Thoughts from the Silence: a Vipassana Review

26 12 2010

As some of you would be aware, I recently participated in a ten-day Vipassana course in Blackheath, NSW. Going into it, I knew only what little information had been made available on their website, together with a couple of things that former participants had agreed to tell me, despite their unanimous insistence that it is better to go into these things blind. Anybody who shares this ridiculous belief and would rather not know in advance what happens at a Vipassana retreat is advised to stop reading, now. As for the rest of you, the following constitutes my review of the experience.

To start off, participants were encouraged to take a vow. The content of the vow was as follows:
• I will abstain from telling lies. This is actually very easy, given that
• I will abstain from any form of communication, including speech. This even included making eye contact with fellow participants, but did not include our relationship with the assistant teachers, with whom we were encouraged to meet privately every day and discuss our “progress”.
• I will abstain from killing anything. Unfortunately, this one did include the assistant teachers.
• I will abstain from having sexual intercourse with anybody. Apparantly, even if I refuse to make eye contact with them while we’re doing it, or speak to them afterwards.
• I will not take any intoxicants.

Had I have known that I was going to be given my own private room, I would most certainly have snuck in some reading material. A tractate or two of the Babylonian Talmud might have gone down nicely, together with Jastrow’s Talmudic dictionary, a nice Tanakh, some scholarship on Ezra/Nehemiah, and a book in which to write. But then, I probably would have also snuck in a bottle of scotch, so it’s good that I was expecting shared accommodation.

As a result, for ten days, in the bushland of Blackheath, I wandered in silence. For ten days, with neither phone, nor email, nor printed matter of any description, I sat in the bush and I walked through the trees. I observed a lizard hatching from an egg, an old bee grooming himself and dying, and life positively teeming all around me. As a long-time fan of Sir David Attenborough and his remarkable documentaries, it was a very pleasant surprise to discover just how much one can see, up close and personal, if only one takes the time to shut up and sit still.

For several hours on every one of those days, I also learned and practised a technique of meditation that practitioners ascribe to Siddhartha Gautama, and that they claim represents the essence of Buddhism. Professing it to constitute a universal doctrine that transcends faith and creed, they insist upon its applicability to every major religion and every minor sect. I respected their rules (with one exception: I took covert notes) and, despite finding the process almost unbearable, I lasted the full length of the course.

So, do I recommend it? Well, that all depends on what one means by “it”. The technique: absolutely. Simple and yet profound, it is a meditation that offers a number of advantages. The course that presented that technique, however, was so heavily laden with absolute garbage that it is impossible to know where the baby ends and the bathwater begins. Or, to bastardise a different metaphor, I would advise not only taking everything that they say with a pinch of salt, but also tossing it over your left shoulder as you walk out the gate at the end of the course. But perhaps I am getting ahead of myself.

Our daily schedule was as follows:
4:00 – wake up to the gentle sound of a gong outside the window.
4:05 – go back to sleep.
4:20 – wake up again to the gentle sound of a gong, and groan. Remind me why I signed up for this?
4:30 – stumble, bleary-eyed into the hall for a “sit”. Sit.
6:25 – the hall is filled with the noise of Pali chanting, projected through speakers that are mounted near the roof. Hallelujah: the first sit of the day has finished, and it is time for…
6:30 – breakfast! Cereal, oatmeal and toast aplenty. I had the toast, and I had it aplenty.
8:00 – the first compulsory sit of the day. One hour, crosslegged, don’t you move. Instructions come at the beginning of it, and develop as the course progresses.
9:00 – meditate for two hours, either in the hall or in your room. Or, of course, don’t. Wander the grounds at your leisure and pretend to focus on your breathing. On occasions, be asked to remain behind with either the new male students, new female students, old male students or old female students – depending, of course, on which of those categories you belong to. This is an opportunity to meet with the assistant teacher, even if you didn’t want to. Males and females were separated throughout the entire course, and the only time we ever crossed paths (if it could be called “crossing paths”) was on our way to…
11:00 – lunch! Oh, so much food! Completely vegetarian, but of such high quality that I didn’t think of meat or fish once. This is the luck of the draw, really, as the kitchen (indeed, the entire program) is staffed by volunteers.
2:30 – the second compulsory sit of the day. One hour, crosslegged, etc.
3:30 – meditate for an hour-and-a-half, or wander the grounds and curse yourself for not having brought that tractate.
5:00 – “dinner”. Two pieces of fruit (either of which might have been banana, apple, orange, mandarin, kiwifruit, watermelon or pineapple), and copious amounts of tea.
6:00 – the third compulsory sit. You know the deal.
7:00 – the absolute worst part of my day. For one hour, our esteemed teacher, S.N. Goenka, delivered (via DVD) his smiling yoda wisdom. I wanted to stab something.
8:00 – another one-hour sit, in which we could practise some of the material that we had just learnt, before utilising it properly the following morning.
9:00 – go to bed. Have the strangest and most vivid dreams ever. Freud would have loved me.

