10 Days of Silence and Meditation in Rural Illinois

Back in Aug 2015, I took a 10-day Vipassana course (a silent meditation retreat).  For those wondering what that’s like, I wrote a post about it that ought to cover what it is, what to expect, what you do, and what you’re taught.  You can read that here.

In September of 2017, I took a second course, this time at Dhamma Pakasa in rural Illinois.  I don’t have the bandwidth to organize my thoughts into a coherent essay, like the last time.  I do, however, want to write down some thoughts and memories.

Tips for Those Taking a Retreat (and for Me, Next Time)

Eat less, not more

Returning students don’t get an evening meal, only breakfast and lunch.  It’s tempting to load your lunch plate in anticipation of a missing dinner, but don’t do that.  Eat less.  Goenka (the teacher) himself advises students to keep their plate only 75% full, but I suspect most don’t listen.  It took me a few days to come around to the advice.  The lighter stomach makes it easier, physically, to sit.  

Though I was not very hungry in the evenings (one adjusts quickly), I did notice my thoughts wandering with amusing frequency to food.  Specifically, I craved labneh.  I made plans about it.  I would buy it the day I got back, and then also make a big batch, and then I would drizzle that batch with olive oil and zaatar, and then eat it all.  I would perhaps share some with my wife.  Perhaps.

This labneh is being strained in my fridge right now, literally as I type this.

Don’t nap at rest times

One of the five enemies of meditation is drowsiness: when you’re sitting for hours, in the dark, with your eyes closed, and when you've woken up at 4am, you’re going to keep falling asleep.  Consequently it's tempting to nap, during rest periods.  

Consider not doing that.  In my experience, it made me sleepier.

Sleep in, if you have to

If you find you have trouble getting up at 4am, consider sleeping in a day or two.  Or four or five.  Most days, I found it very difficult to meditate in the early morning.  Even if I sprung from bed feeling energetic, I would fall asleep once meditating.  So I slept in about half of the days there.  

After a few days of this, I tried to make up for sleeping in by meditating, lightly, during rest periods.  It worked well.

Lights on in the early morning

If you do try to meditate at 4:30am, and you’re in your own room, try turning on the lights.  Even though your eyes are closed, it seems to help you stay awake.  

This was not just my experience but and also the experience of my suite-mate, Munjal.  Amusingly, he told me after the course that he'd started turning on his light because he saw me do it and thought it was a good idea.  But I'd only started doing it because I saw him doing it first.  Somehow we both did it at each others' prompting and thought each other very clever.

The Other People There

In taking these retreats, it’s always interesting to note who else is sitting there with you.  It’s also something I’ve most frequently been asked.  Here are my notes:

A phd physics candidate.

A religious studies grad student, eager to learn about the effects of meditation on the brain, which I believe is a very fashionable field of study at the moment.

My suite-mate Munjal, a product manager whose first meditation came as part of his MBA program, 20 years ago, in Hyderabad.  You couldn't skip it—if you wanted that MBA, you took the retreat.  Since then he’s taken lots of one- and three-day courses (open only to people who’ve taken a ten-day course first), and his wife and he have tried to get their teenage sons to meditate (“they think it’s boring”), but this was his first retreat since then.

A mechanical engineer from Chennai currently working for one of our National Labs.  He'd driven from Tennessee.  He told me the Smokey Mountains are lovely and worth a visit.

A private equities analyst from Kyrgyzstan, whose fiancée had done sittings in Bishkek and Illinois both, and had insisted for years he also take a course.

An older man who'd done lots of acid in the 60s and who, after retiring from a career in construction management, now has a "small shamanistic practice” on the side.  (Something about the Lakota Indians and vision quests.  At one point he mentioned something about people hanging from trees.  I don't know.)  This was not the most interesting part of his story.  The most interesting part: he passed a kidney stone during the course.  No one knew but the management.  This guy just sat in the back and let it happen.  He said the pain was difficult, as was just watching it with equanimity, as Goenka urges we do with everything.  When it was done, however, in the process of recovery, this fellow had "a full-body energy experience."  It was "powerful stuff, man."  He said he’s seen all sort of new-agey this and that, but this experience?  “This was the real deal.”

A fellow from Kentucky, originally from Belarussia, who'd done meditation for about ten years, including one year as a monk in Burma.  He says it never gets easier.  

Our course manager, a poet and English professor in Indiana, who'd sat or served about 25 courses over the years.  He was 51 and looked much younger.  Not 30.  Not 40.  He just somehow did not appear to be 51.

