Vipassana; ultimate spiritual retreat or descent into madness?
I have seen the face of the devil.
It wasn't a scary face, more like a doll's face with large eyes and a helmet, to be honest, there was a definite Darth Vader vibe about it … it was pretty funny until I felt the horror that accompanied that hallucination. Crushing loneliness, emptiness, and bone shaking anxiety … for all eternity … these were the emotions that came as a side dish to that particular appetiser.
Cold terror dribbled down my spine and suddenly I knew how it felt to be completely insane ... it was a total bummer, not gonna lie.
I lay with my head close to the wall, my eyes wide, trying desperately to remain equanimous to these intense emotions as they flooded my system with stress hormones. I literally felt the cortisol calcifying my veins as I focused on my breathing, trying with all my might to convince myself that ‘this too will pass’.
It was 3.39am and I hadn't slept the entire night.
For the last 8 nights, I hadn't slept for more than about 3hrs per night. Some nights, not at all. The evening before this one I had, in my exhausted and stressed out state, hallucinated that a black goo was creeping, tentacle-like across the walls of my room. Having taken enough mushrooms and LSD to recognise that I was tripping my ass off, this didn't overly freak me out, but when I saw that crazy face, even as a slightly humorous, made up part of my psyche … I tapped out.
The Vipassana retreat had driven me to the point of madness. I was out. Thanks but no thanks. I understood that for some people, this experience could be hugely transformative. Some have even said that it has changed their lives...others have been carted away in straight jackets. I was almost one of the latter.
There are many benefits to meditation. I myself, being a yoga teacher, have espoused the calmness that can be achieved from simply sitting for a few minutes each day and focusing on the breathing. It is a great way to relax the shoulders, neck and head and quietens the mind, allowing for clearer decision making and better understanding of oneself and instincts. It's a great thing to do. Just not in this way. Not for me.
The retreat is supposed to be a bootcamp type of experience, meant to give you a taste of how living like a monk would be. The schedule is pretty scary, with 4am wake up calls and up to 10 hours of meditation per day, no contact with the outside world at all, no speaking and no eye contact with others. Having lived through my yoga teacher training a few years before, which I believed to be somehow similar (waaaaay less intense, but similar all the same), I felt equipped to deal with it. Oh boy, was I wrong!
I was absolutely not equipped to handle the distinct cult-yness and brainwashery (it's a word, honest, peeps) of the whole thing.
All of our belongings were taken from us upon registration and locked away in some remote part of the building. I understood that they needed to take our phones to uphold the immersive nature of the course, but was unsure as to why they needed my purse, drivers licence, house and car keys. Nevermind, I handed everything over and away we went.
First alarm bells rang … I dismissed it as being paranoid.
Noble silence (or as I like to call it - insurance that nobody chats about the whole cult-yness/brainwashery of everything) was then observed for rest of the time there. No problem, I was actually looking forward to spending some time alone with myself. Perhaps I would take a walk in the woods or meditate in the garden.
Uh-uh … No chance. The strict rules ensure that you don't leave the building or taped off garden area for the entire duration of the retreat and you are only allowed outside for 5 minute stints at certain times during the day. This meant that for 10 days, we were only allowed to walk in the corridors (of which there were two, so kinda like being restricted to about 20 meters of something out of The Shining, I expected to meet creepy twins at every turn) or on a patch of grass roughly the size of a postage stamp and even then, only at designated times. The rest of the time we were shut in a darkened room, smelling other people's farts, while the spring unfurled outside, giving us tantalising wisps of fragrant air every time the windows were cracked open for a couple of minutes between torture sessions.
All work and no play makes Kate a dull girl. All work and no play makes Kate a dull girl. All work and no play makes Kate a dull girl … yeah, you got it. The descent into insanity begins.
The alarm bells got a little louder … I brushed them off as being scared of a challenge, called myself a chicken and carried on.
The course is run by assistant teachers of Mr Goenka … well now ... here's a cat who knew his stuff! Before becoming a Vipassana teacher, Goenka was a businessman ... and it shows. He took a 10 day retreat and in his own words ‘was ready to leave on the 2nd day’. His teacher persuaded him to stay and that, as they say, was that.
