Sleep Eludes Me & About Goenka

I’ll attempt to write. I think I’ll write about my experience at the Dhamma Siri Southwest Vipassana Meditation Center.

In summary: I feel this course has enraptured, benefitted and connected thousands of people while furthering their pursuit of meditation but I feel it was designed to inspire awe and donations, which is intrinsically antithetic to meditating. If the movie Kumaré bothered you I suggest you browse another site. If you want a gratuitously honest account of my experience at Dhamma Siri Southwest Vipassana Meditation Center continue reading.

Day 0, I arrived in the early afternoon nervous, excited and hopeful with two bags stuffed full of thrift store pajama pants and tattered old t-shirts. Check in was easy: a quick reminder of the daily schedule, signing in my phone with management and a brief explanation of the center’s mission and rules. I had no idea when the silence was intended to begin, so I unpacked my toiletries, dressed my bed and waited, door open. It wasn’t long until I was approached by the young lady across the hall with a question about the evening’s schedule, then another woman from down the hall asking about the alarm clocks. After some length of inactivity I slept and woke in time for dinner. Immediately after dinner we were ushered into the men’s dining hall: a carpeted room approximately the size of a large but modest living room and packed with tables and an assortment of approximately 70 people where we were again read instructions, explanations, schedules and rules. All of it straightforward enough to only require one iteration.

Day 1 was difficult. The morning bell resounded through the complex at 4 a.m. I decided that morning to attend as many meditations in the hall as possible, so as not to miss any instruction or experience by staying in my room. I sat on a small cushion on the floor of the meditation hall approximately 8 hours. Not accustomed to this much stillness, particularly on a rather unforgiving surface, my body protested with creaking joints, aching muscles and restlessness. There were breaks but the majority of meditation was done in large chunks of time, the smallest of which being an hour long. During meditations recordings of Goenka (the fellow who designed the course) were played. I didn’t understand the language and while I enjoyed the way it marked the passage of time in larger, more mindless strides than my focus on breathing, I found it distracting, exorbitant and righteous. I was surprised when complete student and staff silence of Day 1 (Noble or Sacred Silence) didn’t bother me. In fact, I really enjoyed it. Naturally I am an introverted person and unless I have something to say I do not speak; being free from the social pressures of making small talk, constantly attempting to connect, fending off liars and ne’er-do-wells while partaking fully in quiet was a treat. That evening I experienced the first discourse and had to refrain from walking out during it. Unfortunately that aspect only became much worse.

Day 2 began in a hellish way. I woke with intense longing for home: family, friends, sloth and distractions which only intensified during the morning meditation from 4:30 – 6:30. There was a light drizzle I didn’t mind braving sans-umbrella and upon reaching the exit of the residence hall I encountered a woman taking the last umbrella from the hall stash. I slipped out the door and started on my way to the dining hall. Not 20 feet from the door the woman caught up to me and shared her umbrella with me. Technically, we broke Noble Silence by looking at each other and smiling. Upon arriving at the dining hall I noticed she had beautiful,  humble, gold, embellished slippers and thought it fitting. I was so miserable and so touched by her kind gesture I fought back tears through all of breakfast. The rest of Day 2 went smoothly and although I still experienced disdain during the recordings and discourse I was excited to receive the next step in meditation instruction given at the end of the hour + long video.

Day 3 was great, mostly. In the early morning I dreamt of my mother and still my memories of her sit fresh and raw at the top of my mind and as stinging floodgates at the edges of my eyes. The silence was particularly nice on this day and the kindness shown me the day prior convinced me that I should perhaps take the schedule less seriously and follow Goenka’s most poignant advice: be happy. I stayed in my room most of the day, emerging to walk the small nature trail, eat in the dining hall and attend group meditations and the evening’s discourse. During the group meditation immediately preceding the discourse I cried. I didn’t cry for any reason except the memory of my mother and my very recent dream of her. I think I cried then because even though we sat with our eyes shut in silence I still found it taxing to be immersed in a group of people and it taxed my resources beyond the threshold of dry eyes. The discourse was very irritating to me: over an hour long and no tidbits of instruction on the next step in meditation. During the post-discourse meditation, at the end of the recording of Goenka’s chanting, he gave us the next step. I was annoyed that it took two hours of noise to receive one sentence of instruction.

