Review: Vipassana Center silent meditation retreat

On my pleasure practice nature walk, I formed the hypothesis that excessive attachment was preventing me from noticing my preferences, desires, and feelings, and that meditation might help with this. I signed up for a free 10-day Vipassana center meditation retreat.

When I decided to go on the retreat, I had two main benefits in mind:

  • Learn to perceive my desires, preferences, and emotions more reliably, by means of being more aware of bodily sensations.
  • Learn to be able to look at these and fully perceive them without feeling compelled to act on them.

I got these, and more.

What was the retreat like?

The work

The Vipassana Center wasn’t afraid to ask us to work hard at our meditation practice, and I very much appreciated this. I’ve never been to a workshop like that - nearly everyone else seems to calibrate workload and schedules to keep people from being unhappy. Our meditation schedule was clearly designed to produce results, and nothing else.

The basic idea of the retreat was that we had ten nearly identical days that were mostly meditation, with rest breaks, breakfast, lunch, and an afternoon fruit and tea snack. There were about nine and a half hours of meditation per day, after accounting for breaks. We were asked not to talk to one another (“noble silence”), not bring reading material or writing supplies, and obey a few more rules like that.

It was fairly unpleasant meditating for about nine and a half hours each day. It's hard, hard work, though it gets a bit more tractable over time. Anticipating this, I worked up to about an hour a day of continuous breath-meditation before the retreat, which is a bit like working up to sprinting around the block before a marathon: totally inadequate, but way better than nothing. I found myself getting kind of ragged near the end of each day; the quality of my meditation was noticeably worse. And yet, it felt like that work counted a lot towards my total cognitive adjustment, sort of like how if you’re lifting weights, the last rep matters as much as the first rep, even though you’re a lot less up to the challenge than you were during the first rep.

The physical work of sitting in the same position while meditating was also quite difficult; I was in considerable physical discomfort for most of the day, which probably contributed to my ragged state by the end of each day. I adjusted position when my knees felt too on fire, but since we were warned that starting on the third day we would be asked to make a firm resolution to hold the same position for an hour at a time, I held on for as long as I could, and day three didn’t seem like a big jump in discomfort. The nature of the discomfort changed over the course of the retreat, from the initial leg discomfort in the beginning, to spine discomfort near the end. By the last day Burmese posture felt easy enough that I successfully attempted the half-lotus. I kept up a daily hourlong practice afterwards for a few weeks and found that the sitting became even easier, and I worked my way up to full-lotus once half-lotus felt easy.

Observing the commitment to “noble silence” and avoiding reading or writing was much easier than I’d expected based on other people’s reports. If anything, I wish it had been easier to avoid what little contact I had with people between meditation sessions. Meals satisfied my need for social contact almost completely; simply sitting next to fellow meditators in silence and eating.

The instruction

Most of the instruction was from S.N. Goenka, the founder, via recordings. (There were live assistant instructors available to answer questions in person.) There were audio recordings that played at the beginning of most group meditation sessions, and then maybe an hour of video instruction at the end of each day.

The audio was our main instruction on the mechanics of meditating. The instructions were paced - we weren’t told how to do the whole thing all at once. On the first couple of days we were taught things about breath meditation. This was then generalized into paying attention to sensations in particular parts of the body, culminating in a body scan. At various points during the retreat, the audio recording mentioned problems or new experiences we might be having, and what to do in those cases; mostly I felt like these were spaced out at about the right rate. The one exception was the last day, in which we received only cursory instruction in how to perform metta meditation, which felt like an afterthought, not really linked to anything else we did skillwise.

The instruction contained a lot of words of admonition and encouragement, often repeated in the exact same terms. It was emphasized that we were here to work hard, that we should start with a calm and quiet mind, that we should work diligently, patiently and persistently, and that if we did so, we were bound to be successful. This served as a substantial boost to my willpower; in private meditation sessions, if I found myself flagging, I was able to “play back” a recording of these verbal admonitions, and felt encouraged to apply myself more fully again.

The video recordings focused more on the ideas behind the meditation, and Buddhist doctrine, and I have more mixed feelings about those. At the beginning, we were told that we had to judge for ourselves, even as we gave ourselves over to the instruction for ten days. “Give the technique a serious try for ten days; after that, you are your own master,” we were told, and this seemed sensible enough to me: we’re shown a technique; we try it out, and judge based on our experiences.

But the lectures themselves seemed not to have a corresponding consistent respect for epistemic integrity. For instance, when a body scan is practiced with sufficiently focused awareness, the meditator can perceive a kind of pervasive low-level sensation that is sometimes described as “vibrations,” and this happened to me. However, we were asked to believe that this was the same thing as awareness of the vibrational frequency of subatomic particles, which is obviously false; at most - and I’m not even sure this is possible - it could be awareness of the frequency at which our nerves can transmit signals. The charitable interpretation, I think, is that this was meant to be metaphorical, but we weren’t actually told that.

