Anyone know anything about Vipassana Retreats?
August 24, 2012 5:02 AM   Subscribe

Anyone know anything about Vipassana Retreats?

So I'm on a waiting list for a Vipassana Retreat based on a random comment in a totally unrelated-to-my-life AskMeFi thread. Anyone know anything about them?
posted by twiggy32 to Religion & Philosophy (20 answers total) 25 users marked this as a favorite
What sorts of details are you seeking? Are you wondering what to expect?

I went on a four-day retreat a few years ago as a somewhat-novice meditator. It was a silent retreat, so no talking. Hours of meditating, several dharma talks. I found the whole experience to be incredibly grueling. About three weeks later, I was walking along and worrying about a problem I'd been wrestling with for ages--and out of nowhere, with a literal flash of light in my head, I had the perfect solution. In fact, it ended up sort of changing my life. I can't directly tie this eureka moment to the fact that I went to this retreat, but I definitely think it helped.
posted by indognito at 5:14 AM on August 24, 2012 [3 favorites]

Went on one in 2010, deciding if I'll go to a service period next month. I would say that the 10-day programme is really useful if you are willing to put your old ethics aside for the entire time period. I recall it was somewhat stressful for me to get into the habit of sitting for long periods of time. Cross-legged sitting after having not done it since childhood requires a lot of maneuvering. In all, I would say that I got to a real point of self-awareness twice in ten days, and in those times I felt nothing, the time going by so fast. It was altogether different from sleeping. I felt completely washed with good feeling and happiness despite not reassuring myself in the process, not saying or doing anything while remaining conscious was a major but surmountable challenge. But, YMMV, it is hard to maintain without continuous practice. I do not maintain practice. Instead, I got children :)

I faced a lot of self-doubt about what I was trying to achieve and considered leaving. The main issue really was getting up so early in the morning, but after the third day you get used to it. I do not think it need be so regimented, but it is done in this way to help practitioners see the value of continuous practice and simple living. You are not allowed to bring anything with you (except basic medicines) and have to lock up reading materials, pens, paper and phones prior to starting. If you find a partner to go with, it could make the experience more useful long-term.

Oh, the food is all vegetarian but you are only allowed tea and fruit for dinner after day 1. Your metabolism is going to take a hit! Old students cannot each after lunch at all, which is most likely why I haven't been back for nearly two years.
posted by parmanparman at 5:21 AM on August 24, 2012

I am wondering what to expect as a non-meditating, connected to screens at all times person. I am looking for a new sense of enlightenment and connection in my life. I have never been able to meditate, either falling asleep or just getting bored. I desperately need stress release and perspective on my life and I am wondering if this can provide it. Also, need way to convince my SO I am not joining a cult.
posted by twiggy32 at 5:23 AM on August 24, 2012

Yep. Been there, done that, it was great and will do it again at some point.

When making up my mind on whether to go, this AskMe was useful, particularly this comment by BitterOld Punk. There's other information in the archvies.

Also, a nice Mefite sent me this a helpfull book The Art of Living: Vipassana Meditation, which I read the first chapter of to get a basic understanding of the philosophy. I purposefully did not read any other chapters as it seemed to go into the technique itself and what we'd be doing each day. It seemed pointless to read about when I'd be doing it, hence no further reading.

I got a lot out of the course, which I credit to my own particular approach. Having read up on the philosophy of teachings, I decided to keep an open mind and complete the course before coming to any major conclusions. As mentioned up above, I didn't do a lot of research, just a enough to decide "Yes, this could be interesting experience, let's go."

My course was at the Southeast Vipassana Center, which was a great location, with a great staff, I'd recommend it to anyone.

Is there something specific you'd like to know?
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 5:26 AM on August 24, 2012

I am wondering what to expect as a non-meditating, connected to screens at all times person. I am looking for a new sense of enlightenment and connection in my life. I have never been able to meditate, either falling asleep or just getting bored. I desperately need stress release and perspective on my life and I am wondering if this can provide it.

One of the hardest parts was the first day and turning in my iPhone, that's how connected I usually am, so I get where you're coming from. It was totally worth it, to me.

You will be bored at times. You will fall asleep. It will be frustrating, annoying and uncomfortable. But there are daily lessons about learning the technique and your days are spent practicing it, because it is hard. It is incredibly relaxing and stress relieving to only be responsible for literally only thing: learning this technique.

As you'll learn on the 10th day though, don't expect complete miracles. This course just lays the foundation for incorporating the changes into your own life.

