VIPASSANA MEDITATION:
HOW TO SURVIVE YOUR FIRST RETREAT

So you are interested in a Vipassana meditation retreat? You have already experienced the benefits of a simple mindfulness routine and would like to deepen your practice? A retreat offers an excellent opportunity to learn a serious and established meditation technique, but is also a daunting prospect. This little guide will help you avoid some of the horror stories you might have heard.

What Is Vipassana Meditation?

It’s always useful to put modern Vipassana meditation back in its context. Also sometimes referred to as insight meditation, this introspection technique comes from the Theravada branch of Buddhism. It experienced a revival in Burma, Thailand and Sri Lanka during the 19th and 20th century, gradually spreading to other Asian countries, and subsequently to the old colonial powers.

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Most modern Vipassana schools originated in Myanmar

To make it more palatable to Western audiences, Vipassana meditation can be learned in a secular context. Most traditions still teach it associated with Buddhist philosophy. But the technique itself doesn’t require the acceptance of any dogmatic beliefs, which largely contributed to its worldwide popularity.

Retreats typically last for 10 days, sometimes more, rarely less. Most require from participants to dedicate themselves exclusively to meditation during the whole duration of the course. No phones, no internet, no or very little talking, often no reading and writing. You will usually be offered one or two meals in the morning. Expect to meditate for 6-12 hours every day. The timetable often follows a monastic schedule. This is no walk in the park!

Why Should You Try Vipassana Meditation?

Your real motivation is an important point. Friends and relatives might push you to give it a go. You may have encountered enthusiastic practitioners during your travels, particularly in South-East Asia and the Indian subcontinent. 

You will probably have heard tales of spiritual transformation or near psychedelic experiences. Some people manage to kick a bad habit. Others make peace with a troubled relationship. Or at the opposite end of the spectrum, you might have heard horror stories of intense pain, nervous breakdowns, authoritarian staff and a cult-like organization.

Do yourself a favor and take all those accounts with a pinch of salt. Every experience is unique. Yes, you will almost certainly learn something. Hopefully you will gain a lot from it. But any kind of specific expectation can play tricks on you and become a source of frustration. As much as possible, go with an open mind and an open heart. A healthy dose of curiosity is all you really need.

What Not To Expect

This is no vacation. It’s not relaxing. A lot of hard work is involved. Chances are you will have to face your inner demons. You just want to chill? Go to the beach. Get a spa treatment or a massage!

It’s also not a magic cure for mental conditions. Depression? Anxiety? Consider seeking advice from a qualified therapist first. Retreats can be extremely disorienting and scary at times. Some students ended up in hospital, and there have even been a few reported suicide cases. Meditation teachers normally have received some training to manage these kind of emergencies. But that’s not the case for the volunteer support staff. Retreats can make things worse.

When Should You Go?

Almost everyone thinks about running away at some point during their first retreat. That’s perfectly normal. But feeling pushed or pressured for one reason or another will definitely not help. Ideally, you should sign up when YOU are feeling ready. It’s perfectly normal to take months and even years to work up the courage to sit cross-legged 10 hours a day 10 days straight! There is no rush.

Of course the time might never be perfectly right for such an intimidating experience. If you have been almost ready for a while, I would suggest to simply sign-up and forget about your apprehensions until the course starts. And remember that leaving and trying again another time is always an option.

Where Should You Go?
The S.N. Goenka Vipassana Meditation Tradition

Picking a retreat quickly gets confusing. There are good chances that you end up in a meditation retreat in the S.N. Goenka tradition, a very popular offshoot of the Burmese Vipassana lineage. Courses are offered on a donation basis all around the world. The retreat format and discipline is almost identical across all locations.

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The S.N. Goenka centers have spread all over the world

In fact the S.N. Goenka tradition has become so widespread that it earned the nickname “MacMeditation” in certain circles. But there are a few things that you should be aware of before committing. The strict discipline explicitly excludes any stretching or yoga exercises that could help manage back and leg pain after sitting for hours. Little advice is given on posture. Walking meditation is not taught. Some teachers give only generic answers. Students get very little personalized guidance.

Having said that, the centers made retreats remarkably accessible to a large audience across the world. And their immense success is also a tribute to the technique. But Vipassana meditation is not restricted to S.N. Goenka courses. There are many other options that might suit you.

