A Novice Buddhist's Humble Experiences

post by Will_Newsome · 2010-10-04T10:40:31.291Z · score: 12 (19 votes) · LW · GW · Legacy · 42 comments

This is an introduction and description of vipassana meditation [edit: actually, anapanasati, not vipassana as such] more than Buddhism. Nonetheless I hope it serves as some testament to the value of Buddhist thought outside of meditation.

One day I hope more people take up the mantle of the Buddhist Conspiracy, the Bayesanga, and preach the good word of Bayesian Buddhism for all to hear. Until then, though, I'd like to follow in the spirit of fellow Bayesian Buddhist Luke Grecki, and describe some of my personal experiences with anapanasati meditation in the hopes that they'll convince you to check it out.

Nearly everything I've learned about anapanasati/vipassana comes from this excellent guide. It's easy to read and it actually explains the reasoning behind all of the things you're asked to do in vipassana. I heavily encourage you to give it a look. Meditation without instruction didn't lead me anywhere: I spent hours letting my mind get tossed about while I tried in vain to think of nothing. Trying to think of nothing is not a good idea. Vipassana is the practice of mindfulness, and it is recommended that you focus on your breath (focusing on breath is sort of a form of vipassana, and sort of its own thing; I haven't quite figured it out yet). I chose that as my anchor for meditation as recommended. Since reading the above linked guide on meditation, I've meditated a mere 4 times, for a total of 100 minutes. I'm a total novice! So don't confuse my experiences for the wisdom of a venerable teacher. But I think that maybe since you, too, will be a novice, hearing a novice's experiences might be useful. A mere 100 minutes of practice, and I've had many insights that have helped me think more clearly about mindfulness, compassion, self-improvement, the nature of feedback cycles and cascades, relationships between the body and cognition, and other diverse subjects.

The first meditation session was for 10 minutes, the second for 40 minutes, the third for 10 minutes, and the fourth for 40 minutes again. Below are descriptions of the two 40 minutes sessions. In the first, I experienced a state of jhana (the second jhana, to be precise; I'm about 70% confident), which was profoundly moving and awe-inspiring. In the the second, my mind was a little too chatty to reach a jhana, but I did accidentally have a few insights that I think are important for me to have realized.

The below are very personal experiences, and I don't suspect that they're typical. But I hope that describing my experiences will inspire you to consider mindfulness meditation, or to continue with mindfulness meditation, even if your experiences end up being very different from mine. You might find that some of the 'physiological effects' I list are egregious, but I decided to leave them in, 'cuz they just might be relevant. For instance, I find that, quite surprisingly, my level of mindfulness seems to directly correlate with how numb various parts of my body are! Also, listing what parts of me were in pain at various points might alert future practitioners to what sorts of pain might be expected from sitting still for longer than thirty minutes. The most interesting observations will probably be in the 'insights' sections.


40 minutes, Evening/night, September 17, 2010.

Setting: First laying down on a bed with a pillow over my eyes, then sitting up on the bed on a pillow.

Physiological effects:

Insights on breath:

General insights:



40 minutes, Midnight, October 4, 2010.

Setting: Seated on a pillow on blanket on roof of my house in Tucson.

Physiological effects:

Insights on breath:

General insights:


I'd love for others to share their meditative experiences, or offer feedback for this post. I'm not sure if it should become a top-level post or not. But hopefully LW starts moving in a more Buddhist and effectiveness-oriented direction.

Taken out of original essay for being egregious: I've talked previously of how there seems to be a libertarian/technophile/futurist set of rationalists and a liberal/Buddhist/scientist set of rationalists, and each eyes the other's origin with a cocked eyebrow. Well, I'm from the LBS origin group, and I still think it's the better of the two. We're better at cooperating and we're more okay with praise. But we also seem to lack an unfortunate meme that I've seen in the LTF crowd: uncharitable misinterpretation of what the best ideas of Buddhism really are, even if not every practitioner or teacher is at the standard of the best philosophers of that tradition. Hofstadter made Zen cool, but other easier and probably more useful forms of Buddhism have been left unplundered. I think it has more to do with an instinctual negative reaction towards anything that seems vaguely spiritual or religious. And don't get me wrong, there's a lot of religion and spirituality in Buddhist countries, especially of the Mahayana sort. But the best texts in the Theravada tradition have very good, very deep, and very insightful epistemology and rationality in them, of the kind that wasn't to be found anywhere else in the world for hundreds upon hundreds more years, if at all.

42 comments

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comment by [deleted] · 2010-10-05T18:31:29.084Z · score: 10 (10 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Following your example, here are some insights from my meditation practice over the last 3 years:

There are ignorant mental processes going on that I am normally not aware of, and that control salient aspects of my behavior. I can become aware of these processes and develop control over them.

