Episode #12 Vipassana (silent meditation retreat) in Russia
Warning: This episode may contain explicit language. And a lot of my feelings and opinions.
So, last week there was no episode. Do you wanna know why? Because I had no access to the Internet, a computer, a phone, any writing materials or even books. And I couldn’t talk. What the heck had happened? Was I abducted by aliens or something? No, I went to a silent meditation vipassana retreat. Willingly! Although now, after I know what it all looks like, I would be way less enthusiastic about going. But still, it was… an experience. And I’ll tell you all about it.
What is Vipassana?
First, what is vipassana? In this case I’m talking about Vipassana Meditation technique. That’s a Buddhist tradition and a method of meditation. It involves first observing your breath, that’s Anapana and you do it for the first three days. And for the next 7 days you are asked to observe sensations in your whole body. That’s Vipassana meditation. Sounds easy? Trust me, it’s not. But we’ll come to that later.
All this observing is supposed to help you see the true nature of reality which is the impermanence of… well, everything. Anicca, anicca, anicca! If you ever go through one of those, you’ll get the joke.
Impermanence of everything, including you and your self or ego, which, in the Buddhist opinion, would eventually lead to the liberation from suffering because it helps you deal with your desires and aversions.
Now, I have… problems with this philosophy. I’m not a Buddhist for a reason. And that reason is not a complete lack of knowledge.
But I went to a retreat that operates using the Vipassana meditation technique as taught by S.N. Goenka. And they stress that they are not a sect and that you can practice Vipassana meditation no matter what religious affiliations you have, because it’s not a religion. They say.
Now, I have no religious affiliations that might be in conflict with that, so that wouldn’t have been a problem. But they are not completely… well, honest. They are not dishonest precisely, it’s not a sect, there’s no mysticism and they don’t demand money or anything really. But you can practice Vipassana meditation while considering yourself a member of some other church as easily as you can practice Buddhism while practicing some other religion. Because what Goenka explains in his lectures every evening of your 10 day retreat is Theravada Buddhism. Complete with all the dukkah (that’s suffering), sankhara, karma and the rest of the lovely terminology in Pali, the language that Buddha spoke. At least Goenka says he did.
Which you can do technically. You can just meditate the way you have been taught. But for me it kinda feels like trying to eat an cherry pie without eating any of the cherries.
And there’s no point saying it’s not a religious practice. It is. It’s just that the religion looks more like a philosophy.
Vipassana around the world
Apparently, people all over the world like that philosophy. Because vipassana meditation movement has been going strong since the 1950s and there are vipassana meditation centers all over the place. Just the Sayagyi U Ba Khin tradition as taught by S.N. Goenka has more than a 100 permanent centers in Australia, the US, the UK, Canada, in just about every country of the European Union, and, of course, in Asia, and especially many of them are in India. That’s not all the countries, I just think I’d better leave the link to the world map with centers on it in the show notes.
In Russia we have several centers that offer 10 day vipassana courses in summer and one center that operates whole year round. It’s called Dhamma Dullabha , it’s about 1.5 (one and a half hour) ride from Moscow into Moscow oblast, and that’s where I’ve been.
How much does it cost?
That’s some smooth spiritual business, you say? Well, it isn’t. A business, that is. The thing is a course in any retreat center in that tradition is completely free. You don’t pay for your food, your accommodations, you don’t pay your course teacher anything. You just have to get there and out of there using your own money.
How is that possible? The courses are paid for by donations, and they accept donations only from people who has finished a vipassana course at least once. You can’t randomly donate money to them unless you are an old student, as they call them. Oh shit, as they call us! I’m an old student now. Wow!
So your stay is paid for by the previous students. On day 10 (and not a day sooner), if you feel that the course was useful for you or you just feel grateful, I guess, you can make your own donation. No one checks how much you give, you can give as much or as little as you want. You can even do that online.
Considering that there’s some building going on in the center in Russia, it must work out fine for them.
What does it all look like?