The entire course is taught using audio and video tapes of Goenka whose distinctive method of chanting starts to grate on the senses right from the beginning. He growls his way through a series of nonsensical sounds before imparting the first part of the meditation. Observe your breath coming and going through your nose. Cool, ok got it. Now this, I can handle. Observation of the breath is the best way to calm the mind and restore balance to the body.
Great. This part was fine.
It was the discourses in the evenings that I had the real problem with.
From 7 until 8.30pm every night we were ushered into a small room and treated to a video of Mr Goenka talking about the Vipassana technique.
These discourses were maddeningly confusing and filled with repetition. Sure, they were funny and Goenka, albeit seemingly a warm, loving person and a great storyteller, seemed to contradict himself with every breath.
Vipassana is not a religion. Ok, so why is it deeply rooted in Buddhism? Why are we learning about Buddhist beliefs such as reincarnation and karma and practicing Buddhist rites such as chanting?
Vipassana is not dogma. Ok, so why is Vipassana constantly portrayed as the only effective way to reach enlightenment? Why are we threatened with misery in our futures if we don't purify our dirty minds? Why are we told again and again, over and over (brainwashery) that if we don't adhere to the rules exactly, without question, we will not get the benefits of Vipassana? Sounds pretty dogmatic to me!
Vipassana is not sectarian. Ok, so why are all of our personal belongings taken from us upon entry? Why are we told that we are not allowed to leave? Why, if we try to leave, are we coerced into staying? Why are we told the same things over and over again, like a freakin’ broken record? Why are we told that everything happening inside our heads is a product of past bad juju and made to feel responsible and even guilty for having negative thoughts? It's mind fuckery at its best!
Vipassana is good for you. Ok, so why are we told to ignore our bodies natural response to pain? Pain is the body's way of ensuring that we maintain optimum health, it let's us know that something is not ok and asks us to change something. Ignoring it is simply training our minds to ignore our evolutionary warning signals! What if we remained equanimous, observing our sensations and pain whilst having a heart attack? ... **face palm** good idea, friend!
All of this confused me and the feeling of being insidiously manipulated just made me angry. I began to feel that this training program really wasn't my cup o tea!
After 3 days I had had enough. We had observed our breathing for 10 hours a day and listened to ever increasingly dogmatic discourses in the evenings and I was done. When taking a break on the afternoon of day three and staring, unseeing out of a window for a while, I almost snapped when I was admonished by a member of the ‘management’ and told to go back to my room or to the hall because it was ‘meditation time’. She must have sensed my impending madness as her smile faltered and she took a micro step back as I turned around and fixed her with my sleep deprived stare. I managed a semi bright ‘ok’ before mentally checking out and planning my escape.
That night found me frantically, much in the tiptoeing manner of a cartoon burglar, searching for my hidden personal items throughout the house. I looked everywhere, crawling into hidey holes and shaking locked doors, but nothing doing. My imagined rebellion, where I jump and roll, free runner style, from the window giving both fingers to the shocked faces peering out as I trot backwards down the driveway, faded before my eyes. Ok, I would have to do it the conventional way.
I asked to leave on the morning of day 4.
This was one of 3 times that I would ask to leave during my stay. Only finally being allowed to go after insisting for over 10 minutes that this was really what I wanted and that no amount of talking could change my mind.
The teacher was extremely clever. Rather than simply stating that I couldn't leave ... after all, that's not allowed ... first of all she asked why I wanted to leave. I said that I was miserable doing this meditation and that the rules were too strict for me. I felt like I was in prison. She said that I was being too hard on myself and that the misery that I was feeling was already inside me, just waiting to come out and be healed. She said that after today, things usually get better and advised me to sleep when I could as she seemed concerned that I wasn't able to sleep. I went away feeling slightly more hopeful but not entirely convinced of her arguments. I gave it another shot.
The next 3 days I cried. All … the … time. I cried in meditation, I cried in the bathroom, I cried during meals, big fat tears splashing down my face and into my food. I cried when I woke up and when I went to sleep (if I slept at all) and I cried during the discourses (maybe even more during the discourses as they were getting increasingly pessimistic). Some people might say that this was cathartic. I would respond in much the same way as I would to someone telling me to cheer up after my Mum died. It was pure misery. I felt like a trapped animal crying for freedom. It felt like oppression and depression, not in any way a cathartic release. In word … it sucked!
