One Man's Review of a Vipassana Retreat

A Question Is Pondered  

 A view of the mountains, from the retreat

A view of the mountains, from the retreat

BALI, INDONESIA—Could you be silent for ten days straight? Not speak a single word to another human, not even by means of a simple hand gesture, or glance of the eyes? This was a question I found myself constantly pondering as I debated whether or not to sign up for a ten-day Vipassana meditation course. What is Vipassana, you may ask? Well that’s a question I probably should have addressed before committing myself to the program. Once I made the decision that a prolonged period of self-meditation would be beneficial to me, I didn’t question the matter much further. I had heard from a number of people that it was a life-changing experience that everyone should have the opportunity to experience at some point, and as a traveler on a budget I was attracted by the $0.00 price for 11 nights of food and lodging. That’s right, Vipassana courses are funded entirely on the donation of past students who want to give others the opportunity to experience such a connection with the divine. 

 

Arrival and First Thoughts on Vipassana

Pulling up to the gorgeous Landih Ashram in the foothills of Mount Agung on Wednesday afternoon was an exciting experience. Here I was, about to embark upon a ten-day spiritual journey in the epicenter of 21st-century western spirituality (Bali), and I barely knew a thing about what I was going to do. Vipassana bills itself as "a way of self-transformation through self-observation. It focuses on the deep interconnection between mind and body, which can be experienced directly by disciplined attention to the physical sensations that form the life of the body, and that continuously interconnect and condition the life of the mind. It is this observation-based, self-exploratory journey to the common root of mind and body that dissolves mental impurity, resulting in a balanced mind full of love and compassion.” Sounds interesting, right? Aside from the fact that I was to not open my mouth for ten days, eat only simple vegetarian meals and have fruit for dinner, I really had not a clue what I was getting myself into aside from this description. I consider myself a pretty open-minded person, and I didn’t really want to cloud my experience by filling my mind with other people’s reactions beforehand so I opted against researching internet reviews. This was supposed to be a course; let me allow them to teach me the way to enlightenment--albeit on someone else’s dime.

After unpacking my modest belongings in my bed, third on the right in a double row of eight beds, all covered by mosquito netting, the first thought to go through my head was how STUPID it was of me to intentionally leave my earplugs in my other bag. Choosing to live simply is one thing, sleeping in a small enclosure with 15 other males is quite another. But alas, this was one of the first of many instances where I simply thought to myself that there was not a single thing I could do to change the situation, so I might as well accept my reality and move on. Slowly exploring the grounds, I realized that the space allocated for our “outside time” was not much space at all, and would hardly afford me the opportunity to get any meaningful sort of exercise. Sitting around and thinking is all well and good, but it also means that one builds up a certain amount of steam that needs to be blown off. I think I can remember how to do Warriors 1 & 2 and Cobra pose from yoga class, so a mixture of Yoga Matt and butt kicks will have to suffice for the time being.

 

 New friends from Vipassana

New friends from Vipassana

 

Dinner is a jovial affair, though a somewhat awkward one. We all know that at 8 pm the course begins, and we’ll have to shut our mouths and avert our eyes for the next week and a half, so how should we handle the time when we are allowed to talk? Chat like everything is normal, and then just ignore each other starting in an hour? Or does our meditative journey begin now, and should we eat in silence, declining to introduce ourselves? I make friends with Moshe and Jesse, both of whom live in Bali. They’re a lot less weird than I expected the people here to be, they’re actually pretty cool. Moshe practices some sort of spiritual wisdom coaching, and Jesse is a bodybuilding yoga instructor from Connecticut, and they make great companions to banter with at the Last Supper. Sure, I’ll take this seriously when the course begins, but at this point, there’s no reason to do anything other than poke fun at the ridiculousness of it all.

