ardacigin

Why I Don't Recommend Beginners To Attend Mainstream Vipassana Retreats

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Posted (edited)

I've recently read a fantastic article on the reasons for not doing a vipassana retreat if you are not a skilled meditator. This article really condensed my opinions on the matter.

https://medium.com/@maxmarmer/what-is-the-point-of-meditation-and-why-you-should-not-do-a-vipassana-retreat-920edb8aaf22

In my vocabulary, a skilled meditation practitioner is someone who can access Stage 7 levels of concentration and awareness in Culadasa's model with relative ease.  You don't have to be perfect at it but you need to consistently access such levels of mindfulness when you apply yourself. 

Also, physical and mental pliancy of the nervous system has to be developed to a high level so that you can go through grueling 60 mins long sessions back to back with little to no break. These are things a 1-2 year long meditator can't do. Even 3-5 year long meditators may really struggle with this schedule. But 3-5 year long meditators can generally take on the challenge of a retreat if they have practiced skillfully and diligently.

These skills require time to develop as the article eludes to.

I want you to think of these hardcore retreats as serious marathon challenges. This includes solo retreats Leo does with 10+ hours of daily sittings. In fact, what Leo does is harder than a mainstream vipassana retreat.

 If a runner doesn't assess their skills to be sufficient to survive a long marathon, they take more time to develop their skills. They don't go balls to the wall and say: 'Let's see what happens'. You should be careful before taking on such challenges. Leo can do it, but that doesn't necessarily mean you can. (yet)

Doing 10+ hours of sits back to back in a day is going to result in frustration and waste of precious time/energy as a beginner practitioner. You might say: Can I learn from such an experience even if I'm a beginner?

Yes. Of course, you can. But imagine how much growth you'd have if you could actually follow the meditation instructions as they were designed by master meditators.

A beginner tends to experience monkey mind for about 70-80% of the time in a 60 mins sit. These people also experience distracted moving attention, non-clear sensory sensitivity, little to no equanimity and weak awareness. Imagine doing 10 more of these in a day. Your meditation quality, patience, concentration and awareness will all take a SIGNIFICANT hit after 2-3 sessions back to back. Considering you didn't have much of these in the first place (as a baseline) really makes the problem worse.

A skilled practitioner tends to experience deepening of concentration, sensory clarity, awareness and equanimity %80 of the time in a 60 mins sit. The exact opposite of a beginner meditator. After back to back sessions, even skilled meditators will get fatigued. But at this level, the nervous system is prepared to work with these sensations skillfully. You are expected to reliably do this in a vipassana retreat. 

At the end of the day, this person has a way higher chance of penetrating reality compared to the unskilled meditator.

So these are my condensed thoughts on why it is a bad idea to go to a vipassana retreat as a beginner. Read that article as well and let me know your thoughts down below.

Just to clarify, I take into account the time and energy one wastes as an opportunity cost while saying this. If you really have time to take 4-5 retreats like this in a year, then by all means, go for it. 

But the majority of the people tend to go to these retreats by making sacrifices. Expecting growth from it. Leaving their careers, friends and families. Maybe only taking a hardcore retreat once a year or two due to financial reasons. And as you continue to have bad experiences with these retreats, the less likely it gets to attend one the next year. I don't want beginners to develop an aversion to 10-day retreats.

Here is a better alternative than retreats:

For the first 1-2 years of practice, focusing on daily mindfulness integration with the stability of attention are one of the most fruitful things a beginner can do. 

The question must not be: 'How can I run away from my hectic daily life, save up money and go to a monastery to develop fundamental skills?' 

but rather: 'How can I practice smart, integrate the ethos of practice to daily life and develop the foundations RIGHT NOW, ALL THE TIME before I take on the challenge of a retreat?'

Admittedly this requires more effort and strategic thinking. But that is why this mindset would be WAY more effective for a newbie than the mainstream value system. 

In the former mindset, the beginner meditator will be like:

'Well, this meditation is really hard and I can't really focus. Maybe this retreat I'll take a few months from now will help me get skilled and after that my daily practice and life integration will be silky smooth.'

Well, it doesn't really work that way, does it? The peak samadhi states one experiences in retreat don't drip down into daily life 'silky smooth'. It takes diligent, intense and strategic practice to get there.

That is why asking questions like:

'How can I turn my current life into a monastery feedback loop RIGHT NOW?'

'What is the reason why I can't easily meditate for long periods of time?'
'How many minutes do I spend in a 20 mins sit in monkey mind vs concentration?'

'Do I feel sleepy in meditation? How can I increase alertness once the dullness sets in?'

'What meditation technique suits me best? Am I a samadhi or insight-oriented individual? What are my weaknesses?'

are better questions to ask for the first 1-2 years of practice. 

That is what I'd call deliberate practice.

