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Noble Silence
August 27, 2012 8:16 PM   Subscribe

"I chose the meditation style known as Vipassana for several reasons. It's wholly nondenominational. No gods are prayed to, no mantras chanted, all religious iconography is prohibited. If you typically wear, say, a crucifix, you must remove it for the duration of the course. Also, there is no need for prior meditation experience – in fact, I was told, a neophyte is the ideal student because you won't have any bad habits to avoid – which suited me perfectly, as I'd never meditated before." [The Quiet Hell of Extreme Meditation]
posted by vidur (60 comments total) 73 users marked this as a favorite

 
That was great - thanks for posting.
posted by en forme de poire at 8:26 PM on August 27, 2012


And earlier, plus more on the centers Goenka has established around the world to teach vipassana meditation. I have done three of these retreats (and others of different styles), which I fondly think of as "Buddhist bootcamp." Highly recommended.
posted by twsf at 9:04 PM on August 27, 2012 [1 favorite]


I really wish he had distinguished between Vipassanna meditation and the Goenka Vipassanna retreat that he took part in. While you will do tons of Vipassanna on a Goenka retreat, most of the components of the Goenka retreats are not necessary to practise Vipassanna.
posted by sid at 9:05 PM on August 27, 2012 [1 favorite]


I enjoyed that, would like to take a meditation course but not sure I could stick out the 10 days.
posted by arcticseal at 9:13 PM on August 27, 2012 [1 favorite]


( . )
posted by Lukenlogs at 9:23 PM on August 27, 2012 [1 favorite]


To my amazement, I feel better. Five minutes ago, I was planning to run off. Now I think that I am, indeed, receiving a greater benefit than any of those motionless meditators. I might even be winning the course.T

Okay, I laughed out loud at that one.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 9:26 PM on August 27, 2012 [5 favorites]


Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind.
posted by mjklin at 9:31 PM on August 27, 2012


I loved the ending. It is exactly how I felt after spending 8 weeks at a Rinzai Zen Center.
posted by cairnoflore at 9:39 PM on August 27, 2012


I would like to do this.

*makes mental note*
posted by flippant at 9:45 PM on August 27, 2012


Weirdly, the print version linked in the OP doesn't even have a byline. The formatted version credits this piece to Michael Finkel.
posted by jacquilynne at 9:49 PM on August 27, 2012 [1 favorite]


Mindfulness in Plain English is a wonderful guide to Vipassana meditation.
posted by kanuck at 9:49 PM on August 27, 2012 [10 favorites]


cairnoflore: "I loved the ending. It is exactly how I felt after spending 8 weeks at a Rinzai Zen Center"

You spent 8 weeks doing something you felt "fucking sucked", voluntarily?
posted by Joakim Ziegler at 11:56 PM on August 27, 2012


The great thing about beating your head against a brick wall is how nice it feels when you stop.
posted by unSane at 12:39 AM on August 28, 2012 [5 favorites]


Nice article. I've never done any form of meditation ever, but that's the most convincing case for it I've ever read. I guess that probably says more about me than anything else. Heh.
posted by Ephelump Jockey at 3:15 AM on August 28, 2012


I have done three of these retreats (and others of different styles), which I fondly think of as "Buddhist bootcamp."

I think it's the bootcamp-y aspect that may be a sticking point for people with less, er, fiber to put up with the grueling schedule and lack of sleep. Not to mention separation from the rest of the world.

A ten-day retreat with a guaranteed eight hours of restful sleep per night? And three small meals per day, rather than two, with no food in the evening hours, as is common on some retreats? And--I'm an infidel for saying this--a half hour per day of phone time to check and respond to urgent voicemails and emails? That, I'd take an interest in.

Does such a retreat exist?
posted by Gordion Knott at 3:23 AM on August 28, 2012 [1 favorite]




Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.
posted by Obscure Reference at 5:12 AM on August 28, 2012 [1 favorite]


I found this fascinating - I've been interested in mindfulness and meditation for a while, but of course the day-to-day hustle of life (ironically) has got in the way of doing anything about it. I've not had a great deal of luck with trying things out for myself or following various audio things, so the idea of a retreat really appeals.

