Meditation Preparation
November 11, 2007 9:15 AM   Subscribe

Advice for attending a ten day meditation workshop?

I just registered for a ten day meditation workshop at an S. N. Goenka Vipassana center. Has anyone done this before? If so, what would you recommend I do in preparation? It's at the end of the month and I don't have a lot of experience meditating. Should I practice posture? Get rid of all expectations? Not read the answers to this post?
posted by farishta to Religion & Philosophy (13 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
Clear your mind of such questions.
posted by brautigan at 10:08 AM on November 11, 2007

More seriously, you might want to read up on Vipassana meditation to get a handle of what to expect. Practising your posture would probably help you be more comfortable if you're not used to sitting cross legged, although any discomfort you feel is there to be explored while you meditate. I'd probably get my home life organised ie pay bills, arrange for pets to be fed etc etc so you don't worry about your day to day life when you're their and also, eat and drink healthily in the weeks running up to the course.
posted by brautigan at 10:17 AM on November 11, 2007

Don't just do something, sit there.
posted by BitterOldPunk at 10:30 AM on November 11, 2007 [3 favorites]

The important thing in meditation and all spiritual paths, I've heard, is intent.

Don't get hung up on doing postures correctly (although if you're not used to sitting in a posture for a long period of time, some stretching, etc. may be in order). Don't worry about doing things right. Focus on being relaxed and in tune with your desires for this retreat. Why you're on it, what you intend to get out of it, and the better person you hope to return as. Everything else is just the motions.
posted by Deathalicious at 10:40 AM on November 11, 2007

Clean your house before you go so that you don't have to worry about much when you get back.

In preparation, nurture your body. Eat well, get plenty of sleep and exercise. You don't want to spend the first few whole days catching up with all this. Usually after any meditation session, I realize that I have finally reached the state I would have WANTED to be in when I started it.

Over ten days you will run the gamut; you will be excited, invigorated, sleepy, frustrated, disappointed, inspired, all of it. Letting go of expectations is a good idea, because from there you can proceed no matter what you encounter. When you get to, say, the fourth day and you're starting to feel stifled or irritated, you'll be able to focus on simply getting through it to whatever comes next. You can't control what you are give, only what you give.

Good luck!
posted by hermitosis at 11:20 AM on November 11, 2007

Whoops! How about: "You can't control what you are given, only what you give."

Sorry, I actually just walked in the door from a weekend-long kung fu workshop myself, and I can't think in a straight line yet.
posted by hermitosis at 11:21 AM on November 11, 2007

I've done this retreat (many years ago) as has my husband (just this past year). I think that how you handle it depends a lot on your constitution. I'm pretty active/jumpy; he's more laid back. He had a much easier time maintaining the sits than I did.

That said, it was one of the most important things I've ever done. Right up there with Outward Bound and med school. I emerged calmer and more mature/balanced.

Here are some pretty accurate descriptions of what goes on.

How to prepare? You could do some light meditation on your own. Take a few minutes to count your breaths, pay attention while you eat, that kind of thing. Goenka is pretty clear that he wants you to relinquish other beliefs/training for the time you're there, but beforehand there's nothing wrong with basic mindfulness, yoga, etc.

I would also cut back on caffeine and other toxins before going in, just to make the experience go better.

Be well, be happy, and good luck.
posted by pammo at 11:53 AM on November 11, 2007

I did a five-day retreat last May. It was largely informed by Tibetan Buddhism (the talks are here.) I had been doing an hour a day of meditation for some years by that point, but I still expected it to be challenging to sit there for the bulk of the day. But it turned out to be pretty straightforward. Posture is not a big deal, or at least wasn't at this retreat. I sat in a chair much of the time, and so did the retreat leader.

(The really weird thing for me was that after that retreat, my solid hour-a-day practice pretty much stopped cold. I've since found this Korean Zen group I really like, and I sit with them for a couple of hours on Friday nights, but that's it for formal meditation, unless you count Tai Chi, which I've started to pursue pretty seriously as a contemplative practice.)
posted by Coventry at 12:33 PM on November 11, 2007 [1 favorite]

I've often heard that you shouldn't make any major decisions in the first couple days back from a retreat--you tend to be still in such an expansive state of mind that you may agree to things you ordinarily wouldn't, etc. So you may want to arrange anything you need to at home/work so that this is possible.
posted by dixie flatline at 2:02 PM on November 11, 2007

I bailed after two days on one of these. It was perfectly apparent to me that (a) the technique was powerful and very useful (b) I could indeed have spent another eight days using it to make the agonizing lower-back pain caused by sitting on the floor unimportant (c) said pain was coming on more quickly after sitting down each time I did so (d) I trust my own body's pain signals more than I trust the disembodied, taped voice of S. N. Goenka.

