Reflection and Analysis of a Vipassana Retreat

I. Introduction

On June 5, I began my first 10-day Vipassana (“insight”) meditation course. It was a remarkable experience.

Everyone says that, however, making it an almost unworthy reflection. But it was. I tend to engage with these sorts of pseudo-scientific spiritual endeavors with a lot of skepticism; this one delivered. My concentration and focus are better, and my emotional steadiness is much improved (although I was pretty “zenned out” to begin with, as my friends can attest). I’ll elaborate in much more depth on the course, the material, and my development through it below.

monk meditating

Let’s pretend this is what it actually looked like

Caveat: it has been suggested that you take a course like this without foreknowledge of what is to come. This isn’t necessary, I believe, but it probably helps. If you’re thinking of one day taking a course, then consider skipping this post for now. Or not, you’ll be fine either way.

II. Structure of the course & teachings

The course is ten days long, with the first nine days being more or less identical, following the schedule below. I’ve included the *actual* schedule that I followed as well, for humor and full disclosure.

Time

Official Schedule

“My Schedule”

4:00 – 4:30 Wake up Sleep
4:30 – 6:30 Meditate on your own Sleep
6:30 – 8:00 Breakfast, relax Breakfast, relax
8:00 – 9:00 Group meditation Group Meditation
9:00 – 11:00 Meditate on your own Sit ups, push ups, relax
11:00 – 13:00 Lunch, relax Lunch, walk around the track
13:00 – 14:30 Meditate on your own Daydream
14:30 – 15:30 Group meditation Group meditation
15:30 – 17:00 Meditate on your own Meditate, daydream
17:00 – 18:00 Tea and fruit Tea and fruit and toast
18:00 – 19:00 Group meditation Group meditation
19:00 – 21:00 Watch video lecture Watch video lecture
21:00 – 22:00 Relax, sleep Sleep

As you can see, there was A LOT of meditation. Going into the retreat, I expected (naively, I realized) something more along the lines of a 10-day trip to the spa, with a lot of stretching out in peaceful environs, skipping stones, and sighing contentedly. Meditation is hard and tiring, psychically and physically. Physically, it is painful to sit still for an hour. Your legs start screaming and your back does only slightly better. Psychically, you’re crying out for stimulation, sensation, some distraction to occupy your mind. There’s nothing coming though. For hour upon hour. It’s tough. But that’s the cost of results, it seems.

Regarding the instruction and progression, the course is quite well layed out. The material is presented via video by S. N. Goenka, the “teacher” of the course. This is a strange arrangement, since all the actual human beings working are either “assistant teachers” or “volunteer servers,” working under the authority of Goenka, who isn’t there. There is definitely something cultish to sitting in a room meditating while listening to a pre-recorded talk that you know is being played in dozens of centers across the world. But again, something about it works.

Goenka is definitely a charming character, and one of the most entertaining parts of the course. You interact with him (or rather, he interacts with you) in two places. The main interaction is during the evening discourse, when you sit and watch a video of Goenka talking about some concept or other. This is the primary forum for conveying the philosophical and theoretical aspects of the Vipassana practice (which I’ll summarize shortly below). Video-Goenka is a funny guy, with a good sense for westerners and western humor. He knows how the average left-leaning upper-middle-class meditator thinks, and knows how to make them (i.e. you) feel comfortable with him, Buddhism, and putting up with all the oddities of the course. He’s also a pretty good storyteller. It’s amazing the relationship with a person who isn’t actually there. I genuinely felt bad when he “left” after the last discourse.

The second interaction occurs in the meditation hall, where he delivers meditation instructions (as opposed to talking about theory) and chants.

The first three days are devoted to laying the foundation, by having the students practice a form of meditation called “Anapana.” Anapana involves focusing attentively on your respiration, especially the sensation your breath makes around and inside your nose. The states purpose is to build your facultly of awareness, by having you concentrate on identifying subtler and subtler sensations. This is meant to “prepare” you for Vipassana meditation proper, which comes later.

