Ten day Vipassana meditation course: my experience

You can find a slightly shorter version of this post here in case you don’t want all the detail, though I’d recommend reading the full version if you have the time. If you’re thinking about taking the course, this post might be helpful to read too. 

I just came back from a 10-day Vipassana course. It was a unique and tough experience full of ups and downs, and very different from what I expected.

I’d been interested in meditation for a few years,  but hadn’t had the discipline to put it into practice. I chose this course because it’s a 10-day immersive course with no communication throughout. No phones, no talking to the other meditators. Not even any eye contact or gestures. I liked the idea of the lack of distraction. Other than that I have to admit I didn’t know too much about this specific course before I went, and that became apparent as soon as I got there!

Upon arrival, we made a vow to live by a number of rules, most of them not too taxing: no killing, stealing, lying, or intoxicants, and complete sexual abstinence. We also agreed not to leave before the end of the course.

Each day of the course started with a gong at 4 AM and finished with a talk at 9:30 PM, with around 11 hours of meditation in between. The rest of the time was made up of meal and rest breaks.

During our first morning meditation I was slightly surprised to hear chanting in a language I didn’t recognise. I later learned that this was Pali, the language spoken by the original Buddha, Siddharta Gautama. It was a little offputting, but I didn’t think too much of it. After all, the introduction had said that this technique was completely non-sectarian, and that people of all (or no) faiths, religions, or cultures could practice it. It also explicitly said that there was no question of conversion. Just a meditation technique.

We started by learning Anapana meditation, which focuses on the breath. This was similar to the techniques I’d learnt in using mindfulness apps like Headspace and Calm, but without any counting or mantras – just a pure focus on the breath and the sensation it leaves on the nostrils.

The first few days were tough, physically and mentally. My back and knees were aching from sitting cross-legged for 11 hours every day. I wasn’t getting enough sleep at night, so I had naps during my meal breaks and occasionally during meditation times. Even when meditating in the hall I often had little involuntary micro-sleeps, where I could feel dreams creeping in to my meditation. This made it difficult to observe reality “as it is”. But I powered through, being determined to improve my willpower, ability to focus, and control of my emotional reactions. And maybe I’d even get some more insight into the illusion of the self and a better experiential understanding of my mind.

The difficulty of the practice was offset by the evening talks. The talks are recordings of S. N. Goenka, who set up the course. The whole series was recorded in 1991, and has been used on these courses since. He seemed like a great speaker, likable and full of wit and wisdom, with stories beautifully illustrating the ridiculousness of the human condition.All the things we crave, even though they’ll never make us happy. All the things we’re worried about, when in in reality they’re not actually that bad. Many of the ideas really resonated, and reminded me why I was there. I’d come out of the talks eager to get back to meditating. For these few days I felt like going on this course was one of the best decisions I’d ever made, and I thought I’d want to tell everyone to take it when I got back.

Much of this changed on day five. We’d been taught a new technique – proper Vipassana meditation – on day 4, and were putting this into practice. This technique is more nuanced than Anapana.  it involves scanning your body for sensations, and learning to be equanimous towards them. To notice them, be aware that they are impermanent, accept them as they are, and then move on. The idea behind this type of meditation, and the entire course, is that repeated conditioning of this type could change the habit pattern of the mind and make us more able to deal with difficulties on a daily basis. While Anapana trains awareness and focus, Vipassana also strengthens equanimity. We were told that this technique is there to purify the mind.

I liked the idea behind Vipassana, but it was tough. During some of the daily sittings we weren’t supposed to change posture or open our eyes for an entire hour, which inevitably means there’s a lot of pain and many urges to try to feel equanimous about.

The change for me came during the talk at the end of day five. Goenka explained the reasoning behind Vipassana meditation, which had been handed down through the generations from the original Buddha himself, who had come up with it while in deep meditation. At first the explanation sounded vaguely plausible, like a useful high-level psychological model of how we react to stimuli. In this theory, every time we react to a sensation with craving or aversion we generate a sankhara – which I interpreted as an analogy for a reactive emotion – leaving a lasting trace on the body and mind. Not only does it make us blind to what’s really happening, but it conditions us to be more miserable in the future. An example can be anger, where we can be completely engulfed by it for a short period, and the physical tension caused by it can have lasting (if subtle) effects. These effects can build up over time.

Ok so far. I can swallow that.

Supposedly then, the goal of Vipassana meditation is to stop generating new sankharas, and erase all the old ones. All of them. Through meditating and being equanimous towards our sensations, we stop generating sankharas. When this happens, old sankharas come up, and manifest themselves as sensations on the body. When we’re equanimous to those, they also pass away.

Hmm, ok. A little far fetched, but just maybe there’s a meaningful analogy there.

Then Goenka described the Final Goal: complete Liberation from these sankharas, followed by Enlightenment. These sankharas hold us back from observing reality as it is, and through being liberated from them we can observe what’s actually happening. We can train our meditation-sharpened mind to feel ever subtler sensations, right until we can’t go any further. At this point we’re able to feel the vibration of each individual subatomic particle in our body.