If you want to train up for this thing, my best advice is to spend an hour just sitting on the floor. If you're in searing, agonizing pain at the end of that hour, give it a couple of days to settle down, then try again with a different/better cushion. If you're merely stiff and uncomfortable, that's fine; you'll adapt during the retreat.

Vipassana is a bit paradoxical, in that you learn to use the process of paying close attention to your body as a means become able to ignore what it's telling you. Which is fine and dandy, as long as you're not actually damaging the thing.

They will tell you that you need to commit wholeheartedly to sticking out the ten day program, and that Terrible Things will happen to you if you jump ship early. In my enlightened opinion, going into the thing with the full intent of staying the course is a fine thing, but you need not fear harm from bailing if you think it's doing you actual damage.
posted by flabdablet at 4:06 PM on November 11, 2007

Congratulations on having the courage to take this step!

As a practical matter, I would echo some of the above comments regarding getting your body used to sitting in meditation for several hours. Sit at least 30 minutes to one hour per day before the retreat either counting breaths or just observing the breath as it goes in and out. The point here is more physical - finding what postures are most comfortable for you, how thick of a cushion you prefer, etc. You might find it helpful to sit-a-long at the Treeleaf Zendo.

My knees tend to get sore - some people have back pain - it just depends on your body. Pain in meditation can help one focus but after a certain point it just becomes a distraction. I've found that certain stretches can really help both before sitting and after - see here, here, and here.

BuddhistGeeks podcast had two interviews with SN Goenka practitioners - go to FallingFruit and search for Goenka. These interviews give some perspective and background info on the Goenka school of Vipassana.

Good luck and be well!
posted by donknotts at 11:58 AM on November 12, 2007 [1 favorite]

Here's my advice. First, answer the question two months after you've done the retreat.
I've done a bunch of Goenka retreats. They're different for everyone, so everything said here only applies to me, and maybe to you but don't count on it.
1) A ten day retreat is hard. Really hard. Really really really hard. Etc.
2) Your job is to focus and to accept, and that's ALL. Don't try to do anything else.
3) Previous advice to get everything taken care of at home is excellent. Your mind will grab any opportunity, no matter how miniscule, to distract itself. If you left a sock on your bedroom floor before you left home, you'll worry about it. So be sure to have everything outside the retreat in a worry-free state - pets cared for, house locked, car windows closed, grandmother phoned, leftovers frozen, etc.
4) (from previous answer): "you learn to use the process of paying close attention to your body as a means become able to ignore what it's telling you." NO! This is totally wrong. You learn to observe bodily sensation without judging it, which is an entirely different thing than ignoring it, and much, much harder.
5) It's a lot easier to look like a Buddha than to be a Buddha, and thus, when you open your eyes and look around when you're supposed to be meditating, as you will do, you will convince yourself that everyone around you is in a highly advanced spiritual state because they're all sitting quietly and not moving. This is not the case! With rare exceptions they're all in the same place you are: "my knee hurts", "how long until lunch?", "this is insane", "that woman in the purple pants is so hot; how can I hit on her when I can't talk?", "if that guy snaps his glasses case shut one more time I'm going to kill him", "why didn't I paint more pictures in kindergarten?", "is there life on Pluto?", etc. etc.
6) Take Goenka's advice seriously, especially the part where he says that the practice matters way more than the philosophy. If any part of the philosophy doesn't work for you, just let it go and keep sitting. It doesn't matter.
7) Be kind to yourself. Do your best. Walk a lot. Enjoy your path.
posted by arcadia at 6:56 AM on January 22, 2008 [2 favorites]

Hmm, you probably went already, but I just ran across this question and thought I'd answer it. I did one of these retreats about 8 years ago.

The advice to pay your bills and maybe clean your house is good. Think of it as if you are about to leave the country for somewhere remote for a month. Then you will do the right amount of preparation.

Go in ready to give up control of your daily schedule. You are about to meditate all the time. It drove me crazy not to be able to go running every day like I normally did. Be aware you are about to have a complete rift in your daily routine. Know that this is going to be really hard, as arcadia says. You know how when you go home from college over Christmas, you still have coffee and read the paper every morning and check email; you're in a different place but doing many of the same things? It's not like that. You are about to enter a vast field of silence and isolation.

Cutting back on caffeine and sugar ahead of time is also a good idea.
posted by salvia at 1:12 AM on January 26, 2008

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