Staffed completely by volunteers, and offered for no fee whatsoever, I almost feel bad insulting the guards staff who run the place. And yet, whether they were pacing the hall with clipboards in their hands, checking to see that nobody was extending their feet (this is apparantly an insult to the teacher in somebody’s country, somewhere), or bursting into my room at 5:00 one morning, on the one occasion that I was not on my meditation mat by 4:30, their tight-lipped grimaces belied the compassion that they feel for all sentient beings. So, to combat their fascistic love of timetables, I learned to stir at 4:00 only to turn on the light in my room, and go back to sleep until 6:20, thus creating the illusion that I was meditating in private. Where there’s a Buddhist will, there’s a Jewish way. I need my sleep.

And there, in a nutshell, is Vipassana. But of what substance is the kernel? Allow me now to mention some of the more insulting, insane, condescending or absurd elements of Goenka’s ridiculous philosophy. And who knows: maybe even insult a few people in the process.

By meditating upon the body, your mind will begin to uncover sensations of which it had previously been unaware.

Remember that old Zen koan? “If a tree falls in the forest and there is nobody around, does it make a noise?” This was probably more profound in the 14th century, when people didn’t know how sound travelled or how it was perceived. I don’t want to be obtuse, but isn’t it obvious that the answer is “no”? If there is nothing around that can perceive sound waves as sound, they remain merely vibrations in the air. So too when it comes to sensations on the body. While some sensations might possess a physical counterpart (such as a mosquito bite), sensation remains a strictly neurological phenomenon. Proof of this lies in the plethora of sensations that amputees continue to feel in limbs that have been long removed from their bodies, for unless the mind’s map of the body should change, the body’s physical contours are largely unimportant. This is even the case when there is a strong physical component to the itch/cramp/twitch, or whatever. All it takes is to be sufficiently distracted, and the sensation disappears. To suggest that it is still there, undetected, would be like saying that the tree made a crashing noise as it fell through the canopy, even though there was nothing around to have heard it.

If you spend long hours in meditation, your coarse mind becomes subtler and subtler, until the sensations that you notice are of a likewise subtler nature, and are felt throughout the entire body.

At first, I nicknamed Goenka the Subtler Rebbe, but only because, at first, he struck me as a friendly, pious fellow. By the time that I was sick of his bloated hypocrisy (I don’t like my own “religious leaders”; why would I like somebody else’s?), these sentiments came to grate significantly on my nerves. For a start, if you spend long hours in meditation, focusing in silence on your still, crosslegged body, you are going to hone your proprioception down to an absolute T. And as you do so, you will begin to psychosomatically generate subtle vibrations throughout those parts of your body that you can make yourself aware of. As you progress further, you will naturally get better and better at proprioceptively recognising every part of your anatomy, and you will consequently begin to do an even better job of generating sensations of a subtle nature throughout it. Every now and again you will get a screaming itch, but those are just the sensations that have a physical counterpart, screaming at you through the haze of your invented vibrations. Must we pretend that we are uncovering a deep truth about ourselves in the process? Cannot a cigar ever be a cigar?

The vibrations that you feel are just macro-representations of tiny subatomic particles called kalapas, which are coming into existence and passing away with great rapidity.

