This paper is a pretty comprehensive take on Vipassana, so in case anyone's looking for something a bit more general, I'd like to offer a complementary summary based on my own experiences.
Vipassana is a 10-day silent meditation retreat. Silent in this case really means distraction-free, entertainment-free, or stimulation-free. Think of it as the diametric opposite of social news. No noise, no conversation, no instant gratification, no easy pleasures (not even reading, writing or music). You just eat, sleep and meditate, with occasional breaks in between.
During the course you see other students and listen to recorded meditation lessons, but you are, effectively, alone. It's a cultural trope that having nothing but your own mind for company sends you a bit mad, and in my experience that was basically true. Normally you can count on the distraction stream to save you from your own thoughts, and without it you can spend days stuck in ever-intensifying thought loops with nothing to break you out of them.
Which, to me, gets to the heart of Vipassana. It's not really about silence; it's a specific kind of meditation designed to change your relationship to sensation. I think of it like audio engineering: we have a gain control on what we feel, and when the sensations get too much we turn them down until we're comfortable again. The problem is that you turn down everything at once; distracting yourself from painful experiences also distracts you from pleasurable ones. Keep turning the gain down and you eventually end up with a featureless experience: no peaks or troughs, just a flat line.
The reason you start with silence is because you're going to turn the gain back up, and you don't want to blow out your speakers at the first loud noise. The technique focuses on bodily sensations, but since sensations are mental and physical everything kinda comes along for the ride. You spend hours focusing on the most minute feelings until they fill your entire mind and your whole world is an area of skin the size of a postage stamp. It can get pretty intense.
But what makes it too intense? You do. It's not like bad news is painful because it melts your auditory nerves. Rather, you react to the sound, then you react to your reaction, then you react to that reaction and so on until you've built this unbearable feedback loop. Then you turn down the gain because, damn, that was LOUD. But that's bad engineering; you gotta go fix the feedback at the source. And that means unlearning your reactions.
That was my core experience of Vipassana. Turn up the sensation, learn to accept the sensation. Feel more, react less, repeat. Everything I tried to avoid thinking about, I thought about. Everything I didn't want to feel, I felt. I was defenceless as my self-sabotaging thought patterns sabotaged me over and over until I realised I was the one doing it and I could just... stop.
It's easy to dwell on the hard parts, but it was often quite peaceful. I spent an hour watching a family of lizards (they hid until I'd been still for fifteen minutes), another watching the finches chase each other and listening to their tiny wings, and another just looking at trees. Have you ever noticed how green trees are? I don't think I'd seen anything that green since I was a child.
I highly recommend the book Mindfulness in Plain English if you're interested in meditation.
It strips away a lot of the "woo woo" kooky stuff and clearly explains what meditation really "is". I just finished re-reading it, and must have highlighted every other sentence.
Mobile friendly pdf link, because for some reason mobile github just shows a "This file is too big to show. Sorry!" with no raw file link.
I would highly recommend The Mind Illuminated as a solid instruction manual for beginners who want to start meditating at home.
Nearly two years later, I can say that taking part in a Vipassana retreat has had a tremendously positive effect on my psychological state. I went from being in a state of what I later realized (after the retreat) was borderline depression and rife with anxiety to being extremely calm, collected, and happy.
The meditation was nice, but it's the overall message that underlies the meditation that I found essential: Anicca—everything is temporary. It gives you a mental toolset for dealing with the world that cuts away the weight of the day-to-day in a difficult to articulate way.
Here's my personal take written soon after my return: http://www.ryanglover.net/articles/vipassana
Talk from the same author: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1BWYqHbF00c
Somewhat related is Thomas Metzinger’s The ego tunnel. Metzinger is an applied philosopher, directly examining what is consciousness as can be determined and backed up with neuroscience. I loved Antonio Damasio’s the feeling of what happens, and the ego tunnel is like that on steroids, with years extra work from scientists making progress on teasing out distinctions you didn’t realize were there. There is zero ‘woo woo’, and instead a fascinating set of theories on what exactly consciousness is, why it feels the way it does, what science can tell us now, and what remains unknown. For me it is super fascinating from the point of view of why Vipassana works.
Cool quote from the beginning section "Computing Sidebar: LISP":
"The machine at the bottom of your consciousness is a strange loop. Having a look at this strange loop is a lot more fun than reading about it."
Awesome. Great style and expectation-setting in the intro portion. From my perspective as a programmer, occasional Vipassana-practicer, and not-speed-reader, and having read only the intro portions, this has piqued my interest enough to sink time into reading.
For those who are interested in roots and origin of mindfulness, should take a look at original Anapanasati Sutta (https://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/mn/mn.118.than.html). Anapanasati Sutta is the main source from which all the modern literature related to mindfulness has been derived. For more detailed explanation of sutta, listen to talk on mindfulness of breathing (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p4NR3nn4nfM).
you could just use the meditation algorithm, and meditate by yourself for 10 (or however many) days for multiple multi-hour sessions a day, and avoid having to sit through Goenka's religious meanderings, weird sound tracks and cultiness.
Check into a cheap hotel during non-tourist season, sometime in the mountains or near a lake or sea. Switch off the phone. Eat + meditate + sleep * 10 days (or however many you want). Et voila. You get all the benefits without all the cultiness.
