What is Vipassana?
Broadly speaking, Vipassana is an old-school Buddhist meditation technique which translates as “insight into the true nature of reality.”
But I’ve always been familiar with Vipassana in a more specific sense, in regard to the 10-day silent meditation retreats offered around the world, free of charge (including room and board). Ever since my a few of my friends sat Vipassana courses in college, I’ve been curious to do one myself and waiting for the right moment.
This year, gifted with some spare time at the end of my personal travels in New Zealand, I signed up for a course at Dhamma Medini, the country’s only Vipassana center. In the months leading up I happily awaited the course, mentally prepared for it, and promised myself that I would stay the whole 10 days. This is something I’d been waiting a long time for.
I went, I sat–and five days later, I left.
I write these words on a public library terminal, in the closest city to Dhamma Medini, just a few hours after leaving. This is the story of my retreat, why I quit, and how this marks the demise of my long-time infatuation with Buddhism.
What is Vipassana?
Let’s try that question again, this time referring specifically to the 10-day courses created by S.N. Goenka. Let’s start with a few analogies.
Vipassana is like summer camp for adults. You get to live in a cabin with your new friends, surrounded by nature, eating communal meals. Except you don’t get to talk to any of these friends, there are no activities, girls and boys are kept almost entirely separate, and you’re told exactly what to do from 4:30am to 9:00pm.
Vipassana is like a voluntary prison sentence. You start your day with 2 hours of solitary confinement, followed by a brief meal and brisk walk, and then it’s forced sitting for an hour, followed by two more hours of solitary confinement, lunch and a brisk walk, a few more hours of solitary confinement, another hour of forced sitting, more solitary, a cup of tea and a pear, forced sitting, a mandatory lecture, and more forced sitting. Seven hours later, you do it all again. You’re free to leave at any time, but you’re not free to opt out of the structure.
Vipassana is like living in a retirement home. There’s simply nothing to do there. You don’t really talk to anyone. You don’t move beyond a limited area. You shuffle between your room, a dining hall, a large common area, and a very small outdoor area. While you are surrounded by many people, you are fundamentally left alone to think, observe, and recollect.
Vipassana is a chance for retired super-villian, S.N. Goenka, to share his penchant for chanting. Okay, this takes some explaining.
First of all, you have to realize that this silent meditation retreat is hardly silent, because each of the four daily all-group sittings begins and ends with audio recordings of S.N. Goenka, founder of Vipassana. I lot of people clearly love this guy, and I mean no disrespect by saying this… but he sounds like a super-villian. Like Thanos. Like a bad guy in a James Bond movie. Like someone who says “If you don’t pay me a hundred million dollars by tomorrow then I will blow up New York City!” in slow, low, deep voice.
Goenka was born in Burma and moved to India when he was 45, and I appreciate that he speaks English as well as he does. But from the very time I heard his voice, I couldn’t help thinking, this guy is creepy! Creepy in a hilarious way. I actually laughed out loud a few times when I heard Goenka say “Start again”–as he does many times each day–in an ultra-low timbre with a long, drawn-out “n”: Start againnnn, start agggaaaiiinnnnnnn. (I’m yet to find good audio of him saying these words.)
Needless to say, I had trouble taking the guy seriously. But it wasn’t just how he talked, it’s what he said. Each of the group sittings began and ended with Goenka chanting for a few minutes. We’re told very little about these chants, beyond the exhortation that “they’re good for meditation” and that they derive from Pali, the language of the Buddha. But I swear, some of the sounds that he makes cannot be words. He is making this stuff up. Listen to this audio and judge for yourself; it’s not the exact audio that I heard–mine was creepier–but it’s close enough.
