Review of a Vipassana meditation retreat

I just returned from a 10-day Vipassana retreat in the Yarra Valley outside Melbourne. It was my first experience of Buddhist practice and thought, and virtually my first experience of meditation.

The practice of Vipassana is a very particular type of meditation originating in India over 2,500 years ago based on the teachings of the Buddha, and then lost to India for many centuries. It survived in the original language, Pali (a language, like Latin or Sanskrit, existing now only in written form) in the neighbouring country of Burma until one man, S N Goenka, trained in the technique, travelled to India in 1969 to teach the technique to his ailing mother.

On arriving at customs, the story goes, he announced to the clerk he was carrying a “gem”, the gem of Dhamma (the universal law of life), which he was returning to its homeland. A few weeks later, Goenka held the first 10-day retreat in India for his mother and father and some of their friends. Those friends invited others, and soon, Goenka was instructing hundreds and then thousands of people in the technique. Goenka’s short trip to India has now lasted decades.

Noble Silence

There are 50 of us, 30 women and 20 men. We consent to live by a vow of silence – Noble Silence – for the 10 days, meaning we will not speak to another person, nor touch them or glance at them or make eye contact with them. We are to consider ourselves alone in this place. There is no mixing of the sexes. The men live and eat and meditate in one area; the women in another. The gong rings at 4am and first meditation begins at 4:30am. Last meditation ends at 9pm and it’s lights out at 9:30pm. In between, there are meal breaks, a nightly discourse featuring a DVD of the master storyteller, Goenka, and 12 solid hours of sitting on a cushion meditating.

Breakfast and lunch are highlights, especially for the comfort they provide in the first few days when heavy rain adds to the midwinter gloom. Dinner is consistently shocking: a piece of fruit and a cup of tea.

Day 4

Not speaking is easier than it sounds. After the initial strangeness, it’s very relaxing. As Day 4 – Vipassana Day – comes and goes, and the whole exercise becomes seriously hardcore, Noble Silence is the only thing that stands between the course and the possibility of everyone running away. Because without being able to speak, there is also no way to complain or gossip or compare experiences. There is an Assistant Teacher for the men and another for the women, and a Manager for each, and one can speak to these people, but the vow of silence elsewhere has the effect of keeping these exchanges to a bare minimum too. So when one wonders “what set me up for this?” or the term “concentration camp” crosses one’s mind, or the pain of sitting becomes immense and blots out the world, there is no one to complain to, and so one doesn’t.

Now about this pain …

I wasn’t expecting the pain, am still shocked by it. From Vipassana Day onwards, we are requested to adopt the attitude of “strong determination” in three of the one-hour meditation sessions. This means meditating without moving, without opening one’s eyes, one’s hands or one’s legs. One will sit like a stone, impassive, perfectly “equanimous”, to use Goenka’s favourite term.

This may not sound like a big deal and yet it is the hardest thing I have ever done. The pain can start as early as 5 or 10 minutes in, and then an endless 50 minutes of purgatory stretches out ahead. By 45 minutes in, the pain is so vast that in the first session of “strong determination” I felt my whole body from the waist down solidify into a block. And then the shaking starts. Out of fear, out of pain, I don’t know. When the 60 minutes is up and Goenka sings the first note of his chant signifying the beginning of the end, I cannot describe the relief, the utter gratitude I felt. As Goenka, steeped over decades in people’s stories of the pain and the relief, puts it:

Ah, that first note, so melodious! The freedom, the liberation, after the bondage …

From Day 4 to the last meditation session on the morning of Day 11 the pain was constant. I felt someone was cutting off my leg with a hacksaw, very slowly, and in my back, a sadist twisted a knife. The pain was a creature with its own life and it was battling me for dominion. And yet it is not merely the pain one is contending with; the real killer, and whole point of the exercise – after days of wondering to myself, “what is the purpose of this pain?” – is to confront one’s aversion to it, one’s fear of it. Early on, I felt the fear of the pain like a succubus on my face, on my being, in my nostrils, suffocating me.

Direct experience of the mind and its effects

At some point the penny finally drops it’s the fear which is increasing the pain. This is where it gets pretty trippy, as Hansi would say. There are several premises to Vipassana including:

  • every experience of craving or aversion we’ve ever had – liking or disliking, pleasure or pain — gets stored as a sensation in our bodies, in our cells
  • when we stop producing new cravings or aversions, the old cravings or aversions, collectively known as sånkhāras (mental conditioning), start to surface and dissipate
  • the universal law of nature is that everything is changing, arising and passing, arising and passing, and that pain and pleasure are arising and passing like everything else.

