Why do you identify yourself as a "westerner" instead as just someone who subscribes to western way of thinking? Why does a way of thought have to be defended instead of examined?

There have been many ways of thinking before our current materialistic western thought that were not merely primitive forms of current thought. For example in Vedic thought 'life-after-life' is just a fact and meaning in life is the lasting benefit we can accomplish for our consciousness. Can you imagine the transformational change in our society if we go from current view of life as "end all be all chance" to a "continuum".

In my view, meditation is examination of thought, not something that helps you make more money.

> The very idea of self that meditation is supposed to examine.

Meditation is 'supposed' to do something?

It changes your brain for the better. There is a lot of research into the subject. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-us-canada-12661646 http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2944261/

After 10 days of meditation, the change for me was dramatic. Regular meditation gives more lasting results though.


Thank you for sharing your experience. If you're new to mindfulness meditation, you shouldn't even consider a hardcore, 10-day Vipassana retreat—you should begin by meditating for 20–30 minutes a day at home.

Don't see why this should be the case. I got into MM through a similar Vipassana Course and there couldn't have been a better start for me. Only meditating in this style for 10 days did a few things for me that 20-30 minutes a day would not have helped with : 1 - It helped me understand the power of this sort of meditation 2 - It REALLY motivated me to keep at it ever after I left 3 - I got to learn how to meditate properly as opposed to trying something on my own for 30 minutes a day without someone to guide me through it

Honestly it wasn't as brutal as people would like to think - all you need is an open mind.

It's basically the same reason people shouldn't sign up for marathons as their first race: most people aren't prepared. That it worked for you is great, but you shouldn't mistake your experience for the general case. I have a lot of friends who do retreats like this, and they universally recommend that most people work their way up.

Regarding point #3, for those who would like guidance, I recommend finding a local meditation group. There are lots, and there are many different styles.

It's not like a marathon - preparation isn't really going to help you much. It's much more like "meditation bootcamp" - breaking down is part of the building process.

It might be better to recommend a 1,2, or 3 day retreat which are also common and more approachable (and possible) to many people.

That's definitely a more reasonable recommendation, although it's probably not the one I'd make myself. Some people take to meditation quite naturally; for some it's a real struggle. For the inexperienced but curious, about the most I'd generally recommend is stopping by some meditation group for a single sit.

As an example, the San Francisco Zen Center's farm, Green Gulch, has a Sunday program that's quite nice:


Gentle instruction, a short lecture, and then the option of casual tea and conversation.

If people find themselves comfortable enough with a single sit that they're saying, "Gosh, I want 3 days of this," then more power to 'em. But that definitely wasn't my first experience. I needed a more gradual path.

I think each one has their own mileage - I was just refuting the parent's claim that you "should" do x or y - I think if you've considered it for a while and think you can stick through it - there's no harm in trying a 10 day retreat. Just as there's no harm in trying a marathon if you're generally fit. Worst case you drop out / slow down.

That is an interesting theory, but you are definitely wrong about the marathon part. I know a number of people who have harmed themselves by attempting a marathon as their first race, a couple permanently.

My concern about the harm of an unprepared person taking a 10-day class is different. Most of the people I know who went from doing nothing to trying a marathon are no longer runners. Either the difficulty and pain or the experience of failure were enough to dissuade them from taking up a regular running practice. If someone jumps into a 10-day retreat with no prior experience, I would be concerned about something similar happening to them.

It's like "I've never run before, hey let's go run a marathon right now."

I recommend starting with 15-20 sessions once a day. Just like a startup, you can always attempt to scale things up later once you get a handle on things.

comparing it to a marathon is a bad analogy, but everyone likes to do it - I've already responded to two others in this thread who said the same thing.