Vipassana is supposed to be a tradition free of “rites and rituals,” as Goenka often boasted, something that focused purely on the practice of meditation, without any ornamentation. But this was a ritual that we were forced to endure multiple times a day without clear reason, and one that I struggled to take seriously when I felt like it was entirely possible that Goenka was chanting to himself in the shower one day and wondered, “how could I reach a bigger audience, how could I really break out in my chanting career?” And then he devised the 10-day retreats as a way to create a captive audience of worldwide listeners, decades before YouTube ever existed. Genius!
Vipassana is an excruciatingly long lesson in a technique that could be explained in 15 minutes. Let me boil down the practical teachings of Vipassana, Days 1-5, right here in one paragraph. Sit still and focus on your breathing. Breathe through your nose and try to feel the touch of your breath on your upper lip and inside your nostrils. Now try to feel any bodily sensations that may arise in that small triangular area between the nose and upper lip: heat, cold, sweat, numbness, tingling, throbbing, et cetera. Now apply that same technique to your entire body, moving from the top of your head to the tip of your toes, looking for sensations on every little section of your body. (He never talks explicitly about giving attention to your butt or groin; too racy, I suppose.) If you find yourself drifting off into thought, simply return to observing your breath or scanning your body for sensations.
There you go, that’s it–that’s the technique, or at least the first half of the technique, since I left half-way through. At such a glacial pace I don’t suppose that much more content could have been delivered in the next five days. (Although I did spy, upon arrival, the word “Metta” on the Day 10 Schedule board. Metta is a practice of extending goodwill and loving kindness to other people, and it’s one I’ve used with enjoyment in the past. So I missed out on that, but man, I didn’t want to wait four more days for it.)
Where does all the time go? Here’s where: the guru continuously exhorting his students to do better. Goenka tells you to work diligently, to practice continuously, to observe your sensations with perfect equanimity… ok, thanks, that’s so helpful! It’s like telling a tightrope walker to improve by walking with “more balance.” Not helpful! Give us tools! But there are no more tools in the end. Goenka spends so much time in salesman/cheerleader mode that you can listen to him for an entire instructional session without learning anything concrete. It was quite frustrating to be his student. Which brings us to the next point.
Vipassana is like being in 1st grade again. When you’re talking with a young child you should repeat everything you say, and sometimes repeat it twice. That’s a rule, right? If so, it’s one that Goenka follows religiously. Maybe this is just him or maybe it’s a feature of many Eastern gurus, but he repeats his phrases and sentences all the time. “Start again. Start again. Start again with a calm and clear mind, calm and clear mind.” (I’m paraphrasing here. Remember, it’s all pronounced slllooowly.) “Maintain perfect equanimity, perfect equanimity. Work diligently, diligently. Work ardently, ardently. Work patiently and persistently, patiently and persistently. With consistent practice you are bound to be successful, bound to be successful.”
He repeats these little phrases, and he also repeats bigger chunks. On Day 4, when he took an hour and a half of our time to reveal the Great Secret behind Vipassana meditation, he began by telling us to focus on the very top of our heads and search for any sensations: cold, heat, itching, tingling, throbbing, pain, numbness, and many more. Then he instructed us to focus on our foreheads and scan for any sensations of cold, heat, itching, tingling, throbbing, pain, numbness, etc. Then we were to focus on our faces, searching for sensations of cold, heat, itching, tingling, throbbing, pain, numbness, and all the others. You get the picture? He went through every section of the body and listed out the same damn sensations, over and over again.
Day 4 was especially challenging in this respect, but every other day had its fair share of repetition. When you combine the way he talked, how much he talked, and how much felt this felt purely unnecessary, you end up feeling like an adult in a 1st-grade class with an especially patronizing teacher. It also reminded me of being stuck in a few particularly mind-numbing high school and college classes, ones that I skipped whenever possible.
Perhaps the simplicity, repetition, and vocal intonation are vital ingredients in Goenka’s success in popularizing Vipassana. Perhaps this makes the teachings accessible to people of all languages and education levels. But for me, it was simply bad pedagogy. It was mentally painful. But that wasn’t the only kind of pain.