You always want to think well of yourself when you read things like this - oh, I wouldn't go crazy without talking, oh, I wouldn't read the label on my deodorant just for something to engage my mind with - but I suspect if anything I would probably react worse than this chap did.

I don't entirely buy that this severe difficulty with sitting still and not speaking is some kind of Western, internet-connected malady - we're social apes after all, used to regular contact and interaction. However, I think consciously disengaging for a time can have, as the author found, profound effects on perception and perspective.

Thanks for posting.
posted by Happy Dave at 5:50 AM on August 28, 2012 [1 favorite]


Hell, I read the labels on my deodorant now, and that's just while I'm using the bathroom for a couple of minutes.

I've always thought I could probably handle solitary okay for a few weeks -- I'm pretty good at entertaining myself in my head. But if I was surrounded by hundreds of people and still not allowed to acknowledge that they were present, I don't think I'd be able to deal with that.
posted by jacquilynne at 6:22 AM on August 28, 2012 [1 favorite]


"I come up with a theory: People who are really good at meditation, who can truly suppress every thought, probably didn't have many thoughts in the first place. They're stupid."

Yeah, those grapes probably are pretty sour. I'd be a fool to disagree with a war zone-crawlin', 8000 m. peak-climbin' manly man like the author here.
posted by Appropriate Username at 7:13 AM on August 28, 2012 [1 favorite]


Not just silence. I have – we all have – signed a pledge to observe what's called "noble silence." This means no speaking, no gestures, no eye contact. "You must live here," we're told, "as if you're completely alone."

See, that would be my problem. Not speaking when other people are present? Easy. All alone? I babble to myself like a loon. Add a cat, and it's like an evening of monologues.
posted by xingcat at 7:26 AM on August 28, 2012 [5 favorites]


I have a friend who enrolled in the Vipassana course in India. He ran away after a day or so. He says he met some fellow runaways in the bus stop and everyone was so happy to be not there any more. Though, strangely, I believe he wants to try again.
posted by peacheater at 7:39 AM on August 28, 2012


Appropriate Username: ""I come up with a theory: People who are really good at meditation, who can truly suppress every thought, probably didn't have many thoughts in the first place. They're stupid."

Yeah, those grapes probably are pretty sour. I'd be a fool to disagree with a war zone-crawlin', 8000 m. peak-climbin' manly man like the author here.
"

I guess you missed the honesty of the piece then? In which he pretty clearly describes the vast array of petty, stupid, childish and nonsensical thoughts that the experience provoked in him, of which this was one?
posted by Happy Dave at 7:49 AM on August 28, 2012 [6 favorites]


Going into a course like that with no preparation would be like me trying to climb Mt. Everest with no training. Meditation is physically and mentally demanding and I feel sad that instead of accepting his limitations he heaps derision and scorn on the entire practice.

He can't relax so he has to get high on painkillers. He can't be calm so he panics. He didn't enjoy it so he criticizes and makes jokes. There is so much resistance in him that he allows himself a minute of crying before 'squeezing himself back together.' He calls anyone with peace of mind 'stupid.'

Instead of humility he has blame. It just makes me sad that the magazine would publish such a negative piece or that anyone would use that as a reference for what meditation is really like.
posted by infinitefloatingbrains at 8:00 AM on August 28, 2012


Wow, some people got a totally different message out of that piece than others.
posted by jacquilynne at 8:06 AM on August 28, 2012 [4 favorites]


It has been a long time since I have hung out with Buddhists but my recollection is the practice of accepting newbies for long retreats is controversial. One time I was uninvited from a week retreat because after I accepted the invitation a new senior monk showed up on the guest list and he didn't approve of having people as inexperienced as me (and one other person) along for that long a haul.

Getting up at 4:30 A.M. every morning and sitting for five hours for seven or ten or fourteen straight days is brutally difficult. (I have been meditating for around 30 minutes almost daily for about twenty years.)

> "That fucking sucked."