Also, need way to convince my SO I am not joining a cult.

You know where my contact info, feel free to use it if the SO has specific questions.

I'm married and did the 10 days. It's a bit strange in that you'll have no contact with the outside world, so the SO shouldn't expect to hear from you at all. But Vipassana is not a cult. They think they've discovered a method to reduce personal suffering and want to share it. That's it. What you give to them for that knowledge is up to you.

The best part is that once you've done the ten days, you can go back and do three day courses, which are obviously much less grueling and more manageable as vacations from regular life.

Yes, you can totally get involved in the center where you take the course, they could always use volunteers. But the choice is up to you, there's no pressure to do so.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 5:48 AM on August 24, 2012

Two good friends have done the retreats in the past five years, and provided in-depth descriptions of the 10 day retreats.

The first has an overall positive experience, completely echoed by I felt completely washed with good feeling and happiness, as mentioned above.

His experience was divided into five key moments, as I recall.

Days 1 – 3 passed by slowly, and was a rather difficult time. The two dominant feelings during this period was being trapped by the silence – removing external stimulus revealed the true volume of mental chatter – and the second was craving human contact, any basic recognition. He had a duty with another participant in the course – washing dishes as I recall – and brief moments of eye contact, no lasting longer than a second or two, became intense moments of communication and connection.

All was revealed on Day 4. He awoke with no mental chatter and a feeling of being completely in the moment. His senses were sharpened quite a bit. Colours were bright, the simple sounds of activity outside his room became a navigable symphony. The birds tweet outside sounds like music, he felt a strong connection to the bird song and wondered how – after years of camping and hiking – he had never heard the nuances within bird song. The individual voices of each bird.

The entire day flew by, as he was completely absorbed in his immediate surroundings, as if he was swimming through the experience of life itself. His mind never once touched thoughts of work, bills, social requirements, desire.

Toward the evening, he began to wonder if this had been the experience of native man – or men before busy towns and cities. Awash in experience, a life disconnected from concepts of future achievement, debt, community responsibility. This extended moment of being-ness. He wept with joy, alone, outside under a large tree. He sat watching the ants for an hour, fascinated by their organisation and capabilities; by their individuality. When he noticed the individuality of the ants, a spark ignited within his imagination.

He zoomed out in his mind's eye and saw where he was on the earth as imagined from orbit. He thought of someone watching him, in the same way that he saw the ant. He fluidly navigated between thinking of the ant of schedules and deadlines, required to produce certain output, struggling against the natural world around it. Then he thought of it from a peaceful place, simply as existing. Noticing the world around it and responding on a time horizon of complete presence.

He thought of his own life, and the different between who he is and the identity he has created. He thought of wealthy family friends, of homeless men he had seen, of teachers and professors. He was able to innately separate the person from his assumed identity, with the efficiency of someone husking corn, the rough shell discarded and the gleaming kernels below (his words).

That evening, he felt at complete peace, fascinated by the unencumbered agility of his mind and the tricks it could perform.

Days 5 – 9 flew by in a blur. He stopped noticing time, participating in the meditations and scheduled events, however, outside of that, time had no meaning and he was astonished at how fast it passed. It felt like part of a single day. He could clearly remember what he had for breakfast three days before, the gleam of the water on a vegetable. ("Hey, nickrussell, can you remember what you had for breakfast this morning? A pastry. What did it look like? A pastry.")

At the end of Day 9, he was crushed the weight of departure. He had formed friendships in silence, lived entire imaginary lives of his own, lived imaginary lives of others. He knew where the dents in the wood of the floor in his room where, and experienced the closest a stench atheist could refer to as the voice of God. His future was obvious. His past was peaceful.

On Day 10, when the broke the silence and re-engaged, he felt as if he had arrived at the airport after a long, wonderful vacation. Arrival back in normalcy was imminent, however also distant. He felt dread at waking up the following morning in a life previously had been reasonably satisfying. The simple matter of days passing not watching ants seemed to be a punishment. Civilisation and society itself seemed like a punishment – a kind of enforced servitude to which he had never originally agreed.

The following day, he felt different. He accepted the restrictions and boundaries of his life, however he also saw a gleam of potential in every encounter. Simple conversations at the coffee shop started resulting in new hiking friends or beer buddies. For two weeks, he lived in a deteriorating dusk of the awareness that had begun on day 4. A lingering North Atlantic Autumn dusk. He could still return to an approximate state of enlightenment, however, the distance from his present self was shorter and shorter, until that time and the enlightenment itself became the same kind of memory as any other holiday. He had traveled without moving, yet the distinction of 'holiday' and 'reality' demarcated the difference of that specific experience.

