Vipassana Meditation Retreat : The Aftermath

Ok, so I was going to do this big detailed review of the Dhamma Dipa meditation retreat, what happened when, how, etc. But then I thought maybe it’s best not to give away too much of the experience, and rob people of the chance to find out for themselves. Plus, I’m not sure how I feel about it right now, so anything I write would be a little unbalanced to say the least. If you’re interested in doing it you should just go do it. It’s free, you can leave whenever you want, and you’re big enough to make your own decisions about the whole thing.

That being said, here’s some points from the few notes I jotted down when I got back. They should go some way to defining my experience there, and maybe give you an idea what to expect. And for those that need it I’ll just say it right now – **SPOILER ALERT**

my 'cell'

For one thing it was tough! Ten days of getting up at 4am, meditating for ten hours a day, no food after noon (though some fruit at 5pm); no talking, no touching, no eye contact; isolation, hard work, and a lot to comprehend. That about sums it up. It’s an emotional experience, but not a social one. They take it very very very seriously, and there’s very little let up. You’re there to work, and work you must.

I almost left a few times, sometimes because I wasn’t getting anything out of it, sometimes out of frustration, and sometimes because I was just sick of all the rules. But I stuck it out, and I at least gained a good grounding in Vipassana meditation (though I also got that from reading Mindfulness in Plain English: 20th Anniversary Edition).

the old farmhouse courtyard

I practiced when I was meant to practice, but I didn’t always do it very well. If I tell you that I came away from there with a new recipe for vegan calzone, an almost complete film script, and the business plan for a new retreat centre in the Lake District, you will see that my mind wasn’t always on the job.

Though I could see the value in the no contact rules (to experience the technique for yourself without other opinions getting in the way) they were frustrating. At times I wanted to scream, just to make a loud noise (NB: when we were finally able to speak on the 10th day my voice was so croaky from lack of use); not knowing anyone’s names I ended up making nicknames for them just to have a point of reference – Zippy, the Wizard of Space and Time, Mr Swishy Pants – (not all of them were entirely complimentary); and I didn’t get to meet any girls which, to be honest, is part of the reason I go to these damn things. But anyway…

leaving dhamma dipa

So it was hard. At one point I almost went to look at my car just to check it was still there (and maybe to gain some psychological support from it’s presence) but I caught myself and decided not to be so stupid. Turns out I wasn’t the only one. One guy even got in his van, and would have left if the gates had been locked, but they weren’t so he stayed (it made sense somehow). And someone even heard a car leaving it 3:30am, though who it was and why he didn’t know. Heck, my own roommate left on the second day!

But there were also spooky moments that kept you interested. Like the discourse on day 7, when the teacher, Goenka, via the medium of badly shot video, told the ‘This Too Shall Pass’ story. The weird thing for me is I had been thinking of that story that very day. My head was full of film and TV clips most of the time, and the story appears in My Best Friends Wedding, with Paul Giamatta telling it to a defeated Julia Roberts in a hotel corridor. It’s not a story I think of often, and maybe it was just a coincidence, but it certainly caught me by surprise, and helped keep me interested on days 8 and 9 when all I wanted to do was go home (or at the very least have a lie in).

undoing all the good work

So I survived, just! Come the end of it I was glad to go home. And what did I do when I got back? Had some curry sauce and chips, watched back to back episodes of The Big Bang Theory, and ordered a bunch of stuff off Amazon. I haven’t done any meditating since (though I did pretty much go into a load of night shifts, so I’m kinda knackered at the moment) and I don’t know when I’ll be sitting again. My leg still hurts like hell (that made for a fun 10 days let me tell you!) and so I’m less than enthusiastic to get down on the floor again.

And if I’m honest I’m a little dubious of the whole experience too. All the discourses and instruction were off tape, with just an assistant teacher to offer clarification if you were to ask. The tapes were shot in 1991. Are you telling me that no one in 20+ years has learnt or benefitted enough from the technique to be able to teach it on the organisations behalf? That puts doubts in my mind. And the final discourse, where they insist that they are the correct way to do Vipassana like Buddha used to do, and other meditation techniques have lost his teachings along the way, left a bit of a bad taste in my mouth.