 

And So It Begins

Suddenly, the gong goes off. Starting now, the gong is to become an integral part of our lives. Since no one is allowed to talk, the gong talks. The gong tells you when it’s time to wake up, when it’s time to eat, when it’s time to snap out of your meditative trance…the gong will have the ability to induce extreme states of emotional distress or euphoric joy, depending on your current state and what it’s calling you to do. But for now, the gong means nothing to me, only that it’s time to clear my plate and gather around the men’s entrance to the meditation hall. One by one, our names are called and we are ushered into the room. From this point forward, we are not allowed to speak. I’m one of the last ones summoned; by this point, the stars are shining brightly in the sky. We’re a long way from civilization, and I’m about to go a lot further away.

My first unfiltered thought when I walk into the room is that whoever runs Vipassana is doing an insanely shitty job of not making it look like a cult. Small meditation pillows are arrayed in symmetrical lines across the length of the room; women on the right side, men on the left. No touching. The lights are dimmed so that everything looks creepy, and if my memory serves me correctly there was an ominous soundtrack playing gently in the background, though it’s entirely possible that my memory does not serve me correctly and that it was totally silent. I’m led to my pillow and try to sit in lotus position with my legs crossed like a true swami. This has always been absurdly difficult for me and I have never, and still don’t, understand how people sit comfortably or appear to sit comfortably in this position. The small bone on the outside of my leg below my ankle and above my foot always sticks out and digs into the floor, always, without fail, every single time. But I have to roll with it, and after all, I am sitting on a pillow so it’s not too bad. Looking up at the front of the room, I see two figures sitting in serene meditative postures, draped in woolly blankets, each on their own raised platforms overlooking everyone. Creep city, this is.

 

At this point, I have my eyes closed and start meditating, whatever that means. I’ve tried meditating every now and then, and to me, it just means thinking about stuff. That’s it. Usually, I just get bored and call it quits in favor of an activity more stimulating to the mind. But in this situation, there’s no quitting, since there’s nothing else to go and do. I have no books, no papers, no computer, no phone, no companions, no walking trail…nothing. So, might as well use this time to think. I’ve wanted it for quite some time…I’ve always wondered where my mind would go when it was deprived of all sensory input, and that was one of the main purposes of my enrolment in the course, to just see what happens when there’s no outside stimuli. At this point, someone has hit the play button on a recording of what sounds like a cross between a fornicating piglet and James Earl Jones humming deeply in a vain attempt to shatter a car window. I’m being treated to the wondrous vibrations of S.N. Goenka, who apparently will be teaching our course through a series of videotapes. That’s right, all Vipassana courses are taught by a series of 15-year-old videotapes recorded by a guy who, as it turns out, died last year. At the beginning and end of each meditation session, he treats you to 3-5 minutes of “vibrations”, the purpose of which was never made clear and which I never understood. The image of Hunter S. Thompson taking a Magnum .44 to his typewriter kept creeping back into my mind; it’s the God’s honest truth that what got me through Goenka’s vibrations was my mental image of his ashes rising up from the dead, flying on a giant bald eagle all the way to Kintamani, and disposing of the speakers in a similar fashion. This was one of the many ridiculous contrivances my brain created in order to keep me sane. If this sounds insane, you have an idea of what this class does to you.

 

 This is what sanity begins to look like.

This is what sanity begins to look like.

 

A Day in the Life of a Vipassana Student

Our meditative journeys continued according to schedule pictured above for the next nine days. If you do the math, it works out to approximately 10.5 hours of meditation a day. This is pure insanity. On the first day, I woke up for the 4:30 meditation and strolled into around 5 am. Sitting down, I spent the next hour and a half in a fitful doze, until I was saved from my reverie by the gong. I LOVE THE GONG. The gong has induced in me a state of euphoric joy. 6:30 means breakfast, easily my favorite time of day. The cooks know what sort of torture we were going through and sought to give us something to look forward to, for which I am forever grateful…especially doughnut day. I have never savored a chocolate doughnut the way I did on the morning of day six. We were fortunate enough to have coffee at breakfast (which I did not expect), so each morning after finishing my meal I would take my morning cup to the same rock and stare off at the mountains in the distance as the sun rose behind me and cast the light of day on the forest before me. It took me 25 years to become a morning person, but I now savor every bit of that time of day. I love having a cup of coffee and waxing philosophical about the dawn of a new day, a brand new lease on life and whatever it is you might be working on at that moment. I’m a big fan of the concept of possibility, and nothing holds more possibility than a new day. Obvious stuff, but well worth thinking about when you want to truly put it into practice, and one of my favorite parts of a day in the life of a Vipassana student.

