It was difficult to keep still. At times, the pain on my back intensified to an excruciating level. It was as if someone had stuck a dagger into a single blade on the lower right. It would have take a physical movement to help ease the pain. Yet, I was not supposed to move. I had to keep my back straight for at least one hour.
(The campsite on St John’s Island lies beyond the hill)
Any major physical movement would disrupt the practice of focus and concentration acquired through anapana. Breathing in, breathing out, I sat on the meditation cushion. I was only required to observe any physical sensation. So this was how it was like for most of my sittings for a continuous 10 days. I was in confinement for the most part, cut away from almost all forms of external communication with others. I was on a Noble Silence Goenka Vipassana Meditation Retreat from Dec 1 to 12, 2009.
Goenka Vipassana Meditation Retreat Stay
(Barbed wires on the fences in the surrounding background)
I felt as if I was a prisoner. While the retreat would appear to sound like a tropical resort stay because it was on St John’s island (south of the main island-city of Singapore), our living facilities were located in a prison camp built since 1955. The camp was a confined area, with enclosing wire fences and barbed wires. Historically, St John’s Island was a quarantine station for leprosy cases and a penal settlement for political prisoners and ringleaders of secret societies. (Rumors of the island being haunted still circulates today!)
Upon arrival, each of us were allotted bed and seat numbers. We were not free to choose where to sit or sleep and were told to keep out of certain areas. Males and females were not allowed to mix. We were also asked to sign sheets of paper to declare and affirm that we would not leave or make any attempts to leave during the ten days that would follow.
(Where I slept for 10 days)
There was a whole bunch of rules to comply with during the Goenka Vipassana Mediation Retreat I attended. Here were some that I had to live by:
- Wake up at 4 a.m.
- Only two meals a day; breakfast and lunch.
- No meals after 11 a.m.
- Simple vegetarian food.
- Dormitory living quarters. Shared bathroom facilities only.
- No forms of physical activity (yoga, exercise) allowed.
- Noble Silence (More explanations below in the article).
Oh yes, it felt like torture camp all right!
We were expected to follow the stipulated schedule for the day. Sittings were throughout the whole day, save for meal breaks and about an hour’s break for personal stuff. Hence, bathing or doing laundry were only restricted to certain times of the day.
I was in good humor even whilst I sat on the toilet trying to ease my constipation and swatting mosquitoes away (not allowed to kill them due to taking the Buddhist precept) at the same time one day. Additionally, I found myself having to ignore the sight of lizard fecal droppings, worms scurrying across the pavements and all kinds of insects on the ground; just to stay sane.
Practicing Noble Silence
Noble Silence simply means no communication with anyone, save for questions for the teacher (daily limit of 5 minutes). Hence, no handphone, laptops or any communication device allowed. We were advised not to look at others nor make gestures. I spent a good part of my time looking downwards or away from others in order to avoid exchanging glances. No reading of any kind or writing were permitted as well.
Why practice Noble Silence? Why were we not allowed to talk for a continuous ten days? The whole idea was to allow a period of inner exploration. We were meant to be in deep “surgical operations” of the mind. Usually in constant chatter, our minds were to be given less input during our 10-day stay. If we were allowed to talk, there was the possibility of us being affected by our interactions with other meditators. We might start comparing our sitting experiences with others, for one. And we were on a meditation retreat supposedly to reduce our mental suffering and not to add to our baggage!
My initial fears were largely unfounded. The two weeks before the actual day arrived, I almost wanted to cancel out. What terrified me most of all was the thought that I would go insane if I was going to be made to investigate my mind, without the permission to express myself externally to anyone for that many days. However, throughout my stay, I was surprised that nothing of that sort happened. I was mostly calm. Except for the pain that I was observing during sittings. Even hunger pangs that I expected to experience were hardly there!
The Body as A Laboratory
We are encouraged to examine things at the experiential level with equanimity. Intellectual knowledge is not wisdom. To understand natural laws, we start with what we already have and can truly know – our physical bodies. Hence, the method is largely a scientific mind-matter approach.
The Vipassana practice of meditation involves a careful scanning of every part of the body and observing sensations with equanimity. Equanimity simply means non-attached observation of the reality of the present moment. It refers to using the balance of the peace of mind; that is with neither cravings or aversions.
