Followup to: Understanding vipassana meditation
I explain how to practice vipassana meditation1 (a form of Buddhist meditation), giving instructions, advice, and measures of progress. By practicing vipassana one becomes aware of (and exerts control over) the process of affective judgment. This process may underlie important (and subtle) mental patterns of feeling that are responsible for common rationality failures. While I've tried to give helpful information, you should meditate at your own risk; you may experience mental instability or change in undesirable ways.2 This is a somewhat brief post containing information I've personally found most helpful on my meditative journey, see other guides (like this one) for more.
Decide beforehand how long you will meditate for, and set some kind of alarm to go off at the end of this period.
Start with 10-15 minutes; you can incrementally increase this amount to 30 minutes or an hour. The use of an alarm allows you to meditate without worrying about checking if your time is up.
Go to a quiet location where you feel comfortable. Assume a posture that you can stay in for a while. Do your best not to change your posture during the time period.
AFAICT the posture you choose is not especially important. You can sit Indian style, in a half-lotus position, or in a full-lotus position. You can sit on a pillow or directly on the floor. If none of these positions work you can also sit in a chair. You should be reasonably comfortable (but alert) and stable, and able to breathe naturally. Take care not to aggravate past injuries or cause new ones.
Close your eyes and your mouth. Breath naturally through your nose. Keep your awareness centered on the area below the nostrils and above the upper lip. Neutrally and passively observe the breath passing over this area3. If you realize your mind has wandered, patiently re-center your awareness. Once you have established some degree of concentration you should be able to "see through" thoughts and emotions without getting swept away by them.
You should not regulate your breath. If the breath is deep, simply observe that the breath is deep. If the breath is shallow, simply observe that the breath is shallow. Observe the breath neutrally and passively. Don't associate yourself with the breath.
The breath should be the center of your awareness, the anchor4 that you remain attached to regardless of what arises in the mind. Sooner or later you will get "stuck to" a train of thought, and lose your awareness of the breath. When you notice that this has happened, patiently re-center your awareness on the breath. Do this without feeling the slightest bit upset or disappointed.
After practicing for some time (hours, days, or months) you should be able to "see through"5 arising thoughts and emotions without getting "stuck to" them. Demanding thoughts and emotions will arise, and by "seeing through" them you maintain your observation of the breath as they continue (unattended to) in your peripheral awareness.
Meditate every day.
Really. You're trying to change deep mental habits of awareness and feeling, and that requires constant pressure and reinforcement. Consistency is important. Choosing to meditate at the same time and in the same spot can facilitate making it part of your daily routine.
Keep an innocently curious mindset.
Think of meditation as a wonderful opportunity to learn about your mind. It seems reasonable to expect your mind to be able to focus on one object for 5 minutes (or even 1 minute), and the fact that it's so hard for many people is interesting. Re-centering your mind, you might notice that you tend to get de-railed most often by thoughts about some past injustice, or about some future fantasy. When you remain centered on the breath, and are "seeing through" the arising thoughts and emotions, you may notice you think much more about some particular thing than you thought you did. Don't be afraid; unravel parts of yourself to become stronger.
Beware of wireheading patterns.
These patterns can occur in the form of trying to realize one's idea of what meditation should be (e.g. attempting to repeat a peak experience). This leads to altering one's practice in order to try to match previous expectations. This can be a subtle (and recurring) error, since one's meditation should actually evolve over time and through new experiences. Trying to follow the instructions as straightforwardly as possible, and looking for the manifestation of the benefits in one's life, can help to distinguish between wireheading patterns and genuine growth.
Measures of progress
You find that you are able to focus on tasks for longer periods without getting irritated or distracted.
On a coarse level, you get worried or stressed less often about macroscopic events. On a more subtle level, you aren't irritated by formerly annoying bodily experiences (e.g. cold or hunger).
Feeling unusual sensations (during or outside meditation).
You might feel spreading tingling sensations, numbness, muscle twitches, or a host of other surprising things.
Enhanced sensory perception.
You start to notice (and eventually continually become aware of) subtle sensations. You strongly smell trees and flowers when walking down the street, become sensitive to the temperature of the things you touch, etc. This enhanced perception is similar to the sensory sensitivity one experiences when taking psychedelics.
Insights about patterns of feelings.
You discover that you are perpetuating patterns that hurt you in one way or another. (See here for a concrete example)
Experiences of egolessness (during or outside meditation).
You find that you become absorbed in some aspect of your experience; you lose your sense of self and feel that nothing else exists. The first time I strongly experienced this I became absorbed in a sensation that was previously causing extreme pain.
Meditation during daily life.
You begin regulating your awareness and feelings as you do in meditation in the course of daily life.
1 There is much confusion out there about what vipassana is, and how it is related to other forms of Buddhist meditation (like anapanasati). I've made personal decisions about how to use the terms (and what instructions to give) in a way that I think is most clear and conducive to beneficial practice.
