In July I went on a 10 day silent vipassana style meditation retreat at the Dhamma Mahi centre in France. I found it really difficult at times, especially the first few days. But by the end my mind was pretty blown. I came away feeling like I had let go of years of subtle tension that I didn’t even know I had been holding! After getting into the groove, I remember having the same thought after every sit, “no this is the calmest my mind and body has ever been”.

A retreat like that might sound amazing, extreme, weird or even cult-like depending on who you are. What is it actually like?

What is a Goenka vipassana centre?

S. N. Goenka (1924-2013) was a Burmese business man who discovered meditation when looking for relief from serious migraines. After discovering vipassana (insight meditation) he dedicated his life to teaching around the world and using his wealth to create a free global retreat centre network (which still has a hilariously old school website).

S. N. Goenka (1924-2013)

His teacher was Sayagyi U Ba Khin who taught a very methodical style of body scanning vipassana. Together with Mahasi Sayadaw, who taught an equally methodical noting style, these two teachers represent the two main forms of vipassana to emerge from Burma during the 1960s and 1970s. In fact, most of today’s best known Western meditation teachers spent time with at least one of these guys.

“In every generation, there are a few visionary and profound masters who hold high the lamp of the Dharma to illuminate the world. Like the Dalai Lama and Thich Nhat Hanh, S.N. Goenka was one of the great world masters of our time. [He] was an inspiration and teacher for Joseph Goldstein, Sharon Salzberg, Ram Dass, Daniel Goleman, and many other western spiritual leaders.”

Jack Kornfield 

These centres are actually pretty amazing. Completely run and managed by volunteers, they’re totally free to attend. You have the option to donate afterwards, but only if you stayed the entire 10 days. If you leave early they won’t take your money.

An awesome part of the experience is that the people doing the cooking, cleaning, organising, etc. are all volunteers. To volunteer you have to have completed at least one 10 day retreat already. That means that these people have all come back to help others have a great retreat experience. I think that’s pretty cool. By the tenth day you feel really grateful to the anonymous volunteers working silently in the background making it possible to focus completely on your practice.

What is a retreat like?

Meditate. Eat. Meditate. Sleep. Repeat.

Seriously, the entire experience is almost perfectly designed to help you focus on your meditation continuously for the 10 days. You’re in complete silence the entire time, you don’t have a phone, books, or even a pen and paper. You don’t even make eye contact with other people. That might sound constrictive but actually these rules prove to be liberating since you can become fully absorbed in your practice without having to worry about anything at all.

In the first days you start see all the usual trains of thought you have. What I noticed was that many of these are implicitly demanding a solution. Like “Hey Lars – Think about this until you figure it out and do something about it!” But since you’re on retreat, even if you did spend all that time thinking about what to do, you couldn’t act on it even if you wanted to! So it helps you let go of the habitual things that are pulling at your mind. Relaxing into the practice.

It was amazing how great the vibes were amongst everyone, despite the silence. There was a sense of going through something together. I noticed that tiny acts of kindness, like holding a door or letting someone pass in front of you, had a different quality to it since, being in silence, there was no expectation of any thanks in return.

Wake up

At 4 a.m. the morning bell goes, it’s a chilled long gonging designed not to be too jarring whilst still waking you. As a ‘new student’ I was in a shared dorm with my own little partitioned room. Men and women are completely separated the entire time except inside the meditation hall. The rooms themselves are very simple but clean and tidy with a single bed, chair and bedside table.

A great piece of advice I got before going was to continue the meditation practice even between sits by concentrating on the sensations of whatever I’m doing. This keeps the ball rolling and effectively makes the retreat one long meditation session. I tried to keep up a constant noting of all sensations whilst brushing my teeth, eating, walking, showering, etc.

So, after some teeth-brushing meditation I had a short walking meditation to the hall. Deep in the countryside, with no other lights, buildings or noise anywhere. It would still be dark and over the 10 days you could see the moon changing cycle and moving through the sky. My whole routine became beautifully simple. Slowly, I began to notice the unbelievable wealth of sensations arising and passing away in even the most ‘mundane’ moments.

The pain of sitting

There’s a cozy vibe in the hall in the morning. Women on one side, men on the other, teachers in the front, about 150 people in total. On the first day everyone was pretty spartan, taking only one or two meditation cushions to sit on. But by the end of the day we were all in So. Much. Pain! Or at least I was. There was an “oh snap, sitting is painful” realisation and I could see many people started building elaborate cushion castles to support knees and bums and hopefully reduce the discomfort!

In the first days I was seriously wondering how I was going to avoid being driven completely insane by the pain and discomfort of sitting. It’s amazing how much it hurts to be doing absolutely nothing! My back was aching, my shoulders hurt, my legs were throbbing and kept having to readjust my posture or try to stretch. Luckily, by the third day or so something really interesting happens – your body and mind stop resisting what is happening.

For me it happened very suddenly. By the end of the second day I thought, “No this is crazy. I’ve got 8 more days of this!” So I resolved to just not move a muscle for the whole 2 hour sit and see if I could just somehow brute force my way into equanimity. It got insanely difficult to keep practicing. It was actually amazing how many strategies my body used to try and distract me. For example, I noticed myself actually starting to stand up randomly and had to force myself back onto my cushion and my mind back to the breath. When that didn’t work, my body wanted to be sick and I was worried I might actually throw up! There was sweat pouring down me. It felt like an all out battle to just be aware of my breath and accept the intensifying waves of discomfort and let them pass.

