Vipassana Meditation: Developing Meta-Feeling Skills

by [anonymous]4 min read18th Oct 2010108 comments

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MeditationBuddhism
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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.

Instructions

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.

Advice

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

Improved concentration.

You find that you are able to focus on tasks for longer periods without getting irritated or distracted.

Less anxiety.

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.

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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 ;)

1Relsqui11yThis is interesting. I don't feel guilty for taking the time, but I'm also not very busy. If meditation would take a noticeable chunk out of my productive time, I probably wouldn't do it. I'll try to keep this in mind if that situation occurs--to at least consider taking the chunk of time anyway.
5[anonymous]11ydel
0Relsqui11yThat's great, thank you. It's also a handy segue; I was going to ask why meditation, particularly among practiced tasks, allegedly must be practiced daily.
-1Clippy11yI meant seriously.
8Academian11ySecretly, my response was written to be genuine if you replace "paper clips" with whatever your real ambitions are ;)
6Kevin11yIf you don't breathe, you need a different anchor. Do you have any actions you can perform where the conscious intersects the subconscious?
0Relsqui11ydhamma.org, one provider of 10-day vipassana courses, notes [http://www.dhamma.org/en/qanda.shtml] that "someone suffering from psychiatric problems, or someone undergoing emotional upheaval" should not participate in one. I'm not sure whether that extends to meditation in general, but I imagine that if being alone in your own head for a while would be scary, distressing, or dangerous, it would probably be healthier to work on that by other means before trying meditation. Other than that, I don't know; I'd also be interested in answers to this.
2Kevin11yTthere is also evidence that meditation can help people with schizophrenia. I think they say that for liability reasons, as I don't doubt meditation can make someone spontaneously go even more crazy.
0erratio11yGot a reference for that? My flatmate used to enjoy meditation a lot prior to his psychotic break, and is now explicitly not allowed to meditate.
7Kevin11yhttp://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19267396 [http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19267396] http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18041355 [http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18041355] http://www.dhs.wisconsin.gov/mh_bcmh/docs/confandtraining/2007/MindfulMedPtSchizDaubertDec07.pdf [http://www.dhs.wisconsin.gov/mh_bcmh/docs/confandtraining/2007/MindfulMedPtSchizDaubertDec07.pdf] http://clinicaltrials.gov/ct2/show/NCT00936351 [http://clinicaltrials.gov/ct2/show/NCT00936351]
1erratio11yThanks!
3NancyLebovitz11yThere are a lot of different kinds of meditation. Lumping them together might like assuming that all exercise can be expected to have the same effect.
0erratio11yyeh, I'm not sure which type he used to do, although I suspect it was Vipassanna or closely related. Doesn't all exercise have largely the same effect in terms of peripheral benefits? Release of endorphins, better sleep, and so forth.
1NancyLebovitz11yNot all exercise (especially if you include amount as well as type) is good for all people.
0erratio11yGood point, I was naively assuming reasonable types and limits.

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?

