How to Make Sense of All the Different Styles of Meditation

meditation prayingWhen someone is beginning to explore meditation, it’s often somewhat confusing which style to actually do.  There are seemingly endless options, ranging from the world’s major spiritual traditions to more secular approaches to individual teachers with their own “innovative” style.

For example, there’s Zen buddhism, Vipassana, Yogic meditation, Taoist meditation, Christian meditation, secular mindfulness groups, heart-centered meditation, Advaita Vedanta and countless fusions or other integrative approaches.

Of course, all these approaches to meditation are getting at something similar, and yet they’re also quite distinct.  In today’s post, I hope to give some clarity on the basic framework underlying all meditative practices.

May this benefit you and your journey into yourself!

bowing question markThe Two Basic Questions Of Any Meditation Practice

1) What do I actually do?

2) What is the purpose of doing that?   (aka why?)

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Why & Where to Go on a Meditation Retreat in Oregon, the USA & Asia

Retreat Picture

Outline for this Guide

One of the most common questions I get revolves around meditation retreats – both locally and from people across the world who stumble onto this website.

In turn, this guide is for anyone & everyone interested in meditation retreats, and offers practical advice on meditation retreats, as well as where to actually go.

In the Portland area, I will list retreats from all Buddhist lineages, but for the rest of the United States and Asia, I will explicitly stick to my tradition – Theravada Buddhism / Vipassana / Insight Meditation.  Here’s the specific outline:

1) Why Go on a Meditation Retreat?
2) Six Things to Consider when Deciding on a Meditation Retreat

3) Where to Go on a Buddhist Meditation Retreat within 90 miles of Portland, Oregon
4) Where to Go on a Meditation Retreat in the United States
5) Where to Go on a Meditation Retreat in the Asia


Why Go on a Meditation Retreat?

I had practiced meditation & yoga on and off for several years before my first retreat.  It always helped me feel a little more relaxed, and on some deeper level, I also “knew it was good for me,” but I can’t say it had any significant impact on how I lived in the world.

And then came my first meditation retreat.

It was a silent 10 day Vipassana retreat, held in silence with around 10 hours a day of formal meditation, and no reading, writing, or screens.

Whoa!

It was such a profound dive inwards, and I learned things about my patterns of thinking, emoting and identification that I had never before seen.  It was like an archeological dig into layer after layer of who I was.  Even though I’ve never been much of a crier, I was so broken open that on the final day, tears of joy streamed down my face for hours.

It didn’t stop there.

When I returned back home, I noticed that in my daily interactions, I was reliably less reactive and more capable of actually living my deeper truth.  This happened in my core relationships, but also in interactions as simple as being more patient with tech support people, more present with cashiers, and more understanding of other drivers on the road.

Even though I had been meditating for a few years, I honesty don’t feel like my meditation practice began until that first retreat. 

And this isn’t just me.  I’ve talked with dozens of students, peers and teachers, who have expressed something very similar – the container and intensity of a retreat just lets us go so much deeper than we ever could in daily life.

Bringing all this together, if you’re serious about self-understanding, self-growth, and living more intentionally & lovingly, going on a retreat and deepening your meditation practice is easily one of the most powerful things you can do.

Highly recommended!

P1220216Six Things To Consider when Deciding on a Meditation Retreat

1) Cost.  Some retreats are very expensive, like $1,500 for a week, while others are low cost or completely donation based.

In my experience, the primary difference between them is that the high cost retreats usually have more comfortable conditions.  The nature might be more serene, the food more elaborate and the beds more cozy—they tend to care about “customer service.”

There are some other differences, but ultimately 90% of what you’re getting on a meditation retreat is totally independent of location, teachings, conditions and so on—it’s all about diving inwards, so don’t fret too much about being able to afford or not afford the right place.  Instead, figure out what teachers or teachings you’re drawn to, and then see what fits your budget.

2) Location. Are you willing to fly around the world?  Or how about just across the country?  For some people, it’s totally worth it to find the right fit.  For others, it’s mostly just the opportunity to dive inwards.  Both are equally valid.  Chances are there’s some center near you that won’t require a plane ride.  If it’s not on the list below, google your location and “insight meditation” together, and see where the rabbit hole leads you.