A lesson in particle physics. It turns out that there are only 4 types of fundamental particle, called kalapas, and they each have their own characteristics. Earth, Fire, Water, and Wind. These characteristics relate to emotions – for example, Fire is anger. When we feel a sensation of heat in a location on the body, that’s the manifestation of prior anger through a concentration of Fire kalapas in that area. Goenka emphasised the power of personal experience over observation-based science, proudly saying that Buddha had figured this all out by himself while sitting under a tree, just feeling his own particles vibrate. After all, this was obvious to anyone looking hard enough: “it’s just the Law of Nature. The law is universal. ”

In addition to this, while reaching Enlightenment, the Buddha witnessed all his past lives and cleared all the sankharas from those. Oh yeah, I forgot to mention: rebirth is a thing, and when one organism dies its consciousness is transferred into another organism. That’s why the best thing you can do in life is to clear all past sankharas, liberate yourself, and save all future incarnations of your consciousness from the misery that otherwise awaits them. Don’t worry too much about alleviating the apparent causes for suffering – poverty, starvation, cruelty – as long as you’re working on clearing your own sankharas and giving the gift of Dhamma to others. You can do this by teaching them, volunteering to help on a course, or donating to the organisation. Hmm.

At this point I’d had enough. Suddenly my mind snapped from thinking this was the best thing I’d ever done to thinking I’d been deluded into joining a cult, and I saw everything differently. I became a lot more aware of the chants, which felt like odd rituals. (to be fair, we were never required to respond, and any chants we chose to participate in were voluntary)

A few things on which I’d earlier given Goenka the benefit of the doubt started unraveling, and after a short walk I decided I was wasting my time and would have to leave. After all, I’d gained the benefits of wanting to focus my mind and of seclusion. I figured I could just not tell anyone I was back, and carry on a non-religious meditative practice while reading, writing, and listening to music at home. I started to get really excited by this idea.

I decided that before I leave I should speak to the teacher. It was now day 6, which I’d previously heard was notorious for people leaving. Only around 3 out of 60 of the male students had left so far. I wasn’t worried about looking like a failure for leaving, but I did have a slight hint of worry that maybe my mind was somehow tricking me into not continuing to do something difficult. A few friends of mine had done it, and one had specifically told me to ignore anything that seems like bullshit and focus on the parts that are valuable or useful. When I spoke to the teacher he also reminded me of the value people get from the courses, and the reported benefits, so I agreed to stay another day to see how I’d feel then.

On day seven I got into meditating again, and felt my mind focus more. I constantly had to remind myself why I was there – to “purify my mind”, in their language. I slept more, there wasn’t too much superstition in the evening talk, and I felt ok. On days eight and nine I decided since I was there I might as well commit to the technique properly, and so I did almost the complete 11 hour schedule on both days. (I “slept in” until 6AM on day 8 to catch up on sleep)

I spent a lot of time in the meditation sessions just thinking, and since I wasn’t too worried about the exact technique anymore I didn’t feel too guilty about this. My thinking was very scatter-brained at first but by day nine my mind felt very focused and patient and I had long, slow thinking sessions. I went for a lot of meditative walks.

On day 10 the requirement for Noble Silence was lifted, and we were allowed to talk to each other. I was shocked to realise that everyone else’s experiences had been completely different. Some people bought in to the whole thing – one person I otherwise got on with very well had previously met a monk whom he believed capable of experiencing vibrations in his body at the most fundamental subatomic level. Some others bought the particle theories, but not the rebirth. Others still were on the fence about everything, but vowed that the technique worked. I found a handful of people in the same situation as me – revulsed by the pseudoscience and thinly veiled religious aspects, acknowledging that there were benefits but unsure whether these were from the specific technique or just from abstaining from everything which would otherwise be distracting and doing some meditation.

And that’s the stage I’m at now. I do feel a bit different, but I’m completely put off by the cult feel of Vipassana and the way people are persuaded (almost manipulated, in some ways) to swallow the probably useful and certainly testable meditation technique with completely made up theories about kalapas and rebirth, strung along by a far off dream of Universal Truth, Enlightenment, and transcendence of mind and matter.

And all this while being told that Dhamma is “so logical, so pragmatic, so scientific”, and free of “rituals, rites and ceremonies”. I guess it is, apart from the chanting in a language we don’t know. And the repetition of certain phrases. Oh and we can’t point our feet towards the teacher or lie down in the hall. And all the teachers are men. The female teacher in the instructional videos always sits there in silence. Oh and we have to obey their arbitrary version of morality. And the teachers sit on a raised chair, next to a sort of altar covered in white cloth, underneath a huge projected image of the great Goenka. But apart from those, and the other rituals, rites and ceremonies, there are none.

On the other hand, the course is completely free. At the end, you donate what you like. Absolutely no pressure, and no one is (at least visibly) keeping track of who donates. Anyone, with any or no income, can do it. That part really impressed me. And when you try to leave, the people who are volunteering to teach, clean, or cook for you try to persuade you to stay! Bizarre.