6wedrifid11ySome research points to downsides, with the potential exacerbation of certain psychiatric conditions (or vulnerabilities to such). Schizophrenia is sometimes mentioned. The other reported downside is related to the fact that 'no free lunch' applies even to things like anxiety reduction. Some of the pressures that you release when meditating actually serve a useful purpose. You don't achieve great things by being at peace with the universe! Downsides (obviously) apply more to excessive use. If 15 minutes a day is great that doesn't necessarily mean 3 hours a day is good too! Consider reference [http://onwww.net/trancenet.org/research/2000perezdealbeniz.shtml]. Abstract:
3[anonymous]11yWhile this may be true, it's not clear that they are the optimal way towards this end. We may be able to substitute more effective mental forces. See Will_Newsome's comment [http://lesswrong.com/lw/2sv/a_novice_buddhists_humble_experiences/2qsh?c=1] for an example.
4wedrifid11yNote that I speak, at Jeniffer's request, only of potential downsides. As great and even life changing as they may be for some, effects like these: ... are not for everyone. This kind of development of awareness can be seen as a rubicon [http://lesswrong.com/lw/v4/which_parts_are_me/]. When you change the way you think you become a different person to that which you were. As the paper I mention describes, the changes are not universally beneficial. That's seldom how the world works, I'm afraid.
3Vladimir_Nesov11yYou need a knowable direction of improvement, not merely uncertainty about optimality of status quo. We know that status quo is not optimal, for there is no reason to expect otherwise. But it doesn't suggest that any given change is an improvement.
-1[anonymous]11yI didn't claim this.
2Vladimir_Nesov11yWhat was the purpose of your argument?
1[anonymous]11yIt was just meant to point out the possibility of supplanting useful mental pressures (that could be disturbed my meditation) by more effective mental processes. I didn't mean to make any claim about whether we can reasonably expect to do this; I was just aiming to stimulate thought about the possibility.
9Vladimir_Nesov11y(On a side note, this phrase is an anti-epistemic cliché, usually used to make a privileged hypothesis more salient.) You don't need to "stimulate thought" about this, everyone already agrees. The reason that caused you to use this argument seems to be that meditation is on the side it argues for, but there is no merit to the argument itself, since it states the obvious and doesn't improve meditation's (or anything else's) case. Do you still endorse that argument as worth making? More charitably, the original confusion probably started from interpreting wedrifid's comment as arguing for status quo, followed by an argument against status quo that would be correct given that assumption.
4[anonymous]11yFWIW I think that is how I understood wedrifid's comment, though I failed to articulate this when you asked me about my purpose.
2Vladimir_Nesov11yThen, it's incorrect that in context your argument was vacuous, since if one says that 2+2=5, it's still worth arguing that 2+2=4, however obvious that is. On the other hand, motivated cognition was still probably the cause of interpreting wedrifid's comment that way.
4[anonymous]11yNo. Thanks for being patient and clearing that up for me. To sum up, it seems that due to (perhaps unconscious) motivated cognition I failed in at least two ways: * I didn't initially examine the purpose of my comment closely. * I didn't spot the vacuousness of my comment upon reflection before posting.
5[anonymous]11ydel

My interest is strongly piqued!

The ROI resembles that of physical exercise: annoying time investment into something that is unwise to ignore on the long term.

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)

