If you begin to practice any sort of meditation, before long you'll hear about silent meditation retreats and how crucial they are to getting the most out of your practice. I've been meditating since February, and by July I'd heard enough such comments, from varied enough sources, that I was convinced to at least look into it. It's now the end of August and I got back from a 10-day Vipassana course three days ago. These are my thoughts.
What Is Vipassana?
Think of it as a sort of martial art for the mind.
Vipassana is billed as the meditation technique discovered and taught by Siddhartha Gautama, the historical Buddha. Think of it as a sort of martial art for the mind, a physical practice whose mastery leads one to enlightenment. And enlightenment is, as I understand it, a state of mind free of neuroses, capable of handling all of life with perfect equanimity.
Though it sounds unrealistic, enlightenment is not presented as supernatural nor unattainable. Guatama was not the Buddha but rather a Buddha, meant not to be worshiped but to be emulated. Meditate like I did, he said, and you too are bound for enlightenment. He was not magical and not a god, and Vipassana is explained not as a faith or a set of rituals, but as a sort of ur-science, an intensely close study of one's physical and subconscious states, an MRI scan and therapy session in one. Imagine peering inside, clearly feeling something, and thinking it might actually be the buzzing of your subatomic particles. Now imagine thinking that and not immediately dismissing the notion. It's kind of like that, and I'm not being poetic, I'm attempting to be literaI. I am of course explaining it in my own terminology, and skipping some.
Through this intensely close physical inspection of the self, a meditator is said to become intimately aware of three principles: impermanence, equanimity, and selflessness. It's hard for me, a novice, to successfully unpack these principles each in a sentence or two, but I'll try:
- Impermanence: Nothing lasts. Everything begins and ends. Since nothing is permanent, it is unwise to cultivate attachments. Attachments lead to suffering, to dissatisfaction. This doesn't mean you can't, for example, enjoy eating a donut. It just means recognizing that nothing will bring you lasting satisfaction.
- Equanimity: You can't always force good things to happen, and you can't always avoid bad things, but that's what most of us are conditioned to try to do—we crave the good and avoid the bad. It's impossible. Trying to make it possible leads to suffering. Accept your lack of control. Accept the inherent dissatisfaction of existence. Be cool with it. (Returning again to the hypothetical donut: "inherent dissatisfaction of existence" here doesn't mean no donut will ever be satisfying. It just means you can have one, but then you will want more. Maybe not immediately, but eventually. You can never be satisfied. Will having one incredible donut really stop you from ever wanting another one? Doubtful. The donut thus leaves you technically unsatisfied. You can't be satisfied. You're free to test this: have another donut and see how you feel. Have a dozen. Vipassana is all about empirical observation.)
- Selflessness: This one's trickiest, and I have no idea how to relate it to donuts. It means understanding that there is no permanent self, no "I". The thing that is "you" is impermanent, constantly arising and passing, arising and passing, like a flame which at every moment is different than it was the moment before, made of new heat, burned of new fuel, emitting new light. Through meditative practice, you eventually will experience the complete dissolution of your self, and understand this.
These three principles didn't originate with Gautama, they were commonly understood in his time. His innovation was Vipassana, a method through which you can physically experience these principles. It won't be an intellectual understanding, it will be learned experience. Think of it this way: if I friend asks you for help, you don't pause and logic out your reaction: this person needs help, and this person is a friend, and I help friends, so I will help this person. You don't intellectualize it, you instinctively help. Vipassana aims to make the three principles above felt as instinct.
I didn't get to this realization, and it's not expected anyone will in a 10-day introduction. But I think I did get a taste of it when, on Day 5, I experienced the complete dissolution of my head into light and heat. I felt my face crack up into light, and then my head was no longer there. I've heard that human beings usually locate the self physically inside their heads, somewhere behind their eyes. Where can the self be, then, if there is no head there to house it?
Who is S.N. Goenka?