This is the kind of thing that is intellectually obvious but seems striking when you come to experience it firsthand in certain cases. Let me provide some an example.

A few days into my first vipassana course I started to become more aware of my thoughts, and was unpleasantly surprised to find that a large majority of them were ridiculously self-indulgent. I was running simulations of altered past events and possible future events where everything just happened to fall amazingly in my favor. I got the girl, pummeled the bad guy, etc. I would now call these wireheading patterns, but I didn't think of them that way at the time. Nevertheless, it was clear that they were distorting my beliefs and likely the actions I was taking based on them. By using meditation I was able to decrease the frequency of such patterns.

Similarly, I found that I could also become aware of and control the processes responsible for whether I liked certain foods.

(This provides some evidence that meditation can increase communication between mental subsystems and reduce compartmentalization.)

Amazing and powerful states of mental focus, peace, and happiness can be achieved without drugs. Such states can be maintained during everyday consciousness.

While initially experiencing these states during meditation sessions it became clear that they could be sustained outside of them. This probably became most evident to me during my second vipassana course. From your second course on, you are instructed to meditate constantly; you are doing sitting meditation during the scheduled sessions but at other times you should strive to keep regulating your awareness according to the meditation instructions. So, in a certain sense, you are meditating while eating, walking, etc. This practice makes it clear that everyday consciousness can be transformed.

My experience meditating daily over the past three years provides further evidence for this; during this time I have experienced progressively less anxiety and restlessness.

I compulsively judge mental phenomena as either good or bad (I called these judgments "affective judgments" in Understanding vipassana meditation. These affective judgments are not necessary, and can be controlled. Series of such affective judgments can cascade to form strong mental pressures. (This insight is essentially a special case of the first one).

I was surprised by how strong this habit was, even in the face of persistent opposition. This was particularly clear when observing my experience of pain during meditation. The pain seems to start as a relatively neutral sensation. One unwittingly begins to try to mentally "push" away the sensation (making a negative affective judgment). The sensation starts gaining in strength, which results in more forceful mental "pushing". This process continues until the pain is unbearable, and one shifts positions. I eventually was able to identify when I was near the judgment threshold; once I got close enough any minor errors or loss of attention would usually cascade into pain that caused me to move. I had some damn frustrating sessions experiencing that. Eventually I thought it was pretty funny.

comment by Will_Newsome · 2010-10-05T23:31:24.640Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Awesome. This is exactly what I was expecting from meditation and to hear it confirmed really psyches me up for working hard on it. Thank you for sharing.

A few days into my first vipassana course I started to become more aware of my thoughts, and was unpleasantly surprised to find that a large majority of them were ridiculously self-indulgent. I was running simulations of altered past events and possible future events where everything just happened to fall amazingly in my favor. I got the girl, pummeled the bad guy, etc. I would now call these wireheading patterns, but I didn't think of them that way at the time.

I've become a lot better at this in the last few months, but this used to be my normal mode of thinking. It led me to believe I was incredibly narcissistic, which further led to me developing lots of safety mechanisms to keep that part of me from poisoning my thinking; in some cases, the safety mechanisms are I think too harsh and too self-critical, because there is too much affective negative self-judgment. The big thing I've realized from meditation thus far is that the affective judgments aren't necessary; mindfulness without judgment is enough to avoid harmful attractors.

But I got sidetracked; really, I'm curious, is this a common disposition among Less Wrong rationalists? I didn't think so as I'd heard of the typical mind fallacy and most people don't tend to talk about this facet of their thinking very much (maybe because it's embarrassing). But if it's more common than I thought, then maybe I wasn't as incredibly narcissistic as I thought, and maybe this type of wireheading pattern is a typical attractor in mindspace.

comment by Relsqui · 2010-10-20T08:30:08.963Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I do something similar--I'll run through either remembered past or imagined future conversations in my head. For the past ones, I'll have myself say what I now think I should have said, to try and figure out what would have happened. For the future ones, I sometimes do productive planning ("I want to mention x when this happens"), but I also catch myself simulating other people in a way which is clearly inaccurate but leads to a highly favorable situation (like me saying the "right thing" and someone else swooning).

I have gotten some use out of that last, though. If I'm feeling bad and imagine someone saying just the right thing to me, and then me feeling better, I now know exactly what I want to hear. Then I tell the other person what that thing is, being clear if necessary that it's not that I don't know it already, but that hearing it again right now would make me feel a lot better (useful for avoiding defensiveness when the thing is, say, that they love you). There's a chapter in the Usual Error about this, which is what made me realize that I can just do that and it works. (You can insert a mental "yet" into the sentences about not being purely rational, if you like. Tsuyoku etc.)

