Concerns about Vipassana Meditation Centre

 
SteveJosishRose
 
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SteveJosishRose
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14 September 2017 19:24
 

Hi

Sam Harris has recommended on several occasions a 10-day silent retreat in – ideally –  a Vipassana centre.

I found this place relatively speaking near me: http://www.bhumi.dhamma.org/

I am both eager to give it a go and at the same time quite concerned/worried about what I would be getting myself into.

A few of my concerns:
• The time table seems quite strict – 4:00 wake – 9:30 sleep – I am not sure if I would be able to function well as its less than I usually get (7-10pm) and feel like sleep deprivation isn’t what I want to sign up for – and also not the point of meditation??
• There is no explicit call for payment – they say previous people have essentially “paid forward” and they suggest to do the same – makes me uneasy – how much?
• I also have general self-conscious concerns about attending a place like that from people around me judging me – as it happens I am a fairly vocal Atheist in my family
• The center’s teacher is/was S.N. Goenka, who died in 2013, I assume the whole thing will be videos of him – weird – very religious, dare I say cultic.

I am half thinking of simply sticking to apps/guided meditation in the comfort of my home/work – however, Sam Harris has suggested that only after a 10-day silent retreat would one ‘get the point’ – though not his words.

Any help or guidance would be much appreciated.

[ Edited: 14 September 2017 19:47 by SteveJosishRose]
 
NL.
 
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NL.
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14 September 2017 21:53
 

The concept definitely weirded me out a lot before my first retreat - I actually cancelled my first retreat fairly last minute because I had these crazy ideas about what it might be like (And a word of caution - if you, as someone who is actually open to going to a retreat, have these fears, you can expect people you know who are not open to attending to feel that way times a hundred. Much as it kinda pains me that ‘mindfulness’ is becoming known as an activity for the ‘2017 version of yuppies’, in a way it’s actually a relief, because even if that’s a negative stereotype it’s one people simply roll their eyes at, not one where they go “OMG you’re joining a cult! Intervention being planned!”). I probably only took the plunge the second time because IMS is super no-nonsense. I think that’s important on retreat - I feel like even the most experienced meditators can go down really weird mental paths in those situations (I remember reading once about a Buddhist monk - I mean a full-time monk, in a remote part of Asia, who would have been enculturated into this way of being and also practicing all the time,) having such profound feelings in a meditation that he decided he could fly and jumped off a ledge, breaking his leg! I feel like your meditation center should be your designated driver in that situation, but unfortunately you read about places where that’s not the case, and that actually makes me really mad.


That said, with a few exceptions, if you find yourself at a less than reputable center, odds are you’re not going to run into a “John Friend” situation, you’ll just be surrounded by really, really annoying passive aggressive people who appear to have joined a cult whose sole purpose is to give Holier Than Thou Knowing Looks, use irritating “I get it, you know?” in-group catchphrases, and speak in soft breathy voices that totally belie the fact that they are more or less telling you to go f- yourself if you don’t agree with them. Something you could probably stumble upon the equivalent of at a Phish concert. But the good news is, if you hate it, you can always leave.


Regarding the lack of info on payment - I haven’t run into that for an entire retreat, but usually that is what they do for teacher ‘dana’. I agree that the lack of guidelines are frustrating. I understand the intent, not to pressure people into giving for the sake of meeting an arbitrary standard, but if you have no frame of reference, you’re stuck feeling like a clueless newbie if you don’t know how much you’re ‘really’ supposed to give (assuming you can afford it,) and possibly gave too little, while wondering at the same time if you gave a ridiculous amount. This is a thread I eventually found on it:


http://newbuddhist.com/discussion/9635/retreat-dana-how-much


Since this place doesn’t charge for the retreat at all, you could also ask them what the cost of covering a retreatants daily expenses are. They might not answer, but if framed that way, I think most places understand you don’t want them to actually lose money on having you if you can afford to pay for your utilities, boarding, and food.