It's surprising to me that I've gone this long without mentioning Satya Narayan Goenka, the 10-day course's teacher and founder of a global network of Vipassana Centers. You can find Vipassana courses offered at other centers, taught by other instructors, but Goenka is a remarkably compelling teacher, and I believe several of the prominent North American teachers studied with him personally. He died in 2013, but his courses are taught with audio and video, along with Goenka-trained assistant teachers. It sounds like it'd be unsatisfying, but works very well.
Goenka is a genial and avuncular figure, and roughly the shape of an aubergine. Imagine the Hindu God Ganesha, but with a man's head instead of an elephant's. If profit and merchandising were consistent with Vipassana principles, his foundation would surely create plush toys in his image. He is irreverent and optimistic, and awakens from meditations with Yoda-ish grunts of satisfaction. He has a deep voice and uses it softly, speaking without reference to notes for over an hour at a time, always warmly, often very amusingly. A talented vocalist, he enjoys chanting in Pali, the language spoken in India at the time of the Buddha. (At some point Goenka decided his students would very much enjoy listening to this chanting, every single day of his course. This is one of his few teacherly missteps.) A strong teacher, he has a knack of addressing your questions specifically. About six of the ten nights, I had some skepticism, there'd been some idea of his which did not make sense, some concern he'd not adequately addressed. The next night he would directly address it. It must be a consequence of the fact he'd taught so many of these 10-day courses—his first was in India in 1969, and the one now taught was recorded in the U.S. in 1991.
He isn't perfect. He is briefly a little weak when trying to relate the original ideas of the historical Buddha to modern physics. It felt almost as if Goenka had spoken to a physicist in the months before the lecture, and got excited to learn that some scientific observations, derived from particle accelerators and bubble chambers, seemed to resonate with ancient Buddhist notions about the smallest units of matter. It's fun to imagine ancient Bhuddists observing subatomic particles through meditation, but it's difficult to take seriously. Aside from this, Goenka also frequently attacks religion—or anything he deems to be "blind faith"—in a way that, while logical and agreeable to me personally, felt like it could be offensive to people of strong faith. Not only that but he came close to being, uncharacteristically, unkind. A religious person may do this meditation as well as anyone, and Goenka forcefully insists Vipassana is secular and compatible with any faith, but his denunciations of any practice he deems a blind faith or a hollow ritual will be a turn-off. (Examples: he dismisses the Buddhist who might take refuge in a Buddha by saying three morning prayers, but then does not act according to the Buddha's teachings; he dismisses the importance of accepting Jesus as a son of God if one does not then work rigorously to live up to the actual, historical man's teachings.)
To many, though, Goenka's stress on practicality, results, and skeptical observation, are very appealing. Time and again he insists Vipassana is not a faith, but a technique. Try it out, he says, and see it working. And if it doesn't work, don't do it; if you've experienced alternative practices that work better, go with those. He doesn't want you to take his word for any of it, doesn't want the meditation to be done mechanically, as a kind of ritual, in blind hope that it will help. And it doesn't matter if you pray to Vishnu, if you buy into Buddhist metaphysics, if you believe Jesus was the son of God, if you think it's important to keep kosher, if you pray facing Mecca—none of these is relevant to this practice, no more so than they are to brushing teeth or to exercise. And contrary to appearances, he says, Vipassana is not Buddhist—the historical Buddha was merely its discoverer, and did not mean to found a religion, did not set out to invent a system of metaphysics and supernatural lore. He described the law of nature, and a meditative practice used to learn that law. The religions founded in his name all kept his words, but over time lost the practice.