This is the primary reason I wanted to write this post. Hope it helps a little :)

 

 

 

 

 

Edited by ardacigin

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Posted (edited)

@ardacigin Very good and interesting post. Though while I agree with many of your points, I am someone who dove into the spiritual path starting with a 10 day Vipassana almost 3 years ago now. And I got free flow (scanning, Goenka) on my first retreat, and though it was hellish at times being there, it motivated me tremendously. I was the typical atheist type (though it had begun to shift prior to that) so when I actually felt the energy it was like discovering magic. So for me personally, it really helped me in that sense.

I can see the problems, though. I mean l actually am quite amazed so many complete newbies stick with the program. And also, though my energy sky rocketed, it didn't actually help me the first 2 years. The energy and stuff happening in my body motivated me and I knew I was doing something right, it didn't feel like the actual Vipassana practice helped me, I just stuck with it because what else to do? Hoping my investment would pay off. I see the fruits now, and things are happening very rapidly and truly I feel blessed today.

It also depends on what people are there. Many people are there because they heard it was helpful "and the wife thinks I am too stressed out so I should do it", that kinda thing. The majority attending are not hardcore seekers or even know what enlightenment is.

I think these centers do way more good than harm though. 

Edited by Esoteric

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So what do you reccomend instead to a newbie? You give a whole bunch of advice to avoid something that has helped thousands of people but give no alternative approaches. 

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Posted (edited)

31 minutes ago, SunnyNewDay said:

So what do you reccomend instead to a newbie? You give a whole bunch of advice to avoid something that has helped thousands of people but give no alternative approaches. 

Good question. For the first 1-2 years of practice, focusing on daily mindfulness integration with stability of attention are one of the most fruitful things a beginner can do. 

The question must not be: 'How can I run away from my hectic daily life, save up money and go to a monestary to develop fundamental skills?' 

but rather: 'How can I practice smart, integrate the ethos of practice to daily life and develop the foundations RIGHT NOW, ALL THE TIME before I take on the challenge of a retreat?'

Admittedly this requires more effort and strategic thinking. But that is why this mindset would be WAY more effective for a newbie than the mainstream value system. 

In the former mindset, the beginner meditator will be like:

'Well, this meditation is really hard and I can't really focus. Maybe this retreat I'll take a few months from now will help me get skilled and after that my daily practice and life integration will be silky smooth.'

Well, it doesn't really work that way, does it? The peak samadhi states one experiences in retreat don't drip down into daily life 'silky smooth'. It takes diligent, intense and strategic practice to get there.

That is why asking questions like:

'How can I turn my current life into a monastery feedback loop RIGHT NOW?'

'What is the reason why I can't easily meditate for long periods of time?'
'How many minutes do I spend in a 20 mins sit in monkey mind vs concentration?'

'Do I feel sleepy in meditation? How can I increase alertness once the dullness sets in?'

'What meditation technique suits me best? Am I a samadhi or insight-oriented individual? What are my weaknesses?'

are better questions to ask for the first 1-2 years of practice. 

That is what I'd call deliberate practice.

I've now updated the original post with these conclusions. Thanks for asking.

Edited by ardacigin

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1 minute ago, ardacigin said:

Good question. For the first 1-2 years of practice, focusing on daily mindfulness integration with stability of attention are one of the most fruitful things a beginner can do. 

The question must not be: 'How can I run away from my hectic daily life, save up money and go to a monestary to develop fundamental skills?' 

but rather: 'How can I practice smart, integrate the ethos of practice to daily life and develop the foundations RIGHT NOW, ALL THE TIME before I take on the challenge of a retreat?'

Admittedly this requires more effort and strategic thinking. But that is why this mindset would be WAY more effective for a newbie than the mainstream value system. 

In the former mindset, the beginner meditator will be like:

'Well, this meditation is really hard and I can't really focus. Maybe this retreat I'll take a few months from now will help me get skilled and after that my daily practice and life integration will be silky smooth.'

Well, it doesn't really work that way, does it? The peak samadhi states one experiences in retreat don't drip down into daily life 'silky smooth'. It takes diligent, intense and strategic practice to get there.

That is why asking questions like:

'How can I turn my current life into a monastery feedback loop RIGHT NOW?'

'What is the reason why I can't easily meditate for long periods of time?'
'How many minutes do I spend in a 20 mins sit in monkey mind vs concentration?'

'Do I feel sleepy in meditation? How can I increase alertness once the dullness sets in?'

'What meditation technique suits me best? Am I a samadhi or insight-oriented individual? What are my weaknesses?'

are better questions to ask for the first 1-2 years of practice. 

That is what I'd call deliberate practice.

 

 

Most people don't start taking their faith or spirit seriously until they quite literally have something that shatters their reality and gives them a new perspective like a life threatening disease or a problem in life that compels them to meditate for ten days.