On the video thing - I personally would find that off-putting, but it sounds as if this isn’t something you’ve confirmed? You could always call and ask, and if that’s the case, look for a different center. Another thought, if you haven’t done so already, might be to find a local meditation group, and then get the input of a teacher or student in that group, whose judgement you trust, on where to go on retreat (something I also did before my first retreat.)


Last but not least - yes, I do think a retreat, even a short one, is a whole different ballgame than just sitting and meditating for half an hour or however long each day. But that’s even more reason, to my mind, to make sure you’re going to a place where you feel comfortable.

 

 
 
SteveJosishRose
 
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SteveJosishRose
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14 September 2017 22:34
 

Thanks, I appreciate the quick reply. Good to feel like I am not along with my feelings. You’ve been really helpful, thanks.

 
Kalessin
 
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Kalessin
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15 September 2017 09:39
 
NL. - 14 September 2017 09:53 PM

you’ll just be surrounded by really, really annoying passive aggressive people who appear to have joined a cult whose sole purpose is to give Holier Than Thou Knowing Looks, use irritating “I get it, you know?” in-group catchphrases, and speak in soft breathy voices that totally belie the fact that they are more or less telling you to go f- yourself if you don’t agree with them. Something you could probably stumble upon the equivalent of at a Phish concert.

This was hilarious (in a good way, I don’t mean to offend) and sadly all- too familiar.  In fact this is not untypical of some yoga classes I have attended, let alone meditation retreats.

I think it’s worth taking on board the context of Sam Harris’ personal journey here.  His audio essay on psychedelics (which I think is full of insights) gives you an idea of what he brings to the pursuit of meditation, and his neuro-scientific researches also clearly inform his thinking.  And his natural facility for calm, detached hyper-rationality is both (in my opinion) a result of and a contributing factor to, his general perspective on meditation.

Everyone comes at it from a slightly or hugely different place.  A retreat may or may not be right for anyone at a given time in their lives or their experience in meditation.  meditation may really work for you as a focused activity with an element of shared experience and collective reflection; the simple fact of going somewhere new and removing lots of encumbrances and distractions is quite likely to ‘free your mind’ in unexpected and interesting ways; the commitment you would be making by going there clearly increases the chances of the activity being meaningful and memorable, and quite possibly(with my statistical confirmation bias hat on) confirming some of your prior aspirations and expectations. 

There is no one or absolute right or wrong path here (in my view).  There is being on a path or not (and even that is not inherently right or wrong). 

Just a last point about sleep patterns as this does pertain to some empirical stuff.  There are certainly proven statistical profiles of effective and healthy sleep patterns, but like all statistical profiles (for example BMi) it is very difficult to apply them precisely to yourself or any individual.  We have some ideas about when and how people get the most “healthy” sleep (eg. in full darkness, on the floor, reasonably mirroring sunset/sunrise), but many people are not in the middle of the continuum.  It could be a problem, or you might get used to it instantly, or have one day of equivalent jetlag, or just have to make do with a bit less than normal (which isn’t fatal, and quite typical in new and unusual surroundings), or you may even have to take along some appropriate herbal/pharmaceuticals (I have done this when having to cope with non-standard routines, as I am normally a night owl). I personally wouldn’t see it as a deal-breaker if everything is appealing to you - and you could always ask them about any advice or thoughts they had iabout the issue in advance.  For example I’m sure if you have a bad back and need lots of pillows etc. they will accommodate.

[ Edited: 15 September 2017 09:41 by Kalessin]
 
NL.
 
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NL.
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15 September 2017 15:13
 
Kalessin - 15 September 2017 09:39 AM
NL. - 14 September 2017 09:53 PM

you’ll just be surrounded by really, really annoying passive aggressive people who appear to have joined a cult whose sole purpose is to give Holier Than Thou Knowing Looks, use irritating “I get it, you know?” in-group catchphrases, and speak in soft breathy voices that totally belie the fact that they are more or less telling you to go f- yourself if you don’t agree with them. Something you could probably stumble upon the equivalent of at a Phish concert.