On day 0 you arrive at the center. It’s a former summer camp in the forest, 5 minute walk from the village but no locals bothered us. The center consists of a bunch of one storeyed buildings (and 1 two storeyed one) where everyone stays. Plus a meditation hall, a dining room and some summer shower and toilet facilities. They have those inside the living quarters too, but… it was and still is August. And we needed all the facilities we could get because there were a lot of us.
Our course was about a hundred students. Something like 50 women and 50 men. I’m not sure how many precisely, because it’s August and while most students lived in the houses, there were several who were allowed to live in their own tents on the premises.
Plus there was about 20 volunteers who served the students during the course. They are people who did the same course before and now there were… doing something good according to Goenka teachings.
They cooked, cleaned the area, managed stuff and just generally did everything so that the people on the course wouldn’t need to worry about a thing outside of their meditation practice. And they did an amazing job!
As I was saying, you arrive, fill out some forms, put you most precious possessions (the phone! My pretty little lovely phone!), electronics and any writing and reading materials you have in a sort of a safety deposit box (to which you get the key but you can’t access it till day 10) and get settled in your assigned quarters.
I lived in a room with 8 other women, but it’s designed so that you basically have no contact with them. The big room is divided by wooden and plastic walls onto 8… compartments, I guess. 4 in each half of the room. And a non-transparent fabric curtain separates each compartment from the corridor between the halves.
In your compartment you get a bed, a couple of large shelves and a chair (well, I didn’t have a chair, but others did. I can’t say I needed it really). That’s it.
What you bring
You are asked to bring your own bed sheets, pillowcase and a duvet cover. Because they don’t have enough time and facilities to wash and dry all the linens between the courses.
You are also asked to bring enough clothes to last you ten days because as they write to you in their acceptance letter, their washing facilities are limited. But that just means whatever you want to wash, you do it by hand.
In summer I had no problem with washing whatever I wanted to wash, there are enough places to air-dry it. And frankly, with their schedule it was one of the most diverting activities I had for 10 days.
The separation of sexes
There’s a very strict separation of sexes. So after you have some dinner, listen to initial instructions and give the vow of noble silence for 9 days, you won’t be able to talk to a member of an opposite sex till the day 10. They eat separately, live separately, and even the premises where you can walk are separated.
I guess when Goenka or whomever started that tradition the LGBTQ folks haven’t yet been invented. I’m being sarcastic, but seriously, if you’re trans or non-binary, I honestly don’t know how that system will accommodate you. By gender stated in your documents, I guess.
That’s my biggest pet peeve about Goenka’s teachings. They are so fucking conservative! Because you see, when they say that they give you the technique as taught by S.N. Goenka they mean that quite literally.
After you give the vow, you meditate and get the first lecture on how to do it all properly in their tradition. And that lecture is a recording of Goenka himself. All the lectures and all the instructions are his recordings made several decades ago. He died in 2013, but I think the recordings were made way before that. Like in the 80s, or even earlier.
They are in English, by the way, that’s why a student from any country can take a vipassana course anywhere on the planet if she or he knows English.
In the whole center the only thing that was never translated was the daily schedule. But maybe that’s because there was no non-Russian speaking people on that course.
What I’m saying is that if for some reason you would like to take a vipassana course in Russia, you totally could.
Not all the students in my course spoke English, of course. So after Goenka says his piece, you hear the recording of the translation. Though since lectures are longer than an hour, you would go to a dining hall to hear them in English. In the meditation hall lectures were Russian translations from the start.
After the lecture you have a short meditation and at 9 p.m. off you go to prepare for bed. The lights are turned off at 9.30.
Who goes to bed at 9.30? Well, I did, for 10 days. Do you wanna know why? Because the next morning you are woken up by the gong at 4 a.m. I shit you not. 4 a.m. And the first meditation starts at 4.30.
