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A 26-year-old Finnish man on a 2-year trip around the world. Travel tips, experiences and bad jokes.

An Atheist’s Review of 10-Day Vipassana Meditation Retreat

Is Vipassana Dhamma meditation scientific? In this review, I analyze my 10-day Vipassana meditation retreat from an atheist’s point of view.

Meditation is getting more popular all over the world. Besides daily practicing, many travelers also participate in longer meditation retreats around the world. The 10-day Vipassana Dhamma silent meditation retreats are some of the most popular options out there.

There are many different branches of Vipassana meditation. The Vipassana Dhamma retreats are based on the teachings of Burmese-Indian S. N. Goenka (1924-2013), although the Vipassana technique itself traces back to the roots of Buddhism. The basic Vipassana Dhamma course takes 10 days. Some Vipassana centers offer longer courses that last up to 60 days for experienced students.

I participated on a 10-day Vipassana meditation retreat in Java, Indonesia. In this 10-day Vipassana course review, I inspect the course and its teachings from an atheist’s perspective.

See also: How to Prepare for a Vipassana Meditation Retreat?

My Background with Meditation

I don’t usually talk about my personal beliefs in public. In this blog post, I decided to make an exception. After all, people with different beliefs may have very different meditation retreat experiences. My own background clearly influenced my Vipassana experience.

I started practicing meditation through a very scientific path. I have a Bachelor’s Degree in Psychology, and I first encountered meditation during my studies. My university does a lot of research on mindfulness, which I’d define as a scientific application of meditation practice.

Thus, I’ve always looked at meditation from an academic point of view. I’m an atheist, and I don’t believe in the supernatural elements associated with some branches of meditation. Unfortunately, there’s a lot of pseudoscience involved with meditation and yoga. Still, I do meditation because it has many real benefits.

I was glad when I saw that the Vipassana Dhamma technique is labeled as secular and scientific. However, these definitions didn’t turn out to be completely true, but I’ll return to that topic later.

Noble silence lasts until the tenth day of the course.

Noble silence lasts until the tenth day of the course.

The Program of the 10-Day Meditation Retreat

The 10-day Vipassana meditation retreats follow the same rules and structure all over the world.

All participants make a vow of silence for the duration of the course. Mobile phones and other communication devices are also put into storage. You are not allowed to communicate with other students. Even writing is forbidden. Discussions are limited to a few words with the teachers and assistants.

The schedule of the 10-day Vipassana meditation retreat is also the same everywhere. The wake up gong rings at 4 am and meditation begins at 4.30. Most meditation sittings last either an hour or 90 minutes with short breaks in between. There are also longer breaks around breakfast, lunch and afternoon tea. For the full schedule, check out the timetable at the Vipassana Dhamma website.

The structure is tight, but it works. I have only positive things to say about the arrangements of the course. The course is organized in a way that allows you to fully focus on meditation. Even the vegetarian food is terrific. The Vipassana Dhamma retreats aren’t too expensive either: the courses are run solely on donations, so you only pay what you want at the end of the course.

My Vipassana Retreat Experience

Before my course started, I was very nervous about participating. I was afraid that I’d instantly regret my decision to join the retreat. I thought that the minimal sleep and lack of dinner would be too much for me. Luckily, my fears weren’t justified.

The tiredness and hunger were much smaller issues than I had thought. When you sit with your eyes closed for 10 hours each day, you don’t need to sleep or eat that much. Focusing on the meditation was more challenging, and my mind wandered a lot. Still, I was able to meditate for hours each day.

The noble silence was also easier than I thought. Even though you can’t talk before the last day, you still feel a connection with the other students. We shared many moments where communication wasn’t needed. For example, many students would often observe the same birds, bugs and lizards.

One of the students built a small shrine on the yard. Some other students (including myself) later add their own contributions to the monument.

One of the students built a small shrine on the yard. Some other students (including myself) later add their own contributions to the monument.

I had no problem keeping myself entertained during my Vipassana experience. During the breaks, I spent countless of hours staring at ants and other insects. At the end of each meditation session, I arranged my cushions in a new creative formation. I found tons of hilarious details in my surroundings. In other words, I remained myself.

In a way, your 10-day meditation retreat is just as hard as you make it. I gave myself a permission to slack off a bit. If I had tried to focus completely on all meditation sessions, my Vipassana experience would have been much tougher.

Review of the Vipassana Technique

What type of meditation is Vipassana? The course starts with sitting meditation exercises where students follow their breathing. After a few days, the meditation switches to a body scan exercise. The 10-day Vipassana Dhamma course has a progressive structure. Each evening concludes a video lesson where S. N. Goenka talks about the theory of Vipassana and gives new instructions.