A pregnant woman from Mexico City whose husband is getting a PhD in Materials Science at Purdue.  He couldn't join her—his thesis adviser didn't take kindly to the idea of him leaving the lab for ten days—but she'd had a friend back in Mexico who'd gone several times down there, and encouraged her to go now before the baby, while ten days was still easy to come by. 

All in all about 50 people, maybe 40 of them students, split evenly between men and women.  Skewed young (people in their 20s) but with many exceptions.  

Understanding Craving

Basically if you want it, you won’t get it, but if you stop wanting it, you might get it.

Craving is one of the enemies of meditation and, per Buddhism, one of the sources of all suffering or dissatisfaction.  One specific craving that can undermine meditation is the craving for meditative experiences you’ve had in the past.  My first meditation retreat brought me one especially pleasant psychedelic episode in which my head dissolved into light and heat.  Coming to a second course, I thought I’d pick up from there and take it further to full-body dissolution.  

Unfortunately it doesn't work like that.  I lost three or maybe four days to chasing my past experiences, instead of observing the present with equanimity.  You can’t control or predict or even much understand the sensations that arise and fall when you meditate.  You just have to sit and experience it all with equanimity.  

Basically if you want it, you won’t get it, but if you stop wanting it, you might get it.  

Once I came around to that—and it was not a happy coming around, it was more like a pessimistic resignation, and the strong feeling that I'd have an empty, stressful ten days—things changed.  (More on that below.)

Before I Continue

I should clarify that I am not an expert, and my explanations may not be the most accurate representations of what's done or taught in a 10-day course.  If you find one of my explanations unsatisfactory, or are skeptical of a conclusion I've made, please be assured the failing is mine, not the teacher's.

In other words, anything suspect, below, is me.  Anything clever is probably the teacher.

The Monkey Mind

The mind runs round like a furry little gibbon.

One teaching early in the course (and I think early in any sort of mindfulness meditation) is that the mind does not like to sit comfortably in the present.  Observe your mind, and you'll see it easily reaches for the past or the future, but if you try to focus on the present—for example by focusing on the direct sensation of breath, as an exercise—it won’t stay there.  I knew this from before, but this time round it became frustratingly apparent.

Goenka jokes you could never keep a diary of your thoughts—they're too many and go by too quickly.  He also jokes that if a person in real life behaved the way the brain does—rushing from thing to thing with no apparent logic—you'd think that person was insane.

The historical Buddha compared the mind to a monkey several times, and some Chinese Buddhist traditions call it “the monkey mind”, as if the mind runs round like a furry little gibbon.

The lesson here is that you are not in full control of your thoughts.  A lot going on in your mind is usually kept out of your awareness, and if brought to awareness cannot be easily controlled or controlled at all.

One of the reasons some people love exercise, or getting lost in solving a problem, appears to be that during those activities, their mind is in focus.  They feel present, in the zone, they experience flow, etc.  In other words, for that short period of time, their monkey mind stills.

I knew all of this, but it never really hit home till this retreat how remarkably loud my mind was.  It was not just a monkey, it was a jungle of monkeys on pixie-stick diets.  On the first day, this was interesting.  On the second, it was tolerable.  On the third it was frustrating and on the fourth I was ready to leave.  

People think going to a silent retreat will be weird because you can't talk.  They take for granted all the talking in your mind.  All the inane, repetitive, loud, confusing, multi-track noise.  

The Thought Thinks Itself (1)

In reading about meditation rooted in Buddhism, you sometimes hear the idea that “the thought thinks itself.”  I never understood till this retreat what that meant.  Observing the monkey mind will show you how wild your thoughts are.  Their volume is remarkable, they're out of control, and they only occasionally relate logically to anything.  

Recipes for chocolate mousse.  Rocky IV.  Three lines of a never-sent email from fourteen years ago to a recipient you can’t remember.  Toads in the pond outside the meditation hall.  Feet.  The backs of flatbed trucks.  Feet?  The chemical composition of Venus' atmosphere.  Peeling paint.  Do mice really like cheese?  Fozzie Bear.

These things, they're not rational.  They're not a product of your conscious thought.  They're the subconscious.  They think themselves.

The Thought Thinks Itself (2)

Neuroscientists these days like to tell us that our conscious thoughts begin before we’re aware of them.  If you reach for a spoon, they say, you were actually already reaching—neurons began firing—before you were aware you'd decided to reach.

Another way to understand this:  


So you may now be imagining an elephant, some images of elephants maybe, some flickering memory of a safari or a trip to a zoo, or a documentary.  Flapping large ears and tusks and maybe intelligent, empathetic eyes.  