Some things I’ve noticed since leaving the course yesterday:

  • Buying a train ticket was harder than I thought. The man at the counter didn’t have infinite patience as I slowly decided which ticket I wanted without acknowledging his question first.
  • The music I’ve listened to has felt more intense. I think I’ve been able to pick out new parts in songs I’ve listened to a lot before.
  • When I poured myself some tea, I could really hear it going in to the cup without looking out for that. It sounds stupid, but it felt kind of nice.
  • I feel like I have more self control and focus. I’m better at single tasking and less likely to be pulled into another task. I’ll catch myself getting the urge to do something else, pause momentarily, and then the urge will disappear.
  • I have a lot of motivation, and a feeling that time is precious.
  • I’ve been smiling a lot, felt appreciative of people and their actions, and been completely undisturbed and mostly amused by anything that might otherwise be annoying.

To be continued…

To get an idea of the nicer side of Vipassana and its goals, this essay is a good place to start: https://www.dhamma.org/en/about/art

And if you’re seriously considering doing the course yourself, this post gives a more balanced view of the good and the bad parts.

Ten day Vipassana meditation course: my experience

You can find slightly a longer, more detailed version of this post here. I’d recommend reading that version if you have the time! If you’re thinking about taking the course, this post might be helpful to read too.

I just came back from a 10-day Vipassana course. It was a unique and tough experience full of ups and downs, and very different from what I expected.

I’d been interested in meditation for a few years, and saw this course as an opportunity to learn to put it into practice. It’s a 10-day immersive course with no communication throughout. No phones, no talking to the other meditators. Not even any eye contact or gestures.

We had to live by a number of rules, most of them not too taxing: no killing, stealing, lying, or intoxicants, and complete sexual abstinence.

Each day of the course started with a gong at 4 AM and finished with a talk at 9:30 PM, with around 11 hours of meditation in between. The rest of the time was made up of meal and rest breaks.

We started by learning Anapana meditation, which focuses on the breath. This is similar to the techniques taught in mindfulness apps like Headspace and Calm, but without any counting or mantras – just a pure focus on the breath and the sensation it leaves on the nostrils.

The first few days were tough, physically and mentally. My back and knees were aching from sitting cross-legged for 11 hours every day. I wasn’t getting enough sleep at night, so I had naps during my meal breaks and occasionally during meditation times.

The difficulty of the practice was offset by the evening talks. The talks are recordings of S. N. Goenka, who set up the course. He seemed like a great speaker, likable and full of wit and wisdom, with stories beautifully illustrating the ridiculousness of the human condition. All the things we crave, even though they’ll never make us happy. All the things we’re worried about, when in in reality they’re not actually that bad. Many of the ideas really resonated, and reminded me why I was there. I’d come out of the talks eager to get back to meditating. For these few days I felt like going on this course was one of the best decisions I’d ever made, and I thought I’d want to tell everyone to take it when I got back.

A few days into the course we were taught proper Vipassana meditation – scanning your body for sensations, and learning to be equanimous towards them. To notice them, be aware that they are impermanent, accept them as they are, and then move on. We were told that this technique is there to purify the mind.

The change for me came during the talk at the end of day five. Goenka explained the reasoning behind Vipassana meditation, which had been handed down through the generations from the original Buddha himself, who had come up with it while in deep meditation. At first the explanation sounded vaguely plausible: suffering is not inevitable, it comes about due to our aversion to certain sensations or craving for other sensations. If we come to accept reality as it is, and get rid of aversion and craving, we can be at peace with anything and act with love and compassion. Much of the intensity of the pain we feel is actually our aversion to that pain, rather than the pure physical pain itself.

In this theory, every time we react to a sensation with craving or aversion we generate a sankhara – a kind of reactive emotion – leaving a lasting trace on the body and mind. An example can be anger, where we can be completely engulfed by it for a short period, and the physical tension caused by it can have lasting (if subtle) effects. These effects can build up over time.

This sounded like it could make sense. But then Goenka went on to explain that through Vipassana meditation we can stop generating new sankharas, and erase all the old ones, which would help us reach our Final Goal of Enlightenment. This involves training our meditation-sharpened mind to feel ever subtler sensations, until we can feel the vibration of each individual subatomic particle in our body (which come in one of four types – Earth, Fire, Water, and Wind). Another bi-product of this process is that we’d witness all of our past lives (I forgot, Buddhists believe in rebirth!) and clear the sankharas from those lives too.

Goenka emphasised the power of personal experience over observation-based science, proudly saying that Buddha had figured this all out by himself while sitting under a tree, just feeling his own particles vibrate. After all, this was obvious to anyone looking hard enough: “it’s just the Law of Nature. The law is universal. ”

This theory, and the belief in rebirth, lead them to think the best thing you can do in life is to clear all past sankharas, liberate yourself, and save all future incarnations of your consciousness from the misery that otherwise awaits them. Don’t worry too much about alleviating the apparent causes for suffering – poverty, starvation, cruelty – as long as you’re working on clearing your own sankharas and giving the gift of this knowledge to others. You can do this by teaching them, volunteering to help on a course, or donating to the organisation. Hmm.

