Sometimes I make questionable decisions. Usually, those decisions have to do with men. But most recently, I decided to do a 10-day silent Vipassana meditation course. For those of you who don’t know what this is (I wouldn’t expect anyone to know what it is), it’s 10 days (actually, 11 days because the first day is considered “Day 0”–how cute…) of meditating close to 11 hours a day, and students are not allowed to speak, read, write, listen to music, sing, exercise, or partake in any form of entertainment or indulgence (i.e. no phones, computers, fun…). Women and men are segregated, I shared a room with 4 other girls (although one left after the first day), and students are only allowed fruit past the 11am meal. This is what the daily schedule looks like:
|4:00 am||Morning wake-up bell|
|4:30-6:30 am||Meditate in the hall or in your room|
|6:30-8:00 am||Breakfast break|
|8:00-9:00 am||Group meditation in the hall|
|9:00-11:00 am||Meditate in the hall or in your room according to the teacher’s instructions|
|11:00-12:00 noon||Lunch break|
|12noon-1:00 pm||Rest and interviews with the teacher|
|1:00-2:30 pm||Meditate in the hall or in your room|
|2:30-3:30 pm||Group meditation in the hall|
|3:30-5:00 pm||Meditate in the hall or in your own room according to the teacher’s instructions|
|5:00-6:00 pm||Tea break|
|6:00-7:00 pm||Group meditation in the hall|
|7:00-8:15 pm||Teacher’s Discourse in the hall|
|8:15-9:00 pm||Group meditation in the hall|
|9:00-9:30 pm||Question time in the hall|
|9:30 pm||Retire to your own room–Lights out|
Yes, you read that correctly. The morning wake-up bell is at 4am. I was calling it a “retreat” until I realized that connotes relaxation. This was not relaxing. This was (at least for me) torture. Being that I’m an extremely extroverted insomniac (averaged 3 hrs of sleep/night the whole course, no jokes) with a short attention span, I might have been the worst (or the best, depending on how you look at it) candidate for this experience. But, I’m always talking about getting out of your comfort zone and sitting in that discomfort, so I thought I’d better walk the walk. In retrospect, a Vipassana “lite” course might have been a more realistic challenge, but hey…go big or go home, right?
From my understanding, the focus of the time spent in meditation is as such: To increase awareness of bodily sensations, to practice equanimity (or “objective” observance) of such sensations (rather than craving or aversion), and to sit with those sensations, physical and emotional–not trying to change or hold onto them–and experience their impermanence, thereby strengthening one’s capacity to tolerate and practise refraining and non-reactivity.
During the 11 days, I did a lot of thinking. I also set a record for the number of times I flossed in a day, acquired the flexibility of an acrobat (sitting with a straight back for 10+ hours a day made for some very sore muscles, which resulted in a lot of stretching), and rediscovered the joy of making wishes on dandelions.
On days 5 and 8, I decided I was leaving. Done. See-ya. I can’t put up with this BS anymore. But then my ego would chime in: “But Megan, what will everyone think?” “But Megan, (insert name here) was able to do it! So can you…” “But Megan, what are you running from?” I didn’t want to “stick it out” just because of my ego, but I didn’t want to leave just because I was uncomfortable. So, after deliberating over my “want” and “should” parts, weighing the costs and benefits of leaving, and imagining how I might feel about the experience later on if I left, and I decided to stay. Plus, I truly was curious about the experience, masochistic as it might be, and at least the food was good (the food was really, really good).
Because I wasn’t allowed to write, I couldn’t document my experience (for which you should be thankful as it would be very, very boring–e.g: Sit. Walk. Think. Try not to think. Sit some more. Stretch. Obsess. Realize I’m obsessing. Sit again), but here’s a brief recount of my progression into mild insanity:
On day 2, following my first 7am nap (I pray to never again be in a situation where a 7am nap is appropriate), I wondered about “accidentally” spraining my ankle and needing to leave. But then I thought I could probably still meditate with a sprained ankle. And even if I couldn’t, I wouldn’t be able to drive my car home with a sprained ankle. Darn. my brilliant plan had been foiled. And irrationality was brewing.
On day 3, Pitbull and Taio Cruz had made their way into my brain, filling every silence. The audio instructions meant to calm and focus me were lost amidst the incessant beat in my head: “Bring your attention to the temperature of the air going in and out of your nostrils.” I throw my hands up in the air sometimes saying AYO, gotta let go! “Notice how it is warmer when it goes out than when it comes in.” I wanna celebrate and live my life saying AYO, baby let’s go! “Keep your attention on your br-” ‘CAUSE WE GON’ ROCK THIS CLUB, WE GON GO ALL NIGHT, WE GON’ LIGHT IT UP, LIKE IT’S DYNAMITE… I didn’t know the rest of the lyrics. Those ones repeated over and over again. For 7 days. Quiet mind my @%%.
On day 5, I started reading the labels on my shampoo bottles for entertainment. In English and French. My mind begged for intellectual stimulation.
On day 7, I took my roommate’s sweatshirt out of my laundry pile, that I had initially chosen not to wear because it smelled like her, and put it on because it smelled like her. I was missing connection.