The basic idea of Vipassana meditation is to stay in the moment equanimously (= with mental calmness). If your mind wanders, you gently bring it back. You shouldn’t crave for pleasant feelings and you shouldn’t avert the negative ones. You just focus on your sensations without reacting and ignore everything else.

Vipassana is not an easy meditation technique. When you sit still for long periods, the pain can be almost unbearable. Still, you’re just supposed to ignore the pain. You are also not allowed to label your feelings, count your breathing or even visualize anything. In other words, Vipassana Dhamma forbids many effective techniques of other meditation styles. This gives Vipassana Dhamma a very steep learning curve.

Is Vipassana Meditation Scientific?

During his video lessons, S. N. Goenka repeatedly states that the Vipassana Dhamma technique is scientific and free from religions. The famous neuroscientist Sam Harris has claimed that Vipassana “can be taught in an entirely secular way”. Unfortunately, this wasn’t the case on the Vipassana Dhamma retreat.

First of all, there’s plenty of Buddhist mythology included in the teachings. Goenka tells that a person who reaches enlightenment will remember all his past lives. Body and mind are considered separate (yet deeply connected), although this stance is not very popular with current science. On the last day, Goenka even implies that the rise of his courses fulfills a 2500-year-old prophecy.

Reincarnation plays a large role in the theory of Vipassana. At the end of the fourth lesson, Goenka states that all people established in Vipassana die “consciously and smilingly”. Why? Because they know they’ll be “promoted”. For me, this sounded more like denying death than accepting it. Some of the unscientific claims affected my motivation, and I played with the idea of quitting the course.

The schedule of the Vipassana Dhamma retreats includes 10 hours of daily meditation.

The schedule of the Vipassana Dhamma retreat includes 10 hours of daily meditation.

As more pseudoscience was slowly brought in, the 10-day Vipassana meditation retreat experience felt slightly like brainwashing. Quitting the course is forbidden without special permission. You are asked to fully commit to the course without questioning. When you’re not allowed to communicate, you have no chance to argue back or hear alternative opinions.

On a positive note, Goenka also teaches that you are free to deny the teachings of Vipassana Dhamma once the course is over. Still, I was disappointed by the supernatural elements of the 10-day silent retreat.

The Key Theory of Vipassana Meditation

S. N. Goenka reveals the main idea of the Vipassana Dhamma technique near the end of the 10-day meditation retreat.

According to the Vipassana tradition, our old cravings and aversions are stored as sankharas in our body. If the practitioner of Vipassana keeps ignoring her current sensations, her old sankharas will come to the surface as physical sensations. In other words, a back pain that appears near the end the meditation retreat might be a manifestation of some negative thought you’ve had long ago.

If the Vipassana student ignores the new sensation, the sankhara will eventually dissolve and disappear. And this process is taught to be the path to enlightenment. You just need to process all your old sankharas without creating any new ones, and you’ll eventually be liberated.

The sankhara theory is very difficult to prove or disprove. For me, the process sounds a bit unlikely, but I cannot know for sure whether it’s real or not. I didn’t personally experience the release of old sankharas (unless my stiff neck and lower back pain were a part of it). Still, one might argue that I didn’t feel the process because I wasn’t trying hard enough.

How Others Have Experienced the Vipassana Retreat

I wanted to learn how other people experienced the 10-day Vipassana meditation retreat, so I did some research of my own. I searched “vipassana experiences” and “10 day vipassana experiences” on Google and read the first 10 blog posts that I found.

The results were quite interesting. It seemed that many of the participants had much harder time than I did. For example, Megan Bruneau from the blog One Shrink’s Perspective felt like she “was losing it”. Jodi Ettenberg from Legal Nomads also had a very difficult Vipassana experience. Some bloggers call the 10-day Vipassana meditation retreat the hardest or the most difficult thing they’ve ever done.

At the same time, all the bloggers see clear benefits from the course. Daniel Noll (Uncornered Market) wrote how he was able to work on his chronic back pain. He also recommends the Vipassana course with “an unequivocal ‘yes'”. Shannon O’Donnell, the author of A Little Adrift, sees the Vipassana experience as “a formative foundation” on how she approaches life. Gabriel Rocheleau (UP Development) says that joining the course was “one of the best decisions” he’s ever made.

Men and women are separated by a hedge.