After this talk, my mind snapped from thinking this was the best thing I’d ever done to thinking I’d been deluded into joining a cult, and I saw everything differently. I decided I’d leave the next morning, but that before I leave I should speak to the teacher just to make sure I wasn’t overreacting. A friend who’d done the course had specifically told me to ignore anything that seems like bullshit and focus on the parts that are valuable or useful. When I spoke to the teacher he also reminded me of the value people get from the courses, and the reported benefits, so I agreed to stay another day to see how I’d feel then.

On day seven I got into meditating again, and felt my mind focus more. On days eight and nine I decided since I was there I might as well commit to the technique properly, and so I did almost the complete 11 hour schedule on both days.

On day ten the requirement for Noble Silence was lifted, and we were allowed to talk to each other. I found out that some people bought in to the whole thing, and a handful of people were in the same situation as me – revulsed by the pseudoscience and thinly veiled religious aspects, acknowledging that there were benefits but unsure whether these were from the specific technique or just from abstaining from everything which would otherwise be distracting and doing some meditation.

And that’s the stage I’m at now. I do feel a bit different, but I’m completely put off by the cult feel of Vipassana and the way people are persuaded (almost manipulated, in some ways) to swallow the probably useful meditation technique with completely made up theories about subatomic particles and rebirth, strung along by a far off dream of Universal Truth, Enlightenment, and transcendence of mind and matter.

On the other hand, the course is completely free. At the end, you donate what you like. Absolutely no pressure, and no one is (at least visibly) keeping track of who donates.

Some things I’ve noticed in the since I left the course yesterday:
  • Buying a train ticket was harder than I thought. The man at the counter didn’t have infinite patience as I slowly decided which ticket I wanted without acknowledging his question first.
  • The music I’ve listened to has felt more intense. I think I’ve been able to pick out new parts in songs I’ve listened to a lot before.
  • When I poured myself some tea, I could really hear it going in to the cup without looking out for that. It sounds stupid, but it felt kind of nice.
  • I feel like I have more self control and focus. I’m better at single tasking and less likely to be pulled into another task. I’ll catch myself getting the urge to do something else, pause momentarily, and then the urge will disappear.
  • I have a lot of motivation, and a feeling that time is precious.
  • I’ve been smiling a lot, felt appreciative of people and their actions, and been completely undisturbed and mostly amused by anything that might otherwise be annoying.

To be continued…

To get an idea of the nicer side of Vipassana and its goals, this essay is a good place to start: https://www.dhamma.org/en/about/art

And if you’re seriously considering doing the course yourself, this post gives a more balanced view of the good and the bad parts.

Should you do a Dhamma Vipassana course?

If you’re considering doing a Vipassana meditation course with the Dhamma.org organisation, you’re probably trying to decide whether it’s worth giving up ten days of your time. Here are some pointers from my experience. Hope they’re helpful. There’s more detail on my experience in this post.

 The Good

Environment: if you’re looking for an ideal place to meditate, there won’t be many places that compare to Dhamma centres. Peace, quiet, no communication, no responsibilities, lots of other focused meditators around you in the meditation hall, and places to walk around if you need some space.

Discipline: eating only what they give you, only at set times, following a schedule for a whole day, and coming out of your usual routine.

Cost: the entire course is donation based. At the end of the course, you pay what you think it’s worth based on what you can afford. There’s no pressure to make a donation, and as far as I could tell no one would even have noticed if I hadn’t donated. All of the teachers and staff are volunteers, so the running costs are actually pretty low. Most of the costs come from the food. Once you’ve done a course you can come back to volunteer in return for using their facilities.

Practicality: the course isn’t an academic exercise or a philosophical exploration of mindfulness. It’s very much practical and experience-oriented. For 11 hours each day you sit there in silence. You get instructions on different meditation techniques, including Anapana and Vipassana, and you try to work continuously to put them into practice. In this sense it’s a good fit for someone who’s read a lot about meditation, but hasn’t been able to make progress on actually doing it.

Intensity: the discipline and environment combined with the duration of the course means that you can get into a deeply calm state, which would be difficult to do anywhere else. This might then allow you to make more progress in meditation than you could at home.

Technique: the techniques they teach focus on improving awareness and equanimity, both of which I personally felt I improved at. Equanimity means accepting things the way they are, which makes it easier to deal with difficult situations.

The Bad

Duration: ten days is a long time. And it’s ten days of only Vipassana course, 24/7. No reading, writing, exercise, or contact with the outside world. Only you can know how much these ten days are worth to you, and what you’re giving up.

Sleep: the schedule allows for only 6.5h of sleep each night. While they claim that proper meditation means you need less sleep, for me it meant that I ended up taking naps during all of the meal breaks to catch up. I know a few others did this too.

Superstition: mixed in with the useful meditation technique is a daily evening talk explaining why the technique works and why it’s important to practice it. This relies on Buddhist beliefs like rebirth, enlightenment, and the idea that experienced meditators can feel individual vibrations in their body at the subatomic(!) level. This really put me off, and I got close to leaving when they first started talking about it.