On day 8, while doing laps in my usual straight-jacket way in the walking area, I caught a glimpse of a meditator from the men’s camp. Immediately I had concocted a tragic romance of two lovers in this asylum, kept apart by the dictatorial owner. “Blue Sweatshirt!!! Blue Sweatshirt, it’s me!!! Baggy Grey Sweater and Baggy Black Pants! We can be together, Blue Sweatshirt, I’ll wait for you! I’ll waiiiiit fooooor youuuuuuu…”
Oh God. I was losing it.
On day 9, I spent part of a sitting with my eyes open, studying my name written on the ground in front of me, imagining it was a scrabble hand and I was to make words. Hmm MEGAN BRUNEAU. All are only worth 1 point, save the M, G, and B. BEAM. MUG. GUM. BAG. BRAG. GAMER. I wonder if the dictionary would allow “Gamer?” Or “Beamer?” Mmm Beamer. This process continued on until I come up with dozens of words, and found it amusing that two of my fears (“bear” and “gun”) could be made from my name. That must mean something. It ALL has to mean something…
I got progressively loopier, which surprised me as I had expected to come to some sort of resolution by the end of the 10 days. I imagine if I had stayed longer, I might have really lost it and then built myself back up again, but I didn’t find out. And I don’t plan to anytime soon. Now, amidst all the non-meditating I managed to do, I actually did do some. And you know what? Call me crazy, but I think it might have actually helped me. All that “sitting” in discomfort and anxiety, frustration, resentment, sadness, loneliness, and confusion… unconscious thoughts came to the surface in a dreamlike fashion and surprised me with their content. I noticed patterns in my thought processes that left me both enlightened and exasperated. I became more desensitized to a slew of difficult emotions. And I realized I really do enjoy hanging out with myself, now (It hasn’t always been that way), so that was pretty empowering.
Days later, I feel calmer, more grounded, and more in touch with myself (The whole experience was kind of like sawing off your arm to get out of a canyon, ya know?). I happily sat in rush-hour traffic on my way back to Vancouver, felt confident about being able to accomplish an overwhelming slew of tasks upon my return, played the best soccer game I’ve played in a while my first night back because I didn’t have performance anxiety seeping in and ruining my focus, and I felt less affected by past heartbreak’s latest posts on my Newsfeed (Sidebar: I know, I should really just unfriend them…do as I say, not as I do…).
And, because it’s only been a few days since I left, I’m certain I’ll continue to process the experience. As of now, though, here are a few lessons I gained (or was reminded of) during it all that I’d like to share with you:
- Get out of your comfort zone, sit in the discomfort, but remain in your safety zone: Get out of the comfort zone, but use your wise mind while doing so. Your uncomfortable zone should be uncomfortable, but not unsafe. You don’t have to become a stuntman to find that zone. And this goes not just for physical safety, but emotional safety as well. I would NEVER recommend that a person struggling with PTSD, fresh grief, or clinical depression attend a course like this. Challenge yourself, but do so in a context that you can be pretty confident you’ll survive–and not risk being retraumatized by should that be a concern.
- Be compassionate to yourself; adjust your internal expectations: Part way through the course, I realized I didn’t have to be holding myself to the same standards the theravadan buddhists do. I took more breaks, and responded with humor rather than frustration when I encountered yet another ridiculous (in my opinion, of course) aspect of the course. When I felt like my brain had done enough meditating, I thought about fun past experiences and all the things I had to look forward to upon my return. Yeah I know, that’s not very mindful or present-focused, but by permitting myself to do so, I didn’t feel badly about it. I knew I was still getting something out of the experience.
- Don’t get caught up in the logisitcs and prevent yourself from reaping benefits: I tend to think. Then I think about me thinking. Then think about me thinking about thinking. I analyze myself, my neuroses, my thoughts, my feelings. I pick apart my patterns and theorize about the roots of their development. I question the credibility of the source of the information given to me, then question my questioning. I couldn’t wait to get home to EBSCO for Vipassana-related peer-reviewed, empirically-supported articles. I’m all up in my head. This can be a good thing, but it also can be a great way to avoid what I’m feeling, maintain a false sense of control, and to prevent myself from just experiencing. Get out of your mind and into your body.
- That being said, don’t take everything a person in a position of authority tells you: We tend to do one of two things: We see people in positions of power and/or authority as knowing all, agree with one thing and therefore agree with everything, and refrain from questioning what we’re being taught; or, we disagree with one or tho things that person says and discredit them (and everything else they’ve said) entirely. We take all or nothing, and this can be limiting or dangerous (or both). In this experience, I found a good part of the material patriarchal, draconian, and outdated, and even found myself infuriated upon hearing some of the dialogue (“Tolerance, Megan. Tolerance…”). But I also found a good part of it progressive, practical, and brilliant. Take what serves you and leave the rest. You can always change your mind about what you choose to accept and reject later.