Schrödinger’s cat is now out definitely of the bag. The teacher is an idiot.

By training your mind to be aware of such sensations, you not only begin to recognise the impermance of your existence, but remain equanimous during times of negative emotion…

Ah! And it is here that I acknowledge the value of this meditative technique. Ignoring the bullshit with which it is encrusted, what we have here is the tiny gem that lies at the heart of Vipassana. Rather than succumb, let’s say, to anger, I can (ideally) become aware of the changes in my respiration that mark the onset of anger, and the sensations that my body produces when it is overcome by the emotion. By observing these phenomena dispassionately, I avoid the ill effects of the sensation altogether. In fact, I had already been practising this for a while, having encountered a variation of this on a Buddhist website, once upon a distant time:

Imagine that you are driving your car, and some bastard cuts in front of you. The nerve of this fellow! How infuriated you become! Intellectually, you know that you’ve no reason to be so irate, as you most probably committed whatever heinous act has just offended you twice in the last half hour yourself, but driving is a stressful activity and we are all prone to stress-induced irritation. But take a moment to observe your irritation. Behave as though you were writing a research paper on human psychology. Simply note that, in this situation, “there is anger”. Note, when somebody has offended you, that “there is hurt”. Indeed, for the whole gamut of negative human emotions (and excepting those times when grief genuinely overpowers the senses), one might get by with simple observation of the human condition, and prevent oneself from succumbing to the psychological tribulations that the moment might otherwise bring. With the right degree of training (focus on your respiration; attune yourself to sensations that your body generates under different conditions), you ideally work towards the stage at which you have nullified all negative emotion.

… and positive emotion.

Well that’s just stupid.

After all, happiness leads to craving, and craving leads to suffering.

Actually, it was “fear leads to suffering”: get it right. The whole notion that desire is really a craving for the feeling of desire itself is one of those ideas that sounds so profound when you haven’t had any sleep, when you’ve been meditating in silence for several hours a day, and when you are surrounded by other people who apparantly share the same view. And yet, if this is enlightenment, why is it only achieved by Buddhist monks and mumbling sycophants? Indeed, why would anybody want to remain equanimous during hours of genuine joy? So that you can wander the monastery of your mind like a lobotomised vegetable? Is life so difficult for you that you need to strip yourself down to the dispassionate core?

In this respect, the teachings of Buddha are universal. After all, suffering is universal.

Oy gevalt. Suffering? Universal? I come from the world’s greatest particularistic tradition, and I can personally vouch for the fact that the notion that anything is universal is not, in itself, a universal notion. But this is quibbling. After all, as Wesley famously told Buttercup, “Life is pain, highness. Anybody who tells you otherwise is selling something”. And yet, if Vipassana were universal, why the constant emphasis on leaving your religion at the door? Why is it impermissible for me to have, in mind, an image of a god or a goddess? Why am I not allowed to focus on the words of a scriptural mantra, or practise a religious tradition privately, within the comfort of my room? The fact that I was forbidden to bring tefillin or tzitzit, that I was forbidden to pray, and that my mantra (רבונו של עולם) was anathema to the Buddhist tradition was all fine by me. I don’t lay tefillin, I don’t wear tzitzit, I haven’t uttered a prayer since the last time I shocked a religious friend by thanking the sun for my lunch, and I’ve not meditated since 2002. But don’t sit there and tell me that by excluding proponents of major organised religions, Vipassana becomes universal. That’s a lie.

By becoming aware of this fact, and by practising equanimity, we can die with a smile, and the next host body for our mind will be one that is fated to experience comfort and bliss.

Say what? Just the technique, right? “No dogma at all”? Hilarious! That the same oblivion and decay that awaits my moribund flesh lies in store for every grinning Buddhist is a matter of fact. But if you want to believe that your mind will keep coming back until it attains some form of enlightenment, then that’s your psychosis. I would really prefer it if you kept it to yourself, or at least had the integrity to mention it in environments where your audience is allowed to speak. How am I supposed to empty my mind when you keep dumping nonsense into it?