Day 4 began well. I discovered a small heart fashioned out of stones near the nature trail and added to it on Day 3 only to return Day 4 to find someone else added to it as well. I found this delightful. I added to it again and carried on with my day. Early morning meditation in my room was fine, breakfast was good – hot oatmeal with honey, yogurt, prunes and fresh mango, morning meditation went well and upon returning to the dining hall for lunch I saw signs had been posted explaining a change in the day’s schedule: today we were to attend a group meditation from 2 – 3 with the first actual Vipassana instruction from 3 – 5. I was excited to finally move beyond the Anapana Meditation we practiced the first three days. The group meditation was fine and after a five minute break we assembled again in the hall. Old and new students alike carried a slight charge of excitement in their bodies and we took our positions on the floor. For two hours we listened to a recording of Goenka chanting in Pali, the language of Siddhartha Gautama, the Buddha recognized as the creator of Vipassana. During the two hours of chanting Goenka instructed us to shift our focus in a particular way or particular direction over various portions of our body and to observe the sensations of the area under scrutiny. He was kind enough to give a long list of possible sensations people might feel and while it was certainly not exhaustive it was pretty close. At the end of the meditation I was excited to know the next step but thoroughly disgusted at the gratuitous nature and general carrying-on in which it was mired. It was at that point that I decided it was time for me to leave. I approached the female manager, a very gracious and compassionate person, and she arranged a meeting with the assistant teacher, who, luckily for me, was also incredibly pleasant and not the least bit judgmental. Not wanting to offend her, as she was so nice, when asked why I wanted to leave early I simply said I would prefer to keep my reasons to myself. She was keen to know and asked specifically: was it the meditation and the unpleasant thoughts and complexes it exposed, or perhaps the daily schedule? When I assured her that no, I thoroughly enjoy the meditation and the schedule, while tiresome, was certainly not a problem, her brow furrowed and she seemed saddened to not know. I said, “I feel Goenka luxuriates in himself.” My statement, being a bit poetic, took further explanation and reassurances that his ample analogies did not bother me, nor did they elicit painful emotions, I simply felt he was exorbitant. She asked me to look beyond the vessel and focus on the message, but I had already tried, for hours upon hours a day, three and a half days. I assured her it was time for me to leave and she was primarily concerned then with making sure I ate before I left and that I had proper arrangements to get home. (Many people flew in from out of state for this course.) I then packed my bags, waited until the next group meditation began, collected my phone and left.

I will say I am glad I tried it and I am glad I left when I felt it was time for me to leave. I have already found an alternate source of instruction to further my practice of Vipassana and will likely, when able, rent a cabin yearly for a few days just to be reclusive. Well, more reclusive than I am now.

Some things that really bothered me:

