Vipassana background and FAQ

I went on a ten-day silent meditation retreat to kick off 2015, and my last post explained a few ways it changed my outlook when I returned. Though meditation is mostly a personal thing, I’ve loved talking about it publicly. My intent isn’t to promote it. Being proactive has helped me to (re)connect with more experienced meditators I can learn from, and reinforces my motivation to practice by taking inspiration from others.

Thinking about my own experience, and matching it up with what I’ve heard from others, three things have surprised me about meditation:
1) Even the busiest-seeming lives fit a daily practice. Parents of infants, business executives, prime time TV watchers. People with real obligations make time for it.
2) It’s not just for new age-y “spiritual” types. Regular people just like you and me meditate. Try asking everyone you talk to for a week, I bet you’ll find lots of people you’d have never expected meditate – just as I have.
3) Little changes matter most. It’s not about finding the meaning of life. Mindfulness creeps into your day-to-day in subtle ways, like eating a little slower, fidgeting a little less, focusing a little better, taking criticism a little less personally.

So if you think you might want to try it out, I hope my answers to a few questions might help.

What’s vipassana meditation and how does it relate to other styles?
Vipassana as I learned it is a meditation style derived from one branch of Buddhism called Theravada, and in particular a lineage of Theravada that evolved in Burma (Myanmar). The technique focuses on awareness of your natural breathing and sensations all over your body, and doesn’t involve chanting Om and such. You can read all about Vipassana on dhamma.org or on Wikipedia.

In the US, vipassana is taught in several ways. There’s the “Goenka school” form with 10-day retreats, which is what I tried. There are also several other schools of the same general technique, including a popular version called Insight Meditation (e.g. IMS in MA and Spirit Rock near SF which are very well-known). I haven’t tried any those or any other schools in earnest yet, so I can’t speak well to the differences, but there’s plenty of info online.

Who taught you vipassana?
The technique was taught to me “remotely” during the retreat, by videos and audio of a man named SN Goenka. He’s deceased, so I use the term remotely in a loose way, since he was was filmed in 1991.

If you’re interested, the material for the course is open source. The videos of Goenka’s nightly discourses (talking about the philosophy of vipassana and some practical advice) are here under “Vipassana Discourse.” He takes his time talking so you might find them frustrating – faster text summaries are here. Goenka has also answered a lot of questions about applying vipassana in life, which are listed in an extensive FAQ here. He also chants in a dead language called Pali often during the course which is translated here

What are some issues with vipassana and the Goenka school? 
Just like anything else groups of people do, vipassana is flawed. As an eternal skeptic, I think it’s important to examine the issues in depth and with an open mind. The best critical piece I’ve read is here. You’ll find a ton more if you google vipassana + criticism. Please read them if you’re considering trying this.

In short, Goenka’s vipassana is problematic in several ways. It claims to be “true” Buddhism when there is no such thing. It has a lot of unnecessary rituals and orthodoxy, and some aspects that help ensure it spreads itself, just like any other religion, cult, or viral idea. Also, practicing the technique to could exacerbate depersonalization / ego dissociation, a sense of detachment from the self. In some cultures dissociation is natural and even desirable, and in others it’s viewed as a mental disorder. I suspect there are a lot of shades in between. Finally, any action to clear the mind and calm down all random associations can potentially stifle creativity. Balance is required.

Where did you go on this retreat?
I went to one of many of the Goenka-led vipassana retreat centers around the world for a ten-day course. The full list of them in the US is here. Mine was called Dhamma Siri (Dhamma = truth in Buddhism, i.e. the state of things as they are; Siri = prosperity). It was in Texas, specifically a small town near Dallas called Kaufman. The property was juxtaposed by farms with cattle and coyotes and all.

Why Dallas when I live in NYC? I’d love to say it was because I wanted to get in touch with pastoral times or something. But really, a friend had gone to Dhamma Siri. And I mistakenly thought Texas was warm in the winter so it’d be a break from NY. I was terribly wrong on that one. Thankfully, cold is just a sensation :)

How much does it cost?
The vipassana retreats are completely free (the program, housing and food for 10 days – but travel is on you), and all the people who work there are volunteers. You’re not even allowed to donate until after you attend, and they don’t pressure you much or even give you a “suggested donation.”

The free nature of the program helps in a bunch of subtle ways:
1) you feel less entitled to special accommodations when you’re not paying for it
2) dealing with things that aren’t exactly the way you want is part of the point
3) depending on others’ kindness is deeply humbling and helps dissolve your ego

What are the rules?
The ten-day Goenka retreat is an extremely strict environment, monastic even. His stated reason for this is to provide a strong foundation for quieting your mind — minimizing external stimuli and any ‘immoral’ actions like stealing, lying, killing, or sex (?) that can cloud your mind.