I think you could just as well make the opposite argument: a retreat can be an easier way to get started, because it takes you away from your normal, everyday surroundings, and by really making it the main focus, and purpose of this time, it becomes easier to do, rather than to try and squeeze it into your existing schedule. There's a beautiful meditation retreat in Northern Thailand http://www.wetours.com/meditation-retreat-in-northern-thaila... (relatively meaning: get up early, no meals after lunch, very regimented day... but nobody will give you evil eyes and the people - especially the head monk - are very relaxed, easy going and have a great sense of humor). Not saying one way is better than the other, just that both are feasible choices :)

I disagree - I think doing a 10-day Vipassana retreat is a great way to start (it's how I started). I've heard this argument before, though, but it isn't like doing a marathon - you don't need to train beforehand. It is more like what I call "meditation bootcamp" - you break down from no distractions for 10 days, and then you build yourself back up, stronger.

Meditating 20-30 minutes a day at home is fine, too, but I think it would be a mistake to not participate in a course just because you haven't been meditating.

Thank you for such a good description of what you are doing. I am also trying to do mindfulness meditation but am only managing 15 or 20 minutes a day just now. It can be frustrating but occasionally (rarely for me) you notice something (almost) happening that makes it worthwhile. I think persistence is key. Reading this type of post helps me persevere.

I should also mention a good book I read recently about meditation, helping the author Tim Parks overcome increasingly chronic pain. The book is not only very funny in parts, it is also a beautiful description of mindfulness practice :


Why and in what way is thinking about sensations and one's body different from thinking about past or future?

Aren't there other ways to condition mind to bring back its thoughts away from the Past or Future, why is focusing on breathing the only way that meditation teaches?

Not thinking about, as much as observing the current sensations.

> why is focusing on breathing the only way that meditation teaches?

It isn't. You can focus on whatever you like, and there are descriptions of using pretty much anything you can think of as meditation objects. What you focus on is not the most important part, but that you focus your attention and your ability to go of thoughts.

Breath is often recommended because it is always available (takes away the excuse of "oh, I can't mediate because I need X and I don't have it here"), it is simple yet it has many qualities for you to observe; it has distinct phases (in-out) that are cyclical, and that have distinct pauses (when you shift from breathing in to out). It also has the property that it calms as you get more relaxed and more concentrated, so that the more you focus, the more you have to focus to keep attention on the breath.

At the same time, as you get deep into concentration, the fact that the breath calms lets you (if that is your goal) more easily shift the breath into the background, to focus on other things (e.g. your emotional state; observing fleeting thoughts; other bodily sensations or whatever else).

For a lot of forms of meditation, focusing on the breath is considered an important part developing "access concentration", that is, your ability to easily and rapidly calm yourself and enter into sufficiently deep concentration to focus on your desired meditation object.

For vipassana / mindfulness meditation, for example, the goal is not to endlessly focus on the breath, but to observe various aspects of reality (including the breath, but not limited to it) in a "detached" state where you are not engaging or reacting to them but simply paying attention to them. E.g. notice a thought arising, notice how your body reacts to it, but don't "respond" to it with a new thought - just observe the qualities of it, until it fades, and wait for the next one.

Meditating on breath then is a method of getting into deep enough concentration to enable you to do that without constantly "waking up" to realise you got caught up in some strand of thinking and spent the last 10 minutes thinking about what to do about your taxes.

(You can certainly observe the breath as the focus of your mindfulness meditation, but if you limit yourself to the breath you are

When I meditate, I usually notice my feet, for example. I notice my feet if I get a little bit jittery, and for me that's sufficient to cut a lot of the whammy out of strong emotion, agitation, moderate amounts of panic, pain.

I haven't noticed increased concentration skills, except as could be wholly explained by learning the skill "calm down on demand", but I'm not willing to write off that as a possibility without testing (a little late for me to test on myself, anyway!)

> Why and in what way is thinking about sensations and one's body different from thinking about past or future?

The sensations are actually happening, right here, right now. Thoughts about the past or future are just mental constructs and have no reality beyond that. It's all about being present right here, right now, in this moment.

> The sensations are actually happening, right here, right now. Thoughts about the past or future are just mental constructs and have no reality beyond that.