Did you think "elephant"?  Did you actively recall those images to mind?  Probably not.  These words you're reading placed those thoughts in your mind.  You didn't control that.  You didn’t rationally, at the conscious level, bring elephants to mind.  They were just suddenly there.

Neuroscientists these days like to tell us that our conscious thoughts begin before we’re aware of them.  If you reach for a spoon, they say, you were actually already reaching—neurons began firing—before you were aware you'd decided to reach.

I’m pretty skeptical of this sort of science, if only because I think it’s so new and there’s so much we don’t know, that it must be easy to misinterpret the findings.  Or maybe I'm just not so willing to give up on the idea of free will.  And yet, this meditation retreat had me come closer to believing it.  I can see now that our thoughts arise without prompting.  And I came to understand more clearly that the subconscious mind is, always, running running running, down there beneath the conscious mind.  Down there in the subconscious, it's all elephants.

Physical Experiences

The body felt like it was made of energy, and like it was glowing.  ... I felt like I had brought the whole structure, limb by limb, piece by piece, the entire volume, into this state of glowing awareness, as if it was all one point, easy to focus upon.

The most fun things to talk about, when it comes to meditation retreats, are in some ways among the least important: the specifics of the sensations felt.  You may feel nothing, and that’s no better or worse, but people do at times feel all sorts of odd, psychedelic, pleasant or painful, or just plain interesting, sensations.  

Here’s a catalogue, in no specific order, of what I remember.

Hands —> Kalapas

Like last time, I felt my hands and some of my lower arms dissolve into energy, as if they were nothing more than masses of particles.  

Goenka loves to talk about kalapas, an old Buddhist term for the tiniest units of physical matter—subatomic particles, in modern understanding.  And he loves to explain that when you feel these sorts of sensations, it’s really just that you’re seeing past the illusion of your solidity to the truth that you’re just a bubbling, buzzing mass of kalapas.  

Which you are, undoubtably, but until you feel some part of you just up and dissolve into light and heat, it doesn’t really click.

The Most Minor of Out of Body Experience

I felt my left hand to be in one position when it was in another: I felt very very clearly that it was clenched on one side of my thigh, when in actuality it was was laid flat and relaxed on another.  

Holding the Body in Conscious Awareness

More interesting was when, on Day 8, I found I could hold most of my body, from the neck down (with the inexplicable exception of my right upper chest and upper arm) in conscious awareness.  That’s the phrasing that came to me—I am holding all of this in conscious awareness.  

The body felt like it was made of energy, and like it was glowing.  It didn’t totally dissolve or disappear, but I felt like I had brought the whole structure, limb by limb, piece by piece, the entire volume, into this state of glowing awareness, as if it were all one point, easy to focus upon.

When I tried to expand this awareness to my neck and head, I failed—the rest of my awareness fluttered, like a bulb on the fritz, and I sensed it would collapse entirely if I kept pushing up.

Similarly if I tried to bring focus to the right upper chest, that area remained solid, a hunk of darkness, just my body as usual.  

I stopped trying and just sat back (metaphorically—all of this happened while sitting on a bench on a mat in the dark meditation hall with eyes closed) and observed it.  

It was interesting, intense, and quite enjoyable.  

A Thought Arising and Passing

The feeling of actually seeing a thought arise and pass away.  It was the desire to shift my position, and it was brief, almost a non-event, but it did really feel like I experienced a thing—almost like a physical thing produced in the body, like a drop of sweat prickling the forehead or saliva filling the mouth—being created and then being dismissed almost before I was aware of it.  I just kind of… watched it happen. 

I remember thinking it was a bit like looking at a porch light in the darkness, and seeing bugs fly in and out of the light.  They’re illuminated only briefly, as they fly into the light, apparently from nowhere, and then as quickly they come out of it, apparently into nothing.  

This was not psychedelic, nor intense, and again so brief as to be almost a non-event… and yet, the sensation of a thought as an actual object to be created and destroyed remains memorable.

Pain Vanishing

A knot in my back arose around the fifth day and got steadily worse for the remainder of the retreat.  During one sitting, I focused on it and… it sort of just went away.  

I still felt it was there—I could feel its absence, because I felt the pain emanating from it, all around it.  And when I focused elsewhere, it came back.  But when I focused on it again, it vanished again.  I managed to go back and forth a few times.  It went away, and came back.  Away, and back.

