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.
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.
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.
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.
Rebirth 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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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!