Except, those sensations might not be 'actually happening'.

> The sensations feel like tiny extremely weak electric currents zapping through on the surface and disappearing. Or it could be a weak throbbing and itching sensation. Sometimes you get the feeling of the area under investigation being in a state of tension. It doesn't matter what the sensation is like. What matters is that you are aware of these sensations.

It doesn't surprise me at all that, after concentrating on a particular body area in silence for 8 hours a day for 3-4 days, people would associate various sensations with that area. For example, see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Paresthesia

If meditation has helped you personally, that's great. However, I take issue with preaching dubious advice.

> Except, those sensations might not be 'actually happening'.

The sensations, as in what impulses you observe in your mind, certainly are happening. Whether or not the sensations are a result of actual physical stimuli is both the point and besides the point. If they are invented by your brain, that makes them no less valid to observe. Yet if they are invented by your brain, then observing the qualities of those sensations is still fascinating and just as valid.

> It doesn't surprise me at all that, after concentrating on a particular body area in silence for 8 hours a day for 3-4 days

You don't need to spend more than 1 second focusing on your body to pick up some sensation or another. He is not suggesting you should try to pick up something unusual, but observe what you already notice thousands upon thousands of time every day, but which you normally do not pay attention to.

E.g. that itch on my left elbow, the way my glasses press down on my nose, the pillow pressing against my neck, my tongue pressing against the top of my mouth, the dryness of my lower lip, the sensations of my fingertips against the laptop keyboard, and so on.

Of course, from a purely philosophical standpoint you could argue those sensations also could be just illusions. But that's irrelevant.

> I take issue with preaching dubious advice.

What is the dubious advice being preached you take offence to?

There are certainly many, many meditation teachers that are teaching religious nonsense.

But the basic principles of meditation boils down to practices to learn to concentrate, and practices to learn how to observe your thought processes and physical sensations well within the scope of what is actually physically possible, verifiable and repeatable.

As an atheist and sceptic, meditation is something I think everyone should engage in, because, while there certainly is the possibility of "mystic" experiences because of the nature of prolonged concentration, you also have the potential to learn a great deal about your own thought processes that we usually ignore (and to learn how to dissect anything unusual you might "observe", alongside how to dissect other broken thought patterns)

> If they are invented by your brain, that makes them no less valid to observe. Yet if they are invented by your brain, then observing the qualities of those sensations is still fascinating and just as valid.

I agree, but that completely undermines your argument for dismissing thoughts about the past or future, ie. that they're "just mental constructs".

You miss the point.

Thoughts, whether about the past or future, or anything else, are perfectly valid objects of meditation, as long as you observe them rather than getting caught up in them.

The thoughts after all, occur here and now.

Consider the difference as one of engaging in an argument vs. watching someone else engage in an argument. When you are caught up in an argument, you attach emotions to it in a whole different way, and you attach importance to the arguments in a whole different way, and you get caught up in the flow in a whole different way, and you fail to notice all kinds of things that you notice as a passive observer.

This here was exactly the key to mindfulness for me. Learning that I don't need to suppress my thoughts and have a blank mind mind. This was my mistake before. I got frustrated when new thoughts inevitably came up, and ended up either focusing on my frustration or the thought.

But then I learned to just observe my thoughts non-judgmentally and without delving into them. Just let the thought be, just as I just let my breath be. Let the thoughts come, acknowledge them without grabbing hold, and let them float by. This is just the constant flux of the mind, just as the constant sensations I get from my body.

> This here was exactly the key to mindfulness for me. Learning that I don't need to suppress my thoughts and have a blank mind mind.

Yeah, suppressing doesn’t work that well. For me one of such keys was a trick where you try to visualize your thoughts like clouds in the sky. Another was the recommendation, not sure if I remember the exact phrasing, to “look between two thoughts”. Deadly efficient, this one.

Thank you very much for such a clear explanation! The example about engaging in vs observing an argument works great.

