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Understanding vipassana meditation

42 [deleted] 03 October 2010 06:12PM

Related to: The Trouble With "Good"

Followed by: Vipassana Meditation: Developing Meta-Feeling Skills

I describe a way to understand vipassana meditation (a form of Buddhist meditation) using the concept of affective judgment1.  Vipassana aims to break the habit of blindly making affective judgments about mental states, and reverse the damage done by doing so in the past. This habit may be at the root of many problems described on LessWrong, and is likely involved in other mental issues. In the followup post I give details about how to actually practice vipassana.

The problem

Consider mindspace. Mindspace2 is the configuration space of a mind. Each mental state is identified with a position in mindspace, specified by its description along some dimensions. For human mindspace the affect of a mental state is a natural dimension to use, and it's the one that's most important for a conceptual understanding of vipassana meditation.

According to vipassana meditators, every time we pass through a point in mindspace we update its affect by judging3 whether that mental state is good or bad. On the other hand, the path we take through mindspace is strongly determined by this dimension alone, and we tend to veer towards clusters of positive affect and away from those with negative affect. The current judgment of a mental state is also strongly determined by its present affect. This can result in a dangerous feedback loop4, with small initial affective judgments compounding into deep mental patterns. It seems that this phenomenon is at the root of many problems mentioned here.5

Aside from causing systematic errors in thought and action it is claimed that this mechanism is also responsible for our mental suffering and restlessness. Vipassana aims to solve these problems by training us to observe and control our affective judgments, and break out of the pattern of blind reaction.

How it works

There are four aspects to the process:

  1. Slowing the flood of affective judgments so one can distinctly observe them.
  2. Learning to not compulsively make affective judgments.
  3. Smoothing one's previously formed emotional gradients.
  4. No longer forming strong emotional gradients.

They are synergistic practices and should be developed simultaneously. This will only be possible later on; at any given time you may only be able to practice one or more of them.

1) Slowing the flood

The ability to calm the mind and concentrate is essential. Without this, one remains involved in the rushing pattern of affect perception and judgment, and there is no possibility of seeing the process and ultimately changing it. This ability is trained by having one maintain awareness of a neutral mental process, which serves as an anchor that one continually returns to. Gradually one becomes aware of the subtle pattern of affective judgments and can distinctly observe them.

2) Not compulsively judging

While periodically returning to the mental anchor, one attempts to observe the mental states that arise without making affective judgments about them. In trying to do this it becomes clear how such judgments can cascade and create deep mental paths that it can be hard to escape from.

3) Smoothing old emotional gradients

Applying this new skill of neutral observation, one works on the long task of undoing old emotional gradients. When observing a mental state without making an affective judgment one can lower6 its present affective value. This is opposed to the previous pattern of making another affective judgment in the same direction, and increasing (or sustaining) its affect. A great variety of mental states will arise during this process, and by neutrally observing them one slowly dismantles the affective structures that are widely distributed in mindspace.

4) No longer forming strong emotional gradients

While smoothing old emotional gradients one must take care not to create new ones. The goal is not to never make affective judgments (I'm not even sure this is possible), but rather to take control of the process and prevent dangerous feedback patterns from occurring.

Conclusion

Vipassana meditation aims to change the way we assign affect to mental states, and reverse the damage accumulated from doing so poorly in the past. Our default way for doing this may be the root of a number of rationality problems. Vipassana serves as a meta-tool, helping one to defuse harmful affective structures that are causing particular problems. I expect that these are common but vary in intensity, and the benefits of vipassana are obtained mainly through correcting these "pathologies".

 


1 My basis for using this concept is mainly introspective observation during my daily meditation practice the past three years. At the very least I expect it will be helpful for understanding and practicing vipassana meditation, but it may turn out to be a fundamental cognitive process.

2 Note that this concept is distinct from mind design space. In mind design space each point corresponds to a possible mind, and hence each point has an associated mindspace.

3 For a simple case where the distinction between making an affective judgment and not making one is clear, consider experiencing a painful sensation. I claim that this pain is actually a composite phenomenon; it consists of a strong negative affective judgment (or series of such judgments) and a physical sensation. Not making an affective judgment in this case would mean that all that remains is the physical sensation. You would keep experiencing this physical sensation but not have a dying urge to do something about it (like shift your sitting position, for example). As long as you make sure that you are not causing bodily damage, I think that observing pain in meditation can be a really great learning experience.

4 In Buddhist literature the positive feedback spiral is called craving and the negative one is called aversion.

5 Don't forget this and this. This phenomenon may also be responsible for the cached thoughts and cached selves problems, depending on the degree to which cached mental structures are implemented as emotional gradients.

6 This is meant in the sense of absolute value.

 


Edit: On Academian's recommendation I've added a footnote attempting to clarify the notion of an affective judgment, and what it means not to make one. It's an excerpt from my comment here.

 

Comments (77)

Comment author: Relsqui 03 October 2010 09:25:39AM 4 points [-]

This is just enough information to make me curious about the technique and not quite enough to satisfy any of that curiosity. This could be adjusted by adding either more detail (which I realize might be a big kettle of worms) or links to resources which are themselves more instructional.

If I understand the idea correctly, it may model a specific recent problem of mine very well. One could describe the problem as a deep affect pit in mindspace, which I am unable to path around because of persistent external stimuli, and which gets a little bit deeper every time I fall into it. I'd already observed that pjeby's somatic markers seemed to model it well, and this idea seems complementary to that one. I've been actively looking for ways to mitigate this feedback loop; hence my interest.

Comment author: [deleted] 03 October 2010 04:48:08PM 1 point [-]

Yeah, I thought it might be too concise. Are there particular sections you would like to see expanded?

Even after possibly filling it out a little it shouldn't satisfy all your curiosity since I haven't talked about how to practice it yet. I was planning on doing that in another post that uses the conceptual framework of this one. Do you think it should all be a single post?

Also, thanks for the link. I've been thinking about how all this connects to pjeby's ideas.

Comment author: GreenRoot 03 October 2010 10:42:23PM 1 point [-]

I haven't talked about how to practice it yet. I was planning on doing that in another post that uses the conceptual framework of this one. Do you think it should all be a single post?

Yes, or else posted very soon. In any case, if the content ends up separate, please link each post to the other.