On the evening of the 6th day, after a memorable afternoon of wailing in my room for what seemed like roughly 20 years, I went again to the teacher and asked to leave. This time I was calm and collected. A little shaky, but prepared to fight for my release.
I categorically stated that I wanted to leave and that I wanted my things back ... please. Once again the teacher asked why. I explained that this method of teaching myself was not in line with my beliefs. I didn't agree with self torture and I couldn't resonate with many of things that Goenka was trying to teach us. I stated that in my opinion, this method was overly harsh and had nothing to do with how I wanted to live my life after this course.
Once again, she bamboozled me with psychological coercion. She used guilt tactics, pushing all responsibility for my unhappiness back onto me and told me to relax about everything. I wondered how to relax when we are woken at 4am, made to listen to dogmatic brain-fuckery where our future is damned if we don't follow these rules exactly, sit still without moving for 3 hours a day ignoring all pain, all the while not allowing emotions to overrun us … ever tried that? That ain't relaxing ... It's exhausting.
However, she seemed concerned and showed compassion for me, telling me to sleep whenever I could. I left feeling totally confused, manipulated and more than a little rebellious.
From then on, I didn't follow the program anymore. I did my own meditation when I felt like it and for the rest of the time, I allowed my mind to do whatever the hell it wanted! I'm an artist, man! Without my imagination, I'm not allowing full expression of my creative self. Without allowing my mind to simply roam about, I'm stifling the area of my brain that is responsible for new ideas and for sorting stuff out.
I like having a mind that sometimes kicks up stupid stuff, it helps for creating cool things! I like having a mind that isn't easily controlled! I like having a mind that questions, rebels and reacts … I don't want to be equanimous in all situations all the time! I don't believe this is healthy and I don't like treating my mind as if it's the enemy. So I stopped doing it.
When we had the group meditations (which were mandatory and where we had to sit still) I would just daydream until it was over and then go and hide in the garden for the rest of the time. I came up with some fab new ideas for yoga classes, retreats, meditation audios and even created a series of characters for a graphic novel called ‘the 5 me’s of Vipassana’. That last one was the start of the madness responsible for my seeing the devil, but at the time it seemed like a cute thing to dream about!
I counted the seconds for this torture to end and even though on day 7, I had some semi-blissed out moments, it felt as though I was disassociating from myself rather than experiencing higher states of consciousness and the feeling of being a prisoner only intensified.
By day 8, the warning bells had become so loud that I had fallen into madness.
During the last group meditation of the day whilst listening to people sobbing and sniffing quietly all around me, I slipped a few more notches towards insanity. Before I realised what was happening, I was rocking backwards and forwards like a caged animal, a high pitched voice bleating in my mind ‘I'm a tree in the wind! I'm a tree in the wind!’ over and over again.
I had to get out of there!
That night I had a peek into hell. That was the final straw.
The next morning dawned bright and clear and as the first light crept tentatively across the room, it slowly fell upon a miserable, pitiful figure huddled on one side of the bed, the covers wrapped around it like a cowl, its face starkly white and eyes ringed with shadow from lack of sleep. It showered, in the manner that a semi starved zombie would shower, packed its bag, dressed and went and waited for the teacher.
Just then, it met an angel.
I was staring blankly out of the window mentally arguing my case as I knew it would take some persuasion, when out of the corner of my eye I saw someone approaching me.
Thinking I was about to be told off again I turned, prepared to allow my rebellion to burst out and cover whoever it was when I saw a middle aged lady smiling at me. She was looking directly into my eyes! Having not looked at another person's face for over 8 days, I was so surprised that I forgot about rebelling.
‘I can't wait until we can speak again!’ She whispered
‘Yeah, me too!’ I replied ‘in fact, I've had enough … I'm leaving today, I'm just waiting for the teacher’
‘Really?’ She said, her eyes lighting up ‘I'm coming with you!’
We had a quick, whispered conversation where we discovered that we didn't live so far away from each other, that she had come by car and that she would drop me off at the train station just outside my home town. I was saved!