I've had very little success keeping up with a meditation schedule and have "seen" some positive result in my anxiety levels when I restart after a broken chain of sessions.

It would seem, much like diet and exercise, you have to force yourself for the initial habit-forming phase for meditation to benefit you. All boils down to will power (to keep to the schedules).

I'd say breathing is sort of a two-way binding mechanism.

When you're at peace, it's slow and deep. And when you're stressed, exhilarated or angered it's turbulent and erratic. So when you're, say, stressed, you can transition to a peaceful state by deep-breathing; and as you are relaxing you find yourself not needing that much focus/energy to keep the breathing that way - the binding automatically happens.

One can use almost any object to meditate upon - visual image, mental image, sound, music, whir of a motor, randomness of objects around you, tick of a clock; just about anything; the more rhythmic, the better. But for us inexperienced ones, breathing works the best.

Also, we should not think about breathing, rather feel it, granted it starts with thinking :) Thinking is what meditation shuns, at least when we're practicing

Focussing on breathing is one particular instance but not the only thing you can do. Essentially you are practising focus and learning things about your mind you might not have noticed before

> Why and in what way is thinking about sensations and one's body different from thinking about past or future?

Being aware activates a different part of the brain to thinking. See https://www.coursera.org/course/meditation and "The Science of Happiness" on edx.org for more.

It's funny, I heard about this type of meditation from Rivers Cuomo on a podcast and I can't stop thinking about it. I like that it's not tied to any sort of religious belief.

Thanks for the excellent description! Beyond the ten days, have you done any other retreats?

Can you offer some background on why you decided to attend? How much experience with mindfulness did you have beforehand?

I'm not OP, but I attended the same 10-day course last year and will likely attend another one at some point in the near future.

I started experimenting with meditation after listening to Howard Stern talk about transcendental mediation around seven years ago. At the time, I was struggling a lot with anxiety and bouts of depression. When I discovered Mindfulness and Acceptance Therapy, I started to move away from mantra meditation(TM) and towards mindfulness meditation. Over the years, I became more and more interested, not only in meditation, but in Eastern philosophy, and studied everything from Vedanta to Zen to Yoga to Tibetan Buddhism.

I meditated anywhere from 20-40 minutes a day, but I was never very consistent. Sometimes I would skip a day, and sometimes a week, but I always came back to it. The anxiety and depression eventually went away, but I still was a very unhappy person, and I didn't understand why.

Enter psychedelics. After a psilocybin trip last spring, I wrote about 40 pages worth of advice to myself. It was all very practical, very pragmatic, almost fatherly. Part of that advice was something along the lines of, "If you really want to figure out what's going on, you need to study your mind, study your thoughts." I signed up for the first available course.

Has Vipassana helped you further?

Absolutely. I practiced for 2 hours a day for many months after the course. Life circumstances forced me to take a several-month hiatus, but I'm now back to sitting for about 90 minutes a day. I can't attribute it to my meditation practice alone, but there have been some huge changes in my life since doing the retreat. I've become a lot more compassionate and accepting of myself and I've started to gain some major insight into the patterns of negative thinking and self-sabotaging behavior that I've engaged in for most of my life. It's like I finally found the end on the ball of yarn of all my negative bullshit, and I'm slowly starting to unravel it.

I got kind of out of the practice after a few months post the 10-day workshop (life), and this is really encouraging me to get back into it. "The end of the ball of yarn" - really hits the nail on the head. I feel like there's some deeper reason for a lot of the stupid thought patterns I know I have that don't help me - but never managed to get deep enough to find the root-cause. Maybe sitting again will take me there, or at least let me realize its impermanance and move on. It's weird how I can discuss this but feeling it is a whole other thing. :) Metta to you!

What was your experience with the course?

It was one of the most difficult things I've done, mentally, physically, and emotionally. It was also very rewarding. It completely changed my understanding of meditation and instilled a belief that meditation really can be life-changing if practiced in earnest.