3) Duration.  I generally advise taking at least 7 full days to go on retreat.  If you’ve been on a few 7-14 day retreats, it can be very powerful to jump to a 1-3 month retreat.  Of course, you’ll still benefit even if you can only do a weekend, but the more time you have, the deeper you can go.  The longer your retreat, the more it makes sense to go to Asia (because of the cost and how most the centers there are set up for longer term practice).

4) Silence.  Is the retreat held in “noble silence” or is it more of a social thing?  Both have their benefits, but if you’re interested in diving deeper and finding inner freedom, you’ll find silence to be an enormous benefit.

5) Teachers.  The more intense the retreat, the more important it is to have a good teacher.  I generally look for someone who is connected with a tradition, and isn’t a self-appointed guru with no teacher or lineage to cross reference.  Also, while it’s not always possible, it’s great if they’re local or there’s some way you can stay in contact with them once the retreat is over.

On the retreat itself, it’s nice when you can actually get individual attention from the teacher, even if that’s just a group interview every couple days.  Until you have a really established practice, I’d stay away from retreats where there’s not actual contact with the teacher—like ones with “famous” teachers that fit 500 people into a big room.

Also, before going on retreat, it can really help to familiarize yourself with that teacher’s approach.  Perhaps read one of their books (if they have one).  See if you can find a talk by them or some articles online.  Find out if their message speaks to you.  This is generally less important if they are strongly connected to a particular tradition, and more important if they are independent.

6) Teachings.  There’s numerous different meditative traditions that offer retreats.  Early on, I explored retreats in Yoga, Zen and Vipassana.  It can be a helpful part of the journey to try different things out, but eventually, it’s really helpful to find one and go deeper into that.  Similar to what I said in “teachers,” just look for something about a certain tradition that resonates with you and follow your intuition!

Retreat Picture 1

Where to Go on a Buddhist Meditation Retreat within 90 Miles of Portland, Oregon

In another article, I’ve listed every Buddhist meditation group in the Portland area.  All the locations on this list are also discussed in that link.

1. Retreat Centers that lead 10+ retreats per year within 90 miles of Portland

  • Cloud Mountain – easily my top recommendation in the area.  They offer Vipassana retreats from 2 – 30 days with some of the most senior Vipassana teachers in the country.  The retreats cost a little $$, but they offer many scholarships, and in my opinion, also have the highest quality instruction in the area.
  • Northwest Vipassana Center – offers donation-based 10 day Vipassana retreats in the style of S.N. Goenka.  The style is a little rigid, though you get an authentic meditation experience that’s affordable to all.  These retreats are a great option.
  • The Great Vow Zen Monastery – offers monthly Zen retreats, plus opportunities for long-term residential practice.  If you’re into Zen, this is easily my top recommendation in the area!

2. Communities that lead 1 to 9 retreats per year within 90 miles of Portland

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Where to Go on a Meditation Retreat in the United States

Here I will only be talking about the Vipassana / Theravada / Insight Meditation tradition.  As a historical backdrop, this tradition is widespread through Southeast Asia, and began entering the United States in the 1970s.   It’s tough to divide it up precisely, but there are basically four major streams that have brought this tradition to the United States.

1) Insight Meditation

In 1975, the Insight Meditation Society was formed in Barre, Massachusetts.  It has since opened up a sister branch called Spirit Rock near San Francisco, California.  These two centers were founded by people who logged many years of intensive practice at monasteries in Asia.

These two retreat centers run retreats throughout the year, offer an annual long retreat (1-3 months), and in general, have some of the highest quality instruction available.  They also tend to be pretty cozy, and cost a lot of money (though I’m told are generous with scholarships).  If you can afford it, these are two excellent places to do a retreat.

Also in this stream, are the following excellent retreat centers:

2) Traditional Monasteries

The Theravada Buddhist tradition is kept alive most strongly in Myanmar, Sri Lanka and Thailand (also in Laos and Cambodia).  All of the following monasteries are from lineages based in those countries, and have a full collection of fully ordained monks.  Generally, you’re not so much going on a curated retreat, but instead get to participate in the daily rhythm of the monastery, which is usually filled with spaciousness and plenty of time for meditation.