Now, I’m an owl. I hate getting up earlier that 8 a.m. (Unless it’s for travelling reason. Then it’s no problem of course). In summer I normally get up at 10 a.m. or even 11 a.m. Heck, I occasionally go to bed at 4 a.m. So, how did I take it?
Surprisingly well. Not that I could bitch about it, what with the vow of silence and everything. But… I really expected worse. In the end I would even wake up before the gong. Though I’d never leave the bed, of course. Because at 4 a.m. it’s cold outside, you guys!
So, first meditation is from 4.30 till 6.30. And thank god, you could meditate in your room. I would make an igloo out my blanket and meditate like that. If I had to drag myself into the meditation hall at that hour I’d be way less amicable about the whole experience.
Not because of the hour but because it means I couldn’t sit against a wall. Which means backache before breakfast. And I could definitely live without that.
At 6.30 you have breakfast. Now, food was probably my favourite thing in this place. We had simple vegetarian food, basically your normal Russian cuisine (not necessarily summer cuisine like in the episode #6, just normal food we cook at home) but without meat.
We had several options: some kind of porridge, raw carrots and apple salad with yoghurt, cereal, granola and cornflakes with milk. Pieces of bread with butter (not toast, but plain bread. And dear god, I haven’t enjoyed that so much in ages) and tea. Black, green or herbal. No coffee at all.
Thank god, I don’t drink coffee that often…
All it was soooooo tasty. Especially since we lived in the forest and had plenty of fresh air and… ahem… we hadn’t had anything since 5 p.m. the day before. So for 13 hours. Yeah.
After breakfast we had free time till 8. Which some people spent in the shower and I almost always spent catching up on my sleep. BTW, if you ever decide to do that, sleep mask and ear plugs are a must.
8 a.m. till 9 a.m. was a meditation that you couldn’t skip. Well, in reality you couldn’t skip any of them. But this one was strictly in the meditation hall. And first three days it was just a regular one, but when we got to the vipassana technique, it was one of the 3 meditations with strong determination. That meant you had to try not to move a muscle for an hour straight.
I’ll get to my relationship with that concept later.
After you sit for an hour straight Goenka’s instructions and his singing of mantras sounded like divine music. Oh, yeah, btw, he sings mantras a lot. So… not a religious thing, not a bit.
Sometimes I thought the guy wanted to be a singer and that was his evil plan. I mean seriously, I’ve never wanted someone to start singing that much. Even though I’m one of those who doesn’t like his singing voice. I used to call him his schreechiness in my head. But for instructions he used what I call his bedroom voice, which made me snicker. I used to internally giggle at him a lot actually. Poor man. I know he meant well.
The course teacher
After a short break you sit down for the next 2 hours of meditation. Sometimes the teacher would ask groups of students to come closer and tell him about their experiences and ask questions. But not very often.
Oh, about the teacher. There’s always a course teacher, but he mostly works as a counsellor, I think. He answers people’s questions and mostly reassures them. All the actual teaching is done by Goenka-g, as he calls himself in the recordings.
Our teacher was a nice Indian man, he spoke English, so for those who didn’t speak it, course managers acted as interpreters. And his wife did service in the kitchen.
I know his presence is important because it’s the tradition. But frankly… I don’t know anything about him, I didn’t talk to him one on one. So… I didn’t feel like I was taught by him. Just by Goenka-G. Maybe that’s the idea?
Lunch and the evening… meal
At 11 a.m. we had lunch. Soup, some kind of second course. Stewed vegetables, buckwheat porridge, rice with vegetables. That sort of thing. Plus salad.
There were no sweets but there was jam. So a lot of people used to spread that on the piece of white bread to have with their tea. I know people eat that at home too. But I never did, my family never does, so… that was a bit of a revelation for me. And I enjoyed it just as much as bread and butter.
After lunch we had free time till 1 p.m. and then the meditations started again. You could spend 1.30 hour one in your room too, but the next one, 2.30 till 3.30 was the one with strong determination again. Brr.
Then a short break and a regular meditation till 5. At 5 we had our last meal of the day – fruit and milk. And maybe tea.