How about all the things that unsettled redmaverick?

The cult stuff? It's somewhat understandable. I think timeofgifts summed it up pretty well. You're essentially giving up your freedom for 10 days and are asked to do some things that may seem rather strange (e.g., bowing and chanting). It's normal to freak out and to want to leave, and you'll come up with a number of reasons to do so. I was miserable for a majority of the 10 days and desperately wanted to leave. But I also recognized this urge as just more "mind stuff", and the reason I was there was to learn to stop reacting to this stuff.

Another point that hasn't been mentioned is that these courses are funded entirely by donations. This is why they want you to work hard and take your time there seriously. This is also why they really discourage people from leaving early. There are typically long wait lists for these courses and they don't want to "waste" spots on people that are going to leave early or not take it seriously.

That was very helpful and succinct. Thank you.

I'm not well versed with reading research papers etc but I have one question. Could it be possible that by simply practicing mindfulness meditation the brain restructured itself via a placebo style effect rather that because of the meditation itself?

For anybody who has access to the paper what did the control group do during the eight weeks?

Not clear what distinction you are trying to make. They practiced mindfulness meditation according to a specific, published plan, and brain anatomy changes were noted. It doesn't seem they are making any claim other than, this series of exercises produce this effect.

The paper doesn't seem to be available, but the abstract at the author's page[0] says "Healthy but stressed individuals are randomized to either a meditation-based stress reduction intervention or health education control intervention."


If the control group were doing nothing for eight weeks, they would expect no change. An expectation of change can illicit substantial differences. That's the placebo effect.

When administering medication and checking for results, the control group is given a sugar pill rather than nothing. If they were given nothing it would not eliminate the placebo effect.

(You mean elicit, not illicit)

Placebo might be a fair critique if we were talking about people's self-reported stress or well-being. Here we're talking about physical changes in the amygdala.

The brain and nervous system changes based on it's use and function. Look up neoroplasticity. This is nothing new. A placebo could certainly elicit a change within 8 weeks if participants thought it was helping them cope with stress. If you think dancing clockwise in a circle for ten minutes a day will help you, it probably will. That doesn't mean there is anything useful in the practice.

The thing i don't like about the term "meditation" is that its too closely intertwined with spirituality. Where meditation should actually be associated with relaxation.

This article only mentions the control group twice, once to say "None of these changes were seen in the control group, indicating that they had not resulted merely from the passage of time". This is just bad reporting - How about telling us what the control group were actually doing?

If they (control group) were not taking part in any type of consistent relaxation for 8 weeks then how would you expect to see any changes in the control group?


They weren't expecting to see changes in the control group. Control groups represent the baseline, untreated state.

Also, meditation and relaxation are not the same thing.

A valuable result would be: what benefits does meditation impart over other similar activities? For example something like 30 minutes of walking every day.

A result over a non-treatment group in this case is scientifically noble, but practically useless. All it tells us is that doing something has an effect over doing nothing.

Can I get the same effects from 15 minutes of walking a day? 30 minutes? We don't know, because that wasn't compared. It should have been.

You're right, meditation is relaxation with a sprinkle of woo.

You think meditation is relaxation, you do not realise how much effort it takes. I'd suggest finding a tutorial and trying even 5 minutes.

As for the "sprinkle of woo", some meditation practices comes with buckets of foo, while some are entirely woo free.

I've done this for an hour or so on occasion. I don't find it a particular strain. I may be doing something different than what you are doing, though.

The point is not that it's a particular strain. The point is that most people can't just sit back and let their mind go - to maintain focus requires concentration, and concentration is not "free" - it takes energy. It may feel energising - especially after you're done -, the same way exercise does, but people who think that meditation is "just relaxation" usually have no idea what is involved.

Meditation is more concentration than relaxation.

Meditation is really difficult! Like a marathon, it gets less difficult with practice.