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Day One was the only time I attended the morning meditation session. Quickly realizing that I was also afforded the option of “meditating in my living quarters”, I chose to “meditate in the parallel dimension of a REM cycle”, and didn’t regret the choice once. I was having a difficult enough time as it was without having to be woken by 4 am by a gong to meditate. I was woken at 4 am by a gong, but I thought of it as setting my alarm for 2 hours early so I could wake up and be happy about the fact that I could go to sleep. Everything is about perspective.

 

Learning to Deal with Silent Interactions     

I will not recount the entire day, only portions which I deem significant. I sincerely doubt that there is anyone still reading this that is not looking for a review on a Vipassana class, so I’ll continue how I see fit. Day One is fine. Day One is cake. You are excited about starting this journey that you think you need. You have all of this time to think about things, and it’s exciting. It’s the start of something new. Day Two sucks. Day Two is absolutely awful. Why does Day Two suck so much? Well, it’s because we are used to communicating with humans, and not even necessarily with cohesive thoughts and words. We’re used to communicating with them by looking at them, by smiling- using tools that cross traditional cultural boundaries. At our lunch table, along with Moshe and Jesse, sat an Indonesian guy named Alex. Alex chewed his food very loudly. This is not especially rude, since in his culture this is perfectly acceptable. But in a dining hall where no one is saying a word, it’s loud, and it’s annoying. In normal, everyday life, you would give Alex a look to communicate to him that this practice is annoying you. He might stop, he might not- you might choose to say something further, and you might not. But at least you have recourse to express these feelings, if not to Alex, then to Jesse or Moshe, so you know you are not alone in thinking this is annoying. By Day Two, you realize that you CANNOT DO THIS. You need to eat every meal like this, listening to the chewing sound Alex is making. And it drives you crazy.

It also drives you crazy that the Russians do not respect the concept of a single line. There is no consideration of the simple fact that if you are there first, you go before them in line. They will cut you to take their fill. They will fill their plates up with considerably more food than a rational observer would deem to be fair for a single individual eating from this buffet. If you were in the last fifth of the line, you never got any food from the first batch. You always had to wait for them to bring out more of the “good stuff”; sometimes there was a lot, sometimes there wasn’t. While in the back of the line, the papaya ran out. Papaya is a coveted fruit. The papaya is replaced. A Russian who had already gotten servings of watermelon and papaya and was sitting down came back, and took the papaya straight from the plate without letting the line finish. When you don’t have that much sensory input coming in to give you new things to talk about, actions such as this are absolutely infuriating. But you can’t do anything about it. Not a single thing about it, because you cannot communicate to this guy that he is being an absolute dick. (Note: I am not being xenophobic, ethnocentric, racist, or anything of the like: this was simply an observed fact from my class. There was a group of friends from Russia and they all acted like this. No one else did). 

 

Lessons Learned from Continued Silent Interaction

On Day Three or Four, it dawns on you that this is part of the experience. These petty little things that just piss you off in real life are supposed to piss you off here. What you’re supposed to recognize is that the time we spend being angry about these things is just wasted time. There is nothing you can do about the actions of others, so there is no use wasting your time on them. The only thing you can do is change your own actions, and the only reasonable thing to do is to just be cool with it. There’s no use in stressing over some dude chewing loudly. Really, in the end, who cares? Obviously there is a fine line here that should not be easily confused. Learning to shrug off inconsequential things and move on is much different from addressing serious problems, and there’s probably some quote out there about how knowing the difference between the two is the stuff wisdom is made of, but a major takeaway I got from this course is to just chill out and don’t sweat the small stuff. It’s always been a favorite fridge magnet of mine, but I do feel as if I can put those words into practice.