- Dont’ finish something just to finish; quitting is just fine: A few people left during the course, and truly admire their egolessness. A lot of people have said to me since I got back, “Good for you for sticking through it” or “Good for you for finishing it.” As kind as the comments are, I feel conflicted about them, because I don’t propone suffering through something “just to finish it” or to avoid being “a quitter.” We grow up in a world with a whole bunch of “quitter”-related sayings and rules, which leads people to do things they don’t want to do out of pride. If you’re not getting anything out of what you’ve “committed” to (e.g. program, job, relationship), don’t let the “don’t quit” voice keep you miserable. We have freedom for a reason. If something isn’t serving you any more or doesn’t appear to be worth the investment, quitting is the wiser choice.
- The world doesn’t fall apart while you’re not paying attention to it: I was convinced the next 9/11 had taken place in my absence. I was expecting to come back to the aftermath of the apocalypse, and I was certain all of my friends would have forgotten me. In actuality, when I asked my mom what I missed, the first thing she said was “James Gandolfini died.” That’s it? I mean don’t get me wrong, that’s really sad. I was a huge Sopranos fan, too, and I didn’t know the guy but if he was anything like “Tony,” he was pretty great. But in comparison to my preconceived post-apocalyptic vision, this news was totally manageable. But I was reminded that the whole illusion of control that runs our lives is just that–an illusion. Being “out of control” of current events for 11 days had no impact whatsoever on the happenings of the world. FYI: Being “in control”/aware has the same lack of impact.
Although I wouldn’t characterize my experience of the course as “enjoyable” (given that discomfort is the point), I seem to be somewhat anomalous. Many people who were at the course were returning for the 5th, 10th, 15th time, and when we were finally allowed to talk (on the afternoon of the last day), there were as many positive reviews (different strokes…?). You couldn’t pay me enough to do it again (OK, maybe you could pay me enough. If you have a number, we’ll talk), but I’m confident it’s benefitted me consciously and unconsciously (Proof? I can now spread the toes on my left foot, which I could never do before. Totally worth it. #rationalization). If, even in response to my tale of spiralling into mild insanity, you think it might be something you want to do (and feel pretty confident about the state of your emotional and mental stability), Godspeed (and here’s the website). But, if you’d rather spend 11 days conversing with customer service than committing to a Vipassana course, you’re likely representative of the majority of the population. You can still step out of your comfort zone in other ways that are less crazy-making and less inescapable; just do your best to practice self-compassion and nonjudgment while you do so. :). Now excuse me while I go pack for Vegas.
“There is a common misunderstanding among the human beings who have ever been born on earth that the best way to live is to try to avoid pain and just try to get comfortable. You see this even in insects and animals and birds. All of us are the some. A much more interesting, kind and joyful approach to life is to begin to develop our curiosity, not caring whether the object of our curiosity is bitter or sweet. To lead to a life that goes beyond pettiness and prejudice and always wanting to make sure that everything turns out on our own terms, to lead a more passionate, full, and delightful life than that, we must realize that we can endure a lot of pain and pleasure for the sake of finding out who we are and what this world is, how we tick and how our world ticks, how the whole thing just is. If we are committed to comfort at any cost, as soon as we come up against the least edge of pain, we’re going to run; we’ll never know what’s beyond that particular barrier or wall or fearful thing…Ordinarily we are swept away by habitual momentum. We don’t interrupt our patterns even slightly. With practice, however, we learn to stay with a broken heart, with a nameless fear, with the desire for revenge. Sticking with uncertainty is how we learn to relax in the midst of chaos, how we learn to be cool when the ground beneath us suddenly disappears.”
Megan – will be in touch – love your writing and sense of humour (after a night of hockey). Glad it was you and not me on the retreat – lol!!
Neat to know what was going through YOUR mind all those days… fun to read and relive (process, process…) 😀
Here is the basic premises of my opinion to clarify any incoming misunderstandings:
* I like Goenka’s methodology of meditation and recommend just about everyone to experience it in a lifetime.
* I respect idea of retreats and think that it should be done despite the downsides.
So said that let’s return to our (mostly) intellectual playground. First things first. The organization structure of retreats is sketchy. When saying non-profit one would usually mean that you will pay for your food and lodgings and it will be transparent why and how the money got spent. The whole donation system wile allows poor people in is an uncontrollable monster that can be easily abused because while donations can be small they can be generous also. They didn’t mention upper or lower limits on their site so the question of fund usage inside the organization is distracting at the least.
And then we come to see even bigger elephant than anatta being highly contradictory to other religions. In a sense most stuff about empirical cognition of the world contradicts them. It’ll be highly ironic if being a Christian or Muslim you reach the truth of the world and see that no religion matters and they all turn to be based on a wrong premises. But it doesn’t matter to us as his self-proclaimed agenda is to spread the technique and not the ideology behind it. Which he does his best to do. Even involving his skill of a merchant which can be seen in marketing tricks he employs (i.e. comparative advertising). And I don’t blame him for that because to successfully “sell” the “proper way” of meditation (it’s probably cognitive bias of overestimating own experiences to consider way he had found only one proper but still) to the western communities he just bound to use some of those. As they say “when in Rome, do as the Romans do”.
