Years ago, if I had accidentally wandered into a Vipassana retreat, I would have assumed it was some sort of cult initiation.
Imagine: 80 participants forbidden from speaking, touching, or making eye contact for 10 days. Men and women kept separate. A 4:00am wake-up bell every morning. Meals prepared by invisible volunteers and eaten without a word. No books, media, internet, games, or group activities allowed: just 10 hours of meditation every day, sometimes directed by the disembodied voice of the esteemed master, S.N. Goenka.
And every evening, in a dark room, with entranced faces glowing in the light of two old TVs, a climactic break from the austere silence: a 75-minute video lecture from Goenka. A chance to gaze upon a friendly human face and to laugh at his humor. An invitation to reflect on what must surely be profound spiritual truths, gradually escalating in authority as the week progresses.
By all appearances, this is a perfect recipe for indoctrination into a strange religious sect of some kind. I recognize some of these tactics from the church experiences of my youth; it’s not the first time I’ve been force-fed metaphysical claims while in a vulnerable state. I walked away from religion years ago and I have no interest in returning. I’m happy as an atheist.
So what was I doing here?
I didn’t wander in accidentally — I was there because I signed up for it. I smiled up at the master, too; I chanted “sadhu, sadhu, sadhu” along with everyone else, obeyed the precepts, and put my full effort into the meditation practice.
And, while my mind readily identified and disregarded the various supernatural claims I was presented with, I found loads of value in the experience. It was unlike anything else I’ve ever done. I’d recommend it to most people. I’d love to do it again.
My goal is to help you identify whether you would benefit from this experience too — or if it could be harmful to you, as it has been for some. I’ll describe what the retreat was like for me, why it’s an outstanding resource, and how it can also be dangerous for the wrong person.
Ten days living like a monk
I had tried meditation a few times in my life but never quite got the hang of it. I could never quite climb out of the river of words that constantly flowed through my mind, and my attempts to do so were sporadic.
I didn’t see much benefit because I was never disciplined enough to gain traction with my practice.
The Vipassana retreat gave me no choice but to go deep. It was carefully set up to remove every distraction. By the end of the 10 days, I had meditated for 100 hours; and instead of reaching that number with hundreds of consistent choices to sit down and practice, I only had to make one choice — to drive to the retreat and follow the instructions. From there they held my hand the whole way through.
Our first task was to learn how to quiet our minds and think about nothing.
Most people assume they’re bad at meditation because they are unable to sit quietly and stop thinking. Their minds continue to run full speed no matter how many times they direct their attention back to their breath.
It was no different for me. I would try to focus on my breath, and 10 seconds later my mind would be zooming across all kinds of memories, hypotheticals, conversations, and other thoughts and feelings. 15 minutes later I would remember, “oh, right, let that go and pay attention to the breath.” 10 seconds of mindful breathing and my mind was off and running again.
As I practiced for tens of hours, though, I got better at it. By the end of the 2nd day, I found that I was able to set aside all thoughts and observe my inhale and exhale for 10 uninterrupted minutes. When my mind started to wander again, it was less than a minute before I recognized it and drew myself back in.
By the 4th day, it had become easy for me to sit an entire hour without thinking a single thought.
People wonder why it’s hard to quiet their minds, and the answer is simple: it takes a long-ass time to build up to that skill level, and a lot of focus. Most people never invest that much time or energy into it.
Imagine trying to gain muscle by only visiting the gym once a month. A Vipassana retreat is like quitting your job, moving into the gym, and hiring a full-time personal trainer. You’re going to see a lot more progress that way.
Now that we had spent 30+ hours learning how to stop thinking, the real work began.
I don’t want to describe the practice in too much detail, because if you decide to try a retreat, I don’t want to give you too many preconceived ideas about what it’s going to be like.
In short: the Vipassana technique deals with noticing sensations in your body and training yourself to react to them impartially.
The idea (based on Buddhist teachings) is that we all have attachments — cravings and aversions — that are the root cause of our suffering. They exist as heavily-used neural pathways; habit patterns of mind and body. When we are presented with various stimuli, our brains automatically go down these pathways that land us in various emotional states. Our lives become miserable because each day we are at the mercy of random, impersonal phenomena that are beyond our control; we chase certain stimuli and run from others, which leads to all kinds of anxiety and poor health.