Then, in a single moment, it all just stopped. It’s hard to describe because it was so simple in many ways. It was just like a “Huh, I’m doing this to myself, all this pain and resistance doesn’t have to be here, it’s just me!” In the moment of that insight it was like my whole body shrugged with relief. My mind felt like it suddenly stopped pin balling around trying to avoid discomfort. It was a bit like those moments when someone turns off a fan – you didn’t really notice it there before, but now that it has gone you realise how loud it had been.

It was remarkable, suddenly I was completely at ease. The moment just before I was actually seriously worried I could be damaging my body because of how painful it was. And now, nothing. It was such a shock I felt like crying and laughing at the same time. With some combination of acceptance and focus I had stumbled into letting go of a huge resistance to myself.

From that moment on, each sit became about finding hidden pockets of resistance and going through subtler and subtler levels of that same letting go. It’s like finding tiny muscles all over your body that are chronically tense, until you notice them and they relax. You keep doing this over and over, opening into deeper and deeper states of peace.

Meditation instructions

Goenka gives you pre-recorded instructions on how to meditate at various points in the day and the method you use evolves over the 10 days. The first three days are dedicated to focusing on the sensations of the breath at the nose (“anapana”). This calms the mind and strengthens your ability to direct your focus without distraction – both prerequisites for doing insight meditation. By the fourth and fifth days, Goenka introduces you to vipassana and you are instructed to methodically move your awareness to every point in your body, moving from toes to head and back again in circa 15 minute sweeps.

I found loads of points where I could feel some tension or pain that had previously been lurking just below my conscious awareness. Other times I would notice a point where I didn’t seem to have any sensations at all. In both cases, just being aware of that point and trying to stay chilled, resulted in a gradual loosening and waking up of the body. It felt like over the 10 days my body was releasing knots and tensions that I had never even known were there and slowly my awareness seemed to spread to some of the nooks and crannies which I somehow hadn’t been inhabiting before.

Work diligently. Diligently. Work patiently and persistently. Patiently and persistently. And you’re bound to be successful. Bound to be successful.

S. N. Goenka

Evening talks

Each evening, before the final meditation of the day, you sit in a screening room to watch a video lecture of Goenka. This is the only stimulation you get all day so it was always welcome! They are videos from him leading a retreat so it feels a bit like he is speaking directly to your experience. Each lecture would give some clarifications on the technique and generally gives you some of the theory around vipassana. I thought these were great (you can find them on youtube) since Goenka’s actually a pretty funny guy and had an uncanny ability to address exactly what was on people’s mind at various points in the retreat. It was like any doubt or question you had seem to be answered in that evening’s lecture.

Why do this?

There are so many benefits of completing what is essentially a whole year’s worth of meditation hours in only ten days. You can see why in my post on how meditation affects your brain and body. However, in my view, potentially the most valuable take away from a retreat like this is a much clearer understanding of what insight meditation is actually doing. You can gain a better intuition of what it feels like to be meditating well, which then improves your normal practice and daily life.

For real happiness, for real lasting stable happiness, one has to make a journey deep within oneself and see that one gets rid of all the unhappiness and misery stored in the deeper levels of the mind.

S. N. Goenka

Insight into insight meditation

Particularly when starting out, it can be really difficult to know what you’re meant to be accomplishing with meditation. Following instructions will usually give you the results but an intuitive knowledge of the process really helps eliminate doubts. I think of it like the analogy of the cook vs. the chef. The cook follows instructions but doesn’t really understand why, whereas the chef has an intuitive understanding of the flavours and can therefore be much more creative and effective.

So what is meditation doing? It can be counterproductive to describe in too much detail what meditation ‘feels’ like, since doing so can create expectations and confusion. The challenge is that it actually feels different to different people. Even the way I would describe something is probably different to the way someone else would. If in doubt, a good guidepost is to ask yourself whether the technique is resulting in greater internal peace and comfort. A sense of opening and expansion with an associated release of discomfort and tension. I know that sounds painfully vague so I’ll try describe how I experience it.

In vipassana meditation I’m questing with my awareness around my body, intentionally turning my attention towards any areas of discomfort. In my mind I’m thinking something like “what is keeping me from being completely at peace in this moment?”. This is not easy since my mind naturally just doesn’t want to go there.

Vipassana is the art of living. Not the art of escaping.

S. N. Goenka

I inevitably find some area that is contracted, pulsing or in some way uncomfortable. Having found a sensation, I investigate it with a friendly and accepting curiosity. Asking myself things like: What does it feel like? Where exactly do I feel it most? Where is the boundary of the sensation? Is it constant or vibrating? Is it shifting or changing?

The trick here is to be intensely interested in the sensation without harbouring any desire for it to change or go away. You are simply looking with a calm, equanimous mind. You’re tricking yourself a little bit since the result of sharp mindfulness and powerful equanimity is that the sensation will usually loosen up, shift or disappear completely (but don’t tell yourself that!). This process over time eliminates subtler and deeper levels of discomfort leaving you feeling more open, calm and free. That feeling can give you an intuitive sense of what is being referred when meditation teachers or text talk about liberation.

Go for it!

All in all, I’m really grateful to have had the opportunity to go on retreat and highly recommend it to anyone, even if you don’t have a meditation practice yet. There were many people there who had never meditated before! Also, don’t feel like you have to go on retreat to meditate. A regular practice is just as, if not more, important than retreat practice. If you’re looking for some place to start check out this previous post about how to start an effective practice.

If you have any questions or comments at all please don’t hesitate to message me or put them in the comments below.