  • Goenka, an overweight man, appeared during the discourse videos seated next to an overweight woman. Early on, while discussing the meals during the course and why dinner was only tea and fruit, he elucidated that maintaining a belly no greater than 75% full was very important for meditation. I had difficulty amending the idea that this man, selling himself as a master, would recommend this advice while he clearly did not follow it. A master is more than a teacher: a master is someone who is so thoroughly entrenched in a pursuit they become teachers when ailments, old age or interested students pry them from it. I’ve also noticed most self-proclaimed masters are full of shit.
  • Goenka explained Noble Silence saying it prevented us from lying, which is wholly counterintuitive to meditation, and because we come from lifestyles where lying is natural the only way to create purity of communication is to eliminate it altogether. He also said we should be “so within ourselves,” we don’t even notice anyone else is around! This seems not only impractical, as there were about 30 woman who were served buffet style meals in a room about 15 feet by 15 feet, but also presumptuous and a way to encourage facade. Not surprisingly, it did just that: men and women walked about as though in a daze, eyes half-shut and steps slow and swaying. During my manic creative phases I go within myself in a way I think Goenka intends his students to do, but it is a cocoon state usually lucked upon: the only time I can see clearly is when I am focused on creating (painting, drawing, writing) and simple tasks like dishes, trips to the grocery or bank become painful affairs during which I probably piss people off with my seeming absent-mindedness. This focus on affecting a state of being within oneself added a pomp that extended beyond the media of the meditation hall recordings and discourses and sent it walking, standing and sitting all around me.
  • After hours upon hours of sitting in a dim, quiet hall, with eyes shut and minimal movement, stepping outside is amazing! The sensory deprivation causes everything you observe upon emerging to appear in Super Technicolor™ and 720° Surround Sound™! Not only are colors incredibly vibrant but the rustle of wind breaching a small stand of trees is an orchestra instead of a whisper. At the same time your previously staunched circulation is kicking in and you get a little light headed, starry-eyed and regain sensation in parts long forgotten. This is great, but most people walked around like doe-eyed children born yesterday, amazed that meditation had so enhanced their world. In a way it did. In a way, though, the ridiculously extreme protocols did it more.
  • Goenka parsed out information in a ridiculous way. Old students, people who have completed at least one ten-day course, were given instruction in the same recording played for new students. It wasn’t until Day 3 I noticed old students actually walking to the Pagoda to meditate in private cells. When you are only there for 10 days, 3 days is a lot to waste re-hashing Anapana. This extremely slow rate of distribution of information was intended to create a feeling of gravity and severity to a technique that is easy, though it does require practice, patience and persistence.
  • It didn’t take long to pick up on the air of artifice bountiful in this environment: there was a distinct sense of competitive meditation in the hall among the students, many of whom carried an air of self-proclaimed enlightenment. There were certainly students there whose pursuits of Vipassana were genuine, their efforts, experience and humility apparent and their presence made all the more clear those who contrived and proclaimed their own higher awareness. I am not surprised this happened, they were, after all, taking lessons from their guru, who did these things himself.
  • This was more about Goenka than meditation and, had I known, I likely wouldn’t have gone, which would be a shame, but it was certainly an unpleasant surprise. Looking at their Web site it is clear he pioneered the teaching method used in these courses, but they only have one page devoted to him and many more devoted to course and meditation information.
  • Early on Goenka explained the headaches we felt were our chattering, monkey minds rebelling against our attempts to sharpen and tame them. He made a clever analogy to taming a wild bull or elephant and how that takes patience, persistence and a gentle touch but once it’s tamed the power you then wield is enormous. I am certain, beyond a shadow of a doubt, my headaches were caused by the sudden sleep deprivation due to the schedule and difficulty sleeping in a new environment, drastic change in nutrition schedule/quantity/quality (not that it was worse, it was actually very good, but it was different than what I choose to eat) and the extremely taxing task of sitting on the floor for 8-10 hours daily.
  • The extreme nature of this course coupled with the Goenka’s prophetic performance are akin to the extreme 5ks so popular right now, a sort of badge of honor or rite of passage into a realm where many feel the need to prove and proclaim their own coolness to justify to themselves their own existence.
  • While intoxicants, stimulants, sleep aids and most medications are disallowed there is a large selection of caffeinated teas and instant coffee always available in the dining hall.

Things I liked:

  • Quiet.
  • Meditating.
  • The care taken in preparing the food provided us was astounding and very much appreciated.
  • Everyone I interacted with was uncommonly friendly and generous.
  • Goenka’s message that we should all aim to lead moral lives and be happy.

Things I loved:

  • Quiet.
  • Meditating.

Upon leaving at around 6:15 I was immediately relieved. After the bouts of arguments I had with myself from the outset about whether or not I should stay or leave, when I should leave, what I should say upon leaving and my silent pep-talks to rid my distaste of the seemingly endless pontification and narcissistic carrying-on of Goenka I expected some sense of regret upon throwing in the towel. I’ve yet to experience anything but gratitude and confidence in my decisions concerning attending and leaving Dhamma Siri. When I arrived at the first major highway I was struck by how cluttered it was: signs, power lines, buildings, cars, people, trash and urban ephemera clogged the skyline. (I still think wistfully of the open sky, seas of grasshoppers and bold winds of the rural complex.) I tried listening to the radio but it felt crass and pointless so I drove the hour in silence.

I knew I would be glad upon seeing my fellow and succumbed readily to tears when I greeted him at home.

Over the past couple days I have noticed how much I changed while at Dhamma Siri. I imagine the cause being meditation coupled with silence: I feel rejuvenated, focused, calmer, emotionally more stable, able to more easily articulate my thoughts and very grounded.

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2 thoughts on “Sleep Eludes Me & About Goenka

  1. It’s too bad you gave up and didn’t complete the course. I’ve done 10 courses over the last 15 years and wanted to walk out every single time for one seemingly legitimate reason or another. But I knew that whatever reason I was telling myself was a lie and probably something I did in real life that kept me from true happiness.

    Unfortunately you probably will never take another course based on what you’ve written here but, I can tell you that you missed something truly amazing.

    1. Jason, I appreciate you taking the time to read and reply.

      I am glad you enjoy and benefit from Goenka’s courses so much! Your dedication to Vipassana is admirable.

      As you surmise, my return to one of Goenka’s Vipassana courses is highly unlikely. If I could skip the recordings of Goenka I would gladly return. Luckily there is no shortage of meditation styles, resources and teachers so I am not without opportunities to further my meditation practice.

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