The meditation was explained as follows: Suffering is caused by cravings and aversions. These, like all thoughts, are first perceptible as bodily sensations. Through vipassana meditation, we practice being aware of the objects of desire and aversion, without reacting to them. In this way we eradicate all desires and aversions. The way I chose to think of this was as a sort of generalization of Aristotelian virtue-training. Instead of thinking of virtue as self-mastery in a bunch of different domains over compulsions of different kinds, one simply trains the fully general skill of mastery over compulsions. Getting rid of all such things seemed and still seems like a bad idea to me - I think, for instance, that something as simple as being able to balance while standing up requires a lot of regulatory processes that are effectively cravings and aversions of a very simple kind - but, on the margin, it seemed good to me to have more control over this.

What effect did this have on me?

The model behind vipassana meditation is that if you learn to perceive sensations while not reacting to them, you'll be able to perceive cravings and aversions more reliably too, while not being compelled to obey them. The technique they teach is supposed to promote equanimity through increased embodiment and sensory/emotional awareness. I was surprised at how many ways this turned out to be good for me.

Increased awareness of sensations helped directly with embodiment. So far the main perceptible consequence is that it seems more appealing to go on walks with people than to sit for coffee. On my way back from the retreat I felt an impulse, when asking a friend to hang out, to ask them to take a walk with me, rather than meeting at a coffee shop. The second time this happened, I realized that this was a change - I’d never have felt like that before. My weighted blanket also seemed unnecessarily heavy as soon as I got back from the retreat, which suggests that the meditation fixed some sort of sensory processing issue.

On the other hand, since the retreat, I’ve felt a persistent low-level tingling on the entire surface of my body, which is at times somewhat unpleasant. It could be that I’d been feeling this already, I’d mostly just been blocking it out.

I also started noticing what one might call microemotions - small preverbal emotional responses I had to things, that would have just passed away without any conscious notice before. This helps me connect emotionally with people in more complex ways during conversations; I’ll notice some sort of sensory change, and dig around for words to express the subtle emotion, and often this will point out some aspect of the interaction that neither of us had quite seen before, or help them get more detail and color around my experience of the conversation. For example, I was talking with a friend about one of their problems, and I felt a subtle sense of warmth coming up from the middle of my chest, catching at my throat. I was able to verbalize this as a kind of empathy and wishing that I could make things better, and this helped us feel closer, because they knew how their words were landing with me.

I wasn’t expecting to benefit much from the increased ability to perceive compulsions without reacting to them per se, but I think that spending some time in a state of emotionally equanimous awareness helped me watch as old painful thought patterns played out, and break the habit of engaging with them, so they lost some of their hooks into me.

I previously formed the hypothesis that my inability to “connect to nature” at all was due to excessive attachment:

Just before my nature walk, I’d went through a shift that reduced my attachment to near-term good outcomes for those around me, and I think this was part of what enabled me to perceive the tenuous position of the plants around me. Not an increase in my underlying capacity for empathy – but an increase in my ability to cope with that feeling. So it’s not intolerable pressure anymore to notice that plants are alive and have unmet needs. But still I feel like, if I fully connected, then I’d be horrified all the time – noticing that things made of wood are corpses, etc.

I suspect this is related to why cognitive self-knowledge through reasoning and meditation, reducing attachments to particular things in the world, and empathy for all living things, seem to be connected in traditions such as some Buddhist ones. Full awareness implies full empathy. But if you’re attached to what you’re attentive to, if you feel compelled to alleviate the suffering of anyone whose suffering you’re fully aware of, then you’re caught between denying or hiding from reality, and empathizing a world of searing pain. Only when you can accept the suffering of others without having to fix each instance, can you notice just how much suffering there is.

[...]

This substantially increased my estimation of the value to me of [...] meditation. I already favored it as a general tool for improving my control over my own awareness and cognitive processes, but the connection to empathizing with other living beings (via lovingkindness meditation) and lack of attachment now seem like additional evidence that it will further my goals, rather than distractions.

I was not very confident in this hypothesis, but it seems to have been right. During one break between meditation sessions, I spontaneously noticed myself empathizing with the plants around me. Moreover, most of this was positive - I liked them and was glad that they were alive.

Finally, it was really cool to experience my brain learning to control itself in more precise ways.

When I experienced physical discomfort during meditation, sometimes I’d notice that an aversion response had tensed up related muscles, and by practicing disempowering these aversions, eventually I learned a mental operation that kind of felt like disconnecting that process from other things, like I was cutting off the threads it pulled on to exert control. I’d have to repeat this move from time to time, but it felt more powerful than simply declining to reinforce it with conscious attention.

On a more positive note, at one point during the body scan, while I was supposed to be moving my awareness through my body one area at a time, I noticed that my conscious mind had wandered for a bit. But, I had access to a memory of my awareness moving from part to part anyway! (If you’ve ever had your mind drift during a conversation, and been asked “what did I just say?”, and been able to repeat it verbatim but still felt like your mind had drifted, that’s the kind of memory I’m talking about.) I’d needed to recruit part of my unconscious mind for the meditation, and now I’d trained it.

4 thoughts on “Review: Vipassana Center silent meditation retreat

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