Vipassana is the Pain Olympics. When my friends Adam and Hunter sat Vipassana courses back in college, they warned me: It’s the worst pain you’ll ever feel. They complained of their backs, hips, legs, and knees hurting constantly. That was 15 years ago, and lo and behold, the technique is consistent! At the end of the first full day I laid down in bed, expecting to finally gain some relief, but no–even there, lying flat, I was in pain.
How to describe this pain? It’s being on a long-haul flight (6-12 hours), where you can shift around in your seat a bit, walk the aisles every hour or so, but otherwise you have to suffer that dull, throbbing pain in your back, hips, butt, and legs, and knees. Now imagine taking that same flight, day after day. There’s no way this can be healthy. If sitting is the new smoking, then Vipassana is like sucking down two packs a day.
To the organization’s credit, they do allow you to shift your posture in order to feel comfortable during the ~4 total daily hours of all-group meditations… to a certain extent. Getting up and stretching is not allowed. You can take as many cushions as you need to create your own little plush fortress, but your body quickly adjusts to them. By request you can get a wooden kneeling bench (which the guy next to me had), a flat-backed wooden support (which I took on Day 4), or for the truly ailing and desperate, a plastic lawn chair (on which you sit in the back of the class). But fundamentally, you’ve got to keep sitting–and that hurts. (This only applies to the all-group meditations; for about six hours a day, you were free to choose between meditating in the group hall or in your personal quarters. I quickly learned to choose the personal quarters, every time, because that meant I could take little breaks to stretch, lay on my side, and take cat naps.)
All this went into overdrive on Day 5, when we were told to begin meditating with Strong Determination, which meant not moving your hands or feet for the entire hour. Again, to be fair, the instructions made it clear that our goal wasn’t to purposefully inflict pain on ourselves, but rather to expand our tolerance beyond its current level…up to the point of “intolerable pain.” Jeez, really, is that where we were supposed to hold the line for 4 hours each day, just below the point of “intolerable pain?” While Vipassana was flexible and compassionate in some regards, it was rigid and domineering in others. In the end, I felt like the course promoted a culture of pain through silent competition between sitters. Each hour started to feel like a game: Who would be the first to shift their posture? Not me, I’m not a weakling! Perhaps this was all just in my head; I doubt it. Goenka made it clear that he wanted us to feel pain so that we would have an object of meditation, so that we couldn’t say “I don’t feel any sensations.” Perhaps that’s valuable in itself, perhaps it’s not. (More on that in a moment.)
Vipassana is, perhaps, a cult. The best pre-Vipassana advice I got was from my friend Tilke, who said: “Don’t listen to them if they tell you to tolerate pain. Move. And remember: it’s a cult!” Tilke mentioned that she has watched a handful of people with unstable mental states get pushed over the edge by the “burly attitude” at Vipassana courses.
I believe her. It’s hard to say no when the guru and the dedicated returning students and the seemingly dedicated other new students (hard to know, because you never get to talk to them) are all doing the same thing. Cults are real. Many people debate whether Vipassana falls into this category, and a quick online search reveals strong opinions in both directions. (It also revealed this great story by a woman who did a 10-day course at the same center.) To me, the group usually felt like a perfectly reasonable collection of soul-seekers in some moments. But when half the room (mostly the older students) started chanting “Sadhu, Sadhu, Sadhu” after each of Goenka’s lessons and mumbling chants, it felt unquestionably cultish.
Clearly I’m letting off some steam here–but that steam built up for a reason. Here’s how it came to a head.
When Day 1 ended, I was chipper. I embraced the challenges, physical and mental, in all their newness.
When Day 2 ended, I was still determined, but Goenka’s teaching style was wearing on me, and I was struggling to swallow some big parts of his evening Dharma talks (like this video, which is one that was actually shown on my retreat).