If you sit still and scan through your body, you’re bound to notice many sensations, both pleasant and unpleasant. The automatic reaction is to revel in the pleasant ones and try to avoid the unpleasant ones.
Instead, the goal of Vipassana is to notice these sensations in all areas of the body while remaining impartial to them, experiencing them with complete detachment and equanimity, in a purely objective way. Some part of you feels warm and comfortable? So it does. Move on. Another part of you feels tense and achy? So it does. Move on. All of these things are temporary. They will all change. They are nothing but electrical impulses. You don’t need to assign a big emotional reaction to them.
If you can learn to accept the good and the bad with equanimity, with the understanding that nothing lasts forever, your brain can experience greater peace, freedom, and happiness… and ultimately you can come to terms with the fact that life eventually ends too, and that’s OK.
As the days go on, all sorts of feelings and realizations can hit you out of nowhere. Some people say trauma is stored in the body, and you’re examining your body closer than ever. You might have some kind of repressed memory resurface, or you might feel overwhelmed with hard emotions. If you can learn to watch that happen without reacting, you can rewire your brain to get rid of the automatic distress response to those wounds.
This style of meditation falls in the category of “insight meditation” because it tends to help you understand new things about yourself and the world.
A few of the experiences that surprised me:
- Meditation can put me in a similar mental space as psychedelics. The last few days of the retreat felt like I was constantly experiencing the pleasant fade-out of a mushroom trip, where sanity and realistic perception have been restored to my mind but there is also a deep lingering feeling of calm, peace, and ease.
- The technique offered me an incredibly direct and thorough way to explore my mind-body connection. I discovered some patterns I had never noticed before — tension in my legs, neck, and shoulders; habitual contraction deep inside my left side-body. My body felt better than ever, and I noticed my mobility and range of motion were significantly increased when I tried yoga poses, which was not an expected result from sitting in the same posture for hours on end.
- I deconstructed some of my ideas about gender and sexuality. I felt myself become more open to the idea of connecting intimately with other men. Part of that came from being surrounded by a group of sincere, intentional guys who really wanted to work on themselves. Part of it was inside my own body as I listened to sensations that I had previously silenced.
When I was at the Vipassana retreat, I was going through a difficult time in my life: my step-mom was dying from cancer. She was the parent who best understood my life choices and encouraged me along my unique path. She’s the one who helped me become interested in bodily awareness, joyful movement, and developing a loving acceptance of others.
Of course, I already knew I was devastated by her impending death, but the retreat revealed how deep my ocean of grief was. I cried a lot. It was very upsetting. There were times when I was curled up in bed, completely overwhelmed, and the bell sounded to summon us to the meditation hall. The last thing I wanted to do was sit quietly and examine myself. I wanted a distraction. I wanted my normal coping mechanisms back.
But I went anyway. I sat. Amidst all the pain, I set aside my worry and turned my attention back to the fleeting sensations in my body. I saw that all the heartaches in life, and all the joys, were ever-changing and temporary. It grounded me in reality and gave me peace, in a much more holistic and durable way than my distractive coping mechanisms ever could. I found that meditation was the most helpful for me when I least wanted to do it.
I left the retreat feeling like a different person, with a sense of calm and patience I could not have imagined before. I soon went to stay with my step-mom and helped administer her home hospice care; I used my new meditation skills to remain receptive and attentive when I might otherwise have been overcome with feelings of despair. She died a week later.
I am glad the Vipassana retreat gave me a chance to process my step-mom’s death before it happened, so I could be intentional about the rest of the time we had together.
In the five years since the retreat, I have often used Vipassana-style meditation as a tool for maintaining sanity in my daily life. It feels like the mental analog of cleaning my room. It clears away the clutter, organizes my thinking, increases my focus, and helps me make difficult decisions.
The benevolence of the Vipassana organization
One reason I decided to trust this organization is because of the revolutionary way in which it operates. I don’t know of any other program that offers so much for free: when you take a course, you are provided with 11 days of wholesome food, adequate lodging, and dozens of hours of instruction — at no charge whatsoever. Most multi-day meditation retreats cost hundreds of dollars, at least.