Anyway. I think the phenomenon in general is called daydreaming, and it's normal, even the exaggerated/narcissistic-seeming kind. I feel like I see it referenced/parodied in popular culture a fair bit, and I don't see why that would be true if lots of people didn't really do it.

comment by NancyLebovitz · 2010-10-08T07:56:12.881Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I don't have a habit of imagining things going better for myself than they really did. It never would have occurred to me that such a habit existed for anyone.

I'm very much more apt to think about things having defects, or to appreciate actual good points.

I should probably do more observation of what I actually spend my mental time on, but I could probably use a little more wireheading (at least of the replaying good memories variety) than I do.

comment by DanMeyer · 2010-10-08T00:35:16.634Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I'm like this - my knee jerk thoughts are often quite arrogant (for example, reading a story about someone smart or attractive and immediately judging myself smarter or more attractive).

Sidenote: For most of my life I've managed to combine this over-arrogance with an outward under-confidence, which sucked.

comment by [deleted] · 2010-10-06T03:58:38.362Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

But if it's more common than I thought, then maybe I wasn't as incredibly narcissistic as I thought, and maybe this type of wireheading pattern is a typical attractor in mindspace.

I'm also curious about this.

comment by [deleted] · 2010-10-16T20:40:14.065Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Some of the changes I've experienced seem to be accessible to those with natural reflective abilities. In this comment Oshaberi writes:

I have no memory of a time when I didn't think self-reflexively, I'm pretty sure I was doing it as far back as kindergarden. Though I'm not sure I took it to the extremes of some of you, I only ever did modest personality modification :). I realized I could like any previously hated food just by trying. It's somewhat useful having such great control over thoughts and emotions.

(Also see my comment here)

comment by [deleted] · 2010-10-16T20:27:57.068Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Amazing and powerful states of mental focus, peace, and happiness can be achieved without drugs. Such states can be maintained during everyday consciousness.

Here is some more evidence for this claim (from Mindfulness in Plain English):

One of the most memorable events in your meditation career is the moment when you first realize that you are [in] meditation in the midst of some perfectly ordinary activity. You are driving down the freeway or carrying out the trash and it just turns on by itself. This unplanned outpouring of the skills you have been so carefully fostering is a genuine joy. It gives you a tiny window on the future. You catch a spontaneous glimpse of what the practice really means. The possibility strikes you that this transformation of consciousness could actually become a permanent feature of your experience. You realize that you could actually spend the rest of your days standing aside from the debilitating clamoring of your own obsessions, no longer frantically hounded by your own needs and greed. You get a tiny taste of what it is like to just stand aside and watch it all flow past. It's a magic moment.

comment by [deleted] · 2010-10-05T18:36:06.391Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Wow, I'm psyched I finally got that off my chest.

comment by [deleted] · 2010-10-05T18:46:20.434Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

On the slightly more mundane side, I've also experienced a lot of the physiological effects Will_Newsome mentioned above.

comment by Will_Newsome · 2010-10-05T23:36:41.637Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Do you think the more mundane physiological effects could be seen as indicators that meditation is working, or are they almost entirely distinct from more useful progress in meditation, or are there just more tangible effects that people could notice? I think aspiring rationalists especially will be looking for signs of growth and that perhaps without those signs they will become skeptical of the value of meditation. Listing signs that meditation is working in your post might be a good idea.

comment by [deleted] · 2010-10-06T04:10:15.717Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I think aspiring rationalists especially will be looking for signs of growth and that perhaps without those signs they will become skeptical of the value of meditation.

Good point. One benefit of taking a long retreat is that (at least in the case of the dhamma.org courses) you will probably either have a number of insights or experience a significantly different state of mind. Either of these would be evidence warranting further investigation into meditation.

I'll try to think of signs of growth for those learning in the battleground of real life.

comment by Relsqui · 2010-10-04T19:16:57.131Z · score: 5 (5 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

When I am breathed heavily

(Typo)

to think of Enlightenment as an amazing state of being that we should all aim for as rationalists

The "should" here is a red flag for me. By what criteria should we? It's clearly pleasant, but toward what other goal is it useful? (I don't especially think you're wrong; I'm just pressing you to clarify.)

Can you describe more specifically the position in which you sat up on your bed and especially on the roof? Just the thought of sitting up without any back support for any length of time makes me wince a little bit.

Were you making notes as you went or did you remember all this, with fairly precise durations, afterwards?

comment by Will_Newsome · 2010-10-04T19:57:30.189Z · score: 0 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

The "should" here is a red flag for me. By what criteria should we? It's clearly pleasant, but toward what other goal is it useful?

Hm, I tried to explain why in the next sentence:

The magnaminity, compassion, competence, acceptance, and feeling of awesomeness created by the jhanas should be cultivated and drawn upon whenever possible.