I don't see why meditation needs to be associated with relaxation, at all. Meditation (at least as I understand it) is giving your conscious mind absolute concentration on a simple thing or task, so as to give quiet and calm to the rest of your mind. One of the places I try to practice this is on my motorcycle. I give absolute attention to the act of motorcycling, paying attention to every little detail, until the background threads of my mind stop singing stupid songs and asking dumb questions. Nothing to do with relaxation. It's actually a lot of work.

> Where meditation should actually be associated with relaxation.

Thanks for the tip! Might as well just smoke a joint if it's all about relaxing, hey?

It's pretty amazing to discover some of the less obvious aspects of yourself, I wouldn't dismiss "spirituality" without thoroughly investigating yourself first...

Thats a big leap, by your logic you could relax even more by taking a hit of Heroin.

I'm able to dismiss spirituality because I'm a skeptic and believe in evidence, not anecdotes. The power for the human mind to self delude is limitless.

I see a lot of anekdotes here on HN about meditation. But anekdotes are not science. I dislike the very close relation between meditation and spirituality that turns into fluffy bullshit.

I distrust peoples self-reporting because it is extremely unreliable.

The 'eight weeks to a better brain' sounds like any link-bait you see on the internet (' 6-pack in 12 days!').

Also, the results may be merely from the fact that these people spent ~30 minutes a day deliberately relaxing. What would happen if the control group would just lie on a couch for 30 minutes, doing nothing? None of that in the article.

Or that the group learnt a new skill, which involves both new physical and mental agility. For example would learning to dance for an introverted person produce the same changes in the brain?

What is the best way to learn how to meditate? Any good resources?

Either join a course or pick up a good book. I found this book immensely useful and simple to follow: "Mindfulness in Plain English" [1]

[1] http://www.amazon.com/Mindfulness-Plain-English-Anniversary-...

Is that book the same as this free one? http://www.urbandharma.org/udharma4/mpe.html

Does your book contain exercises?

It's the same book.

I strongly recommend it.

You don't need exercises: The book is a step by step "instruction manual".

There is only one exercise (in this context; there are many other forms of meditation) Sit comfortably. Breath in. Breath out. Repeat. Now gently try to let go of your thoughts, and gently focus your attention on your breath. When your mind slips, bring it back to the breath. Repeat for as long as you want to sit.

The reason you want to read the book is because it deals systematically with the practicalities, such as how to deal with pains and aches and distractions, or how to deal with sudden intense nonsensical urges (for example, when I started I went through a period where I'd get one minute or so in and then be convinced that I'd failed to set my timer, and that I had been sitting for way too long, and that I'd be late for something, anything; it took weeks to push past that barrier).

I'd also strongly recommend this series [1] of recordings of a course by Gil Fronsdal. It covers the same practice, and fits very well with the book. And like the book, the course recording is very much kept secular.

[1] http://www.urbandharma.org/udharma12/GilMed07.html

Headspace is an app I've tried and thought was interesting.

I've been using the Headspace app for several months and found it to be very helpful. While doing the exercise, which is a daily 15 minute guided meditation session, I feel much more relaxed. And throughout the rest of my day I find that I'm more aware of my reactions to various events and sometimes I'm able to step outside an emotional reaction and see what I'm doing, and whether it's actually how I want to act, and then behave accordingly. It's no panacea, but I have found it useful enough to keep doing pretty much every day despite the friction which tends to lead to giving up on good habits.

I know Gil Fronsdal and the community he serves. His talks are always practical and empathic. There won't be any woo or supernaturalism in these, but a generous humanity.

I stayed away from meditation for very long because of the "woo and supernaturalism" concern, and I agree - Gil Fronsdals stuff is great.

It depends on the type/s of meditation in which you are interested.

In the Christian West, there are several schools of "discursive meditation", or mental prayer, which developed over many centuries. This kind of meditation, practiced daily and closely connected to regular examination of conscience, is seen as an important component of the struggle to overcome vice and cultivate virtue.