This was hilarious (in a good way, I don’t mean to offend) and sadly all- too familiar.  In fact this is not untypical of some yoga classes I have attended, let alone meditation retreats.


Thanks, ha ha, and in rereading it I want to say - my point was not to be a witch about “Oh! Spiritualz types can be so X!” (I’m trying to not be pointlessly snarky online, for the sake of being a kinder person,) it’s more that I wanted to try and demystify Steve’s worries in a way that, to my mind, is realistic. Yes, there are things to worry about, but generally they are just irritating, normal, human things of the type you might run into in a yoga class or workplace quarrel, not like “crazy cult” stuff, unless you’re wandering way to the fringes of spiritual groups. (That said, of course I think he should look for reviews and such of any place before committing to staying there. If you’d do it for so much as a B&B, you certainly should do it for a retreat center. Ironically, the biggest actual [as in, not simply a fear in my head] threat that I’ve run into with retreat centers is the opioid crisis, of all things, as centers tend to be out in rural areas for the ambiance and quiet. Locals who are desperate for something to pawn for ten bucks sometimes look for unlocked cars and windows.)


Steve - other, slightly less pressing musings on retreats in general… I think that meditating in groups definitely has an effect, and this has its pros and cons. On the plus side, if you have a good feeling about the retreat you’re at and enjoy the company, I think this provides a lot of support to keep going and can have a positive effect, whether you want to call it something mystic like the (pauses to Google,) “Maharishi Effect”, or a more standard scientific term like “emotional contagion”. On the minus side, you can get something like the effect of being at a music concert, where later you realize positive feelings were more about getting swept up with the unity of the crowd (which is probably an interesting exercise in selflessness in its own right, but a bit different than what you’re working on while on retreat, I think.) I recently did my first retreat that was pretty much ‘solo’ - for the most part unguided and undirected, and while I definitely would not have wanted to do that as a first retreat, once you have had a good bit of instruction on fundamentals and are comfortable with the experience of silent retreats in general, I think solo retreats are also valuable.


Last but not least, I think for me it was a ‘surprise disappointment’ to find that a lot of meditative progress is like trying to watch your hair grow. You know it’s happening, you can even see substantial effects in a relatively short time, but you ain’t gonna see it in realtime. Obviously this is not everyone’s experience, but if you’re like me and you were primed with Harris’s talks about simply watching the breath and having something like ‘the most important subjective experience of your life’ (to probably misquote,) let me say, that doesn’t always happen, but it’s not a bad thing. I mean I can’t say that I 100% know that certain changes in my life are the result of meditation, only that they correlate time-wise, but I can say that things that were on my New Year’s Resolution list for literally a couple of decades started to become ways of being that seemed puzzlingly easy - what was all the fuss before, why did I think this was so hard? Or that I used to wake up with my heart racing in the morning, freaking out about what I had to do that day, and that now I often wake up with just the most amazing feeling of warmth and love in my heart (I mean that literally, in my chest, not as a cutesy metaphor.) It doesn’t last throughout the day or even the morning but it’s an awesome change to wake up to it!


So, again, those are less pressing and immediate comments on retreat, but also things to keep in mind. Sorry, hope I haven’t overwhelmed you with information, this is obviously a favorite topic of mine!

 
 
jdrnd
 
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jdrnd
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30 September 2017 07:41
 
SteveJosishRose - 14 September 2017 07:24 PM

Hi

Sam Harris has recommended on several occasions a 10-day silent retreat in – ideally –  a Vipassana centre.

I found this place relatively speaking near me: http://www.bhumi.dhamma.org/

I am both eager to give it a go and at the same time quite concerned/worried about what I would be getting myself into.

A few of my concerns:
• The time table seems quite strict – 4:00 wake – 9:30 sleep – I am not sure if I would be able to function well as its less than I usually get (7-10pm) and feel like sleep deprivation isn’t what I want to sign up for – and also not the point of meditation??
• There is no explicit call for payment – they say previous people have essentially “paid forward” and they suggest to do the same – makes me uneasy – how much?
• I also have general self-conscious concerns about attending a place like that from people around me judging me – as it happens I am a fairly vocal Atheist in my family
• The center’s teacher is/was S.N. Goenka, who died in 2013, I assume the whole thing will be videos of him – weird – very religious, dare I say cultic.

