A Missed Opportunity?

As the mindfulness movement grows, I wonder if the Goenka organization is missing an opportunity to lead. While focusing on preserving Goenka’s teachings and enforcing the 2 hour a day minimum, teachers from other traditions have shown that as little as 3, 5, or 10 minutes of meditation a day can make a positive change in a person’s life. Many of these mindfulness programs lack the depth of understanding of Dhamma that Goenka presented, but it seems that 2 hours a day is not the minimum to see the benefits of meditation. I wonder if the Goenka organization is missing an opportunity to lead the mindfulness movement because they’re holding on to this regulation to tightly.

The key to growing in Dhamma is to incorporate meditation and mindfulness more and more into your daily life. If you’re currently meditating zero minutes a day and start meditating 3 minutes a day, this is progress in the right direction! You can build upon this positive growth, and maybe eventually you will be meditating 2 hours a day. Unfortunately, I believe many new old students hear the 2 hour minimum, try to make a dramatic shift in their life right away, fail, then leave the practice completely. This is sad and unfortunate.

I wonder if Goenka realized this towards the end of his life causing him to make the Anapana video. While the video is okay, I think we could do a much better job teaching and supporting people who aren’t ready to sit a 10-day course or 2 hours a day. Instead of focusing on empower every individual to seek liberation independently, I think we can build a community of meditators that will support each other in their daily meditations regardless of where they are on the path. If we join the mindfulness movement and the general conversation about meditation, we may connect more people with pure dhamma than by protecting the teaching through isolation. Goenka succeeded at spreading his message around the world, but he is no longer here. Who will be the next set of leaders that carry his message forward? Time to meditate.

4 thoughts on “A Missed Opportunity?

  1. Chris Hammond

    My thoughts on this are that we are fortunate to live at a time when a lot of different mindfulness practices are available. People benefit from doing some of these meditations for 5-10 minutes. But with vipassana to change the deep habit pattern of mind with reacting to sensations with craving and aversion I don’t feel much progress can be made meditating 3, 5 or 10 minutes a day and wouldn’t be much benefit. I think doing a Anapana for these lengths has benefit but for vipassana in a one hour sitting, the first half an hour or more is spent allowing the mind to settle and develop samadhi, the more quality samadhi and vipassana is experienced in the second half hour. 2 hours a day is a bench mark set by Goenka to achieve good results with this training but you can continue taking 10 day courses sitting for less time or even not meditating day to day. That only becomes an issue if you are going on to apply for long courses. Like I said there are many meditation options out there and if someone isn’t ready to practice vipassana there’s other meditations out there that can benefit and don’t require as much time.

  2. Maria D'Souza

    Chris, you beat me to the punch. I was going to say something similar–essentially that I feel quite strongly that the 2 hour benchmark is a valuable one. I agree that it’s difficult to make progress in changing mental habit patterns with very short Vipassana sits, and that one often needs to spend a significant portion of the hour just to settle the mind before being able to practice Vipassana (and sometimes the whole hour!). That said, I agree with Ryan that it’s unfortunate when people feel discouraged by not being able to meet this benchmark and lose their practice and its benefits. This discouragement seems to be more significant than I realized, per recent conversations with other old students (I actually have more to say on this, which I’m planning to put into a future post about Paul Fleischman’s old student talk on using meditation only to help yourself, and never to harm yourself). Being married to an established meditator, I was fortunate to be able to mooch off of Ryan’s consistency of practice earlier on in my Vipassana journey, so I never took the benchmark too seriously, and felt okay about whatever amount I could feasibly fit into my life without having to worry about losing my practice and failing. I just kind of figured I’d get there some day, when the timing was right. My experience isn’t typical. More and more, I think it’s worth considering how we can support prospective Vipassana meditators and old students, by making Anapana more widely accessible as a tool to those who aren’t yet ready for Vipassana and by re-iterating/re-framing the 2 hour benchmark for old students, reassuring them that while 2 hours is a valid and worthy aspiration, as the minimum necessary to achieve deeper results, there is still benefit in starting where you are (without feeling like a failure). I’m certainly no AT, however, so I hope more ATs will share their perspectives on this topic as time goes on.

  3. Chris Hammond

    Yes Maria, I love those old student talks that Paul gives and look forward to your blog on that. It’s unfortunate that some old students look at it from an all or nothing perspective that if they aren’t hitting the 2 hour mark it’s all for nought. Though that’s what Goenka recommends as a bench mark and is a requirement for long courses not everyone’s life situation allows for that, some might only be able to do a 1/2 an hour or an hour a day which is much better than not doing it all. Those efforts bulld up as quailites in the mind and can lead to wanting to devote more time. I like what Paul says about using Dhamma to help yourself, not to harm yourself. If you start feeling like you are failing and become self critical towards yourself on not meeting a mark, you are harming yourself. And if that leads to giving up vipassana entirely, that’s very unfortunate. The two hour mark should not be held in too rigid of a way. Goenkaji just has 10 days to lay everything out and hit the main points but when you get back out into the world of 10,000 things there’s more personalized questions which can come up which aren’t necessarily covered directly in the discourses. I think it’s good to find an AT you really respect and develop a good relationship with them and be able to relate and ask questions about your practice with.

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