Dhamma Dhara, Shelburne Falls, Massachusetts
Three weeks ago, I returned from a 10-day Goenka Vipassana meditation retreat at Dhamma Dara in Shelburne Falls, Massachusetts. Goenka (1924–2013) was a Burmese-Indian teacher of Vipassanā meditation. His teaching was notable for emphasizing that the Buddha’s path to liberation was non-sectarian, universal, and scientific in character. He became an influential teacher and established meditation centers, like the one I attended in the Berkshires, all over the world.
S. N. Goenka
My time at Dhamma Dara was easily one of the most brutal and intense yet profound and rewarding experiences in my life. When I signed up, I didn’t expect the retreat would help me solve my problems or discover my purpose in life. My goal going into the course was simply to gain a greater appreciation and understanding of my mind. However, I walked away experiencing and learning so much more. I didn’t fully appreciate how intertwined our minds, emotions and bodies truly are.
So what exactly is Vipassana? The Vipassana philosophy is built around a technique of meditation focusing on the breath and self observation of the sensations on the body. It’s a method of ‘mental purification’ which allows one to face life’s tensions and problems in a calm, balanced way. Vipassana aims to eliminate the three causes of all unhappiness: craving, aversion and ignorance. With continued practice, the meditation releases the tensions developed in everyday life, dissolving the knots formed by our habit of reacting in an unbalanced way to pleasant and unpleasant situations. Although Vipassana was developed as a technique by the Buddha, its practice is not limited to Buddhists. In order to penetrate the deepest levels of the unconscious mind and heal our complexes, students are expected to work diligently and observe the code of discipline prescribed by Goenka.
During the ten days, we were stripped of all conveniences and comforts. We also had to abstain from any unwholesome behaviors. Before the course, all students agreed to abstain from killing, stealing, engaging in sexual activity, telling lies, consuming intoxicants, eating after noon, engaging in sensual entertainment, wearing revealing or fancy clothing, and sleeping on luxurious beds. Additionally, we agreed to practice the technique taught by Goenka, observe noble silence (read: no verbal or non-verbal communication), adhere to separation of genders, and limit physical exercise to walking. Finally, we had to turn in our devices, books and journals before the course kicked off. Simply put: all distractions were removed. The purpose of the code of discipline isn’t to punish but rather to create the optimal environment and frame of mind for meditation. I was excited to unplug but also a bit anxious.
For ten days, we followed a super rigid and strict schedule.
That was our routine each day with few variations. We practiced nearly a hundred hours of meditation while on retreat. During our limited breaks, we were able to eat (breakfast and lunch), walk the grounds, wash up, think or rest. That’s really all we could do when we had downtime. The only other ‘escape’ was an evening video discourse from Goenka. During these hour-long lectures, Goenka shared the philosophy behind Vipassana, previewed what’s to come the next day and provided actionable insight about the practice. As you can probably tell from the schedule and the code of discipline, there wasn’t much about this ‘retreat’ that was relaxing or fun.
For the first three and a half days, we engaged in ‘Anapana’ meditation. Anapana means ‘mindfulness of breathing.’ The technique is simple but challenging: concentrate on nothing but inhales and exhales. When the mind wanders simply return to the breath. This form of meditation sharpens the mind and develops the concentration required for Vipassana. The first three days were physically brutal. My knees, hips, back and neck were sore from sitting on a cushion with no back support. But by the end of the third day, my mind was beginning to quiet and I was experiencing extremely subtle and gross sensations inside and around my nose and upper lip. Sensations such as heat, cold, itching, tingling, pain, blockage, throbbing, hardness and softness. Once I could feel that my mind was sharpening and sense subtle sensations, I knew we were ready to begin practicing Vipassana.
Vipassana means ‘insight’ or ‘clear seeing.’ On the forth day, we were instructed to expand our awareness from the nose to the entire body by using a body scanning technique that stresses developing a heightened sensitivity to a variety of gross and subtle sensations such as the ones I mentioned above. The technique prescribes starting at the top of the head and scanning every body part down to the toes. Once we reached the tips of the toes, we calmly scanned the entire body back to the top of the head. Over and over and over for six days.
As sensations surfaced, pleasant or unpleasant, we were instructed to note them and remain equanimous (not good, not bad, it is what it is). Throughout the retreat, Goenka reminded us not to judge, oppose or cling to any of the sensations. By removing emotions and feelings from bodily sensations, the ego begins to dissolve and we begin to remove the underlying causes of craving and aversion.
By day six, I had reached an altered state of consciousness unlike anything I’ve ever experienced outside of limited experimentation with hallucinogens in college. I became so in tune with my body and mind that I could feel both pleasant and unpleasant sensations from my head to toes and even deep inside my body. Some pains and cramps were so intense that I had to learn how to develop equanimity which wasn’t in my vocabulary before the retreat. I completely underestimated the power and physical intensity of the Vipassana technique.
