Ok, so I just got back from the Goenka retreat. For those who don’t know what that is, the Goenka Vipassana Meditation retreats are pretty much the most hardcore mainstream meditation experience you can get, short of going to live at a "forest monastery". You arrive day 0, and days 1-10 are 4am to 9pm with a little over ten hours of sitting meditation per day (no walking meditation, no yoga or Qigong or anything of that sort to stretch – you are specifically told *not* to do any of these things, though plain walking is ok). The sits are one to two hours each, and you get about ten minutes between sits that follow each other. At the beginning, you turn in your phone, camera, and any reading or writing materials or food you may have inadvertently brought with you. Breakfast is at 6:30 am, lunch at 11 am, and there’s no dinner. If it’s your first time on the course, you get tea and a snack at 5 pm, in our case three crackers and a 3” banana. The meditation instructions are very bare-bones, but you’re told not to practice any other techniques than what they teach you. Instructions and chanting are delivered through audio recordings of Goenka’s voice throughout the day, and a video recording of the day’s main hour and a half lesson is played every evening. If you google other people’s blogs about the experience, you will see lots of descriptions of excruciating pain from the sitting, but also lots of transformative experiences.
As for me, not since the few weeks when I very first started meditating have I felt like such a bad meditator. The first three days, you do nothing but watch your breath and sensations around your nostrils. My mind was crazy with thoughts, as is everyone’s, but the instructions not to engage in any other kind of practice left me feeling helpless to deal with the thoughts. You’re specifically told not to do any “verbalizations or visualizations”, not even counting or labeling. Focusing on the breath is supposed to eventually calm your thinking, but it didn’t work for me. My thinking simply never subsided. Basically nothing worked the whole time, and I was left with multiplying misery and negativity throughout the experience. In the end, I could see that it was a good microcosm of how I create this misery for myself. I do believe that Goenka’s technique is sound and that it can do a lot of good for a lot of people, but the combination of what I brought with me to the course and the way the course was presented did not work out well for me.
What did I bring? I’m at a point in life where I’m stressed over finishing the MA, I’m trying to figure out when and where to go back to America, when and where to go back to work, what has my time in Sri Lanka amounted to, how is my life going to be different, will I ever achieve contentment, etc. etc. This was about half the thinking, the other half being divided between being frustrated with myself for thinking so much and criticizing Goenka and his technique. He spent the first two days and then on and off the rest of the time talking a lot about how this whole thing was “not a sect” and not religious and so on, and yet here we are taking refuge in the Buddha, Dhamma, and Sangha (which was originally the process by which one became ordained as a monk!) and then many of the sessions start and end with him chanting “scripture” in Pāli. And there are many aspects of the teaching as he presents it that either must be taken on faith or are peculiar to a very specific branch and an idiosyncratic interpretation of Buddhism. I’m sorry Mr. Goenka, but this is a religious performance you’re presenting here, and one that is based on a specific form of Buddhism and a specific set of doctrines developed in modern Burma and based primarily on a 5th Centry CE text that emphasizes the systematization of the Buddha’s teachings that was developed in the centuries after his death. So please stop telling me that this is just the “universal truth” that the Buddha himself discovered and taught.
Ok, so that was my cranky “I’ve studied these things so I know better” voice. I really did want it to shut up and go away. It really was quite nit-picky and unfair given what was being presented, and I knew all along that I should let go of these criticisms and appreciate what was actually valuable in the lessons and the technique. But for whatever reasons, I never could really let go (and I obviously still haven’t). I think part of my problem may have been due to the food restrictions. I really don’t see any inherent connection between not eating after noon and virtue. When I don’t eat, I get a headache and I get cranky, so when we sat down to listen to the lesson each day at 7pm and I hadn’t eaten since 11am, I was probably not in the best frame of mind for things. So I started developing lots of critical thoughts of a type that are particularly sticky for me, and then I was (and am) stuck with them. I’m not sure whether being able to write things down at the end of the day might also have helped. I can tell you that I spent a lot of time writing and re-writing this report over the last ten days, and maybe that time would have been lessened if I could have just written some notes at the end of the day and considered those things “taken care of”. If I do something like this again, I’m going to cheat and bring food and writing materials.