I am half thinking of simply sticking to apps/guided meditation in the comfort of my home/work – however, Sam Harris has suggested that only after a 10-day silent retreat would one ‘get the point’ – though not his words.

Any help or guidance would be much appreciated.


Don’t do it.

 
EN
 
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EN
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30 September 2017 13:54
 
jdrnd - 30 September 2017 07:41 AM
SteveJosishRose - 14 September 2017 07:24 PM

Hi

Sam Harris has recommended on several occasions a 10-day silent retreat in – ideally –  a Vipassana centre.

I found this place relatively speaking near me: http://www.bhumi.dhamma.org/

I am both eager to give it a go and at the same time quite concerned/worried about what I would be getting myself into.

A few of my concerns:
• The time table seems quite strict – 4:00 wake – 9:30 sleep – I am not sure if I would be able to function well as its less than I usually get (7-10pm) and feel like sleep deprivation isn’t what I want to sign up for – and also not the point of meditation??
• There is no explicit call for payment – they say previous people have essentially “paid forward” and they suggest to do the same – makes me uneasy – how much?
• I also have general self-conscious concerns about attending a place like that from people around me judging me – as it happens I am a fairly vocal Atheist in my family
• The center’s teacher is/was S.N. Goenka, who died in 2013, I assume the whole thing will be videos of him – weird – very religious, dare I say cultic.

I am half thinking of simply sticking to apps/guided meditation in the comfort of my home/work – however, Sam Harris has suggested that only after a 10-day silent retreat would one ‘get the point’ – though not his words.

Any help or guidance would be much appreciated.


Don’t do it.

That advice would apply to the vast majority of possible human endeavors.  Those words should be the first words we teach our children.

 
zombieinjeans
 
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zombieinjeans
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02 October 2017 13:46
 

First I want to say that meditation retreats can immensely beneficial, and as long as you go about it right, they are totally worth it. Personally I would recommend a samatha or jhana retreat before you tried a vipassana retreat. It helps you see what you’re in for and totally stabilizes your mind.

Second, here’s a link to an article about a girl who recently went to a 10 day vipassana retreat. This is not meant to dissuade you from doing one, because again, I really recommend it. It can help in ways that literally nothing else can. But instead, it is only meant to drive home the importance of choosing the right retreat center for you, and to ease into it. Also, to make sure you know your own mind and what you can handle. Some people are just more psychologically flexible and resilient. A 10 day vipassana retreat was totally whatever for me, I got a lot out of it and had no issues, but clearly that is not the same for everyone.

http://www.pennlive.com/news/2017/06/york_county_suicide_megan_vogt.html

 
 
NL.
 
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02 October 2017 22:13
 
zombieinjeans - 02 October 2017 01:46 PM

First I want to say that meditation retreats can immensely beneficial, and as long as you go about it right, they are totally worth it. Personally I would recommend a samatha or jhana retreat before you tried a vipassana retreat. It helps you see what you’re in for and totally stabilizes your mind.

Second, here’s a link to an article about a girl who recently went to a 10 day vipassana retreat. This is not meant to dissuade you from doing one, because again, I really recommend it. It can help in ways that literally nothing else can. But instead, it is only meant to drive home the importance of choosing the right retreat center for you, and to ease into it. Also, to make sure you know your own mind and what you can handle. Some people are just more psychologically flexible and resilient. A 10 day vipassana retreat was totally whatever for me, I got a lot out of it and had no issues, but clearly that is not the same for everyone.