It was the meal that everyone tried to come on time to to get some bananas. And they used to disappear from the container as if they were sucked in by an invisible vacuum.
That was for new students, btw. Old ones just got water with lemon.
Before I came there, I thought I would die of famine and smuggled some peanuts. But turns out I didn’t need them. It’s quite possible to survive on just that till 6.30 in the morning. Yes, I know it’s captain obvious speaking, but I abhor diet culture and don’t enjoy starving myself for fun.
I only ate my peanuts a couple of times and purely out of spite because of some of Goenka’s lectures. I’ll explain later.
You get another break till 6 p.m., then another hour of trying not to move and then a Goenka’s daily recorded lecture for about an hour and 20 minutes. Then short meditation till 21.00, preparing for bed and 6.5 hours of sleep.
You get 9 days of that, and on day ten after the morning meditation the vow of silence is lifted and you can talk again. Even to the members of the opposite sex (outside of meditation hall). But you can’t touch.
Which must’ve been awkward for couples who went to this thing together. There were several of them. And… I don’t envy them is all I’m saying. On the last day you only do three strong determination meditations and the lecture.
10 day vipassana course officially ends after some lectures and mantra singing on day 11 at 6.30 in the morning.
You can stay, have breakfast and help clean up afterwards, but I had to make my train home (that was when I still intended to go home right away). So I left early.
Why the fuck did I do that to myself?
Well, have you ever had a feeling that you need to be somewhere? As if the place or an event is calling you? I’m not the most spontaneous person when it comes to travelling but when I feel like that, I try to listen.
Not immediately though, to be completely honest. With vipassana I’ve waited for a year. It wasn’t stalling exactly. I just sort of knew I will have to do it, but not immediately.
If you want to get all synchronicity and destiny and all that, now I know why. It would have been a very different experience for me a year ago.
And because I felt like I had to go there, I didn’t do my research properly. So a lot of what happened, was a surprise.
What I did not like?
12 hours of sitting. 10.5 hours of meditation plus an hour and a half of lecturing. I don’t have the healthiest veins on the planet so I frankly was scared all that sitting would affect them adversely. I am used to walking a lot but after that retreat I found out that I’ll have to do some training till I reach my normal walking capacity again.
Also you get epic backaches and you legs are more likely hurting than not.
Vipassana as a meditation technique is supposed to help you take care of that, because you are watching your sensations. And again supposedly at some point you will realise that all is fleeting and temporary, including your pain. And you will just observe it without reacting. And it will be easier.
The thing is the stuff about observing your sensations not ignoring them wasn’t clarified until the lecture on day 8. Before that I was mentally seething because I am not a fan of ignoring my feelings, sensations or emotions. And especially pain. I think there are there for a reason.
Those freaking lectures…
Actually my main problem with my vipassana course is those lectures. I’ll leave a link to them in the show notes. They are available on youtube in English. So you can check them out if you’re curious.
What is my problem? For starters, I’m really not receptive to the teachings of any old dudes, whatever their skin color. I’m quite fed up with their opinion by this point in my life. So unless it’s something really-really good, that resonates with me on a very deep level, I’m not even going to work on my resistance. And Goenka… didn’t. I’m sure he was a nice person, or at least, I hope he was. But Buddhism and his interpretation of it is not my cup of tea. I don’t agree that desire is the root of our suffering. Rather not getting what we desire and need is. So I don’t think ignoring or observing it accomplishes much.
I can see how vipassana might help a person – it teaches watching yourself without judgement. And non-judgemental attention is precious. We certainly don’t get enough of it in the outside world. Or in the inside one, for a lot of us. But really I can do better than that.
That was not my first rodeo when it came to facing my emotions, feelings and trauma that comes up if you don’t have any distractions for a prolonged period of time.
Also I did quite a bit of reading on how psychological trauma works, and… I would’ve liked some explanations from Goenka G on how all this is supposed to help you. But you never get them from those lectures. You only get stuff about your sankharas coming up and that sort of stuff.
