Eat, Sleep, Meditate and Poo.

Via on Jan 3, 2011

Vipassana Mass

There are some meditation retreats that cater to people who want a smooth entrance, i.e.: Shambhala where, to my surprise, during a Dathun (month long retreat) [editor's note: more info about Dathuns here], meditators were able to have sex (provided they first “confessed”), smoke (in designated areas) and eat meat.  Not that there is anything wrong with that, when I took this retreat in Colorado a few years ago that was exactly what I needed, a gentle introduction.

One time I tried visiting the Transcendental Meditation place in New York City, but nobody would talk to me unless I paid an amount whose exactitude escapes my memory but that was north of 1000 dollars, not for me.  Then I also tried other Buddhist traditions which titillated me with rituals and chants, and I liked them.

I suppose however, that it gets to a point when one wants to get into “hard core meditation”, into a serious, strong practice, and for that I have not found anything more effective than Vipassana where the whole focus is placed on practice, consider the 15 reasons why I like it:

1.- It means seeing thing as they are

That is what Vipassana means.  At first sight it may not mean much, but a few days of silence can trigger within our minds all sorts of reactions.   For me it starts with how hungry I am and continues with how I should have replied in a much more forceful way to some random past conversation.  It takes time to even notice that I have not been in the moment for a while, that I have not been paying attention to what is happening right now, to what is.

2- It is based on direct instructions from the Buddha

This is what the main Vipassana teacher, S.N. Goenka, claims.  When I asked if this is really true to a very senior teacher and scholar in NYC he disagreed.  There are as many theories about what the Buddha taught as there are teachers, traditions, and lineages.   I suppose the technique needs to be experienced firsthand. I have to say that the lack of fluff (see point three), makes me wonder and, at least in my mind, adds validity to the claim.

 

Bulletin Board Vipassana

3-There is no fluff

There is no mantra, japa, chanting, breathing techniques or anything involved.  The introductory 10-day course starts with three days

of just breathing and focusing on the tip of the nose, a technique used with the aim of achieving concentration.

Three days may sound like a long time but it is not when you realize how difficult it is to just sit and pay attention to the in/out flow of air. It is a massive task. The remaining 7 days are dedicated entirely to scanning the body or observing sensations as one mentally runs through it, then when sensations arise, which they inevitably do, remaining in equanimity.

The purpose of this “remaining in equanimity” is to clear up the rivers of reactions we have created in our mind in association to common sensations.  It is a brilliant way of decreasing our neurosis, it simply works.  Then again, it is one thing to write about it, and another to sit and observe as I get angry with my dead mother for something she did 25 years ago and decide to stay quiet instead of reaching out for the refrigerator in search for any chocolate that will ease the pain.

4- Meditation and very basic body needs are the only activities allowed

A Mexican friend of mine described what happens at a Vipassana meditation retreat in four steps: 1-you eat, 2-you sleep, 3-you poo, 4-you meditate. He may have used a stronger way for “poo” .  There is nothing else to do.

The focus and space created by the amazing volunteers that provide service is very effective.  People are even advised to bring enough clothes so that laundry can be minimized and the focus completely directed towards meditation.  All cell phones, I-touches, I-pads, books, journals and papers are surrendered at the beginning of the course, hence limiting distractions.

5- Men and women are separated

In the meditation hall men sit on the right and women on the left and they never mingle. Dorms as well as dining halls are separated and silence is observed throughout. This allows for all the sexual tension to vanish.  Also, a strict code of conduct and dress is in effect at all times, and I found that this allowed me to relax, to wear comfortable clothes and not think about how I looked, but rather go within.

There is a lot that we hold on to whenever we know that we will be interacting with the opposite sex.  Being free from these details allows for a new kind of space.  I am not sure how this works for people who are gay; I suppose it would be interesting to hear what their thoughts are.

6-Individual cells

In an ideal Vipassana center (not all of them are that advanced) every student would have their own room and their own meditation “cell”.  Yeap! A cell: a tiny room, big enough only to put the cushion and close the door, with no windows, totally isolated.  That is what a cell is.

I was fortunate enough to experience one in Massachussetts on my last retreat and I have to say they are very good to provide all the right conditions for deep, serious concentration.

7-Brutal schedule and no yoga, whatsoever

This is the part I don’t like so much, I am an ashtangi (practice Ashtanga yoga) which means I do yoga every day six times a week for 1.5 hours, at a minimum. So, no yoga whatsoever was not a proposition I enjoyed, but there is something to be said for cutting out on all activities and just focusing on meditation.  I will not say that I was able to stay cool and never strike a triangle or a quick sun salute upon waking up, what can I say? I am not perfect.

On my second meditation retreat however I was a bit stronger at keeping up with the schedule, and I suppose that just as with the practice of yoga, meditation also has a “build-up” curve.  Maybe next time I go I will be able to follow the strict schedule in its entirety, rather than perhaps, as I confess I did sometimes, take a nap after lunch.  When I say the schedule is brutal I am not joking, see for yourself at the bottom of this link.

8-Food is good, but not great

Food is served after morning meditation and at noon.  It is healthy, but not great.  One of the administrators of the course I was in told me that this was purposely so, that way students would be nurtured but not get attached to the food.  She also said that the people doing service need to check on their own agendas if they felt like making food more “tasty”, for example, to see if they would be trying to “please” or “get attention from the practitioners”.  I thought that this was a very good point, a thoughtful one.

Old students (people who have already attended an intro 10 day course) are not allowed to have dinner, other than tea with no sugar or milk. Dinner for first time students is very light, and this ends up helping with meditation, the less digestive work the higher the states that one can achieve.

