Preparation and arrival
I first heard about the Vipassana meditation 2 years ago on a podcast where the host went on a retreat for 10 days of complete silence. It comes from the Buddhist tradition, is free, and attracts people from all walks of life. I knew immediately that it was something I wanted to do, but got caught up with work and travel until recently. When I saw that there was a course being offered locally, I signed as soon as I was able to. I knew that the courses often fill up and I wanted to not only secure a spot, but also commit to 10 days of silent meditation. The retreat organizers set up a rideshare program and I listed my van to give people rides. As the time drew nearer to the course, the car started to fill up and I was coordinating things up until the last minute. This kept me accountable for both going to the retreat and staying the duration. As I pulled up the car to unload and check in there was a lot of good energy in the air and one person in particular caught my eye for the slightest second through the car window. It was like being at soccer camp in high school; getting divided up, anticipating, and jumping into the unknown.
We checked in, talked with people and as I walked out with one guy, I was hit with this super weird vibe almost like The Shining or One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and was just like shitttt, but then I thought that it was nice seeing people sitting around meditating and walking mindfully, this was exactly why I came. We unpacked at our roughly 20 person bunk houses, gathered, and were given instructions about the course, male/female boundaries, and also checked in our phones. We were told that when the first meditation began our Noble Silence would begin. Ten days of not speaking, making eye contact, or giving any non verbal form of communication. In addition, we were not allowed to read or write. Questions were allowed with the teachers and the volunteers could help out with little things, but it was all done with a fairly hushed voice. The meditations all began and ended with a recording of instructions and a little chant of good will and the evening discourses were from a video from 1991, all done by S.N. Goenka. He had been a leader of the resurgence of Vipassana and its spread to the West. There were teachers who were once taught by Goenka, but overall, there was little room for discussion or answers as they were expected to come from inside.
The three codes of discipline were presented (moral code, concentration of mind, wisdom of insight) and it was explained what made Siddhartha different from the other gurus of the time, how he had journeyed within to develop the greatest insight. This Vipassana course was said to be a pure teaching of the Buddha and that it was non-sectarian because the truth or nature (Dhanna) transcended all religion. At the core of it you are going inside for answers, so at a base level I could appreciate it. I’ve never really accepted rules for the sake of there being rules and have always been one to push limits. By being impartial to something like the breath which can be both voluntary or involuntary, one can be (as Goenka liked to put it) “equanimous” to all sensations of the body
Days 1-3, Annapanna
During meditation time on days 1 through 3, we practiced keeping our awareness and focused on the sensations of the breath. Each day we closed in on a smaller and smaller regions becoming more and more aware of the things our mind typically filters out. We were taught to accept any of the feelings which arise whether they be painful or pleasurable. The key is equanimity, not reacting, and realizing that everything in your body, mind, and life will ultimately pass.
I tried not to read a ton before coming to the retreat, so I actually didn’t have much idea what I was getting into besides 10 days of silence. No one told me it would be incredibly painful to sit in meditation for long periods of time and that there would be teachings about suffering, craving, death, and surrender. Sometimes I got a feeling of hopelessness when thinking about those things before this retreat, but here, I was able to take everything head on and accept things unchangeable. I had made a resolve prior to coming that I would not leave no matter how good or bad I felt the experience to be. I also had a whole carpool depending on me haha, so that also kept me there.
Each night there were discourses where Goenka discussed teachings of Gautama Buddha, Buddhist theory, and putting it into practice. While being somewhat steeped in tradition and scripture, these evening lectures were intellectually stimulating and many of the points rang true.
During these days I was able to have the clarity of mind to do a lot of internal work, tracing back negative aspects of myself to their root and cutting that free. Discussing with people after the retreat, we all had repressed memories bubble up and most people cried at some point. At this time I was still pretty pumped about being at a silent retreat. Not having to talk allowed the chatter in my head to silence and lead me to being able to forgive many people and let go of past feelings that were holding me back. I was also struck by a huge gratitude to my parents, family, and friends for the roles they have and continue to play in my life. The sheer craziness that it means to exist together on this planet continues to amaze me.
