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October 12, 2013 / A Mindful Traveler

Guest Post: Mindful About Mindfulness II

Bariloche, Argentina

Bariloche, Argentina

This is the second of two guest posts by Andrew Overby.  You can read his first post here.

It has been almost three years since my first Vipassana retreat, and there have been several phases of both progress and regress. In terms of building a reliable daily meditation practice, I am currently struggling. This is unfortunate because, speaking from past experience, a daily routine is more beneficial than any number of sporadic retreats. My existential concerns have diminished considerable, and my understanding of “spirituality” – both the dogmatisms and institutions which surround it – as well as the actual experience itself, have progressed to a great degree.

The last Goenka retreat I attended – the only kind of retreats I have any experience with – was a course for students who had completed a number of the ten day retreats. During this retreat the Satipatthana Sutta, a primary text in Theravada Buddhist scripture, was read. I was as upset as ever at the institution for such axiomatic hypocrisy (i.e. claim secularism, then teach from a non-secular book). Again, I think it’s important to point out that I was, and am, and atheist; and I had a strong inclination to become a Buddhist. I had even entertained passing considerations of ordaining as a Buddhist monk. I was not upset by there being Buddhist teachings present. I was upset by the blatant hypocrisy of the institution; that there was religious teaching were there was not supposed to be any.   

I began to brood over the mounting issues I had concerning the retreats, which obviously caused me to experience a negative mindset. “How could they be so clearly hypocritical?” I wondered. “How can people stand for this? How can I stand for this? And, the mere fact that there are so many Goenka fan-boys here seems to indicate to me that the people here haven’t learned a thing. And the “cultish” aspects I see. And all these rules. And the never-ending onslaught of unfalsifiable claims about metaphysics.” And on and on.

In the end, it was the practice of Vipassana which actually led me out my experience of negativity. I didn’t need to change my thoughts on the issue whatsoever, but I could liberate myself from the experience of negativity by the practice itself. A central goal of Vipassana is balance of the mind; to be fully aware of what is going on, yet to remain equanimous to it. Essentially, you train yourself to be aware of the contents of the mind in the present moment, while being aware of how they make you feel. Anger in the mind had a particular feeling; sadness too. Apparently, self-righteous indignation has its own special feeling as well. The practice is to refrain from reacting to both the contents of the mind, and the feelings which arise.

I have stuck with the retreats, and I think they are great for me. I am still aware of the “problems” I see, yet I remain equanimous. In fact, I’m headed to a retreat tomorrow with hopes that it will get me back on track with a daily practice. I also look forward to getting back to the experience of spirituality; to connecting with the importance of compassion and loving all my fellow human beings; indeed of loving and caring for anything that has the capacity to have experience. To be sure, not much time has passed since I started on this path. I still have much to learn, but I see the wisdom in not getting to attached to “the finger that is pointing to the moon.” The so called Goenka retreats are one such “finger”. The experience is the destination, and you know it when you’re there.


Would I recommend the retreats? Well, it depends on the person, but generally I think they are great, and have the potential to change lives. Regardless, they are strong experiences, which I imagine is part of the reason I like them so much. However, the purpose of Buddhism is to liberate the practitioner from all ideologies, including Buddhism. Being averse to even the idea of attending a course is equally as troubling as being gaga over Vipassana.

As far as not talking for ten days, that was basically a non-issue for me. I can be heavily introverted, and I might go ten days without uttering more than a few words quite by accident. However, most people I talk to think it’s no big deal once the retreats begins. They are difficult, and time passes at painstakingly slow pace. However, most people report great experiences such as incredible calm and tranquility. Although experiencing such states is not the goal of the practice, it is an eye opening experience.

Exactly how “anti-God”, or chock-full of unfalsifiable claims about energies, vibrations, or the nature of the mind are the retreats taught by S.N. Goenka? Well, I think I’m about as sensitive and scrupulous as it gets with regards to such talk. I did detect some of these things, but I was able remain aware of my reasoning without getting upset by the conclusions, and I think this is in part due to the practice of Vipassana.

How effective are the retreats? Thankfully, this is one area where I don’t have try and quantify the seemingly unquantifiable. Kicking around at the end of each retreat are several Vipassana related books for the students to peruse. At the end of each retreat I always go through the same one. I don’t recall the title exactly, but it’s basically full of charts which display the results of several double blind examinations of well-being. In it is page after page of data, arranged in neat columns and row. There are phrases like Chi-squared, Standard-deviation, psychometric, and control group. Every time I read it I feel like weeping. The book demonstrates that one of the most stable indicators resulting from successful completion of a course is a statically significant increase in general well-being, which is maintained at one, three, and six-month intervals.

For me, that’s always the icing on the cake. When I approach a ten-day retreat, I now have very good reasons to believe that I’ll be in a much better state of mind afterwards, and that I will probably experience a boost in mood that is stable for at least six months. Of course, insights into how to behave, how to control impulses, how to see the world from another perspective continue to come. The experience of compassion, love, peace, and mental quietude are skills worth developing. For the next ten days, all I will be doing is practicing being aware, and equanimous. Paradoxically, this is a maddening task, but it yields results. Gradually, I’ve learned to apply awareness and equanimity to several areas of my life, with good result. It is strange that it took me so long to resolve my qualms with the retreats themselves. All I needed to do was be mindful about mindfulness.  


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