The serious problem with it is that it’s revolves around him involuntarily creating something akin to a cult of personality which reinforced by his audio/video records which no volunteer assistant is allowed to retell using his own enlightened experience. I hardly believe that giving his wise and well sounding speeches (have to admit his voice is>/i> good) to a crowd of speech-deprivated but still unenlightened disciples has no effect on their psyche. And also the question of how their official sites practically hide information with explanations about the exact technique using possible improper usage as a cover. In my opinion non-sectarian organization should do exact opposite of that describing all of the stuff in detail and encouraging personal work instead of promoting retreats which should be a marginal case for people without any and all possibilities for self-work.
And what ticks me off the most is set of rules that stated as a requirements for anyone using the courses. Do they not understand that half of them are just common sense and other are just that, dogmas. For example “to abstain from killing any being” and “to abstain from sensual entertainment and bodily decorations”. For the first what is a being? Every second we kill millions of bacteria and viruses using our immune system to protect ourself from sicknesses. Every day most eat green leafs which can still feel “pain” which was scientifically proven as they send chemical signal of danger to a neighboring plants. The only things greenery are giving us willingly are sweet fruits that dropped to the ground already. Otherwise it’s taking using force thus inducing what can be interpreted as a pain in such system. As I see it this is just putting a wagon before a horse if not a bullshit. If those are actually how the nature work we should see it as a result of meditation and not as a result of certain code. Every day we encounter things that can be considered “sensual entertainment” but only we are concentrated on those otherwise it’s just a distraction which can be overcome with will. And if you have no will what use of the seclusion in a long term? It’s just trying to break your mind by suddenly imposing all the restrictions. And broken mind aren’t as easy to repair as to improve it in the first place.
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Your’s is the inelleigtnt approach to this issue.
Re: the cult part- I think it was pretty clear over 10 days that he did this because over the last 2000 years, the technique has actually been twisted by various people. There’s only one way to deliver the lectures because there’s only one technique.
LOVED your review as I prepare for my virgin Vipassana experience…we shall see!!!
love your realness & that you don’t put on “airs”. while i didn’t have time to read the whole article the first half had me laughing super, super hard! Thank you for sharing your humanity & imperfections & bringing a laugh of recognition to my own face. You brightened my day!
My pleasure, Athena! Thanks for reading 🙂
Just back from my first stinct with Vipassana retreat.It was a truly joyful experience (purest form) reading what you wrote because I had the exact same thoughts , feelings …a la activities in my head. [I was doing math tables instead of scrabble, re reading things written on my Diabetic medication].So thank you for expressing.
You’re so welcome, Vinny! Thanks for reading 🙂
Hi Megan, I did the course last week, well I have to say I leave the course last week on the 8th day. The reason: I’m a scientist. A was interested in the course because in the web page said is not a religion or sect, all the experience is based on the understanding of the technique. Through the days were passing I were listening to Goenka reflections and realize their were full of things without sense, the explanation of how the technique works were priceless ( I didn’t know if laugh or cry). I had always been very sensible of my body so I realize, meditating for me was enough with the group meditation and the rest of the time I used to think about life and do reflexion for an explanation for all the things I was feeling, soon I start to notice to my roommates and the other girls, and I got my conclusion that all Goenka speech has no sense. I got with my questions to the teacher and the answer was ” you are here to shut up your brain” what means: you can not question this. I wanted to leave on the 6th day and then I said well you can try an other day. On the 7th day after all the manipulation I heared in the audio I say it is enough for me I’m losing my time here. I manifested my desire to leave and the sit me with the hall empty, the two teachers and all the people of volunteer to say my reasons to leave, I show up my reasons and they say oh don’t worry everything you don’t understand just ignored, so I respond the problem is I understand that the explanations of Goenka has no sense (here is the point when you can see the teachers losing their equanimity), so I said I have no problem with meditation, but I don’t want to here the Goenka discourse, and they reply it was not an option. So I leave next morning when everyone was in the group meditation. I went with my boyfriend, so I ask them to let him know I was leaving, and they refuse. It happens two days ago and I’m very calm right now, but in the moment I was really bad, with anxiety, crying a couple of nights because I feel without freedom.I realize all the experience is a kind of psichology pressure and all the Goenka audios are a kind of manipulation. But I have to say the people were very nice even when I leave they led me to take the bus, and I could talk with a men very open about that, he told me this course is religious and is about Buddhist religion and
there is cult about Goenka, in fact he is dead and they will continue teaching with the audios forever. The talk with that guy make me feel reasonable again and I feel I have no trauma after all. (Sorry, sorry, sorry! My English sucks).
I feel sad that many of you did not benefit from the retreat. Even if the technique is not based on any religion, it is based on some universal truths. If you did not make an effort to understand them, then you would not be able to make sense of the discourses. Your journey in this life has introduced vipassana to you. Maybe, you need to journey more to find a technique that suits you more.
I think you missed the message because they did benefit from the retreat. In fact, the experience they described is the exact nature of a best-case scenario. Just because someone doesn’t have the experience that you would Envision or hope for them does not mean that they do not have the experience they were meant to fulfill. Depending on your level of meditation experience the end result can drastically differ. I just want to clear up your misunderstanding of the issue.