And it wasn’t just Goenka; the local teacher didn’t help things either. I asked him what the purpose of the chanting was, and he told me that it was to purify the room where we were meditating and then he went on about spirits of the dead clinging to the land or something. Uh, yeah, good thing we’re just sticking to the rational parts of the teaching here! And another time he told me that the pain in my legs was due to mental formations built up in my past lives. Baloney. This is typical of the kind of lazy thinking that so many people adopt when they start taking about kamma and rebirth, and which aggravates me to no end. Plus, I don’t think even the Buddha would agree with that description of the pain. The Buddha did believe in past lives and such, but from what I have read he would recognize that the pain in my legs was from sitting on the floor for ten hours a day. My *reaction* to the pain was certainly conditioned by the habitual tendencies that I’ve built up by reacting to pain in the past, and the Buddha would have included past lives in that, but we don’t have to look back that far in order to understand that we have learned certain patterns and we can learn new ones. I think that’s a much more helpful understanding than attributing anything and everything to “past lives”.
One thing I realized is that it is going to be very important for me to find a teacher in whom I have confidence if I am going to make good progress in my meditation practice. When the teacher uses reasoning that I can’t accept, or makes claims that I know are exaggerated or false, I find it very difficult to trust the other parts of their teaching and instructions where I am not knowledgeable or experienced and need to be able to rely on their judgment. Speaking of teachers — and I hope this won’t be the only one I’m left with! — *pain* was perhaps the best teacher on the retreat, and I think in fact it is one of the central aspects that makes Goenka’s approach successful for many people. I had heard that you weren’t allowed to move during a Goenka retreat, and I was really worried about not being able to shift position for ten hours of meditation a day! It wasn’t as bad as that though. The first few days, no one said anything about not changing your position as needed, and I could see other people adjusting, so I did as I thought was necessary. Then around day four they introduce “Strong Determination” hours, three a day, where you’re supposed to do your best not to move for one full hour. But even if you move, they just suggest that you try harder next time. I think this is a really good opportunity for learning. When you sit, you eventually want to move or stretch your legs, or your back or butt starts hurting, and even though this can get excruciating, in general you’re not actually going to hurt yourself. If you can learn to sit and experience the seemingly bloody stump of burning embers that used to be your leg and realize that it’s not a problem and you don’t actually have to do anything about it, you can learn to deal more calmly with a lot of things in life! I managed not to move in about half the “Strong Determination” hours as well as a few of the regular sits, and when I did move during these hours it was usually almost the end of the session anyway. I’d say in all that I experienced hours of intense pain and a few seconds of calm acceptance. Those few seconds though are still very good lessons.
At the beginning of some sessions Goenka’s recorded voice would say “Start with a calm and quiet mind, a clear and attentive mind, a balanced and equanimous mind” and this always aggravated me. I haven’t got a mind like that! That’s what I came here to develop! How can I start with one? If I had one of those, I wouldn’t need this course! I think the thing that saved me from complete and utter despair over the course was that, around day three, I remembered teachers back in LA who had said that it was important sometimes to “remember your intention”. Why was I there? I was angry, frustrated, in pain – what’s the point? My intention is really “to learn to be at ease”. Bringing this to mind helped me to let go a little of some of the thoughts and judgments I was clinging to that were keeping me suffering. And it also helped me make the decision to do whatever I thought I needed to do to get what I could out of my time on the course. So I started counting and sometimes labeling and sometimes I would go for a “big mind” including all the sounds and sensations in the environment around me so that the pain in my leg would appear much smaller in comparison. I also spent a few sessions doing metta, which for me always involves thinking of my mom in order to bring the idea of loving-kindness and compassion into mind, and next week will be the first anniversary of my mother’s death, and so I had a few good sessions of crying as well. Maybe all this meant that I didn’t really give Goenka and his technique a full chance. It seems he would say as much. But in the end I think this salvaged some of the time there from the storm of negativity that I was otherwise generating.
I thought or hoped that I was farther along in my development, and this was very frustrating for me to see how easily I was caught up in my own negative thinking. Maybe it was good for me to see just how far I still have to go. Maybe I’ve actually gotten more in touch with this process of self-generated misery, and maybe that will help me overcome it. But right now I feel mostly defeated. Maybe that will change in the next few days — sometimes it takes a while to notice the effect that something like this has on one. After the first three days of breathing the rest of the time is spent doing body scans and objectively observing sensations, and I do think this focus on sensations is useful — I'm curious to see how much that helps with any anxiety I feel in the coming days. And now I’m going to go sleep and eat at will!