Patriarchy: it’s never made explicit, but it was an uncomfortable theme for me throughout the course. In each of the evening video talks, S. N. Goenka’s wife sits next to him and never says a word. In the meditation hall with us we had both a male and a female teacher, to address each gender group separately. When instructions common to both groups were given, this was always done by the male teacher.

Conversion: while they say they’re not trying to convert anyone to their way of life, they really are. The talk on the last day made it feel like I’d attended a Buddhist Alpha Course. This doesn’t affect the usefulness of the technique, but it made me doubt why I was there throughout. It made me doubt that the technique had any use at all, and it made it harder to practice.

The Equanimous

Meals: there are only two meals per day; at 6.30am and 11am. At 5pm you can have a piece of fruit. Personally I found this useful since it forced me to realise that I don’t need to eat as much as I normally do, and it’s actually much easier to focus when you’re a little hungry. I know not everyone liked this though.

Observation: you spend most of the time in your own head. That’s great if you like it (which I do), but some people struggle with this and have difficult experiences. I saw a few people leave, some crying, and there was one meditation session where a woman suddenly screamed because someone had brushed against her while walking past.

Pain: sitting down for 11 hours a day is painful. My back hurt, and so did my knees. Part of that is by design – what would the point be in an intensive practical course on changing your response to pain, without experiencing any pain? On the other hand, pain isn’t fun.

Boredom: ten days of meditation, with breaks in between where you do nothing but eat, sleep, walk, shower or go to the toilet. That’s literally it, the entire time. Again though, that’s kind of the point. Through experiencing this boredom you can change your response to it, accept it, and become more capable of focusing on boring tasks.

Segregation: there’s complete gender segregation throughout the course. This is done to reduce distraction (for most people). There are separate accommodation areas, dining areas, shower blocks, and walking areas for men and women.

Testimonials: many people who do the course say it has changed their life, even when they don’t believe the pseudoscience parts. There are people who do the course multiple times, even every year. On the other hand, most sceptical people probably wouldn’t go on the course, or would leave before the end. And there are a lot of biases at play here – it’s a tough experience, and our brain tries to find reasons to rationalise our decisions in hindsight. We’re in a big group of people, and the atmosphere is conducive to agreement. Primacy bias means we’re likely to more strongly remember the pleasant final day of the course than the rest of it. And of course we’re happy when we get to talk again!

Evidence: empirical evidence for the benefit of these courses is limited. Studies have been done on meditation, but the few meta-analyses I found come out with moderate to no benefit compare to active treatments (exercise/drugs/etc). On the other hand, the potential side effects of sitting around not doing much are limited. I haven’t been able to find any studies focused on Vipassana, or on similar duration intensive courses, and it did feel like that was an important part of this experience. (many of the studies look at part-time courses). It’s unclear whether any benefit would come from the seclusion and discipline, or from the actual technique. But I’m not sure it really matters – not everyone has a similar place they could go to to spend ten days in silence and be dependent on others, with no obligation of payment.

So… should you go? 

It’s up to you! I think it mostly depends on how much you value your time, whether you can afford to give up your responsibilities for ten days, and whether you think you could sit through sermons on things you completely disagree with. If you can manage those, then I feel like the course can be valuable.

To help you get an idea of some of the good parts of the teachings, it’s worth reading The Art of Living.  For the bad parts, check out the Day Six Dhamma Discourse on YouTube, and skip through the part around 40 minutes in when he talks about rebirth.

Some tips if you do decide to go:

  • Have a clear reason for going. You can repeat this to yourself while you’re there to remind you why you’re doing it when you have doubts.
  • Understand that there will be mysticism, pseudoscience, and thinly veiled religion. At times you’ll feel like you’re a cult. Be prepared for it so it doesn’t throw you off and distract you from what you actually want out of the course. (unless you’re a beginner Buddhist planning for Enlightenment, in which case go ahead!)
  • Ensure you’re well rested before you go. The course doesn’t give you time to catch up on sleep, and I felt like I wasted parts of the first few days falling asleep during meditation because I was tired when I arrived.
  • Take clothes that will cover you, even if you’re a guy. T-shirts are fine, but shorts and vests aren’t.
  • Take flip flops or slip-on shoes, as you’ll be taking them on and off a lot.
  • If you’d like to sit through the entire course but you’re not sure you’ll be able to, just promise yourself you won’t leave on days 2 or 6. (or on the evening of day 5). These are seen as the toughest days, but actually I think a lot of people leave on day 5/6 just because that’s when all the pseudoscience comes out. If you go in armed with the expectation of pseudoscience and that promise to yourself, making it through to day 7 can help you get more out of the course.
  • Every evening there’s a chance to ask the teacher questions in public. Even if you don’t have any questions, I’d recommend sitting in to listen to the answers to other people’s questions.
  • Don’t worry about taking things you think you’ll be tempted by (e.g. phone/notebook), as you can put them in a locker for the entire course. At least this was the case at Dhamma Dipa in UK, where I did my course – it might be worth checking if your centre has lockers too.

