Is Vipassana Dhamma meditation scientific? In this Vipassana 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 Vipassana 10-day course review, I inspect the course and its teachings from an atheist’s perspective.
See also: How to Prepare for a Vipassana Meditation Retreat?
Vipassana Meditation Review – 2023 Update
I wrote this 10-day Vipassana retreat review way back in 2017. At that point, I had spent almost a year on what would become a 2-year trip around the world. Despite its age, I believe this Vipassana review is still up-to-date.
The Vipassana Dhamma meditation retreats follow the same formula all over the world. The main lessons come from old recordings, and the daily routines have stayed the same for years. What was true in 2017 is still true today.
And what about my personal opinions?
A lot has happened since I participated in the 10 day meditation course. After that, I kept a daily meditation routine for several years. I also participated in another 7-day silent meditation retreat here in Finland.
That course had a less strict approach, and I thought that it suited me much better. Instead of pushing participants to change through discomfort, the other retreat focused on offering the best possible conditions for personal meditation.
Still, I’m very glad that I participated in the Vipassana Dhamma course. Though I disagree with many of its teachings, I let them be. This Vipassana retreat review has a rather critical edge to it. Over the years, my declamations have become softer.
My Background with Meditation
I don’t usually talk about my personal beliefs in public. In this Vipassana retreat review, 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 Master’s Degree in Psychology, and I first encountered meditation during my studies. My university did 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.
Vipassana Review: 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.
Vipassana Meditation Technique Review
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 Reviewed the Vipassana Retreat
I wanted to learn how other people had experienced their Vipassana 10-day courses, so I did some research of my own. I searched “vipassana experiences” and “10 day vipassana experiences” on Google and read the first 10 Vipassana reviews and 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.
Vipassana Review – Final Thoughts
I know that this Vipassana review may sound very critical. Because of this, I want to emphasize that I really enjoyed my Vipassana Dhamma 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 Vipassana retreat review 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!
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 😀 )
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.
Tosi mielenkiintosen kuulonen kokemus ja hyvää pohdintaa! Herätti kyllä vielä lisää mielenkiintoa toteuttaa itekkin hiljaisuusretriitti tulevaisuudessa.
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.
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.
the Fred process
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.
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).
the Fred process
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.
Thank you for the recommendation Ainsley, much appreciated! 🙂
Next month i am going to do Vipassana is itis effective for students to concentrate their study’s or more to fous their aims ??
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.
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 🙂
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.
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 🙂
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 ?
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.
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.
That’s very interesting to hear! Thank you for sharing Em 🙂
So that no one gets confused, they tell you to never try to attach a specific meaning to the sensation of arising sankharas. In my own experience, that is difficult at times when they seem to be weighted to certain obvious emotions. But according to my best understanding of buddhist philosophy, it is impossible to isolate and aspect of consciousness to say, “ah, my early childhood trauma is coming up, and nothing else.” It may have been weighted to those subconscious structures, but it will also be connected to some degree to many different other aspects of the subconscious.
From my own observations, the order that these arise is not organized by topic or label, but rather by our own ability to handle them. As our practice deepens, the sankharas that are accessible come from a deeper level as well.
I myself identify as a skeptic and have many similar criticisms of the organization. However, the deeper I go into this technique the more some of the more outlandish, less scientific claims become self-evident. As Goenka said, take what’s useful, set aside the rest, keep practicing, and maybe you’ll eventually notice that something you set aside was good after all.
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! 😀
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.
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.
I’ve done the 10 course twice, and my first impression after the first course, back in 2011 (as an atheist philosophy student doing her BA) was very similar to yours. I wanted to go back, after I finished my Master’s Degree, who particularly studied the ways in which Western philosophy presents itself as the “objective” philosophy, and in which Western science is often (more or less remotely) informed by Christian worldviews. This time, I was fully conscious that I was studying a different philosophical system, in which practice is essential to understanding fully the theory (something which was lost a while ago in Western philosophy: the search for wisdom as both knowledge and practice is barely part of the philosophical project anymore), so the spirit in which I examined the teachings and the practice was different. I actually was drained by the studies I had just finished, as I see so many of my graduate colleagues in philosophy dealing with depression and anxiety, and I do question how it is that the “search for wisdom” ends up in people dealing with various degrees of mental illness and feelings of worthlessness in the present system.