Bhavatu Sabba Mangelam.
Ah, it must be 8:00 already. The discourse over, S.N. Goenka now belches out a strained Pali mantra (“May all beings have peace”, or something), and I have a sudden insight into what it would be like, training to be a Jedi under Jabba’s instruction. To my continued disappointment, a surprising number of people bleat, “Saddu Saddu Saddu”, which is the Pali equivalent of Amen, before bowing in the direction of his punchable form. Me, I just contented myself with leaning back and extending a foot.

And, of course, there was the usual sprinkling of nonsense about Buddhism being scientific, about how some Nobel prize-winning physicist has only recently come to the same conclusions as [insert name of religious leader; insert number] centuries ago, and about how all matter, all sensation and all emotion is comprised of the four basic elements: earth, fire, wind and water. That would have made studying for biology easier. But all this I can forgive.

You see, if I had brought reading material with me, distracting myself from their stupidity with my own stupidity (which is superior because it is mine), the whole business would have been a piece of cake. Given that the only information going into my head from the outside was the claptrap that I was being force-fed every evening, these ten days were more of a brainwashing experience than all of my months in yeshiva.

And yet, despite all of this garbage, all of the insulting dogma and all of the simpleminded stupidity, the ten days were a useful and rewarding break away from the busyness of existence. That I got to observe animals in ways never previously experienced was a real blessing. And although I thought that I was bored, I felt positively radiant when the whole experience was over: calmer than I have felt in a long time, with a greater appreciation for precisely what I have to do and how I need to go about doing it. That is not the result of Vipassana, so much as it is the result of my taking time away from the internet, my mobile phone, and speech. I have not maintained the meditation since I returned, and I truly cannot be bothered making any effort. But I have rediscovered the beauty and the efficacy of Jewish prayer, and I hope to blog more about this in the future.

In fact, while the whole experience was meant to enable me to separate myself from Judaism, I actually found that it has only cemented my connection even further. By stripping back the subconscious – at least, ostensibly – and getting to the id that underlies my bloated, monstrous ego, I thought that I might at least come to understand exactly where that identity ends and The Real Me begins. Turns out, however, that underneath my id was another yid all along.

In fact, it’s yidden all the way down.




18 responses

2 01 2011

This was hilarious, by the way.

12 01 2011
Galus Australis » The Silent Mind: A Jew’s Views on Meditation

[…] retreat that was held in Blackheath, NSW. (For those who are interested in it, I reviewed it on my blog a little while ago.) And wandering through the bushland, I got to thinking. Sure, the material that […]

17 05 2011

Hey I’m sorry to hear the experience wasnt as great a benefit to you as it could have been. I too went to yeshiva and attended the course only to leave 3 days into it. I have a very strong connection to Chabad and its teachings, Tanya, Zohar, Rav Lightman etc. I found it difficult to stay as my belief systems and mind set kicked in and I was in a terrible rush to get out if there. That is only to return 8 weeks later when I realized I may have missed something special if i was more open and I did. In conclusion after I had got through the first 3 days again, from the fourth day onward something magical happened. Everything i had learned about Kabbalah and the vessel and light traveling through the body became a reality only the difference was this time it was not just information from one source book or other to another source book, conversation or other it became a physical knowledge that was and still is a complete transformation to everything I have been searching for :) excuse any error i type. This was written on an iPhone. P.s. I stuck to the rules this time and had no writing or reading material with me which made all the difference to look inside and inside myself for what it really is :) Best wishes with all of your positive adventures through life. Vadim Geller

29 08 2011

truly enjoyed reading about your experience. I just got back 24 hours ago from a retreat, having only lasted a couple of days, with similar internal reactions of the hypocrisy-laden technique that is vipassana (though arguably, I didn´t make it to those instructional days, so I´m not so qualified to critique). Yes, they were guards! They said, ¨no physical contact¨ and what happens on the first day at 8:05 in the morning? The main guard grabs my water bottle out of my hand and physically pushes me toward the hall, despite my protests, ¨but I¨m so thirsty can I just have one little sip before I go in?¨. The answer was no. Don´t know if you´ve come across this, but maybe you´ll find it interesting, I sure did:

6 09 2011
Simon Holloway

Thanks very much for that: I look forward to reading through this in more depth.