I just sort of assumed people would think of those as useful traits to have if possible. The Buddha was hella competent.

comment by Relsqui · 2010-10-05T04:41:39.977Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I just sort of assumed people would think of those as useful traits to have if possible.

I do. I'm giving you a hard time because I agree with you and I'm trying to figure out why I do, and why we believe the thing we agree on. But I can pick apart my values on my own time. :)

comment by Will_Newsome · 2010-10-04T19:51:39.227Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I definitely couldn't do it without a folded towel and a pillow on top of it: I rest my backbone/spine on the edge of the pillow, with my legs resting out in front of the pillow on the ground. I should probably buy a zafu. Not having one would also make me wince; I figured everyone used pillows or something. The rest is more intuitive: legs crossed, spine/neck straight (level gaze, head back, but chin down), relaxed shoulders. More info is in the guide I linked to in the post.

Were you making notes as you went or did you remember all this, with fairly precise durations, afterwards?

I remembered it fairly precisely, and the times are all based off of post hoc guessing. It's a bad sign I guess that I can remember all that, 'cuz it means I wasn't really focused on my breath. I got a little too meta, I think: thinking about my meditation. I tried to pull my attention back to my breath and I did get some subtle facial numbness I associate with jhana (perhaps incorrectly) but I wasn't able to keep it going long enough. (Also, thinking "Ah yes, I'm getting close to a jhana!" is a very natural and somewhat derailing thought.) Still though, the overall experience was very refreshing and peaceful. I'm not surprised that most people don't have as intense an experience I had on their first try, but I am surprised that they don't experience the subtler but still strong experiences of peacefulness, compassion, patience, even physical enjoyment, et cetera. Perhaps reading Mindfulness in Plain English would help?

comment by Relsqui · 2010-10-05T04:44:25.299Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I should probably buy a zafu

Ooh, I bet I could make one of those. I'd still be a bit worried about my back, but honestly the problem there is my posture, which is fixable (and worth fixing independently of this reason).

Perhaps reading Mindfulness in Plain English would help?

Indeed--I have it open in a tab but haven't gotten to it yet. Sorry for the redundant questions and thanks for the answers.

comment by Scott Alexander (Yvain) · 2010-10-04T17:49:44.837Z · score: 5 (5 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

This is really good and I'm glad you posted it and I will be trying a lot of what you mention. Also, I'm glad Google helpfully informed me that there are two different uses of "jhana", because I only knew the other one and was about to post that if you reached dhyana your first time meditating I was pretty sure you were the Maitreya Buddha.

I find I have to meditate sitting up because I become very sleepy if I do it lying down. If you can avoid sleepiness, you may escape that need. I've also heard uncomfortable positions like lotus suggested because you're trying to stop all body movement, all positions become equally uncomfortable when you can't move at all in them, and it's better to have a position you know you're supposed to be uncomfortable in so you don't try to fake a shift. That having been said, I can't stay in lotus for forty minutes.

My biggest problem when meditating is that when I focus on my breath, I switch to breathing consciously, and I can't consciously get it right. I either end up gasping for breath or hyperoxygenated (which causes paraesthesias and which I confused with sort sort of mystical body energy or something for a while until I realized what was going on). Do you not have this problem?

comment by Will_Newsome · 2010-10-04T18:16:31.479Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

There are few references for the jhanas that I like, but this one seems maybe the simplest and most informative: http://www.katinkahesselink.net/tibet/jhana-2.html . In general there's an unfortunately large amount of Pali words that you have to check the definitions of ever 10 seconds. Also, it can be a little difficult to determine when you felt 'transcendent joy' versus 'all-encompassing joy' and the like. The names aren't as important as the experiences of course, but as a rationalist I do have something of an obsessive urge to track my progress (which is said to be counterproductive). It's similar when comparing effects of drugs like nitrous oxide. Two people who both have strong reactions have no real metric to compare the intensity of their experiences. (By the way, I suspect that doing nitrous oxide before meditating is a cheap hack to get started off on the right foot. Nitrous oxide is generally a wonderful drug to experiment with.)

That having been said, I can't stay in lotus for forty minutes.

Lucky, I can't even really get into a good half-lotus for more than 30 seconds... even when I try the acceptance trick for the pain, which normally works really well, there's a purely instinctual desire to change positions. I think I'll try it for 10 minutes while not meditating after writing this comment, to test how well I can deal with pain and discomfort.

My biggest problem when meditating is that when I focus on my breath, I switch to breathing consciously, and I can't consciously get it right. I either end up gasping for breath or hyperoxygenated (which causes paraesthesias and which I confused with sort sort of mystical body energy or something for a while until I realized what was going on). Do you not have this problem?