You are putting the cart before the horse.

I mean I suppose some people would benefit from what you're saying but many also benefit from diving in the deep end.

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Posted (edited)

9 minutes ago, SunnyNewDay said:

 

Most people don't start taking their faith or spirit seriously until they quite literally have something that shatters their reality and gives them a new perspective like a life threatening disease or a problem in life that compels them to meditate for ten days.

You are putting the cart before the horse.

I mean I suppose some people would benefit from what you're saying but many also benefit from diving in the deep end.

Yes. I agree with you. But there are more effective ways like psychedelics if the purpose is to get 'interested' in spirituality. Taking a psychologically and physically demanding 10 day retreat is not the best method to get 'interested'.

The opposite is more likely to happen. People tend to break down and experience challenging traumatic experiences, dark night of the souls more often than experiencing this impermanent 'bliss' sporadically in a 10 day retreat which motivates them to meditate every hour from then on.

Skill is required to deal with the challenge of retreats and beginners are not well equipped to deal with them.

Again, we should think of a 10-day retreat as a serious mental marathon. Just as you wouldn't recommend a fat person to do a marathon, nor should you recommend a beginner meditator to do 10+ sits a day. They won't get the essence of spirituality that way.

Ease down on the intensity. Focus on daily practice, consistency, fundamentals, and strategy. These should be the core values for a beginner.

 

 

Edited by ardacigin

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good post, though 2 points:

  1. from my experience most people who go there never meditated before, so what theyre actually doing there is learning to meditate. its kinda an introduction to meditation which they will do in daily life. i met a few people who really liked anapana and i think they stuck with it in daily life.
  2. vipassana for me i feel is not about the achievement of high consciousness states, but rather an environment to clear my mind of daily distractions and let emotional trauma come to the surface. i cried a ton during my first vipassana retreat. that might not be for everyone though
  3. in the article they say that silent retreats are bad. i think the opposite, if retreats are not silent all u will think about during meditation is about your conversations. it will be harder to meditate

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Having did a 10 day vip seminar while incredibly depressed with  low conciousness and going through a dark night of the soul while there as well as finding my way out of it there with the spirit and faith in me I can speak from experience. Some people are just cut out for it and ready for it while others aren't. Psychadelics are far more unpredictable and dangerous depending on what the person is going in with. I feel like your advice is far more pertinent to psychadelics which can indeed some seriously dark illnesses a person wasn't ready to be aware of. With vip they can stop and leave realitivly safely. People are also free to sit in their rooms and meditate for just the 3/4 main sittings. I'd def suggest a 10 vip before psychadelic work.

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Posted (edited)

6 minutes ago, Viking said:

good post, though 2 points:

  1. from my experience most people who go there never meditated before, so what theyre actually doing there is learning to meditate. its kinda an introduction to meditation which they will do in daily life. i met a few people who really liked anapana and i think they stuck with it in daily life.
  2. vipassana for me i feel is not about the achievement of high consciousness states, but rather an environment to clear my mind of daily distractions and let emotional trauma come to the surface. i cried a ton during my first vipassana retreat. that might not be for everyone though
  3. in the article they say that silent retreats are bad. i think the opposite, if retreats are not silent all u will think about during meditation is about your conversations. it will be harder to meditate

About the silent retreats, I think it is good to be silent but there must be periods of time when people can converse and share their experiences. Not only that teachers should speak to their students and ask for their problems. A full on silent retreat is an autistic and dogmatic rule practiced on vipassana retreat.

It is valuable but I think there must be short periods of time for students to interact within themselves and also with teachers in a more meaningful way. Again, this can be optional and brief. No need to force it on people who wants to go full on silent.

Edited by ardacigin

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1 minute ago, ardacigin said:

About the silent retreats, I think it is good to be silent but there must be periods of time when people can converse and share their experiences. Not only that teachers should speak to their students and ask for their problems. A full on silent retreat is an autistic and dogmatic rule practiced on vipassana retreat.

It is valuable but I think there must be short periods of time for students to interact within themselves and also with teachers. 

I don't see the point of this at all. If you start sharing your experiences with other people you will set yourself up for trouble. You will hear about experiences you didn't have etc. You will start to wonder and think, especially newbies. You have a chance to speak with the teacher once everyday, and you have a contact person for practical stuff. This is enough, imo.

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Posted (edited)

18 minutes ago, Esoteric said:

I don't see the point of this at all. If you start sharing your experiences with other people you will set yourself up for trouble. You will hear about experiences you didn't have etc. You will start to wonder and think, especially newbies. You have a chance to speak with the teacher once everyday, and you have a contact person for practical stuff. This is enough, imo.