Charity as an investment

As a society we have a weird relationship with charitable giving.

I think most people want to make a difference to the world, at least to some extent. For those who don’t directly have the impact they want through their jobs, this often takes the form of charitable giving.

But all too often people talk about giving “to charity” in a vague way, as if every kind of charitable donation is the same. It’s almost taboo to talk about where you donate to, or to try to compare different charities. Obviously charities generally have good aims, but unfortunately none of us have unlimited resources and so it makes sense to think carefully about where we give.

Isn’t it weird that people make decisions in a very different way when they’re investing money (for their own gain) vs donating money (for others’ gain)? In a way these are really the same thing, it’s just that when you’re donating you’re investing for someone else’s benefit rather than your own.

In fact, viewing giving to charity as an investment can be a very useful way to think about things. When you start to view charitable giving as investing, two things happen:

  • A shift of emphasis from how much you give to where you give
  • A choice between giving money now vs investing money to give more later

I think it’s worth briefly exploring these two points.

How much to give vs where to give

When donating to charity, the amount we’re able to give will always be limited. It will be limited by our income, our living expenses, and potentially expenses for others who might depend on us. This amount will be different for each of us. Personally I try to make sure I donate at least 10% of my salary each month as soon as it hits my bank account, and occasionally make additional donations based on how much I can afford to give at the time.

But while how much we’re able to give is limited, we have complete control over where we give to. Just like with savings and investing. Imagine we have £100 to invest, and we’re given the choice between two investments:

  • Investment A: high expected returns, low variance (i.e. low risk)
  • Investment B: unknown (possibly negative) expected returns, unknown variance

Most people would rightly choose to put the full £100 in investment A, with higher expected returns and lower risk.

Now imagine we have a similar choice when deciding to donate £100 between two charities:

  • Charity A: high expected impact, low variance
  • Charity B: unknown expected impact, unknown variance

Even if these charities happened to focus on different problems, as long as we found a meaningful way to compare their impact I think we’d still like to give the full £100 to charity A.

But how do we find a charity like charity A? This is the idea behind GiveWell, who’ve made it their mission to help donors do as much good as possible by identifying those charities which can make the biggest difference with any additional donations. Their (short) list of current recommendations can be found here.

For anyone based in the UK, Giving What We Can makes it easy to set up a regular direct debit to one of these recommended charities, on which you can then collect Gift Aid (i.e. get full tax relief). This is how I’ve set up my monthly direct debit, which currently splits my donations across GiveDirectly, the Against Malaria Foundation, and Deworming the World Initiative.

Giving now vs giving later and the impact of compound interest

Why should we donate any money to charity now? Surely if we want to have a really big impact we should save that money, allowing it to grow exponentially through the benefits of compound interest, and donate a larger sum later?

That’s one way of looking at it, but it’s not the whole picture. First of all, while the amount of money might look like it’s increasing, it won’t necessarily increase in real terms (compared to inflation). And it’s not easy get consistent returns without some risk.

More importantly, this way of looking at things ignores the compound benefits of giving to charity. There are two angles here: making a difference through donations gets harder over time, and helping people now allows those people to help others in future.

As we solve problems through charitable donations, for example through eradicating malaria just like smallpox was eradicated a few decades ago, some of the most cost-effective initiatives (like distributing malaria nets) won’t be an option anymore. Because of this, making the same amount of difference will cost more money in the future – and by holding on to the money rather than donating it, people would have unnecessarily died from malaria in the meantime.

There are other compound benefits to giving to charity: by helping those in need, we empower them to continue to help themselves and others in a similar position. For example, a charity like GiveDirectly allows its recipients of cash transfers to make small initial investments or reduce their ongoing costs, helping them potentially dig themselves out of poverty forever. These kinds of interventions could have a lasting impact, and the sooner they take place the more impact they’ll have.

More on this

If you like the idea of making a difference, and you think the approach of viewing charity as an investment makes sense, I’d recommend reading Will MacAskill’s excellent book Doing Good Better. If you prefer reading shorter pieces, the Effective Altruism blog is a great place to start.

Why WordPress beats Medium for building a personal blog

[Warning: this is quite a technical post. If you don’t plan on running your own blog or have an interest in SEO, you’re probably better off skipping this one! ]

Medium – the good

I love Medium. After using it to find and read great content, I started my own blog there just over two years ago. It’s a great place to find an audience for your content – several of my posts got thousands of reads, and I’m not sure I could’ve got anywhere near that if I’d gone with another platform.

In fact, I’m not sure I would’ve even got started on another platform. The simplicity of Medium’s writing experience – literally as simple as log in and start writing – was what I needed. Everything automatically looked great, and procrastinating by editing themes wasn’t even an option.

But Medium has its issues. I’m not going to do a full comparison of Medium against other platforms as there’s a lot of content that does that out there already, but I’m going to go through the issues I’ve had with the platform and why I’m considering moving my blog elsewhere. You might notice that this is the first post I’ve written on WordPress, and the content is being automatically copied across to my old Medium blog.

