My (Brutal) Experience at a Ten-day Vipassana Meditation Retreat
Updated May 2020
This Vipassana meditation retreat was the worst experience of my life.
Or quite possibly the best. I’m still not sure.
No trippy love-fest, no executive spa retreat. This was hardcore Buddhism, the doctrine of reality. Facing the truth, with nowhere to run.© Image by Ainsley
Here’s the official description of the retreat.
dancing with insanity
:: Day 0 :: registration
Arrive at Dhamma Bhumi Vipassana Meditation Centre, Blue Mountains. Am excited yet apprehensive.
Hand over phone, wallet and keys for “safekeeping”.
Talk to a guy who has been before (“old student”). Is also a psychiatrist so might know what he is talking about. Tells me “At some point your mind will invent a totally convincing reason for why you should leave. Recognise it for another trick and ignore it”. He is later proven to be correct. Also tells me this is the most sane I will feel for the next 10 days. Again correct.
Notice shaving hairs in my room sink. Then notice room has not been cleaned by the previous student. Dirty pig! Furiously clean room. But am very grateful to be in a room rather than the dormitory.
Put spiders outside.
Noble Silence begins; am looking forward to it. No email, no Kardashians; how delicious.
[Evening Video Teaching Discourse]
Without explanation we are led through the ceremony of the Triple Gem. Everyone follows along. They either don’t realise or don’t care that this traditionally signifies conversion to Buddhism. Feel uneasy.
:: Day 1 ::
Four in the morning. The wake-up gong sounds. Seriously?
Trudge to the meditation hall in the dark.
Stripy Pants to my left noisily changes position every few minutes.
Start again, back to the breath.
Six in the morning. WTF! How are we supposed to meditate over this excruciating groaning?
Start again. Start again. 10 hours a day.
Realise the outside world has followed me in, and am not going to find peace. Let go of my dreams of gentle enlightenment.
Teacher S.N. Goenka tells us his system is free of ritual, then chants a blessing in a medieval language. Am told off for pointing my legs towards the video screen, apparently disrespecting the teacher.
:: Day 2 ::
Stripy Pants is now in continual motion, generating a pulsating wall of sound. Why doesn’t the teacher show him how to sit properly?
Six in the morning. Leave the meditation hall - can’t put up with the chanting.
Porridge and prunes. The moon setting into the misty valleys.
Start again. Start again.
Realise dealing with the noise of the meditation hall is part of the process.
Realise dealing with the noise in my head is part of the process.
Goenka repeatedly states his teaching is secular, while repeatedly demonstrating the opposite.
My buttons are sure being pushed now: dogma, hypocrisy, pseudo-science, ritual. What have I let myself in for?
Am woken by a spider dropping from the ceiling onto my face. I brush it onto the floor and return to sleep.
:: Day 3 ::
Put spiders outside again.
Six in the morning. Was I snoring? How on earth is it possible to fall asleep, sitting upright, in pain, with that chanting?
Stripy Pants retires to the back wall of the hall. Blessed relief for both of us.
Heart rate 56, even when walking. Deeply relaxed.
A river of fire runs between my shoulder-blades. Is it meant to hurt this much?
Just observe. Observe the thinking. Observe the body.
Achieve deep meditative concentration. What a novel, indescribable, quietly joyous feeling. Have never been more alert, yet am totally centred and composed.
Even if it all turns to custard tomorrow it’s been worth coming for this one glorious, numinous, day.
Goenka shows an uncanny ability to know where my mind is, answering the day’s new doubts each evening. He’s a very good teacher. If only he weren’t so certain his way is the only way.
:: Day 4 ::
One guy takes every last cushion and builds himself a bed against the back wall.
The Giving of the Vipassana. Big build up for this afternoon’s teaching. Can’t leave the hall, can’t move for 2 hours.
One hour and 40 minutes. Haven’t moved a muscle.
Suddenly my vision whites-out … I am jolted upright … The knots of pain in my back explode into pre-orgasmic pleasure … Endorphins rush down my spine … Heart starts pounding, faster faster faster … Have to get out! … Are the doors locked? … Am going to die … Here, today … What a stupid way to go … Run!
Somehow, somehow, keep on sitting.