D'oh! What was he thinking when he took that writing assignment? Something like "how hard could it be?" I imagine. It is really really hard.
posted by bukvich at 8:17 AM on August 28, 2012 [1 favorite]


jacquilynne: "Wow, some people got a totally different message out of that piece than others."

I guess so. I thought I'd read a startlingly honest self-appraisal but apparently it was a heap of scorn on the whole Vipassana tradition. I'm mildly perplexed at this.
posted by Happy Dave at 8:20 AM on August 28, 2012 [4 favorites]


I guess you missed the honesty of the piece then?

Nah, I got the honesty. What I don't see is any reflection that his chaotic state of mind is in any way problematic. To him, his state of mind is perfectly okay (so much so that he "doesn't bother trying" to meditate on his own afterwards) and there's something wrong with people who can do it, not him, cue his CV de machismo, etc. He's not gonna follow rules laid out by people with calm minds, because why should he have to? He can get through this with painkillers and unsanctioned communication! Gosh, he's so honest!

Or does burying a line like "But the truth is I actually do feel a little bit enlightened, more deeply connected to the world." three paragraphs from the end make up for the rest of this article that others people who can meditate for the sake of bolstering his or his readership's sense of masculinity? I'll stick instead with the author's "most honest and unalloyed assessment" that it just "fucking sucked."
posted by Appropriate Username at 8:24 AM on August 28, 2012


I've known people who have run marathons, been through intensive assessment with the military and done many other very hard things. Every single one of them said it sucked while they were doing it but that it was worth doing it. I'm not sure how this is different.

Or are articles about meditation invalid if full enlightenment is not desired or achieved?
posted by Happy Dave at 8:43 AM on August 28, 2012


It would be like me trying to run a marathon having never run one before, then saying that all running 'fucking sucks' and that joggers are stupid, completely ignoring that fact that it was my own fault for not easing into it. Never mind that most runners enjoy the practice of running.

The only honest self-appraisal was:

This coddled and calm environment generates in me a frightening rage. I begin to hate my fellow students. I hate the teachers. I hate the Dharma Servers. I hate Goenka. I hate the food and my bed and my cushion and my cell. I hate Vipassana. I hate myself.

Meditation is an inherently peaceful thing - if it isn't enjoyable then you're doing it wrong.
posted by infinitefloatingbrains at 8:50 AM on August 28, 2012


Meditation is an inherently peaceful thing - if it isn't enjoyable then you're doing it wrong.

Maybe for some people? For me, it's been moments of peace I worked hard to not work hard to achieve, and then immediately ruined by recognizing that I had them and trying to hang on to them.
posted by fiercecupcake at 8:53 AM on August 28, 2012 [12 favorites]


This is another newbie's take on Goenka Vipassana that I read a few days ago. The similarities to the article in the FPP are striking, but so are the departures.
posted by sundaydriver at 8:56 AM on August 28, 2012 [2 favorites]


fiercecupcake: "Meditation is an inherently peaceful thing - if it isn't enjoyable then you're doing it wrong.

Maybe for some people? For me, it's been moments of peace I worked hard to not work hard to achieve, and then immediately ruined by recognizing that I had them and trying to hang on to them.
"

Bingo. A more perfect expression of my own attempts at meditation I have yet to find.
posted by Happy Dave at 9:02 AM on August 28, 2012 [1 favorite]


For me, it's been moments of peace I worked hard to not work hard to achieve, and then immediately ruined by recognizing that I had them and trying to hang on to them.

Sure, but don't throw the baby out with the bathwater. Anyone who says they don't have that same experience that you had is being dishonest. Eventually you come to accept that it's totally ok to have that happen, so nothing is 'peaceful' or 'ruined.'
posted by infinitefloatingbrains at 9:17 AM on August 28, 2012


infinitefloatingbrains: "For me, it's been moments of peace I worked hard to not work hard to achieve, and then immediately ruined by recognizing that I had them and trying to hang on to them.