  • Metta Forest Monastery – San Diego, run by Thanissaro Bhikkhu, one of the foremost scholar-practitioner monks around today.  Thai Forest Tradition.
  • Abhayagiri Forest Monastery – Northern California, an Ajahn Chah lineage monastery.  Thai Forest tradition.
  • Temple Forest Monastery – New Hampshire, an Ajahn Chah lineage monastery.  Thai Forest tradition.
  • Forest Dhamma Monastery – Virginia, a Maha Boowa lineage monastery.  Thai Forest tradition.
  • Bhavana Society – Virginia, run by Bhante Gunaratana, the author of Mindfulness in Plain English.  Sri Lankan tradition.
  • Thathagata Meditation Center in San Jose, California.  This is a Burmese, Mahasi-style Monastery.  This means you are always in retreat mode, practicing a very intense style of meditation from 5am to 10pm, full-on.
  • Chanmyay Satipatthana Vihara in Illinois.  Another Burmese, Mahasi-style Monastery with an intense schedule.

3) S.N. Goenka 10 Day donation-based Vipassana Meditation Courses  

S.N. Goenka was a wealthy Burmese man who devoted his life to teaching Vipassana meditation far and wide.  He is likely the single individual most responsible for the spread of Vipassana / Mindfulness across the globe.  The retreats are the same every time, everywhere.  All the talks and instructions are given via recording from Mr. Goenka.

On these retreats, you will know exactly what to do.  The container is also powerful, and set-up for an authentic meditation experience.  In that sense, they are well set-up for beginners.  On the other hand, you generally won’t get much help from the “assistant teachers” (the “teacher” is S.N. Goenka who is only on recording), and the approach is somewhat rigid and dogmatic.  All in all, it’s not perfect, but it’s a powerful experience.  I’ve done many of these, and certainly recommend them.

There are currently 199 Goenka retreat centers across the globe, including 12 in the United States: four in California, as well as one in Washington, Illinois, Wisconsin, Idaho, Texas, Georgia, Delaware and Massachusetts.

 

4) Independent Teachers

There’s a number of teachers who don’t neatly fit into any of the above boxes.  Most often, they’ve done extensive practice in Asia, or have latched onto specific teachers not strongly connected to the above streams.  They may even have come through the Insight Meditation stream, but just sort of do their own thing now.

  • Shinzen Young does excellent retreats in Arizona, California and Ontario – great for those intellectually/analytically inclined who want a deep meditation experience.
  • Bhante Vimalaramsi.  He does have a monastery in Missouri, but also offers retreats in California.  He does not align with any specific tradition, and teaches straight from the oldest Buddhist texts.
  • One strategy I’ve used to find retreats is to find a teacher I like, and then check out their website to find out all the places they lead retreats.  The following two teachers have done the bulk of their training in Asia, though also have studied a lot with the Insight Meditation stream: Steve Armstrong & Alexis Santos, two of the senior students of my teacher, Sayadaw U Tejaniya.

 

P1230025Where to Go on a Meditation Retreat in Southeast Asia?

Note: Asia in general and Myanmar specifically is not for the faint of heart—it’s noisy, the food isn’t so great, the weather is intense, mosquitos can be quite a bother and it’s far away. 

That being said, if you can brave it, you will be rewarded with high quality instruction at a very low cost (all these centers are donation based).  There’s also something really special about being not just in a retreat center, but in a country that is highly supportive of meditation.  I usually recommend initially going for two weeks to three months.

As in the previous section, these are only Theravada / Vipassana / Insight Meditation Centers

Myanmar

1) Shwe Oo Min Meditation Center. This is where I’ve done the core of my training—I couldn’t recommend it highly enough. Though, make sure to go when Sayadaw U Tejaniya is there (usually Dec – Feb, and July – Oct), and do yourself a favor by reading at least one of his books beforehand.  If you stay longer than three months, you can stay at some of his affiliated centers for more solitary practice, like Dhamma Vibhajja down the block, or Shwe Oo Min Kalaw.