Comment author: Relsqui 03 October 2010 10:28:07AM *  8 points [-]

Hm. I followed a link from what I'm told is your blog to a site for finding vipassana courses, and did a bunch of reading there. Some of the details made me quirk an eyebrow, but they could have just been poor presentation, so I went looking for more information elsewhere. I found, among other things, this thread talking about some very negative experiences with that particular organization (as well as some reminders that the organization does not represent the method).

The biggest red flags which went up while I was reading about that organization were the amount of sleep (posted schedule in the application I saw allows for a max of 6.5 hours/night), lack of real engagement with teachers, and pressure not to leave the course. Again, I realize the one organization doesn't represent the practice, although apparently they think they do:

Needless to say, as I was re-stating that I was leaving and that nothing would stop me, I was (kindly??) reminded that by leaving I would end up on the list of people who would never be allowed to sign up for a Vipassana course anywhere in the world. When I suggested that there might be other organisations than S.N. Goenka's teaching Vipassana, I was flatly told that there were no other possibilities.

(From the same link as above.)

Clearly some of the people didn't know what they were getting into, and yes, I realize it's not supposed to be easy, but that's still a whole pile of concerning things in one place. Have you attended a course run by the organization at dhamma.org? If so, where, and did you feel physically and mentally safe while there?

I didn't come away from that thread with only negative impressions, but the negative impressions are the ones I'm looking for responses to. The nearest courses to me are still far enough that I'd need to get a ride with someone else, meaning that while there I would be unable to leave on my own. This calls for a lot of caution about what I'd be getting myself into.

Comment author: [deleted] 04 October 2010 01:37:57AM 12 points [-]

It could be amazing if we organized a vipassana course for rationalists.

We'd meet at a cabin in the woods. For 10 days we would meditate for 8 hours a day, take breaks by walking in the wilderness, and cook our meals together at night. It might even be beneficial if it wasn't entirely silent; we could discuss at night any insights we'd had that day.

Moving us one step closer to Bayesian Buddhist Conspiracy.

Seriously, any rationalist vipassana masters out there want to help make it happen?

Comment author: josh0 04 October 2010 03:47:36PM 2 points [-]

As an on-again off-again vipassana practitioner (I managed to maintain a regular practice while I was living in Boston, but that was largely due to the fact that the CIMC [1] was on my walk to/from work), I would love to get involved in a rationalist meditation group. In my experience it is much easier for me to maintain a regular practice with a group, but simultaneously difficult to become a real member of that group as most tend to approach meditation as a religious ritual rather than a worthwhile practice in its own right with practical value. Having a group of people to not only meditate with, but actually have productive conversation about the experience of meditating with would be phenomenal.

1 http://cimc.info/

Comment author: Relsqui 04 October 2010 07:31:22PM *  1 point [-]

I support this.

I think the tricky part would be finding a cluster of interested people who are able to convene at the same place--especially given that they'd need both the ability to take ten days off normal life, and presumably money for the location, food, etc. (It's pretty easy to have free time or money, but tough to have both.)

Personally, I'm interested, not at all experienced, not able to travel far from the east SF bay (barring a carpool with someone local), and can't contribute funds, although I am willing and able to cook and do other work to help out, and it's not too hard for me to have ten days available.

Comment author: josh0 04 October 2010 09:47:51PM 3 points [-]

Not entirely relevant to this conversation, but:

there at least used to be regular vipassana meditation sessions led by monks from Abhayagiri and hosted at the Berkeley Zen Center (I think that's what it's called) on MLK near the Ashby BART station. Abhayagiri is a monastery in the Thai Forest tradition led, I believe, by a former student of the late Ajahn Chah; in my experience that's usually a pretty good indicator of a very result-oriented approach to meditation that eschews the supernatural talk in favor of the pursuit of practical goals (though in their case the 'practical goal' is enlightenment, so take that as you will).

Comment author: Relsqui 05 October 2010 04:36:24AM 0 points [-]

Do you mean the Thai Temple, on Russell? (That'd be a block north of Ashby, and just off MLK behind the tool lending library.) Very distinctively temple-looking? If so, I know the place, but I haven't been there. Thanks for the heads up. :)

Comment author: josh0 05 October 2010 12:11:07PM 0 points [-]

I believe it's actually right down the street from the Thai Temple. Much less official looking. I haven't actually been though (always intended to go, and then ended up moving away before I did).

Comment author: Relsqui 05 October 2010 05:40:28PM *  0 points [-]

Oh okay. I'll look around. Thank you.

Edit: Found it--you're right, it is just up from the temple.

Comment author: eternaltourist 04 October 2010 12:06:56AM 8 points [-]

I can only speak to my own experience. I sat a 10 day course at one of the S.N. Goenka Vipassana centers in North America. At no time was my safety or comfort in question. The volunteers there are passionate in their benign-ness, and their desire to do no harm.

The whole teaching is predicated on the idea of reducing suffering, and the center that I was at was run very much with this idea at the core of everything. It is inconceivable to me that somebody could feel threatened or unsafe at this center.

With respect to leaving early: My understanding here is that every single student wants to leave. My mind was screaming in resistance. There were moments where I wanted to leave with every fiber in my being. I'm pretty sure that every student goes through this. If they didn't take a tough stance on this, then many more people would leave and lose the benefit that the center and the courses are specifically designed to bring.

It takes a strong determination to sit one of these courses.

My brother is actually also a long-term student (now volunteer and course manager), as is another more distant relative, so I have further insight into how deep the positivity is at these centers.

As for myself, I have continued practice (it has only been 1.5 months), and I have seen the benefits slowly rolling in. Significant benefits. My awareness increases by the day. Simply walking down the street, I remember more and more to de-clench my jaw, and to stop (and start observing) my unconscious reaction patterns.

The meditation is difficult. The rewards are tremendous. And the center was spectacular. I implore every human being to take a 10 day course, and give the technique a trial.

I'm open to questions.

Comment author: Relsqui 04 October 2010 04:29:28AM 1 point [-]

I'm open to questions.

I appreciate that. Most of my questions wound up in a thread with the OP; if you have anything to add to his answers I'd love to hear it.

Comment author: [deleted] 04 October 2010 12:52:39AM *  1 point [-]

I didn't address this in my comment above but I've had a wonderful time volunteering for these courses. The people I've met there were super positive and altruistic, and it was really refreshing to be around them. I think that also speaks to the atmosphere in these courses.