Day 4-7, Vipassana
On the 4th day we were to learn the Vipassana technique. Before the Vipassana session, we had our last Annapanna sitting. During this one I went so deep that when I came out of it I had snotsickle over an inch long. Almost everyone got sick and even some super healthy people fell ill. I personally went from a fairly active lifestyle to a desperately sedentary one. Not working out means stagnation in your lymphatic system since it does not have any pumping mechanism. This combined with close living quarters, lack of sleep, and a tight dining area is a breeding ground for sickness. The surplus meditation cushions get passed around especially when people are using them as head rests in the discourses. This is just another way you get broken down over the course of the retreat.
Anyways, the Vipassana leads one through an exhaustive body scan from surface sensations like pain and the touch of clothing, to more subtle sensations within the nervous system and ultimately through the whole body’s energy. Finally the scan leads to the ultimate truth that everything is essentially a wave. This was discovered from the inside 2500 years ago and is just being intellectualized by quantum mechanics in recent history. The only truths you know are those which you experience, and while I didn’t make it to the subatomic level in 10 days, I felt a connection with this technique. This is where the whole “however” comes into my Goenka Experience. The first Vipassana is taught as an incredibly in depth body scan which is paired with Goenka’s deep, relaxing, and persuasive voice. This combination reminded me very much of hypnosis. I realized in the middle of it that he could have said something like, “your bodies are all on fire” and people would have started rolling around on the floor in pain. This is also where the dichotomy was created in me. The whole teaching left me lying in bed wondering about existence, similar to after a particularly intense and revelatory psychedelic experience. The presentation, delivery, and establishment this man has set up left me questioning his intentions.
After this partial realization, I continued with the technique because I had made the resolution to stay through thick and thin. I appreciated the positive work that was being done on me and the ability to detach from the modern luxuries and technologies I was reliant on.On one of the days I just stared up at the street light as feathery rain drifted down from the heavens. It was me that was moving, however, rushing through space in a constant and beautiful state of change.
The connection I developed with my own nature carried over into external nature. The tree outside the dining hall was incredibly fragrant and this, people noticed. However, when you got closer to the tree it was buzzing and alive with the hundreds of bees and flies going in and out of the flowers, touching, probing, and proliferating their own race forward. One bee landed on me and I simply observed it moving up my arm tasting here and there before moving on.
Day 8-11, Seeing the light
Another personal revelation I had was my relationship with violence(on the destruction side of the spectrum and not on causing pain) I examined why it is that I grew up liking to smash bottles in the woods, burn things, and see things explode. I recalled a lucid dream that had degraded to regular dream of me standing in front of cars, invincible and watching them smash around me. There is something there within me and perhaps within all of us which enjoys seeing something wiped from existence. However, it is merely a transformation and one’s opinion completely reverses when it comes to the sense of their self, their ego.
I also noticed the women haha. What I learned from repeat customers was that the permanent Vipassana courses have a structure where there is very little sight of the opposite sex; however, this particular camp is rented and has an open layout. Strings were place all around the property delineating the male/female boundary. However this lead to an almost circling of each other because of the nature of where the dining and meditation halls were.In the unguarded state we were in, it was impossible not to exchange certain vibes with people. When I got to the retreat, I realized that a condom my friend had given me as a joke months and months ago was in my backpack. As the days wore on and my celibacy grew longer and longer I felt like I had a loaded gun in there.
On the ninth day, one of the highlights of the whole experience happened. Everyone was in need of some comic relief when one of the guys, who typically ate a lot, missed dinner and was coming into the meditation hall just as one of the group sits was beginning. His noise prompted me to turn around when suddenly he let a fart rip. A fart in a quiet place is in itself funny, but it only got better from there. He kind of waved his hand to waft it but sent it at another dude’s face. At this point I started laughing but when he said sorry followed by a quick “oh shit” for breaking silence, a bunch of us lost it. The ripples of laughter made their way through the back rows as we tried our hardest to keep it in. I was almost convulsing as I held it back, tears streaming down my face. As soon as it subsided one person would think of it and just breathe the slightest bit heavier and you knew exactly why and would do the same yourself and laughter rose and fell like the leading waves of a stone thrown on a still pond. This was the only meditation of “strong determination” where I couldn’t sit without moving or opening my eyes. I also broke the silence when we were reminiscing about our laughter afterwards and I made the joke that all things must pass. I also talked with this guy later and realized he was having similar reservations as I was.