As someone who has also gone through a thorough psychotherapy with a certified psychologist, I was able to find many ways in which the Vipassana practice was able to actualize in a more efficient way problems I had identified in the psychotherapeutical process. I don’t know about the truth of the theory of the sankharas, but, identifying particular sensations in the body, I could see clearly that they were connected with some emotional baggage, and that going over these sensations back and forth, I could feel the emotions weakening, some to the point of disappearance. So, although I’m definitely doubtful with regards to reincarnation (with the perspective that this was part of the overarching belief systems in which Gotama lived) per se, and as to the precise mechanism at work, there is some interesting stuff going on. It’s been two months, and I’ve been doing Vipassana twice a day every day since then, observing some more positive changes. I’ve also read the small book by Walpola Rahula, a great theravadin buddhist philosophy scholar (who also knows his Western philosophy quite well, and often makes interesting comparisons), “What the Buddha Taught”, and you can basically find pretty much everything (even the stories) Goenka teaches in them. So, for me, Goenka is just being very honest in presenting both the technique as practice and the accompanying theory. What might be a problem is that most Westerners do not have the basic knowledge of their own philosophical system, and do not approach the 10-day course as an introduction to a different philosophical system (which includes a particular practice, which the theory is supposed to be drawn from – what Rahula emphasizes is definitely that the practice overrides any theoretical supposition – interestingly, he draws quotes from Gotama emphasizing the same thing, so in this way, it is very strikingly anti-dogmatic).
As a general conclusion, my experience is definitely positive, although I do recommend that people examine the belief systems (both Western, if they are from Western background, or whatever background they are, and the Buddhist belief system – which more philosophical than religious, I must say), instead of assessing its “secularism” on the basis of what they assume to be a universal objective stance. It also gives a stronger asset in order to “rationally examine” the theoretical teachings, and in no way takes anything from the practice.
I hope this adds something useful to the conversation 🙂
Thank you for sharing your thoughts and experiences so thoroughly! 🙂
It’s interesting how you write that Western science is often informed by Christian worldviews. While I believe that Christian worldviews (such as the belief in soul and Homo Sapiens’ reign over nature) have hindered science in the past, science has done a pretty good job of getting rid of these prejudices in the last 100+ years.
I haven’t studied Western philosophies that much (at least not in the academic sense), so it’s interesting to hear your thoughts from that perspective. I personally see science as a method, not a belief system – and I believe that this method can be applied in all cultures.
Of course, not all questions can be answered with the scientific method. However, if Goenka or someone else claims that their arguments are scientific, this is a claim that can be evaluated. That was also my main perspective in this blog post.
I think that precisely pointing out to the idea that science is a method is exactly what Goenka says Vipassana medition is: a method. Now, theories are drawn/modified from observations from what emerges from observation (information is organized according to the interaction between what we can observe and our available belief system). This can be applied both to Vipassana and the scientific corpus, in a way. Goenka honestly exposes the belief system used to develop and interpret the observations throughout the ages, but never really imposes it, stating the only important thing is to apply the method, which consists of cultivating awareness and consciousness of the changing nature of the observed phenomena. As to the Christian beliefs (and other remnants of the assumptions of Western philosophy in general) underlying the Western scientific corpus, it basically informs the types of questions being asked in science. Also, the scientific method, in how it was laid out by people such as Francis Bacon, or Descartes at the dawn of the scientific revolution, for example (where humans and “nature” are two distinct realms, where one can exploit and extract knowledge from the other – Bacon even uses the metaphor of torture), and the questions that drive research, are very much related to these underlying belief systems, or even to why we even bother to ask and research certain questions.
For interesting reads from two different points of view in philosophy of science (one more reflective of the traditional view, one more critical, both deconstructing and suggesting an alternative): Philip Kitcher (a very interesting discussion of certain elements: “Science, Truth, and Democracy”), and Sandra Harding (“Objectivity and Diversity: Another Logic of Scientific Research”).