It may seem I've strayed away from describing Goenka, but bear with me, I'll be back to my "fat teacher", as he one time calls himself, shortly. Where was I? Ah yes, the forgetting of Gautama's original meditative practice. Right. Goenka tells this tale:
"Twenty-five centuries ago," Siddhartha Gautama discovered a meditative technique, simple but non-obvious, difficult but universally practicable. He taught it and it spread. A couple of centuries later, the emperor Ashoka trained legions of Buddhist instructors and directed some of them to seed the world with Buddhism. Those ambassadors ended up everywhere from Europe to Asia. Their teaching took root in many places, but over time the original meditative practice was forgotten, diluted or otherwise fouled up. The actual practice of Vipassana was lost everywhere but Burma, where a small number of teachers kept it alive in its pristine form.
Goenka is ethnically Indian, but was born in Burma. Well-off from birth, he was conservative and a very religious Hindu. Successful in business from a young age, he was by his 20s quite wealthy, and yet he was unhappy. He also suffered frequent, debilitating migraines. The best doctors in Burma could not cure him. They prescribed morphine, which helped but led to addiction. Goenka sought help the world over—Japan, Switzerland, Germany, the U.K., the U.S—anywhere he had business, he would consult with the best doctors, and he spent a lot of time and money on treatments. Nothing worked. Back in Burma, a friend confronted him. Obviously Goenka's condition was psychosomatic. Doctors and medicine could not help, so why not try meditation? His friend knew of a teacher, Sayagyi U Ba Khin, who taught Vipassana. Goenka was hesitant, then skeptical, then afraid it would interfere with his Hinduism, but over time he took to the practice. It cured him of his migraine and morphine addiction. After fourteen years of study, he taught his first course.
What Is the 10-Day Retreat?
You will probably want to leave several times. You will wonder why you’re torturing yourself. You will be constantly stretching your aching legs.
In taking a retreat, you are essentially agreeing to become, for ten days, a monk or a nun. You take a vow of Noble Silence—you will not speak to fellow students, you will not write your thoughts, you will not have contact with the outside world. You vow not to kill, so you eat a vegetarian diet and refrain from swatting mosquitos. You wake up at 4am every morning, then meditate or listen to lecture for most of the day till 9pm. Over the course of the 10 days, you will hear approximately 13 hours of lectures from Goenka, and meditate for something like 60-100 hours, depending on how strictly you keep to the schedule. You will probably want to leave several times. You will wonder why you’re torturing yourself. You will be constantly stretching your aching legs.
Though Goenka delivers most of the teaching, an assistant teacher is on hand to field questions. Our assistant teacher was a grey-haired and spry Francophone Canadian. He meditated cross-legged, each day wearing a button-down shirt tucked into pleated slacks which seemed never to wrinkle.
In the course of learning to meditate, you will also learn to sit without movement. It was amazing to me that I could sit still for an hour at a time. Itches were easily ignored. Leg pain quickly vanished, though my back pain proved distracting, and getting up after an hour of stillness often led to me wobbling creakily out of the meditation hall, nearly falling over as if my legs were unfamiliar stilts. I'm a naturally fidgety guy, and the idea that I could focus on my feet or hands, feel an urge to flex my fingers or waggle my toes—feel the urge as if it were an object I could examine—and then not act on it... this was remarkable.
In the course of this learning and this stillness, you may experience some trippy physical phenomena. This is not guaranteed, but not uncommon. Earlier I described how I felt my own head dissolve into light and heat. Other phenomena I felt:
- My left arm kind of going… away, turning into a formless, fuzzy heat. I actually had to open my eyes at one point and look at it, to confirm it was still there. Visual confirmation somehow was not enough, so I touched my left arm with my right one. It was not tense, felt solid, and was cool to touch. I stared at it a moment longer, uncertain of my senses.
- My head filling up with pressure and lightness, as if it were a balloon. I nearly felt compelled to get up and be floated away.
- One early morning, cheating by "meditating" in bed, I felt sleep. That’s not a typo, I am not saying I fell asleep, though I did do that. I’m saying that I felt, with my conscious mind, sleep taking hold of me. I don't know how else to describe it. Usually when you fall asleep, it's not a noticeable thing. At one point you are concious, and then you are not. Here in bed I felt waves of sensation sloshing over me, as if sleep were a rising tide and I a shore.