When Day 3 ended, I felt quite sure that the little triangle between my nostrils and upper lip had received all the attention it needed, perhaps for a lifetime. The pain started to feel less purposeful. But I was excited for the big change we were promised on Day 4, the “real” start of Vipassana. Onwards.
By the end of Day 4, I was incredibly frustrated. Goenka had us sit an additional hour and a half in the meditation hall to explain the concept of head-to-toe body scanning which, quite literally, should have taken 2 minutes. My body was screaming at me. The benefits of meditation I felt in the first days were dwindling. I started hatching plans to leave… and I also counseled myself to have patience. Sleep on it. Give it another full day. You can do this.
The morning of Day 5, I did feel better. But as soon as Goenka’s instructions boomed over the loudspeakers in the first group sitting, my will plummeted. I felt so infantilized, so condescended to. The body scanning technique was doing nothing for me. The commitment to Strong Determination (i.e., no moving during group sits) had begun in full force. I peeked at the schedule boards for days 6, 7, 8, and 9, and they mostly seemed to be a repeat of day 5. Why am I wasting my time here? and Why should I expect this will change? became recurring questions in my head.
The evening of Day 5, I decided that I had weighed the issue long enough. I was going to leave. Not in violent reaction, not in fiery protest. I was going to leave in a calm, deliberate, conscious manner–one fitting of a meditation center. I would sleep on this decision once gain.
The morning of Day 6, I felt the same way. I looked down the line and saw five more days of pain, frustration, and little growth. So I left.
What I loved
Now I’ll mention the wonderful parts of this retreat.
First of all, the staff. They’re all volunteers. Bless them. A small army of returning students cooked us two big, satisfying, vegetarian meals a day. The course manager for the males, Matti, was always available for logistical questions. The assistant teacher, Ross, sat with me twice to discuss my challenges, showing genuine kindness and empathy. I later learned that Ross has been an assistant teacher at Dhamma Medini for something like 25 years. He, too, is unpaid.
Next, the facilities and location. I enjoyed a clean, warm, private room at a clean, modern retreat center. We were surrounded by lush nature, gorgeous clouds and sunlight, and an endless chorus of birds. On the short loop trail through the adjacent wilderness, glowworms appeared in the dark; I spent many (unsanctioned) 5am mornings meditating with those little guys. All this, for free, funded by the donations of previous students. Clearly S.N. Goenka did enough good in enough people’s lives to warrant some large donations.
Vipassana forced me to put in a lot of hours of meditation in a short period of time. I meditated more at Dhamma Medini in these five days than perhaps I have in all my life. Seen through the lens of deliberate practice, this was a period of intense skill-building. These skills include:
- Watching feelings, desires, and anxieties arise within me–and not reacting to them
- Returning to my breath as a way of refocusing my scattered mind
- Having a clear, high bar for what “calmness” and “level-headedness” feels like–something that will surely serve me in all sorts of interpersonal situations
As a byproduct of spending so much time in my head, I also walked away some big realizations about my health, relationships, and life trajectory. Generating “a-ha” moments is not supposed to be the point of meditation, but I was grateful for them nonetheless.
Finally the retreat itself served as a much-needed break from my work, my smartphone, the internet, focused mental activity (thanks to the ban on reading and writing materials), rigorous physical activity, sugar, alcohol, caffeine, and the simple responsibility of being in charge of my own life. I considered staying longer, in fact, just to get more of these things. But by the end of Day 5 I knew that I was no longer taking Goenka’s teachings seriously, and by staying longer and faking my participation, I would leeching off the time and resources of these kind volunteers. Vipassana is not supposed to be a free vacation; it’s a purposeful exploration of a specific technique. If I wasn’t going to do it right, then it was time to go. And it was time to go.
When I told my friend Nathen, who once sat a 10-day course, that I finally signed up for Vipassana, he said “Good, now you just need to not leave. The most important stuff comes by finishing.”