Generally, no... if I relax my shoulders (something I consistently forget to do) and just focus on my nostrils, my breathing tends to be very light and normal-paced. If I try to breathe like that normally (when I'm not relaxed or feeling calm) then I feel as if I'm not getting enough oxygen. So for me at least the key is to try to relax all of the muscles in my body as soon as I notice they're tensed. Luckily I can tell they're tensed when my thoughts are wandering and my breathing starts getting heavier or more intense. Distracting thoughts, tensed muscles, and bad breathing all seem to be correlated, and when I notice and fix one it tends to automatically fix the others, at least until I lose focus again. I've been doing a lot of running recently so it could be that I need less oxygen than most; though of course, I doubt most monks do a lot of running.

This is really good and I'm glad you posted it and I will be trying a lot of what you mention.

I'm really glad you think so! There seems to be a general practice of not sharing one's meditative experiences. I can sorta see why: it's hard to do so without sounding pretentious, and I wasn't really able to avoid that. Also, talking so long about myself just seems wrong, as it's violating a well-known social convention. But I figured the benefits of sharing outweighed the costs. I'm happy you got something out of it.

comment by [deleted] · 2010-10-04T21:28:17.277Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

There seems to be a general practice of not sharing one's meditative experiences. I can sorta see why: it's hard to do so without sounding pretentious, and I wasn't really able to avoid that. Also, talking so long about myself just seems wrong, as it's violating a well-known social convention. But I figured the benefits of sharing outweighed the costs.

I'm glad you shared as well. I think the general practice of not sharing is part of the culture of no-self; it seems egotistical to talk about one's meditation awesomeness. I also think the benefits of violating it outweigh the costs. I'm going to try to comment with some of my experiences later.

ETA: Here is the comment I promised.

comment by Relsqui · 2010-10-04T19:21:19.708Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

even when I try the acceptance trick for the pain, which normally works really well, there's a purely instinctual desire to change positions. I think I'll try it for 10 minutes while not meditating after writing this comment, to test how well I can deal with pain and discomfort.

It seems to me that the pain associated with certain physical positions exists to warn us of potential harm. Circulatory trouble is the obvious one; I don't know if stressing muscles which aren't strong yet is actually harmful, but I'd be surprised if it isn't. Setting aside helpful mental discipline of accepting pain, are you concerned at all about actual damage being done to your body?

I also appreciate that you posted this; it's a subject I'm curious about (as demonstrated by how much I've been interrogating Luke_Grecki). I will try to find the time to read the guide you linked and, if I follow along, try practicing it.

comment by Will_Newsome · 2010-10-04T19:35:39.376Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Setting aside helpful mental discipline of accepting pain, are you concerned at all about actual damage being done to your body?

Yes indeed, but I think that I'm going to really need to stretch to improve my flexibility. I'll try not to go overboard with it though.

I will try to find the time to read the guide you linked and, if I follow along, try practicing it.

I was thinking about scheduling a Less Wrong Meditation Day, in a week or two after people get a chance to read up, where we choose a Saturday and everyone meditates for 6 hours, all starting at roughly the same time. You put social pressure on yourself by committing to report back with your experiences, and this way you can try out extended meditation without having to go through with the scary 10 day retreat. Lots of people won't be able to find time in their schedule, but I think a few people might, and if there are enough people then it could be good. I'm really interested in seeing the variance of experiences.

I also appreciate that you posted this

Awesome! Any suggestions that'll make it better than -1? There are some automatic problems of pretension/self-absorption that I'm not sure how to fix, but there might be other obvious problems I'm not seeing.

comment by Relsqui · 2010-10-05T05:12:17.091Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I think that I'm going to really need to stretch to improve my flexibility

Ditto. I was in a good routine of arm and shoulder stretches for a while, because of the guitar, but I didn't succeed when I tried to fold some more general stuff (for cycling--legs, glutes, core), and then I trailed off. I wonder how I could get the habit to stick. I suspect it would have to start with normalizing my daily routine in the first place.

I was thinking about scheduling a Less Wrong Meditation Day

That sounds great. I'd definitely want to try it first, to experiment with positions and techniques, but the idea is very appealing.

Any suggestions that'll make it better than -1?

The people who voted you down would probably have better ideas than I do, but I can guess. The description of effects may not need to be so detailed as to include repetition; recording the patterns might suffice. In the part where you mention the two major poles of LWers and your preference, I'd like to see either more acknowledgement of the counterarguments or less opining. That is, some people clearly disagree with you, because they belong to the other pole; you can strengthen your case by noting why they disagree and why you stand by your position. But I'm not sure that point is needed at all--you could just talk about why meditation is useful to rationalists, regardless of their origins. This is the thing I was needling you about in another subthread, and why I was needling you about it. :)

Similarly:

But hopefully LW starts moving in a more Buddhist and effectiveness-oriented direction.