On day four, “Vipassana day,” the students are taught the technique of Vipassana, with much fanfare and ceremony. A special two-hour block is set aside for teaching the technique, which is hilariously overkill, since the “technique” *could* be taught in five minutes. It amounts to basically “focus on the sensations on your skin… a lot.” At first you are instructed to slowly move your awareness over your entire body, focusing on small patches of skin. Over the remaining six days, the technique is made slowly more advanced, with students being encouraged to “sweep” their awareness over entire limbs and eventually the entire body, perceiving all the subtle sensations of their skin at once. At the very end, students are invited to attempt to “perceive” their internal organs and spine, in order to ultimately gain the ability to perceive the entirety of their body at once.

The purpose of this focusing of awareness is to gain the ability to gain awareness of subtler and subtler sensations. Distinction is made between “gross, solidified sensations” such as pains and large chunks of feeling and “subtle sensations” which are more like a gentle buzzing. Over time, the student is meant to be able to perceive more subtle sensations and fewer gross sensations.

That is, basically, the technique.

While the course presents itself as nonsectarian, the philosophy behind the technique is Buddhist. I’ll try to lay out the basics here:

There are six “sense doors” by which new information enters your awareness: touch, taste, smell, sight, hearing, and thought.

There are four discrete “parts” of the mind, which work in unison to create your thought-process: perception (of the sense through the sense door) -> cognition (making sense of the perception, understanding what it is) -> feeling (having some sensation or emotion regarding the sense, experienced on your body) -> reaction (your action in response to the sense).

The “reaction” part of the mind generates what is called a “Sankara,” approximately “intention.” When you react to some sense, you generate an intention, either positive or negative, regarding that sense. Positive sankaras, “towards” the sense, are known as “cravings,” and negative sankaras, “away” from the sense, are known as “aversions.” To give a concrete example: you smell a flower, you like the smell, you desire to smell more. Thus you have generated a sankara of attraction.

Sankaras multiply, leading to further sankaras. By generating a sankara, you set in stage a process to generate more, which generate more, ad infinitum. So if you react with anger, you create an anger in yourself which makes it easier to react with anger in the future. Likewise with cravings.

Sankaras build up over the course of the life, and at the moment of death, there is a final “super sankara” which gives shape to the reincarnation of the body. So a life lived with hostility would end with a strong aversive sankara, leading to the reincarnated form to be a hostile person. Likewise with cravings. In this way the cycle of rebirth of continued and individuals move up or down the karmic hierarchy.

This is the key: you can break the cycle of the mind between stage three (feeling) and stage four (reaction) by observing the sensations of your body. By training yourself to observe with detachment the feelings of the body, you interrupt the process by which feelings lead automatically to reactions. Through observation, you can learn to “stop the feelings in their tracks,” so to speak, and keep yourself from reacting. Further, if you die without generating any sankara, you are not reborn and are thus freed from the karmic wheel. This was Buddha’s main insight, according to Goenka, and where his teachings were revolutionary.

So, through the practice of observing sensation you can free your mind from reactions and attachments to the sense of the world, and thus liberate yourself.

III. The retreat center

The retreat center itself was beautiful. It was set in a large natural area, with hills and sparse forests all around, with a small lake near the men’s dorms.

The amount of wildlife was incredible–a stunning variety of insects and birds. One morning I witnessed a line of ants marching six across the walking path, with ants from other hills keeping a careful distance, unsure of how to get to the other side of the army. One dusk I saw a glowworm making its way home. I saw spiders fight and butterflies flirt (or perhaps the other way around, I was never quite sure…). Once I took a pair of pants off of the clothes hook and saw an ENORMOUS lizard on the wall. I’m talking 16 inches long from head to tail, with a psychedelic red and green color scheme. Another time I saw a bunch of ants try and take down a live worm.

The common areas (dining room, video room, meditation hall) formed an axis down the middle, with each area being split in half by gender. The men’s and women’s dorms were on opposite sides of this central axis, resulting in essentially total separation. C’est la vie, je pense.

The food was, to my pleasant surprise, delicious! Healthy, varied vegetarian Thai food for breakfast and lunch, with some fruit and toast in the evening. Unsurprisingly, the environment of the retreat lent itself to mindfulness in eating, and I found myself eating both far less, and far more slowly, than usual. Both probably good tendencies which I hope to continue.