Just before we were scolded by the management for breaking our vow of silence we made a pact with each other that no matter what the teacher said, no matter how much she tried to convince us to stay, we were definitely leaving … together.
It took a lot of sticking to our guns but after I had let slip that we had talked about it together, the teacher relented and let us leave during the morning meditation.
It took roughly 20 mins to get our personal items back and the Dhamma staff treated us pretty well, with only minimal eye rolling and even pressing a banana and drink of water on us for the journey.
We were free! We were so full of joy and happy to get away that we drove 30 minutes in the wrong direction through incredible snowy mountain scenery before realizing our mistake and turning back around!
I didn't care that I had left just one day before the end of the course. I didn't care that the teacher and staff seemed to think less of me if I left. I didn't care that my roommate would be confused and wonder what had happened or that I was on the verge of exhausted collapse. All I cared about was that this torture was over and I seemed to have avoided slipping into the seventh circle of hell.
I'm sure that those who read this and have been entrenched into or enjoyed the Vipassana methodology will see my experience as self made. Perhaps. But I'm not willing to torture myself into enlightenment and I feel that there are deep conflicts of information within the teachings. I believe that a person can experience deep meditation whilst walking in nature, or connecting with a loved one, or playing with an animal, or sitting on the train, or simply being still and quiet if that is what they want.
This style of Vipassana may work for some people but I don't think it's the only way, I don't think it works for everyone and I don't like the way it's sold.
I must also add here that I have suffered with depression and anxiety in the past. Having come from a background of manipulation based trauma, this style of retreat was akin to re-traumatising myself. This was a failing on my part as well as theirs. A part of me should have known that having such strict boundaries and rules was simply going to catapult me back to my childhood and not having a choice over what I do with my body. I would strongly warn anyone with a history of trauma against doing a Vipassana ... if only for this reason.
However, I'm pretty sure that escaping was a hugely cathartic process. For someone with my background, sticking up for myself and asserting myself in the face of great opposition was massively empowering! I feel stronger and more powerful than I did before ... I feel that I'm able to stand up and fight when things get too much for me. I know now that I can assert myself without anything negative happening ... this is huge step forward ... like Hulk kinda huge!
Alternately, I also believe that some styles of Vipassana have the ultimate goal of alleviating people's suffering and that in itself is wonderful. The core values of the teachings are universal love, relief from mental pain and quieting our minds. All of which are fab goals if that's what you're into … and I am … I just didn't resonate with the dubiously sectarian/cult-y nature of the whole thing ... or the idea that life is purely suffering and misery ... or that we are somehow damaged and in need of purification ... or, well the rest of it!
I believe that we are perfectly imperfect just as we are and that life can be miserable but it can also be filled with joy and we don't need to remain equanimous throughout. We are allowed to feel angry, sad, happy, horrified, joyful, rebellious or anything else that comes up … we don't need to control or subdue our minds, we simply need to honour all parts of ourselves without judgement.
I have worked really hard to stop judging myself and the so called ‘negative’ aspects of my mind and I don't need to be told that if I don't follow some meditation practice and remain constantly even-tempered, I'm destined for misery! In my view, telling someone something like that simply breeds guilt and anxiety about having certain thoughts and will make people stuff these feelings down rather than allowing them, honouring them and letting them go.
Upon returning from the Vipassana, I found a number of interesting articles that express many of the same concerns that I had. This one is by far the most interesting and has been written as a scholarly thesis. I would recommend reading it if you are considering undertaking this course.
There are a couple of cool things that have happened upon my return. I have lost interest in having a social media presence. When starting your own business it's often heralded that a strong social media presence is absolutely key for success but I now feel that getting to know people in my local area is more important and will yield better results. I feel that personal connection is paramount to success and I'm now working towards this, instead of building an Instagram or FB following. I think that having no contact with anyone for 8 days allowed me to realise how much I miss having a connected group of friends or social circle and I'm more willing to put more energy into my friendships.
So watch out Vienna friends ... I'm comin' for ya'll!
So it wasn't for nothing. I didn't just waste time for 8 days of my life. I got some great business ideas and came away with newfound power and lust for life!
Being incarcerated and almost having a psychotic breakdown will do that to a person, I guess.
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Much love always,