[-][anonymous]11y 10

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6JenniferRM11yI really appreciate the effort you put into your answer, links and all. The most interesting to me was the academic-philosopher-becomes-zen-student [http://www.cs.ru.nl/~henk/BP/bp1.html] essay because it attempted to assimilate the practice in somewhat external terms. I still sort of feel like I'm hunting for a really practical "cashing out" of the benefits I guess. I presume that there are benefits, because social practices usually have some basis for persisting and truly selfish memes appear to me to be relatively rare, so I'm willing to hang out waiting for the value to shine through :-) Nonetheless, it seems like it would be irresponsible to not at least consider the idea that there actually isn't any net value to expert level meditation practices, but only a small amount of value that's outweighed by the costs, with an overvaluation that grows from cognitive dissonance [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cognitive_dissonance] about sunk costs [http://www.skepdic.com/sunkcost.html]. I think this works as a description of many practices other than just meditation - juggling for example! Still, this is the sort of thing I might expect to hear if cognitive dissonance was an important factor for understanding the situation. Of the benefits there, "fighting akrasia" seems like something that would deliver clear value, if it was an actual benefit. Less akrasia would lead to more effective execution on actually worthwhile plans and that would, by definition, lead to better outcomes. However, that's not the kind of benefit I usually see touted by skilled practitioners of meditation. Instead I tend to see talk of "feelings of enlightenment", "compassion", and maybe some interesting "spirit quests". So if I'm (1) feeling enlightened enough, (2) already feel compassion for poor people and would actually prefer to feel less while doing more to help people, (3) would rather take drugs or sleep in and have a lucid dream for my spirit quests, (4) directly reject the accuracy
9[anonymous]11ydel
4NancyLebovitz11yThe American idiom is "bull in a china shop". I don't know whether it's the same in British English.
3JenniferRM11yI think you may have just sold me "by demonstration" :-) You took my references to "sunk costs" through to mercilessly harsh criticism of yourself (yes, kind of to the point of a strawman) without apparently flinching at all. And when you quoted my numbered arguments that amounted to "pretend these appeals won't move me, then what?" (nailing me on the fourth noble truth with respect to other people in the process), I sort of cringed in precisely the way that I imagine you're talking about when you said: Except, of course, my "self-reflective cringe-inducing period length" was a day (plus you holding up the mirror) rather than the two year period that you mentioned. The implication seems to be that I'm not self reflective enough to avoid cringe-inducing stumbles on even this small length of time :-/ At this point I have one more question (plus I'll send to a PM after this): How do you pragmatically handle being surrounded by people with substantially less emotional and intellectual self control than yourself? I imagine that your self control lets you, to some degree, decide how to feel about social interactions, but I would guess that many people could be annoyed by your unflappability unless you did something weird like "pretending to lose control" every so often. I'd be worried that if I developed a similar ability, people might interpret my equanimity as arrogance, or something similar. Or another potential social hiccup: The "honest judgment of your eyes" seems like something that might cause people with poor self esteem or a measure of guilt to avoid you (as though you radiated an ugh field?) because your presence leads them to imagine themselves as they imagine that you see them, while not feeling that they even have the ability to repair the flaws thereby revealed. If they avoid you, the data wouldn't be in front of you to detect or fix. Or another way of getting at the concern would be to ask how - if you successfully hold yourself to a standard that pr
6RichardKennaway11yIf you are worried that improving your mental functioning could impose costs you do not want to pay, should you not also at least be asking yourself whether your present mental functioning is already too far advanced beyond optimum, and whether you should be taking some equivalent of stupid pills to dumb yourself down to such optimal level [http://www.scottaaronson.com/writings/selfdelusion.html]? How likely is it that you just happen to right now be at the optimal point without ever having tried to optimise for it? ETA: Personally, I'm with Stefan King on this. More clarity and damn the consequences.
5[anonymous]11ydel
2Will_Newsome11yMy turn to list some benefits: * A sense that more is possible: a greater appreciation of mindspace, and better knowing what it's like to not have all of your thoughts and emotions bent by needless affective judgment. * Being more the person I want to be. (Especially for the 30 minutes after meditating, but also in life generally; though I've been leveling up pretty fast lately so it's hard to attribute my better general dispositions to meditation per se.) * As a cause and effect of both points above, wanting to be more the person I want to be: trying harder to be awesome. No, not trying: just being awesome. Actually thinking hard for hours at a time instead of just having my thoughts lazily drift around hypothetical scenarios or transient environmental factors. Actually striking up conversations with cute girls when I go out. Creating a framework for reasoning about the effective acquisition of meta-level dispositions for acquiring new and awesome skills and dipositions. Establishing goals and targets, creating a path for myself so that I can keep my growth going, hopefully in recursive fashion. Fluidly and reliably going meta and then connecting my meta-optimizations to my actual next action. (I think telling people to 'just fucking do it' as a general rule is damaging: a lot of effort is wasted on suboptimal work. Meta-optimization is always a better call if you can do it right.) * Not flinching away from thoughts or ideas. Internalizing the Litany of Tarski. (Not entirely; I think that's an Enlightenment thing. But still, I've improved.) * Gaining an appreciation of the cognitively low-level existence of confirmation bias. * Gaining an appreciation of the constance and strength of affective bias.