2) The Pa Auk Monastery in Pyin Oo Lwin.  This is likely the best place in Myanmar for foreigners to engage in samatha / jhana practice.  It’s a rigorous approach to jhana that not everyone can access, but if you’re going to try it in Myanmar, this is the spot.  Note: I am NOT recommending the main Pa Auk Monastery in Mawlamyine – my experience there was that it was a big social fest, and not an environment conducive to the kind of sincere practice and tranquility needed for samatha.

3) Mahasi Method in Myanmar.  I’d personally recommend just going to the Panditarama in Lumbini, Nepal, but if you really insist you could check out the Panditarama Hse Mine Gon Forest Center, or the Chanmyay Yeiktha in Hmawbi.  Note: I’d recommend against going to the actual Mahasi Yeiktha. It may have been great when he was alive, but the quality of instruction is pretty low, and as a foreigner, you are very much an afterthought.

4) Places for independent practice in Myanmar.  If you’re anything like me, in Myanmar you basically just want to practice with U Tejaniya or no one.  So what to do when he’s out of town?

The Mahasi center in Kalaw will give you a nice Kuti, the weather is pretty nice, and since no one speaks very good English, they will let you do whatever you want—you won’t be able to contact them ahead of time, so just show up.  I think you’d be okay here with a tourist visa, but to be sure, I’d apply to the Yangon Mahasi Center for your sponsorship letter…

Otherwise, you could take a bus to Sagaing, and find your way to Parakamma East, where the abbot speaks very broken English and will likely let you stay in their cave, or their accommodations!

Thailand

The first two options have actual group meditation retreats, where a specific method is offered, and are excellent for people without an established practice (and also those who do!).

1) Wat Suan Mokkh.  On the 1st of each month, they lead a 10 day meditation retreat.  You are welcome to stay the rest of the month and do self-practice.  This center was founded in 1989 by Ajahn Buddhadasa, one of the foremost teachers of the 20th Century (who is now deceased).  I haven’t actually been here, so not personally sure of the quality of teachings, or how it is nowadays, but its reputation is pristine.  I don’t hesitate to give it a high recommendation.

2) Khao Tham.  This center offers donation-based English Language 10 day retreats every month.  I don’t personally know too much about this center, but a dear dharma friend gave their former abbot a high recommendation, and everything I read on the website suggests to me it’s for real.  I don’t hesitate to give it my thumbs up.

If you do have an established practice, and are looking for a top-notch monastic environment (which generally means little-to-no personal instruction), here’s three excellent choices:

3) Wat Tam Doi Tohn.  As of 2013, they offered monthly 5 day meditation retreats and also allowed meditators to stay on for independent practice (not sure what the situation is nowadays).  I found the teacher very inspiring and radiant, though he doesn’t speak English.  During a retreat, there is a translator and you will receive group interviews, but if you’re there at other times, you’re likely on your own.  The conditions are more than sufficient, and there’s a couple sweet caves to meditate in.

4) Wat Boonyawad.  This is the home of Ajahn Dtun, who is one of the most respected meditation masters alive.  I’ve read several of his books, have seen him live in California, and highly recommend his teachings (assuming you can stomach very traditional buddhism).  I’ve never actually been to this center, but from what I understand the conditions are well set-up for serious meditation.  There is a limit on how long you can stay—not sure if nowadays it’s 15 or 30 days.

5) Wat Pah Nanachat.  This is probably the most famous & well-respected Thai Monastery that is readily accessible to Westerners.  It was originally started by Ajahn Chah, one of the pre-eminent meditation masters of the past 100 years, and was created specifically for Westerners.  There will be plenty of English spoken, and many other Western monastics and laypeople will be present.  I’ve never been here, though from what I understand, it’s a little on the social side, but also is rooted in very deep practice, and gives a good taste of Thai monastic life.  You really can’t go wrong with a visit here.

6) Finally, for some additional courses in the Mahasi style, try the Doi Suthep Insight Meditation Center, or Wat Ram Poeng.  I believe both of those have pretty intense “beginner’s” courses that are 21 & 26 days long.  There are of course other options, and you can always do a 10 day Goenka course, but the above options should be plenty.