Comment author: Will_Newsome 04 October 2010 12:14:52AM *  1 point [-]

I enjoy meditation very much and I think a 10 day course would really help my meditative practices become more apparent in my everyday thinking. That said, my sleep schedule is naturally utterly chaotic, and for this reason I think the course would be impossible. I am rather negatively affected by lack of sleep, moreso than most. Do you think there are any alternatives or allowances that could be made for me?

Comment author: e803ecea3 05 October 2010 04:10:57PM *  0 points [-]

As I mentioned in another comment, the Goenka courses actually easily accommodate up to 9 hours of continuous sleep at night, from 9:30PM to 6:30AM. The pre-breakfast meditation is encouraged, but entirely optional. You could even nap for another hour after breakfast. There's also an hour to hour and a half of nap time after lunch.

I personally get 8-10.5 hours of sleep a day when doing a Goenka course. I go to bed at 9:30, have an alarm that wakes me up at 5:30, nap after breakfast from 7 to 8 and nap again after lunch from 11:30 to 1PM.

Comment author: [deleted] 04 October 2010 01:49:45AM 0 points [-]

Maybe we could organize our own.

Comment author: [deleted] 04 October 2010 12:48:07AM 3 points [-]

Have you attended a course run by the organization at dhamma.org? If so, where, and did you feel physically and mentally safe while there?

Yes. I've taken 5 (or 6?) courses, all at the Dhamma Dhara center in Massachusetts. I did feel physically and mentally safe there. I'll try to address the red flags you mentioned.

First it should be noted that the centers are somewhat independent, even though the course is quite standardized. They are run on volunteer donations and time, and as a result the set of people working there changes often. Most just come to volunteer for a single 10-day course. Therefore your experience will be partly dependent on the volunteer pool for that center. Some geographical locations will be probably better than others.

Now to your red flags:

amount of sleep

The course schedule does indeed indicate that you should get 6.5 hours sleep, but you don't have to. I'm fairly sure a majority of students skip the first meditation session (from 4:30am to 6:30am) and simply get up for breakfast at 6:30am, allowing for 8.5 hours of sleep. Personally I didn't have much trouble getting up for the early session.

lack of real engagement with teachers

This could be a problem. The teachers seem to mostly parrot Goenka's instructions, even though they have extensive meditation experience. It's unfortunate. I didn't feel the need to ask many questions during my courses so it wasn't a major issue for me. More personalized instruction would be better and could allow for faster progress.

pressure not to leave the course

As I've never tried I can't speak to this personally. At the start of the course they do encourage you not to leave until the end. I've volunteered for some courses at the Massachusetts center and I've observed the procedure there. If you want to leave a volunteer will first ask you about the problem you're having. If they can address it they will, otherwise they'll ask you to talk to the teacher about it. I think the teacher usually encourages you to stay for one more session or something, since the desire to leave could be the result of a transient emotional storm. If they still want to leave, volunteers will help them get their stuff (and a taxi if need be). Again, your experience will be partly determined by the people who happen to be there.

In my experience the dhamma.org courses provided a positive and supportive environment. You will have to endure some (but not too much) dogma/garbage, which will probably also be the case in courses elsewhere.

Comment author: Relsqui 04 October 2010 03:25:40AM 1 point [-]

Thank you, that's very helpful. Do you agree with eternaltourist saying that "everyone wants to leave the course," because it's so mentally difficult, but only a few give in to that urge?

Comment author: [deleted] 04 October 2010 03:41:27AM 3 points [-]

Yes, I think the thought probably crosses most people's minds. I thought "Damn, this is HARD", but didn't ever seriously consider leaving. My guess is that the social support gives people strength they wouldn't have alone.

Some random data: during my experience volunteering I saw that 2-4 men left on average from an initial group of around 50.

Comment author: outside 22 December 2010 03:24:00PM 0 points [-]

I did leave one course years ago, after the third day. I spoke to the teacher and then I was allowed to leave. I met some resistance, a reasonable and understandable one in my opinion.

The memory the course has left is one of the fondest of my entire life. Since then I sworn to myself to attend again, this time successfully. In fact I have recently applied to a course for early 2011.

As for the critiques I have seen so far in this thread, I concur with many of them at an intellectual level, but the bottom line is that you have to try, on your own, on the field, with a critical mind of course, but also an open heart.

Comment author: Relsqui 04 October 2010 04:12:26AM 0 points [-]

My guess is that the social support gives people strength they wouldn't have alone.

What I read (both site rules and participants' experiences) suggests that people are to behave as much as possible like they're alone--not only not speaking, but not really looking or interacting either. Did you not get that impression, or did the feeling of social support occur despite that?

Can you articulate what about it is difficult? The focus and mental effort in general, or the psychological experience? "No" is a valid answer to this, but I'm hoping not the only one. :)

Some random data: during my experience volunteering I saw that 2-4 men left on average from an initial group of around 50.

That matches the estimates I found. Of course, mostly it's those two guys who go post on messages boards about it later.

Comment author: [deleted] 04 October 2010 04:50:21AM 3 points [-]

Did you not get that impression, or did the feeling of social support occur despite that?

It occurred despite that. You don't interact with other people, but you do meditate in the same large room, eat in the same room, and follow the same schedule. The videos at night discuss problems that most students have, which also helps build social support. Knowing that many people are going through similar difficulties is empowering.

Can you articulate what about it is difficult?

Sustained mental effort, unpleasant emotional experiences, unsavory personal realizations, and physical pain. Straight head-butting your mental habits.

Comment author: Will_Newsome 04 October 2010 08:47:28PM 0 points [-]

unpleasant emotional experiences, unsavory personal realizations

These occur in the vipassana stage, after the anapana? I think I have a good idea of where my various faults are and possible ways to fix them, having tried to work with them in the CBT framework. I tend to be rather harsh on myself, so I've had a quite a few unsavory personal realizations. Do you think there are likely to be more such realizations than I anticipate? Basically I figured I'd attacked myself from every which way already. :)

Comment author: e803ecea3 05 October 2010 04:16:32PM *  0 points [-]

In my experience, anapana is more difficult and brings up more stuff because, unlike vipassana, simply focusing on the breath doesn't provide a way to deal with the stuff that comes up.