Sure, but don't throw the baby out with the bathwater. Anyone who says they don't have that same experience that you had is being dishonest. Eventually you come to accept that it's totally ok to have that happen, so nothing is 'peaceful' or 'ruined.'
"

I guess I'm finding this focus on serenity and nothing being 'peaceful' or 'ruined' sort of at odds with the contentions that the author (and by extension people who express similar frustrations) are 'doing it wrong' or 'heaping scorn'.
posted by Happy Dave at 9:19 AM on August 28, 2012 [1 favorite]


What's the difference between "That fucking sucked," said about an experience in daily life, and "That fucking sucked," as the experience of meditation? No, this isn't one of the koans that ask you to think about something that doesn't make rational sense. The difference is one of attachment. In the first case, a person is reporting an evaluation of a sort. In the second case, a person is having a negative experience and has the opportunity to examine it from the unattached outside. Why would anyone want to do that? The author clearly didn't, and if you don't, a meditation retreat is the wrong place to go.
posted by Obscure Reference at 9:31 AM on August 28, 2012


Happy Dave, I know what you mean - its kind of a subtle distinction and it comes down to the tone of author. It's one thing to struggle to be at peace and recognize the difficulty of doing so. It's entirely another go into it like a contest, insult the other practitioners, walk away angry, then write an article about just how miserable it all is. It's like he didn't even try.

On preview - what Obscure Reference said. The author didn't even try to ask why it was difficult, and blamed everyone but himself.
posted by infinitefloatingbrains at 9:42 AM on August 28, 2012


I laughed with commiseration throughout this article. Loved it! And I don't think he "heaped scorn"--he told an honest story about his struggle. I think the point is that as a meditator, we often think we're the only one having all these ridiculous and childish and fucked up "waterfalls" of thought--that we are the only "bad meditator" in the group who just doesn't get it. That we are a faker, and everyone else meditating around you is perfectly serene and "doing it right."

The point of non-attachment is being able to notice all this garbage and keep sitting. We realize we are struggling and maybe, in some small moments, we stop struggling and just are. That's the point of meditation. To keep sitting, even when are bodies or our minds do *everything* to make us stop. Some people say it's foolishness, but I think it's perfect. We notice all those thoughts and we keep paying attention to our breath, and then we fail and we keep on. We try not to try. Which just makes me giggle. Meditation, even when it fucking sucks, is fucking wonderful because we are forced to notice all that struggle and junk that our minds throw up to put in our way of ... happiness I guess, but really just Being.
posted by RedEmma at 9:42 AM on August 28, 2012 [6 favorites]


And I didn't get that he was saying he was right for thinking it was a contest, or that all the other people were stupid. I think he was saying that these are the kinds of thoughts he had, isn't that funny? I mean, it's meant to be funny. *Of course* he knows that you don't "win" at retreat. Of course he knows that everyone who is a "good meditator" isn't stupid. It's what he's thinking. He's amused at his own arrogance throughout the article, I thought.
posted by RedEmma at 9:45 AM on August 28, 2012 [4 favorites]


RedEmma: "And I didn't get that he was saying he was right for thinking it was a contest, or that all the other people were stupid. I think he was saying that these are the kinds of thoughts he had, isn't that funny? I mean, it's meant to be funny. *Of course* he knows that you don't "win" at retreat. Of course he knows that everyone who is a "good meditator" isn't stupid. It's what he's thinking. He's amused at his own arrogance throughout the article, I thought."

That's definitely the same sense I got from the article, and why I identified with it. I guess it's subjective, unless the author shows up and lets us know what he really meant.
posted by Happy Dave at 9:51 AM on August 28, 2012


I think it's the comment about "winning the course" that most clearly illustrates that the rest of the piece is self-mocking, not mocking the retreat or the practice of meditation. It's the wrong thought to be having. Of course it is. He knows that. He assumes that you know that. He also assumes you recognize that it's his own inadequacies he's examining in the rest of the essay.

I can see how you could read this article the other way, but it seems like a surprisingly uncharitable reading of his intent.
posted by jacquilynne at 9:57 AM on August 28, 2012 [3 favorites]


People are talking about how honest it is but he doesn't talk about masturbating once and you know he totally did.
posted by nanojath at 10:05 AM on August 28, 2012 [4 favorites]


> Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.

