Set & Setting
This is a continuation of a previous post which can be found here.
If You’re Considering A Vipassana Retreat:
What To Expect From The Accommodation & Meditation Facilities
These events are wildly popular all over the world, so each place is likely slightly different in execution but here’s what I experienced with Rocky Mountain Vipassana Association:
In my region the retreat site was located outside of a tiny town called Elbert, CO. I had always assumed that this part of the state would be more barren, but it proved to be surprisingly beautiful and remote. An hour and a half southeast of the city I pulled into the camp, surrounded by woodpeckers, fir trees, and groundhogs.
Ironically the whole thing took place at Zionist Jewish Children’s Summer Camp— a la Wet Hot American Summer— complete with rickety bunk beds and a sweat lodge (off limits to us lowly Buddhist-meditatin' folk). The camp was actually very nice, and upon arrival, I wandered around the hilly grounds enjoying the lack of white noise that I’m used to in Denver.
I walked into the dining hall to be assigned to my bunk, and upon signing the waiver, the staff politely requested that I move my car to the lot a half mile away (deliberately to where you can’t get into it). I was also asked to deposit my phone and keys in a secure lockbox; basically, they were asking me to cordon myself off from communication with the rest of society.
There were no books or writing materials allowed, nor were we permitted to do yoga or take any mind-altering substances or to participate in any sexual activity whatsoever. Essentially, upon agreeing to complete the ten days, I was signing up to live like a practicing Buddhist monk for the full week and a half. In return, they offered to provide all of our food and give us a place to sleep; the living situation is overall very spartan. Men and women were also separated almost constantly throughout the duration of the course. Wouldn’t want anybody getting that old summer camp twinge to make out with a stranger I suppose...
Perhaps most remarkably, first-time participants are not allowed to pay a dime until they have completed the whole ten days in order to ensure that you gleaned some benefit from the course content. This principle relies on karma and the idea that you are paying forward the gift of this experience to another participant who will come after you. All employees working these events are doing so on a volunteer basis and the entire operation works on donations. I’ve never encountered anything quite like it.
Once everyone had finished signing in and getting established in their bunks, the group gathered in the dining hall where there was a formal group orientation, then, one by one each initiate was invited into the meditation hall after which ‘noble silence’ was instituted. From that point until the morning of the ninth day, no one was allowed to speak, gesture or make any contact with another student.
We walked to our bunks, awkwardly got ready for bed in silence and followed the mandatory ‘lights out by ten’ orders.
The Experience of Voluntary Seclusion
I can only describe the overall impact that this course had on me by saying say that it was like five years of therapy crammed into ten days of relentless self-immolation.
“While taking psychedelics is the mental equivalent to strapping yourself to a rocket, immersing yourself in deep meditation is like pulling up the sail on a sailboat." -Sam Harris
I paraphrase here, but this is not far off the mark. I have experimented with psychedelics for years, for better or worse, and I can tell you that there were several instances over the length of this course in which I experienced the same type of existential dread, elation, sadness and profound beauty that one might find in the depths of an intense psilocybin or LSD trip.
I’ve spent the last couple of days trying to figure out how to present my experience. My first instinct told me that I should lay it out day by day, but that seems a little tedious. Instead, I’ve decided to go with a more ‘meta’ approach to describe the overall effect that the regimented program had on my state of mind, so here we go:
The daily schedule was static from day to day, as were all of the materials presented; this event is uniformly executed whether it takes place in Colorado or Switzerland or Myanmar, and the whole thing goes down like clockwork.
Each day the bell rings at 4 AM, and the first sitting begins at 4:30 and ends at 6:30, breakfast is served and the next sitting begins at 8 until 9 and then you have the option to meditate in the hall or your bunk until 11 when lunch service takes place. There is a break from 11 to 2:30, a sitting from 2:30 to 3:30, another from 3:45 to 5 PM, then a snack of fruit and tea. The third mandatory sitting is at 6 for one hour, then the daily discourse, or lecture, takes place from 7:15 to 8:30, followed by a final short meditation and back to bed at 9.
S.N. Goenka is the guru at the center of all of this. Although he died in 2013, they still use his methods and audio and video recordings of his teachings to get the information across. This sounds hokey on paper, but watching the discourses makes you understand just how moving Goenka was as an orator and spiritual guide. Almost all of the meditations either begin or end with his invocations and chants (which are bizarre and endearing), and honestly, it has a profound influence on the efficacy of the program. He’s also pretty funny…and he kind of sounds like a James Bond villain.
The method for teaching the meditation style is essentially broken down into three portions: Day one through three you are taught Anapana meditation, days four to eight you learn Vipassana, days nine and ten are devoted to Metta or lovingkindness practice.
As for the effect of this schedule, I’ll keep it short: The first and second day were exciting but trying, the third and fourth day were agonizing, day five through seven I thought I had adapted to the process, day eight and nine I was climbing up the fucking walls. By day ten I was exhausted and elated, ready to go home
The influence that the isolation of each camper voluntarily submits themselves to cannot be overstated in summarizing why this system works. The intended consequences of each method of meditation combined with the regimented daily schedule create an environment in which you have four-ish choices in how to pass the time:
- You can meditate
- You can incessantly walk in a loop around the campground, which has specific boundaries across which you cannot go.
- You can sleep
- You can eat…sometimes.
For this reason, it is nearly impossible to escape from the relentless internal monologue that begins to dig deeper and deeper into your subconscious, exposing things that you may or may not have known that you were struggling with.
By day three campers were shuffling around the campground, pallid-faced with arms crossed, almost universally looking like they had just witnessed the violent death of…someone. Virtually everyone resembled an extra from the Walking Dead by the halfway point in the course.
In the final post in this series, I will elaborate on my big takeaways and discuss the implications of what I learned during the course.
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