Malaysia

1) Sasanarakkha Buddhist Sanctuary.  All of the teachers who lead formal retreats here are of the highest quality — Ayasma Kumara, Patrick Kearney, Ajahn Sucitto and Ayasma Aggacitta are all very deeply practiced and well-seasoned teachers.

Also, this is a really great place for self-practice.  The conditions are quite good, and not too many people come.  You’ll have lots of quiet.  And finally, if you don’t have a very established practice (and even if you do), as of 2013, there’s an excellent resident nun that will give you a roughly 30 minute personal interview everyday, and teaches in the style of Sayadaw U Tejaniya.

Apart from practicing with U Tejaniya, this is usually my top recommendation to people looking to meditate in Asia.

Nepal

1) Lumbini Panditarama.  This is one of the best Mahasi-style meditation centers on the globe for longer practice.  There are two teachers; both speak perfect English and go much deeper than rote instructions (which is far too common at Mahasi centers in Asia).  You will have your own private hut with a bathroom, and the food is pretty solid.  You’ll get private interviews at least every other day, if not every day.  There’s lot of talking around Asian meditation centers, but this one is refreshingly held in noble silence.

Sri Lanka

1) Nissarana Vanaya.  I haven’t been here but have received high recommendations from trusted sources.  The teacher, food, solitude and general conditions all seem high.  They offer both meditation retreats and self-directed practice with daily teacher interviews.  You can stay up to three months.  The style of practice is traditional Mahasi method.

2) Na Uyana Aranya.  I also haven’t been here, but it’s supposed to be a very good jhana/samadhi focused center.  There’s lots of quiet and solitude, good food and quality instruction.  A proper forest monastery.  You can stay as long as you like.

……………….

Feel free to leave any questions in the comments, or if you have some centers to add, I invite you to list them as well!

From Years of Travel to Intensive Meditation: What I learned about Freedom

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I had just left an eight-week silent meditation retreat in Lumbini, Nepal and was sitting patiently in a local shop with a Nepali man named Jupiter.  He was halfway chatting with me, halfway filling out my bus ticket to Varanasi, India.  Midway through, he paused and looked at me with a curious glance before asking, “are you always like this?”

I smiled, a little confused, thinking maybe he was referring to the large beard I had grown in two months of no shaving; I said, “do you mean my beard?”

“No, I mean how peaceful you are.”

“Oh….  Well, I’m generally a pretty tranquil guy, but I just got out of a meditation retreat, so probably more than usual.”

By the end of the night, I was on a horse carriage riding through the streets of Varanasi, a twinge of novelty in my eyes while roaring with laugher over the chaos of Indian nights—the horns and lights and street dogs and glitter-like colors in every which direction.  Continue reading

The Top Six Benefits I’ve Gotten from 10,000+ Hours of Meditation Practice

body mind spirit photo

Over the years, I’ve heard literally thousands of different questions from meditators about their practice.  Interestingly, all those questions really condense down to three: what, how and why.

When someone asks “why meditate?” they are often asking, “what are the benefits of meditation?”

“What will I get out of spending all that time developing present moment awareness?”

This is an absolutely essential inquiry!

When we know some of the common benefits to look out for, we’re more apt to notice them when they start happening, and, accordingly, we naturally boost our motivation & commitment levels.

Even though it could be argued that the core benefit of mindfulness meditation is freedom more, suffering less, I today wish to give a more personal, less abstract list.

After having logged 10,000+ hours of formal meditation, what do I actually see as the major benefits on my life? Continue reading

How I Learned to Love Myself

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From March 2014 until December 2015, I was on intensive meditation retreat in Myanmar.  Since returning, the main question people have asked me is, “what did you get out of all that time meditating?”  One of the more common responses I give is, “I learned how to love myself.”