.
posted by jfuller at 10:05 AM on August 28, 2012


This the last paragraph from the article:
But overall, I think of the three-word review I give to the young man I'm walking next to when we conclude our silence. It remains my most honest and unalloyed assessment. The instant I was able, I turn to him, and he turns to me. Both of us are grinning radiantly. And I speak my first words: "That fucking sucked."
Several men expressed similar thoughts on the 10th day of the course I attended. All of them acknowledged they had learned and gained something from the experience, but yeah, "it sucked".

Most amusing note from my own experience: Having achieved a particularly deep level of enlightenment on the morning of the eighth day, I grew bored in the afternoon and felt I was done. So I watched The Empire Strikes Back in my head for a while, skipped on the late afternoon session and took a nap until the evening meal. Felt great.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 10:09 AM on August 28, 2012 [1 favorite]


He also assumes you recognize that it's his own inadequacies he's examining in the rest of the essay.

Except where he never writes anything like saying his thoughts and feelings are inadequate, that his inability to cope is inadequacy, nothing introspective of the sort. I keep looking for the obvious "the poor Irish really should eat babies" line that demarcates his honesty from his self-mockery, and I see only seeing chest-thumping chauvanism, exotifying and othering. These are not so outlandish in our culture to be taken as facetiousness, especially in a publication with vested ties to the identity of their audience.

a surprisingly uncharitable reading of his intent

No, that would be 'he intended to sell an article to Men's Journal,' and he probably did as he intended. Great job.
posted by Appropriate Username at 10:15 AM on August 28, 2012 [1 favorite]


Except where he never writes anything like saying his thoughts and feelings are inadequate, that his inability to cope is inadequacy, nothing introspective of the sort.

"But something happens to me. Something bad. It might be bearable to suppress my natural extroversion – to shut me up completely. Or you can corral my need to run or bike or swim or climb – to immobilize me completely. But the combination of the two is deadly."
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 10:23 AM on August 28, 2012


Sidenote: a friend of mine just wrote a piece about her experience with silence at a Vipassana retreat for the Under 35 Project. She and I haven't talked about it, but the silence and the freedom from having to interact with others, meet people, be "cheery" is one of the things that makes me daydream about a retreat like this.
posted by fiercecupcake at 10:29 AM on August 28, 2012


If the author wanted to de-stress, he shouldn't have gone on a Goenka Vipassana retreat. Something more oriented to loving-kindness and shamatha would have worked much better for him, although it would result in an article for a different kind of magazine, and it would leave less opportunity for masochistic bragging.
posted by fivebells at 10:57 AM on August 28, 2012 [1 favorite]


The Koan - A Short Story
posted by homunculus at 11:26 AM on August 28, 2012


infinitefloatingbrains: Meditation is an inherently peaceful thing - if it isn't enjoyable then you're doing it wrong.
Judging anothers' progress on their own path is doing it wrong, too.
posted by IAmBroom at 12:09 PM on August 28, 2012 [1 favorite]


Meditation is an inherently peaceful thing - if it isn't enjoyable then you're doing it wrong.

Wow, this is so different from what my mindfulness instructors have said -- which is basically, "Look, meditation sometimes will be hard. It's okay that it'll feel hard, or even that it will feel awful. It's okay that there will be times when you realize you are bored. It's also okay that there will be times when you'll feel like you're on cloud 9, your whole body buzzing. The key is to acknowledge, non-judgmentally, whatever you're feeling, and then let it go."

I really, really needed this instruction (and explanations about the philosophy behind Mindfulness) before I could start meditating on my own. I feel like this guy would have done better had someone told him some of this stuff beforehand. Instead, he got caught in an inner shitstorm, and so thought he was doing something wrong, or wasn't "good" at meditating. Which trapped him in a judgment cycle that is about as far from meditative as you can get.

Anyway, great article.
posted by artemisia at 12:14 PM on August 28, 2012 [5 favorites]


Judging anothers' progress on their own path is doing it wrong, too.

This is true and I couldn't agree more. I misspoke.
posted by infinitefloatingbrains at 12:33 PM on August 28, 2012 [1 favorite]


Heh, this thread makes me want to start meditating just to see what's in my head.
I think I've spent way too much time avoiding myself.
Thanks for posting!