By the seventh day, I was telling myself that I wish I had ‘read the label’ and done more homework about the technique and its effects. I was obviously past the point of no return but was overwhelmed by the intensity of the sensations. I even went to the teacher at one point and asked him how I could ‘turn down the heat.’ Throughout the last few days, I experienced chest and abdomen pain that I used to suffer from many years ago. I was clearly deep into my subconscious and the meditation caused it to resurface. The practiced forced me to deal with the root causes of the issue — mainly stress and anxiety related to childhood and adolescence.
By the end of the retreat, I was able to sit with these painful sensations, observe them and literally feel them dissolve inside of me. I was also able to sit for hours without moving or feeling much structural pain. The mind body connection is incredible. I was healing myself by focusing on and accepting these physical pains that I’ve been afraid of for more than a decade. Instead of running, I had no choice but to surrender and in many ways kill my ego. In retrospect, that was the obvious solution but it took me ten days to figure it out for myself. In some ways, I felt like performed surgery on my mind and body. It was a surreal and deeply moving experience. Thankfully, I was able to face some deeply rooted and underlying issues that had been bothering me for nearly two decades.
About midway through the tenth day, noble silence was lifted and we were able to communicate with the other students. This helped ease us back into reality. I found it really valuable because I was able to hear about other’s experiences and begin to process my own. One conversation in particular was very helpful. I had told one of the participants that I was ‘penetrating and attacking my pain’ over the last few days in an attempt to fix myself. She got emotional and tears welled in her eyes. She responded, “Don’t say that. You should never attack yourself. You’re healing yourself through self care.’ That one comment was incredibly helpful and really helped put the entire experience in perspective. I dedicated the remainder of the last day and my final meditations to self love and self care. That’s the piece of the puzzle that I was missing. At that point, I knew that I received what I came for. I was ready to go home.
Despite being home for three weeks, I’m still processing my time at Dharma Dhara. I expect that it will take a few months to fully appreciate and internalize what I learned about my mind, body, spirit and ego. Maintaining an hour of meditation each day is certainly helping me go deeper and unlock a sense of awareness I never thought was possible. As I anticipated when I signed up for the course, my problems haven’t disappeared and I didn’t find my purpose in life. But I’ve emerged stronger, calmer, more patient and more resilient. I also feel way more present so I can be in service of and available for others. Best of all, I now believe I can tackle any challenge and find equanimity in good situations and bad. While I’m just starting on the path, I’m enjoying the moment and the process.
In Closing: Lessons & Learnings
When I returned home, I wrote for a few hours to capture the essence of my experience at Dhamma Dhara. I noted everything from the food to all the business ideas I dreamed up. One of the sections was ‘Lessons and Learnings.’ I’ll leave you with what I jotted down that afternoon. If any of these ideas or my experience resonates with you, I’d be honored to hear from you. Without further ado:
The 10 days were the equivalent of 10 years of life lessons and therapy.
Everything rises and passes. It’s a law of nature. Change is constant around us and within us.
Craving, aversion and ignorance are the roots of all issues and lead to suffering.
The world doesn’t stop for you when you’re away or offline. It just keeps moving.
The mind, emotion body connection is more accessible and far deeper than you believe.
Changes often provide temporary relief but pain and suffering always returns.
The mind wants to take us into the past or the future with pleasant or unpleasant thoughts. Remaining in the present is reality so embrace it.
Don’t trust all of your feelings and snap judgements towards people. We’re very good at crafting stories and beliefs in our minds with very little context.
Nothing is more sacred and precious than family and friends.
Developing a sincere desire for all beings to be happy is incredibly powerful and liberating.
We can survive on far less comfort and food than we’re used to.
Consume enough to sustain but not more.
Limit waste and embrace conservation.
Don’t force things. Apply the right amount of effort but not too much.
Take and consume only what you truly need. Not more.
Humans are far more resilient and adaptive than we believe.
We can heal ourselves mentally and physically using mindfulness and meditation. It just takes commitment and an investment of time and energy.
You can learn the basics of anything if you dedicate 100 hours over a few weeks. Immersion and focus generate results.
Find appreciation in the mundane.
These four words repeated over and over can get you through anything: patience, persistence, awareness, equanimity.
Most pain is a function of the mind and created by feelings such as anxiety and fear.
Sitting with both physical and mental pain for long periods of time is strangely liberating and builds resiliency.
Our bodies adapt to changing stimulus far more quickly than most believe.
Our capacity to deal with emotional and physical pain is far greater than we believe.
The only person you can change is yourself. When others notice your changes, it might give them the courage or the reason to change themselves.
Perception is powerful .You often see only what you want to believe.
Pause before speaking or acting. Sometimes you’ll change your approach with just a bit of time and reflection.
The more emotional and physical pain that is suppressed, the deeper it’s driven into our subconscious and bodies.
Be mindful anytime you use the words me, mine, my, I. They signal attachment.
We are a collection of dualities (love vs hate, joy vs pain, happy vs sad, comfortable and uncomfortable, etc.)
Love yourself. Focus on self care.
The subconscious is very accessible.
Expectations set us up for clinging and disappointment.
Equanimity isn’t suppression of thoughts or feelings but being ok with how a situation unfolds or how we feel in a given moment.
Spending time alone is very underrated.
Creating time and space to process is essential for the spirit.
Be kind to others. Goodness is contagious. Life is too short to be mean.