The organization is entirely volunteer-run, sustains itself purely on donations, and you aren’t even allowed to donate unless you complete a 10-day course. Nobody keeps track of whether or not you donate; and if you don’t have money, you can give back by volunteering or helping to spread the word.
It’s brilliant, really, because it lets the effectiveness of the practice speak for itself. The organization continues to grow because people are so pleased with the results that they give generously to help it continue. Also, as someone who lives well below the poverty line, I appreciate that the course is accessible to the poor.
Every communication I received from the organization was dripping with mindfulness, compassion, and clarity. From the application process, to the pre-course emails, to the way they engaged us on orientation day, it was obvious that a good deal of intention had been put into the information that was shared with us.
They worked hard to create an environment where we could leave behind all the distractions of our daily lives and dive deep into a new practice. All course messages after the orientation day were conveyed via signs rather than verbal announcements so as not to intrude on our headspace. At mealtimes, they would simply ring a bell when the food was ready, and we’d walk into the vacant dining room and serve ourselves from the buffet table, eating in silence. I savored every meal with profound gratitude. Even without the sensory deprivation, I would have considered the food excellent; vegetarian, healthy, and delicious.
I hope it is clear that I have a high level of regard for Vipassana as a meditation technique. It has made a big difference in my life, and there are many things I appreciate about the organization, too.
So, where is the danger that I alluded to before? Why not just write about the benefits, recommend it enthusiastically, and call it a day?
For all the good aspects of this organization, it is important to remember that it is still a religious one, and they ultimately want you to join them. Some of the persuasion tactics are intense and could be harmful for vulnerable people.
The unfortunate coercive practices
As someone who grew up under religious programming and later went through the process of deconstructing that experience, I’m hyper-aware of manipulative dogmas. This awareness comes in handy when people are trying to talk me into accepting their belief systems.
I never felt like I was at risk at the Vipassana retreat because I know how to think critically about spiritual claims. If I heard something questionable, I automatically applied a healthy level of skepticism.
However, not everyone has experience navigating these things. Some people are naturally susceptible to spiritual coercion; others are in a life situation where they are desperate to find guidance and authority. The programming isn’t exactly sinister, so a moderately malleable person is not at great risk, but I’ve seen some people take the information to such a literal extreme that it becomes harmful for them.
My main issue with Goenka’s method is that he ramps up his specific variety of Buddhist messaging — and the insistence that you must maintain the Vipassana practice for 2 hours every day, forever, if you want to be enlightened — at the same time as he’s leading you into an extremely vulnerable and impressionable mental state.
You’re reassured ahead of time: “the Vipassana technique is non-sectarian. You don’t have to be a Buddhist to practice it. It is compatible with any religion. Everyone should feel comfortable coming to learn the technique.”
Technically, it’s true that the technique itself should not conflict with any pre-existing religious beliefs. It only involves attention to the breath, body-scanning, and finding equanimity. There’s no invocation of spiritual forces or deities.
But the course itself absolutely functions as an “intro to Buddhism”, and I don’t recall that being advertised ahead of time. Maybe I was naive, but I don’t think I’m the only one.
On the day you arrive, there is a sort of initiation meeting where they present you with the five precepts of Buddhism and ask you promise to follow them:
- to abstain from killing any being;
- to abstain from stealing;
- to abstain from all sexual activity;
- to abstain from telling lies;
- to abstain from all intoxicants.
Those are reasonable rules for a meditation retreat. You’re essentially agreeing to live like a monk in a monastery for 10 days.
But, also, there is a “repeat after me” section where they ask you to say “I take refuge in the Buddha.” If I had still been a Christian, I would have been extremely uncomfortable with that request. You might as well have asked me to say “I hereby invite demons into my heart.”
Early on in the course, Goenka sets a certain open-minded tone about his own method: “Evaluate the technique for yourself, give it a fair trial, and if it provides tangible benefits in your life, for yourself and the people around you, only then should you accept it.” This seems fair, even noble. It encourages you to let your guard down because you think “This guy isn’t going to coerce me into anything. He’s just offering something, and I can take it or leave it.”
Certainly, the technique does deserve a fair trial for evaluation! One must then decide if it works for them or not. Anyone can get on board with that.