1NancyLebovitz11yI've noticed that going meta (which I take to mean thinking or intuiting about whether what I'm doing makes sense in terms of my goals in such as way as to lead to appropriate action) is a distinct mental state. I'm not sure where to go with that except to ask whether it seems that way to other people, and for any further thoughts on the subject.
0Relsqui11yThat's interesting; I've found myself to be quite groggy for at least the few minutes after meditating. Takes me a little while to get back into the real world. But I'm also still new at this.
4NancyLebovitz11yThe most common benefit I see people ascribe to meditation is being less easily irritated.
2Relsqui11yI can't help with your ROI--I'm very much a newbie to vipassana--but I can address a couple of your points. This is why I'm doing it. I've been having a specific problem dealing with certain kinds of emotional situations, and since I started meditating it's been much easier for me to let my initial negative reaction to those situations pass, and then choose how I would prefer to deal with them. So it's not about strengthening the rational part of my brain, it's about clearing an obstacle that was keeping me from using it. Additionally, during most of my meditation sessions, I've felt very comfortable and in control. It's too early to say whether that will translate to greater confidence in the rest of my life, but I have had similar experiences before (confidence in one area -> confidence in others), so I'd be a little surprised if it didn't. I've found it fun. It's interesting observing physical sensations (or the lack thereof) which I'm unaccustomed to, and some of them are entertaining. I described some of those experiences in the vipassana open thread [http://lesswrong.com/r/discussion/lw/2ws/vipassana_meditation_open_thread/]. There's also jhana, which Will_Newsome describes here [http://lesswrong.com/lw/2sv/a_novice_buddhists_humble_experiences/]: Maybe you can bliss out easier on drugs, but meditation is free. ; )
1[anonymous]11yFour of my "Measures of progress" seem like practical benefits to me: * Improved concentration * Less anxiety * Enhanced sensory perception * Insights about patterns of feeling
0anonym11yOn positive reasons to practice mindfulness meditation: Cognitive Neuroscience of Mindfulness Meditation [http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sf6Q0G1iHBI] (Philippe Goldin) Mindfulness Stress Reduction And Healing [http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KZEy3Liz3ks&feature=channel] (Jon Kabat-Zinn)
3timtyler11yTrying and exploring meditation seems like a relatively low-risk activity - with potential benefits in terms of greater self-knowledge and self-understanding. My guesses at the most obvious risks would be: overdosing; changing too rapidly; getting involved with mantra meditation; getting involved with a cult; getting involved with other less-legal forms of consciousness expansion.
6NancyLebovitz11yIs mantra meditation generally problematic? A less obvious risk is attempting self-redesign without sufficient competence.
4[anonymous]11yGood point. I think in most cases the changes due to meditation are slow, so one is not thrust into drastically greater powers before observing how they've redesigned themselves with weaker powers.
8Jonathan_Graehl11yThe hypothetical slippery slope has you happy with each step, but you had imperfect visibility at the beginning; with full knowledge you would have been horrified at the result. I find the prospect of gradual identity change (where I'm always locally happy) horrifying if it leads to me destroying things I now hold dear. But supposing that I accidentally took such a course, I'm sure I would be quite content.
5[anonymous]11yInteresting. How does one distinguish preference drift from learning about unknown aspects of preference?
3Jonathan_Graehl11yYou're right. I think I'm incapable of it. In retrospect can tell you where I drifted from (or was naive about), but even that's just recollections of thoughts and emotion (i.e. not very reliable). I don't see any way to distinguish drift vs. learning about who I "really am" over my history, let alone in the present.
3NancyLebovitz11yA description of getting oneself into a worse and worse cycle [http://www.learningmethods.com/circular.htm#fr3], with something in the neighborhood of meditation as the way out. The short version is that people try to get rid of problems by methods which they hope will immediately make themselves feel better so that they can go back to the way they were living before they noticed the problem. However, the restriction of awareness to wanting to get rid of the problem and the fantasy of how one will feel when the problem goes away is a large part of the problem. Life gets much better when you quit fighting the present moment. The Bearable Lightness of Being [http://www.learningmethods.com/bearablelightness.htm]-- more about the implications of not imposing artificial separations on one's experiences.
3Kevin11yYes, it's specifically mantra meditation that is problematic in large amounts, not Vipasanna. Vipasanna is a meditation of greater awareness of the body, and mantra meditation is dissociative. Mantra meditation seems to be fine for 30 minutes or less a day but there are negative side effects when it is done in the long term for much more than that. http://www.myownmind.com/extmteacher.cfm [http://www.myownmind.com/extmteacher.cfm] (there are lots of stories like this out there)
2NancyLebovitz11yThanks, though I'm left wondering how much the problem is mantra meditation and how much is inappropriate hopes and fears taught by TM.
0Kingreaper11yIndeed. I did that during my teens, and it may have resulted in several pecularities of my current personality. The only one I'm sure is due to it is that I am no longer capable of violence; which was the main point of my meditation. However, while I'm no longer capable of violence, my brain as a whole still IS. It just means that I don't have access to any memories of such events.