I was feeling very sensitive during that meditation.  Goenka always talks of “subtle sensations” that are there beneath the “gross sensations” (easily felt things, like pain, itching, and the feeling of clothes or atmosphere on the skin), and I was feeling those subtle sensations clearly enough during that sitting that I could just kind of feel past the pain.  (How can there be pain, after all, when we're just atoms?  Do collections of atoms feel pain?  Do dinner tables feel pain?  I hope not, I put hot things on mine all the time, poor thing.)

Doing this gave me a strong sense of the idea that our experience is all internal.  It may seem like external experience is driving our happiness or dissatisfaction.  It may seem, for example, like some pain is real and that a logical consequence of it is unhappiness.  And yet some large portion of that unhappiness (and Goenka argues that all of that unhappiness) is a choice.  Not a conscious choice, but a choice.  And from this experience, I can more believe it.

Depression Vanishing

I think it was Day Four, and I was feeling down.  Strongly negative, verging on a depressive mood.  I had none of the “subtle sensations” Goenka speaks of.  I had a song stuck in my head for three or four days.  I couldn't focus at all.  On top of that I was feeling foul, bitter, uncomfortable.  

I tried observing this, being mindful of it.  My feelings didn't make sense—my mood was too negative, given the situation.  And yet for half the day, the feelings grew more negative.  Plain observation didn't seem to be helping, but I had nothing else to do but keep at it.  That’s almost the whole of this meditation: observe your sensations with equanimity.  They'll pass and change.  Everything passes and changes.  Whoop dee doo. 

And then I noticed the sky'd been overcast all day and instantly my negative mood disappeared.  When I say “instantly” I’m not exagerrating, it was instantaneous and complete.  Think taking off sunglasses, or flipping a switch.  One moment, extremely negative thoughts.  The next moment, feeling pleasant.

I do know that overcast weather affects my mood, but I don’t recall it ever causing so sudden a change.

Was this attributable to meditation?  Maybe.  The ability to observe myself at some remove, even though it did not in itself make me feel better, did allow me to build some rational case for why my mood made no sense.  It also gave me the space to observe my surroundings, i.e. the cloudy sky.  

Vipassana attributes things like mood almost exclusively to internal factors rather than external ones, and in this case, the trigger of my mood appeared to be external—the weather.  But, given that the external situation didn’t change, while my mood so suddenly did… it perhaps suggests that, again, our experience is a choice, and all this stuff is internal.

Doing It Again?

I got the impression, during this retreat, that I could do it again, and for longer courses—20, 45, even 90 days, if the opportunity arose.  It's not that I will do this, but that I could see the benefit of such an experience.  This sort of meditation requires momentum, and that momentum usually comes from continuous practice, day to night, day after day.  Without the need to keep the 10-day student's schedule and listen to the lectures (wonderful though they may be), I could see how one could fall into a rhythm of one's own, and more easily—or, less difficultly—build up to powerful moments of insight.

Pay-It-Forward Financing

The teachers, the facilities manager, the course managers, the servers—they are all volunteers.

It again amazed me how this organization—now numbering 177 centers and 135 non-centers worldwide, all financially independent of each other but teaching in total about 120,000 people a year—not only survives but grows purely from donations and volunteerism.  The teachers, the facilities manager, the course managers, the servers—they are all volunteers.  

At the end of a course, you are encouraged to donate so that the next person can have the experience you’ve just had, but you're encouraged more to donate time, through service, than money.  And in either case they ask only for what you comfortably can give.  The teacher insists you never give something you may need for yourself, never give at the expense of something important to you.

Courses That Are Not Free (All Goenka Courses Are Free)

One of my fellow students—an experienced meditator who’s spent a year as a monk in Burma, done courses in monasteries, and done several courses with Goenka—had strong feelings about other meditation centers and teachers: 

If they charge money, be suspect of them.  

At worst, those teachers charlatans.  At the very best, even if their intention is sound and their teaching pure, they’re creating a class of elites that can afford the courses, and a class that feels deprivation.  All this when, in Buddhism, traditionally, charging for teaching is severely frowned upon.  

Goenka himself touches upon this during the 10-day course.  He says that in his early days of teaching, he too charged—not for himself or the staff, but for room and board.  But soon he realized this undercut the teaching and the experience.  If people pay for something, they get attached to it.  They start thinking it’s theirs, that they’re owed something.  If it's free, on the other hand, you’re freer to accept it as is.  The distraction of ownership and entitlement goes away.  The teaching becomes simpler.  Since the teaching is the point of the enterprise, charging for it is not ideal.