IV. My experience

My experience was a mix of highs and lows, with periods of progress and excitement regarding the theory mixed with periods of frustration and confusion as to the technique and the purpose of all the meditation.

Past and Future

During days two and three I began developing a new relationship to the past and the future. A big emphasis in meditation is, of course, the focus on the present moment to the exclusion of all else. Being a constant daydreamer, I would initially drift constantly into remembrance of the past or fantasies of the future. As I kept drawing myself back to the present, I began to reassess the value of the constant daydreams.

I started realizing that the past, for all its value in teaching us lessons of conduct, is fundamentally a fantasy. Our memories are not “the past” in any objective sense. They are *our* particular interpretations of events, distorted through the process of remembering. There isn’t any inherent truth to them. They are mythologies, and as such, exist entirely in our heads. There is no *objective* past that our memories map onto. No two people have the same memories, and there isn’t some objective recording to be consulted to help resolve disputes. The past is nothing than a collective hallucination, and has no power over the present except that which we give it.

It was a heady realization. The present is completely independent of the past, and that it is completely my choice to base my actions on my memories of the past or to act entirely without regard to what came before. All my grudges, resentments, failures… didn’t exist, unless I wanted them to.

Likewise with the future. It is pure fantasy, with no existence outside of our heads. We can expect and we can plan (and we should), but ultimately the future is nothing until it becomes the present. Further, the future is slowly but surely becoming the present, and that there is nothing we can do to make it approach more quickly or more slowly (apart from getting into a spaceship and going really, really fast). As such, we are best served attending to the present moment and meeting the future as it comes to us, rather than constantly trying to rush towards it.

These lines of thinking made it easier to let go of my daydreams and focus on meditation. Further, it has helped me make the breakthrough understanding (for me) that too much indulgence in the past and future can be, in a certain sense, pathological. What do I mean?

For a long time, I operated on a sort of “unstructured creativity” framework where I would allow my mind to drift wherever and whenever it wanted to, on the grounds that creativity and innovation can’t be “planned,” and attempting to restrain my thinking would be cutting off potential insights. As a result, I would let myself linger on the past or speculate on the future for hours on end, even when I did nothing but retrace the same memories or concerns for a dozen, two dozen, a hundred times. I had a sense that perhaps this wasn’t such a great habit of mine, but could never manage to accept that the alternative–attempting to structure my own thinking–was a solution.

On this retreat I finally accepted that past and future think can dip into the pathological (dangerous, detrimental to Darwinian “fitness”), and that the price of potentially cutting off some theoretical spontaneous insight was small compared to the tremendous gain of a mind focused and concentrated on the present.

Memories

Around days seven and eight I began to experience a resurgence of forgotten memories. This was a very enjoyable experience, as memories I had completely forgotten came bubbling up in my mind, enabling me to re-interpret my past in new ways.

How so? Previously, when I reflected on my past, I would follow the same well-worn trails of memories. Going back to a certain period would trigger the same set of five or six memories, leading inevitably to the same interpetation of the past, with little opportunity for progress. These forgotten memories gave a whole new perspective on those same periods by adding another data point.

For example: I often think back to one conversation I had, years ago, which proved to be very influential. When I thought back to it, I would always remember it a certain way, with me having failed to act, and that failure being the cause of the future misfortunes. During day seven, a slice of that conversation resurfaced, which I had completely forgotten, in which I said exactly the thing I thought that I hadn’t. It is strange, I admit, that I forgot saying something so important, but somehow I had. Upon remembering, the entire conversation took on a new meaning–it was no longer a failure of me to act, but a failure of the other person to respond. An entirely different remembrance.

This happened a number of times in the course of meditation. I came to think of it as “solo psychoanalysis,” and was quite surprised to find it happening. This is the sort of experience that I would have expected some more naive person to report back from a “life changing meditation retreat.” That I find myself reporting exactly such an experience is cause for reflection.

Awareness

Over the course of the ten days, my ability to perceive sensation did indeed improve, gradually. I began on day one observing the feeling on breach in my nostrils, and ended day ten feeling energy coursing up and down my entire body. There is cause to believe that these “sensations” were less than veridical, but it remains that my perceptions of my perceptions developed over the course. Another unexpected outcome.

V. A cognitive science perspective

I found that this course made a number of claims of the “scientific” nature of its teachings. I’ve noticed this happens often when eastern philosophies are presented to western audiences. I’m generally turned off by this, since without exception (in my experience) they use the term “science” incorrectly (which I’ll discuss more below). I happened to study Cognitive Science as an undergraduate, so I have a (small) basis from which to critique their claims. I’ll go through some of my main critiques (and offer some rebuttals to the critiques) here:

The claim that you can develop your awareness to be able to detect the “most minute sensations” over the entire body.

Critique: on the very tops of our brains are two areas of the cerebral cortex known as the primary somatosensory and motor cortices or maps, also known as cortical homunculi. These are the parts of the brain which handle experiencing sensation (somatosensory) and generating motion (motor). You learn in undergrad that these maps are like little people (“homunculi”), in that you can think of that part of the brain as looking like a tiny person. The big insight here is that the size of the body part and the size of the area that corresponds to it on the brain are surprisingly out of whack. For example, the lips and fingers, while small on the body, take up a huge amount of this area, showing that they are very sensitive. On the other hand, the arms and legs, while large on the body, take up very little of this area, thus making them less sensitive. So the fact that one is capable of picking up feelings on the upper lip does not mean one is also capable of picking up equally small and subtle sensations on the back of the calf. It’s not a matter of your concentration ability–physically it may just be impossible to detect those sensations, just like it’s impossible to break an oak tree with your fingers. We just aren’t built for it.

Rebuttal: The brain is plastic (capable of changing what different parts do). Through enough work and effort, we can actually reshape our brains. Theoretically, it should be possible to train and train your mind enough so that the size of the leg “area” on the somatosensory map grows larger, thus making it possible to detect subtler and subtler feelings. The key here is that the brain has to change; it can’t be a matter simply of your concentration ability growing. (Although one could argue, rightly I suspect, that growth in concentration ability and change in the somatosensory cortex are in fact one and the same change, from a subjective and objective point of view).

People can train themselves to detect subtler and subtler feelings.

Critique: telling people to look for subtle sensations will lead them to “imagine” sensations that aren’t actually there. People will “pressured” to “feel something” so that they feel they are succeeding in the course, and thus will convince themselves they are “really feeling” something which exists only in their mind. As such, the effects of meditation are a placebo effect.

Rebuttal: I am very behind on the attention research and my grasp of the field is incredibly tenuous, but I it may be possible, through effort, to actually come to detect very subtle sensations that you could not detect previously. I realize this may seem to directly contradict my first critique, but not necessarily. The faculty of attention is separate from the somatosensory cortex (although they are related). For example, to detect a more subtle sensation without sharpening the faculty of attention would require growth in the somatosensory cortex. But that doesn’t mean that sharpening the faculty of attention wouldn’t enable you to pick up on tiny sensations that were there previously.

This is a “scientific” approach

Critique: as with many spiritual traditions trying to re-brand themselves for a western audience, this one has taken to calling itself “scientific.” As with many spiritual traditions trying to re-brand themselves for a western audience, they don’t understand what “science” means. 20th century philosopher Karl Popper argued that the fundamental trait of science is “falsifiability,” the trait of something being able to be proven wrong. That means that the ideas, claims, hypothesis, etc can be taken and shown to be incorrect. Anything else, no matter how many equations or polysyllabic words it might have, is not science.

The techniques taught at the retreat are logical, yes, and they make rational arguments for how the effects emerge from your actions. And it’s quite clever and interesting, all of it. But it isn’t science, since the effects are 100% (and necessarily, fundamentally) subjective. Unfalsifiable.

Rebuttal: something does not have to be scientific for it to be true, valuable, and worthy of being taught and studied.

