Doubt, Guilt, and the Path to Enlightenment: Ten Days at a Silent Meditation Retreat
“A friend told me that after the third day the pain begins to dissipate, is that true?”
I’m talking with an international group of strangers at the San Jose bus terminal in Costa Rica. The question has been posed by a youngish guy from Texas to an older Costa Rican man, who answers by saying that the body is “magic,” and that we will reach a point where there is a “release.”
I approached the group after seeing their little cushions; we are all on our way to a ten-day Vipassana silent meditation retreat happening in the mountains a few hours outside the capital.
The Texan tells us he tried to take a course once before in Thailand, but it was summer and they meditated outside with no fans, it was ungodly hot. He quit the third day, after asking the management for a cup to remove a spider that was camped out above the light switch near his bed and was denied. “You are the guest, not the spider,” they said.
I arrive and fill out paperwork that asks me questions about any history of mental illness, prescription and non-prescription drug use, if I’ve ever practiced other meditation techniques and what, and how my relationships with my family members are. Everyone puts their wallets, phones, reading and writing materials into labeled plastic bags and drops them in five gallon buckets which are kept out of view, not to be seen again until we leave on the 11th day.
The center is set up like a summer camp with a gathering hall, dining hall, outdoor PA system, and side-by-side dorm rooms with bunkbeds. Men’s and women’s quarters are separated and curtains are hung in the dining hall to prevent us from seeing each other, though we all meditate together in the hall. I read that the purpose of separating the genders is to lessen distractions. The heteronormativity gives me pause — I found little information about their stance on queer and trans people coming to the retreats, though the leaders claim to be anti-discriminatory.
As the course hasn’t officially started yet and we are still allowed to speak, I introduce myself to my roommates. Rosa is a psychologist from Costa Rica in her 50’s and Beth, 70’s, has been staying at a Costa Rican permaculture farm by way of Utah. We all admit to being nervous as we chat and await further instructions. The schedule is brutal, and though I had read it online before filling out the application, I must have put it out of my mind when I decided to sign up. I forgot that there would be no meals served after noon, and that the hours one was expected to meditate per day exceeded ten. Beth tells us she’s worried her hip problem will give her trouble but that she is determined to stay for the full course. A friend had told her it would be dangerous to leave early without completing the full course because “coming here is like opening up a wound.”
After dinner there is an orientation where we are encouraged to leave the course now if we don’t think we will be able to complete the full ten days. We take a vow of morality to be upheld for the duration of our stay that includes no killing (including insects and mandating a vegetarian diet), no intoxicants, no “sexual misconduct” or physical contact of any kind (including petting animals), and not telling any lies. We also agree to practice “noble silence,” which prohibits speech as well as communicating through gestures or eye contact.
We then meditate one hour in the hall and are sent to bed. There is now a pink blanketed lump on the empty bed that I later learn is a middle-aged woman named Ali.
The first day we are instructed, via audio voiced by S.N. Goenka, to meditate by feeling the breath enter and leave the nose. Goenka is the late Vipassana instructor who popularized the technique, bringing it to the west, and all official Vipassana courses are taught through his audio and video instruction, with assistant teachers on-hand to respond to questions or concerns regarding the practice.
I feel no pain from sitting, only some boredom and frustration with the circularity of my thoughts. I doze off a little in the meditation hall for the 4:30 am session. Meditating in the hall during the early session and parts of the afternoon is optional, although students are then expected to meditate in their rooms. I tell myself that if it gets too difficult in the coming days I can take the opportunity to “sleep-in” until breakfast, as a friend told me she had done. That night, as will happen every night, we watch an hour long video of a talk by Goenka. I’m surprised by how low-quality the audio and videos are, with loud coughing in the background of the audio and erratic zooming and adjusting of the frame on Goenka’s round, elderly face in the videos.
Goenka explains that the goal of Vipassana is to purify the mind, eradicating the “negativities” therein, and that by observing the breath we have already begun the process. Vipassana is translated as, “seeing things as they really are.” He explains the Buddhist concept of sankhara, a word that will be used frequently in the coming days. Sankhara is a Pali word translated in Wikipedia as “that which has been put together” and in the Vipassana course as a habit or mental formation.
“Some of the impurities hidden in the unconscious rise to the conscious level, and manifest as various mental or physical discomforts,” Goenka explains. While here we should practice no other forms of meditation, he says, warning that “mixing techniques is very dangerous.” He says that it can be harmful to leave in the middle of the course, but doesn’t explain why. He tells us that we must work hard, but that if we’ve given the technique a fair trial, we will get wonderful results. “Bound to be successful,” he repeats again and again.
In the coming days he will often refer to the misery of life and present Vipassana as the answer. “Misery is a universal malady. The remedy for this malady cannot be sectarian; it also must be universal. Breath is common to all: observing it will be acceptable to all.”