All in all I’d have expected my mind to be alive with what I’ve learnt, but in fact it’s not. I’m glad I went, but I was equally as glad to get home, and I’m keen now to just crack on with the rest of my life, planning what I’m going to do next and how I’m going to get there (the subject of my next blog post).

Like I said, give it a go and make your own mind up. These are just my thoughts/memories on the matter. And here’s one final one to be going on with. I’ve heard it said that you should seek enlightenment like a drowning man seeks air. Now that’s all well and good, but if you live your entire life like you’re drowning, well what kind of life would that be?

28 thoughts on “Vipassana Meditation Retreat : The Aftermath

  1. Really helpful review. I’ve been thinking about going…and at least I now know that it’s as hard as I thought it was going to be! Respect for making the 10 days my dear

    • Thank you, thank you, and it should be a good one. 😉 Feeling a little feisty after being back at work for 2 long and difficult days, and a lot of clarification has come into my head over the past 2 weeks. I think I’m coming nearer to ‘a plan’.

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  3. I signed myself in for Vipassana in Ireland. It goes from Dec 27 – Jan 7. Not everyone’s first choice for ringing in the new year but I’m looking forward to the challenge. Hopefully the time at Reith will be enough preparation to get me through it. Keep up the good work on the postings. Síocháin (Peace)

    • Wow, good luck! You’re right, not most people’s choice for new year’s eve, But then again you’re not most people. ;o)

      Have fun, let me know how you get on, and most importantly, don’t forget your umbrella! Trust me, you’ll thank me later, lol.

      Will be thinking of you then. All the best man.

  4. Well done for completing the course 🙂 I’ve done a few of these courses at Dhamma Dipa now and can completely relate to much of what you say.

    I know what you mean about the 30 year old video discourses. Apparently there are other teachers in the Goenka tradition that are qualified to deliver them, so it’s a mystery to me why they don’t, I’d love to get a different – and more up-to-date – perspective. I also share your concerns with the parts of the discourse that seem to imply that their Vipassana is the “correct” way.

    Having said all that, after doing a few courses at Dhamma Dipa and some service there, I will say that I am continually impressed with the selfless dedication and hard work of the people who teach and serve in the tradition. The fact that the whole place is run on donations of money and work by old students just staggers me.

    Regarding daily practice, don’t worry about a sore leg. I have found that daily sitting up to a couple of hours a day is generally pretty comfortable and painless compared to being on a course.

    • Hi Carl. Thanks for commenting. 🙂

      I agree with what you say, a more up to date set of teachings would be good. But also I’ve found Dhamma Dipa aren’t the only ones guilty of this. A few other places have tape and video of the guru which they use a lot, getting the ‘authentic’ teachings, but losing some of the tradition along the way. These things are meant to be handed down verbally, and learnt, and I worry that using these recordings might mean the essence of the teaching is not being passed on properly to the next generation (in the way it has been for thousands of years).

      But I also agree that the work done by those involved to try and pass this information on is incredible, and I join you in your admiration of their efforts. 🙂

  5. Hi All,
    I sat my first course in 1973 and have been doing it, more or less, ever since. Sayagyi U Ba Khin did authorise other teachers and I have been privileged to sample 5 other teachers’ slant on the process. My favourite, John Coleman died a few months ago.
    On the original Goenka courses, you were allowed to talk, and being part of the hippy era, all sorts of nefarious activities took place. In India, the atmosphere is very mellow and people have to be coerced into taking it more seriously – as a result, Goenka’s courses have become more and more rigid. It’s a fine balance, and without Goenka being there to monitor the situation, (there are now hundreds of centres worldwide, and he is very old), the management take it upon themselves to administer the rules how they see them.
    Anyway, rigid or not, I would recommend vipassana to anyone. It’s changed my life completely from the rebellious, angry young man I was. I am no way enlightened, and sometimes feel I should know more than I do after 40 years of meditation, but then when I see people in crisis, or myself in crisis, and how most of the world hasn’t a clue what life’s about, I realise I do.
    Don’t be put off by Dhamma Dipa’s rigidity. Don’t throw the baby out with the bath water!

    • Mark, my apologies for not replying to your comment sooner. I thought I had.

      I thank you for what you have said, and for the insight into the organisation you have given. It certainly helps in giving some context to the experience I had.