So the pain I was feeling was not the fact of sitting but literally my past – the fear, the aversions, all the negative reactions I’ve ever experienced – coming to the surface to be experienced and released.

This is still hard to take in: that it’s not about sitting but about aversion. Yet one gets directly observable evidence of the mechanism, because each time my mind became preoccupied with the fear of the pain and I started creating stories – “Oh, I can’t last this time, this pain is doing something bad to me”, “This time will be hard because the last time wasn’t so bad”, or “Sing, damn you, Goenka! I’ve got to move or I’ll die or something!” – the pain would increase.

In contrast, each time my mind took a break from reacting to the pain and creating stories, the pain would decrease.

The lesson one learns through the experience of deep meditation is this: attaching a judgement to an experience – like/dislike, love/hate, right/wrong – results in misery. The answer is to give up judgement, to just observe the experience without judgement. And by Day 5 or 6, this is what I was learning to do. I used to try to find the edges of the pain with my mind, and then I’d think I found an edge only to have it disappear. So while the pain didn’t go away by Day 10, the fear and disablement did.

There are many stories of people leaving a Vipassana retreat partway through and there’s good reason for this. Goenka himself describes the process as

like doing surgery on yourself, and without anaesthetic.

I’m glad I lasted though. It’s intense and shocking, peaceful and fascinating in all kinds of ways. And it allowed me the opportunity to discover what I’m capable of bearing with equanimity, which is a very great thing to discover.

***

One of the beautiful side effects of the retreat is the reawakening of one’s senses. Exploring the inside of one’s nose with the mind for a day and a half, and other such exercises, will do that. As the mind becomes increasingly fine, the world around becomes increasingly vivid. These are some random observations from my stay:

  • little brown finch darting across my way
  • light green lichen on a curl of bark from a birch tree
  • two magpies in a tree outside meditation hall singing their electric gargle
  • lone daffodil bowed down by rain
  • male meditator of Indian heritage, small and neat with the leading midriff of many subcontinental men, skipping up the path on day 7
  • small plane droning overhead during morning meditation
  • crimson sunset in the vee of the nearby hills
  • two magnolia flowers
  • scent of tea tree oil
  • Sīla in her pink jacket with her pink ruby ring
  • the gong in my dreams
  • meditation hall at 4:15, warm and dim, with blue blanket nests
  • steam from the shower rising into the corrugated iron roof cavity
  • sitting on the wooden boards of the verandah at lunchtime
  • a green hill giving up its frost to the sun.

Anicca, Anicca, Anicca*

May all beings be happy.

***

* Change, change, change.

For more information about Vipassana, go to the global website.

About these ads

55 thoughts on “Review of a Vipassana meditation retreat

    • Thanks, Edwina. You must have done the course yourself to know that IS the question :) Last week, I would have said “no”, this week, “maybe”. There are lots of ways of continuing the involvement including 3 day courses, casual visits to the centre, doing a day here or there too. I’ll probably try one of these options initially.

      Like

      • Yes, my first course was in 2008 and I’ve been sitting yearly since. There’s also service, which is a truly beautiful experience.

        Isn’t it wonderful to see how everything changes, even our minds? ;)

        Like

      • I love the idea of service too. I provide it another setting — in my involvement with Landmark Education — and I always get something profound and moving. I’m also inspired by dana (donation) and since last week I’ve had lots of fun donating all these unused items which have been laying around my house just cluttering it up. I put my bike out on the footpath with a note saying “Free bike to good home. Take me, enjoy me” and it felt so good when I saw a man wheeling it off sheepishly, as if he couldn’t believe his luck. And the woman in my favourite secondhand book store couldn’t stop smiling when I donated boxes of books.

        I’m still just beginning to see the implications of impermanence. It’s a lifetime enquiry I imagine.

        Like

      • Thanks. The biggest thing I’ll take away I think is the teaching of equanimity. One of the reasons I went to the retreat was to mark 2 years since Dad’s death and to have the space to think about him and his life. What I discovered is that, untutored and completely intuitively, he lived his life in accordance with the Buddha’s insight about equanimity. Whatever came his way, “good” or “bad”, he just accepted it and made what he could of it. He was the happiest person I’ve ever met.

        Like

      • That’s amazing! I’ve been decluttering my house this week as well. It’s such a good feeling to let go without guilt or fear that I’ll need that item again in the future. As I develop my meditation practice my belief that I will be taken care of grows. It’s also nice to know that we’re helping someone else’s need be met.

        I’ve recently been on the receiving end of a free bike and I can’t believe my luck. You definitely made that guy very happy!

        Yes, this path is long and sometimes difficult. But wholly worthwhile.