Two resources you might find helpful in learning how to go about discursive meditation are a short essay on Lectio Divina and the Fifth Treatise from Fr. Rodriguez's Practice of Perfection and Christian Virtues:



See also Fr. Garrigou-Lagrange's overview of mental prayer in his classic work The Three Ages of the Interior Life:


In the Christian East, meditation generally takes the form of "passive contemplation" rather than discursive meditation. The Philokalia is probably the best resource for learning more:


Make sure to keep handy the glossary at the back of the book:



The scenery looks a bit odd ... he is sitting on a couch and the studends on the floor, kind of looking up to (admire) the master. But he is in his talks the opposite of a self-salesman.

Anyway, this is very systematic and in itself the best approach I've seen so far. There are practices that need to be done and learned in a specific order.

In this spirit it all starts with the basic step:

Regular time and place! If we fail this, it won't happen! Followed by the other practices (inner dialog, sitting, breathing ... inspecting thoughts later on ...) in the required order.

Really, the best I've seen so far.

Also, very recommended his podcast "Developing Determination for Enlightenment", where he's talking about the paradox of letting go while being determined to aim for enlightenment.

I'll second this, with the specific request for recommended secular resources. I've found I get pretty turned off the higher the quantity of mysticism / spirituality, veneration of random leader persons, and faux eastern cultural elements thrown in as color.

I found Waking Up by Sam Harris pretty interesting. It's a bit more abstract than a how-to manual, more why and what. http://www.amazon.com/Waking-Up-Spirituality-Without-Religio...

As someone who has gradually moved away from the more "woo" end of the spectrum and more towards the practical end, I found Waking Up to be a really good read.

The Mindfulness in Plain English book mentioned above, or the Insight Meditation Center talks linked below, are both without fake spirituality or mysticism.




"Meditation and transformative practice vis-à-vis rationality, phenomenology, neuroscience and {clinical, developmental, evolutionary} psychology because humans."


The best resources I have found are books, audio tracks, a good meditation app and discipline. In regards to the latter, the hardest thing about meditation is consistently doing it.

Books: "Calming the anxious mind" by Jeffrey Brantley, "Mindfulness: An eight-week plan for finding peace in a frantic world" by Mark Williams and Danny Penman, "Mindfulness for Beginners" by Jon Kabat-Zinn (my favorite), "Wherever you to there you are" by Jon Kabat-Zinn

Audio: The second and third book both have cds or downloadable tracks. The audio tracks are a good way to start.

App: Insight timer. I have been using it for years.

Most of these books approach meditation from a non-religious approach.

UCLA has some good guided exercises here http://marc.ucla.edu/body.cfm?id=22&oTopID=22

Alan Watts - The Art of Meditation http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u10aHEfcEQY

While it's not meditation, one of the best things I've discovered recently for relaxing with minimal effort are binaural beats (also branded commercially as "HemiSync"). Put those on for half an hour before going to sleep and it's like nothing else.

There are free apps for android (and probably ios as well) you can use. You just need earphones.

Earplugs help. It makes it easier to listen to your own breath.

Google Jon Kabat-Zinn.

Does anyone have any experience with meditation and RSI? I've been having RSI(like) problems for almost 3 years now. Recently I've read the Mindbody Prescription book[0] after finding this HN thread[1]. I must say it did help somewhat but I think I'm still in the process of healing myself. The bit I'm struggling is uncovering suppressed feelings and emotions. So I'm wondering wether meditation would help here. Any thoughts?

[0] http://www.amazon.co.uk/Mindbody-Prescription-Healing-Body-P...

[1] https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=1269951

I've also been treating RSI in the framework of Mindbody Prescription. I'm still just starting with meditation, but it seems like the main skill it teaches (this post describes it well: https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=8670184) is precisely what's good for getting over the RSI(like) problem: the main thing is to understand the 'sensations' aren't something that you need to deal with when they arise, it's okay if they arise—just let them pass. I'd gotten into a way of thinking that if the sensations were there it meant things were going poorly, if not they were going well; while what seems better is, things are okay either way. You don't want to stop the sensations, you want to understand they aren't harmful. I've done a decent survey of meditation literature, and I think a good overview from a number of perspectives would be this one: http://www.amazon.com/Beginners-Guide-Meditation-Inspiration...