Soundtrack to my days of silence.
With the ability to talk in sight, I pushed through to the 10th day. We were supposed to be taught another meditation technique that day about how to emanate compassion, peace, love and good will to all other beings. It turned out to just be Goenka chanting again and when I awkwardly made eye contact with the teacher, in my head he asked me why my eyes were open to which I responded that it was because my Eyes. Were. Open. The chant ended with a final long drawn out “Be Happy” with his deep voice eerily crackling away at the end. I almost lost it again.
We were finally able to speak and boy, did we. It was such a release. Everyone was meeting each other, sharing experiences, and also examining weird connections with each other. It was like the universe had just brought us here to experience the others. I found this to be the most beneficial aspect the course, meeting all the beautiful souls and helping each other on our respective journeys. After I realized it was like boot camp, or a rigorous pledging process, I was still bound to it and these were my comrades coming out too. We had one more meditation and discourse before we went back to our cabins and just let the catharsis continue. There we let loose stories and dreams from our darkest depths. I’ve never felt so raw in my live but the openness has radiated into my everyday life.
We all went to bed with just a few hours to sleep until the 4 am wakeup, but when the snoring was too much to handle and I began laughing at the universe, I went out into the night with my friend who had also started laughing at the whole situation. There we saw some females still up, so not wanting to get in trouble for crossing boundaries I threw some pebbles towards their window. It was impossible to see us in the dark which made the situation funnier and it turned out 3 of the people I had kind of been resonating with joined us for a chat, we on the boys side, they on the girls side. After the rain began to pick back up we went down to the rocking chairs outside the dining area to sit and discuss the course, our impressions and just our ideas and aspirations. Perhaps it was the denial of speech for 10 days, our trying to process the whole adventure, or just the intimate connection, but we ended up talking the whole night.
One thing I brought up was in regard to Goenka’s story. I don’t remember all the details but he said something along the lines of a higher being telling 2 enlightened beings that the pure teaching of Buddhism would move to Burma but come back to India 2500 years after Siddhartha’s enlightenment. Goenka had been an established business man and a leader in the Hindu community when he finally found Vipassana and was cured of his migraines. Having searched the world in an exhaustive process consulting all kinds of doctors, he had finally found what he was searching for. 2500 years after the enlightenment, happened to also be the year Goenka began his Dana, or teaching, as he moved to India to show his mother the ways of Vipassana. To me this could have been the seed which gave him a savior complex and the desire to expand an organization around the world.
It isn’t that I disagree with what was being taught. The stress on no dogma, no verbalization, taking the parts that resonate with you, and going inside for the answers was all agreeable to me. These are all universal. However, there are hypocrisies with the entire process, unexplained chanting, and limited time to access the teachers. This, as well as the hypnotic nature of the delivery and the perhaps overemphasis on donating brought me back to my church years and also gave me some feelings of a cult. It felt kind of weird talking about this with a large group because either people didn’t see it that way or they were too mesmerized by the power of the technique to see what had been established by Goenka. If you tell a person they are hypnotized, they are just going to lash out.
In the final discourse, Goenka gave a parable about kheer, an Indian rice pudding with spices and dried fruits. In the story, the mother gives her hungry child the kheer and he throws it out saying there were stones in it. His mother tells him that was just cardamom and she could have picked them out. The point is to keep the things that are important. Almost in an effort to undersell the technique he says take what you want, and when you come back, take a little more and eventually you will realize everything which was true. That is exactly what I will do with the technique and the insights that I gained about myself. Unfortunately there are some stones in the kheer and if you undertake this retreat yourself, it will be up to you to pick them out.