What is the Point of Meditation and Why You Should Not Do A Vipassana Retreat
One of the strongest guiding forces of my life and soul journey is to support as many people as possible in Waking Up to their true self, True Self and the true nature of Reality.
So it is sad to me that one of the most popular forms of meditation retreat is also one of the most ineffective.
Finding the time to go on a Meditation Retreat in the busy Western World is a precious opportunity.
So I don’t like seeing people waste this opportunity with the inferior wisdom and inferior methodology that are present in most Vipassana Retreats.
With experienced meditators and students of the philosophy of the world’s meditative traditions we can have a nuanced debate comparing the differential Surface Structures and Deep Structures of different Meditative Traditions.
I’ll touch on the meta-structure somewhat in this post, but will stay more focused on my critique of Vipassana and other similar lacking meditative traditions.
WHAT IS THE POINT OF MEDITATION?
Let’s start with the point of meditation:
The point of meditation is to move beyond the confines of the illusory separate self into a stabilized state of Awakened Awareness (and eventually Enlightenment) where you experience the cessation of all suffering, the flourishing of all positive states, tap into the boundless bliss, power and knowledge of Infinite Reality and live your life in such away that you bring as many people as possible with you into this State of Being, for you know everything and everyone is Indivisibly You.
For the previous paragraph to become a deeply understood and lived experience and not just complicated, distant esoteric words on a page, you must follow The Path.
The Path has been discovered, downloaded and refined by thousands of most the Awakened and Enlightened Beings to ever grace Existence.
If you want to taste what they have tasted you must walk what they have walked.
However, while many paths may lead you in the right direction they are not all equal.
Some paths are faster, others are smoother. Some are fit for your personality and culture bias, others are not. Some are good at one stage of the path but lackluster in others.
Some can take you all the way, others can only take you so far.
THE INVARIANT MEDITATION META-STUDY
The last 50 years, Integral Spiritual Practitioners and Philosophers have had the beautiful opportunity of conducting a meta-study of world’s great Spiritual Realization paths and mapping their similarities and differences into a coherent comparable and contrastable map.
The Beginning of the Invariant Realization Path roughly looks like this:
Preliminary Practices -> Concentration -> Emptiness -> Taste of Awakening
Gross -> Subtle -> Causal -> Non-Dual
A DIRECT CRITIQUE OF VIPASSANA RETREATS
Ok, so with this context laid down, what are some of the problems with Vipassana, seemingly the most popular form of meditation retreat today?
1) The meditation sessions are too long, and so retreat goers spend most of the allotted time for meditation thinking about things other than meditation.
A lot of the early instruction in a Vipassana retreat is focused on concentration practice. Throwing someone into 10 hours of meditation a day, who hasn’t been meditating much recently is a bit like taking somebody who is out of shape and throwing them into the start line of a marathon. They’re likely to stop running rather quickly, devolve into poor form and increase their risk of injury.
Neuroscience studies have shown the neuro-correlate of concentration meditation is strengthening a region of the brain called the Anterior Cingulate Cortex or ACC. Through continual practice the ACC grows stronger and we’re able to meditate for longer.
When inexperienced meditators meditate for longer than their ACC can handle, their mind starts wandering, they mentally ruminate, they pick up bad meditation habits, and overall waste this precious time.
The more effective meditation traditions have people meditate for 10–50 minutes at a time, usually 20–30 and then offer instruction, feedback and breaks in between, giving the ACC a chance to recharge.
And it’s not just the ACC that wears out, so do your back muscles.
Better meditative traditions focus on developing what is called Mental Pliancy and Physical Pliancy *over time*.
If you’re so irritated physically or mentally that you’re not staying on the concentration object than you’re wasting your time.
Later on at more advanced levels you can use distractions to enhance your practice, but not at the beginning levels.
2) Much of the Vipassana course instruction is done by recorded video and the in-person teachers are often reportedly not very advanced practitioners and many of them are burnt out.
A big part of progression in meditation is the energetic transmission from teachers and their respective lineage.
Beginning meditators have a hard time accepting this because they often don’t believe in the Ontological Reality of the Subtle and Causal Realm, and that something on a meditation retreat could be flowing into their mind, body and being other than informational instructions. But teachers provide a literal energetic transmission of embodied wisdom via morphogenic fields. In time, science will validate what the Yogis already know.
Ironically, doubt is considered by nearly all meditative traditions to be a mental defilement, and doubt about the energetic realities described in the previous paragraph, directly blocks progress down the meditative path. How to navigate doubt while preserving rationality and critical thinking is a topic for another time.
3) It has many Anachronistic Monastic Dogmatisms, such as:
The retreat being conducted in silence.