I’m trying to describe these things drily, to not exaggerate! But it is important to know phenomena like these are not the point of meditation, just a byproduct of it. Furthermore, they are described as a danger. You're not supposed to have attachment to anything, as a meditator, you're not supposed to crave pleasant sensations, nor to avoid unpleasant ones. If you experience these phenomena, and then crave them, and then try to achieve them, you not only will fail but you will be missing the point: these and all natural phenomena are out of your control, and impermanent. Your meditation is not an exercise in control or aspiration. It is an exercise in equanimity, in dispassionate observation.
Goenka stresses the only way to learn Vipasanna is through days of intense study under a master. Any attempt to learn it otherwise is bound to fail, leaving you with only parts of the practice, or saddling you with bad habits, with notions or practices that will ultimately route your progress. The courses offered at Goenka's centers are all 10 days, which is said to be the shortest amount of time in which Vipassana can be consistently taught. Some non-Goenka centers have slightly shorter retreats, and longer courses are also possible and historically more common (back in sleepier times, these introductory courses were weeks, sometimes months, long), but 10 days is the standard for Goenka's method.
The retreats are free. The centers are staffed by volunteers and the teachers are not paid. A student is not permitted to pay for a course in advance, but welcome to donate time or money after a course's completion. The idea is that if you pay for something, you will feel it is yours, that you are owed something. If you don't like one of the dishes you’re served, for example, or your accommodation, you might demand a change. You paid for it, after all. But such feelings of expectation and control are contrary to the principles taught in the course. Better for students to feel they are being given a gift, whose value they can later judge for themselves.
About Dhamma Suttama, the Vipasanna Meditation Center of Quebec
I mentioned above that taking a retreat is like becoming a monk or a nun. The Vipassana Center I visited, then, could be thought of as a kind of monastery. It is called Dhamma Suttama, which means the Best of Dhamma (dhamma is the Pali word for virtue, the truth, the law of nature; for what simply is.)
The center sits roughly halfway between Montreal and Ottawa, in a rural countryside of fields and woodland. I saw a pair of teeny tree frogs there once, each no bigger than my thumbnail. They'd perhaps mistaken the meditation hall's siding for a tree. I saw the Milky Way one clear night, and then a satelite which looked like a dim star cutting swiftly across the sky. I saw hummingbirds up close for the first time—they seemed to keep a schedule for our benefit, visiting the flower patches beside the dining hall at lunch time. An owl hooted me to sleep on several nights, and many, many grasshoppers fled in terror from my sandaled feet. The woods surrounding the center were crowned with fog in the early mornings, and the weather was refreshingly cool for mid-August, if a bit rainy. One night, a student nearly got hit by lightning, when a bolt struck the grounds between the meditation hall and our lodgings. He was blown back on his behind, then broke Noble Silence to ask the sole other witness if that had just really happened.
The Center used to be a private boarding school, first built in the 1930s. I can't compare it to other Vipassana Centers but I hear it's bigger than most, with classes of about 150, split equally between men and women. The grounds are huge, hundreds of acres, though the course site itself is smaller—a bright dining hall with a pleasantly wood-beamed ceiling, the student quarters, a couple of forest paths, a meditation hall. Students stay in rooms of two or six, and while some of the furniture and carpeting shows wear, everything is very clean and orderly. Soft bells ring throughout the day, marking the starts and ends of meals and meditations.
The food served is simple and vegetarian, and once or twice was very nearly gourmet—one carrot gazpacho stands out in my mind as on par with anything served in a good restaurant. For breakfast they serve oatmeal and a warm fruit compote to top it, plus an array of familiar cereals, albeit hippie versions of those cereals—so, instead of Cheerios, you get loops made of spelt quinoa, and instead of Corn Flakes, flakes of amaranth and flax. Very good, by the way, those loops and flakes. For lunch, a changing menu—one day Indian curries, another day a bean chili, another day tofu in miso and apple broth. There's always bread, salad, chickpeas, tahini and yogurt and dressings, and fruit—oranges, apples, bananas. Steamed vegetables are common—string beans or broccoli or bok choy. You will eat only two meals a day—breakfast and lunch, with an optional snack of fruit in the evening—but no one complained of hunger, and it seemed everyone enjoyed their stay. It’s no five-star spa resort, but it’s lovely.