The thing to remember, though, is that you are trying to focus on breath (anapana) and body sensation (vipassana). Specific thoughts are more or less a distraction. Of course, your thoughts and mental state are tied to the sensations you experience, but because staying equanimous to the sensations is the tool your are using, the actual content of the thoughts are not something you are trying to focus on.

Comment author: Will_Newsome 05 October 2010 09:55:07PM 0 points [-]

In my experience, anapana is more difficult and brings up more stuff because, unlike vipassana, simply focusing on the breath doesn't provide a way to deal with the stuff that comes up.

Hm, what does 'deal with' mean here? To me it brings to mind 'apply rapid fire cognitive behavioral therapy techniques', but that would require conscious deliberation on the thought. Perhaps the difference is that anapanasati is (or can be) just concentration where vipassana is concentration and mindfulness, and only the mindfulness part helps in dealing with stuff that comes up?

Comment author: Relsqui 04 October 2010 06:28:06PM 0 points [-]

I see. Okay, that's all I've got for now; thanks for being patient with the third degree. ;)

Comment author: adb 04 October 2010 09:53:59PM 0 points [-]

Their pages mention that they are funded entirely by donations from past students.

After you've taken the course, how much do they contact you (to solicit donations or otherwise)?

Comment author: [deleted] 04 October 2010 10:24:25PM 1 point [-]

Their attitude towards donations: if you feel that you've benefited from the course and would like others to be able to do so in the future then you can give a donation. The donation shouldn't be given for the purpose of paying for the benefits you've received.

IIRC they don't ever explicitly ask you if you want to give a donation. At the end of the course there is a visible table set up where you can give donations if you want to. They also have forms you can fill out if you'd like to get emails about volunteer opportunities.

Comment author: e803ecea3 05 October 2010 04:03:25PM *  0 points [-]

Just to add to Luke_Grecki's comment (which is spot on), at some of the old student courses it's not even mentioned. The Goenka centers are remarkably passive about donations.

Comment author: [deleted] 04 October 2010 01:15:02AM 0 points [-]

Some geographical locations will be probably better than others.

This may only be significant if you're considering taking courses in different countries. The only negative experience I've personally heard of occurred in a center in India.

Comment author: e803ecea3 05 October 2010 03:49:27PM *  1 point [-]

I've been doing Vipassana via Goenka for over 10 years, have gone to courses at a few of the NA centers, have done a satipatthana sutta course and other shorter old student courses. I can confirm the comments by Luke_Grecki and eternaltourist.

There is no big secret behind how they are run. It's exactly the same whether you are just starting it or have been doing it forever. There's no pressure to donate. They mention it at the end of each 10 day course and that's pretty much it. At some of the short old student courses they don't even bring it up at all.

The centers are safe, the people volunteering are there to make sure your basic needs are met so you can meditiate without distraction. The centers are run by normal people who volunteer. The center trust meetings I've attended are just like practical, run of the mill board meetings.

Regarding the specific concerns, you can actually sleep up to 9 hours easily if you skip the sittings before breakfast. The first required sitting is after breakfast. The sleep thing is really a non-issue. When I'm at a course, I pretty consistently sleep a full 8 hours from 9:30 to 5:30.

The assistant teachers are mostly there to try to nudge you in the right direction. All you are doing is focusing on breath or body sensation, so there simply isn't much to teach outside of goenka's instructions. It's more a matter of just doing it. I suspect that some people have difficultly with the lack of human interaction and try to use the assistant teachers as an outlet for it, but it's counterproductive since it breaks deep concentration and distracts the mind.

As for leaving, eternaltourist's comments are spot on.

Comment author: AdeleneDawner 03 October 2010 12:01:45PM *  1 point [-]

This doesn't directly answer your question, I know, but there are quite a few meditation groups based in Second Life. The ones I'm aware of all either assume that their members already pretty much know what they're doing or stick to very basic techniques, but I can ask around for ones that do instruction.

Comment author: Relsqui 03 October 2010 04:36:47PM 0 points [-]

Thank you, but my only computer is an Eee 1000HA; I haven't actually tried running SL on it but I have an idea of how that would go.

Comment author: Craig_Heldreth 10 October 2010 10:24:44PM *  7 points [-]

After reading the post and 59 comments I have a couple remarks which might be worthwhile and do not seem to have been addressed yet.

First there is not much mention of the extensive scientific research on the topic of meditation and its possible benefits to physical and mental health. I am personally most interested in the U. Wisconsin meditation studies, such as documented here. Those studies use Tibetan Buddhist monks who perform their meditation with a technique which is not exactly vipassana, but they have the largest amount of measured data I know of. We can argue about personal experiences interminably, but data is far more convincing to me.

The best single systematic source for the known science about meditation may be compiled by Charles Tart in his book Altered States of Consciousness. Tart did his undergraduate in Electrical Engineering before turning to Psychology, and he takes pains to use as much rigorous science as he can on his esoteric research. This is very hard to do. Tart's personal practice is very close to vipassana.

I see a problem with the idea of inviting inexperienced practitioners for ten day intensive retreats. In the temple where I meditated for several years (Zen) they did retreats. Mostly they were for six days, not ten. And people with less than six months of steady participation were never invited. One time I was uninvited from a retreat because one of the senior monks was a hard ass and I had only been affiliated with the temple for eighteen months. This temple definitely practiced a crawl and then walk teaching protocol.

There are two fallacies involved here for those with a specific interest in cognitive bias. One is a sunk cost fallacy. If you have sunk ten days into it you are less willing to ditch it because fallible humans are often unable to act like good economists and recognize that sunk costs are irrelevant. The second fallacy is the idea that big risks are necessary to reap big rewards. This was most effectively debunked by the psychologist Irwin Yalom and his analysis of large group trainings (such as Erhard Seminar Training) back in the 1970's. He was looking at group psychotherapy, not meditation retreats; in the Human Potential Movement there is often a large overlap between these two activities. There is a famous anecdote of the Zen master who, when his student reported seeing some magnificent vision in his meditation, instructed the student to meditate on and such bothersome distractions will pass.

Inexperienced meditators are notorious for thinking they have achieved a great insight which makes little more sense than that stuff you write down that sounds so great when you are really stoned, and the next day is not much more than jabberwocky.