This was interesting to me because a few very well-known centers in the US—e.g. IMS in Massachusetts, Spirit Rock in California—charge, and they’re not cheap.  (A quick look for a 10-day course at Spirit Rock brought up one that cost somewhere between $1300 and $3000 USD, depending on your income, and that's not including “a donation” to the teacher and staff.)  And yet, the founding teachers of these centers are renowned, appear to be sincere, and I believe some or all of them studied with Goenka himself, decades ago.  

I’m not sure what to make of it.

I am sure, however, that any course from Goenka’s organization is free, and am equally sure you will want to donate—even if only a little—after taking one.  Enough people must do so for there to be 177 permanent centers worldwide.

The Teacher, His Discourses, and His Irritating Chanting

I felt like his greatest failing as a teacher was wildly overestimating the pleasure students would take in hearing him sing, in Hindi and Pali, his wishes for our meditative success.

Once again I was struck by S.N. Goenka—he's an amusing, compelling teacher.  Having taught many courses over decades, he has his delivery down, knows how his punchlines land, and can deliver his discourses—60 to 90 minutes of detailed speech, sans reference—with apparent effortlessness.  

Watching the discourses again, I was surprised how much from last time I'd forgotten.  They were identical to the ones I’d seen before (Goenka died in 2013; his courses since the 90s have been taught through video and audio), yet often seemed brand new.  For the first five days, I wondered if this was a different lecture series than the one I'd heard before.  In the latter five days, I began remembering many of the stories, and yet still it felt new.  I suspect if I went again in a year, it would again feel at least a bit new.  

Less surprising to me was how amazingly annoying I found his chanting.  The man loves to chant.  And as with last time, though I could tune him out to some extent, I felt like his greatest failing as a teacher was wildly overestimating the pleasure students would take in hearing him sing, in Hindi and Pali, his wishes for our meditative success, and select quotes of the Buddha.  Listening to these chants and not getting annoyed, however, proved to be a true lesson in equanimity...  so perhaps even in this Goenka proves himself a masterful teacher.

I still wish I could cut the chanting from the lessons.

The Center in Illinois

Maybe rabbits also are sleepy at 4:30am.

Dhama Pakasa grew on me during my stay.  It didn’t feel as isolated as Dhama Suttama in Quebec, and didn’t have that center's hummingbirds flitting about nor owls hooting me to sleep, but it had its own charm.

Most importantly, perhaps: most people get their own room, here, sharing a bathroom with just one other person.  (A few gets bunk beds or rooms shared with one person and divided by a curtain, but the majority are solo.)  This is lovely.

The food was a-okay.  Not as good as I remember it being at Dhamma Suttama, but satisfactory.  On the one hand they overcooked their pastas... but on the other, one day, they gave us a vegan banana-almond ice cream cake.

There are three ponds outside the meditation hall, and every time I walked by them I counted toads.  (When you have nothing else, you can find entertainment anywhere.)  One day, in one small corner of the pond, I counted six toads.  A few other times, five.  The toads’ skins blended nigh perfectly with the pond’s green algae, but I got good at spotting them, even the one little guy who’d only peak his head out above the surface.

Buddhist Geese!  On Day Three, walking to the dhamma hall at 5am, I saw two geese in the early morning fog.  Two days later, more came, up to a max of 16.  For a few days thereafter, they fought turf wars.  I witnessed one violent fight—feathers literally flew, beaks clasped necks—that ranged with surprisingly swiftness over a large expanse of the campus, and had me scampering out of its way for fear of getting caught in the middle.  The geese hissed and honked.  They craned their necks menacingly.  They flared their wings wide.  They danced around each other in groups like the gangs in West Side Story.  It was impressive, but after a day I wanted to tell them to shut up already, they had three ponds and more food than they could all eat in weeks, so why not just chill out and, as Goenka says, be happy?  The original two birds, however, seemed to know this.  (In truth I have no idea if they were the original two, but I will pretend they were.)  I always saw two geese aloof, off to the side, relaxing, eating.  Occasionally they spared a honk for their kin but mostly they just chilled.  Maybe these two had taken a meditation course with Goenka’s goose equivalent.

I surprised a rabbit one morning.  It took him a few moments to remember he was supposed to run away from me.  Maybe rabbits also are sleepy at 4:30am.

Chipmunks. Butterflies.  Hawks.

The moon!  One night, orange on a purple sky.  One morning, silver and blue.  Another morning, the full moon, low on the horizon—a moonset.  I don't recall the last time I’ve seen that, or if I ever have.  Living in or near New York, it’s not often you’re presented with a natural horizon.  So low in the sky, the moon looked large, twice its usual size, its details plain to the eye.