What Sort of People Do This Crazy Thing?
All types and all ages here, in summary, and surprisingly few accurate conclusions to be drawn from appearance alone.
It's hard to generalize about the other participants—though they looked to be mostly Canadian and white, they were varied in age, nationality, race, and background. Plenty of college kids and people in their 20s; one old Francophone fellow who looked like a mix of Monet and Walt Whitman; one guy who looked like a whiter Vin Diesel, and who appeared dour and grim throughout the ten days but on the final day was all smiles and gentle humor. Another man had the cleanly outlined, vulpine face of a handsome anime villain, but he turned out to be merely a filmmaker from Toronto.
My roommate was a man named Jacques. He'd come down from a small town outside Quebec City, and looked like a French Candian version of former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. He spoke not a word of English, but I dusted off my high-school French and, on the final day, when Noble Silence was lifted, we chatted. This was Jacques' first retreat. He worried he'd disturbed me at nights with his tossing and turning. He enjoys vacationing anywhere with mountains, and recalled a fine vacation he once had in the Carolinas.
We all made stories and observations about one another over the ten silent days. Me, I thought I was just another of the anonymous white guys, but on the morning of the final day one of my fellow students, Julien, made sure to pull me aside and tell me he'd enjoyed my presence. He was a pleasant looking guy, a man I’d describe using the French word sympa, which means some mix of amiable and friendly, sympathetic and polite. Everyone at the retreat walked around with purposeful slowness and calm, Julien said, like cows or (as Goenka joked a few times) like prisoners. I was different: I tromped around as normal, with apparent happiness and great vee-tah-lee-tay!—vitality, spoken with a French accent. This was nice to see, said Julien. I suspect it is also a kind way of saying I'm a spaz, but still was lovely to hear.
As would be expected, there appeared to be a significant cohort here with some kind of trauma or depression in their recent past, and some who were just generally into spirituality and new-agey things (at one point on Day 10 I heard the phrase "communicating with plants!" spoken in earnest.) But many others were there simply because it seemed like an interesting and "different" thing to do. One fellow I met, Qi Feng, was a native of Singapore and getting a PhD nearby. A friend had taken this retreat and suggested he'd find it interesting, so he came out of curiosity. One kid from Toronto was at the end of a trip across the Americas: he'd started out at the southernmost tip of Patagonia, where on his first day he spoke three hours with a charming eccentric who described Dhamma Suttama in glowing terms. Eight months later, this kid decided to make the 10-day retreat his last stop before returning home.
All types and all ages here, in summary, and surprisingly few accurate conclusions to be drawn from appearance alone.
Does It Work?
At worst this practice is unobjectionable. At best, it’s the key to happy living. If the truth falls anywhere in between those two poles, that’s pretty decent.
Ask me in a few years.
Maybe it doesn’t matter if it ultimately "works". At worst this practice is unobjectionable. At best, it’s the key to happy living. If the truth falls anywhere in between those two poles, that’s pretty decent. It all felt to me to be a healthy and enlightening practice. Anyhow, between the trippy physical phenomena, Goenka's compelling lectures, the novelty of the monastic experience, and the peaceful rural setting, it was a worthwhile experience.
Goenka insists on Vipassana's unique ability to purify one's mind. He makes a passionate, compelling, frequently amusing, and always interesting, case. I'm not totally convinced, but I'm not unconvinced.
