My 6 days at a vipassana retreat

Yep folks, I lasted 6 days out of the 10 day retreat. The longest 6 days of my life.

I had looked forward to this retreat with a mixture of excitement and trepidation since I booked it, 3 months ago. I knew it would be hard work, but that was ok if I were to get some of the results I’d read people get, from a 10 day Vipassana retreat.

The place itself is lovely and you get your own room, which is also lovely as I really don’t like sharing rooms with complete strangers. Men and women are segregated – the only time you see each other is in the meditation hall and since you aren’t meant to be looking at people anyway, you couldn’t have a quick perve at someone good looking. Oh well. You also had to be well covered up – no sleeveless tops or shorts allowed, which got quite claustrophobic considering it is summertime. Presumably this  is in case you ‘entice’ one of the men to think lustful thoughts or something. What a load of sexist nonsense.

No talking or communication of any kind with fellow ‘practitioners’ while there – however if you needed something you could ask the female manager and she would do her best to sort it for you. No reading books, or writing either. No running – and you must stay in the female part of the compound. Females only talk to the female assistant teacher. No pointing soles of feet towards the assistant teachers in the meditation hall, like if you need to stretch out your legs. They sit on a raised platform at the front and you are on cushions on the floor. That symbolism was interesting. In this case it was an older American couple. And the man did all the talking, which was very little since all the teaching was taped versions of Goenka himself.

So the first evening you are assigned a place in the meditation hall which is where you stay for the 10 days. You also vow not to kill anything, steal, communicate, indulge in any intoxicants or indulge in ‘sexual misconduct’ – and considering the sexes are segregated this can really only mean no masturbation. This was all ok by me, except early on day 2  I accidentally managed to kill a mosquito when trying to scoop it up to get it out of my room. Oops. You also were not allowed to shower or wash clothes etc during meditation hours, so you had to do everything during break times.

The first evening we were given our initial instructions – which was to observe the natural breath coming in and out of the nostrils. Or nose-trils as Goenka ( the Burmese founder of this version of Vipassana, whose taped talks were what you listened to) would say.

“Whether it be the left nose-tril or the right nose-tril or both nose-trils, it doesn’t matter. Just observe. Don’t try to change your breathing – this is a different kind of meditation, we are not doing that kind, so just observe the natural breath. As it is. Without changing it. You are bound to be successful. Bound to be successful. Bound to be successful……” and away you’d go. For 10 hours the next day, broken up into 1.5 – 2 hour slots. Starting at 4.30am.

The second day you concentrate on the sensations you feel in the triangular area from the top of the nose to the top lip – for 10 hours as above. The third day it’s narrowed to the triangular area from the tip of the nose to the top lip. I tell you, you get good at noticing the slightest little thing on this area – but keeping your concentration to this for 10 hours a day is sheer bloody torture. You start realising that going to the toilet is seriously exciting, as is taking a shower. But then it’s back to it. *Grooooaaaaannn*.

The daily schedule looks like this:

4am wake up bell

4.30-6.30am meditation – in hall or own place

6.30 -8am – breakfast and rest.

8-9am – group meditation in hall

9-11am- meditation, place as instructed

11-1pm lunch and rest. You could also ask the assistant teachers any questions if you liked

1-2.30pm – meditation – in hall or own place

2.30-3.30pm – group meditation in hall

3.30- 5pm -meditation – in hall or own place

5-6pm ‘dinner’ break and rest

6-7pm – group meditation in hall

7-8.15 evening videoed talk (or discourse as they call it) by Goenka

8.15 – 9m – group meditation in hall

9pm – you could ask the assistant teachers questions, or go to bed.

Pretty rigorous huh? The group sittings were compulsory, so the male and female managers would notice who was missing and literally go and get them.

So the first 3 days I managed to get through, but like most people I really struggled to keep my concentration on my breath (or nose-trils). It was really tough, but Goenka mentions this in the first couple of discourses, so you don’t feel too bad about this. The first day had me feeling somewhat panicky like “what the fuck have I got myself into!”, but as my mind settled down it became bearable, and I felt like I had achieved something at least.

Day 4, in the afternoon you are introduced to the actual Vipassana technique, which involves starting at the top of the head and noticing every little bodily sensation all the way down to the toes. Apparently every part of your body has sensation, all the time but our minds are not ‘trained’ to notice them. This is what we were doing. Training our minds. So this is what you do for the next couple of days – in the evening of day 5 you not only scan from the top of the head to the toes, but back again. Cool. That added a bit of excitement to the process.

By day 6 I was exhausted. 6.5 (approx.) hours of sleep a day is not enough for me. The food they give you (you aren’t allowed to bring your own), described as ‘simple vegetarian food’ reminded me of the hippy vegetarian food you got in the ‘70’s. Lots of brown rice, dahl type stuff and a plain salad, and warmed broccoli, cabbage and carrots. It was god dammed awful. Seriously awful. And, I like vegetarian food – I was one for 4 years. Only fruit for dinner wasn’t too bad, except I spent so much time on the loo in the first few days from all the ‘twigs and sticks’ I’d been eating, the fruit for dinner didn’t help.

