Meditators and nonmeditators alike questioned me with raised eyebrows about my decision to attend a 10-day silent retreat at one of S.E. Goenka’s vipassana meditation centers. Admittedly, I questioned myself as well. A single reading of the procedures and rules led me to refer to the retreat as meditation bootcamp. At the retreat, students are expected to meditate 10 hours per day, at times powering through hour long sittings of “strong determination” in which they are instructed to sit without moving. Retreatants essentially live as monks and nuns during the retreat, segregated by sex, eating only what is served for breakfast, lunch, and tea. From the first morning bell at 4 am to bedtime at 9:30, a rigorous schedule of meditation is followed. I will admit that virtually every day I fantasized about leaving the retreat early. The reasons were varied: I was missing out on my youngest son’s robotics competition, I was feeling guilty for leaving my husband solely responsible for the family for 10 days, the vegetarian meal plan didn’t include dinner, the pain and discomfort I experienced while meditating was sometimes intense, the monotony of hours upon hours of silent meditation was tedious, and I struggled to follow the long list of rules.
By day two, I decided that I needed more sleep if I was going to stay awake during the long hours of meditation. I set my alarm for five, knowing the electric beeps would sound during the first meditation period. During this time, retreatants were allowed to meditate in their rooms or in the hall. I was anxious that my alarm would distract those in rooms next to mine if they had chosen to stay in their room to meditate. When the alarm blared that morning, my hand flew to silence the alarm, but missed, knocking the clock, my watch, and glasses off the nightstand and into the wall. In the wild process, I lost my balance and fell, twisted in my sheets, onto the floor. I could not have made more noise if I had tried. Once I turned off my alarm, I sat in frozen fear for a full ten minutes on the floor, listening for signs that I had ruined the meditation of those around me, while my pulse and breathing slowly returned to normal. During the retreat, I often found myself in some sort of predicament like this, unable to follow every rule and follow every practice as prescribed.
By day five, I had become downright defiant and hostile towards the retreat. During the afternoon of the fourth day, we were taught the vipassana practice. We were taught to scan our body from head to toe, then from toe to head, first slowly and deliberately, then quickly sweeping our body for “subtle” sensations, once we no longer detected obvious, or “gross” sensations. Up until that time, we were only practicing anapana meditation, or mindfulness of the breath. Beginning on day five, we completed three meditations each day that were named periods of “strong determination,” so named because meditators were instructed to sit with sensations without moving, which certainly does require strong determination, particularly at the beginning. The first time I attempted to follow these instructions, not only did I experience intense pain, particularly in my legs, but also intense anger. I had visions of cutting off my legs and throwing them at Goenka for making me endure such misery! I couldn’t remember a time in recent memory when I had to endure such fiery pain.
Despite the challenging nature of the training, there were respites from the intentionally monotonous and demanding schedule. A few of these treasured moments were daily nature walks, the opportunity to meditate in the pagoda on day seven, occasional talks with teacher assistants, and nightly dharma talks. At the end of each day, students gathered in the hall to listen to video recordings of Goenka, who presented as a benevolent and patient figure, full of charisma. He wove folk tales and personal stories throughout his dharma talks, which offered entertainment as well as a rationale for the techniques we dutifully, if begrudgingly, practiced. I found that the talks served to renew my commitment to the daily practice, though by the time the talk the next day began, I had nearly depleted my good intentions.
Goenka often reiterated that his vipassana practice was nonsectarian and compatible with any religious belief. He also stressed that no beliefs in the supernatural were necessary, only the vipassana practice itself, along with concentration of the mind and living according to moral principles, to develop insight. However, he did incorporate discussions of karma and reincarnation into his dharma talks. He explicitly stated that belief in reincarnation wasn’t necessary, though he himself subscribed to it. Though he tried to develop a strictly secular and scientific approach to healing, he stopped short of removing all vestiges of religious heritage from his dharma talks.
Towards the end of the retreat, I had two meditation experiences that were quite distinct from anything I had ever experienced, a credit to the vipassana technique. I went to the retreat with no expectations for what I might experience, save learning a method in a methodical way. Throughout the retreat, my shoulders became increasingly tight and knotted. During one meditation, as I focused my awareness of that sensation, I felt a strong urge to cry and then saw an image of my deceased grandfather floating over my shoulder, where I was noticing tightness and pain. I then cried for some time during the meditation. Following the meditation, I felt very light and had the urge to sing, which I did (quietly), while on a walk afterwards.
The following day, while practicing vipassana and focusing on the sensation of tightness in my shoulder, I suddenly had the feeling that I was falling into a hole in my shoulder where the muscles were painfully tight. I felt as if I emerged into darkness and panic immediately squeezed my heart, as I became worried that I no longer existed. I reassured myself that I did still exist, but I retained the sensation that I resided in a small region around my eyes and was bodiless. For the duration of the meditation, I practiced the body scan and was aware of sensations in my body, but the sensations felt distinct from me, and did not distress me at all. As a consequence, I was able to finally remain still during periods of strong determination without it requiring such effort. I could more quickly come to this state during subsequent meditations during the retreat.
On the tenth day, noble silence was ended before lunch. The purpose of the last day was to acclimate us back to everyday life in a way that was not overwhelming, after nine days of silence and meditation. We were briefly instructed in loving kindness meditation, but little attention was given to it. It was also a time to connect with fellow retreatants and share experiences of our week together. Quite a sense of community developed over the ten days without any direct communication for nine of them.
When asked by fellow retreatants if I would do another Goenka retreat, I answered that I would, though I would probably wait for a year. Despite my ambivalence and struggles during the week, I felt the effort was worth what I gained in insight and increased meditation ability. I gained increased concentration as well as greater equanimity in sitting with difficult sensations. I now better understand how the ability to sit with my own body sensations opens the door to greater equanimity throughout my daily life. I have spent much of my life ignoring or suppressing sensations, not realizing how I have continued to react and respond to these sensations, often unconsciously. The retreat was a helpful step in the process of being fully present and engaged in my life. Never having done another type of ten-day retreat, I’m not certain if the growth in meditation I experienced was due to the sheer number of hours I practiced, the technique itself, the strict rules around behavior at the center, or some combination. I am inclined to believe, in my case, that it was all of the above. I believe the intensity allowed for a level of practice not easily achieved during my daily life with its obligations. However, the focus of the practice itself on the bodily sensations has increased my awareness of what drives my behavior and decisions. It has helped open up a space within me. And as Viktor Frankl once said, “in that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”