He likes to say in the lectures, that his method is scientific, but… bitch, please. That’s not what scientific explanation look like. That’s spiritual. Call it that, and I won’t have a problem.
There probably is some research data about his technique, but you can only find it after your out of the retreat center. He never gives it in the lectures. Some mentioning of Buddhist quantum physics doesn’t make a technique scientific.
And generally his talks seem to be addressed to people who had never done anything like that before. Goenka says something along the lines “you’ve never observed your mind, you don’t know where you thought come from”. And I was sitting and rolling my eyes, because I’ve been observing my mind for half a decade now, thank you very much, and most of the time I know precisely what came from where.
I know I could have just listened to the wise man and exercise humility or whatever, but I’m not big on wise men or humility, I feel that when people advise me to be more humble, they are trying to shut me up because my opinion creates discomfort in their worldview. So…
The truth of it is, I didn’t need or want the meditation technique itself. I already have one and it works wonderfully for me. I needed 10 days of not having to communicate with the world. Of as complete peace and quiet as I could get. And that’s precisely what I’ve got, and what had helped me the most. And for that I’m very grateful. Truly. That’s precious.
Marketing sales pitch
Another annoying parts of the lectures were the marketing sales pitches. Goenka was a businessman so maybe it was just glimpses of his professional deformation. But…
Have you heard people give free webinars and in the end they offer you to buy their course or services? That’s precisely what some of his lectures felt like! Number 6 was all about donations and volunteering with the endorsements from happy customers from the previous 2500 years of this system being on the market.
Of course, there also were phrases that implied that only this technique can help you achieve the desired results (in this case, ironically, liberation from the desires). Only this technique, Goenka says, frees you from all the suffering, including the fear of death. Other techniques might be good too, we are not going to trash other techniques, however they don’t work, and but only our technique can … blah-blah-blah.
The piece that left me the most annoyed was in the lecture 8 or nine, where Goenka said that if you practice the technique the results will show. And if they aren’t there yet, you’re doing something wrong. And then he adds, the technique has worked for everybody for thousands of years, so if it isn’t working for you, it’s your own fault.
And aggghhhrrrrr… that’s the maneuver we call in Russian дурасамавиновата/dura sama vinovata – it’s your own fault, you stupid whore. And I really don’t appreciate it.
Another thing I don’t appreciate is how rigid and conservative Goenka system of teaching vipassana is. I understand that the people who organise the whole thing are trying to preserve the technique because it’s said to be passed directly from Buddha. And that’s precious for them. But I don’t like teachings that don’t grow or evolve. And this one with the recorded lectures seems to be carved in stone.
For example, some of the reasoning behind the strict discipline is explained on day 8 or 9. It’s because this is as close to monastic life as a lay person gets. And monastic life is obviously very beneficial if you want to learn to control your mind like the technique suggests.
When you put it that way, it totally makes sense. But like… I’ve spend a freaking week internally resisting this shit, and all because it just wasn’t clarified properly before. If it was a real person teaching they might have listened to my feedback, but such as it is… it’s an insect inside an amber. It can’t fly anymore.
So if I didn’t do that, what did I actually do?
Well, I’ve decided to use Completion process by Teal Swan (here and the book about it) pretty much on the first day. And then I had to spent two more dealing with all the issues I have about going against someone’s explicit instructions just because I feel that my own choice is better for me.
After being raised a good girl who’s supposed to listen to the grown-ups because they know better, that was hard.
Then I’ve been dealing with all sorts of stuff that I’ve wanted to deal with for ages but never had the time. And for me that’s the best thing about the silent retreat like that – there you have all the time the world.
By day 7 I’ve felt like I needed some time to process all the work I’ve done so I decided to let my imagination run wild. And… came up with characters and a plot of a historical erotic romance novel about some Russian aristocratic dudes and a girl in a very interesting menage a trois! Lol. And, yeah, dear Goenka G, I totally know where that came from! Lol
I think now I want to write it, just to be able to tell people that I came up with this idea during the 10 day vipassana course!