This is bad for a number of reasons: You can’t ask your teacher questions and get feedback on whether you are doing the meditation correctly or not. You can’t compare notes with your peers who might be able to give you helpful pointers as they are going through similar things. It prepares you badly for taking your meditation practice off the cushion, because there’s such a strong differential between the silence of the cushion and the loudness of everyday life.
Meditation isn’t meant to be something that is confined to a meditation cushion.
It is meant to literally transform your experience of reality and how you move throughout the world 24/7.
4) The Vipassana Curriculum focuses somewhat on Concentration and somewhat on Awareness Practices (also know as Emptiness or Insight) but focuses little on Awakening.
The lack of a clear description of the path hurts motivation. Traversing the meditative path is not easy. It can feel like a lot of effort for not a lot of result, especially in the beginning. Later on the path accelerates and is known to unfold almost magically before one’s eyes, if one just holds what they’ve learned about The View. This is why you need to know where you’re going, and the immense benefits that lie on the other side of taming your monkey mind, traversing the jungle and reaching the mountain top.
Experiencing a taste of Awakening is like tasting the Nectar of the Gods or the Velvety Chocolate of Reality.
Just One Taste will keep you coming back for more.
And fuel the motivation and effort needed to stabilize this experience of reality, so you have access to it on intention.
Many people are bestowed this One Taste on psychedelics or with a Near Death Experience, but they are unable to find their way back to this experience to stabilize it.
That’s what meditation is for: a time-tested repeatable path for accessing the peak states of human consciousness.
SIGNPOSTS & MILESTONES
To ground this commentary in practicality, here are some signposts and milestones that would let you know whether you’re headed in the right direction or not.
The first major milestone you should be aiming for in your concentration practice is:
In a 20 minute meditation, you can stick with the concentration object 80% of the time.
A concentration object is usually the breath or a mantra.
If at any point you’re doing a concentration meditation and you find yourself doing the following things, know you are not doing the exercise properly:
- You are reflecting about your past or future
- You are focusing on your physical discomfort
- You are psychoanalyzing yourself and your life
- You are coming up with new insights about your life and your purpose
There will be a time for exploring these things in Awareness meditations but first you have to build up the prerequisite strength with your Concentration practice.
The Anterior Cingulate Cortex strengthens with cumulative practice, so don’t beat yourself up if you struggle in any particular session. Use your metacognition to assess where you are and monitor your progress.
And know that there are superior and inferior methods to ACC based strength training. I recommend Asanga’s 9 stage elephant path, which allows you to see where you are with precision and power.
Also, remember that concentration practice isn’t ‘the point’. It’s merely a preliminary practice so you can access the really fun, exciting and liberating states of consciousness.
But metaphorically you need to be able to walk, then run, then jump before you can fly.
Maybe You Shouldn’t Be Meditating
Additionally, focusing on Meditation and your Awakening might not be the right step for you at all. If you have significant unprocessed trauma, evidence points to it being much more healthy in the long run to focus on doing your shadow work first — through modalities like Psychotherapy or Ayahuasca. Or in other words, Cleaning Up before Waking Up.
In general, if you meditate with a lot of shadow content, it will just make the shadow worse and harder to see due how meditation works with subject/object dualities. You can learn more about this here.
This is a much more significant problem for Westerners than for Easterners, since Westerners have way more shadow due to the cultural emphasis on individualism and celebrating the story of the self. As a result, many meditative traditions don’t put enough emphasis on shadow clearing work first.
I wrote about this subject more here: http://www.maxmarmer.com/blog/trauma-contextualization/
Meditation as a Precious Opportunity
Again, finding more than a week to meditate in the busy world is a precious opportunity and one that only comes around once a year or every couple years for most people. So it’s paramount to make good use of this investment of time, energy and money, which could set you on the path of liberating yourself from all suffering and negative states of mind and enable a life of unending beauty, positivity and flourishing.
An Integral meta-study of meditative traditions has concluded the two strongest, most precise and most powerful are Tibetan Buddhism and Advaita Vedanta, due to their clear and clean progression up to non-duality and integration of work with Embodied Tantric Energy.
The three Buddhist Meditation teachers currently running retreats in the U.S. who I can recommend most strongly are:
Daniel P. Brown’s Pointing Out Way Lineage
Reggie Ray’s Dharma Ocean Lineage
Culadasa, John Yates Dharma Treasure Lineage
Most people report these retreats as being effectively worth 10–20 Vipassana retreats.
I hope you found this useful and that inspires you to walk further down the path of Liberation and Awakening.
If you have any questions or topics you’d like me to elaborate more on let me know.