      And believe me, the ‘baby’ is certainly still with me, lol. I still do meditate, and I recommend it to anyone and everyone as a useful and helpful thing to do. I’m glad I did the course, I just wanted to offer my opinion for those that are interested so that they could make an informed choice.

  6. Iv got to say the fact that you were writing your review and script and as you say your mind wasn’t on the job is more pointedly the reason for you not gaining the full benefits if what the retreat offers. I must say that I do believe your criticism if the course is unfair as you yourself admit you did not
    give the course a fair trial.

    I do feel its unfair on others who might experience the fullness of vipassana if only they could switch off the social and verbal parts if their minds long enough to concentrate sustainably on a method that in the end has the power to release all if us from the craving – aversion dependency cycle that belies most of the psychological and physical illness of today’s modern society.

    The rules are not there as a show they are there as to achieve the full benefits of vipassana which are essentially an enlightened and practical path out of our dependencies. By switching off from social contact and taking the focus inward the deeper part of the mind that society either condemns or restricts has a chance to become aware of itself and as this is where deep rooted complexes lie, buried under the rubble if social decay and monotonous superficial interactions, the path to liberation and pro active conscious decision making rather than habitual conditioned reactions are possible.

    If you want to get anything out of this retreat its imperative that you follow the rules as closely as you possibly can.

    I do know what you mean about the car though. I also experienced many blocks and certain moments were torturous just because of how much psychological debris I realised I had unattended in the recess of my mind. The harder it is to look at the more the conscious mind resists and tells us to run away. By consistently practicing one becomes able to reconnect the conscious mind if the prefrontal context with the deeper more ancient part of (from an evokutionary point of view)the brain and there forwards becomes able to develop a self control and deeper self awareness of ones self past and present. It’s only with this in place that we can carve out the future that we truthfully want to live.

    Do try to give the course a 100percent chance. Breaking through those pain barriers was one of the most liberating experiences of my whole life. It’s gruelling but in a way that offers complete possibility of internal cleansing and true self mastery. The course was painful in many ways but worth every moment as long as

    It’s also advisable to consider the karmic reasons that the course is run on a donation only basis. The course is not ‘free’ as such; any donation only principle runs with the presupposition that all individuals understand the spiritual law of give and take. A donation should be carefully considered by each individual to each give (or not to give) each within his or her own means. But it’s something that should not be taken for granted as free.

    I do hope that you get to go to this course or a three day course again to fully appreciate the real essence of vipassana. As a writer I 100percdnt understand how you needed to write but it’s only by disengaging the activity in the brain that you begin to make real progress. I regretted not having a pen at moments but in the end it was for the best. I 100 percent urge you to do this again with a different mind set and see if you don’t reap more of the benefits than the first sitting. Just wanted to share this for those who might be influenced in their decision to experience it by reading this. It’s a potentially life changing experience for the better if you are willing to make the required adjustments. And as hard as they are to experience, they will as they say, a change and transform into a subtler more sublime experience if the same phenomenon. All is temporary and all will change. Anappana

    • Thank you for the lengthy comment. I’d like to address a few points you brought up.

      1. Why do you think I did not give the course a fair trial? I did. I followed all the rules, listened attentively to all the teachings, worked hard during each sitting, and tried my best. Don’t assume that, because I didn’t come away from the course thinking it was amazing, that I didn’t try.

      2. I never said the rules were for show. In fact if you look again you’ll see I said I could see the value in them, I just found some of them difficult. Different thing altogether.

      3. The physical pain I make reference to towards the end of the post was because of an existing leg injury, which was exacerbated by prolonged sitting. The post was written more with existing readers in mind, who would have been aware of this, rather than new readers. An oversight on my part.

      4. I’m sorry to read that the course should not be considered as free. That was one of the points I admired about them, and in fact all Buddhist organisations. If a charge is required, then a charge should be made. If not then no guilt should be assigned. You can’t have it both ways.

      I attended classes at the Buddhist Vihara in Turnham Green, London, and they were free. They did say you could make donations if you like, but it was not expected or presumed, no amount was asked for, and whenever anyone brought the subject up they were pointed towards a donation box by the front door. The teacher just didn’t want to know. It was up to you, no one checked up on you, and each student was treated equally no matter what they did.