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I also just finished a course last week and during it I went alternatively from loving it for the first six days to hating it for the rest of the days. I have a high sex drive so I went through just about every single sexual encounter I have had during the ten days as did a lot of the other guys on the course. Very distracting and quite worrying as my wife is pregnant and was also on the course. I have felt an enormous change in my sexual attitude since though, it feels like I have changed in some major ways and feel ever more in love with my wife than before so that is a huge positive. Many people have told me that I am looking a lot fresher since the meditation, I do feel that it is a very useful tool. Many old buried memories come up and one has the time to deal with them or to see them with the different view of experience. There is zero external stimulation so our minds have a chance to relax and clear out the back log of accumulated trash that is so easy to build up in the age of the information highway.
Goenka’s discourses were the main hurdle for me on the course. There were lots of talks and comments of Natural Laws and these were anything but that. At best theories, at worst superstitions it was a little frightening to hear them constantly repeated on tape while in a large dark room with a lot of other people and nobody is allowed to talk about them (or anything else), there is no discussion about the talks, Goenka doesn’t claim to be enlightened but he claims to have the keys to enlightenment. A lot of anecdotes about Buddha’s life which were presented as factual made me remember stories from priests when I was younger, except the parables in many cases were better as stories, some of Goenka’s stories were funny but didn’t make much sense. The constant ridiculing of other religons, masters and Yogis was too much for me, while he spoke of most modern day Yogis as little more than acrobats and while to some extent I agree with him there is nothing given in the course that helps people to have a correct posture or how to relax their body to deal with the pain caused by the meditation. I saw some old students who looked like “C” when they meditated so rounded were their backs. I don’t know what to think, after I came out I was quite depressed for a few days as I saw myself quite clearly but most of what I saw was depressing and was blocking me from living my life and from workng effectively. I was lucky and had a nice session of Ayahuasca which helped me to erradicate the self-loathng I was feeling. Still, it is nice to be able to focus on my wife in such a loving way right now, it was nice to do it, when >I came out and saw all the people all around just continuing with life, with their phomes and computers etc. I was glad that I had done something completely different, I think if I go back I will sneak in a mp3 and some discreet headphones and listen to something else while Goenka’s discourses are being given. IF I go back….
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I totally related to this especially reading the shampoo bottle print. As for me I took a broom and cleaned all the cobwebs, washed every item of clothes I had worn each day. Everyday I was counting the days to go out but then when it actually comes to the 10th day I did feel like my brain had been sprayed with air freshener and I did feel much love in my heart and a bond with other women in the course.
Thanks for your article. It made me laugh 🙂
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Thanks so much for you comment, Bollyles! I love your description of your “brain [being] sprayed with an air freshener”–so well put! Thanks for reading and take care :).
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I see this article is 1.5 years old. Curious if you still meditate? -though not for 10 days.
Hi mmalpha! I don’t have a formal meditation practice, but I do seek out yoga that includes a meditation component and try to fit “moments of mindfulness” into my day. I definitely notice when I haven’t been practising, or when my attaching to thoughts is at the root of my stress!
I loved your article and also everyone’s comments! I’m still processing all my thoughts about the course, 3 days after leaving on the 5th day of the course (the others are all still in there, ever more sleep deprived!). Thank you!
Tony Soprano, not a good guy and if James Gandolfini was anything like him (he wasn’t) one could only hope he ended up in prison before this sociopathic, serial killer and his crew started to run amok in our own towns. Just sayin’… 😉
Last December I did the 10 day course.
All went well for a couple of days, I am a sort of very very active thinker, so I liked the silence and the non-distractive atmosphere (segregation).
The first three days I saw many people around me suffer, and I also had a lot of discomfort from the sitting. Back pain, legs etc … everything hurts. Extra meditation cuhsions, wooden stools, back-rests were available, but I thought I d try without it. On day 4 we were taught the Vipassana-method.
And I was upset. All this practising for days, concentrating for hours and then the actual method turned out so simple and striahgforward, I was truly upset and angry. Even thought of leaving. I felt a bit like a was made a fool of.
But then I decided to stay. Because there was hardly any pain anymore, and I could actually still still for an hour. Many students, new and old students around me, were still suffering, strechting and grunting and moaning. I was great.
I listened to Goenka s lectures in English. I thought it was a obligation as I am a professional translator/interpreter. It was also nice to see a video image, insteads of listening to an audio tape. At the start of the week, I really had some troubles with the Indian accent, especially the different stress and pronunciation of many words. Took me a while to understand sometimes, and I still wonder now how much of the lectures was lost -in translation- for the other students.
On day 4 I sat meditating on my bed and then I felt a bit weird, as if I changed form and sort of dissolved. When it was over, I thought : “Must have fallen asleep, it was a dream-experience”. Nevertheless, I went for a Q&A with the teacher and he explained to me what happend in the meditation session.
On day 5 five, one of my roommates ‘communicated’ with the third roommate, the guy was snoring like a diesel freighttrain. HEY, he shouted to wake him up, and I smiled at him. He realised that he broke the rule of non-communication during the course. Later that day I said that it was GAME OVER for us, or for the tennisfans BALL OUT, as we had eye contact and he answered : “And now we re surely OUT, and probably send home”. It was weird to speak, but it was great to communicate with this guy!