15 07 2012
sue c

OMG I have just come back from my 10 day Vipassana retreat and your writing hit the nail on the head, well done. Like you I went into this blind I’m so glad I didn’t read your article, not that it would have changed my mind. The bottom line for me is I live a great life, yes I do kill ants so shoot me and I love my very few pleasures, would I ever do this again ? “No Way” I’m I glad I did this ? “bloody oath” . What I am surprised about is, how many followers they have and how they give their heart and soul to strangers my god I am an oddball…

29 03 2013

do they check your bags and all that, i am on some non harmful meds that will not influence my experience but they are not exepting me to program because of it! I really want to experience and have told them the truth and even could provide dr’s note they will not respond, so i wish to sneak them in! Will they steal it or take it away, kick me out, what! i’d be screwed. Anyone on this matter?

29 03 2013
Simon Holloway

Hi Chanel,

I can’t say what their attitude is towards your medication in particular, but there is nothing that they will forcefully take from you, and nobody is going to look through your bag. Despite possible threats to the contrary, they won’t send you home for breaking any of their rules either – particularly not one like this, which could get them subsequently into trouble if you were to be unwell as a result.

Best wishes, – and good luck!

9 10 2013

Just to add a touch of a counterpoint…..I have lived with bouts of minor depression and significant anxiety for the bulk of my life. Anger, resentment, pettiness, selfishness, etc… always wanted to have better volition, but was unable to achieve it. I went to a retreat in 2005 and had a lot of the same criticisms that you mention, but found, like you that I felt more calm, peaceful, happy, patient, and compassionate. Tried it again a few years later…same thing. Eventually, I started meditating at home and it has completely improved my life. My relationships are better, my depression has been absent for 3 years, my anxiety has diminished substantially, I appreciate the small things so much more, and it expanded my empathy and compassion significantly. It’s hard work to get through one of those retreats and there’s a lot to be annoyed by at first. the philosophy he espoused, that you call into question is not really important. the efficacy of the practice though is legitimate. The reason for the rules, strict as they may be, is merely to minimize disturbance and allow for a calmer, quieter, more considerate workspace for all your neighbors who are working through their own inner struggles. I understand why you say what you say, but thought it worth sharing another perspective.

4 01 2014

Just recently left on day 2 – felt like they were trying to brainwash me,was prepared for the challenge but there was some weird “stuff” going down there, no love or posititvity, no one human being is “better” than another, the behaviour of the “old” students was disgusting and some of the questions I was asked by the assistant teacher where the equivolant of “don’t you know who I am” I made a late night exit and haven’t stopped smiling or laughing since – the “conditioning” was horrendous – for any spiritual being looking for “enlightenment” I recommend you give the place a miss and look for a supporting, loving, nuturing and accepting environment not run by guards and assistant teachers that frown upon any belief that is not the same as theirs…I thought differences were to be embraced

16 01 2014

Hi Guys

As a committed Buddhist I hope you don’t take this warped style of meditation as the teachings of the Buddha. It would be like taking Scientology as true Christianity. The teachings that accompany this simplistic mechanised meditation are truly weird. We live in a society that preaches no pain no gain so readily accept a meditation that teaches the same. Meditation should be joyful and interesting, if not why bother? There’s already enough suffering in our lives.

27 01 2014
Pavithra Raja

I’m sorry you (and many of those who commented) had an unpleasant experience of a Vipassana course. I have completed four courses and realised that in my first course, I had a completed misunderstanding of the teachings. Only after going through many courses did I stumble across the crux of the teaching. The key is to be open-minded enough, patient with yourself and the teaching, equanimous and aware. Truth will be revealed in time. All reactions to the meditation courses are ultimately still reactions. You only see in other things what you see in yourself.. Also nobody said meditation “should be joyful and interesting” but to each his own I suppose. Even the Buddha said “Believe nothing, no matter who said it, no matter if I said it, unless it agrees with your own common sense.” Each one has their own journey on the path of truth realization. Most of all, be joyful, happy and compassionate.

