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Call for Volunteers: Rationalists with Non-Traditional Skills

I'm a journalist & writer with related skills in online media & graphic design. But - I live in Sydney (Australia). Happy to be added to your list of resources. Will send you an email with contact details.

Understanding vipassana meditation

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

Understanding vipassana meditation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There are a couple of points that especially trouble me:

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

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

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

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

Understanding vipassana meditation

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

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

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

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

also here: