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.
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.
|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.
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.
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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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.
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.
Can science prove that body sensations exist? How do doctors know if someone is brain dead?
Although you seemed to have gained something from your experience, your analysis makes it clear that you missed the main point of the exercises: the diminishment of the ego.
I understand what you mean. I feel that those of us not living ascetic lives have an obligation to work towards the interests of those around us, and therefore to occasionally play an active, rather than a reactive, role in our environments. Ultimately I concluded that completely diminishing the ego is to put yourself into a state of pure reactivity, and was thus an inappropriate aim.
I just finished a vipassana retreat myself in Cambodia and am still processing mentally. I thought your write up was interesting and helpful. More importantly, how did you get toast!?
Under your cognitive science perspective, I’d like to add a comment to your critique of the first claim: The claim that you can develop your awareness to be able to detect the “most minute sensations” over the entire body.
Your critique does not take into consideration a distinction between information that is processed consciously and subconsciously. When it comes to the maps of homunculi, you will notice that the larger areas tend to be highly maneuverable (hands) or sensitive to taste, which are information we are consciously processing at every moment. There are sensory fibers that detect light touch, pain, temperature, and vibration sense in our mind that fall under the exteroception category. Proprioception also transmits sensory information on join position (conscious), and muscles and ligament positions (unconscious). If you look at how our body functions, we are not aware of every skin cells but if someone pokes us with a needle on any point on our body, we become aware of where that contact point is even though without the stimuli, we are not aware of that area. These are areas that are processing information subconsciously.
Under your cognitive science perspective, I’d like to add a comment to your critique of the first claim: The claim that you can develop your awareness to be able to detect the “most minute sensations” over the entire body.
Your critique does not take into consideration a distinction between information that is processed consciously and subconsciously. When it comes to the maps of homunculi, you will notice that the larger areas tend to be highly maneuverable (hands) or sensitive to taste, which are information we are consciously processing at every moment. There are sensory fibers that detect light touch, pain, temperature, and vibration sense in our mind that fall under the exteroception category. Proprioception also transmits sensory information on join position (conscious), and muscles and ligament positions (unconscious). If you look at how our body functions, we are not aware of every skin cells but if someone pokes us with a needle on any point on our body, we become aware of where that contact point is even though without the stimuli, we are not aware of that area. These are areas that are processing information subconsciously. Through Vipassana we are trying to bring areas that carry information subconsciously to a conscious level.
Did it for ninr days. Left in the evening before the last day.
I found the teachings useless and very much with a cult approach, complete with strict hierarchies, obedienceand lack of questioning. The evening lectures was a washed-out version of home-made Buddhism concepts and pseudoscience. Messages like “law of nature”, “the only path” were relayed. It is no accident they are presented 7 pm when participants are exhausted after a day starting at 4 am. In combination with the non-communication policy, no space is left for critical thinking on what is presented, except for what you manage to do yourself.
Goenka claim to have revived Gautama’s own insights, but most if the thinking is 19th century Burmese sectarian ideas.
While many claim they have been helped, it does not compensate for the manipulative approach, or the claim of being an universal solution to the complexities of human suffering. For a mentally weak person it may worsen the mental health.
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Just wanted to thank you for engraving these thoughts into this internet rock. I recently came back from my second Vipassana experience, which also happened to be my first serving experience, and found the pseudo-scientific woo woo features far more influential and damaging to my practice than my first 10-day meditation waterboarding. I was able to get into a really interesting state of massively decreased self-concern and deep caring for all the students and their progress through the course. I was there to help these humans get the most of something that really helped me 6 months prior, but every night I would have to sit there and play these discourses were Goenka would repeatedly demonstrate with an embarrassing amount of frequency and confidence just how little he knew about neuroscience, physics, and science in general. As well, he showed just how potent manipulating stories/analogies can be to serve one’s observation bias. As someone who was trying to aid this group of students, I often felt as though the discourses were either regressing their philosophical and scientific rationality, or putting strain on their skeptical faculties that they were trying to subdue, due to the nature of noble silence and the program’s requests.
Anyways, I wrote a piece on my first experience a little while ago, and was thinking of now writing a critical version to shed light on the necessity for revision if Vipassana wants to play an undivided role in the rational, contemporary world. I held off completely on this topic in my first post, as I didn’t wish to set a negative tone for anyone who was planning on entering the course, but it now feels somewhat dishonest. I was searching around for others who had written about the missteps of the program, and I’m very happy to have stumbled upon your words.
Thanks, and enjoy that life of yours!