What happened? Kundalini experience? Muscle spasm? Panic attack?
Attempt to get an interview with the assistant teacher (the real teacher being dead, and on a video screen). Some confusion with the booking system means it doesn't happen. Fck ’em, I’ll do it alone.
Heart rate 112 all night. Adrenalin hang-over.
Will leave in the morning, although suspect will regret it.
:: Day 5 ::
5 men have dropped out in the past 2 days, but I won’t. One woman runs sobbing from the hall.
During the 10 minute breaks we stretch and contort, turning our backs to the sun's warmth, seeking relief that won’t be coming. Faces are vacant and stunned.
Stripy Pants returns to the fold. Am curiously pleased to see him back.
Realise everything does indeed change. Anicca!
Notice have grown a little Buddha-belly. Will omit the evening fruit from now.
Half the course are now leaning against the back wall, atop precarious thrones of cushions. The meditation hall looks like an evacuation centre.
Sunset bush walk, at peace, no thoughts of the outside world.
Am genuinely open to Buddhist philosophy. So why do I object to the discourse? Perhaps because Goenka explains the principles so well, but claims them as his own. He subsumes the whole of the Dhamma under Vipassana, then subsumes the whole of Vipassana under himself. What hubris!
:: Day 6 ::
Wake to find a lunatic has moved in … Am bombarded by thought upon thought, tumbling over each other … So excited about the future … So many plans … Thought after thought, almost colliding, rarely completing …
No chance of meditating … Start pounding the tracks in the dark …
Left, right, heel, toe … One hour … Thinking, planning … A torrent of thoughts, tumbling over each other … Thinking thinking …
Am frightened now … Have I lost my mind? … Is this hypo-mania? …
Two hours … Thinking thinking … Thoughts and plans …
Left right … Back to the present … Walk and talk myself down.
Queue to see the assistant teacher. The sign says: “5 minutes per appointment. Please be brief. To discuss technique only. No philosophical discussion”.
The assistant teacher is taciturn. Tells me it is my sankharas bubbling up. He thinks I have a lot of sankharas. Goodbye. Since I have no literal belief in sankharas, ought not to find this helpful. Yet I do feel better.
Back to the hall. Start again.
Start smiling, happy despite my confusion.
:: Day 7 ::
Stripy Pants has acquired a wooden stool. It creaks relentlessly.
Wish I’d gone on a hippy retreat in Byron Bay.
Hello Pain, I know you now. You don’t frighten me. See how you change when I look at you.
Another insight: I’m not going to find the Secret of Life. But the smaller insights keep coming, and that may be good enough. May in fact be the same thing.
An Old Student scratches a message on the walking track. Vow not to read it.
:: Day 8 ::
The message reads “When the Silence is lifted you will be sorry, just wait and see”.
Start again. Start again.
New mantra: “My only job here is to learn to meditate. Everything else can wait”. Sounds so simple, yet my mind continues in its obsessional loathing of this process. I know I’ve lost perspective.
And yet, by ways I barely perceive, am finding a new way of seeing.
This is the final straw. Mrs G is now supplying backing vocals to the chanting, and some of our group are joining in!
:: Day 9 ::
Am no longer meditating, just sitting in pain watching my ludicrous thoughts. Desperate to leave, content to stay for ever, what a mess.
Stripy Pants is now sitting like a Zen master, and inspires me onwards.
Hate Goenka so much there is no possibility of doing the loving-kindness meditation. Couldn’t be kind to a kitten at the moment.
:: Day 10 ::
Noble Silence is lifted. The written message was correct.
Stripy Pants turns out to be a top bloke (despite working in Real Estate). Says he thought I was a perfectly composed meditator!!
The last sitting. No longer trying. There will be no advances now.
And suddenly I have it, a free-flowing scan from top to bottom. Perhaps just needed to relax and surrender. Try not to be pleased, it may be gone tomorrow. Anicca!
:: Day 11 :: freedom
The final discourse. Goenka asks us to send him prayers. So that’s his game - hoping to avoid rebirth by collecting metta. Truly hope it works for him, but suspect he has too much ego.
When are we awarded our medals?
Clean room. Bid farewell to the spiders.