I wake up feeling recovered from a day that felt like a week. While not regretting my decision to come nor doubting my resolution to stay, the reality of being here sets in like the weight of a thousand meditation cushions. I had pictured myself going for long, solitary walks in the forest, perhaps whispering hello to a squirrel if I was feeling rebellious. While the center is surrounded by lush rain forest, mango and citrus trees, tropical flowers and butterflies and views of green valleys below, it is roped off at the driveway and about 20 feet back from any building, so that I end up walking in a small rectangle shape down one side of the driveway, back the other, and around the eight dorms.
That evening I cry, feeling a homesickness I don’t believe I’ve felt since I was twelve and my parents sent me away to summer camp where none of the girls in my cabin wanted to be friends. The fear of appearing weak or leaving with an “open wound” however is stronger than my desire to run away.
The Texan from the bus station is missing from the meditation hall and for the next few days I’ll keep an eye out for him, wondering if he got sick, left, or was asked to leave. In my dorm room is a small blue plastic cup next to a sign that says, “for collecting insects.”
Goenka says that not taking meals after 12 pm will help us in our meditation, but doesn’t elaborate. The hunger I feel is a mild discomfort that starts around 4pm. By the end of my stay I will start folding the tops of my pants over to keep them from falling off.
I realize I haven’t laughed since the course started and I realize I miss it more than talking. I miss walking more than talking, though I do mumble softly to myself almost any time I’m alone, which is rare. After the mandatory afternoon meditation in the hall the teacher calls us up in small groups and asks us if we are able to feel the sensations around our noses and extending down to the upper lip. I tell her I feel a tingling, or maybe just an awareness, and it’s strange to hear myself whisper, it sounds so loud. She tells me this is perfect, it is great that I am feeling that. She sits on a platform the height of the top of our heads, we sit lotus position or on our knees on top of thin flat cushions on the marble floor.
During the post-lunch meditation I take the option to stay in the room while my bunkmates all go to the hall. I wonder if I am a slacker, if I am working as hard as everyone else, if I have as much discipline. Goenka reminds us over and over that we must work very hard, very diligently. It’s hard work just to keep myself from leaving. My back has begun to hurt and it feels better to lean against pillows on the wall while sitting on top of my bed, and if I start to doze maybe I can just let myself, just for a little.
Fifteen minutes into the meditation Ali whirls into the room, packs her things in under a minute, and walks out the door. I watch her go out the window to see if she is really leaving. Maybe there is a group of them going, maybe something offensive happened in the meditation hall and there is a mass exodus taking place. Maybe someone has come to take her away, maybe the authorities are here. I watch Rosa, the manager of the women’s dorms, lead Ali down the path, hands on shoulders, into the manager’s quarters. Ali is crying, sobbing, their Spanish is loud and rapid and muffled and I don’t understand any of it. An hour later in the meditation hall, I see Ali come in and sit down to meditate.
In the evening discourse Goenka tells us that the method is very scientific, very scientific, and tells the story of the invention of the bubble chamber and how a depressed UC Berkeley scientist was able to measure the number of times subatomic particles arise and pass away in one second, the number being a one with 29 zeros after it. Goenka tells anecdotes and pokes fun at the “blind faith” of other religions or practices, such as chanting gods’ names, referring to Hare Krishna. “What kind of god needs to hear his name over and over again?” Goenka askes with a smile and a twinkle in his eye, and the students, never shown on camera, can be heard laughing heartily in the background. In later days I will begin to feel increasingly irritated at Goenka’s affected style of chanting and repeating words and I will think, what kind of spiritual leader needs to repeat the same phrases over and over again? What kind of teacher chants and makes gurgling and moaning noises?
Today is the day we start learning Vipassana. Goenka explains that the following three days of concentrating on the breath and sensations in the area around the nose were practice, a way of sharpening the mind so that we may perform the actual technique. As I practice I find it easier to really notice the sensations, and concentrating on more than one small area of my body does prove to be more stimulating, for a time.
In the evening video, we are told that this technique is the same one the Buddha taught up until the very last literal moment he died. Goenka then details his own journey, how he was a rich business man in Burma who travelled the world, visiting doctor after doctor who might be able to cure his chronic migraines. After sitting a Vipassana course, he was healed.
I find myself looking forward to the talks as they give a break from the monotony of sitting in silence. In the spirit of giving the course a fair trial I listen faithfully to Goenka, finding ways to relate to the anecdotes and his talk of the misery of life. I want to see things as they really are, see the truth, and this technique promises to provide that, with the only caveat being that you work “seriously, very seriously, very diligently, diligently.” So I look for the truth in Goenka’s words, and I don’t truly begin to question things until I leave.