I felt the “strong foundation” was generally helpful to achieving meditation, and the reasons for it were mostly true to my personal experience. But a critical view of the stricture might say this facilitates a cult-like atmosphere and makes your mind more malleable for brainwashing.  I’ll leave that to you to decide. The full code of discipline is here if you’re interested.

What’s the day-to-day like during the retreat?
Every day you wake up at 4am and sleep around 9pm. There are three hour-long meditation sittings in a meditation hall, and four sittings of an hour or more that you can choose to do in your room (i.e. fall into a nap often…) or in the hall (if you actually want to practice, which you’ll get more serious about toward the end). There’s a nightly discourse for an hour. The full schedule is at the bottom here.

Logistically, you’re separated into male and female dorms and have no contact with the opposite sex the whole ten days. You can’t read or write, can’t talk, can’t use your phone or computer or the Internet or anything really. It’s meditation all day erryday. Surprisingly, I didn’t miss these much after day 1.

Food-wise, you eat breakfast every day at 6:30 and lunch at 11. There isn’t a real dinner, but a quick tea and fruit break at 5pm. In the beginning everyone is stir crazy about this and takes as much food as they can for breakfast and lunch. Toward the end you realize hunger is a state of mind and has to do mostly with eating speed. What would’ve felt like a tiny portion on day 1 would feel impossible to eat in an hour by day 9. And it’s nothing fancy, but pretty good food when you savor it.

What’s the hardest thing about the retreat?
This is honestly different for everyone. A lot of people say it’s sitting for 10 hrs a day with no back support. While I have a lot of back pain, my legs were never a problem and I pushed through the back pain. I also had no problem with the silence and isolation — I personally found a vibrant internal monologue in between (and sometimes during…) meditations and really enjoyed the time with my mind.

For me, the hardest part of the whole thing was actually not being able to write. I found myself constantly wanting to jot down thoughts and had some of my most creative moments during meals. It was painful not to be able to capture them.

The reason you’re not allowed to write is, ostensibly, so you don’t waste your time thinking about what you want to write and focus on meditating. It also helps you to stop always engaging with every thought that comes up. I understood that intent, and found it useful in some ways, but still wished that I could write a little bit. If I go again, I’d probably cheat on this rule, honestly.

How did you hear about it?
My inspiration to try a retreat came primarily from trusting in the experience of two close friends (thanks Sameer and Eugenia!) who’d gone on vipassana before me. After I heard about it twice from them, I started mentioning vipassana frequently in conversation, and met many others who’d gone as well.

Had you meditated before?
Not at all. The day before my retreat, I could barely sit still for ten minutes or so without opening my eyes and checking the time. I was freaking out a little that I wouldn’t make it.

What made you jump into an intense silent retreat? Why not ease in?
My reason was very personal. I felt like I hadn’t ever done anything that was truly difficult for me and seen it through to completion. I would always give up and rationalize it. Ten days was a challenge to myself, to stay determined.

After the fact, I think jumping in really helped me. It was a boot camp environment, where I did nothing but learn this technique for ten days, 100 hours of meditation. Normally putting 100 hours into anything just wouldn’t happen for me. I’d try something for maybe 5-10 hours in a year and then “life got in the way.”

Think about the last time you bought equipment for a new hobby you were sure you’d prioritize, and it’s now gathering dust somewhere. You can counter that effect by isolating yourself to focus on just. one. thing.

How can I get started in meditation?
You could certainly go my route and jump into the deep end. I’d recommend it, but I’m biased. Meditation centers of all different styles are everywhere, just google your city. As a starting point, there are Shambhala centers (teaching the Tibetan meditation style) in tons of cities listed here that offer intro classes. Another great lightweight way is to try out an app called Headspace – which starts off with just a ten minute practice each day.

Would you go again?
In a heartbeat. In spite of all the flaws and challenges, I thought the retreat was immensely valuable and I want to make it a yearly thing. I’m not sure if I’ll go on another Goenka retreat first, I might try a different style retreat next year. Or maybe I’ll go in another country.

On a related note, I also realized from the retreat how much I genuinely enjoy time alone. I’m an introvert, so this makes sense logically, but I was always a bit apprehensive about traveling alone or taking a weekend off the grid to myself in the countryside somewhere. Now I plan to do just that on a regular basis.

Of course, I’m only a week into my practice post-retreat, so I’m still in the honeymoon phase. The real test of this will be if I’m still practicing and still want to go again after more time has passed. Talk to me in a year.

Everything changes, but I hope meditation will become a constant in my life.


This post is part 2 of a series about my learnings from vipassana. Part 1 on my top three learnings is here.