The type of meditation I grew up hearing about was breathing meditation: quieting the mind and gaining focus through following a simple bodily process that is always present in a living human being. I find this method hard to use on its own, no matter how long I sit. It is monotonous, the breathing can be very subtle, and I've always found it easy to switch off my brain but keep the pretense that I am still following my breath. By the end of the retreat I had learned to meditate on my breath better, but in the beginning I found it difficult.

I originally learned about vipassana meditation from a book called Beyond the Breath, written by Marshall Glickman as an exposition of the vipassana retreat process and technique. The title is appropriate because while the vipassana technique that S. N. Goenka teaches does begin with breathing meditation (anapana), the actual vipassana part of the process is concerned with sensations in the body rather than the breath itself. I learned the basics of vipassana as taught by Goenka from the book, and the retreat clarified and strengthened my practice.

Put very simply, vipassana is a body scan. I've gone through body scans before through guided meditation, but this is quite different. The philosophy behind it is involved, but I can briefly explain what I do when meditating without getting into the philosophy.

Starting at the crown of the head, you go through the body, inch by inch, looking for a sensation. Hot, cold, wet, itchy, prickly, electric, merely "there". It doesn't matter what the feeling is, only that it is real (not supplied, imagined, by the mind). Unless you are paralyzed, every bit of your body is relaying sense information, and you can find it if you are aware.

The point is to keep moving, so even if you don't get a sensation quickly, you aren't supposed to wait more than a minute for the sensation. In one sitting, you go through the body many times (sometimes, many, many times!), so there's a good chance you'll feel something in a part that is not at first very sensitive in some later pass.

That's it!

After doing breathing meditation all the time, this form struck me as very satisfying. It was difficult to focus on these small parts of my body, but once I did (or, if I didn't, after about 30 seconds), I just moved on. My easily distracted mind was always moving, concentrating on something, and after a while that concentration deepened, so that soon I was finding new sensations in places where I hadn't before, just as promised.

Just doing this, just shuttling through the various spots on the skin, I gained a great deal of equanimity even before the retreat using the technique described in Beyond the Breath. I didn't know how it worked, but cycling through all the impressions in my body, I quickly found it just slightly easier to let go of that anger, that sadness, that grudge or that perceived slight, when it came up in daily life. And it was a lot easier for me to meditate because the movement of the scan meant my mind was engaged every moment, unlike when I practiced breathing.

I learned, reading the book, that the Goenka-style retreats are offered free. The first time you take a course, it must be the ten-day course. So for ten days, you have no responsibilities other than to meditate and discover the technique, day by day. As I've said, you're not supposed to keep a diary, or write or read at all; computers, telephones, televisions, all very much shunned. You have a room and are not allowed to leave the grounds. There is a well-documented schedule followed consistently nearly every day. A vegetarian diet is served twice a day, and then new students may eat fruit in the evening (students who have taken a course before are called "old students" and are required to follow slightly stricter regulations). Men and women are fed and housed in separate parts of the center. All this is designed to keep your mind and body on the important work that you came for.

I think maybe the most distinctive requirement of retreats like this is that meditators be silent. At vipassana (and many other Buddhist) retreats, this is called Noble Silence, and requires not just verbal silence: you are asked to avoid gestures and even eye contact. More than any other requirement I think this separates retreats from any other activity: we're always talking, communicating somehow, so ten days of silence is quite a departure.

So the first day, as we were checking in we were allowed to talk, but with the first meditation session the ban began. I dropped off all my electronics and other valuables and made arrangements for my bicycle, then spoke with my roommate before this critical moment. Neither of us had any really important requirements of the other, so we just agreed on a reasonable level for the heater and passed some courtesies.

Then we were called to meditation. For the next 10 days, volunteers walked around the grounds hitting a gong announcing the events of the day—waking, meditation, eating, and lights out—about 7–9 times a day. I remember thinking once, half-asleep, "wow, that is such a beautiful sound!" And it was, even when it was waking me up at four in the morning.

The first meditation was good-ole breathing exercises. I was kind of bummed; at that point I really had a hard time with breathing, and, as I often do, I worried I wouldn't be able to withstand sitting, paying attention to my breathing, for days on end. Basically, I thought I would go crazy. Some dramatic thing would happen and I would run screaming into the night.

But I sat there. I didn't enjoy myself much those first couple of days. I don't think anyone did. Each meditation session was an hour. It began with the tortured croaking of a charming little Indian man played over a sound system. This was Goenka, the instructor for the course, singing in Pali, the language of the Buddha. To me it seemed completely tuneless, with actual, literal croaking involved. He sang at the beginning and end of every session, and I never did get used to it.

What surprised me at first, but I did get used to, was the format of the course. I have always thought of retreats as being led by a flesh-and-blood instructor. In fact, Goenka himself no longer leads retreats, but the audio from one retreat about ten years ago was recorded, and this is played at every retreat by an "assistant", who sits at the front of the meditation hall but interacts very little with meditators otherwise. In fact, there are two assistants, a male and a female, and they hold interviews with meditators of their sex at certain times each day, but otherwise have a very reduced role. If he weren't so humble, I would think Goenka is trying to build a personality cult. But I think the format works well enough, especially when the video of Goenka's discourses are played at the end of a day of meditation.

In contrast to his singing, Goenka's discourses are engaging, profound, positively hilarious at times. After years of leading the courses he has a deep understanding of what his students go through each day, so he knew exactly what needed to be said each step of the way to encourage us and prepare us for the next day. I often went into the evening meditation session nearly ready to quit, tired and discouraged from a frustrating day of hours of struggling with my restless mind, but I nearly always felt rejuvenated and ready for more work after watching a discourse.

As time went on, Goenka introduced new elements to our meditation. If I remember correctly, it went something like this:

  1. Following breath
  2. Feeling breath
  3. Feeling sensations around the nose
  4. Feeling the upper lip
  5. Vipassana

Each evening there was a discourse and then Goenka introduced a new way of meditating or extended an earlier method. And that's how we passed the ten days. On the tenth full day, the Nobel Silence ended and we learned about metta, loving-kindness, practice, and the retreat wound down. The next day the retreat ended and, flush with a deep sense of well-being, we parted ways and headed back to our real lives.

That's an overview. As I said, my memory is pretty awful, but I hope to write a couple more entries with what I remember of details about the retreat.