At lights out Ali makes high-pitched sighing and moaning noises that sound sexual as she is getting settled in her bed. I want to shush her but then realize I am here to learn to be at peace, to not let such small transgressions get the better of me.
In the morning there is a sign outside the meditation hall with a note from Goenka explaining the purpose of sitting “adhitthana” or “sitting with strong determination.” For the rest of the course we are not to open or eyes, hands, or change positions during the three daily mandatory hour-long meditations in the hall. Goenka tells us that the aim is not to suffer, but that of course in the act of purifying the mind, there will be some discomfort. He reminds us of the Buddhist concept of annica, or impermanence. He says that every sensation, like the subatomic particles in the bubble chamber, are arising and passing away. After the course I google “bubble chamber,” and though the device and its inventor are real, it doesn’t sound quite the way Goenka describes.
I tell myself I am halfway done, well almost halfway done, well at the end of the day I’ll be halfway done. I count the days on my fingers over and over, and somehow day ten feels just as far away as it did on day one. I can’t read, I can’t write, play or listen to music, cook food, talk to a friend, go for a bike ride. I am either in my cell, meditating in the hall, or eating light vegetarian meals in silence. The other meditators gaze at the floor, serious or even sad looks on their faces. I notice a couple who look pale and sickly. I’ve had the same song stuck in my head for three days now and I’ve started translating it and singing it to myself in Spanish.
I feel knots in my back underneath the shoulder blades, and I try to massage them out by placing hard objects on the floor in my room and laying on top of them.
Before coming I had heard that day six was the hardest. I felt a reluctance from people who had done the course to talk very much about it, but I was told that it was life-changing. One acquaintance told me that after the course she felt like she truly knew herself, and would repeat the course any time she felt the feeling going away.
I notice several people crying this day and think maybe I’m not doing so bad after all. I’ve had no revelations and I find myself having the same circular thoughts, including annoyances and imaginary arguments with people, all the while practicing observing my thoughts without judgment. I think, maybe this is good, I’m learning where my resentments lie, petty though they may be. I feel myself perhaps more aware of the sensations throughout my body and I am able to sit a full hour without changing position, something I felt unable to do previously. The pain in my back is getting worse. Goenka reminds us to remain “equanimous” to the sensations, neither feeling aversion to the negative ones nor craving for the pleasant feelings. During meditation I have fleeting moments of this, though sometimes I feel I am slipping into a trance-like state. I try to keep my back straight but I don’t know if my posture is healthy or not. It is against the rules to stretch in the hall and I see a couple people being admonished by the managers for this as well as for lying down.
Goenka tells us not to compare ourselves to our fellow meditators. He relates an anecdote of a student opening his eyes a crack to see how everyone else is doing and they all look like perfect statues of the Buddha and the student thinks, what is wrong with me? Of course I could relate but I also open my eyes more than just a crack, and more than once or twice.
Every evening Goenka starts his talk by saying, “it is now day X, you have X more to go.” People laugh at this and it seems the laughter grows a little bit each night. As I’m trying to keep myself from counting the days Goenka starts his talk by doing it for me, and each night sounds a little better than the first, but I find that as the end gets closer my patience keeps shrinking.
I start having random funny thoughts throughout the day, like grabbing the wake-up bell, running around ringing it maniacally through the property, or creeping up behind one of my fellow meditators and, imitating Goenka’s oft-repeated mantra, softly say “staaaart from dee top of dee head, de top of dee head.” I’ve started to hear his voice echoing as I’m falling asleep, as well as the phantom ringing of the bell heard eight times throughout the day, signaling wake-up, meals, meditation in the hall, and the Goenka discourses.
After lunch Ali leaves in another whirlwind packing session, but this time she just goes. I see Rosa a few minutes later looking concerned, but there is no confrontation. I’m surprised by this as Ali seemed to be having a much better time. One of the only people I saw smiling, even breaking the rules in mutual understanding with the manager Rosa, who would meet her eyes and smile back. The night before I saw her nodding along with the Goenka video, even clapping a little bit to herself in excitement when it ended. On the tenth day, after we are allowed to talk, one of the women in the course will ask Rosa why certain people had left. One woman left because her father was ill, we find out, but I don’t hear about Ali. Rosa will add, “the work is just too hard for some people.”
I decide to speak with the assistant teacher to tell her my counting-the-days problem, that it seems to be getting harder rather than easier, and that for me it doesn’t seem that difficult to strengthen my equanimity to bodily sensations. I tell her that the real challenge for me is feeling averse to being here, to the restrictions, the lack of freedom, the boredom and exhaustion I feel from so many hours of sitting and methodically noting the sensations of every inch of my body over and over again for ten hours a day. She has flowing brown hair that she parts down the middle and flips behind her shoulder in one graceful movement of the hand. She smiles warmly with her eyes and assures me that everyone wants to leave, that of course it’s more fun out in the world doing what you want. She tells me that boredom, along with unpleasant physical sensations, is also a sankara. She says that day ten will be the “cherry on the cake,” that we will learn a new kind of meditation that is like putting a balm over your whole body. She waves her hands over her arms, applying the imaginary balm, and smiles, and I believe her. I feel like I’ve confessed my sins, assured that getting to day ten will make the arduousness of the past week worth it.