Good post.

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

2RichardKennaway11yI have never been able to do this. The moment I notice that I am breathing, it becomes an entirely voluntary process, urged on by the slavedriver of the body demanding air if I let the process stop for too long. The result is that when I meditate on the breath, I cannot do other than exert conscious control throughout, and it turns into something like a pranayama or chi kung exercise.
1khafra11yI have a similar experience. In fact, when I was a kid, I would sometimes experience a lot of distress because I felt unable to relegate my breathing to autonomous control once I'd noticed it. I'm lucky this meme [http://www.google.com/search?q=%22you+are+now+breathing+manually%22] wasn't around back then. But I'm surprised that the effect is resistant to prolonged, regular meditation.
0RichardKennaway11yI had a similar experience. Not distress, but a sense of oppression at having to keep on doing this every moment of every day for my whole life. Of course, my attention would eventually leave my breath, but wanting it to would just prolong it.
1Relsqui11yDoes this apply equally much to the situation where you're observing the way your breath feels, as opposed to observing specifically that you are breathing? If I think about breathing itself, I definitely take more conscious control, but when I pay attention to the sensation of my breath above my upper lip, that distracts me from the actions of breathing itself and it becomes more natural. Maybe not completely, but much more, and I figure the rest can come in time.
0RichardKennaway11yIt does. When I meditate, my breathing rate drops to about 2 to 4 breaths per minute.
3jimrandomh11yThe irresponsibility in this thread is shocking. Deliberately slowing your breathing is not safe! If you're too good at it, you could induce hypoxia, which causes brain damage. Ordinarily you'd pass out before that could happen, but that is not guaranteed when you're putting your brain into altered states at the same time. If you really want to experiment with this, put on a fingertip oximeter first.
2NancyLebovitz11yI haven't heard of people getting into trouble that way from meditation, though it seems theoretically possible. Do you have evidence, or is this a theory-based concern? In my experience (I don't deliberately try to slow my breathing when I meditate), meditation leads to deeper, slower breathing. I don't know how well it would work to slow one's breathing to induce a meditative state. I have deliberately slowed my heartbeat to go to sleep. The process is to notice my heartbeat, then imagine a slightly slower beat. I do not believe this is dangerous. I do believe that if there were measuring and competition, deliberately slowing one's heartbeat could be dangerous.
1jimrandomh11yTheory-based. But I am not confident that incidents of slight hypoxia would be reported if they happened. It may be that it's impossible to slow your breathing by enough to cause damage. However, even if that were true, there's still required a due diligence requirement. Four people reported having tried slowing their breath without even mentioning the possibility of injury, even to dismiss it.
1Relsqui11y... two breaths per minute doesn't seem sustainable.
0Risto_Saarelma11yI tried breathing as slowly and deeply as I comfortably could, and got 2 minutes 20 seconds for four full breaths without much effort. And I'm not even very athletic. Maybe I should try to keep it up for 10 or 20 minutes to see if there's any trouble. ETA: 11 breath cycles in 6 minutes, then I got bored. It's very deliberate breathing, filling my lungs as much as possible with each inhalation, but doesn't feel uncomfortable in any way.
0wedrifid11yYou can do 2 minutes 20 seconds for ZERO full breaths reasonably comfortably. :P
0RichardKennaway11yIt isn't, but 4 is. ETA: I have a string of meditation beads, 108 beads long. If I use it to count breaths, it takes more than half an hour.
0Relsqui11yOh, that's a good idea. I've been wanting an excuse to make something like that for a while. But it does seem to contradict the keeping-still-ness.
0gwern11yWhat I do is curl fingers. Count to 10 and back, curl 1 finger. When all 10 are curled, I begin uncurling. A full curl-uncurl cycle takes about 25 minutes for me, and is a good substitute for an alarm, I think. Little less stressful & abrupt at the end.
0Relsqui11yI guess I have the same question--how does this interact with the priority of keeping still?
0gwern11yI'm not sure. I'm very much new to it. I don't seem to notice any major difference between when I use an alarm and the finger curling.
0wedrifid11y2 actually is possible [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Heart_Rhythm_Meditation]. I have even achieved it and that was without excessive training. At least, as I discovered later, without excessive training while I was awake [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sleep_apnea]. On a related note it is also possible to sustain 1 breath per 50 meters while running. With both of the above it isn't a matter of mere psychology. The changes may have to occur down to the physiological level, along similar lines to altitude training. The oxygen absorption of the blood itself is altered.
0[anonymous]11yYvain has (had?) the same problem [http://lesswrong.com/lw/2sv/a_novice_buddhists_humble_experiences/2qpj?c=1]. I had this problem for a while too. I remember I kept "letting go", and "looking through" the feeling of conscious control to center on the sensation of my breath. I think I ended up using that feeling as a cue to "look through". This relationship strengthened over time and eventually the problem went away.
0Relsqui11yIs there anyone else in this thread who does not have this problem? I don't seem to, and I wonder if I just haven't noticed it. With only the people who share the difficulty speaking up, I don't have a sense of how common it is, and therefore how likely it is that I'm an exception. On the other hand, the "you are now breathing manually" meme doesn't work on me, either, and neither does this observation of Yvain's: So maybe there actually is a physical difference here.
1NancyLebovitz11yI don't seem to have that problem. It wouldn't surprise me if paying attention to one's breathing causes some change, and people who notice a change get concerned that they're doing meditation wrong, and this causes a downward spiral. Fortunately, if there's a change I'm not sensitive enough to notice it. Those who've reported that the involuntary processes get completely overridden while they're observing their breath seem to be up against a different problem.
0[anonymous]11yThis seems plausible from my personal observations. Hm. It doesn't seem different to me. Care to elaborate on why you think it is?
0NancyLebovitz11yIn case one, the person intends to do neutral observation of their breathing, notices that their involuntary breathing has changed in some hard-to-define way as the result of observation, and, as far as I can tell, typically decides that meditation is too hard for them and gives up. One person I've talked with about this also mentioned that observing her breathing also caused her to become anxious. In the second case, observation disrupts involuntary breathing completely, and breathing has to be done voluntarily until attention drifts away to something else. People with this problem seem to stay with meditation longer, but I don't know if the problem is ever resolved.
0Risto_Saarelma11yI don't experience anything uncomfortable when observing my breath. Also, when I'm observing my breath and breathing at a normal rate, I have no idea if I'm consciously controlling the breath or just observing autonomous breathing. It feels like the inhalations and exhalations start by themselves, but I could be just fooling myself. I don't meditate regularly, but I've been doing the breath observation meditation thing occasionally for something like 15 years.
0erratio11yI don't have that problem, and it's pretty rare for me to be able to induce physical sensation just by concentrating on it.
0NancyLebovitz11yIf you voluntarily do a large exhalation, can you wait for and allow an involuntary inhalation?
0RichardKennaway11yNo, only in the sense that what I might do if told to by someone with a gun to my head is "involuntary". (That's the 6th Tibetan, isn't it? The one that isn't so much talked about.)
0NancyLebovitz11yIt's also given as general advice by Steve Barnes and Scott Sonnon, but they respect the Tibetans. If I were you and interested in being able to observe my involuntary breathing, I'd experiment with observing my voluntary breathing to see if I could find out what was going on there. This is tough, but it wouldn't surprise me if there's a key in what happens at the moment when you decide to observe your breathing. This might (and I grant that I'm out there in hypothesis land) overlap some issues I'm working on-- a belief that I can't notice things as they're changing, so I have to stop them or slow them down. I'd also take some yoga classes to find out whether the rest at the end of the class (Dead Man's Pose) has me tired and mellow enough to not take charge of my breathing. On the other hand, I'm guessing-- I've always had at least some ability to observe my breathing.
[-][anonymous]11y 2