This is not intended to discourage the curious. Meditation is great stuff. Multi-tasking is the bane of many of my friends and colleagues; almost all of them would improve their mental health greatly by taking some time to empty their mind of as much garbage as possible for a few minutes daily. This big production of a ten day retreat for beginners is not generally considered a good idea amongst the monks who I talk to.

Comment author: gwern 12 October 2010 01:33:55AM *  1 point [-]

Charles Tart in his book Altered States of Consciousness.

A quasi sequel seems to be online here: http://www.druglibrary.org/special/tart/soccont.htm

Anyone know of any online copies of the original?

Comment author: Craig_Heldreth 12 October 2010 12:49:56PM 1 point [-]

I scanned through your link. Vipassana is covered in chapter 7. That book is actually not the sequel, but more like a previous version of the same material. Altered States of Consciousness could be considered a sequel to States of Consciousness.

The one thing which he presents very clearly is the different mechanics of the different schools which he classifies as concentrative (e.g. concentrating on a mantra like in Transcendental Meditation) and opening up (e.g. as is done in vipassana or in Zen). There is a third category, expressive (e.g. this is done by the Whirling Dervishes) which he mentions but I have not seen him describe those methods in as much detail. These catagories were introduced by Naranjo and Ornstein in On the Psychology of Meditation (out-of-print, can be hard to find, and is not often referenced).

Tart has his own theory for what consciousness is, what an altered state of consciousness is, &c which I do not endorse. I feel it is too simplistic. And his teaching device of the "simulator" may induce groans--he does not demonstrate any mastery of the AI or robotics literature if you ask me.

Nevertheless, on the narrow topic of meditation, he is about the closest thing to an accessible western expert that we now have.

Comment author: Craig_Heldreth 12 October 2010 02:06:43PM *  0 points [-]

Oops. After checking, I find gwern has the sequence correct and my posts have an error. States of Consciousness is the sequel to Altered States of Consciousness. The one at gwern's link has the most up-to-date data.

Comment author: [deleted] 11 October 2010 11:23:51PM *  1 point [-]

Good points. The lack of scientific research discussed is certainly an issue. I did a quick literature sweep before writing this post, but decided not to include that information here.

One is a sunk cost fallacy. If you have sunk ten days into it you are less willing to ditch it because fallible humans are often unable to act like good economists and recognize that sunk costs are irrelevant.

At the dhamma.org courses I haven't found that to be the case. The management at the Massachusetts center informed me that a large majority of students never return to take a second course. Perhaps the cost needs to be larger; people may find it difficult to give up the practice (when they have good reason to) if they have done it daily for some length of time.

Comment author: Johnicholas 07 October 2010 07:50:05PM 3 points [-]

Henk Barendregt (who wrote "The Lambda Calculus" and invented the Barendregt Cube) is also very interested in meditation, e.g: http://www.cs.ru.nl/~henk/Quest/bp/

Comment author: Vladimir_Nesov 03 October 2010 11:42:33AM *  3 points [-]

Even assuming that the whole concept of affective judgment makes sense as a fundamental cognitive process (which we shouldn't), you haven't made the case that habitually "smoothing" this judgment is an improvement (outside the pathological cases).

A relevant post that can bring some foundation to this edifice of unsubstantiated assumptions:

Comment author: AdeleneDawner 03 October 2010 12:12:34PM 5 points [-]

I believe you've misunderstood what the o.p. meant by 'smoothing'. It doesn't mean applying the halo effect and making X higher just because Y is high and close to it, or Y lower because X is low and close to it. It means evaluating both X and Y and resetting them to the most neutral justifiable values - which will almost always mean bringing them closer together, but that's a side effect, not the point of the exercise.

Comment author: [deleted] 03 October 2010 05:34:17PM 2 points [-]

Thanks for the feedback.

I've added a link to "The Trouble With 'Good' ", as well as a footnote about my basis for using the concept of affective judgment.

you haven't made the case that habitually "smoothing" this judgment is an improvement (outside the pathological cases).

My main point is that the "pathological" cases are actually very common (but vary in intensity), and most of the benefit is derived from preventing them from occurring. I'll try to make this clearer.

Comment author: arundelo 06 October 2010 12:52:24AM *  2 points [-]

Maybe this belongs in the open thread, but on the topic of rationalist interpretations of Buddhism, Eric Raymond just wrote something on "If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him" (the following is just an excerpt):

I interpret Zen Buddhism as a set of practices for not tripping over your own mind -- avoiding our tendency to bin experiences into categories so swiftly and completely that we stop actually paying attention to them, not becoming imprisoned by fixed beliefs, not mistaking maps for territories, always remaining attentive to what actually is. Perhaps the most elegant expression of this interpretation is this koan setting forth the problem: "The mind is like a dog. His master points at the moon, but he barks at the hand."

In this sense, Zen is discipline that assists instrumental rationalism by teaching important forms of self-monitoring and mental hygiene -- in effect very similar to General Semantics.

Comment author: [deleted] 05 October 2010 06:40:49PM *  2 points [-]

I made a comment here describing some of the insights I've had as a result of this meditation practice. It might provide some helpful context for my model of vipassana and some motivation to give the practice a try.

Edit: Fixed under-confident wording.

Comment author: Academian 04 October 2010 10:39:19PM 2 points [-]

A problem with the way you're talking about mindspace: if affect is a coordinate of mindstates, you can't "change" or "update" the affect of a point in mindspace; that's just moving to another point in mindspace.

So what you probably actually mean is to move yourself to a different point in mindspace where affect=0 while "holding everything else constant".

This makes some more sense, but "holding everything else constant" depends on what you choose for your other coordinates... having recognized this for purely mathematical reasons, it's not a purely mathematical issue. Here's what it translates to in the meditation:

Suppose the thought of people painfully dying comes to your mind, and you feel a strong negative affect, what is to be held constant while you alter the affect to 0?

A few possibilities are: - The salience of the idea that death is their ultimate end. - The salience of your awareness that you do not want to die. - The salience of your empathy with their suffering.

It's certainly not possible to hold the third one constant while reducing affect to 0, because empathy is an affect.