Even if you don't associate Buddhism and Buddhist techniques with religion of the sort most LWers disagree with, some of them will, and this could bring up hackles. Failing that, it's also advocacy of a general personal philosophy; advocacy of specific techniques in order to move towards specific goals might be better received.

comment by Relsqui · 2010-10-20T08:37:23.425Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I will try to find the time to read the guide you linked and, if I follow along, try practicing it.

I just want to say that it's really strange reading this two weeks later and having now done the reading and tried it a few times (and planning to do so again right after I wrap up with LW right now). I've been deliberately cultivating the habit of actually doing things instead of just talking about them, but it's startling to come across a concrete reminder of success!

comment by [deleted] · 2010-10-04T23:07:32.463Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I was thinking about scheduling a Less Wrong Meditation Day

This sounds great. And then making an open thread for everyone to report back?

I was wondering if this sort of thing would be more useful than me writing a post giving instructions. You mentioned (and I agree) that the Mindfulness in Plain English guide is very good, and what I'd end up writing would be a concise set of instructions with some advice that seems most helpful to me. A place where people could report their personal difficulties and respond to each other might be better.

Vipassana as taught at the dhamma.org courses is different than that given in the Mindfulness guide, but I'll address that in another comment.

comment by Will_Newsome · 2010-10-04T23:46:21.231Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Vipassana as taught at the dhamma.org courses is different than that given in the Mindfulness guide, but I'll address that in another comment.

The whole thing is really confused, seemingly. You have this modern vipassana movement, but the types of meditation endorsed by the vipassana movement are sometimes anapanasati and sometimes vipassana.

There are 16 core instructions of anapanasati, only 4 to 8 of which are actually directly related to breath. And they seem to imply that you should enter the first or second jhanas, but normally you are told to stop focusing on breathing when in jhana and instead focus on the feeling of physical or emotional bliss (at least in the first two/three jhanas); why then such instructions would appear under the title of anapanasati is thus beyond me.

Then in the realm of jhanas there are apparently these weird vipassana jhanas that I've never seen anywhere besides Wikipedia, and are perhaps particular to Burma. These 8 jhanas are a lot more popular and agree more with my limited experience. The vipassana jhanas seem to be describing the results of successful vipassana meditation, whereas normal jhanas are the results of successful anapanasati meditation. But the definitions and meaningfulness of the vipassana jhanas are controversial: Buddhaghosa held that the jhanas were for anapanasati, not vipassana.

Vipassana itself is unrelated to the jhanas, and I do not understand it, having kept thus far within the domain of anapanasati. Only in your posts on mindspace do they seem to share a common theme. But where you focus your perception on different parts of your body, moving your concentration along, it is elsewhere suggested that in vipassana one should consider loftier things, like the 40 canonical objects of meditation. Apparently it is because the aim of vipassana is to investigate the four satipatthana in order to see the three marks of existence, in the process reaching new states of knowledge and then attaining nirvana (bodhi).

I think I'm going to order Buddhaghosa's famous book and try to see where my understanding is shaky.

ETA: Actually, I'm a little saddened that Mindfulness In Plain English was so apparently misleading. Anapanasati is a form of samatha meditation, and thus the jhanas seem to be mostly anapanasati/samatha but with a touch of vipassana (at least that is my naive interpretation). Interestingly, the following is from Wikipedia:

As Thanissaro Bhikkhu writes, "when [the Pāli suttas] depict the Buddha telling his disciples to go meditate, they never quote him as saying 'go do vipassana,' but always 'go do jhana.' And they never equate the word "vipassana" with any mindfulness techniques. In the few instances where they do mention vipassana, they almost always pair it with samatha — not as two alternative methods, but as two qualities of mind that a person may 'gain' or 'be endowed with,' and that should be developed together.

ETA 2: Actually, I think what tripped me up is that it's more subtle than that. Anapanasati in the sense of concentrating on one's breath might be samatha, where anapanasati in the sense of being mindful of one's consciousness as one concentrates on one's breath is a form of vipassana. I am not sure of this, but if true, then there is needless confusion going on that is hard to untangle. But it would be neat if this were true, as it means that anapanasati is both vipassana and samatha at once, which matches the bikkhu's description in ETA 1 as well as my own subjective experience of attaining the second jhana: mindfulness of breath is what let me focus my mind and concentrate, but it was the insights into my breath and the mindfulness of my consciousness of breathing that actually led me to experience jhana. I think. But this is guesswork.

comment by [deleted] · 2010-10-05T00:47:51.719Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

To add to this confusion vipassana is sometimes called a jhana:

The Buddha found the ninth jhana, and that is Vipassana, the development of insight that will take the meditator to the ultimate goal beyond the misery of sensory experience.

comment by Will_Newsome · 2010-10-05T01:28:05.664Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

O_O

comment by [deleted] · 2010-10-05T00:07:08.407Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

The whole thing is really confused, seemingly.