However, I wasn’t the only one who was critical about the teachings of the course. The anonymous author of reallylivelife.org says that “the repeated claims to be non-sectarian are simply not true”. Caela Bailey (The Gospel Of Gutter Queen) says that Goenka “spent too much time emphasizing why this was the best technique”. On the other hand, yogi and novelist Karan Bajaj writes on his self-titled website that the video lessons are “no-nonsense, non-sectarian, non-religious”.

I wanted to see if any of the bloggers experienced the release of sankharas during their 10-day Vipassana courses. Unfortunately, only one of the writers mentions the phenomenon. When the anonymous author of reallylivelife.org experienced extreme agitation during the course, her/his assistant teacher told the agitation was the author’s “sankharas bubbling up”.

The author didn’t agree with the explanation.

Should You Do a Vipassana Retreat?

Would I personally recommend a 10-day Vipassana meditation retreat? Yes, with some reservations.

I do believe that the course can change your life for the better. I’ve noticed some benefits myself, and I’m extremely glad that I did the course. You rarely get a chance to spend 10 days out of your normal life, and the Vipassana experience gives you a lot of insight on your mind.

The teachings of S. N. Goenka may not be completely true, but they are not evil. If a person starts to believe in the theory Vipassana Dhamma, she’ll probably end up living a very good and generous life. The course wasn’t as secular and scientific as I wanted it to be, but if you ignore the dubious parts, there’s a lot of wisdom in the teachings.

Exploring the garden of Dhamma Java Meditation Center during my Vipassana experience.

You learn a lot about yourself and your surroundings during your Vipassana experience. For example, I learned that pineapples are even more cool than I had thought.

During the course, S. N. Goenka argues that the Vipassana Dhamma method is better than most other meditation techniques. Still, I’m not sure if I’d want anyone to follow S. N. Goenka’s teachings too blindly, as I fear that Goenka’s view of life is slightly faulted. Therefore, the strict following of Vipassana Dhamma wouldn’t necessarily give all the positive results that Goenka promises.

Like most branches of Buddhism, Vipassana Dhamma is based on the idea that real happiness can only be found from the inside, free from any external factors. This is one of the ideas where I disagree with Goenka and Buddhism. After all, many studies show the effect of social connections and other external factors on our well-being and happiness.

Final Thoughts

I know that this review of the Vipassana Dhamma course may sound very critical. Because of this, I want to emphasize that I really enjoyed my Vipassana experience and I believe that a 10-day silent meditation retreat can very beneficial. I believe it can have a very positive impact on the student’s life.

In my mind, I compare my regular meditation to trekking in a thick forest. There are no clear paths, but I usually have an idea of the correct direction. The Vipassana retreat was like someone giving me a bicycle for 10 days and showing me a small path where I could ride it. The path wasn’t leading to my exact destination, but the direction was almost the same, so I was able to cover plenty of distance.

I wrote this review of the 10-day Vipassana meditation retreat from an atheist’s perspective, so I focused on the truthfulness of the teachings of Vipassana Dhamma. Despite its faults, the silent meditation retreat offers a very well-organized and fruitful chance to work on your mind. Maybe some of the teachings aren’t true, but how much does it really matter?

This guy was my best buddy during a 10-day silent meditation retreat. I called him Wilson.

A post shared by Arimo Travels (@arimotravels) on

Do you have any comments or questions about the Vipassana Dhamma retreat? I’d love to discuss about Vipassana Dhamma and meditation, so feel free to share your thoughts in the comments below!

23 Comments

  1. Hey Arimo! Great and thorough overview of the technique! I’ve been to vipassana a couple of times myself and have loved it, but you’re absolutely right – Vipassana Dhamma is not exactly secular 😀 However, gladly, one can also just concentrate on the technique instead of the Buddhist teachings, if one so wishes. (However, as a scholar of comparative religion, I must add that as Buddhism is not always classified as a religion, maybe that’s why they say it’s secular 😀 )

    • Arimo

      05/04/2017 at 8:09 am

      Thank you Sissi! 🙂 I got a feeling that Goenka’s definitions of scientific and secular were a bit less strict than mine 😀 Glad to hear you loved the experience, the course is truly special. It’s like hitting a reset button inside your mind when the processing starts to get too difficult.

  2. Moi!
    Tosi mielenkiintosen kuulonen kokemus ja hyvää pohdintaa! Herätti kyllä vielä lisää mielenkiintoa toteuttaa itekkin hiljaisuusretriitti tulevaisuudessa.

    • Arimo

      05/04/2017 at 8:12 am

      Kiitos Sirja! 🙂 Joo, kyllä mie oikeesti näitä suosittelen! Eipä juuri missään muualla tule samanlaista tilaisuutta hypätä irti arjestaan. Ihan toisenlaisessa ympäristössä oppiikin tosi paljon elämästään.