I can see its distracting side while talking to other meditators but at least people should get more private help from the teachers. Also, we should stop thinking about the 'community' as bad in any way.

You can make dharma friends there. As long as you keep these interactions optional and brief, It will only add to the enjoyment of the practice. No social interaction can be VERY challenging, demotivating and isolating for beginners. We are not talking about one day, but 10 consecutive days. 

This advice doesn't apply to anyone else besides beginners.  An advanced meditator won't have a problem with this. But I think it would do more good than harm to create a more loving, sharing and talkative communities in retreat environments. 

I find this a little autistic. You can easily turn this into 'meditation in daily life' practice where the meditator is expected to maintain samadhi while conversing with another meditator. Even advanced meditators can benefit from that.

As long as how to do this is explained formally by the organization, people will learn a VERY crucial skill to help them develop the integration of mindfulness in daily life.

Edited by ardacigin

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@ardacigin You can talk privetely with the teacher once a day.

And buddhism in general is a little autistic. Especially Vipassana. That's the impression I got anyway. The centers are very sterile, devoid of any decoration of even Buddhist art. This I found a little bleak tbh. Zen seems a lot more warm in comparison.

I agree with the length of the sits. 1 hour is a long time to sit, it'd be better if it was 30-45 mins.

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Posted (edited)

@ardacigin What is your goal for meditation? I think it's good to check in with experienced teachers or other meditators once in a while. 

Further advice for newbies, particularly if you don't fancy the 10 day retreats, meditate every day for 20 mins then slowly build that up to 30 mins. This could take months. Consider trying different techniques (breath work, do nothing, noting etc). When you're able to quiet the monkey mind within five minutes of a sit, consider sitting for hour long sits, several times over a day or a weekend, you can do this at home or go solo somewhere you won't be disturbed. You can easily build these into your schedule. Once a year go to a formal meditation centre for a retreat or session to check in with the teachers. 

Edited by Surfingthewave

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9 minutes ago, Bill W said:

@ardacigin Great post. Really helpful. Thanks for taking the time. 

Glad it helped. Feel free to comment and share your thoughts.

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I had only a couple of months of mediation experience, had no idea what I thought realisation was and yet 6 days into the 10 day course the self vanished. It was precipated by a crisis including the pain of meditation and a feeling of hopelessness that came along with it. So in fact the devastation was the catalyst for the realisation. 

Note that it wasn’t the end but the beginning of a long process that is still unfolding 

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7 hours ago, ardacigin said:

About the silent retreats, I think it is good to be silent but there must be periods of time when people can converse and share their experiences. Not only that teachers should speak to their students and ask for their problems. A full on silent retreat is an autistic and dogmatic rule practiced on vipassana retreat.

It is valuable but I think there must be short periods of time for students to interact within themselves and also with teachers in a more meaningful way. Again, this can be optional and brief. No need to force it on people who wants to go full on silent.

in the retreat i went to, a goenka one, we were able to talk with the teacher during the noon and before sleep to ask questions. i dont know how it is in other countries.

and also for me there was a whole day at the end of the retreat where people could share their experiences

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5 hours ago, Barry J said:

I had only a couple of months of mediation experience, had no idea what I thought realisation was and yet 6 days into the 10 day course the self vanished. It was precipated by a crisis including the pain of meditation and a feeling of hopelessness that came along with it. So in fact the devastation was the catalyst for the realisation. 

Note that it wasn’t the end but the beginning of a long process that is still unfolding 

That sounds like the knowledges of suffering one goes through as insight process after profound no-self experiences. (Or arising and passing away). How did you deal with it afterward? Did they spiral into depression and dissatisfaction?

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@ardacigin I wasn’t ready for it. It didn’t stick for long and I dismissed it almost instantly. I have had more dramatic shifts since then though. 

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Posted (edited)

I agree with some aspects of the OP, such as the long hours for beginners - this can become very gruelling and it can become increasingly difficult and annoying when you hear the bell at 4am to get up.

Having done 7 Vipassana's (and they were my introduction to real meditation) years ago, the best part was always the  10 days of silence, which I think was more of a motivator for me to continue attending than even the meditation itself.  By the 7th day I would  be bathing in the silence and coming back to speaking was always difficult and jarring.

 In my experience, you were allowed times to speak with the teachers every day at set times - it is not true that the silence was absolute with no questions to teachers.

Vipassana in my experience is certainly not as effective a technique as Advaita or Tantra techniques and it did not lead to me meditating daily, but the retreats themselves taught me what inner silence feels like and probably the biggest thing I learnt was that all suffering is only the reaction to a sensation in the body.  Sitting for long periods and experiencing pain eventually turned to simply sensation and that realisation has stayed with me since.

You can also choose to serve others and cook/clean up rather than meditate and that is also a beneficial experience.

Edited by Freakyboo

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