        Like

      • Haha, I’m going to believe I’ve actually donated my bike to you. It’s a great feeling to just let this stuff go and send it out into the world for others.

        About the path being long and sometimes difficult, I’ve got a different view to this. I get this is what Goenka says, and as impertinent as it sounds coming from a brand new Vipassana person, I part company with him on creating the matter as one of working-towards, of striving, of an end goal. Instead I see it as a matter of what it makes available at this very moment; as a matter of Being, rather than Becoming. It’s a bit much to elaborate in a comment so maybe I’ll write a post about my view. If I do, I’ll send you a link and welcome your views, Edwina.

        Like

      • Narelle, the thought of you giving me the bike directly makes me smile!

        I would love to hear more about your views as I sometimes get overwhelmed by how long the path feels. I have a feeling that we are meant to find the balance between keeping our minds working towards liberation as well as on the present moment.

        Look forward to hearing more.

        Like

      • I wonder if he could be my favourite Landmark teacher, Mahesh. When Mahesh walked in to take my course in Melbourne, I took one glance at him, and in a nanosecond, I knew that whatever this man said or did, it was OK by me. I have never felt such immediate love and trust of another. It was all in who he was being. It shone out of him.

        Like

  1. Wow…I’m impressed, a 10 day Goenka retreat for starters is amazing. I’ve been into Vipassana for over ten years. Interesting what comes up during a retreat. bottom-line: it’s all transitory, and happening to OnenoOne.

    Like

  2. A beautiful post Narelle! Thank-you. It’s been a few months now since the experience and reading it has taken me right back to some of the learnings and realisations I had. Can vividly remember how wonderful and relaxing the silence was and how weirdly shocking it was when we all began to speak again!

    “Ah, that first note, so melodious!”…how very appreciative I was for that chant!

    Like

  3. I have completed 4 goenka retreats, eventually I found that it is like any other religion even though goenka claims vipassana is ‘non sectarian’… The level of fear in your life determines how open you are to the particular ‘belief’ that you are exposed to. The message we receive on retreat is ‘follow us or suffer for eternity’ this is a familiar message around the world in various religions designed to increase our fear and participation. I failed to see this message until my 5th retreat when I realised what what going on and duely departed.
    This was a shame as I really thought I had found a sound basis for my existence.
    I did have some positive experience during my hours on the cushion both on retreat and at home but I am not willing to sacrifice 2 hours of my daily life as goenka suggests, I did this for a year but my life consisted of work, meditation and little else. A high price to pay for liberation from suffering. non participation in life was never my aim.
    So for now I will float on the wind and see where it takes me…..

    Like

  4. Your writing, A Great expression of thoughts. Whats more important, is its usefulness. Thus it fits in category Good Work. Those who have benefited from your effort, would be delighted to know about Vipassana Radio. As you would know from your own experience, the term “Bhavito Bahulikato” holds prime importance with all good things & more so with Vipassana. What it means is experiencing & multiplication of that experience of goodness. Purification multiplication, means multiplication of happiness, which means eradication of impurities ,thus that of misery. And it all is possible only with cultivation of goodness regularly, which here means daily sittings. One hour in Morning & One hour in Evening. Being a vipassana meditator for many years myself and interaction with students internationally i know the predicament. Every one who has completed a 10 day course has no doubt about the benefit of the technique. But still remains deprived only because of not being able to practice regularly. A helping hand was needed. And that is Vipassana Radio. You can find out more on http://www.dhammavani.org
    PS.Goenkaji while talking about Indian Emperor Ashoka’s rock edicts, thought the modern media would do that work,And here it is. It has been in operation for almost a year and meditators in all five continents in more than 160 countries use it every day to strengthen practice,
    Much metta to all beings,
    Vijay Pathak

    Like

  5. Pingback: Vipassana Meditation | medicine mind

  6. Loved the review. I just completed my first course at Woori Yallock, about 2 weeks ago. Was the best thing I ever did. My scepticism dissolved with the truth and honesty and simple logical answers and explanations. I loved your comment “Sing, damn you, Goenka! I’ve got to move or I’ll die or something!”. Completely agree with that sentiment.
    All the best

    Like

    • Hi Mrs Zen. I enjoyed your post.

      I wasn’t looking for a daily practice out of the retreat so I didn’t take on Goenkaji’s recommendation for the two daily sessions (I was looking for a period of reflection). In the two years since, I do periods of daily anapana meditation when I feel like it. I’ll leave the vipassana for retreats when I can prepare for its demands.

      Liked by 1 person

Your comment will be an adornment to this blog ...

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s