An Exercise in Living in the Present

Now, a little bit about the meditative technique of Vipassana. I was completely under the impression that we would be going through some sort of guided meditation that would release us from suffering. Wrong. We spent the first three days of this course concentrating on monitoring our breath, I kid you not. Day in, day out, the express purpose of the exercise was NOT TO THINK, but to SIMPLY FOCUS ON THE IN AND OUT OF YOUR BREATH. This drove me absolutely insane since I was getting some really good thinking time in. “Screw this”, was the recurring chaste thought that found itself running through my head many a time. Yet one day, in one of the evening discourses, a very important lesson clicked for me. Goenka said something about how when we try to focus on our breath, our mind keeps thinking of other things. We can make it maybe one, two, three, or even four breaths before we totally lose it and our mind wanders. Well, where does our mind wander? To one of two places: either memories, things that happened in the past, or possibilities, things that may happen in the future. I’ve always been someone that has made a supreme effort to revel in the moment, to take a single moment and tell everyone, hey guys, let’s take a mental snapshot and remember this moment, right here, in time, right now, and just revel in the present. Yet it was still a profound revelation for me that when left to it’s own devices, the mind is virtually incapable of focusing on the present moment. It will constantly flit to the past and to the future, but rarely will it just chill out and enjoy the now. This isn’t the lesson Goenka was trying to teach, but it’s a significant revelation the class ended up showing me.
 

What Is Vipassana, Actually?

Day Four is Vipassana day, where the technique for Vipassana is revealed to you. I was expecting something far more complicated, but it is not complicated. Vipassana Light is this: humans suffer because they desire. Desire is not always necessarily a carnal thirst for another human, it is simply the desire for something else. If you are angry, you desire to be calm. If you are hungry, you desire to be sated. If you are in pain, you desire to be comfortable. Vipassana preaches that all suffering is a manifestation of desire in one form or another, so to free ourselves from suffering, we must free ourselves from desire. Reasonable in theory, right? Yet what Vipassana in particular teaches is that desires (or sankaras, to use the official word), manifest themselves as physical sensations in the body. So, to rid yourself of desire, you must become acquainted with the sensations in your body by sitting there for hours on end and focusing on different parts of your body. Whenever any sort of sensation arises, you must react equanimously (without any emotion at all). It is through this practice that you become free from desire. I know that release from suffering through the conquering of desire is a Buddhist mantra, and Vipassana is a Buddhist practice. I am not certain how interrelated the two are, but I am completely disinterested in the philosphies of Buddhism after this course. It seems to me that the only way to live a life "free from suffering" is to lead a life "free of all emotion", which to me seems like a waste of human life on Earth.
 

Dealing With Self-Induced Suffering to Free Yourself?

Thus, Days Four through Nine are spent meditating in lotus position in an attempt to not think about anything while observing the sensations in your body. I found this to be one of the most excruciating experiences of my life. I simply do not buy the fact that our desires manifest themselves in physical sensations that we are able to experience when simply meditating. Diehards will say that I have not taken it far enough, but I simply call BS on the whole practice. I kid you not (since I had a meeting with the teacher because I could not believe this was actually the case) that it is an express purpose of the Vipassana course to make you sit in an uncomfortable position so that you may observe the discomfort in your body equanimously and become OK with the discomfort. I think this is stupid. Is it a useful tactic for dealing with such things as anger and frustration, to allow these feelings to manifest themselves yet realize that the only actions you can control are your own, and react in a rational manner since you have trained yourself to dispassionately observe your emotions of anger and frustration? Yes, I believe it to be a valuable lesson in that sense. But I also I think it’s stupid to put people in pain and tell them to be OK with it as a means from releasing yourself from desire. That’s torture.
 