But as the days go on, his tone changes. He presents the theories behind the meditation — and Buddhist ideas such as karma, reincarnation, and “full enlightenment” — as facts. He claims practicing Vipassana meditation for two hours every day is the only way to find true happiness and meaning in life. He proclaims that Vipassana is actually the original kind of meditation that the Buddha taught and that it was passed down by a secret line of masters for 2,500 years — only to emerge into popular use via his personal teacher in the mid-1900s, which (by the way) the Buddha prophesied.
By the end of the course, rather than saying “see if it works for you”, he’s saying: “This technique has been proven to work for many thousands of people around the world, so there can be no question that it works. If you try it and it doesn’t work for you, you aren’t practicing properly, and you need to talk to an instructor to determine what you’re doing wrong.”
Wow! That’s a totally different message than we heard at the start.
A similar bit of logic is found in Christianity. The promise is that if you give your life to Jesus he will come into your heart, change you, and show you perfect love. However, if you give Jesus a fair trial but ultimately leave the faith because it does nothing for you after all, it is commonly insisted that “You must never have been a true Christian. If you had sought Jesus authentically, you never could have wanted to leave his love.”
This is a “no true Scotsman” fallacy and it exists to protect the legitimacy of the faith — because, if people give it a fair trial and reject it, the clear implication is that it doesn’t work for everyone, and then the main tenets of the faith are thrown into question.
Instead of insisting that those who don’t benefit from Vipassana are doomed to be miserable, Goenka could have said “Thanks for giving it a try! If this meditation doesn’t work for you, try to find some other way to gain control of your reactions and develop equanimity in your life.” That would have demonstrated a legitimate concern for the student’s well-being rather than a primary goal of gaining followers of his technique.
He used the same kind of manipulative logic I faced inside of Christianity, and I lost respect for him at that moment.
Despite my disappointment with this tactic, I was able to brush it off easily and focus on the parts that were valuable to me.
But from the conversations of people around me on the last day, I could tell that many people were getting sucked into the same kind of salvationist mindset that Christianity pushes: they needed to make a big effort to maintain this practice if they want a good life, even when the day-to-day reality of it is a massive struggle.
Striving for a perfect practice is yet another form of attachment and suffering. If the goal is to free people from those things, why place these demands on students, setting them up to feel like a failure if they don’t practice for an hour every morning and evening? Two hours a day is 1/8 of your waking life. That’s an even bigger ask than a 10% tithe.
The retreat is incredibly intense and difficult, especially for someone with no meditation experience. A person might enter a rather delicate mental state when you isolate them from all contact with everyone they know, all touch and communication with others, and ask them to sit still and quiet for 10 hours every day with nothing but their own subconscious for company. It pushes some people to the brink of insanity — or beyond, in the case of this young woman who committed suicide soon after her course.
Goenka himself describes the process as a “deep surgery” which can have negative results if you aren’t careful. The organization does try to take some measures to protect you; there is a resident assistant you can talk to if you’re experiencing problems, and they try to screen for mental health problems beforehand.
However, I have read stories of people being in distress and wanting to leave, but being strongly encouraged to stay. You’ve given them your keys and your wallet for safekeeping, so if you want to leave, you have to talk someone into giving those things back to you, and they’re not always eager to comply. “It will be more damaging if you leave halfway through. You need to stay here and keep working.”
The combination of mental vulnerability, loss of autonomy, and religious programming can create a traumatizing situation for some people.
With proper awareness of the risks, most people in sound mental health can find a great deal of value in this kind of meditation retreat. It has the potential to take you past your limits in ways you’d probably never try otherwise, and it leaves you with a powerful practical technique for finding equanimity in your body and mind. It might change your life.
If you’re in a highly vulnerable state, or if you don’t think exposure to the coercion I described would be healthy for you, it’s probably wise to find a less extreme way to learn about meditation.
Despite my complaints, I would recommend a 10-day Vipassana course to most people. Even if you don’t continue the practice afterward, you can still gain some deep personal insights from the 10-day experience.
I would simply encourage you to be on the lookout for manipulation and not to worry too much about how well you maintain the practice after the course ends. There are many kinds of psychosomatic practices that can help you find peace in your life. Maybe Vipassana is the one for you — or maybe not, and that’s OK too.
Click here to sign up for my mailing list and be notified right away when I publish future articles.