As we tend to use the belief-systems we inhabit to interpret our experiences, even if we are not aware, I think it becomes important (particularly in a world where Western thought and powers have imposed themselves not always – actually most of the time not – peacefully), to be able to acknowledge our own standpoint, especially when we encounter traditions that stem out of a different one. Indian traditions are extremely rich and hold their own “scientific methods”, based on logic and observation. It think what is being articulated by someone like Goenka, is the idea that what he teaches is not based on some kind of external revelation (although it emerges from and is interpreted within a belief-system, nor is it dogmatic. Whatever is observed has precedence over whatever theory that is taught. Which is pretty much the basis of the scientific method as most people understand it, even though the belief system it emerges from is rendered invisible by the fact that it is the current dominant worldview (also check Jürgen Habermas’s “Knowledge and Human Interests” for an in-depth analysis).
For yet another interesting source of information: The History of Philosophy Without Any Gaps, and there are interesting episodes on the history of philosophy in India, which actually make interesting comparisons and contrasts with Western philosophy. https://historyofphilosophy.net/
I agree with you about the way Western worldview directs the topics of science. If I remember right, this is one of the main points of neuroscientist Sam Harris’ book “Waking Up – A Guide to Spirituality without Religion”.
Harris argues that spiritual topics such as meditation and supernatural experiences can (and should) be the targets of more scientific research. Currently such topics are more often left to spiritual and religious groups.
I believe that Vipassana Dhamma retreats can cause a lot of good, but I’m sad that the teachings include some dubious and pseudoscientific claims. Just the fact that the courses follow decades old video lessons from a deceased person prevents the organization from correcting its mistakes – an essential criteria of the scientific method.
Even if some of Goenka’s claims were proven wrong, I don’t see the Vipassana Dhamma program changing in the face of contradicting evidence. For me, this (and many unfalsifiable claims) show that Vipassana Dhamma is not scientific method, and Goenka is wrong when he claims so.
Excuse me, I have attended this course 3 times and I don’t recall anywhere that anyone said it is scientific. I don’t remember anything about reincarnation too. I think Buddhists believe in rebirth, not reincarnation but I don’t remember he mentioned either. Can you point out to me which part did he said anything on rebirth or about being scientific ?
BTW, the 10 days’ discourse is available in Youtube.
The comment above touched on something extremely important. As a rational, scientific atheist, you have an aversion for “woo woo” and unsupported unscientific claims. Buddhism emerged from the spiritual nexus of India 2500 ago, and a technique derived from that tradition is going to have remnants of that culture. So yeah, Goenka does ramble on a bit about rebirth/sankharas/vibratory energy, etc.
But what’s most important is that you view these as descriptions for the ineffable, things science doesn’t yet have labels for. So far, the best labels we have comes from a super old Indian philosophy. But human language struggles to describe this stuff, so the descriptions are going to be flawed. That’s not just acceptable but expected. If I tried to describe a zebra to you and you had never seen one, no matter how well I described it you’d probably end up with some slight misunderstandings.
So this is why Goenka says vipassana is a system of ‘experiential understanding’. By practicing the technique, you get glimpses of the zebra and begin to piece it together at a deeper level than can be arrived out through description and comparison.
So what is VITALLY important about this technique, and what makes it fairly scientific, is that it calls to observe, to break down and analyze every sensation of mind and body into its component parts. It is not necessary AT ALL to believe everything Goenka says. I don’t. He says, feel free to disregard all of this, but keep practicing vipassana as a technique and you will eventually arrive at the same fundamental conclusions, even if by a different name.
Your comment is very interesting although I find you contradictory in some ways.
I have attended this course 3 times and I don’t recall anywhere that anyone said it is scientific. I don’t remember anything about reincarnation too. I think Buddhists believe in rebirth, not reincarnation but I don’t remember he mentioned either. Can you point out to me which part did he said anything on rebirth or about being scientific ?
BTW, the 10 days’ discourse is available in Youtube.
I am thinking of trying it in Bogor, can I know how is the food like ? Is it very Indonesian or more international ?
Hi Stanley! 🙂
It’s been more than a year since I did my course, so I unfortunately don’t remember all the details.
It seems that you’re right about the reincarnation/rebirth difference between Hindus and Buddhists. Before I wasn’t aware that the two words have a different meaning, so thank you for pointing that out!
Rebirth is at least referred in the part where Goenka tells how Buddha remembered his past lives at the moment of his enlightenment: https://youtu.be/BtzKYeDMegY . I believe there might be other instances as well.
I don’t have a free WiFi now, so I cannot re-check if Goenka called Vipassana scientific in his lessons. The word is at least used on the Vipassana Dhamma website:
“[The rules and regulations] are based on the practical experience of thousands of meditators over the years and are both scientific and rational.”