Did it change his life? Perhaps subtly. He remains open to new experiences in a greater way than he had been before, and continues to exhibit a greater capacity for empathy. He escapes to nature every opportunity possible, whereas previously, he had gone when it was convenient.

The other person was a late-20s woman who went after a break-up. Her experience was night-and-day in comparison.

It was lonely. The food was minimal. She felt as if she had detoxed a bit, but mostly it gave her mind-space to make the break with the chap. She couldn't check her phone, didn't worry about running into him, no emails, etc. It was more an absence of stress in that time, rather than an acclimation to exploring and connecting consciousness. She wouldn't do it again, as she said she often felt quite bored. It was nice, but not the way to spend holiday time.

Guess you get out of it what you put into it, like anything else.
posted by nickrussell at 6:08 AM on August 24, 2012 [19 favorites]

I left a Vipassana retreat in the evening of day 5. I was experiencing a lot of pain from sitting on the floor (like, it made me cry), and when I talked to the teacher the day before about getting a chair, she firmly said that it was supposed to hurt. Some folks did have chairs as a reasonable accomodation, perhaps I should have been more assertive. There were lots of cushions and blankets, which helped me last that long.

I also left because the living quarters were very crowded, and some of the other women developed really horrible coughs. I was not thrilled that they let these openly quite sick people stay at the retreat. The center I went to was building better housing for women when I was there, so this might not be a big concern anymore.

Finally, (spoiler alert!) I was expecting more in-person teaching and quiet meditation time. I found the tapes of the founder that we listened to really unpleasant and played too loud. It did feel a little cult-y with the strict separation of men and women, restricted calories (although the food was good overall), and the strictly enforced schedules. Our leisure time was spent shuffling around a grassy field, and it was pretty depressing to see a dozen people walking, staring at the ground, and avoiding each other. I missed reading a lot.

Good stuff: I did have a pretty awesome meditation experience during one session on day 4 or 5. When I talked to the teacher about leaving, she did offer me a chair, nobody tried to keep me there beyond expressing a desire to share the benefits they got from the meditation practice. It was free. I personally know people who found the retreat totally life-changing - I wasn't sure it was right for me going in, but I was willing to try it.
posted by momus_window at 6:53 AM on August 24, 2012 [1 favorite]

I've been to quite a few, 10+ I think. I'm at work so I don't have time to write you a long response, but feel free to MeMail me and I'd be more than happy to answer any questions you might have in detail.

The short list:
I am wondering what to expect as a non-meditating, connected to screens at all times person.
Broadly generalizing, people usually find it is not nearly as hard as they think to be disconnected from electronics/screens/constant entertainment. However, meditation is not easy nor is it always pleasant. I don't know anybody who has been to a retreat who has NOT found it extremely rewarding.

I am looking for a new sense of enlightenment and connection in my life.
This is a pretty good reason to do a retreat, in my opinion, depending on what you mean by enlightenment. If you are looking solely for self-improvement and "spiritual advancement", look elsewhere, but if you want a genuine connection to life and others -- and it sounds like you do -- good choice.

I have never been able to meditate, either falling asleep or just getting bored.
You will learn. 99% of people struggle with sleepiness for the first few days but that will not always be your experience. Bringing interest to the process of meditation, rather than waiting for it to suddenly become interesting, is like 50% of the entire process and you have to be willing to do that.

I desperately need stress release and perspective on my life and I am wondering if this can provide it.
Yes, in my experience it can and will.

Also, need way to convince my SO I am not joining a cult.
I would not go near meditation retreats with a 50-foot pole if there was even a WHIFF of cultiness about it. I am TERRIFIED of brainwashing. Instead, at retreats, I have been repeatedly told over and over never to follow anybody or anything blindly and to always do what works for me.
posted by Cygnet at 7:17 AM on August 24, 2012

Oh, and PS., certain retreat centers - notably the Goenka ones - are FAR more strict about where and how you should sit, when and what you eat, etc., than others. The retreat center I go to is not strict and nobody will police your behavior at all unless you are disrupting others. A (useful, helpful and in my opinion very important) aspect of the retreat experience is to have your choices simplified: you eat when they serve food, you wake up when the bell rings, you follow the schedule, etc. However, centers vary WIDELY in how/whether they will enforce these suggestions. IN ALL CASES, you are always free to walk away at any time.
posted by Cygnet at 7:23 AM on August 24, 2012

IN ALL CASES, you are always free to walk away at any time.