Yeah. Note how I said I was going to write a post on anapanasati and then wrote one on vipassana. I was trying to reconcile the distinction between the two while I was thinking about the post.

In the end I think it comes down to this: you need to develop concentration and you need to apply it in non-judgmental observation of your own mental processes. Some traditions encourage practicing these separately while some indicate that you should practice them in the same sitting. It seems natural to just think of them as a single technique, and this is the perspective I tried to take in my post.

ETA: It may be useful to alternate focusing on concentration vs observation, seeing as you may only be able to make certain observations after developing your concentration to some threshold.

But where you focus your perception on different parts of your body

This is the kind of vipassana taught at the dhamma.org courses. Here's how I mentally unified this and anapanasati: I think of the mental procedure of systematically observing the parts of your body as your anchor, which you return to in between observing what's naturally arising in your mind.

As for the jhanas, I've never really thought much about them. I'm certainly interested though.

comment by Will_Newsome · 2010-10-05T02:56:01.692Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

ETA: It may be useful to alternate focusing on concentration vs observation, seeing as you may only be able to make certain observations after developing your concentration to some threshold.

It seems as if there's a few standard approaches here:

  • Buddhaghosa suggests entering (the fourth?) jhana and then retreating, after which the mind will be naturally very concentrated, sharp, and ready for insight meditation.
  • In contrast, the Samaññaphala Sutta and other suttas suggest entering the fourth jhana and engaing in insight meditation from there, without leaving.
  • "One approach emphasized insight practice almost exclusively, feeling that since insight gives rise to the wisdom necessary for enlightenment, this was what was more important. An excellent example of a sutta reflecting this approach is the Sammaditthi Sutta (Majjhima Nikaya #9). Here Sariputta gives a beautiful discourse on Right View. He discussed 16 important topics and ends each topic by saying "When a noble disciple has thus understood [the topic], he uproots the underlying tendency to greed, hatred, the 'I am' conceit and ignorance, and arousing true knowledge he here and now makes an end of suffering." Here enlightenment is achieved solely through insights; the Jhanas are not even mentioned."

I definitely can't enter the fourth jhana at whim, nor do I feel at all prepared for vipassana meditation. But I think this confirms your reasoning that there are many potentially successful approaches to balancing concentration and mindfulness, which might be good to keep in mind.

comment by Will_Newsome · 2010-10-05T00:31:00.683Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Sorry, I kept on editing and editing my comment! But anyway.

In the end I think it comes down to this: you need to develop concentration and you need to apply it in non-judgmental observation of your own mental processes. Some traditions encourage practicing these separately while some indicate that you should practice them in the same sitting. It seems natural to just think of them as a single technique, and this is the perspective I tried to take in my post.

Yeah, I think the whole concentration/mindfulness dichotomy hadn't really clicked with me yet; I understood the distinction, but couldn't identify their qualia. Thinking back on my meditation experiences now, though, I understand their difference.

This is the kind of vipassana taught at the dhamma.org courses. Here's how I mentally unified this and anapanasati: I think of the mental procedure of systematically observing the parts of your body as your anchor, which you return to in between observing what's naturally arising in your mind.

That seems very natural and clever.

As for the jhanas, I've never really thought much about them. I'm certainly interested though.

I had only a vague idea of what they were until I experienced that incredible body high / uncontainable bliss and checked Wikipedia and the like for what that possibly could have been. Some texts said 'they are distracting, practice vipassana instead' but reading this and just generally looking at how Buddha attained enlightenment via the jhanas made me think that my efforts should be aimed at mastering as many jhanas as quickly as I can. As much as I love meditation, the penultimate goal is awesomeness, and the jhanas are awesome.

Hence I'm a tad wary of the various vipassana practices and will probably keep to anapanasati till I get strong diminishing marginal returns on jhana achievement. (Various texts talk about how desiring jhana makes you less likely to attain jhana. I think what they mean though is thinking about jhana during meditation, not when planning meditative styles beforehand. Hence the Buddha telling people to do jhana, obviously implying that they could achieve jhana despite deciding to aim for it beforehand.)

comment by [deleted] · 2010-10-05T00:25:14.381Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Anapanasati in the sense of concentrating on one's breath might be samatha, where anapanasati in the sense of being mindful of one's consciousness as one concentrates on one's breath is a form of vipassana.