I take a walk during the evening tea break and imagine myself reaching an arm past the rope in the driveway, just to see what it feels like, just to make sure there isn’t some mystical vipassana force field trapping me here forever. In the talk Goenka tells us sankaras can be passed from lifetime to lifetime, and that it may take many lifetimes from now of practicing Vipassana until we reach enlightenment.
Goenka has been mentioning day ten of the course and how everyone always leaves with huge grins on their faces. He says this is how other people know that the method works, and why many people decide that they want to take the course too. He says that on day six, seven, eight, nine or even day ten students will begin to experience pleasant sensations all over the body. I have been able to feel the subtle vibrating sensations I believe he’s referring to since the beginning, but my back pain has been increasingly taking over. I wonder if my body will magically heal itself on day ten, if I will experience the “release” I heard about at the bus station.
The teachers pass notes back and forth to one another and sometimes they are passed to the managers, sometimes to each other, and sometimes a manager passes a note to a student. I’m curious about the information they are gathering — are they taking notes on which of us are good meditators and which of us are bad? I feel my back pain worse than ever. I tell myself it is impermanent, but then I think it’s definitely going to last until the end of the course because sitting still and ignoring my pain is what’s causing it. Goenka jokes that students will say, okay, I get the concept of impermanence, but this pain is permanent. Collective laughter. I wonder if Goenka would say my back pain is due to my posture, or these lumpy Walmart couch pillows I’ve been sitting on, or a habit that I formed in a past life that is now being eradicated.
I awake hopeful but going through another day, even the day I’ve been waiting for all along, still feels daunting. In the morning Goenka leads us in a metta or “loving kindness” meditation, something I’ve practiced with a meditation group in Berkeley. Goenka says those experiencing “gross” bodily sensations or mental discomfort such as irritation are not fit to practice metta meditation. I can feel the knots under my shoulder blade stronger than ever. It occurs to me that this is the so-called “cherry on the cake” and I can’t even practice it because I’m not fit to spread my love and compassion. Goenka starts chanting “may all beings feel peace” but he draws out the vowels and lets his voice warble which I think I would find distracting no matter my physical and mental state. I wonder if anyone else is thinking this is over the top and I open my eyes and look around: perfect statues of the Buddha.
The vow of silence is broken but we still meditate in the hall at prescribed times. We have a meeting where we are told we are expected to help clean the dorms and common areas the next morning and are given the opportunity to find carpools home. There is a table out where we can reclaim wallets and writing materials, but not cell phones, to be returned the next day. At the same table we can make a donation, but I was able to get my wallet without being solicited. Everyone is smiling, many talk about wanting to recommend the course to friends or family. When people ask me how it was I just say “hard.” I overhear a student talking to one of the volunteers about continuing to meditate every day, saying “if it’s not working fast enough I’ll just sit another course.” We have some time to sit around the women’s quarters talking about how we will spend the rest of our time in Costa Rica.
Though the course is now “over” the bell will still be rung at 4 am and we are expected to meditate until Goenka’s final video is shown around 5:30 am. He tells us that to truly benefit from the practice we must continue every day, two hours a day, and attend a retreat once a year. We are told dana, or generous giving, is the best way to spend money, and are also encouraged to volunteer time at future courses. At breakfast the curtain separating men and women is removed, people have their cell phones out and are chatting excitedly. I enter a conversation with two older women and one of them who has done multiple courses tells us that some members in her family don’t approve. “They think it’s a cult,” she says. The other woman jokes, “yeah, like we’re all here to have orgies or something.” She adds, “They think we’re being brainwashed, but the real brainwashing is out there.” Later, back in San Jose, I look for critiques of the practice, reading lots of personal blogs and one critical essay that reflected many of the concerns I had regarding the course. I think, what if it’s both?
The huge smile on my face the last day is a result of looking forward to leaving the life of aestheticism and chanting. Back in San Jose I am so grateful to be reunited with friends and writing and books and the internet. I can walk downtown, I can watch a movie if I want. The pain in my back is gone in a matter of days. I will talk to several people who had very positive experiences at retreats, and only one who was critical of Goenka’s teaching and the dogma he saw in it. I went because I believe in the benefits of meditation and I had heard good things. I wanted to challenge myself, I wanted to do it because I wasn’t sure if I could. I decide that the next time I am looking for such a challenge, it will be something more like a really long solitary walk in the woods.