Where Should You Go?
Other Vipassana Meditation Traditions

A tradition closely related to the S.N. Goenka schools, as taught by the late Burmese meditation master Mahasi Sayadaw, is available at several centers across North America, Europe and Asia. Another well-known Burmese teacher is Pa Auk Sayadaw. Meditation in this tradition is mainly taught in monasteries. The Thai forest lineage or Khammatthana also enjoys an excellent reputation. Through Ajahn Chah this tradition gained a foothold in the West. It is usually taught to lay people in monasteries of that particular lineage in Thailand and abroad. 

All of these teach both walking and sitting meditation. Learning in a monastic setting usually involves regular one-on-one interviews with a teacher. And discipline is usually more relaxed to accommodate lay people.

Choosing A Retreat

So which tradition should you choose? Almost all run solely on donations. There are many small differences in the actual meditation technique and objects employed. For a first retreat it arguably doesn’t matter that much.

A perhaps more important consideration is where exactly you should sit your first retreat. East or West? Japan? India? Europe? US? A spartan bed, merciless mosquitoes and unfamiliar food can add extra hardship to an already overwhelmed mind. A private room instead of a dorm full of snorers might help you more than you think. 

Discipline is interpreted differently depending on the cultural context. Will you get distracted by the chatter of other students not respecting the rule of silence? Will you rebel against zealous assistants? These can all be fantastic learning experiences, but for a first retreat it might be wiser to opt for a more familiar setting.

Finding A Secular Vipassana Meditation Retreat

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The Dhamma wheel, not exactly a secular symbol

Some meditators wish for entirely secular retreats. Then of course monasteries might not be the best choice. But are the S.N. Goenka retreats really non-sectarian? Hmmm… honestly no, not fully. There is some chanting and reciting in Hindi as well as Pali, the liturgic language of Buddhism. And every evening, the 1 hour discourse is full of references to Buddhist and Hindu cosmology. It can be funny and relaxing. It can make you cringe. Certain aspects of the organization are mysterious. 

A few centers in the West are offering courses totally devoid of Buddhist references. But they often also charge juicy fees. Your choice. Either way, the Vipassana technique itself can be learned and its benefit enjoyed without all the baggage associated with the origins of the tradition.

How To Cope With Pain?
Meditation Poses

This seems to be a curse of the modern Western lifestyle. Years sitting on chairs and tight leg muscles certainly don’t help. But the issue runs much deeper. We are obsessed with the pursuit of comfort. At the slightest sign of discomfort we panic. Pain? Consult a doctor and pop some pills. But during a retreat you will have to face it sooner or later, there is no escape. Fortunately, there are a few helpful tricks for new students to help you in your journey.

Familiarize yourself with a few different positions. It can be particularly helpful to alternate between a few. Only consider half and full lotus poses if you are really accustomed to them. Quarter lotus is a good alternative. Burmese pose, as well as a simple cross-legged position such as Sukhasana, can be relatively relaxing with a good meditation cushion. The Japanase seiza position, similar to hero pose or Virasana, requires some practice. Finally, side sitting is common practice in countries such as Thailand and Sri Lanka, and another good option for tired knees and legs.

How To Cope With Pain?
Posture & Props

Good posture is very helpful. Try to keep your spine straight, with your hands resting on your legs or on your lap. Your shoulders, arms and jaw should be relaxed. Stretching and yoga, although not essential, can greatly improve your comfort. Hip openers and leg stretches should be at the top of your list.

Straight from the start of the course, get as many pillows as needed to make yourself comfortable. Even better, bring your own quality meditation cushion if you have one. You can always remove excess support later. Seiza with a cushion between the legs, or better a small wooden bench, becomes much more bearable. 

Some centers have small wooden backrests and even chairs, but request those only if you really need them. Pain is part of life. Learning how to deal with it can be one of the more rewarding aspects of such a retreat. Obviously use common sense and don’t overdo it either. No need to break your back or your knees! Chairs are fine too as long as you keep your back straight.

Dealing With Zealous Staff

I’ve heard several times students complaining about authoritarian staff. Some have a particular talent to press all your buttons. It is worth remembering that most centers rely solely on volunteers. The teachers will have undergone training. But the support staff usually doesn’t have much, if any experience at all. 

Volunteering at a meditation retreat can be significantly harder than sitting as a student. I warmly recommend choosing a donation-based center for a first retreat. With everything provided free of course, our perspective shifts. Our “but I paid for it” mentality fades. Tolerance, compassion and patience come more easily. 

Leaving A Retreat Early

Finally, if your first retreat becomes unbearable, it’s absolutely OK to leave. Teachers and staff will try to convince you to stay, but don’t feel guilty or frustrated if you really want to go. You can always come back later, try another center, school or technique in the future if you so desire. Or try something else entirely. You deserve a lot of credit for simple trying.