This rings true to me. It's the most clear description of their relationship I've come across.

comment by Relsqui · 2010-10-05T05:14:41.573Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

what I'd end up writing would be a concise set of instructions with some advice that seems most helpful to me.

I'd like to read that, in addition to the full guide. It would tell me which elements someone who's already practiced this finds especially important.

A place where people could report their personal difficulties and respond to each other might be better.

I'm not sure the two need to be mutually exclusive. An open thread in the discussion section might be good for this, since it wouldn't be of general interest to everyone on LW but the people who are interested could use a meeting point.

comment by Relsqui · 2010-10-20T08:39:48.531Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

There seems to be a general practice of not sharing one's meditative experiences.

Given the post/comments here, and also my comment in the other thread, I'm inclined to lean the other way and keep trying to describe my experiences as fully as possible. It might be useful for other learners--but on the other hand, after thinking about that for a few moments, I expect anticipation of writing to distract me during the sessions themselves. Maybe that's why people don't talk about their experiences. They're useful as introspective, personal phenomena, and habitual sharing weakens that.

comment by aleksiL · 2012-05-05T20:39:04.216Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

My biggest problem when meditating is that when I focus on my breath, I switch to breathing consciously[...]

I've started to suspect that this difficulty is actually a feature. Observing without interfering seems like an important skill to learn if the goal is to be more aware of your thoughts and actions in general.

Imagine, say, being consciously aware of every detail of your leg movements while walking; it becomes a lot more difficult if you don't know how to stay out of your own way.

comment by [deleted] · 2010-10-15T18:18:21.707Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

My biggest problem when meditating is that when I focus on my breath, I switch to breathing consciously, and I can't consciously get it right.

Here's some advice from a guy named Ajahn Brahm:

A common problem at this stage is the tendency to control the breathing, and this makes the breathing uncomfortable. To overcome this problem, imagine that you are just a passenger in a car looking through the window at your breath. You are not the driver, nor a `back seat driver', so stop giving orders, let go and enjoy the ride. Let the breath do the breathing while you simply watch without interfering.

I also had this problem for a while.

comment by Scott Alexander (Yvain) · 2010-10-15T19:01:34.157Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I discovered something interesting regarding this yesterday. I mentioned that when I breathe too much, I get paraesthesias (feeling of numbness and tingling).

Well, now I've noticed that checking to see whether I have paraesthesias also causes paraesthesias. I don't know if this is true of everyone, but just thinking "I wonder if my face is tingling right now" causes my face to tingle quite perceptibly.

I think this was at the root of a lot of my worries over breathing "wrong".

comment by erratio · 2010-10-15T23:38:21.912Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I did something like that the other week. I was lying in bed and I noticed a band of tingly numbness across the top of my head. I decided to try to deliberately extend the feeling across my whole head and got a bunch of perceptible twitching in various facial muscles as a result.

comment by [deleted] · 2010-10-04T22:53:11.852Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

There are a lot of insights here that I've also experienced due to meditation (though over a longer period), but this one struck me as particularly important:

However, becoming so accepting of both my faults and others' during meditation led me to think that perhaps the disgust I feel for myself and others is a needless emotion, and that simply acknowledging areas of improvement without associating them with negative affect is a much better way to make myself a more awesome person and understand the plights of others. [...] Both are affect-laden thoughts where simple awareness will do better.

Besides simple awareness being what I think to be a more enjoyable way of functioning, I find that it does feel more efficient. Instead of using mental resources to attend to the affect I'm able to apply them to my current task.

comment by username2 · 2016-04-11T22:42:27.598Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I was expecting more metta-contrarianism.

comment by [deleted] · 2010-10-04T22:40:43.111Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

It's great that you were able to have such positive experiences and insights with so little practice. Perhaps like-minded LW-folk can as well? (ETA: I'm thinking that people with strong introspection skills might be able to make significantly faster progress.)

You importantly note that we may be able to avoid the long hard path others have had to take:

Neurofeedback, isochronic beats, and transcranial magnetic stimulation all seem like potential paths towards easy Enlightenment. (The jhanas seem to allow strong clarity of mind where drugs do not; but it is possible that being on drugs as much as possible might also be an interesting path. I'd rather not go down it yet.) 'Course, we might still have to just do it the hard way.

Part of my motivation for thinking about vipassana meditation is to figure out if there is an easier path. I haven't had any significant ideas about this yet though.

comment by natural_number · 2010-10-04T16:28:14.535Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Wow, I've practiced meditation for roughly two years and I did not experience anything - that's why I don't really do it anymore. After the disappointment of a couple years practice and not finding any difference between meditation and just sitting still breathing, I thought maybe Buddhism is a vacuous nonsense - it's not an opinion I want to have. Anyway it was interesting to read this and as a result I shall continue practicing since it is a good experience even if you don't "get" anything out of it.