The week went on, and I dared to glimpse at the female meditators a lot. In fact I was trying to look at them whenever I could. I missed my girlfriend, dunno, just wanted a boy-girl connection. When I saw a pretty girl blink her eyes, and make a hand gesture, I thought it was a sign especially for me … . And she had a orange blanket instead of a blue one.
Then the day came that we were allowed to speak. Within seconds, everybody started chatting and suddenly there were women and girls in the communal grounds near the dining hall! Five minutes later I found myself back in the woods, it was just too loud and to axaggerated and stupid, asking everybody on which day the pain was worse andsoforth, bla bla bla. Later that day I had a nice talk with the HEY-roommate and a lady I met the first day.
I helped cleaning the last morning, when everybody left. Reluctant to go home, didn t want to go straight back to my place (2 hour drive). I went to see a elderly aunt, and decided to show up at my girlfriends place.
She immediately said that I looked relaxed and happy and very very soft.
In the days after my return I tried to keep up with the meditating. But … I failed.
But things have changed, though, I embrace the equanimity and I realise that there is different way of living: instead of reacting immediately to everything and labelling all I see, meet and hear.
Pro: I liked the rest and silence and periode to stop thinking, to steer my thoughts into silence.
Con: There is a bit of dogmatic touch to it all. Although in a friendly manner, but I can understand that some would call it sectarian. Goenka says he is not a guru, which doesn t mean that no one thinks he s not one, nor does it change others treating the person of Goenka as a guru.
Reblogged this on The Land of the Wu 巫.
I went to the same retreat and it was the best thing I have ever done for myself in my life. From your first paragraph it is apparent it would have best served you not to be there. It is my hope that those interested would still try the retreat regardless of your words; it has helped a lot of people I know.
Hi Alexandra. I’d encourage you to suspend your judgment through the first paragraph and read the whole article. Warmly, Megan.
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haha 🙂 that’s an awesome article, I love it 🙂 I love your way of writing and your humor .. thinking of doing one of these hard-core 10-days myself .. maybe I learn how to spread my toes 🙂
Wish you all the best! 🙂
I’m so glad you enjoyed it!! I fully support your journey to potential toe-spreading ;). Definitely an experience, one way or another ❤️! Thanks for reading!!
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LOL Very nicely written , I really enjoyed your details and comments . But however the camp seems to be similar with the concentration camp , I’ll join go there some day because I need to experience it whatever goes there .
Thanks so much for commenting, Onkar!! Yes, I totally encourage everyone to go and experience it for themselves :). I know a lot of people who’ve benefitted tremendously. At the very least, it’s great material for a blog post ;).
Interesting, i think it would be good if people were reminded that this is just one style of meditation out of dozens of styles. I have done Goenka, and Zen and Tibetan and Yoga and they all have their pluses and minuses and its important to find your preference but it is not always easy.
Yes, Great point, Yeshe. I often say that meditation is like the gym for your brain. You don’t always look forward to going/doing it, but you have to go through the process to experience the resulting mental and emotional freedom :).
Hi Thank you all for your comments. I will be going on the course 27th Dec – 7th Jan
Good luck, Sally! I’ll look forward to hearing more about your experience when you return ☺️!
Thats the problem with vipassana retreats.. most people are not prepared to it, they simply cant mantain a state of pure contemplation and dettachment. Vipassana, in buddhism is not a meditation technique, its a state attainable with the practice of jhana. Jhana is the aim of meditation itself, and its more about concentrating in a single object (breath, etc). When you attain jhana (concentration) and keep it, with time you develop samatha and vipassana. Samatha is basically being blissfull and calm, vipassana is the ability to see things how they are, wihout attachment and emotion distortions, its insight.
Generally, just when people achieve these mental states (vipassana and samatha) through meditation and jhana, then they are ABLE to explore their minds, thoughts, beliefs, body senstations etc. To do vipassana meditation before having attained vipassana as a mental state is useless, and can be dangerous for an anxious person, specially if practiced in a retreat and for 10day straight. I really think its very irresponsable to accept common people in these retreats without any kind of advice.
If you want to meditate again, please start slowly and with jhana, concentration meditation. When you develop samatha (relaxation) and vipassana (insight), which will take time, than you will be able to see your mind how it is, withtout emotional responses, and than you will be able to explore it and correct it more easely. Prior to that point, forget about retreats or vipassana meditations, you will only develop anxiety with this.
Thanks for the comment, Joao :). I agree, and have heard of some tragic outcomes as a result of the retreats. I think there should be a much more stringent screening process, as well as a debriefing/”exit interview” at the end. My meditation practice for the past few years (since writing this article) has been jhana focused, and I believe I have moments of samatha & vipassana. Yet the sheer fact that I feel comfortable being in the process (rather than striving to achieve a state) is encouraging for me. Thanks again for reading and commenting :).
