Inside My Brain
What's it like to do a 10 day insight retreat?
distractions from the outside world is the universal path to peace and illumination.
But I wonder if I can sit that much or get up that early. I can't believe regular people have done it and loved it. It's inspiring to hear them talk about it. People of all ages, races, genders (all three of them), and beliefs -- you don't have to be Buddhist -- have all done it!
It sounds too good to be true, because I've often thought of being like Siddhartha -- crossing my legs, sitting under a tree, and not getting up until I'm enlightened. How hard could it be? What is it like, and can I complete my quest to awaken in 10 days?
What it's like (testimonials)
Dharamshala, India (Vipassanut)
European women in Washington (Jhetvanruyven)
Wisdom Quarterly (TEAM NIMITTA)
Does Goenka help? It absolutely does! Does it work, that is, does it lead to enlightenment? One does not see too many any enlightened retreatants or hear of any such experiences. Why not? Maybe they are keeping it to themselves?
More likely it is because they are ignoring the Buddha's advice and doing something (dry insight) that a few centuries ago replaced what the Buddha teaches. The Buddha's advice is to practice and develop three things as the "Path" to enlightenment:
Without "right concentration" (samma samadhi), which the Buddha defined as proficiency in the first four absorptions, it is very difficult or impossible to succeed at insight. Such "dry insight" methods were developed only a few centuries ago.
Why? It was and is still believed that we are living in a corrupted age (kali yuga). Few reach enlightenment, so there is "no time to waste" developing or risking attachment to calm, bliss, ecstasy, and serenity as a foundation for insight. There is only time for brittle, dry, sandpapery insight or what the Vipassana Movement today calls vipassana. But it does not work. And there's the rub.
It easily falls away, is lost, leaves one edgy and cross or disinterested in meditating. And breaking through to the first stage of enlightenment (stream entry) remains a distant fantasy.
Usually, a Zen or characteristically Mahayana attitude is adopted in its place: "Oh, I have no goals, no aspirations, I just selflessly sit for sitting's sake, and slowly develop The Perfections life after life."
It would be nice if that were true, but the Goenka system actively ruins those few natural meditators who quickly go to absorption (due to past life proficiency).
Goenka's teachers will get upset if they find out a retreatant is "wasting time" or "indulging" in bliss, rapture (piti), ecstasy, joy, happiness, developing the sign-of-concentration (nimitta), or following the Gradual Training/Middle Path the Buddha set forth.
We noticed this in Southern California. And we are not the only ones. In Northern California, self-proclaimed absorption (jhana) master Jhananda (
The experience of ecstasy (jhana) is forbidden at Goenka retreats. Dialogue between Jeffrey S. Brooks, left, and Stuart B. Skadden, GWV Fall Retreat, Dec. 2011.
Goenka is not alone in this. Many Burmese teachers promoted this dry insight method, which greatly influenced modern meditation practices in the ancient Theravada school found in Sri Lanka and Thailand that was brought to England, Europe, and America. At least one great modern meditation master, Pa Auk Sayadaw, teaches serenity-and-insight. And he has a great deal of success with Americans that Goenka teachers can only dream of. Fortunately, the Sayadaw has a few English-speaking teachers of the highest order who travel worldwide. We recommend these seven without reservation:
- The Malaysian nun Sayalay Susila
- Ven. Dhammadipa (a Czech polyglot)
- The Burmese nun Sayalay Dipankara
- Shaila Catherine
- Stephen Snyder
- Tina Rasmussen
- Wisconsin's Jim MacDonald
So if Goenka got you to enlightenment, bravo! Good, good! Well done! If it did not, consider developing serenity (samatha) meditation along with vipassana. It is like adding nitro to glycerin.
If one's goal in taking up meditation is only to relax, gain awareness, see how amazing it is what Siddhartha accomplished in blazing a trail to full awakening, sure Goenka's teachings will be great.
And it is not impossible that the dry insight method would succeed and be just enough to make progress toward the goal, if one had a goal. The very development of the Four Foundations of Mindfulness calls up a necessary and (sometimes) sufficient concentration called "momentary" or "access" concentration.
For such absorption substitutes to work depends a great deal on momentum. Keep at it the way one would keep at rubbing two dry sticks together to make fire. It is not easy but, crucially, it is not impossible. There are few cases of it in the ancient texts, as long as one is ignoring the countless cases where meditators succeeded by adopting the gradual training.
What is the "gradual" training? One establishes oneself in virtue, restraint, the precepts. This gives rise to joy, which lead to a well collected or concentrated heart/mind. Such a mind/heart becomes wieldy, tractable, able to be fashion as one wishes. The mind thus purified is applied to the foundations of mindfulness and develops liberating insight. The Buddha explained:
(Verses of Uplift, Ud 5.5)