  3. Fred Dittrich

    09/06/2017 at 12:58 pm

    Arimo
    Over the decades I have attended 10 7 day vipassana sits with a total of 6 teachers as a scientific skeptic, never as a believer. As an outsider to Buddhism (I am not a good enough liar to join any religion) I see these 7 day sits exactly the same way as I saw various physics and chemistry lab courses. I will be happy to share with you my view of the cultural context of these sits in western terminology. If forced to choose, I would rather talk about this topic than have sex.
    Gassho
    the Fred process

    • Arimo

      11/06/2017 at 8:18 am

      10 courses, that’s impressive! Yeah, I’ve also studied Mindfulness mainly from “Western perspective”.

      A friend of mine who did the same Vipassana Dhamma course said that although Vipassana Dhamma isn’t really scientific, it’s gets quite close when you consider S.N. Goenka’s background. There are things that I don’t like about the teachings, things that I fear might hinder getting the best effect from meditation. Still, there’s a lot of good in the Vipassana practice.

  4. the Fred process

    13/06/2017 at 12:18 am

    Arimo
    I can’t figure out how to reply to your post. Would you be willing to e-mail me directly? I don’t do social media.
    Over the decades I have slowly figured out the western context of mindfulness practice. Some historic issues are as follows:
    * It is a fact from objective reality that after you die that people can put words into your mouth which you would never have said in a million years.
    * After Gotama died Buddhist Philosophy was created. BP is a system of words put into a dead man’s mouth.
    * Likewise with Buddhist Religion.
    * Therefore in both BP and BR “your mileage may vary.”
    * As early as the Second Buddhist Council there was a schism. The conservatives, now represented by the Theravadin (the old guys) system and the liberals represented by all other forms. The former held that what Gotama stumbled into was an invention, therefore don’t you dare modify it or improve it. The latter held that what Gotama stumbled into was an invention and only one of hundreds of ways to say the same thing.

    There is a lot more but in the mean time try the following mindfulness practice:
    Between sleep cycles at night, pay attention to the direct input of your 5 senses instead of fanning the flames of the dream you just had.

    I cannot too strongly recommend all of the works of Stephen Batchelor and of Shinzen Young (shinzen.org).

    Gassho
    the Fred process

    • Arimo

      26/06/2017 at 9:37 am

      Thank you Fred!

      It can often be a problem when teachings are too centered on a person, not the topic itself. I think this can lead to irrelevant dogmas and legends that are hard to get rid of.

      I had not heard of Stephen Natchelor or Shinzen Young before. I might check out their works later!

    • I can second Stephen Batchelor. His recent book “After Buddhism: Rethinking the Dharma for a Secular Age” is mind-blowing. If you’re looking for a secular approach to Buddhism, this is it.

  5. Next month i am going to do Vipassana is itis effective for students to concentrate their study’s or more to fous their aims ??

  6. Rahul Nikambe

    22/10/2017 at 12:32 pm

    Arimo,

    Very nicely articulated post about Vipassana experience.
    But I do have some questions about how to tackle your thoughts during the course? Does this course help in self discovery? or the course discourages or shuns any kind of thinking about self or goals?
    I am asking you these questions as a young professional who is looking for clarity about professional dilemma.

    • Arimo

      23/10/2017 at 3:54 am

      Hi Rahul! 🙂

      My answer is a mix of yes and no. The Vipassana course doesn’t completely shun thinking about your self or your goals. Still, the focus is on the course and its techniques. If you bring too much “mental luggage” with you, it can also affect your experience, making it harder to focus on meditation.

      You are also not allowed make any notes during the course. Near the middle of my course, I had one day where I got a big idea about my career. I got very agitated during that day! It took me a long time to calm my mind down. I had to accept there was nothing I could do about my professional career during the retreat.

      On the other hand, I’d say the course does help with self-discovery. When you’re taken away from your daily life, you get new perspective to to your life. You also get to see the processes of your mind more clearly, which can lead to new insights.

      So, I’d say that the course may (indirectly) help you with your professional dilemma. However, you shouldn’t think too much about that goal. If you can keep it on the background, the course might give you new ideas without too much effort 🙂

  7. Chelsey Doyle

    17/11/2017 at 7:16 am

    Hey Arimo.

    I have just been accepted to-do a 10day vipassana course. I really enjoyed reading through your blog & seeing your opinion.
    I have never completed a course like this but I like to practice mindfulness & other forms of meditation.
    I was wondering whether you could give me an insight to whether there will be individuals from around the world. I am from England & feeling nervous, I have applied for courses in the past but never been accepted as they were filled by other people.