“Vipassana is a universal, scientific method towards purifying the mind.”
I don’t recall much about the food, but I remember it was good. Probably closer to an international mix than Indonesian cuisine – or at least I don’t think it was very spicy.
@Philogen @ Arimo
At Philogen’s first post, I was intrigued at her POV. At her second follow-up post, my impression was one of intellectualism as the focus of the post.
After eight 10-day sits (2 were the Satipatthana Sutta courses) there are certain elements and experiences that over-ride any thought process in trying to determine if it is scientific or otherwise.
A simple story: I have had intense back pains in one area of my back for 40+ years. During the very first 10-day retreat, I took Goenka’s suggestion to focus on this spot, to discern where it got weaker in an attempt to isolate the exact area it emanated from. And when I reached that specific spot, the intensity of the pain ratched up to an extreme level, yet I refused to turn away from concentrating on it. At the point where the back pain became excruciating, a new sensation began to arise; it seemed as if it emanated from a spot between my eyes. It was not painful, and it continued to grow in intensity until it reached the same intensity level as my back pain. At the moment they both reached the same intensity, the back pain disappeared. I tried to hold onto the intense sensation between my eyes and to scan my body with it, but it quickly weakened and disappeared. I can report that the back pain has not returned in the past 5 years.
Next: please read the following as an explanation from a person without professional psychological training, to describe it in a way that may shed some extra light.
During my 5th retreat, I was attempting to reach a state of a “still mind” through the Anapana meditation technique (focusing on the breath touching that spot on the upper lip). It requires intense concentration to reach that state ( I call it 10,000 breaths, and one more). After 5 days of intense work of concentration on my breath, and the mental struggle to maintain that concentration, that next breath was like walking through a doorway into a completely still room. The effort to maintain concentration disappeared; it was just a state of being concentrated.
There was a sense of heightened awareness. That’s what I tell people anyway. What I did realize was that the mental effort to concentrate was the conscious mind being forced to stop wandering and be focused. Now that there was simply being concentrated, the conscious mind no longer hindered the process or took up any effort. But where was I if not in the conscious mind? You may or may not agree, but I believe I slipped into the sub-conscious mind, the area of the mind that is constantly monitoring every activity of the person: physical, mental, emotional. There was the knowledge that the 5 senses of the physical body existed, as did the body envelop itself, but it no longer was interfering with the state I was in. The body was there but it did not matter anymore. I could see my body as it operated, such as, there was the perception of the body as made up of tiny cells (bubbles) that were passing away and rising up again. I was dying and arising in milliseconds. I saw it, I understood it, I questioned it. And there was full awareness that this is what Goenka had described as a “station” along the path to enlightenment. He called it “bhanga-nana”. I even said to myself, “So, this is what he was talking about. This is the experience he described.”
And with that, I realized that although I was in a state of “still mind” there were still observations going on that I could process. Was this real truth I was observing? The truth that Krishnamurti spoke of in “The First and Last Freedom”, the truth he said could not be reached by thinking?
At the end of 6 hours in this state, I felt my body’s need for water. I was sitting in the meditation hall, it was break time, and of course, Noble Silence was required. However, I did not see Noble Silence as a hindrance, so I asked the men’s manager, as he came near to me, to bring me some water. He pulled back, and he said “no”. When he said “no” I saw him as he was, I seemed to fully understand why he was saying no. And it did not matter, because at that moment, full equanimity was present. Equanimity caused me to not react, because I understood that he was being who he was at that moment and he could not be any other way. I could have risen and got my own drink, but I did not want to lose that state of a still mind.
Scientific? I believe science has not reached a level of understanding such phenomenon. From my brief readings of quantum physics, they are getting closer to the same truths, yet there is so much that the thinking mind cannot grasp. The vastness of the truth is not comprehensible.
Thank you Robert for sharing your thoughts and experiences! That was very interesting to read.
The first step in Vipassana is always cautious and shaky. The experience , if you stay put for complete course ,is very enlightening, unique and transforming to individuals.
I would request a reading of
till end ( please do not be predisposed till you read it) to understand the underlying science behind the Vipassana technique. thank you,
Thank you to everone for giving us your time. I have a clearer idea of the zebra 🙂 Gratitude to all.