Also, I thought this book was better than any of Sarno's for TMS stuff http://www.amazon.com/Rapid-Recovery-Back-Neck-Pain-ebook/dp...

Lemme know if you have other questions or anything.

Nice, I'll go trough this things. I'll be in touch if I have any questions. Thanks.

Yes, I do.

I've not found meditation to be an absolute silver bullet for RSI in the same way that I found appropriate stretches, trigger point therapy, and Pilates to be.

However, it's definitely extremely useful, and if your RSI stems from anxiety or similar issues, it's very good for treating the underlying causes.

For uncovering suppressed feelings and thoughts, my personal recommendation would be to go for a good - note GOOD - talk therapist and see if that works for you. I've found that more effective for understanding myself than meditation. But I'd certainly encourage you to give meditation a go too - a lot of people including me find it very useful.

How does that work, going to a therapist? He knows how to ask the right questions? How many sessions did you have to go to? I don't have massive amounts of money unfortunately.

You'll need a fair few sessions, unfortunately. It's not a quick process. They're trained to know what to ask, how to be useful to you, and so on - at least, the good ones are!

Note: make sure you're going to a therapist - someone with years of training in the theory and practise of psychotherapy - not an untrained/semi-trained "counsellor".

16 participants in the study! Neuro-imaging bolloxology. Meditation might be pleasant, but this is a pretty poor piece of science reporting.

That's actually a pretty common study size in neuro-imaging/fMRI studies. You may still disagree with the statistical validity of the findings, but there's nothing unusual about this specific study in that regard.

Ought to wonder if today's XKCD is related...


This is my old lab! I'm turning these neuroscience findings into consumer products now-- using biosensors for meditation tracking and biofeedback. http://www.brainbot.me Check it out if you're interested, but full disclosure- this is my company

In case you wonder if this s yet another study about this matter, note that the article is from 2011/01.

I'd like this to be compared to an equal amount of non-stimulated time that is not necessarily meditation.

I feel that the main issue here could be that a lot of people, in western culture at least, are constantly stimulated.

I read Dan Harris' book 10% happier and started meditating for just 5 minutes a day.

I can highly recommend it. I am much more aware and present when doing it than those days I do not.

I made a similar experience. When I force myself to sit still and focus on breathing for just 7 minutes in the morning, it seems to make me more aware of what I'm doing for the rest of the day. Sometimes I continue to 40 minutes. Too often I skip it entirely and e.g. surf the net instead, which makes me feel like a work-addicted wreck who won't grant himself just 7 minutes of peace.

I also highly recommend the other Harris' (Sam) book "Waking Up".

Are there any other training programs for better memory?

Domonic O'Brians methods work like magic with relatively little practice. They're also a form of meditation in some sense because of the concentration required to use the imagination so vividly. He has a six cd course I've never gotten all the way through but the techniques I employed helped me remember french vocabularly, art history (dates, names, etc), people and their names, and phone numbers with relative ease (especially compared to rote memorization). The best thing is, the more you do it, the better you get and the easier and faster it is.

Looks like he has many books [0] here on Amazon. He won the World Memory Championships a number of times.

[0] - http://www.amazon.com/Dominic-OBrien/e/B001KHNR2K

Thanks for this. I'd never heard of him, but after a bit of googling, reading and mentally going through my house, I can see that this stuff works. Cheers codyb.

Another suggestion for anyone who would prefer a guide that is unbiased/free of religion and mysticism: How to Meditate by Lawrence LeShan.


Timely this.

A few lowballs of Jameson on ice combined with a heavy 3D shooter on the XBox is my meditation.

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