    Thank you!

    • Arimo

      18/11/2017 at 10:37 pm

      Hi Chelsey! 🙂

      Where will you do your course? It depends on the location, but it’s very likely that there will be people from all over the world. In our course in Java, probably 90 % of the participants were from somewhere other than Indonesia.

      Good luck will your course! If you have any other questions, I’ll be happy to help 🙂

      • Chelsey Doyle

        22/11/2017 at 2:59 am

        Thank you for your reply Arimo!
        I’m doing it in Jakarta Bogor. I’m so happy that I’m finally commiting myself to the course.
        I do have a few questions if you are happy to help, I will be leaving Australia as my visa will be expired so I will have luggage (a year’s worth) such as my books, journal iPad & phone. Do you know where I could store my belongings before the course started?

        Much appreciated 😄

        • Arimo

          23/11/2017 at 4:34 pm

          Ah, the same place, wonderful! 🙂 The Vipassana center at Bogor is great, you’ll love it. It’s a beautiful center on the hills away from the city. Especially the sunset is great. I think there’s going to be around 100 participants in the course, and most of them are foreigners.

          The center has a locked storage room where you can put your valuables for the duration of the course.

  8. Hi Arimo,
    I have just completed my first vipassana 2 weeks ago. You said in your blog that you wanted to know if anyone released sankharas. On the 5th day I cried in the hour after lunch but before 2nd the ‘strong’ sitting of the day. Until the group sitting I didn’t know what I had released but then it hit me. 3 years ago I slipped at a waterfall, and haven’t really felt like myself since; tinnitus, tension, low moods from time to time. It was mostly a head injury but also my shoulder and wrist.
    As the group sitting began I realised that my tinnitus had stopped, but it was simply the calm before the storm. Then it came to the surface and I felt fully, and even more intensely than originally, the pain in my face all over again. To the point where I practically ran to look in the mirror as soon as the sitting was done. I was so sure it had swollen again. For the rest of the days this was coming to the surface, such terrible pains in my head, like someone was pushing from the inside of my skull or stabbing pains in my head and face. It was quite difficult to remain equaminous to this, especially on day 6 and 7 which brought me neck spasms each time I breathed or someone coughed. But I felt such relief that it was coming out. There were times when I was sat there wondering how to convince my doctor that I need an MRI scan. On the 9th day in the morning I felt these sensations drain from my face into my arm (which had been pretty blind up to this point). It’s still working it’s way out actually and I certainly still have some healing to do. The tinnitus stopped completely for three days in the week following but it has come back. However sometimes when I sit and scan I can feel it move, and it stops again. But the pain will be in my neck instead.
    Simply because of the experience I had I am convinced this is the only way to meditate to get results, for myself anyway. To each their own of course. I can’t wait to sit again.
    Take care,
    Em

  9. Hi Arimo, thanks for linking to my article on reallylivelife.org 😀

    It sounds as though we had similar reservations about the retreat. By the end, I absolutely hated Goenka. With time though, I’ve softened greatly. I soon realised my feelings were far more about me, than about him. And that’s why we meditate (and travel) isn’t it – to learn about ourselves?

    Enjoy your last 6 months of travel!

    • You’re welcome, and thank you for writing about your experience Ainsley! 🙂

      I found your summary highly entertaining, and we definitely had some similar thoughts about the course. I didn’t continue Vipassana after the course, but I still meditate daily. The retreat definitely helped with meditation in general.

      Ps. I just re-read your post. I had forgotten all about Goenka’s “start again” instructions, but it all came back now! 😀

  10. Hi Arimo,

    Thanks for sharing your experience with Vipassana. I have been to a 10-day retreat myself, and am going to a shorter retreat starting tomorrow.

    There was something in your post that caught my attention. I noticed you mentioned that during Vipassana meditation, the meditator is supposed to “just ignore the pain” and “continue to ignore current sensations” in order to eradicate old sankaras.

    The way I understood it is that one should do the exact opposite – be fully aware of every sensation in your body, but do not react with craving or aversion. Goenka said often that the purpose of Vipassana is to cultivate awareness and equanimity.

    If by “ignore”, you meant simply to not react, then that’s fine. I just wanted to make that distinction, because if you were actually ignoring all the sensations while you were meditating, then that could be the reason why you didn’t seem to notice any old sankaras coming to the surface.

    Best Wishes,

    Cat

    • Arimo

      06/12/2017 at 1:32 am

      Hey Cat! 🙂

      Yes, I meant not reacting to the sensations, and also putting aside the sensations that are not part of your current scan area.

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