Vipassana is a technique. You master the technique by doing it. Attending a cult's course is one way of doing it.
Whether it is the optimal method is open to debate. The key seems to be to spend long hours practicing the technique for many days (vs 30 minutes a day). I'm not convinced proficiency in the technique can only by attained by a retreat with a specific organization.
One can learn to program in Clojure (say) by attending a 10 day course by $ClojureGuru. One can also learn to program with a book and a laptop, and occasional questions on irc. Both methods work, and have different trade offs.
Personally, I learned Vipassana (and Jhana) meditation by myself, by reading and experimenting. I've since encountered advanced Buddhist mediators (abbots of Buddhist monasteries etc) who 'confirmed' I'm "doing it right" (fwiw, I wasn't really looking for validation or advice, it just came up in conversation). They didn't seem surprised I taught myself. So I doubt it is that uncommon. If the only way to learn to 'hack' is to attend a 10 day course, that isn't much of a 'hack' in the first place.
I strongly push back against the "only way to learn is be attending a 10 day course" idea. Other than this, I enjoyed reading the paper, Steven is an excellent writer.
My 2 cents. YMMV, as it should.
PS: I do admire the grit of anyone who actually completes the 10 day retreat, not so much the meditation as enduring all the culty BS. As grit training, it probably works ;-)
PPS: I have no belief in the religious dogma of any Buddhist school. I just think the techniques are useful
TLDR: I had a manic psychotic (bipolar) episode triggered on a vipassana course. This was with zero history of mental illness (before or after)
Be quite careful with Vipassana, especially if you're not used to regular meditation. It's not just a "silent" retreat in the sense of not talking. Also, no eye contact, no reading/writing and meditating 10 hours a day. It's a seriously stressful time for your brain.
I did the course, and I had a manic psychotic episode as a direct result. I made some audio and put it on a blog I started while manic . It details what the course was like, what it was like to be manic (totally awesome! ;), what it was like to be depressed (absolutely awful) and getting better.
I'm not saying don't do the course, I'm not saying I didn't do something wrong with the technique, I am saying be very very careful and don't think there can't be downsides. I was off work for a year and it took about 3 years before I felt "normal" again.
for a LISP using meditation practicing hacker reading this is incredible, the same insights written down by someone else.
> You do not feel physical sensation, consciously or subconsciously, without an accompanying thought or emotion. this is true. When really connected with your body, mind and emotion you see these are interlinked. The body follows thought and emotion, suppressed emotions are kept in the body. Your body feels emotion before you consciously recognize it.
An excellent Podcast on awakening is Deconstructing Yourself - https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/deconstructing-yourself/...
> The only way one can learn the technique of Vipassana is to take a 10-day course
Is this really true? I agree that a large amount of people may not be able to learn the techniques outside of a retreat setting, but I think it comes down to the individual and is different for each person
I had a limited experience with this type of meditation/abstinence. I called it something like "pleasure/ sensory reduction" and sought to re-sensitize myself to stimuli. I didn't talk, accept by accident or for my part time job for 2 weeks. It was an excellent experience. My main take away was that we often are compelled to speak but it adds nothing and is somehow typically better remaining silent where you instead become a better listening. So my experience may have been more to do with the social dynamics of speaking. I also abstained from other forms of pleasure, all drugs and mindless recreation things (TV, music etc) which continued for 3 months afterward but I worked on writing and music projects or anything I deemed productive rather than mindless. The whole experience was interesting but I returned to my normal state soon after as though it had all been a dream. I think a true silent retreat would give you a more internally focussed experience which would be wholey different. Either way you may benefit. Try to experience lower-level stimuli for extended periods as there is a tendency to filter out (or turn the gain down on) experiences when we bombard our senses constantly.
Interesting article. Not written in the same way but an interesting earlier HN post on similar topic: item?id=8877737
-- I think Indians(maybe Asians) get this detachment philosophy as a cultural gift. Practicing it is of course a different matter. But it is easier for me to understand (or at least not have too many doubts about) the Samkara/Sanskara/Karma thing. For example, when the linked article (100 Hours of Meditation in 10 Days — My Stay in Buddhist Prison) talks about the saliva-swallowing or a lady sobbing, it does not raise too many questions in my mind. Although Naipaul has written about its ill-effects (India A Wounded Civilization))
The term(detachment philosophy) is used loosely.
This is by far the best I have read on Vipassana so far. Great approach and scope and good breakdown.
I went to four-five retreats but have kind of fallen out of practice in recent years.
I will begin to send this when I know people who are going.
There is more information on the method from this documentary Doing Time, Doing Vipassana:
It documents the use of Vipassana as a reform measure at a harsh prison in India and traces the impacts it had on some of the inmates there.
Glad the pdf doesn't include the annoying baby nor the occasional father head covering the presenter.
Parents that bring babies to public events bring out the aggro-nihilist in me.
Vipassana is the ultimate form of Stoicism. A great way to dissociate from problematic feelings, instead of addressing them head on. :-P
nice overview; albeit quite technical. I actually wrote a vipassana how-to app that teaches the process: http://www.guidedmeditationtreks.com/vipassana.html
I am always curious about how much meditation can affect our brains. In pop science and pop culture, we see a lot of overestimation about meditation affects on our brains. But what is the scientific perspective on meditation?
seems getting that pdf on mobile is impossible?
Catholicism for Hackers