The issues I’ll go over apply if you’re trying to find your own space on the web for your writing and as a hub to other projects you’re involved in. They don’t apply if:

  • You want to start a regular writing habit with no goal other than improving your writing (go with Medium)
  • You’re a professional writer and you’re trying to get your content noticed by others with the goal of being featured in publications (go with Medium)
  • Most of your content focuses on writing, and you value a community of other writers to get feedback from (go with Medium – The Writing Cooperative is great for this)

The bad

The issues came when I tried to use my Medium presence to promote other projects I was working on.

After two years of writing on Medium, I had a few successful posts which ranked fairly high in Google for their keywords (e.g. if you search for “workflowy gtd” you’ll find my post on using Workflowy to implement the Getting Things Done framework on the first page).

In other words, my blog was starting to get some credibility with search engines – a rare and valuable commodity on the Web.

What can you do with that commodity? In the field of SEO (Search Engine Optimisation), there are two big benefits you can get from content like that:

  • A boost for the rest of your content on the same domain – e.g. if that page was on harald.co/workflowy, then other pages on harald.co would get a small boost up in their Google rankings for those keywords
  • A boost for content you link to from that page – for example, if I put a link to harald.co/projects on that page, then harald.co/projects would also get a small boost in its Google ranking.

Using these benefits to promote a website is referred to as content marketing. Content marketing is a key tool in SEO, which is all about improving search engine rankings. And these rankings are more important than ever, with the shift to mobile and search engines being the primary portal to the Web. (this study says 51% of traffic is driven by search results, far more than social media or other traffic)

The issue with Medium is that it’s difficult to get either of these benefits. The first one is possible, but it’ll cost you. On top of the price for the domain itself, Medium now charges a $75 fee for linking your posts to your own domain – and even then you don’t have much flexibility in how this is used. (a domain can only be linked to a specific publication, not to your own profile)

The second one isn’t possible at all. To understand why, a short tangent on how search engines work.

How search engines work

At a high level, using Google as an example, search engines use a three step process for analysing content and deciding its ranking:

  1. Google keeps a list of pages it knows about on the Web, alongside associated links and keywords. (this list is called its index)
  2. Google’s bots regularly visit all the pages in the index. They look for links from those pages, and follow the links to find new pages. (this is called crawling)
  3. Google adds new pages it finds to its index, and updates keywords and links for pages it already knew about. (this is called indexing)
  4. When someone performs a search for a specific keyword, Google consults its index to find the most relevant pages for that keyword.

I’ve obviously missed out a lot of detail here! If you’re interested in SEO, Moz has a good beginner’s guide.

Back to Medium: why should it be any different from other sites?

The issue is with how Medium tags links. In the second step, where Google’s bots look for links, there’s a way to tell them to ignore a certain link. You can do this by adding a small bit of code to the link saying “rel=nofollow” – often referred to simply as nofollow – which means that Google won’t follow that link and the page being linked to won’t get the SEO benefit of that link.

Medium tags all its outbound links as nofollow. Why? Probably to avoid people abusing it for their own SEO purposes and flooding it with low value content – useless pages full of links which exists only to boost the pages they link to.

The downside is that, from an SEO perspective, outbound links from Medium posts are basically useless!

Enter WordPress

I initially preferred Medium over WordPress because of the simplicity, and lack of setup required. At this point I think the costs outweigh the benefits, so I’ve set up a new blog on WordPress.com – a hosted version of WordPress, which means you don’t need to worry about writing code or installing anything. It takes a bit longer than setting up a Medium blog and costs £30 per year, but in a few hours you can have a blog set up using your own domain (mine is http://www.harald.co), and have full control over how all your links are tagged.

I  still cross-post everything to Medium, with the required SEO modifications, so I can keep getting the benefits of the Medium readership I’d built up and I can always switch back if I want to. It’s worth pointing out – WordPress.com doesn’t support automatic exporting to Medium like self-hosted WordPress does, but I think that’s a small price to pay for the convenience.

One last note: WordPress isn’t the only platform that allows you to do this, but I think it’s the best choice right now. It’s definitely the most popular, by far, and it’s fairly priced. I looked into Ghost and Svbtle as two good alternatives, but settled on WordPress in the end because of its larger user base and better pricing.

Any thoughts/suggestions? Let me know in the comments or on Twitter!

Bananas, Porridge, and The Importance of Controlled Experiments

In reading and eating

This was meant to be a story about how bad bananas are, and how natural isn’t always better. But it’s not. It’s a story about how bananas are probably ok, and control groups are important.

Let me explain.

Crash

For a while now, I’ve been getting occasional symptoms of hypoglycemia (low blood sugar). Shakiness, clamminess, irritability, and a fast heartbeat. It’s no big deal, but it’s annoying when it happens in certain situations, like at work.

I noticed that it seemed to happen more often after I ate certain things. I started paying attention to my diet (see this post on a few things I did, like giving up soft drinks) and figured I was probably doing ok. Sugar crashes tend to be caused by overreaction to sharp sugar spikes, and I thought I was doing a pretty good job of avoiding these.

But I was still getting the symptoms.