1 02 2014

Hi Pavithra
I couldn’t help but smile with your comment “…,Also nobody said meditation “should be joyful and interesting” but to each his own I suppose. ”
Virtually every instance in the sutta pitaka (Buddhas original teachings) where the Buddha describes the meditative experience it is described in terms of joy, bliss and peace.
People (Buddhists) really need to stop taking refuge in teachers and teachings that have no relation to the actual teachings. If you want to be a Goenkaist then that is fine but please don’t confuse it with the teachings of the Buddha.

22 02 2014

The joy he talks about is the joy that arises from being equanimous and less attached to negativity. He describes meditation as blissful alright, but us normal people need to be careful not to attach such expectations to meditation. In this case when you sit for meditation, you are unconsciously craving for joy, which is counter-productive and defeats the whole purpose of meditation. Furthermore the Buddha was an enlightened person and thus had fewer negativities to contend with while meditating, so it follows that he found meditation a blissful experience. Us normal people on the other hand, have many negativities within us that need to come up onto the surface to pass in time, and we need to be equanimous with these negativities when they arise and in whatever form they arise, and not dismiss the entire process to be flawed because it is not joyful. True joy arises from detachment from, and ultimately freedom from negativity.

If you want meditation to be a joyful experience you are looking for something that completely ignore the negativities inside, so everytime you sit for meditation, perhaps you are looking more for visualization meditation or something that summons positive feelings to you, like taking in energy from spiritual gurus or higher beings like other types of mediation offer. They are more superficial forms of feeling good but no doubt offer a more instantaneous respite from the ‘pain’ of everyday life. Vipassana teaches responsibility because it is just you working with your negativity by developing equanimity and awareness. Different techniques work for different people at different points in their life.


22 02 2014

Also, if there is no relation between the teachings of the Buddha and what happens in the courses, how do you explain the numerous Pali chants and sayings that Goenka references (in the course, in Pali) and further goes on to explain and expound upon? He specifically chants the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta in the course. He backs up his explanations with the suttas and specific events in the Buddha’s life.

24 05 2014

Vipassana is a fraud.. They moves the loving family apart. If you love your family never attend it

11 03 2015

Like some of you, I also left about day 3. My problem was that I have a lot of serious injuries (ocpression fractur in spine, patelectomy et al) and I can sqat, and ant sit low down for long. At home I meditate in an arm chair. The staff were very uhelpful, even hostile (thats how I felt, but am perhaps oerstating) i was in a lotof pain by day 3 and had to pull out. Also I have a fructose proble, and the apple dinner gave me a tight gut for about 36hours

27 03 2015

So I am now almost 1 week since I did the vipassana. The technique is great and it works… it is possible to experience reality through our body. I experienced my internal organs and my energy body in a way that can not be experienced by reading a book. However I have just asked to serve on a course in the uk as Dharma is apparently universal and I have been turned down as even though Goenka preaches that you can continue to be hindu christian jew muslim and in my case a brightpath Ishaya I was turned away from serving on a course as I’ve been practising as an Ishaya. What is the point of being an Ishaya unless I practise as an Ishaya and Ive also been practising Vipassana in the last 5 days. Hmmm What Goenka is actually saying according to the reality of what has just passed is. You can be jew christian muslim etc but only by name it can not be real for you. You must drop all of the practises that you have been taught even if they work for you and follow another path the path of pure vipassana and nothing but vipassana. THis would make it not just a technique to practise everyday but yet another religion/sect! I will continue to practise the technique of vipassana because it is useful to me however I am not allowed to serve in a vipassana centre (I wonder what the original bearer of this technique would say about that, at the core of my being and i trust that… this is completely out of alignment with the original teaching) . There is only one beloved in my experience that is the life that burns from our core and reflected in this life including the animals and the trees and one another etc enlightenment happened in nature at the foot of a tree and not in a monastery . The experience of Pure love pure compassion pure peace pure joy pure humility are the gifts of the beloved and are universal.

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