10 Days of Silence: Is a Vipassana Boot-camp For You?

Last year, I went on a 10-day Vipassana mediation retreat. The word “retreat” may conjure up images of sandy beaches, blue ocean water, luxurious bed linens, and faraway lands. This was not one of those. I woke up every morning at 4:30 a.m. and sat for 12 hours a day on a cushion on a cold stone floor, trying desperately to focus on my breath, or something, *anything*.

My friend Aron Schoppert recently finished the same course, and he was awesome enough to do a long write up about it and agreed to let me publish it here. It’s a long piece, so I will put out some quotes and summary, and put the full article in PDF document for your reading pleasure.

Aron’s Story

I recently became a first-time participant to a 12-day Vipassana meditation retreat near Onalaska, Washington at the Northwest Vipassana Center, as taught by S.N. Goenka in the tradition of Sayagyi U Ba Khin.   I first became aware of Vipassana and the center back in 1997, but found the schedule and set of restrictions daunting with the potential for 100+ hours of seated meditation over the course of the 10 days of silence.  It is the only one of its kind in the northwest region.

Why He Did It

I was not seeking to fix anything, but knew that I could stand to benefit on some level.

Did it “Work”?

I feel very fortunate that Goenka started this movement and provides the teachings free of charge.   While this may turn out to be a short-sighted claim, I feel I will be forever changed for the better good because of it.    This is not to say that I don’t realize how easy it is to get caught back up with my old patterns and lose the bulk of said benefit.  There is more work to be done, and I plan to stay on task.   The benefit is too great.

… With Some Caveat

Despite the amazing amount of progress I made in the course of 10 days, I am not a complete advocate of Goenka’s retreat or teaching style.  There are a number of shortcomings and dangers in its application that I believe limit its potential or its goals in helping others… There are public, well-written critiques of Goenka teachings that I recommend reading before taking the plunge.

And Now for the Vipassana Elevator Pitch

Vipassana is one of India’s most ancient meditation techniques.   Vipassana is a word in Pali which translates literally to insight or seeing within.   It is described in the center’s brochure as the process of mental purification through self observation and introspection.

And Who’s This Goenka Dude?

S.N. Goenka is widely known as one of the foremost non-sectarian teachers, and it is important to note his 10 day course focuses on what many in the meditation world consider a highly selective form of Vipassana.  Vipassana is also known as “mindfulness meditation” where one looks within, utilizing all the senses.

Just Scratching the Surface

Goenka’s version focuses specifically on awareness of body sensations and his technique is arguably for simplicity, but this is not explained in the course.   Upon further research I found that his teacher, Sayagyi U Ba Khin, was documented in 1961 as saying that once awareness of body sensations is practiced, one may move on to the other senses.

Goenka, Here, There, and Everywhere

At the retreat, assistant teachers are present to help answer questions at the end of each day after they “push play” on Goenka’s pre-recorded video and audio instructions.  The version in rotation was created in 1991, and heard and watched at over 200 centers worldwide which Goenka insists upon to maintain consistency of the teaching.

Vipassana Psychology

Vipassana psychology (in simplified terms) breaks the mind into 4 parts, which I found helpful to understanding the breakdown of the technique.   Cognition or acknowledgement of the sense objects, Recognition or discrimination of the type of sense,   Sensation or the experience thereof, and the mind’s Response (sangkara), which is the sub or unconscious response to the actual sensation.

The crux of what Buddha learned was that the mind does not crave the actual sense objects, but the resulting sensations.   The technique allows one to retrain the associations of these sensations. In order to be successful, one must practice equal parts awareness and equanimity as you experience the sangkara.

Okay, Seriously, You just Sit Around All Day?

You could say that. Here’s the daily schedule.

4:00 a.m.                             Morning wake-up bell
4:30 – 6:30 a.m.               Meditate in the hall or in your room
6:30 – 8:00 a.m.               Breakfast break
8:00 – 9:00 a.m.                Group meditation in the hall
9:00 – 11:00 a.m.               Meditate in the hall or in your room
11:00 – 12 noon                  Lunch break
12:00 – 1:00 p.m.               Rest, and interviews with the teacher
1:00 – 2:30 p.m.                 Meditate in the hall or in your room
2:30 – 3:30 p.m.                 Group meditation in the hall
3:30 – 5:00 p.m.                Meditate in the hall or in your room
5:00 – 6:00 p.m.                Tea break
6:00 – 7:00 p.m.                Group meditation in the hall
7:00 – 8:15 p.m.                 Teacher’s discourse in the hall
8:15 – 9:00 p.m.                Group meditation in the hall
9:00 – 9:30 p.m.                Question time in the hall
9:30 p.m.                             Retire to your room; lights out

Critique of Goenka and the Retreat

While there were strong claims of non-sectarianism, and how scientific the technique is, most of the discourse is based around Buddhist tradition, mixed with jokes and anecdotes tinted with the lens of traditional beliefs.   In particular, expect to hear mentions of sentient beings in other planes, and information pertaining to how we can’t escape the poor decisions of our past lives.

I also was uncomfortable at times with Goenka’s frequent jabs at certain religion’s rites and rituals, which was completely unnecessary.   I would say at least 30% of the discourse material had little to no relevance to the technique and should have been edited out.

So, Is it For You?

I would not recommend this program if you have any kind of emotional instability and would seriously question attending unless you were comfortable re-living past disturbances and facing them on your own.  The environment felt very safe and supportive in a hands-off kind of way.

However, there is no trained staff, and I would go into this as if you were working in isolation.   I did find personal reports online of people being hospitalized, reliving forgotten child abuses and an example of someone bi-polar disorder spiraling out of control on the 10th day.

That is the power of this technique, and the fact that there is no real support system present made me question some of the dangers associated, even for myself.

Here’s Aron’s full write up: Aron Schoppert’s 10 Day Vipassana Write-up

My one advice? Be sure to have backup while you're gone without the internets for 10 days.

My one advice? Be sure to have backup while you're gone without the internets for 10 days.