This post will detail my process of developing self-love using the four-stage model of “competence” or skill development.  It sort of speaks for itself, but here’s a very brief summary:

Stage one is where we’re in self-hatred, but don’t even know it.  Stage two is where we know we’re in self-hatred, but are powerless to stop it.  Stage three is where with conscious effort we can actually stop it and experience self-love.  Stage four is where the self-hatred no longer happens, and without making any special effort, we experience steady self-love.

It’s my hope that in sharing my story, I can demystify some of this process and help you dive into deeper layers of your own self-love!

Index:
1) Unconscious Self-hatred
2) Conscious Self-hatred
3) Receiving Love from Others
4) What is Self-love?
5) Conscious Self-love
6) Going Beneath the Surface
7) Unconscious Self-love
8) Self-Love Is not a Destination
9) What You Can Learn from my Story
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My Three-Years-Ago Life Philosophy

Authenti City

When I was a young boy growing up in a christian home, my mind was already ultra curious about the bigger picture.  I was told that everyone who doesn’t believe in Jesus would go to hell.  I would ask, “but what about the people in the Amazon who never even hear about Jesus—do they too go to hell?”

By age 12, I intuited a picture much bigger than christianity; but, I was also intrigued by how seriously so many people took their Christian beliefs, as well as other religious and philosophical positions.

I was determined to be different.

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My Life Philosophy in One Sentence

In the course of my ongoing self-growth work and spiritual practice, there’s one quote I come back to time and time again.

This quote is at the core of all my offerings, from meditation to coaching to being a friend.  It captures the whole journey so beautifully, concisely and simply.  It’s no exaggeration to say it’s my life philosophy.  Here goes:

“You are perfect just as you are; and you could use a little improvement.”  ~ Shunryu Suzuki

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How to become a Meditation Master: Flow vs. Deliberate Practice

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About midway through my time in Myanmar, I was on a bus sitting next to my teacher, Sayadaw U Tejaniya.  In the background was the cacophony of talking voices, traffic horns and music blaring from cheap speakers.  It was very different from my quiet monastery.  While I tried my best to stay aware, I was easily pulled from my meditative state.

I turned and asked him, “Sayadaw, do you find all this noise and activity distracting?”

“Not distracting,” he said in his broken yet clear English, before adding, “awareness is always there.”

Around that time, I was very closely observing him.  I knew his teachings, but how did that translate into how he lived?  How was he while conducting a group interview?  While eating?  While casually talking?  While on a bus? Continue reading

The Four Stages of Competence Theory in Meditation

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Even though there’s a number of skills involved with meditation, the most basic marker of successful meditation practice is the extent to which you can be continuously aware.

Meditation is a skill like any other skill.  Just like most kids who first try and ride a bicycle aren’t very good at it, so too are most people who start meditating not very good.  However, with time and diligence, a person gets increasingly proficient.

In educational circles, there’s this thing called competence theory, which does an excellent job of describing the stages of skill acquisition.  Here’s the four stages and what they’d look like for the most basic meditation skill.

1) Unconscious Incompetency

Most people who’ve never engaged in body or awareness practices are at this stage.  They don’t really understand the difference between present moment awareness and non-present moment awareness.

When they start meditating, they either don’t get what they’re supposed to do (pay attention to my body sensations?  Huh?), or they just sit quietly ruminating and think they’re actually meditating.  Generally, they have no idea how scattered their minds are or how much they’re enslaved to their impulses and emotions. Continue reading

The Two Approaches to Getting Un-Stuck

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I’ve never been stuck in quick sand, but as a child I watched enough cartoons to know it’s not exactly a pleasant experience.  You’re literally stuck.

While you may never be strolling the dessert and fall into a pool of wet sinking sand, you just as much as myself and everyone else will regularly face inner quick sand—places where we get stuck.

Maybe it’s a bout of anxiety or having to do a bunch of things you don’t like.  Maybe it’s low motivation or hearing some bad news.  So when you’re stuck in your quick sand,

What to do?  What to do?

Imagine for a moment we pixelated your self-structure, like an old school television—not just one coherent picture, but 1,000 little colored pixels that make up the screen.

In your self-structure, some pixels are your good qualities, such as kindness or patience.  Some pixels are your “difficult” qualities, such as depression or self-judgement.

Continue reading