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)

6lionhearted11yFunny, I was just the opposite. I skimmed the "Understanding vipassana meditation", saw no guidelines on what it actually entails, and discarded it as mysticism. Now that you've given clear guidelines, I'm inclined to try it, and also to read the original post with an open mind.
-1Vladimir_Nesov11yWhat do you mean by "guidelines"? Detailed description of the rituals? There is still no case for a positive impact of the activity.
0[anonymous]11y(Taking the position of a random LW reader doing no independent research) I agree, but do you also think there is no case for further investigation? My main purpose in writing these posts is to spark such investigation, with the aim of finding out if vipassana meditation is useful for rationalists. On reflection it doesn't seem like I made this very clear though.
3Vladimir_Nesov11yThe intended interpretation was, no case in your posts. Not that I can see. To argue for further investigation, you need to give weak arguments for both existence of benefits of obtaining a certain belief (in this case, that practicing meditation has a positive effect), and for availability of information that leads to attaining that belief. It would also be strange if you argue for further investigation but don't describe the form it could take (like, read these papers that argue for a certain effect and check validity of their methods). Also, your case needs to be strong enough to justify this further investigation. For example, if by further investigation you mean personal experience from practice, the time costs are too great for a weak argument for possible unknown consequences to overcome. Apart from that, given weak evidence for negative effect [http://lesswrong.com/lw/2w5/vipassana_meditation_developing_metafeeling_skills/2tcg?c=1] (assuming no similarly convincing counterarguments, correcting for risk aversion), it won't be the right thing to do even at zero cost. What do you mean, "for rationalists"?
0[anonymous]11yUpvoted for clear analysis. It seems like I was taking actions associated [http://vimeo.com/7397629] with a vague goal instead of thinking strategically [http://lesswrong.com/lw/2p5/humans_are_not_automatically_strategic/]. I didn't clarify the goal I had in mind and what it would mean to achieve it (and then re-evaluate if it was still desirable, etc.). I meant to imply that the meditation might help with rationality problems that rationalists are concerned with, but which are not a common concern for non-rationalists.
1Vladimir_Nesov11yAnd what was that (even in a few words)? Given that even at conscious level, it's not usually clear which way rationality, trying to modify your subconscious in an unclear fashion doesn't seem to be a plausible way of obtaining an expected improvement, unless one produces a surprising empirical study.
2[anonymous]11yThe goal was simply sharing my knowledge and experience of meditation with a community that might benefit from it, and was interested [http://lesswrong.com/lw/2q7/open_thread_september_2010_part_2/2mwj?c=1] in hearing about it. It seems like I've actually done this by writing these two posts and a bunch of comments. But if I'm now going to aim at actually realizing these possible benefits (and I don't know if I should), I'll have to think more clearly about what this would mean and how it would be done (as you've pointed out above).
6Vladimir_Nesov11y(I think we agree, but it's not absolutely clear from your comment.) When you ask, "What am I doing X for?", and get back "I want to achieve Y", it often happens that X is far from being an adequate answer to "How can I best achieve Y?", and so must be abandoned. Thus, even after figuring out Y, pursuing the question of "How to best use X for achieving Y?" is a strictly worse option than just "How can I best achieve Y?"
0[anonymous]11yI completely agree.

