The 10 Day (Goenka) Vipassana Retreat — A Warning

This summer, my girlfriend and I took part in a 10 day silent Vipassana retreat. The flavor taught by S.N. Goenka. We both went there naively upon friends’ recommendations, not knowing much about the course. One friend told us “you’ll feel great afterwards, it will relieve you of all your suffering”. This turned out not to be true for either of us. In order to spare you the discomfort and disappointment we experienced in this retreat, I wrote down in condensed form a couple of thoughts and experiences for you to consider before signing up.

After arrival you are told multiple times that you may not leave in the middle of the course. You are asked to take various vows together with the other students on the first night. You are told you are in a prison and not your own master for the next 10 days. You are asked to follow all of the teachers instructions and add nothing to it. You may not leave the small course grounds, i.e. may not take a walk in the forest, may not get anything from your car, may not exercise … You are asked to stop taking all non prescription medicine and stop any previous spiritual practices during the course. I slept an average of 5h per night (instead of normally 7) and ate about a third as much as normal (no hunger).

There is a great emphasis on inflicting pain (e.g. sitting for 2h without moving on the 4th day) and bearing any discomfort stoically as a way to numb yourself against life’s misery. Requests to change the meditation posture (e.g. using a chair) must be discussed with the assistant teacher during an interview which is available only once or twice a day and requires signing up in a waiting list. During the evening indoctrination talks (given via DVD recording) you are told that life is full of misery and always will be. You are told Vipassana is to teach you to die with a smile and prepare a better life after rebirth. You are told the path is very long, possibly multiple lives long, and you must mediate in the Vipassana way 1h every morning and evening and take one 10 day course every year for the rest of your life. You are told you must surrender to “Dhamma” for the rest of your life. You are told to make this your main spiritual practice from now on.

If you plan to talk about these things in a relaxed way with the teachers, it’s not as easy as you may think. The actual teacher, Goenka, you will see only on DVD and hear “chanting” from Pali scriptures while you’re trying to meditate. (Do yourself a big favor and listen to his chants on YouTube full blast before considering taking the course. This is what you’ll be meditating to for more than an hour every day). The assistant teacher does little more than push the play button and then zone out into meditation for the rest of the time you see him. You almost never see him outside of the meditation hall where he has a separate entrance. He arrives after everyone else is already seated. If you sign up for a meeting with him at noon, you’ll have 5 minutes to kneel in front of his elevated cushion and then the bell will tell you your time’s over. I found his answers to be extremely mechanical at times. Whether or not he’s present or absent in the evening discourse hall, don’t let the staff catch you pointing the soles of your feet towards his elevated throne. You’ll be asked to point the soles of your feet somewhere else, e.g. towards another participant instead of the assistant teacher. When asked, the staff didn’t know the reason behind the rule they were enforcing and were hoping I’d ask the assistant teacher to find out.

In the Buddhist philosophy of salvation which will be presented to you, Dhamma takes the role of God (you hear sayings like “Thank Dhamma”), whereas Buddha is revered as the creator of this technique and founder of this path to salvation (I heard the assistant teacher say that the details of the course could not be changed, because suggesting improvement would imply knowing it better than the Buddha). You are told multiple times that you must work out your own salvation and the Vipassana technique taught to you at this course is presented as the only sure path to salvation known to humanity (see [EDIT 2015–08–26] below). Other religions are repeatedly ridiculed.

This meditation course is for you if you fall into the following categories :

  • You don’t recognize or don’t mind the sectarian tendencies of the system.
  • You experience life as being full of misery and you don’t want a positive outlook on life.
  • You want to take the course no matter how it makes you feel.
  • You want someone to tell you that their philosophy and meditation technique is the only known way to salvation.
  • You don’t mind adapting to the Indian culture and already have a sense of devotion towards Buddhism.

The evening discourses by S.N. Goenka can be bought on DVD if you want to get an idea before taking the course. He comes across as a very loving and peace-infusing person, and there’s nothing wrong with the bare meditation technique as such. It’s the pseudo-sectarian, pseudo-religious packaging that didn’t work for me. My recommendation: if you haven’t done so already, do some research into the various types of meditation that exist today, try them out for yourself in small doses, and pick one which gives you best results. Don’t let anyone tell you they have the only technique that will lead to your salvation. And don’t put yourself through this Vipassana trip. You’re likely to regret it if you do.

Further reading [2013]:

[EDIT 2013–08–25]

I recently remembered another thing worth mentioning, which I will append here rather than weaving it into the finished blog.

Another sectarian aspect of the Vipassana course it the fact that their teaching is secret. What you are shown at the 10-day retreat is only the tip of the iceberg. Even what they teach you about the technique during the 10-day retreat you cannot get anywhere else (you can get the indoctrination discourses, but not the teaching about the technique). The assistant teacher told me that in addition to the two techniques of feeling the subtle sensations first on the outside of your body and then in the inside as well (these are the two steps of the Vipassana meditation technique you are taught during the 10-day course), there were many, many further steps to the technique until “final liberation”, but those steps were only revealed bit-by-bit on the 20-day, 30-day, 45-day and 60-day silent retreats. It so happens that you cannot jump directly to the 60-day retreat but each retreat demands multiple of the lower retreats to be completed, plus a lot of other demands on your daily life, like no other spiritual practices and techniques, no masturbation, etc. The assistant teacher didn’t say if after a 60-day retreat you know everything about the technique of if there are higher “stages of initiation” beyond that. All in all, it’s an all-life thing, that’s for sure. And you need to trust them blindly that what they will teach you is worth the effort. They want every part of your life for your whole life. If that isn’t a sect I don’t know what is.

[EDIT 2014–11–22]

I just realized I never told you what the central meditation technique is about. Let me fill you in. It’s a basic body scan technique. After 3 days of concentration meditation (you concentrate on the air passing over the area under your nose) you spend the next 4 days or so “scanning” your body from head to toe and back again, along the surface of your body. If that works well, you spend the next 2 days doing the same body scan but you include the inside of your body as well as you scan from top to bottom and back again. On the last day you learn the practice of Metta, which is less rigorous and with a focus of emanating love to yourself and the world, taught as a way to end your daily practice. As you meditate and your mind wanders, you keep returning to the practice, while attempting to stay “equanimous”. “No attachment, no aversion” is a universal goal in meditation traditions.

You can find various detailed descriptions of body scan techniques as well as of Metta meditation online.

Jack Kornfield, who like Goenka studied Vipassana in Burma, once said

We wanted to offer the powerful practices of insight meditation, as many of our teachers did, as simply as possible without the complications of rituals, robes, chanting and the whole religious tradition.

If you want to learn Vipassana without the cultic elements, I would recommend looking up schools like the ones inspired by Kornfield.

[EDIT 2015–08–26]

I’m surprised I forgot to mention the following: Goenka is convinced that the Buddha’s pure teaching has been preserved only in Goenka’s form of Vipassana teaching. It was hidden in Burma for 2500 years and with Goenka found its way to India and then to the rest of the world. My assistant was convinced that the meditation technique Goenka teaches is from Buddha himself and hence carved in stone, i.e. we’re not allowed to change, adapt or question it.

[This article was originally published August 15, 2013 at this URL, where you can still find a long litany of comments and discussions, many supporting this article, many condemning it]

I write about spirituality and personal development.

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