I have been planning to go for Vipasanna and hence was going through many articles on this. I find Megan and Joao;s PoVs are 2 sides of same coin (COIN being Journey To Know Yourself). As in TOSS of Coin, what really matter most is what side you have chosen (Head \ Tail) and rest is left for COIN to decide which side to flip on 🙂
Likewise, for “New explorers” it is imp what they want to chose.
From my life experience, I think people who have been experimenting with their life in past with ability to take results heads on, should experience retreat straight a way. No better way to experience King Of Jungle than face him open in FOREST (Believe me , the inside YOU will be as wild and threatening to your earlier Life Perception and Future Plans as Lion is to your chance of reamining alive if you do not face him heads on with cool mind)…
While people who has always \ mostly taken safe approach with calculated risks, I recommend them to first experience Jhana, Samatha and Vipassana first in their comfort of living rooms \ local mediation centers and then go for retreat. First enjoy Swimming in lake\ river flow before diving in Ocean.
Tio summarise The “emptiness”, “Being Alone with yourself” can be experienced if you are on a river boat and in middle of ocean when the boat engine fails. If first thing coming in your mind is “Where is my Safety Jacket :-)?, then explore yourself with option what Joao said and If you have confidence in swimming and thinking to dive to cross the ocean, then go what Megan has proposed.
I’m about to go to a 10 day course starting tomorrow. A bit nervous about it, too. Anyway, yours was the most down to earth article I’ve read about it so far. Thanks for the tips!
You’re so welcome, Erica! Good luck and remember to be kind to yourself! xx
Ten day Goenka retreats are hard work. I’m glad you stuck it out.. because just like your blog post, the difficulty at the beginning finds some relief and lessons learned by the end and many of the lessons are long lasting and overwhelmingly positive. In the comments you even go so far as to state “.. I totally encourage everyone to go and experience it for themselves :).” The image you’ve chosen to represent your post, though, does a disservice to the meditative tradition. That image is now being associated with vipassana meditation because of the way the internet perpetuates visual imagery associated with a post on a particular topic (I saw the image on Pinterest, for instance). Given your authentic experience, do you think that image of a highly reactive, angry person wearing boots sitting on a table is authentic — or accurately represents the tradition? Lots of others now have that impression. If meditation can help others learn something about themselves or become happier, less reactive and more peaceful, why try to dissuade them from checking it out? Seems to me the world could use more encouragement to explore mindfulness and equanimity – not discouragement. Thank you for writing the article and being honest. And please take all of the above in the spirit of truly wishing for a happier, more peaceful world.
Hi Dave, thanks so much for your gentle suggestion. It’s so interesting how many aggressive emails and comments I’ve received (many of them not published) in response to this article. Readers choose to attack me as a person and call me names–I find it all so ironic and interesting! With your comment, however, it’s clear that you do embody authenticity and compassion, so I just wanted to thank you for that.
I’ll definitely take your suggestion into consideration. When I wrote this article, I didn’t realize it would be the most-viewed article on my blog, and would reach so many in the meditation community. A good lesson for me, no doubt. However, I try to reach those through my blog who might never meditate or consider exploring Buddhist philosophy. As you can see, I try to gain readers’ attention through humour, stories about dating, etc. And sometimes a provocative picture (and opinionated intro) is a gateway to capture the reader’s attention–in the hopes they will open their mind to possibility and ultimately make the decision for themselves. Does that make sense? I realize that in some cases (Pinterest, as you mentioned), the picture “leads,” but my hope is that readers will be intrigued and learn something in the article. And, while a woman meditating on a table with boots may not accurately represent the tradition, I think we can agree that the heart of tradition is not how it looks, but the inner process/awareness/shifts/elevating of collective consciousness/etc. Rather than focusing on preserving the tradition (about which you can see I feel conflict, at least in Goenka’s approach), I aim to empower readers to be just a little more compassionate to others and to themselves, to learn about mindfulness and try bring it into practice in their lives, to recognize the productive side of emotions, to refrain from reacting, etc. etc. When I compare the potential harm the picture might be do to the potential good I’m hoping it’s doing (in informing those who might not click on an article like this), it feels right to keep this image for now. All that said, thank you for reading and for your feedback, and please feel free to email me directly anytime firstname.lastname@example.org.
So Warmly, Megan
I would like information on future retreats in twentynine palms i would love to attend my email address is email@example.com
Loved reading this. Should have done so months ago, when I signed up for my first 10 day retreat (I’ll be heading there in 4 weeks.) Wouldn’t have changed my mind, but it’s great to hear a humorous perspective. (Will anything exciting happen while I’m there – just the Presidential election. I won’t know if living in Europe should be an option until the drive home.)
Replying to my own comment. I ended up leaving after 6 days. The actual experience was quite interesting. The physical pain maxed out on the third day. The mental clarity was actually quite exhilarating. When they finally got to the actual teaching – halfway through the course – it became clear that this “way of doing Vipassana” is so different from what I have been doing for several years that the two were incompatible. To me it was “choose one or the other”. There were a few other things that I personally didn’t like: the whole course being taught by “a dead man” – a little creepy, and the fact that, after claiming to be non-religious and non-sectarian, the whole approach is based on a rather idiosyncratic interpretation of “Buddhist theology”, that was stressed more and more as the course went on, asd is simply not necessary to teach Vipassana.