What Did I Think of Vipassana?

All in all, I found the Vipassana course absolutely awful. I hated almost every minute I spent there, though I did have the opportunity to think about a lot of things. I’m usually a note-taker, a compulsive one at that, and I found that you can get a lot more thinking done when you don’t have the opportunity to constantly scribble down ideas. It certainly lets you get much deeper into your own mind, often to soundtracks that you never would have guessed would pop up out of the blue (the Beatles Don’t Let Me Down played for about four days straight in my head). I took away some very important lessons from the teachings of Vipassana, but in the end I did not donate anything since I do not want to support the ongoing teachings of this practice. For a few days afterwards, I was in some sort of psychological withdrawal funk—who knows what, I think it was just readjusting to the world after having been in my own for so long, but I now hate the course less after time has passed and see the value in a lot of the experiences I had. 
 

What were the most important things I learned, you may ask?

  • We can control only our own actions: there is no use wasting energy on things you cannot change.

  • The only universal law of nature is the law of impermanence, otherwise known as annicca. It was a powerful lesson to me that once we understand that things are always changing and that this is the way of the world, we can accept that and move on with our lives. Things change and that is the way it’s meant to be.

  • Panya: this is just the Sanskrit word for the concept of examining things from all angles. I just like living life that way, and picked up an entertaining word which sums up the concept.

  • Try to react to feelings of stress and anger equanimously. Try not to get annoyed about things and realize that if something is going wrong, the only thing you can do to change it is to change your own attitude and do whatever is in your power to rectify the situation

  • I am much happier in my own company. I have no problem when things don’t go as planned, or if I need to wait an hour for the bus. For the first few days, I was very anxious, all day, but a sense of real calm has come over me since then. I’m lucky enough to be traveling the world right now, which obviously leaves me in a position where everything is new and interesting, but I really am not bothered about NEEDING to go on to the next thing, I find that I’m quite content to live in the present moment, whatever that may be.

  • The practice of mindfulness: it sounds simple, but just…be aware of what you are doing. If you are eating, know that you are eating. Don’t multitask.

  • I want to be home for the holidays. It's funny where your mind goes when it has nothing else to think of, and one of the primary thoughts is of the important of family and friends, and how precious spending time with them is.

 

Should You Enroll??

I still would not recommend this course to anyone who does not know what they are getting themselves into. At this stage in my life it was not a radical experiment for me to try something like this, and I am at a point where I can use perspective to really focus on the positives I got out of it. But if you have any doubts at all about signing up for Vipassana, I would strongly advise you against doing so. There is a reason they advise anyone with any psychological issues not to sign up, and that is because you are entering a very dangerous realm: that of your own mind.
 

Closing Thoughts

I remember thinking how crazy life was in NYC, where every single moment of my day needed to be filled up by some sort of activity that stimulated my senses. I could not bear to go to the gym without music, since the gym without music was borrrrrringggggg and terrible. I NEEDED to listen to the Joe Rogan Experience podcast while walking to the subway and taking the train to work, since without that entertainment what I was doing was borrrrrringggggg. Why do one thing when I could do two? Well, the more I think about it is because when you do two things, you don’t do either of them well. So if any laymen out there have made it to the end of the post and want to know what I would suggest they do to try and improve their lives, it’s simple: go to the gym without music. Just revel in the simple act of what you are doing at that moment. Be aware of what you are doing at that moment, and don’t try to constantly flit about from one thing to the next. Take the time to honestly, sincerely appreciate whatever you are doing at that exact moment, even if it is just staring out the window, and appreciate the fact that you are alive. Don't think about what you did this morning or your plans for the afternoon, the beauty of life is in the present moment. There’s a reason to stop and smell the roses, and there’s no shame in doing so. In fact, that’s what life is all about.