Now, I already have an intuitive idea of what you meant before reading the post, and I bet others do too. But for those who didn't, I'm betting from the indeterminacy of your description that they didn't gain much except for inspiration (which isn't to be scoffed at, of course!), and would benefit a lot from some specific examples. Examples are also lacking from the Wikipedia article.

Generally though, I'm glad to see a post on a meditation technique here!

Comment author: [deleted] 05 October 2010 10:25:48PM *  1 point [-]

A problem with the way you're talking about mindspace: if affect is a coordinate of mindstates, you can't "change" or "update" the affect of a point in mindspace; that's just moving to another point in mindspace.

You're right. That was sloppy.

So what you probably actually mean is to move yourself to a different point in mindspace where affect=0 while "holding everything else constant".

It could be any smaller value of affect but yes, that's what I had in mind.

Consider a painful sensation. I claim that this pain is actually a composite phenomenon; it consists of a strong negative affective judgment (or series of such judgments) and a physical sensation. Not making an affective judgment in this case would mean that all that remains is the physical sensation. You would keep experiencing this physical sensation but not have a dying urge to do something about it (like shift your sitting position, for example).[1] As long as you make sure that you are not causing bodily damage, I think that observing pain in meditation can be a really great learning experience.

I've been able to clearly experience this distinction during meditation. Bizarrely, I've even had the experience of rapidly alternating between these modes, with the pain turning on and off like a light switch.

[1] This sounds like a bad habit to get into, but I haven't found that to be the case. I still know what pain feels like and know to do something about it, but it serves more like an indicator than as a burning hot iron searing your eyes.

Comment author: Academian 05 October 2010 10:55:15PM 1 point [-]

[1] is a great example, and I've had the same experience as you. I think it's worth adding to the post proper for future readers.

Comment author: [deleted] 06 October 2010 03:52:51AM 0 points [-]

Thanks for the advice. I've added most of my comment as a footnote since I couldn't figure out how to weave it into the text nicely.

I've had the same experience as you.

Neat! What kind of meditation were you practicing? Was it in a retreat or in the course of daily life?

Comment author: Mass_Driver 04 October 2010 01:09:09AM 2 points [-]

According to vipassana meditators, every time we pass through a point in mindspace we update its affect by judging whether that mental state is good or bad. On the other hand, the path we take through mindspace is strongly determined by this dimension alone, and we tend to veer towards clusters of positive affect and away from those with negative affect. The current judgment of a mental state is also strongly determined by its present affect. This can result in a dangerous feedback loop3, with small initial affective judgments compounding into deep mental patterns.

I like the general subjects that you're raising, but didn't understand the quoted set of claims. Is the mindspace discussion meant to be taken literally? If so, roughly how many dimensions would you guess a typical mindspace has, and what would it mean to update a 'point' in what would presumably be a largely continuous series of curves? If not, what else do you mean to convey by your analogy aside from the possibility of positive feedback loops of positive and negative affect?

Comment author: [deleted] 04 October 2010 05:19:55PM 0 points [-]

Is the mindspace discussion meant to be taken literally?

Not too literally. I used the concept since it provided a simple way to understand what was happening during meditation and how the benefits were obtained. Most importantly, I think it could be an aid for LWers who are going to try (or are already practicing) vipassana. The experiences I've had in meditation and the changes I've noticed in my life seem to fit nicely into this framework.

This motivation is also the reason points are used; they can be thought of as the subjective mind-moments one experiences.

Comment author: snomo 09 October 2010 02:06:06PM 2 points [-]

I must apologise in advance as I have only had a short time to read the above entry and related comments & only have a few minutes to reply.

But I cannot let this pass - I completed a 10-day vipassana Goenka course in Australia and came out with serious concerns about the safety and validity of these centres. I understand the courses may be beneficial to some and there is some merit to the technique, but it deeply worries me that so many people recommend these courses as 'scientific' and benign without understanding the potential danger they represent to others.

I don't have time right now to explain my argument in any detail but there are clearly cult-like and hypnotic aspects to the centres and courses. Personally I found the technique induced a dissociative episode that I am only now several months later recovering from.

I will try to revisit this site when I have time to explain more fully, but in the meantime you may care to read this critique by Harmanjit Singh, which covers some of my concerns:

http://eldar.cz/kangaroo/mirror/vipassana-critique.pdf

also here: harmanjit.googlepages.com/vipassana-critique.html

Comment author: gwern 10 October 2010 12:47:02AM *  7 points [-]

I've read the PDF.

As far as I can tell, Singh has identified some cult-like techniques employed and a parochial outlook. Which is good to know.

But the PDF also troubles me. It spends a good deal of time on doctrinal matters, and criticizes Goenka for not being fully comprehensive & a perfect path to enlightenment. Which seems somewhat to miss the point (is it good for you? For those of us who don't believe in enlightenment, that is the real question.)

And much of it seems speculation or outright crankery. For example, I was deeply troubled to read claims that some of the experiences were due to hypoxia. What. I don't see how shallow breathing (with zero physical activity) leads to hypoxia, and meditation has such a good rep in all the studies I've seen or heard of - I think they would have mentioned a little thing like hypoxia killing off brain cells!

And then there's the section where he claims meditation destroys one's ability to be creative and is best suited for students or mindless devotees. Well, he does admit he is making all that shit up, but to me, this is akin to yelling "Fire!" in a theater and then "Just kidding!"

Some criticisms strike me as odd. If the videos are as entertaining and skillfully educational as he suggests, why is it such a bad thing for them to be shown?

So by the end, I am a little more dubious about Goenka's courses (although since they are free, I think I will check for a local one), but I am even more dubious about this fellow.

EDIT: another thing I just remembered; it bothers me to see someone try to invoke the DSM. Yes, the DSM may list dissociative disorders. But on what expertise is the author claiming Goenka meditation/vipassana induces such disorders? It's very easy to throw around psychiatric diagnoses, but they're hard enough for the experts to get right. The invocation seems as prejudicial and likely baseless as the hypoxia bit.

Comment author: NancyLebovitz 10 October 2010 07:22:59AM 1 point [-]

The point about the videos is that they're shown under circumstances where people will be unusually incapable of doubting whatever is conveyed by them.