Things were annoying me too – like the tiny woman who sat in front of me in the hall who burped – very loudly, all the time. Big guttural burps. She sounded like a bloke who had just downed a dozen beers. And the young ‘old student’ ( old students are people who have already done at least one course and are back for more), who would be one of the last to walk into the meditation hall like the Queen of Sheba and purposefully settle herself on her one cushion in the front row. By now at least half the women were leaning against the wall, with a swathe of cushions, blankets etc to be comfortable. They seriously need to get real about trying to make westerners sit cross legged on the floor. I managed to do ok with a low wooden stool, but people were really suffering.

So it was in the early afternoon on day 6 that after struggling to get through one body sweep that I opened my eyes and thought “I am sooooooo bloody bored!” So I knocked on the door of my manager’s room and told her I was leaving. She was very good about it (they seriously don’t like you leaving – Goenka called people who leave early ‘weak minded’ in one of his talks), but made me go see the female assistant teacher first who said that a lot of people feel this way about now, it was to be expected, as the technique was stirring up stuff. That was why I was exhausted too. Funnily enough, I thought I was exhausted from lack of sleep, exercise and decent food? Apparently not.

I have rarely been so pleased to leave a place in my life. I was so pleased to see my husband (and he, me) that we both cried. Then he took me out for dinner. That big fat steak was awesome.

So, that was my experience of Vipassana. Some people swear by it. I don’t believe it’s for me, not in that style anyway.

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6 Comments

  1. Brent McGrath
    Posted January 9, 2014 at 2:40 pm | Permalink

    having done 3 x 10 day courses and a couple of 3 days, i found the first 10 day one of the hardest an most valuable thing I have done. as i understand it, it is about getting in touch with your subconscious through sensation and being able to act rather than react in situations due to awareness of your body’s early reaction to a situation. the pain and physical/mental discomfort allowed me to develop equanimity. this too has helped me to act rather than react more often than not. after 5 years of using the U Ba Kin/Goenka technique, nowadays i have adapted it to suit rather than sticking to it rigidly.

    given time you may decide to have another try.

  2. Craig Stuart
    Posted February 5, 2014 at 2:48 pm | Permalink

    Congratulations Carol on your first attempt at a ‘Goenka’ retreat and thanks for your honest appraisal of this experience. My first 10 day course in 2006 was sheer physical agony initially. To not be able to sit cross-legged for 5 minutes was my first barrier; my second barrier was boredom and being compelled to follow the timetable. Since then I have completed another 3x 10 day courses, served in the kitchen for 10 days and last year completed a 3 day course. Although there have been benefits that I may never have obtained any other way, I have no present interest in engaging further with the ‘on-site’ format of the technique. I have my own meditation hut and practice as taught during the course. During the years spent engaged with the practice and theory of this tradition with all its ‘peculiarities’ I have also obtained a double-major in Psychology and Human development (BSocSci – Waikato University, 2011), read Buddhist literature (esp. Engaged, Secular and Existential) and ditched the religion of my childhood (Christianity). I’m in no hurry to indulge in Buddhist institutionalism. It would seem that Goenka’s version of ‘Indian Asceticism’ does not suit me either. Like Brent, I have adapted the technique to suit, but wouldn’t be without it. Best wishes for your journey.

  3. Carol Smith
    Posted February 6, 2014 at 11:05 am | Permalink

    Hi Guys – thanks very much for your interesting (and kind) comments 🙂

    Looking back over what I wrote, I was certainly pretty cranky at the time. I have to say that I am still very grateful for the experience, and to the Vipassana people for giving it away for free.

    Yeah I think that if perhaps things had been explained a bit better about the sorts of things we might feel as part of the journey, I probably would have stuck it out. I did think that overall, Goenka was a good teacher, and I certainly liked his secular approach.

    One of my problems is, I am pretty hard on myself, (a relic of my own Christian background) and I had gotten to the point of thinking “I don’t think I’m doing this right, so I might as well leave…” Who knows, maybe someday I’ll give it another whirl. We’ll see.

  4. Bernat Font
    Posted February 27, 2014 at 8:21 pm | Permalink

    You may well try meditation retreats from other traditions. Western teachers may suit you more, but even in the Burmese tradition there are other approaches. Sayadaw U Tejaniya is very relaxed: I stayed one month in his monastery near Yangon and it was very good.

    There’s no schedule, lots of freedom, you can even talk (but mindfully!!). It’s tough anyway, for you should maintain awareness all day long and you need more self-discipline. But his emphasis on investigation encourages you to ask yourself why you might be feeling bored, or frustrated, etc. These reflections can be quite fruitful!

  5. Carol Smith
    Posted March 2, 2014 at 1:07 pm | Permalink

    Hi Bernat. Thanks for your comment. Yes, in time (when I can afford it!) I intend to go to other retreats. I have heard of Sayadaw U Tejaniya – someone in my meditation group speaks very highly of him and says that he almost has the opposite approach to the Vipassana people. I am generally quite hard on myself anyway, so his approach is probably more of what I need 🙂

  6. Carol Smith
    Posted December 1, 2014 at 3:25 pm | Permalink

    Hi Ramsey – hey great comment, and I think Winton is right about it suiting regimented, celebate men, and hence it doing particularly well in prisons.

    I certainly found it unsatisfying, and am looking into versions which are much more gentle, I think that needs to be my focus, as I said before, I tend to be hard on myself, which ultimately just leads to misery….

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