The staff were quite gracious with my decision to leave, including arranging for rides for the two people I had given rides to the course.
I drove home, late at night, listening to the completely unexpected and disastrous election results on the radio (though I had to turn it off a number of times), to a wife who was very grateful to not be facing this “Brave New World” alone for 4 more days.
Am new to spirituality and was already aware of my limitations. Ur article was humorous but also ratified what I always thought. I questioned if I had the mental stability to partake in such an ordeal. I have no mental illness but my biggest joy is talking to friends and family and laughing with them. To elude myself of this was unthinkable to me!!
Many of my friends had told me that this was a very profound and eye opening exercise but I was very nervous about enrolling in one.
Reading your article gave me a perspective from someone who personally experienced it!
I think I will wait for my next life to do so!
I have to admit, it all sounds far too cult like and club like for me to ever have anything to do with. As a Zen practitioner for over 20 years, I understand meditation, and yes, more is better, but too much can be too much. These people are obviously too attached to their techniques and discipline, and it is a religion of dogmas. There is that guru aspect too…the guru is always right, and you are always wrong. In Zen, the teacher simply points the way, we have to do the work ourselves, and any way (within the precepts, and there are times to break them too) they figure out how that works is the path. It is THEIR mind, and THEIR life.I do not have the right to tell someone else how or what they should do. The Zen practice is what it is, and people can do it or not, but everything is in relation to the student and their nature. What may be appropriate for someone may not be appropriate for another.
Over and over I have met people that have gone to these retreats, and they are always people who do not have a Buddhist spiritual practice. They are new to this sort of thing, so they do not have the experience to understand that this is a sort of control game. Much of is sounds very EST like. It is all unnecessary, and no one should ever do a 10 day retreat like this w/o first having some solid meditation experience under their belt. It is disturbing that they have all these controls going on too. When you get people into a “zone” after extensive meditation and then subject them to long talks, a sort of willful acceptance starts up, and people will believe something that they ordinarily would not swallow. This is a subtle form of brain washing. The Buddha did not teach this. It is not Buddhist, which in itself is neither good or bad, there are numerous paths to the truth, but I would not touch this sort of practice w/ a proverbial ten foot pole It is not designed to wake the individual up to the experience of enlightenment, it is all about indoctrination into a particular viewpoint, and their strident disavowal of this (see, we’re not a cult, you can leave any time you wish, but while you are here you will do as we say) is just reverse psychology.. .
Hi Megan, I have just come across your review of a 10 silent Vipassana course after looking up reviews after completing my first 10 day course. This is exactly how I felt, I couldn’t wait to get the hell out of there, while others who were attending their 4th or 5th course were walking around in a very floating way using soft calming voices, that freaked me out 😉
I knew it was going to be difficult but the emotional and physical discomfort brought it to a whole new level. I know there are people out there that love it but I’m just not one of them.
I had a mild break down on the 7th or 8th day and I just couldn’t stop crying, was very scary as no one was really available to talk to me about it. I didn’t really enjoy the evening discourse either. I did have a few moments during the course where memories from 15+ years ago just popped into my head, usually during a really nice deep meditation which was pretty cool. It made me excited about what else might happen but that seemed to be the peak of it.
Hey Dude good one 🙂 still I’m not cleared with few points.
Hi! I wanted to say thanks for this article – most importantly the part about “quitting.” I just left after completing 9 days and most people would say I’m insane for leaving when I’m so close to “completing.” I just couldn’t get myself to finish for the sake of finishing. I do think I gained a lot of benefits and would encourage anyone, who can, to stay for the full course but I just didn’t think staying was right for me (personally, leaving when I felt it was right was much harder than just sticking it out for 1 more day).
I definitely now understand the shampoo bottle thing: I know how to advertise for Crest in English and Spanish.
I do think your post is pleasantly poking fun at the experience but having gone through it now, I can relate to it better than when I read it pre-course. It’s a mix of emotions that include relief, frustration, reflection, gratitude, calmness, among many others. I would be curious to have you add to your post as a reflection when you’re much further removed from the experience.
Hi Megan, thanks so much for your insights and I’ve been seriously thinking about going to a Vipassana course but there is one thing that makes me really hesitant. First, I do know that there is a trauma (emotional blockade) inside of me and I’m trying to find a method that could best help me overcome this. But second, my key challenge is that I actually need to think “less” and not “more”… I’ve already been spending all my life time in my head. : )
And my gut feeling tells I need to find something that doesn’t make me sit there 10 whole days and leave my head spinning… Any views on this? I was thinking of certain types of Yoga or Qigong with movement where you can feel the energy flow and movement inside your body as an alternative.
I passed the 10-day course with flying colors and I learn to observe and not react awesome course thank God for that course I’ve never been the same since I took the course I say
This was really insightful. So insightful that someone else decided to copy this experience on their blog and floating it around as their idea.
Haha wow – I’m flattered! Good thing I’ve done so much yoga and meditation or I might be reactive ;). Thanks for letting me know!