Reading the pdf was useful for me for making clear the questions of "What's involved in a program of self-redesign? How sure are you that it's a good idea? What's the mix of spontaneous reorganization vs. imposing a goal? "

Comment author: gwern 10 October 2010 02:20:52PM *  0 points [-]

What circumstances could the videos be shown under? It seems to me that this is an extremely (but not fully) general counterargument: any really valuable short retreat must be stressful to be valuable, but if any teaching is done, then it falls into your trap - 'oh noes the circumstances are stressful and you're trying to brainwash them!'

So either one must look like a cultist by your argument, not teach anything (and waste the retreat), or teach something in a non-stressful setting (again largely a waste of time).

Comment author: NancyLebovitz 10 October 2010 02:42:42PM 2 points [-]

It isn't my argument, it's my explanation of the argument in the pdf.

You're raising a very interesting question, though. Are there general principles for distinguishing between useful and useless resistance to change? What should you protect yourself from as much as possible? If you're running workshops, what's an appropriate level and type of pressure?

Comment author: snomo 01 November 2010 01:24:55PM 4 points [-]

Sorry for such a late reply, this is the first chance I've had in weeks to sit down at my laptop.

First I should clarify that I see a clear distinction between meditation/vipassana generally and what is taught at Goenka courses. My concerns are restricted to the latter (more on that below).

Secondly I should add that by saying I had a bad experience does not mean I found the conditions overly trying. I understood the general limitations & restrictions I would be subjected to and I found them challenging but reasonable. It was the other parts of the course that troubled me. (This, by the way, is necessary to explain because I've found that among Goenka devotees any criticism is generally met with a blank, 'Oh, you just couldn't hack the conditions'.)

So, to the PDF - I don't see it as a definitive argument against Goenka courses or some authoritative analysis, but merely a starting point for a discussion that's way overdue. In fact the speculation and crankery seems the point in a way - ie, the thrust of the document is that we need to start questioning what's really going on at these centres and where they could lead in future. The point about hypoxia is obviously incorrect - but the impression I got was of someone struggling with a bad experience and trying to make sense of it. I've spent the past few months trying to make sense of what happened to me and feel frustrated that others are still being led blindly into these courses.

My chief concern is that they are sold as safe and psychologically sound when this is not necessarily the case. I had expected the course to be challenging but within essentially safe boundaries. What I saw went way beyond that.

These risks do not seem to be widely understood, and in fact everyone I spoke to about attending the course beforehand only had the highest praise (including from medical professors on both sides of the Atlantic).

A useful analogy might be to compare Goenka courses to teaching dangerous adventure activities (abseiling, mountain climbing etc). It's one thing to teach these things with plenty of supervision & proper instruction and with everyone kitted up and trained for the perils and challenges ahead. It's another to grab 100+ people, put them in the care of a skeleton staff of frighteningly amateur instructors who do little more than press play on a video tape, and then shove students over the cliff or up the mountain.

I should emphasise my negative experience does nor mean others won't have a healthy and productive time. My worry is that those who promote the courses believe them to be at best wonderful and at worst harmless, when I now realise I'm one of many who came away with a terrible experience.

Sure, the research is in on the benefits of meditation generally speaking but here's the issue - I'm not sure what Goenka centres teach is really meditation. It seems some mishmash of hypnosis and selective parts of vipassana delivered in an isolating, coercive environment that's geared to making students highly suggestible and compliant, and in some cases fearful.

There are a couple of points that especially trouble me:

  • The content of the courses (especially regarding coercion, isolation, hypnosis, video delivery, mysticism) and risks involved are not adequately spelt out before the course. The support available during the course is inadequate. I did not give my informed consent to many of the techniques used and felt what was promised beforehand was vastly different to what was delivered.

  • Many of the claims made about the courses - including how effective they are - are questionable. Doctrinal matters are important because Goenka makes them so. The courses teach Goenka's methods are pure and effective and that all others must be discarded. But from what I can see, they may be neither & in fact take some dangerous liberties with ancient tried-and-true techniques. Massive chunks of the course are devoted to persuading students that Goenka is the only path forward, that his methods will change your life if you devote yourself to them, that you will want to tell everyone about the courses when you leave, that you should support and promote the cause, that the technique is wonderful, etc etc. This is all delivered in a highly repetitive, monotonous manner until at one point Goenka even says in a slow, methodical voice "there ... is ... no ... suggestion ... of ... hypnosis". If you've ever been hypnotised, you will instantly recognise all of this.

So to your question - is it good for you, does it work? - well, I don't know. Some say it works for them, so I guess it does. What I can say is the courses seem to be about making students suggestible, isolated and compliant, teaching them a compromised version of vipassana via video over an incredibly short timeframe, then hypnotising them to believe that this all works. It's not a cult - not yet, anyway - but it isolates and manipulates students in a similar way.

I'm really not sure I've expressed this well at all, but Craig_Heldreth on October 10 puts it very well.

Comment author: NancyLebovitz 01 November 2010 01:40:16PM 0 points [-]

Thanks for the extended explanation. It all seems very clear to me.

You might like Cutting through Spiritual Materialism, a book about how greed gets entangled with the search for enlightenment-- mostly about greed for ill-conceived change and/or repetition of past experiences, but also about the desire for status.

Comment author: Craig_Heldreth 01 November 2010 05:55:27PM 0 points [-]

If you have not read the wikipedia page on Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche you might find it entertaining, enlightening, or even both. Apparently the fellow had some difficulties in the area of practicing what he preached. I have some personal experience with the Boulder Tibetan Buddhists and they are unconventional to say the least. Orthodox Buddhists are not supposed to drink alcohol, eat meat, smoke, or indulge in casual sex.

(I agree that Cutting through Spiritual Materialism has some marvelous content. Like most Buddhist writings it has a low signal-to-noise ratio for me.)

Comment author: snomo 02 November 2010 12:22:16AM 0 points [-]

I'll read both, thank you. If anything, the course has led me down some very interesting avenues since leaving, even if they are unintended consequences.

Comment author: Will_Newsome 03 October 2010 08:26:36AM 1 point [-]

This looks good; top level post it?

Comment author: jimrandomh 05 October 2010 05:45:18PM 0 points [-]

Could we avoid using untranslated terms from eastern languages? The name "vipassana" may be useful as a search term, but it's worse than useless for understanding what it actually refers to. If you called it "affect monitoring meditation", a lot more people would understand what you meant. This is a general problem in all English writings about meditation: they're full of untranslated words that make them seem mystical, but hinder comprehension.