http://www.pennlive.com/news/2017/06/york_county_suicide_megan_vogt.html


Ok, I want to really try and check my biases. First, I am obviously very ‘pro’ meditation, having seen really positive effects of it in my own life, changes that tend to cluster largely around retreat experience. Second, my limited experiences with the whole “Oooo, this retreat is probably too intense for you, only Super Specialz meditators are allowed…” have been very negative, as I’ve seen this used as an obvious excuse for exclusion and snobbery - i.e., only a ‘special in group’ is ‘advanced’ enough to do this or that type of retreat. (In fact it’s created a barrier of negative emotions regarding meditation as a concept that I very much regret and am very much trying to overcome, as I know they are hindering my practice.) Third, while I can certainly get emotional and giddy and go around spouting Deep Poetic Thoughts that later make me cringe with embarrassment immediately post-retreat, I just haven’t had the kind of destabilizing experiences described in the article, so I don’t have a frame of reference for them, perhaps making me overly skeptical.


So, I think that is pretty full disclose with my biases - I don’t want to be an ‘apologist’, and I do think for every few thousand people who can take aspirin, go under anesthesia, eat eggs, and so on just fine, you will always have an outlier case in that mix for whom those activities are fatal. That said, the young woman in that article was, statistically, at the exact average age of onset for schizophrenia in females (25). And her symptoms sound very much like schizophrenia - the onset of which can be exacerbated or brought on more rapidly by stress, I think, but is probably not caused entirely by a single stressful life event. It reminds me a bit of how cautious one has to be when talking about what ‘causes’ autism, as I’ve seen everything from vaccines to diet to the “cry it out” method blamed for sending children into regression. In truth, they were going to regress into autism either way, and something would be going on in their life that would correlate with that time-wise.


Again, I don’t want to sound dismissive. It certainly could be like a rare allergy situation with retreats - and honestly, having never heard of it before this thread, I really don’t like the idea of Goenka retreats now, it sounds like there are much better options. But I also think one shouldn’t be too hasty to assume a clear causal connection between this poor young woman going on retreat and then mentally deteriorating - those events may simply have correlated without much causation.

 
 
NL.
 
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03 October 2017 08:51
 

Another thought on that article - I did think the study of possible ‘adverse effects’ in meditation brings up an important point, although the abstract was very vague and didn’t say what counted as an ‘adverse effect’ (that could be anything from ‘being more sensitive to the suffering of others which in turn makes me feel sadder’ to hallucinating - very big difference there.) I think meditation is sometimes framed as a tool simply for relaxation, better health, lower stress, and so on, and I have not found this to be the case - but the fact that it is sometimes difficult doesn’t mean I value it any less, in fact, I think most things worth doing are at least somewhat difficult. However, I view it as a sort of personal / spiritual / ethical development path, so this is not at odds with my expectations. I expect there to be positive growth but I also anticipate that this may be difficult at times.


I think this is somewhat at odds, at least expectation-wise, with the idea of meditation as a tool solely for stress relief. In fact, it seems to me, anecdotally, that the majority of people who meditate a good bit report an initial negative experience, and in fact this is almost inherent to the original Buddhist framework, the process of noticing ‘dukkha’. If the first thing one noticed upon deeper introspection is that one’s superficial view of reality is fine as is so you should probably stop meditating and go get a bagel, maybe check back in next year, there wouldn’t be much point to the practice, again, at least in the original Buddhist context. So, I do think setting people’s expectations there is important - if one were starting a rigorous exercise, diet, or academic program, the expectation would be of an overall positive outcome but not necessarily a ‘pleasurable’ experience in the most immediate sense.


Of course that doesn’t apply to the specific case in this article, as this young woman’s mental health deteriorated completely - but again, having known a handful of people with bipolar disorder / schizophrenia, I have seen firsthand how volatile and unpredictable it can be in its course. I feel really bad saying that, because I also think there is terrible stigma and unfair stereotyping of people who do quite well managing such illnesses for years, and it’s really unfair to them that they have to live with the wariness brought about by other cases. But I still have seen how psychotic episodes with that diagnosis can come on abruptly and rapidly. And whatever happened in this young woman’s case, I do think it is completely inexplicable that they left her there in a delusional state for days. I feel like any reputable center would have taken her to a hospital immediately.