Vipassana does appear to be an effective way of maintaining mental hygiene, and I have no reason to doubt its ability to increase one’s general contentedness. Meditation is healthy, after all, and this specific variation nudges its practitioners into a more even-keeled, compassionate, and thoughtful approach to life. There’s nothing objectionable about it.
That said, many of the participants were repeat visitors, yet none I spoke with had experienced the dissolution of the self. And none of them was being borne through life on clouds of transcendental wisdom. At least a handful seemed to use Vipassana as a sort of substitute for religion, a means for self-identification or community. For all of Goenka’s insistence on Vipassana being like a science, he does ask you to have faith that enlightenment is real. And this seems like a stretch, unless you define down nibbana (aka nirvana, aka enlightenment) into just a kind of an exceptionally healthy, contented state of mind. And if you do that, it’s a lovely aim, and one I'll believe Vipassana can deliver, but it seems a little less unique than Goenka avers.
(And, wow, I just used the word aver—apologies, dear reader, but trying to process 10 days of this stuff is putting a strain on my writing.)
Though the repeat visitors weren’t exactly Buddhas, you can’t argue with what they said about why they keep coming back. They all had personal, rational, and specific reasons, and these reasons all boiled down to this: the meditation was practicable, and it helped calm them down, make them happier, make them better people. One guy said it had simply made him “less of a jerk”, which sounds modest as far as life goals go but might actually describe a profound change for an individual.
If nothing else, it'll improve your posture.
Should You Meditate In General?
Yes. Meditation is healthy. Ask your family doctor, she’ll probably concur.
You don’t have to go to a retreat to begin—Anapanna meditation, a sort of prerequisite to Vipassana, can be learned in a few minutes. And if you never do anything else, it’ll still be healthy and effective. I’ve done Anappana for about six months now, though I didn’t know its proper name till this retreat, and have come to think of it as akin to brushing teeth—there is no downside, and everyone should do it.
(Anapanna is what seems to most often be taught as "mindful" or "mindfulness" meditation, but that turns out to be a bit misleading. "Mindfulness" is an old translation for Vipassana, which itself is just a Pali word meaning something like "insight into what is". So you might see Vipassana meditation referred to as Insight meditation, or Mindfulness meditation. I think Anapanna is taught as mindfulness because people want the ease of Anapanna but also the allure of the word mindfulness. It’s all a little confusing, but not ultimately important. Just do Anapanna to start. If you like etymology and want a history of the word “mindfulness”, see Virginia Heffernan’s terrific and short article on it.)
As for Vipasanna, it seems you can’t pick it up by yourself, and you probably wouldn’t want to. You’ll need some kind of course or retreat.
Should You Take a Retreat?
If you've ever meditated at all, yes, try this, you're already primed for it and you're obviously somewhat interested.
If you're at all curious, yes, try it, no reason not to, and it's free.
If you have no experience with meditation at all and no standing interest, I don't know. Maybe do a few weeks of the simpler Anapanna meditation beforehand, to get a taste, and take it from there.
The very religious among you might find several parts of Goenka's lectures objectionable—he sounded to me like an atheist, though he never uses that word—but if you stick with him, he eventually softens his positions, and explains that you're free to keep the meditative practice but skip almost any part of the philosophy you find unreasonable. The physical practice is paramount, per Goenka. He himself was a faithful Hindu when first starting with Vipassana.
I can't really think of a downside to the 10-day experience. Even if you never meditate afterwards, it'll have been something to remember. I can see parents and caretakers finding it difficult to schedule, but for everyone else: ten days seems like a long time with a high opportunity cost, but in the end what would you really have done with those ten days?
If you have questions, corrections, or any thoughts, feel free to comment. I wrote this post almost completely off the top of my head, primarily to help myself retain everything I learned only a few days ago. I hope I've been accurate but, if not, I am happy to be corrected.
Update, 09/2017: I took a second retreat, this time at Dhamma Pakasa in Illinois. My post about it isn't as clean as this one, it's more of a brain dump, but it might be of interest. You can read it here.