Saturday, October 22, 2011

Bed hard, knees hurt, I'm done!

So I did a 10-day Buddhist Vipassana meditation class led by S. N. Goenka.

Vipassana means something like "insight." It's a word often used in the Theravada tradition (though it's in Mahayana too). Theravada is kinda the South Asian kind of Buddhism, as opposed to the Tibetan Mahayana/Vajrayana kind or Japanese/Chinese Zen or other Mahayana traditions. Vipassana meditation aims to develop not only concentration, but also fundamental wisdom: the knowledge at the deepest level that all things are impermanent and only exist dependent on other things.

S. N. Goenka is a very successful Vipassana teacher. He's started a bunch of meditation centers around the world with a standard 10-day program to introduce people to Vipassana meditation. He's from Burma, and got popular in India.

How was the retreat? In a word: tough.

I've posted the daily schedule before. Here's how it actually worked:
  • 4 AM: wake up gong and guy walking around with bell. My roommate Nick turns on the light so the bell guy thinks we're awake and doesn't pound on our door.
  • 4:20 AM: second wake up gong, actually wake up and trudge to meditation hall
  • 4:30 AM: meditation
  • 5:45 AM: Goenka starts chanting. After about day 3 I learned to leave the meditation hall at about 5:30 and go back to sleep some more.
  • 6:30 AM: breakfast and go back and sleep more
  • 8 AM: meditation
  • 9 AM: meditation
  • 11 AM: lunch and go back and sleep more
  • 1 PM: meditation
  • 2:30 PM: meditation
  • 4 PM: meditation
  • 5 PM: tea and snacks
  • 6 PM: meditation
  • 7 PM: dhamma talk
  • 8:30 PM: meditation
  • 9 PM: ask the teacher questions or go sleep
How did I survive?
Physically: they weren't sticklers about posture, for the most part. (not that it would matter if they were; there's only so much my body can do.) Still, there was a lot of knee and back pain. Work with it; it's a sensation like anything else...

Mentally: it was exhausting! Just concentrating for all that time. And the knowledge that it would be 10 days long; days 6 and 7 were tough. I was kinda wiped by about day 8 or 9 and tuned out a bit.

The food: simple but mostly good. Breakfast was fruit, bean sprouts, some grain dish (porridge, cornmeal, idlis), milk, and tea. Lunch was curd, rice, dal, chapati, and a vegetable dish. Tea was served with fruit and rice krispies. I think it's true that eating less helps you meditate better. Or at least concentrate.
I unfortunately discovered, I think, bitter melon, and now there might be an Indian food I don't like. Well, give it time.

The center: pretty! In the woods, half hour outside Dehradun.

The lodging: Simple concrete room with attached bath.
Basic but good. Except:

The spiders: Big old dudes! Usually about 2-3" wingspan, most with small bodies. I got used to them surprisingly quickly. There were a couple fat dudes, and they still make my blood run cold. But every room was equipped with two spiders. Ours only came out at night, and they hung out in the bathroom (thank god). Sometimes we would kill them, but they would come back the next day. Reincarnation!

The meditation hall: nice enough. Big room.
Two spiders in the supply room. I did 90% of my meditation here; a couple times I escaped to my room to meditate, and once I tried the pagoda. The pagoda is a building full of tiny meditation cells. Nothing in each room but a cushion. Really rather nice. But I never went back after the first time; my cell had two spiders.

The actual content of the class: It was pretty good. First you learn Anapana meditation, which involves just concentrating on your breath. Then you learn Vipassana meditation, which (in Goenka's method) involves scanning your body, becoming aware of physical sensations, and developing equanimity towards them. Don't react, don't say "this sensation is good and this one is bad", just observe it and note that it's impermanent and is not you. I've blogged more about it on my other blog, if you're interested in all the Buddhism and philosophy and stuff.

The odd thing was that all the dhamma talks and instructions before/after each meditation session were done by Goenka himself, by video and audio tape. It felt a little like a meditation factory; you come here, you do the technique, no quibbling, no questions. Well, you could ask questions, but they were answered by an assistant teacher who was not awesome at answering questions. As it was a beginners' class, that was mostly fine, except:

Goenka chanting. This guy has a voice like a Gregorian monk getting slowly run over by a gravel truck. When they turned on the tape for the first time, and "buh-duh-guh-duh-buh-guuuuhhhhhhhh" blared over the speakers, my first thought was that the speed was too low. My second thought was that we were listening to a guy die. And they played this not only for five minutes at the beginning/end of each class, but also for friggin' 45 minutes each morning. AND over a loudspeaker while we're trying to nap after breakfast. Mr. Goenka, if complete silence is important to develop deep concentration, why are we listening to you chant some incomprehensible Pali every day? Which reminds me:

Noble Silence: as in previous retreats, we weren't supposed to talk (incl sign language etc) for the first 9 days. This is actually not very hard. But it was really great on the 10th day when we got to talk, and actually meet some of our fellow meditators whom we've been seeing for a week and a half! Here are some of them:

Overall: No fireworks, but I'm glad I've done it. I feel pretty good now. And I'm sure it's helped my meditation practice.


  1. Dan, nice title- reminds me of a joke. Congratulation, not many could (or would) survive for ten days. Now you are prepared for a F I J I hell week.
    What a regimen, so austere. The spiders would have had me hightailing into town for a can of raid :-0
    Glad you made it; we've been missing the blog entries. Great pics, as usual, but would like to have seen you in the "warriors pose" in one of them. Thx, full speed ahead, and engage.

  2. Oh my gooooshhh those spiders sound scary. i would not be able to sleep with those in my room :(((

    glad overall you were pleased with it. good to hear from you.

  3. missed you terribly.
    Your description is hilarious...
    I don't know how you could sit quietly with big SPiDERS on the floor!
    I would really like to know what kind they were...any clues?

  4. Really? I mean, the spiders were actually not so bad. Like I said, they mostly had small bodies and skinny legs, came out only at night, sat in the corners, and didn't move much, so they weren't so scary. The meditation hall was a big room, so they were never near me while I was meditating. (not so for the pagoda cell.) I have no idea what type, and don't really want to google for images of spiders to find out.

    I am a little proud of raising my bugs-in-my-room fear threshold a little. That, and cold showers.

  5. I'm happy that you survived the trial! Sounds like it was tough! Maybe you'll share some meditation secrets from your school of hard knocks there, when you return. The Centre and the surroundings look gorgeous . Everything is bright, sunny and warm. Congratulations on completing the course! Well Done !

  6. Thanks! If I find out any meditation secrets, you'll be the first to know. So far all I know is that getting up at 4:30 and listening to chants makes me grumpy, not mindful.