Nathen was squarely on my mind as I made the decision to quit. Did I walk out on a potentially transformative experience? By sitting with my pain and bearing the discomfort of the teachings, might I have gained something? Certainly.
Here’s one thing I know I missed out on. On Day 10, the vow of silence is broken. You’re allowed to talk to the other students. I was really looking forward to this, because there were so many moments that I wondered “What is he thinking?” or “How did these other guys react to this thing that bugged me so much?” or “Does anyone else think that Goenka is a super-villian?” I gave up the opportunity to connect with my fellow meditators, learn from their experiences, and perhaps make a few friends.
But every opportunity has costs, does it not? From my vantage point at the end of Day 5, I saw five more long days of painful and minimally productive meditation. How else might I spend those five days, some of my last days in New Zealand? Going exploring? Getting more time in the outdoors, where I’ve always experienced equanimity? Meditating on my own, using the tools I’d gained at the retreat?
From my personal history I know that I really need to believe in something, especially something as demanding and all-encompassing as Vipassana, to invest my energy into to. Otherwise I will rebel. And rebel I did–the little anti-authoritarian voice in my head come out in full effect.
I told Ross, the assistant teacher, about this voice. Ross gave me some good advice: watch my frustrated reactions to the teachings, watch that little voice, and to see how impermanent it is. Use that little voice as a tool for growth. Sit with the pain. The obstacle is the way.
I agree with this logic. One shouldn’t run away from a challenge at the first sign of discomfort. One should be wary whenever a little voice inside says “Flee! Take the easy way!” Sometimes the only way to grow is to sit with your pain.
But is it always? No. Sometimes walking away is the smart thing to do, both short-term and long-term. This is how I counsel young people and parents to think regarding conventional school. Sometimes jumping through the hurdles of school is genuinely worth it in the end. And sometimes it’s just a waste of time, a needless exercise in pain, and a lost opportunity to have done something more joyful and productive. Who knows? In situations like these we have to take all our thoughts, feelings, and instincts on the table, smash them together, and make a decision. We’ll never really know if it was the right one.
The end of my infatuation with Buddhism
Buddhism first enchanted me at age 18 when I took a Comparative Religions course in community college. Billing itself as a philosophy rather than a religion and claiming to be validated by modern physics, it instantly appealed to my scientific and atheistic nature.
In college I read Jack Kerouac’s The Dharma Bums and Some of the Dharma, which made me fall head-over-heels in love with Zen Buddhism. I continued my self-education by reading books by Alan Watts and D.T. Suzuki. I meditated on backpacking trips in the mountains and while walking through campus. I felt connected to a sense of “spirituality” for the first time in my life, in way that formal Western religions never came close to offering.
My infatuation held constant for a decade, and I would periodically dabble in Buddhist literature. In 2014 I took an Unschool Adventures group to Nepal where we did a 10-day Tibetan Buddhist course outside Kathmandu, which was only partially silent and much less intense than Vipassana. There I learned more about standard Buddhist dogmas like reincarnation, belief in multiple universes, and karma, as well as some of their esoteric rules and deities. But this was just the Tibetans, I told myself. They’re more influenced by Hinduism. They’re not real Buddhists.
Soon after I read a book by Matthieu Ricard, the famous French Ph.D. geneticist who converted to Tibetan Buddhism. Despite his scientific credentials, Ricard tried to make physics bend in a way to Buddhism that didn’t sit right with me. I started to question the whole “Buddhism is scientific” premise.
Then there was Vipassana, which I had hoped would offer a “pure” form of Buddhism. In some ways it did. But there was still too much take-it-on-faith dogma, still too much bad teaching, still the chanting, still the bastardization of science.
All this leads me to now believe that Buddhism is a religion. Buddhism is not scientific. It’s different from other religions in important ways, but at the end of the day, I’m just not going to buy into it.
Meditation is good. It’s a powerful tool for life. But from now on, I’ll take it without the Buddhism, thank you very much.
published April 24th, 2019