(And for the record, I'm on the side of those that see this as a humorous account of what stupid things the author found himself thinking.)
posted by Omnomnom at 12:38 PM on August 28, 2012


Heh, this thread makes me want to start meditating just to see what's in my head.

Easy. Get into bed 30 minutes before you usually do. Lie awake, with the eyes closed and the lights off. Focus on your breathing.

My mind gets flooded with garbage. Every single time.

About 15 years ago, I had the opportunity to attend a 21 day retreat similar to this. Like the college kid that I was, I let it pass. Now, I keep telling myself that I just don't have the 10 days required to go and do this.
posted by vidur at 12:47 PM on August 28, 2012 [1 favorite]


My mind gets flooded with garbage. Every single time.

Yeah, Return of the Jedi did suck.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 12:53 PM on August 28, 2012 [1 favorite]


Yes, but that is just him saying what happened to him was bad. "This coddled and calm environment generates in me a frightening rage... ...I feel bored and angry and trapped and claustrophobic. Lonely, too, far lonelier than if I'd actually been alone..." This makes the forbidden social acknowledgement he mentions in the same paragraph seem an emotional paradise by comparison.

Something bad happens to him but the bad thing has nothing to do with him, just that it makes him feel bad things. Or is saying something is tough or makes you feel bad enough introspection on its own to redeem the macho posturing and othering?
posted by Appropriate Username at 2:26 PM on August 28, 2012


Be still. Concentrate on the area between the upper lip and the tip of nose.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 4:41 PM on August 28, 2012


The article sundaydriver linked above is also worth reading, both for the similarities and for the different perspectives.
posted by sneebler at 6:54 PM on August 28, 2012


Appropriate Username: "Something bad happens to him but the bad thing has nothing to do with him, just that it makes him feel bad things. Or is saying something is tough or makes you feel bad enough introspection on its own to redeem the macho posturing and othering?"

You read macho posturing and othering, I read a direct accounting of the feelings someone had going through what was clearly a difficult experience for them. In fact, I found this meditation narrative interesting precisely because it seemed more honest to me - who doesn't engage in internal narratives and othering that most would be horrified to write down? It's a bit like David Foster Wallace said in his essay This is Water:
But most days, if you're aware enough to give yourself a choice, you can choose to look differently at this fat, dead-eyed, over-made-up lady who just screamed at her little child in the checkout line - maybe she's not usually like this; maybe she's been up three straight nights holding the hand of her husband who's dying of bone cancer, or maybe this very lady is the low-wage clerk at the Motor Vehicles Dept who just yesterday helped your spouse resolve a nightmarish red-tape problem through some small act of bureaucratic kindness. Of course, none of this is likely, but it's also not impossible - it just depends on what you want to consider. If you're automatically sure that you know what reality is and who and what is really important - if you want to operate on your default setting - then you, like me, will not consider possibilities that aren't pointless and annoying. But if you've really learned how to think, how to pay attention, then you will know you have other options. It will be within your power to experience a crowded, loud, slow, consumer-hell-type situation as not only meaningful but sacred, on fire with the same force that lit the stars - compassion, love, the sub-surface unity of all things. Not that that mystical stuff's necessarily true: the only thing that's capital-T True is that you get to decide how you're going to try to see it. You get to consciously decide what has meaning and what doesn't. You get to decide what to worship.
The author of this piece wrote I believe mostly honestly about his reaction to this form of meditation. If he had really been macho posturing, he would have written how easy it was and how he didn't see the point of it. As it was he described, quite vividly, his own desperation (and often childish reactions) at his relative inability to sit still and concentrate on his breathing. I read a lot of self-awareness in this piece, rather than dismissal or othering. But if you're going to take every sentence he's written about the thoughts he had while participating in this retreat and treat them as gospel representations of his true opinions rather than the panicked bubbling of a mind in a setting it found very difficult to be in, then you could come away thinking he's just an asshole, I suppose. Seems unfair to me though.
posted by Happy Dave at 11:43 PM on August 28, 2012 [4 favorites]




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