So maybe I was still doing something wrong?

Bye the book

There’s only so much you can learn by reading. Despite trawling through tables on glycemic index (and, more to the point, glycemic load) values for all sorts of foods, I was still getting these sugar crashes. Where to go next?

In The Four Hour Body, I read that Tim Ferriss used a continuous glucose monitoring device to keep track of his sugar levels for a while. The one he recommended was ridiculously expensive (£1k+!), but after a bit of research I managed to find a disposable one that would last two weeks for £60.

So I bought one and, with some help, bravely implanted it in my arm. (thanks mum!)

Then for two weeks I kept track of what I ate and how it affected my sugar levels.

Bananas

Here’s one thing I noticed: when I had my usual breakfast of porridge oats with banana, my blood sugar shot straight up and crashed down quickly afterwards. (for reference, non-diabetics tend to have blood sugar levels of 4–6mmol/l before meals, and 6-8mmol/l a while after eating)


Now I knew bananas weren’t low in sugar, but I didn’t think they’d have that much of an effect! All this time I’d been having that breakfast because I thought it would give me a good mix of quick and slow release energy to keep me going all morning!

I figured it was time to change my ways. But maybe I could do a few comparisons first.

I measured my blood sugar over a few other meals, and it was stable.

I decided to see how a banana compared to pure sugar. Here’s porridge oats with three teaspoons of sugar:


Almost identical to one banana! Crazy, I might as well have been having sugar with my porridge all this time. Right?

Oops

On the very last day my sensor was active, it occurred to me that I should do one last breakfast experiment: a control group. Just to see — what would happen if I had just porridge? No banana, no sugar, nothing else. Just porridge.

Two things:

  1. It’s disgusting. Seriously, don’t do it. It took me a long time to finish my bowl, and if it wasn’t for science I would never have done it.
  2. Surprise! The effect on my blood sugar was the same.

Here’s pure porridge (oats + semi skimmed milk):


Spike, and crash! Like the other two cases. So my conclusions were wrong!

Why?

It turns out that the assumption I’d made at the beginning was wrong*.

I’d been reading too many food and nutrition blogs, and took them at their word when they told me that “oats are a source of slow-release energy”. It turns out they’re not.

I’d somehow selectively ignored the data that said that oats are, actually, quite high GL. One serving of oats is about halfway between a banana and a can of coke, in terms of its impact on your blood sugar.

What did I learn?

Sometimes you need to trust the way you feel over what you’re reading. Oats definitely won’t be my go-to breakfast anymore.

I also learnt that it’s easy to make conclusions based on very little data. It’s important to conduct experiments designed to disprove your hypothesis, not just to support it!

And finally… if you’re one of the people I spoke to after my first two bowls of porridge, I take back everything I said about bananas! (probably*)


* As someone pointed out to me after reading this, technically I never controlled for the milk in my porridge, which also contains some sugar. My sensor has expired now, but if I had another chance I would do another test with just oats and water. And one where I just eat a banana, to see what that does.

Snow Monkeys in Japan — Two Perspectives

I was recently in Nagano, Japan. When someone I met there told me about a place called Snow Monkey Park, which has both hot springs and monkeys, I was immediately sold.

I looked up some pictures of this place, and it looked incredible. People bathing in hot springs with monkeys!

After a short train ride and a bit of a hike I arrived at the park. As promised, it was teeming with incredibly cute wild Japanese macaques, as well as the expected camera-wielding tourists.


While walking around I noticed how I, just like everyone else, spent most of my time there trying to get a good shot of the monkeys.

People didn’t come because they liked it, they came here to take pictures that made it look like the kind of place you’d want to go.

And it looks just like that. But it’s not. The monkeys are wild, but their habitat is far from it. The rock pool filled with hot spring water? That was built especially for the monkeys. In fact, they were building an extension to it while I was there.


Few of the pictures of this place online include the workmen, or any of the pipes transporting water in and out of the pool. Because those don’t make it look like the kind of place you’d want to go.

So everyone who goes there goes to great lengths to get nice shots which don’t feature the workmen or the pipes. These shots then make other people want to go.

When those people get there they secretly feel a bit cheated, but are forced to keep up the illusion because OH MY GOD IS THAT A MONKEY SPA?! So cute!

The Japanese macaque traditionally builds its nest in the slightly warmer areas surrounding generators

It’s not that big a deal, but it’s kind of stupid how we get trapped in this cycle. And it’s a shame, because there’s so much natural beauty in the surrounding area. In fact, I enjoyed the walk to the park a lot more than the park itself.

But somehow an endless stream of people will pay to hang out around other people just so they can take pictures that make it look like they had a great time.

I’m not sure what I’m trying to say here. Something about Instagram maybe, or the unfortunate incentives in a world in which social media takes centre stage, making it more important to look like you’re having a good time than to actually have a good time?

Anyway, Japan is great. And deep-fried snow monkey breast is delicious!

Ok, not really. Well it might be, but I didn’t eat any.

If you do ever go to the snow monkey park, try the noodle place next to the station. The tempura soba is great 🙂