2 These courses indicate that they may turn down people with serious emotional problems. I expect that undesirable changes (if they occur) will be slow; you will see them happening and can stop meditating if you so desire. An example of such a change: I now very rarely get sad (didn't shed a tear at my last grandparent's funeral). This doesn't bother me at all, as I generally understand sadness as an indication of my attachment to how someone makes me feel, and not a measure of how much I intrinsically care about them.
3 At the start your awareness of the breath will not be very sharp. As it becomes easier to keep your awareness centered you can sharpen your awareness by focusing more precisely on the sensation the breath causes in this area, the touch of the breath, as you inhale and exhale.
4 I expect that the particular anchor you use isn't important (but I'm not sure). AFAICT in these courses your anchor is the mental procedure of systematically observing bodily sensations.
5 This guide has a good description of the difference between "seeing through" (being aware of) and "getting stuck to" (thinking) a thought:
There is a difference between being aware of a thought and thinking a thought. That difference is very subtle. It is primarily a matter of feeling or texture. A thought you are simply aware of with bare attention feels light in texture; there is a sense of distance between that thought and the awareness viewing it. It arises lightly like a bubble, and it passes away without necessarily giving rise to the next thought in that chain. Normal conscious thought is much heavier in texture. It is ponderous, commanding, and compulsive. It sucks you in and grabs control of consciousness. By its very nature it is obsessional, and it leads straight to the next thought in the chain, apparently with no gap between them.
I've created an open thread to discuss experiences and problems related to vipassana meditation, and to organize events and retreats.
Are there any non-obvious pre-requisites one must meet before being able to use this technique successfully? "Demons" one ought to "vanquish" before this can be helpful?
Be prepared to experience small attacks of guilt during the meditation for taking time away from your paper clips. It should help to be decisive before you begin, as Luke recommends, on a minimal amount of time that is worth the expected information gain and performance enhancing effects. Tell the paper clips --- out loud, or at least in a clear voice in your head --- that it's in their interest to wait 15 minutes a day until you're better at making them ;)
I'm curious if anyone here who has already done substantial work in this area can speak to potential downsides.
Are there any side effects? If you were going to make a case for learning this technique based on the dollar value of the time to practice and the dollar value of the outcome, what would the ROI calculation look like?
My interest is strongly piqued!
With exercise I can see how this works through several layers of inference. Exercise leads to more efficient slow or fast twitch skeletal muscles, a more robust cardio vascular system, more flexible joints, stronger bones, and so on. Being fit makes it easier to exercise and stay fit, and one can see how different kinds of "exercise" fitness would logically connect to issues like broken hips and heart attacks that are the proximate causes of death and disability. Some people can ski in their 80's but most people are dead by that age. The whole conceptual package of exercise is also backed by medical studies that regularly show substantial health benefits to a physically active lifestyle.
With meditation I recall studies connecting it to some "mental health" improvements, but I'm at a loss to fill in the mechanistic details... I'm not sure what scary outcomes I'd be avoiding, what the proximate causes of those outcomes would be, how "different aspects of my mental machinery" could be tuned u... (read more)
What about a stronger admonishment to not exert conscious control over breathing? Or a sentence or two about how breathing is both a conscious and unconscious process, and that you are specifically trying to observe unconscious breathing. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Breathing#Unconscious_control
This post has been significantly less well-received than Understanding vipassana meditation. How come?
It might be because people are mostly here to read for fun, and not to learn to do things (as hypothesized in this post). Alternatively, this post might have fallen short as an instrumental rationality post in some way. Double alternatively, I could just be blind to other ways in which it failed.
Can people who downvoted or did not upvote explain why they did so? I would rather not spend time writing posts here that people do not find valuable.
I would a... (read more)
Thanks for this. Inspired in part by your earlier post on the topic, I've been trying vipassana. (Haven't found time every day yet, but most days since starting--I'm using your.flowingdata to keep track of when I do.) I've noticed a little more ease not getting trapped in the mental loop I was hoping it would help with, but it's probably way too early to suggest correlation.
I believe you want the adverb phrase "every day," not the adjective "everyday," to go with your imperative. Also, here is a nice timer which I've been using for my m... (read more)
I have attended the 10 days course this year, but found it quite difficult to keep routinely in my daily life. I am curious that how do you do it after you come back from the course.
Can you clarify whether the ideal goal is to focus solely on the sensation of the breath (blocking other thoughts), or just to have your attention on that even if other thoughts are going by in the background? I have had almost no success trying to do the former, but some with the latter.
If you're interested in both models and practice you should definitely check out the amazingly detailed "Mastering the core teachings of the buddha".
Another anecdotal data point-
My meditation is not exactly vipassana but is very very close to it. I have been meditating daily for over thirteen years and did it sporadically for fifteen years or so prior to that. My menu of tried protocols is wide: vipassana, zen, transcendental, Gurdjieff self-remembering, Jung active-imagination, Ericson self-hypnosis, Loyola spiritual exercises, and probably a couple others I have totally forgotten about.
Current routine is sit perfectly still and follow a hundred breaths. If I am feeling strict I will stop at the first... (read more)
suggest changing "regulate" to "exert conscious control over"