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)

4erratio11yHooray, an internet timer that doesn't sound awful. Upvoted for usefulness.
2[anonymous]11yFixed.

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.

2[anonymous]11yThe latter. I tried to make this clear with my use of "see through" in the post: I may have overestimated how long it takes people to be able to practice "seeing through".
0Relsqui11yOkay. That's what I thought you meant, but it wasn't quite explicit either here or in MPE (but implied in both). Thanks. I dunno how long it takes in general; before starting to try vipassana I had already practiced examining my emotions and their reasons a fair bit (mostly because of Nonviolent Communication, which outright requires it).
1Craig_Heldreth11yThis is a problem in Buddhism. All misery begins in desire is akin to their prime directive. Which leads directly to a paradox isomorphic to the Cretan Paradox. To desire to rid oneself of desire is specifically a desire. Metabolizing this contradiction somehow is essential to practicing Buddhism, and incidentally, is totally irrational. To be less abstract and address your problem directly, what you must intend on is emptying your mind. Quench the monkey mind and you will quench your most troubling desires. The reason the breath is so useful in this regard is it your main bodily function which is subconsciously controlled that you can exercise some conscious control over. (There are strict limits; you cannot consciously stop breathing and maintain consciousness--you will pass out and begin breathing.) If you have problems concentrating on nothing but your breathing, I have devised a cheat which I am sure at least one of my meditation teachers would whack me on the top of my trapezius with a stick if he was standing behind me reading this while I type: count the breaths. Concentrating on breathing + counting may be a sufficient density of objects to completely occupy you; it works great for me when concentrating solely on breathing will not. This also bypasses the need for a timer. Count a hundred breaths. There's your beginner's meditation time interval. Jack Kornfeld has a useful analogy. He likens it to house training a puppy with newspapers on the floor. When the puppy strays off the newspapers, you gently bring the puppy back onto the newspapers. This is how to treat your own conscious thoughts when they wander from your breath. Gently bring your consciousness back to your breath like it is a stupid innocent puppy.
1Relsqui11yNitpicking and flowery language aside, I gather that your suggestion is that the goal is to not think of anything else. That this is true is not clear to me from the instructions I have read; it seems more like zen. The counting technique you say you'd get whacked for is also explicitly suggested in the book recommended near the top of this post.
[-][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".

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)

0khafra11yDo you breathe once every 30 seconds, or restart the count when you move?
0Craig_Heldreth11yEach breath is not timed. I note the time I start and the time I finish and the number of breaths. If I am being strict, I stop meditating if I move. If not, a movement has nothing to do with the counting of breaths. Sometimes I will lose count. Say for example I am on 38 and I lose touch with consciousness enough that I forget I am exactly on number 38. When that happens I estimate what the exact number is supposed to be--I will know it isn't 5 and it isn't 70; my estimate will be pretty close to 38--and I carry on with a little error in my number.
[-][anonymous]11y 0

suggest changing "regulate" to "exert conscious control over"