Depending on the people in charge, they may spend variable amounts of time encouraging you to stick out your time. And since they have your stuff, you can't exactly boost out at a moment's notice.

They definitely want you to stay for the duration, but it is certainly not a cult.

Here's what I did at my Vipassana retreat.

You wake up early, and go to bed pretty early too. There's nothing to do and no one to talk to other than meditate, so that's not a huge sacrifice. There is intentionally very very little stimulation.

There are required meditation sessions in particular places and recommended meditation sessions, when you can just go somewhere and get your meditation on. Maybe four or five sessions a day? Some of the sessions are guided (audio tapes recorded by the now deceased founder), others are completely silent. At night there is a short (20 min?) video of the founder taking though some philosophy, offering encouragement, etc.

You are slowly guided through the technique over the course of the retreat. I can say that it has been very helpful when I have been in wedding ceremonies and didn't want to respond to the fiendish itch on my nose as a member of the wedding party.
posted by Poppa Bear at 8:59 AM on August 24, 2012

Poppa Bear -
I respect that your experience was different, but at the retreats I've been to, they did not have my stuff and I actually could literally walk out the door and leave whenever I wanted. It's true that if you ask somebody, they may encourage you to stay, absolutely.
posted by Cygnet at 9:01 AM on August 24, 2012

On one level, attending a meditation retreat is the best way I know of spending a vacation. I used to go to the beach, or go skiing, or go to another country or whatever primarily to get away from my life for a short amount of time. To forget about everything or to accrue experiences. But at a meditation retreat I actually change as a person. I get better at being who I really am.

There really is nothing like your first retreat, and I'll try not to spoil it by writing about my experience in too much detail. For the first time I had to face myself, face my thoughts, face my feelings, face my body telling me things. This can be terrifying. But nothing I've found has given me the chance to really get to my roots and truly see where I am at the moment and learn to be ok with it.

During my first retreat I was going through a really hard time in my life (I had signed up for the retreat before serious life events transpired). My mind was going a million miles an hour, primarily focusing on bad things happening. I went into the retreat believing I had no way of dealing with what was in front of me. By the end of it, I believed that I had a chance. This is no small thing.

Some of the things you're concerned about (screen time, cultishness) may not play into it as much as you think. Other things might be surprisingly hard (no talking, no eye contact, physical discomfort). Just keep going. Just keep sitting.

There are a few practical considerations you may want to keep in mind. While I'm sure they will give you some instruction about what to focus on (counting breaths, the sensation of the breath/body, etc), sometimes your mind may be so active that even the most basic instructions they give you are no match for what your brain wants to think. When this happened to me I had to concentrate not only on the breath, but of the direction of air going into my nose and puffing out my belly, like arrows pointing toward my face and pointing outwards from my stomach. Also, the physical discomfort is real, especially around the third or fourth day. If you have enough lead time it may be worth it to start limbering up your hips, knees and ankles through yoga, massage, stretching etc. Because of this you may also want to request a chair be available to you during sitting.

Overall I wish you luck, and I hope that you get in off the waiting list.
posted by erikvan at 9:03 AM on August 24, 2012

I've got no first-hand experience to speak of, but I did just read "The Quiet Hell of Extreme Meditation", an article written by a dude who went on a Vipassana retreat. Might be helpful.
posted by stubie at 9:47 AM on August 24, 2012 [1 favorite]

I can sympathize with Poppa Bear's experience. They do not exactly have your stuff, but it would be hard to leave unnoticed and I do believe you agree to explain why you are leaving before you go. I don't think they would really put up much of a fight if you were forthright and demanded to leave. One person left when I was there. One thing I should say is that meditation does not cure any disease as far as I can tell. One person on my course had the habit of biting his upper lip. At the end of the course, when I was finally able to talk, one of my housemates told me that they had met someone who had taken the course 18 times before. It was the man who bit his lip! No, Vipassana is assuredly not a cult. One of the things the Men's Journal article cited above does not point out is SN Goenka was addicted to morphine for many years, the meditation was the first period without it in many years and was clearly a major challenge for him. He gave it one more day. The rest is history!
posted by parmanparman at 5:03 PM on August 24, 2012

