Understanding vipassana meditation

by [anonymous]3 min read3rd Oct 201078 comments



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.


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.



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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

... (read more)
[-][anonymous]11y 21

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?

5josh011yAs 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/ [http://cimc.info/]
1Relsqui11yI 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.
4josh011yNot 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).
0Relsqui11yDo 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. :)
0josh011yI 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).
0Relsqui11yOh okay. I'll look around. Thank you. Edit: Found it [http://www.berkeleyzencenter.org/]--you're right, it is just up from the temple.
8eternaltourist11yI 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.
2[anonymous]11yI didn't address this in my comment [http://lesswrong.com/lw/2rd/understanding_vipassana_meditation/2qk6?c=1] 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.
1Relsqui11yI appreciate that. Most of my questions wound up in a thread with the OP [http://lesswrong.com/lw/2rd/understanding_vipassana_meditation/2qk6?c=1]; if you have anything to add to his answers I'd love to hear it.
1Will_Newsome11yI 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?
0e803ecea311yAs 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.
0[anonymous]11yMaybe we could organize our own [http://lesswrong.com/lw/2rd/understanding_vipassana_meditation/2qkj?c=1].
3[anonymous]11yYes. I've taken 5 (or 6?) courses, all at the Dhamma Dhara center [http://www.dhara.dhamma.org/ns/] 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: 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. 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. 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 st
1Relsqui11yThank you, that's very helpful. Do you agree with eternaltourist saying [http://lesswrong.com/lw/2rd/understanding_vipassana_meditation/2qjj?c=1] that "everyone wants to leave the course," because it's so mentally difficult, but only a few give in to that urge?
3[anonymous]11yYes, 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.
0outside10yI 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.
0Relsqui11yWhat 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. :) That matches the estimates I found. Of course, mostly it's those two guys who go post on messages boards about it later.
4[anonymous]11yIt 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. Sustained mental effort, unpleasant emotional experiences, unsavory personal realizations, and physical pain. Straight head-butting your mental habits.
0Will_Newsome11yThese 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. :)
0e803ecea311yIn 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.
0Will_Newsome11yHm, 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?
0Relsqui11yI see. Okay, that's all I've got for now; thanks for being patient with the third degree. ;)
0adb11yTheir 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)?
1[anonymous]11yTheir 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.
0e803ecea311yJust 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.
0[anonymous]11yThis 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.
1e803ecea311yI'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.
1AdeleneDawner11yThis 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.
0Relsqui11yThank 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.

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. ... (read more)

1gwern11yA quasi sequel seems to be online here: http://www.druglibrary.org/special/tart/soccont.htm [http://www.druglibrary.org/special/tart/soccont.htm] Anyone know of any online copies of the original?
1Craig_Heldreth11yI scanned through your link. Vipassana is covered in chapter 7 [http://www.druglibrary.org/special/tart/soc7.htm]. 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.
0Craig_Heldreth11yOops. 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.
1[anonymous]11yGood 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. At the dhamma.org courses I haven't found that to be the case. The management at the Massachusetts center [http://www.dhara.dhamma.org/ns/] 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.

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... (read more)

1[anonymous]11yYeah, 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.
1GreenRoot11yYes, or else posted very soon. In any case, if the content ends up separate, please link each post to the other.

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 ... (read more)

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. I... (read more)

1NancyLebovitz11yThe 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? "
2gwern11yWhat circumstances could the videos be shown under? It seems to me that this is an extremely (but not fully [http://wiki.lesswrong.com/wiki/Fully_general_counterargument]) 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).
2NancyLebovitz11yIt 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?
7snomo10ySorry 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 activitie
0NancyLebovitz10yThanks for the extended explanation. It all seems very clear to me. You might like Cutting through Spiritual Materialism [http://www.sacred-texts.com/bud/tib/cutting.htm], 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.
0Craig_Heldreth10yIf 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.)
0snomo10yI'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.

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/

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 a

... (read more)

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:

6AdeleneDawner11yI 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.
2[anonymous]11yThanks 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. 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.
[-][anonymous]11y 2

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.

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 mathem... (read more)

1[anonymous]11yYou're right. That was sloppy. 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.
1Academian11y[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.
0[anonymous]11yThanks 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. Neat! What kind of meditation were you practicing? Was it in a retreat or in the course of daily life?

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

... (read more)
0[anonymous]11yNot 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.
[-][anonymous]11y 1

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.

This looks good; top level post it?

[-][anonymous]10y 0

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

[-][anonymous]10y 0

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.

Interesting. Still plan on doing the followup?

1[anonymous]11yYes. I'm currently thinking about how meditation is related to meta skills [http://lesswrong.com/lw/2rd/understanding_vipassana_meditation/2ryw?c=1]. I expect this will change how I present the instructions and tips.
0[anonymous]11yAlso, check out the meta-thinking discussion thread [http://lesswrong.com/r/discussion/lw/2ui/discuss_metathinking_skills/].
0Psy-Kosh11yOkay then. :)

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.

7wedrifid11yUsing 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.)
0[anonymous]11yMaking up a new, explanatory name and acknowledging the common name aren't mutually exclusive; just put the old name in a parenthetical note.
0mkehrt11yThe word translates to "insight" and the term "insight meditation" is sometimes used for this form of mediation.
[-][anonymous]11y 0

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

... (read more)

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 woul... (read more)

[-][anonymous]11y 0

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 pos... (read more)

1[anonymous]11yI didn't mean to place more emphasis on positive than negative affect. I describe them together here: I also included links to "Avoiding your belief's real weak points [http://lesswrong.com/lw/jy/avoiding_your_beliefs_real_weak_points/]" and "Ugh fields [http://lesswrong.com/lw/21b/ugh_fields/]". I hinted that these may be manifestations of negative feedback loops. That last part makes it seem like you understood the concept. Can you express your confusion more precisely?
1[anonymous]11yGlad 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.