When we are feeling miserable, angry or upset, we are in suffering. To be fully liberated from all forms of negativity, we need to address the root of our suffering rather than merely dealing with it at the symptomatic level.
Much of our suffering arises from cravings or aversions. If we observe very carefully, cravings and aversions first start with bodily sensations. Sensations are either pleasurable or painful. But both forms of sensations have essentially the same characteristics – that of arising and passing. Nothing stays permanent! Sensations have an ever-changing nature.
The technique assists in the ending of past suffering and the ceasing of new ones. It does not require any of us to believe in myths, supernatural forces or an external God. Its usefulness can be felt in our everyday lives. In fact, Goenka describes Vipassana as an art of living and ultimately, an art of dying.
Who is S.N. Goenka?
According to Wikipedia, Sri Satya Narayan Goenka (born 1924) is a leading lay teacher of Vipassana meditation and a student of Sayagyi U Ba Khin. He has trained more than 700 assistant teachers and each year more than 100,000 people attend Goenka sponsored Vipassana courses. He is a wealthy and influential businessman, born in Burma to Indian parents.
S.N. Goenka is a prolific orator, writer and a poet. He writes in English, Hindi and Rajasthani. He has traveled widely and lectured to audiences worldwide including at the World Economic Forum, Davos and at the “Millennium World Peace Summit” in 2000. For four months in 2002, he undertook the Meditation Now Tour of North America.
In his talks, Goenka explains that the practice of Vipassana is the essence of the path of Dharma (the path to Truth). It is a non-sectarian universal way to understanding the true nature of things. However, he acknowledges that while he has already excellent results, the method that he uses is not the only way to the Truth. Instead, Goenka encourages students to find out experientially if the method works out for them. He also advises against simply taking on a religion based on blind faith and devotion.
“The Buddha never taught a sectarian religion; he taught Dhamma – the way to liberation – which is universal.” — S.N. Goenka
My Review of Goenka Vipassana Meditation Retreat
Do I recommend Goenka’s retreat to anyone? Yes, I do….LOL! Not that I am a sadist or anything! Oh yes, it sounds like a retreat which has been largely torturous. I confess to feeling somewhat miserable on the first two days of the retreat. I recall questioning my sanity on why on earth I was giving up ten precious days of my very comfortable life to observing pain. I sorely missed the luxury of having hot water for showers. Showers during the retreat were made in cold water. They were icy in the wee hours of the morning and when night fell.
Yet, I braved on because as the days went on, I realized that the Vipassana method I was learning could potentially and truly offer a way to purification of my sangkaras – full liberation from all deep seated unconscious bodily drives to cravings and aversions from fear. I have signed up for the retreat to learn more about non-attachment to my desires and while I am nowhere near to full enlightenment, I managed to experience a fair amount of release during my stay. Going forward, I hope to keep up with regular sittings on my own. A consistent practice, as Goenka puts it, is the secret to success.
What is perhaps most inspiring of all is that Goenka is a layperson. He has not shaved his head nor has ordained to be a monk to this day. He is married, wealthy and has six sons.
While I was only watching a recorded presentation of his talks for each of the ten days, it was very obvious that Goenka exuded pure compassion, humor and wisdom. One fellow meditator later told me that his mere presence could bring a whole room in an vibrational uplift. So Goenka has this share with us: it is very possible to be liberated from our suffering even if we are ordinary householders!!
“Vipassana is not a check to be cashed later in heaven – the benefits are for this life – right here right now!”
Goenka’s retreats work on a donation basis. This means that we do not have to pay for anything at the point of registration. If we have found the method useful at the end of the course, we are invited to give a donation as a token of appreciation and hope that someone else will benefit.
If you haven’t been to any of his retreats, I challenge you to one….:-)! The same rules of living simply during the ten days should apply to any of his retreats.
Goenka has meditation centers all over the world; including America, India and Japan. For more information, please refer to its official website here. The retreat in Singapore is not a center but held on St John’s Island a few times a year. More pictures on the camp facilities can be found on this site here.
If you have survived a Goenka retreat in the past, please tell your tale in the comment box below! Who knows? Based on your feedback, I may just consider attending another retreat in a different location in the years to come.
In loving kindness,