VI. General observations

First, the positive:

The teaching (or at least introducing the idea) of the connection between body sensations and emotions is important. Growing up in the dualist west, saturated still with the idea of the separate and distinct “mind,” we often come to assume that all our thoughts and feelings exist in some abstract non-physical space, existing somewhere vaguely above our brain. The truth is likely far more complicated, with the body playing large roles in cognition and emotion. I wrote an (admittedly meager) paper on this topic for an upper-division Cognitive Psychology course, where I described three studies in which the authors found a correlation between some body phenomenon and some emotional experience. The more that this idea can be introduced and accepted by mainstream society, the better.

More generally, this view regarding emotions lines up well with the “west coast” view of cognitive science, in which the body is understood as playing a fundamental role in the creation and function of the mind. This is contrasted with the “east coast” view, in which the mind is primarily understood as a kind of sophisticated but abstract algorithm. There are interesting parallels between this distinction and the one between continental and analytic philosophy. (As an indulgent aside, I think that UC Berkeley secretly has three philosophy departments: the Department of Philosophy, which teaches analytic philosophy, and the departments of Rhetoric and Cognitive Science, which teach continental)

The core ideas (drawn from Buddhist philosophy) regarding the impermanence of sensation and of all material structures are quite sound. Goenka does a good job of translating these scientific observations into the basics of a philosophy (although more accurately he explains the Buddha’s insights, putting a huge emphasis on observing sensation). The psychological aspects of the teaching (learning to avoid attachment to pleasant sensations or aversion to unpleasant sensations, so as to not be upset when things aren’t to your liking) are quite valuable as well. Learning to accept the negative aspects of the moment (without, as Goenka reminds us, slipping into passivity) can be very healthy.

Now, the negative:

The whole experience, from the outside perspective, could be seen as very cultish. You have 60 or so adults, shuffling around a retreat center for days on end, never speaking or looking at each other. Every few hours they gather in a room and sit in neat rows facing the front, where they silently follow the pre-recorded instructions given to them (by the “great leader”) over the loudspeaker. They are repeatedly reminded to “accept everything they are told” and to save their questions for another time. The activities of the day are highly regulated. Reading and writing is forbidden.

From time to time I wondered what some friends of mine would think if they could somehow see a live feed of where I was, without the context (or, admittedly, even with the context).

And for all the positives of the philosophy, there are certain points where it dips into the far-fetched. Setting reincarnation aside (which I couldn’t even begin to deal with), one of the big topics during the discourses were the methods by which your sankaras (recall, “intentions”) are generated. Through reacting to bodily sensations (reacting emotionally), you set off a kind of intention, which then becomes your action. Goenka elaborates on this by saying that once a sankara is generated (either good or bad), it begins to “multiply,” creating more and more. Thus one negative intention creates a dozen, then a hundred, etc.

This didn’t seem to work even in theory. If every action gave birth to a hundred actions, then every action would dwindle, through dilution, into meaninglessness.

VII. Final thoughts

The term “life changing” is a serious one, and shouldn’t be used lightly. That said, I think it might apply here. Ten days of no distraction and guided meditation is a lot, and that kind of time and space can open you up in profound ways. It wasn’t always pleasant, but I don’t think anything would have happened to me if it had been. I think that I am a different person now, in a few subtle ways: I relate differently to the past and the future, I relate differently to my emotions and my thoughts, my concentration is better, and I’ve gotten my first taste of serious meditation. The extent to which these changes continue into the future is an open question.

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7 responses to “Reflection and Analysis of a Vipassana Retreat

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  5. I read this with much interest, as I’ve been considering doing one of these. Could you possibly divulge which one you visited? Would you recommend it? Any tips when choosing between different retreats? Very well written and informative, thank you.

    • Hey Fergus,

      Sure. I attended the Dhamma Abha center near Phitsanulok, in Thailand. I would definitely recommend it — it was a beautiful retreat center, and very well run. All of the centers within the Goenka network seem to try and provide similar experiences, so the big difference between the centers is the design of the physical center. Some have more nature than others, difference scenery, etc, although it can be hard to know in advance what yours will be like. So I would advise you to do as much research as you can and make your best call.

      I can’t really speak for non-Goenka retreats, since I have no experience with them.

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