      5. I didn’t have a need to write, or a need for a pen. I don’t know why you think I did. The ‘script writing’ reference is simply to show that my mind was unfortunately more active than I would have liked during my meditations.

      I agree that meditation is valuable. I agree that anyone who is interested should give the course a go, and certainly not make their mind up based on one blog post written by a stranger.

      But, I also stand by what I have written. This is an honest review containing actual reactions experience by me in doing this course. It is difficult, and people need to know that. It is also interesting and rewarding, and people need to know that too. This review is just one persons opinion, and it should be treated as such.

      • With regard to 4., While I understand the point Joya is making, I’ve always considered the course to be free. I think Goenkaji can probably say it best:

        “Another reason [for the spread of Vispassana] is that the teaching is free. We never
        charge anything for teaching the Dhamma. The Buddha never charged anything for teaching the Dhamma. The tradition never charged anything for teaching the Dhamma. The students who come to us receive the teaching of Vipassana as well as board and lodging, all
        free of charge. But once they benefit from the teaching, naturally they wish to offer support so that others can benefit in future. And this is how Vipassana is spreading.”

        I’ve never felt pressured or obligated to donate after a course. When I have done so it was always entirely because I wanted to “pay it forward” so others could learn.

      • I again insist you did not understand the instructions properly. If we start reacting to the body sensation during the retreat. Its going to be hell, but if we choose to observe our sensations without reaction of pushing and pulling the mind ( craving and aversion), miracles might happen.

        Remember again we are not fighting war against mind, if it is that the case we are fighting a loosing battle. We are just trying to be aware and not reacting to sensations, “thus teaching our mind to not react to the body sensations with craving and aversion”. By learning not to react to the sensations arising in body and mind we free our self from needless suffering.

        I can understand you, as i used to feel the same about the vipassana. Vipassana is no use if you continue your old habit of reacting to the sensations. Right understanding and right practice are pillars of this teaching. and stay away from any imaginations just follow truth or reality 100%.

        I recommend vipassana to everybody. May everybody benefit from this meditation.

      • Thank you for your comment. I also insist that you do not understand the purpose of my blog post.

        As I have said many times before, this is a documentation of my own personal experiences during the retreat. It is not in any way a judgement on Vipassana meditation. People should experience the Buddha’s teaching’s for themselves and then decide.

        That being said, if I “do not understand the instructions properly” (and aren’t we being judgmental!) then whose fault is that; the student’s, or the teacher’s?

  7. Hi, words fail me. I have been practising and servng (at Dhamma Dipa) for over 10 years now. I guess I was initiated into meditation some 20 years ago in a monastery in Thailand, when I was lost and searching. So I think this realm is familiar to me. Vipassana is simply beyond words and measire . You receive from a bowl of Dhamma at Dhamma Dipa. Provided wuth ALL that you need to learn the technique and journey deep into your own psyche, resolving, healing and consolidating as much as you can in your Life. The technique is a gift – the highest quality gem for your Heart. I hope many receive, and prosper as a consequence. And yes ‘May All Beings be Happy’ Yours Karli

  8. I have been back from dhamma dipa for a month now .I read your review Mr Kiki before I went ,
    and loved your honesty . But I had to try it for myself and I must say I agree with most of what you say . The feeling of wanting to escape got worse as the days went on (day 5 was the worst ) ! Im glad I did it , but like you say, the feeling they give you that this meditation is the only way to liberation is a bit worrying . Not sure if I will go again , but it has changed me in some respects .
    I find myself loving walking in nature , don’t want to watch tv so much and I seem to be able to
    feel a inner calm at times .

    As for sitting in crossed legs , forget it ! I went to the assistant teacher straight away and told her I wanted a chair or I would have to leave (and I got one ) a chair ha ha !! I too have a old knee injury
    and there was no way I could sit crossed legs for that amount of time .

    All in all a experience worth having, but like Mr Kiki get some chips on when you get back and also
    on the way home stop off and stuff your face with kit kats ( yum they were good ) !!

    • Hi Vicki

      Thanks for the comment. 🙂

      I’m glad you gave it a go, despite what I wrote, lol. And I’m glad you too got something from the experience.

      There are many paths to liberation, and we must try many different ones before we find the right one for us.

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