Run out of the gate. Will never return.
A girl kindly stops to offer a lift to Blackheath train station. Says this is her third retreat here, and they get harder not easier.
In the carriage everyone is fixated on their phone screens, fleeing reality. How we hate our lives.
Track-work means we transfer to buses. The queue stretches a quarter of a mile. I join it with effortless equanimity, entirely at peace, confident and optimistic.
why put yourself through this experience?
I promise you I am not a bipolar sociopath, although that will be your reasonable conclusion from the above. Perhaps my reaction was more extreme than average, I don’t know. Some people left the retreat after a few days, people who had just made a sincere written commitment to stay the course. Presumably they were having even more drastic thoughts.
So why sign up for such a daunting experience?
The aim of any silent retreat is to remove all our habitual and precious diversions, such as TV, work, shopping, sport, sex, cocktails. This leaves the mind no choice but to look at itself. Most of us have spent our entire lives avoiding just this act. We’re frightened of what we might learn.
Buddhists recognise three stages of learning, of knowing a thing to be true:
- Received wisdom, from others. For instance, by reading scripture or listening to a teacher.
- Through your own intellectual effort, using rational analysis.
- Wisdom that develops within, through your own direct experience.
So, to take the example of dining out. In the first stage, your friend gives you a restaurant recommendation. Next, you might check the menu, read some reviews. But it’s not until you actually eat there that you are certain of the truth for yourself.
One goal of Vipassana insight meditation is to develop this internal experiential knowledge. This article by SN Goenka explains the process beautifully. Please read it.
the beginnings of wisdom
So here's what I’ve learned, painfully, at the deepest level of my mind and body:
- I have ever-present expectations about How Things Should Be. The world cares naught for my expectations. But by clinging to these expectations I make myself unhappy. This is not the fault of the outside world.
- My demons are small and mundane, appearing constantly in daily life; this doesn’t make them any less formidable.
- The battle against these demons takes place right now, right here, everyday.
Stop. Re-read those insights slowly.
And we can add:
- A solid grounding in meditation technique, seared into muscle-memory in fact, and the knowledge to take it further by myself.
- The ability to recognise when my thinking is neurotic and circular (most of the time), and when I am thinking clearly. I can let go of the pointless thinking, and bring my mind back to the moment.
- The discovery that tension/worry/anxiety manifest as a physical sensation in my chest. My body knows my state long before my conscious mind registers it. I can now regularly check-in with my body, and catch problems while they are small.
- Confidence in my own physical and mental strength.
- Possession of two major resources; myself and Dhamma.
This is such a powerful life-changing set of skills and insights.
what was my monkey-mind hating on?
- Chanting. Try to imagine this when exhausted, confused, vulnerable, frustrated and just wanting to be left in peace to meditate, Goddammit!
- The repeated claims to be non-sectarian are simply not true, at least from a Western secular viewpoint. This makes me question all the other claims.
- No teaching of posture.
- A very proprietorial understanding of Dhamma and Vipassana
- Some features of a (benign) personality cult.
- And most worryingly, the almost complete lack of pastoral care. Goenka describes this retreat as major surgery of the mind. So where are the doctors and nurses?
Perhaps we can indeed compare this organisation to a public health system. They are both forces for good, offering help to thousands of people who wouldn't otherwise have found it. But they are crude mass-production systems, and there are a few people who will be avoidably harmed.
This list of objections reflects my own delusions and prejudices, particularly against religious institutions. It could be argued that, considering his time and background, Goenka does a heroic job of presenting the technique almost bare of centuries of tradition.
Maybe little of this is important, risking throwing out the baby with the bath-water. I will explore these points in another post, once I have more distance and perspective. For the moment, I don’t want to lose sight of the undoubted and massive benefits of the retreat.
should you go?
Should you take a 10 day silent meditation retreat? Yes, absolutely, without doubt. Although only after having taken at least one shorter retreat.
Should you take this particular retreat? I’m not so sure. I sometimes worry about the future students my donation will fund. My instinct is that I could have obtained similar benefits from any serious meditation retreat.
Nevertheless, I will be grateful to Mr Goenka for the rest of my life. But I will never forgive him the chanting.
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