In 2017 I went on a 10-day Vipassana meditation retreat in Thailand. This was a course by the worldwide Dhamma organisation in the tradition of S.N. Goenka.
Watch the video, or read the article below the video.
What I don’t like about Vipassana Meditation courses in the tradition of S. N. Goenka:
– It’s depressing to have to suppress spontaneous expressions of joy such as singing, laughing, dancing, jumping and running, or whatever other way you like to express joy that makes any sound or attracts too much attention. Personally I liked to not talk with anyone and be in my own space, I do see the value of that, but it made me depressed to not sing and dance and laugh.
– Is Vipassana really a (quick and sure) path to enlightenment? Well, let’s not even talk about the problematic definition of enlightenment (is it really a destination? Or more like a never ending process we’re all already in?) because I don’t even think Vipassana is a quick or sure way to reach enlightenment. They call Vipassana a scientific method, meaning I guess that they know from experience that it will surely lead to enlightenment. This is mainly based on the story that the Buddha who sat under the bodhi tree got enlightened while doing this meditation. Well, how do we know that for sure? That happened quite some time ago, and maybe, just like with the bible, things might have gotten delivered to this era a bit differently… Then secondly, even S. N Goenka himself or my teacher at the Dhamma facility in Thailand where I was, didn’t claim to have reached “full enlightenment”. Goenka doesn’t pretend that Vipassana meditation is always enjoyable. He also states you need years and years of Vipassana meditation before you reach enlightenment. And so I asked myself: “Would I be willing to suffer my way through a not always enjoyable meditation for years and years while there’s not even a guarantee for something awesome happening because of that during my lifetime?” Uhmm…. No. Not convinced.
– The first goal of Vipassana meditation is “equanimity”. Ha ha that makes me think of some emo-culture picture I once saw on the internet, it said “not happy, not sad”. Would I want to actually be equanimous? No thank you! That sounds like having meditated yourself brain-dead! I enjoy things like enthusiasm, love, humor, happiness, and sure even the sadness if it has to come in a package deal. Throughout my life I notice that while I learn life’s lessons though, I become happier and happier in life. This is a general trend we also see in psychological research: when people get older, they grow happier. Learning and getting happier and happier seems to me like a better way of going about life than mediating myself brain-dead. And in the meantime, I will enjoy the specialness of negative emotions as well.
– Another goal of Vipassana: “Liberation”. Wow, that sounds negative to me! Because it assumes there’s something you need to be liberated of. If you would feel in love with life, and love yourself (all of you, so also your beautiful mind), your life experience feels like a paradise fairy tale, not like a prison you need to be liberated of. For example, I like it when I’m curious. I asked my teacher something, I said “I’m curious to know”, and she replied: “Curiousness is something you need to be liberated of”. I do not agree.
– Goenka said we have to quiet our minds. And that’s what you’re trying to do in those courses, by focusing on the breath, of scanning the body. While quietude of the mind has a very pristine quality, it seems out of balance to me to try to force your mind to be quiet for 8 or 10 hours a day, 8 or 10 days in a row. I would rather say: enjoy the quietude whenever the mind falls quiet by itself, and enjoy its presence as well when it’s not quiet.
And yes, you CAN enjoy your mind.
My mind for example comes up with jokes, is playful, remembers beautiful times that happened earlier in my life, solves problems, has an inner laugh I can listen to sometimes when it pops up, downloads inspiration for art, for my work and for how to create my life, my mind organizes things, appreciates things, and sings songs inside my head so that I can listen to music even when there’s silence in the outside world. Isn’t all of that super cool?! I am NOT going to judge my mind as anything less than divine!
– The method just doesn’t make sense. Consider the following. If I were God… – Which all those traditions and spiritual teachers say I am – I would NOT design life in a way that you need to suffer your way to enlightenment. I would rather design the journey of self-remembrance in a way that by following your joy you reach enlightenment. Doesn’t it make much more sense that if God is omnipotent and omnipresent (so it is you and me and everyone and everything) it would make the most enjoyable journey possible for itself?
– What I also didn’t enjoy too much about the Vipassana meditation course in this Dhamma center was the strong conformism there. Everyone is doing the same and obeying the rules. Sure, because we’re all the voluntarily, we knew what to expect and that’s what we wanted to do. But at the same time it doesn’t allow for any critical evaluation in dialogue with others. It’s easy to fall into the trap of “I’m not having a good time, I just must be doing something incorrectly during the meditation, I’m just not good enough yet at meditating.”
It’s easy to think the error is yours, as Vipassana is “such a scientific method and sure route to enlightenment!”
. There seems to be no room in the minds of the organizers and teachers there that maybe that method was perfect for the Buddha, and maybe for some other meditators too, but not for everyone. Or even that the method might be ineffective for some reason we haven’t considered yet.
– Moreover, the culture around Vipassana, at least in the West, has a problematic feature which is that “leaving a Vipassana retreat early means you just couldn’t do it”. Indicating that “you must have been too weak for it”. Not many people understand that there might be other reasons why one would leave. And this enforced this conformist culture, since many people might feel like they want to leave, but they stay out of fear to be seen as weak. While for me, for example, I left on day 6 because I disagreed with many things and also felt there was a higher purpose for my time. The challenge for me was not to sit and meditate (“And battle my mind” as some describe it – believe me, for me it didn’t feel like war at all) but to swim against the conformist stream and tell the people there I wanted to leave. Happy I did do it 🙂
– A last point: there are some interesting limiting beliefs there, even in the discourses of Goenka himself, that I just wouldn’t want to be brainwashed with. For example, he often laughed about the people who would come to Vipassana retreats, thinking they would get enlightened in “just those ten days”. Which is, according to him, of course not possible! That’s clearly a limiting belief I don’t want to settle for. There’s even proof otherwise. Some people get born enlightened (certain yogi gurus for example), other people go from depressed to knowing God overnight (for example Alex Grey and Byron Katie). Eckhart Tolle sat on a park bench for a year and found his realization in that way. But even without all of those counter proofs, don’t buy into any limiting belief. Goenka might be a quite enlightened guy, doesn’t mean he’s perfect and you should believe all he says.
What would you like to know or learn?