Comment author: wedrifid 05 October 2010 06:23:21PM 5 points [-]

Using the common name for the practice seems appropriate, rather than making up a new name and pretending we're reinventing a wheel. But that would seem to require capitalization for Vipassana. Perhaps a title of "Vipassana - Affect Monitoring Meditation" would be more useful. (I know it would be more likely to prompt me to read the article than either part alone.)

Comment author: mkehrt 08 October 2010 08:37:46AM 0 points [-]

The word translates to "insight" and the term "insight meditation" is sometimes used for this form of mediation.

Comment author: [deleted] 10 October 2010 09:56:36PM *  1 point [-]

It seems the concept of a meta-emotion is relevant here. I think one could describe vipassana meditation as the cultivation of meta-feeling awareness and regulation skills.

ETA: Vipassana may also help develop or improve one's meta-thinking skills (but I'm not sure). I'm also not sure how (or if) we should distinguish feeling skills from thinking skills.

Comment author: [deleted] 07 June 2011 04:47:27PM 0 points [-]

If you're interested in both models and practice you should definitely check out the amazingly detailed "Mastering the core teachings of the buddha".

Comment author: [deleted] 30 December 2010 08:30:54PM 0 points [-]

While writing this post I had a hard time deciding whether to describe meditation in terms of affective judgments or in terms of compounding attention. I find this interesting. It leads me to consider trying to reduce the concept of an affective judgment to a self-reinforcing pattern of attention. Unfortunately I don't currently know enough about attention to pursue this further.

Comment author: Psy-Kosh 11 October 2010 03:18:15PM *  0 points [-]

Interesting. Still plan on doing the followup?

Comment author: [deleted] 11 October 2010 05:13:45PM 1 point [-]

Yes. I'm currently thinking about how meditation is related to meta skills. I expect this will change how I present the instructions and tips.

Comment author: [deleted] 12 October 2010 02:48:07AM 0 points [-]

Also, check out the meta-thinking discussion thread.

Comment author: Psy-Kosh 11 October 2010 05:18:05PM 0 points [-]

Okay then. :)

Comment author: [deleted] 05 October 2010 02:09:13AM *  0 points [-]

For those who already have an idea about what I mean by an affective judgment, how much control can you currently exert over them? Have people been able to overcome most of the problems I linked to by leaving lines of retreat and using the techniques AnnaSalamon discussed?

While writing this post I was reminded of something Eliezer said in "Which parts are me?":

That time I faced down the power-corrupts circuitry, I thought, "my brain is dumping this huge dose of unwanted positive reinforcement", and I sat there waiting for the surge to go away and trying not to let it affect anything.

which hints at some ability to do what I'm thinking of.

Comment author: whymatt 04 October 2010 09:50:57PM 0 points [-]

1) Slowing the flood

The ability to calm the mind and concentrate is essential. Without this, one remains involved in the rushing pattern of affect perception and judgment, and there is no possibility of seeing the process and ultimately changing it. This ability is trained by having one maintain awareness of a neutral mental process, which serves as an anchor that one continually returns to. Gradually one becomes aware of the subtle pattern of affective judgments and can distinctly observe them.

Is this true? Do we need to "slow the flood"? I would contend that slowing the flood does not necessarily allow us to become aware of our thoughts and the judgments we have of them. Awareness is not dependent upon speed. Furthermore, attempts to slow our mind create an artificial mind - a mind that is being 'observed' and therefore behaves as though 'under observation. So, even if we do become aware of this 'observed' mind, we aren't becoming aware of how our mind actually functions, so we aren't developing a useful awareness - an awareness that allows us to see how we actually operate.

Instead, a more effective strategy may be to meditate without any need for all this self-censorship, this anchoring or slowing. Rather, we simply spend some time in a kind of reverie, just letting out attention move quite naturally, from thought, to emotion, to sound, to feeling, to thought and so on. Then, after some time, we see what we can recall. What happened? What do you remember? In this way we get to recollect what 'actually' goes on in our mind. Then, because we've reflected upon this, we are able to see more clearly our judgments and affective states, in real time.

Comment author: [deleted] 03 October 2010 08:54:07PM 0 points [-]

On the other hand, the path we take through mindspace is strongly determined by this dimension alone, and we tend to veer towards clusters of positive affect and away from those with negative affect.

The number of people diagnosed with an anxiety disorder or depression is pretty huge. I would suggest that these problems are strongly correlated with a tendency to assign affect to thought processes, as you say. But I disagree with the generality of your statement that we veer toward the positive (when affect is the main guide). If you write a follow-up post, I'd request that you spend some time on the negative (aversion) as well as the positive feedback loops.

I'm also confused by your notion of Mindspace (it sounds very Mysterious). I'm not asking you to parametrize the human mind of course ;-) But more detail would probably make this or the follow-up a more valuable post.

Comment author: [deleted] 04 October 2010 01:08:13AM 1 point [-]

But I disagree with the generality of your statement that we veer toward the positive (when affect is the main guide).

I didn't mean to place more emphasis on positive than negative affect. I describe them together here:

we tend to veer towards clusters of positive affect and away from those with negative affect.

I also included links to "Avoiding your belief's real weak points" and "Ugh fields". I hinted that these may be manifestations of negative feedback loops.

I'm also confused by your notion of Mindspace (it sounds very Mysterious). I'm not asking you to parametrize the human mind of course ;-)

That last part makes it seem like you understood the concept. Can you express your confusion more precisely?

Comment author: [deleted] 07 October 2010 06:20:16PM 1 point [-]

Glad to have that clarified and pointed out :-)

As for the Mindspace business, I think other readers (particularly Academian) have addressed what had me confused. I was unsure of how literally to take the concept, and if more literally, what we take to be coordinates and what we take to be fields over the space. By "gradient" I assume you're treating affect as a scalar field over this space. But you also called it a coordinate, and suggested that other coordinates also affect this field. Fine, we can talk about the the "influence" of a coordinate on a field (which is a function of those coordinates, affect being a very strong one) and thus use the two interchangeably if the field permits. But then, where's the feedback? You need another equation in this picture, something that locally changes the coordinate system itself. But what does that even mean? And when we only know one coordinate?

But maaaybe I'm taking this a bit too literally.