"Vipassana" is often used just to refer to the Goenka-style centers; there are a lot of them, and their low cost makes them accessible to college students and other people who are looking to try something new. But there are a lot of meditation practices that call themselves "vipassana," and Theravada Buddhism is complex and contains many variations. I did a Goenka retreat and got a lot out of it, but I decided it wasn't my style -- too restrictive for me personally, and I ended up chafing a lot against the rules and limitations in ways that were counterproductive to my practice. I now go to a different center that also does vipassana retreats but not in the Goenka tradition, and it works much better for me. I have a lot of criticisms of the Goenka method, but it works great for many people. Just be aware that there are many other approaches both within "vipassana" and in other contemplative practice, Buddhist and non-Buddhist.
posted by unreadyhero at 5:05 PM on August 24, 2012

I have done a couple of vipassana/metta retreats at Insight Meditation Society in Barre, MA. I regard those retreats as fundamentally formative to many aspects of my experience of life in the years since.

It was difficult and worth it. It was both forceful and gentle. It was led by amazingly kind and wise individuals, and yet was completely my own experience. The retreats really gave me an opportunity to see truly radically different ways of living life and being a person.

Damn; I should be signing up again.

They didn't have my stuff, or any of that sort of thing.

From what I understand from meditator friends who have done both, the Goenka retreats are a quite different lineage and practice.
posted by eyesontheroad at 5:16 PM on August 24, 2012 [1 favorite]

I've done two retreats. Both 10-day courses at the Goenka center in Kaufmann, TX. I highly recommend it. It's hard work and at times it's boring and at times it's uncomfortable and at times it's painful, but it really is an amazing opportunity to reconnect with yourself and just be present for a few precious days. Both times, I was amazed at how happy I was with just a few meals and a place to sleep, how little I need to feel satisfied. There's something really special about the simplicity of the experience, the sound of the bell in the pre-dawn darkness, the silent camaraderie of dozens of people all working hard side-by-side.

It's honestly one of the coolest, most meaningful things I've ever done.

What convinced me to do it the first time was the fact that you are not allowed to pay anything until AFTER you've completed the course. The willingness to offer the course without expecting anything in return captures the whole spirit of the retreats.
posted by missjenny at 7:09 PM on August 24, 2012

A silent retreat is never completely silent.
posted by homunculus at 4:07 PM on August 25, 2012

I attended a 10-day silent retreat at the IMS in Barre, MA just recently.

No, seriously, completely silent.

In one sense it feels like an exercise in austerity. A monk in a monastery. Your days are highly regimented. All forms of stimulation are removed. Not allowed to keep anything. Not even a journal. This got to me pretty quickly. In response, my mind rebelled. I dreaded the void of the hall. I stretched my limbs. I indulged in elaborate fantasies about my fellow female "yogis". I took unplanned hikes into the forest, secretly hoping to get lost. I spent a lot of time in the nearby garden, inspecting flowers, feeling the sunshine on my skin, waiting to catch a glimpse of these gorgeous hummingbirds that would come around.

Following stretches of intense doubt and frustration came moments of serene self-understanding.

A few of the dharma talks caught my interest and rung true. Others lacked insight and fell flat. Not everything will resonate with you. That being said, you will take away something.

Overall I found it to be emotionally enlightening. It gave me a fresh perspective on the chaos and detachment of my mental activity. By forcing your attention inward, you become freshly aware of highly destructive mental habits. It reinforced the deep, Buddhist truth that "everything changes". It reignited the willpower to "be intimate with the present moment".

Good luck with it. Approach with skepticism. It's a deeply personal journey, so be aware of what you brought into it.
posted by stroke_count at 4:09 PM on August 25, 2012

Seconding the Men's Journal link. In emotional quality, 85% of my experience lined up with that article.

I see that many people have gone to retreats where they were not asked to leave their things with the volunteer staff. That was not my experience.

The retreat I went to was in Switzerland, not America. Goenka "style" retreats request that you leave behind all prayer beads, religious icons, books, writing tools; everything that could distract you from learning and applying the technique.

In addition, the one I went to asked that I leave everything I brought with me that was not clothing, toiletries, or medication (food, money, ID, etc) with the staff, to be locked in a safe. This was to further remove distractions, not to keep my things safe from other participants. Clearly, that was not everyone's experience. For any of the future curious about Vipassana retreats, I just wanted to mention that it was also not no one's experience either.

Oh! And if I recall correctly, they ask that you not attend if you have a mental diagnosis. I forget the specifics (which diagnoses, whether it matters if you're treated or untreated, etc), but if you fit the bill for people they say shouldn't attend, you should go ahead and believe them. That warning is for your benefit, not theirs.
posted by Poppa Bear at 12:03 PM on December 3, 2012

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