But seriously, some days before that were hard, and I totally did count the days till I was out of there. But since day 7 things started to look up and I was generally very happy with the whole thing. And day 10 was just full of joy.
After all that I’ve said, you might be surprised to hear that I’ve liked the retreat a lot.
What did I like?
- The food))) No really, it was good.
- The silence. Not-talking and digital detox in the very comfortable conditions of the center where you hardly ever need to communicate to everybody and all your needs are taken care of, is amazing. Btw, you are allowed to talk to course managers and the teacher. So if you have an emergency, you’re not left with it completely alone.
Also I found 10 days of a very silent all girls dormitory very amusing.
- I consider myself an introvert so spending 9 days in my head was not a problem. But I’d say I’m 35% extraverted. So it was great to talk to people again.
And it was way less weird than I’ve expected. It’s a pleasure to finally properly meet a bunch of people you’ve spent 10 days with.
- Another unexpected indescribable pleasure is being able to say excuse me, thank you and bless you when someone sneezes. You truly learn to treasure that stuff.
- And even though I’ve practiced little actual vipassana, I’m calmer now. Time to deal with my shite properly did me a world of good. As did not talking and not having to worry about anything more important than when to go shower and to wash my socks or not. To wash or not to wash – that is the question.
The craziest thing is I wouldn’t mind going again. If they let me after this episode.
So, if you want to go through that too, let me offer some
1) First you need to register for the course. The centre that I was at is the only one in Russia that works the whole year round. Normally it receives about 600 applications for each course. Well, maybe less in winter, I’d wager. But in summer… Yep, that many people want to do that to themselves.
Some students are new ones, but some are old. They are doing their second, third and whatever number retreat. I’ve heard there are people who did more than 10, close to 20. Probably there are… I mean, if you do more than 1 retreat a year.
The life hack is an obvious one, but just to make sure you realise It’s necessary, it’s not something that you should do if you want to get a place on the course in the Moscow center. It’s something you have to do.
Apply as soon as the application process begins. For me it started on the 4th of June this year. For the retreat that was to take place from the 4th of August till the 15th of August. It starts at 7 o`clock. And that’s precisely when you want to get up (if you are not up yet), open the application page and start typing your info immediately.
The course fills up in minutes. A lot of people don’t get in the first time they try. I did, but I was monitoring the site and previous courses, so I knew what to expect.If you’re not a vegetarian, take some stuff for digestion. I didn’t have any problems, but I’ve heard other people say, they did.
2) Take some sort of pain-relieving cream for your back. Maybe some massage thingie. And massage yourself as best you can. I forgot to mention it, but you are not allowed to exercise during the course.
Now, our merry bunch of ladies aged from 20 to 70 probably, ignored that rule often. And dear supercalm managers didn’t say anything till the last day. But ya’know, in case you managers aren’t that strong in their practice of not having attachment to shit like rules, don’t do that outside of your room.
3) Also try and use as many meditation props as you can find. I mean all the different pillows, benches and sacks of god knows what. That shit will help you when you get to the strong determination meditation.
4) Take with you a cup with a lid
Goenka’s version of vipassana isn’t the only one. If you want a less strict version where you can sit for 30 minutes and then walk 30 minutes, there are those options too. Look for them. They might not be free but they exist.
On the whole… I’m not sure I would recommend this technique to everyone. Like… I don’t like their way of dealing with problems. However, a silent retreat I would recommend to everybody. Silence is golden, you guys.
Now, it’s time for the segment: How do you say it in Russian?
I’ll go with sorry and excuse me – Простите/prostIte and извините/izvinIte. You can use either, there’s no difference in meaning. And if you want to show off, you can use – I beg your pardon – прошу прощения/proshu proscheniya.
And that’s all for now.
Till next week.
Gigi, from Russia with love and vipassana