9-The realizations

After the initial 10 day retreat some students in my course had amazing realizations. One woman I talked to on the dining hall -when we were finally allowed to speak again- mentioned that she saw herself disappear and merge with the rest of the meditators, she actually had the experience of dissolving, how cool is that!.  I wish I had such experiences, but I did not.

Oh, and as a disclaimer, these are not ideas we should get attached to, but I suppose it made me realize the power of the course.

10- The lectures increase in depth as the days go by

The lectures at the end of each day are very well crafted, they help in going deeper, in understanding the purpose of what one is doing and in keeping up the spirits.  S.N. Goenka delivers these talks by video.  Videos/DVDs are also available in many other languages allowing for multi-language participation. An administrator in the Massachussetts center told us that for example, the course they run  in Korean language only gets filled every time.

Goenka’s teachings are completely rational, they make sense. I had never heard a meditation teacher go as deep as he does, for example in the exact instructions, nor did I ever felt them resonate so truthfully within me.

8-It is free

Well, not really, at the end of a course there is a suggested donation and a speech that goes with it so people are educated on how much it cost to maintain a center, which is not cheap.  I believe that effective teachers should always be paid for their services, because they are adding value to others, and the amount we pay reflects how much we care and appreciate the instructions.

However, nobody is turned down from a course and their marketing line on this is that they do not charge because spreading the truth should be free.  I think this is a wonderful opportunity for any person truly interested in meditation to take advantage of.

Volunteers work the courses and keep coming back to all the centers they have throughout the world.  That has to mean something.  To me it means that the teachings work.

11- You surrender as a monk would

The other side of the coin of not paying is that the “power” trip is taken away, you or me are just become like monks, we did not pay so we do not have “rights”, we are attempting to let go of the ego and by being fed, taken care of, and dedicating life to just meditation we are given a taste of what renunciation may be like.

12- Teachers are always available

Every course has a main teacher and interviews can be scheduled.  There is ample opportunity to ask questions, to inquire and make sure one is using the time efficiently.

13-It is the only school to teach the upper four limbs of yoga

I have not found a school anywhere that teaches the upper four limbs of yoga: sense withdrawal, concentration, meditation and Samadhi in as a systematical way as they do.  Vipassana courses offer an opportunity for just that, incredible!   The sense withdrawal happens automatically as all news, screens, journals, opposite sex and speech go, we are in silence, there is no way but in.

The concentration depends on the effort put by every one of the participants during the first half of the course, where the emphasis is put on just observing the flow of air at the nostrils, then the meditation part is thought in the second part of the course.  Samadhi (deep concentration? Enlightenment? All-encompassing peace), well that comes by grace and by work, by sitting and by working on it.  It takes two to tango.

14- It has a “maintenance” program

After leaving the course people are instructed on how to maintain their practice.  This might be sometimes not possible depending on the stage of life one is at, for example, for a married couple with children it could potentially be difficult to up-keep an hour meditation routine both in the morning and in the afternoon, but for those who can it certainly leaves them with the tools and the preparation to continue the practice.

I have noticed that since I started taking their courses my own meditation practice has become steadier and that slowly I am building it up.

15- There are centers everywhere

In spite of being run and built solely on donations their centers keep on spreading and these days they can be found everywhere.  Here is the website www.dhamma.org

Looking at books on the Vipassana experience on Amazon I have noticed that some people get really strong reactions to the idea of the course or the course itself.  The bigger the neurosis one has to deal with the harder a course like this might be.

Going to these is always a challenge to me, it is not “easy“, far from it.

About Claudia Azula Altucher

Claudia Azula Altucher has studied yoga for a long time. Her only focus these past eight years has been on Ashtanga through which she studied at the Ashtanga Yoga Research Institute in Mysore, India (three study visits so far), and at Centered Yoga in Thailand (focus on practice, philosophy and pranayama). Currently she studies at Pure Yoga in NYC. She has taught yoga classes in both Spanish and English. She is also the Author of: 21 Things To Know Before Starting an Ashtanga Yoga Practice (you can get a free PDF at her blog). She writes daily at ClaudiaYoga.com And you can follow her on Twitter: www.twitter.com/ClaudiaYoga

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31 Responses to “Eat, Sleep, Meditate and Poo.”

  1. Hi Yogitobye, I see your point, and I think is a good one, then again, it makes me think of the way in which other traditions teach meditation with eyes open so as to "not shut the world", which is valid. I happen to think the shutting down both the eyes and the gener separation did help me, but I can clearly see that not everyone is like me :-) It gave me a better setting for sense withdrawal practice. And yes, what you say in your last line is an amazing thing indeed.

  2. bindifry says:

    100% agree. vipassana, to me, is even better than yoga. unbelievably powerful. and available to anyone who has a desire to participate.

  3. Juliana says:

    To clarify, this article is wrong about the Shambhala dathun: no one has to first "confess" if they choose to have sex during this type of retreat. I'm not sure where the author got that info. People who do dathun have the option to take precepts (the same vows monks take) in the morning. But they don't have to. And no one has to "confess" anything.

    • Juliana I appreciate your clarification, things were different when I participated, and it may not have been a "confesion" per say, that word seems to be a bit loaded, but I remember that if you talked to the teacher and told him it was OK. Maybe things changed since I went? 2005?

      • Juliana says:

        *If* you choose to take the particular precept of abstaining from "sexual misconduct," and you feel that you have broken that vow, then you tell your meditation instructor that you broke a precept after the fact. But you do not have to take the precept, or any at all, and you do not "first confess" as you wrote. Further, I have heard that if you're married, and you sleep with your partner, that is not considered "sexual misconduct." The definition isn't necessarily black and white.

        At any rate, I felt compelled to write because your description of the Shambhala dathun is inaccurate and seems to have an unnecessarily negative bite. Many people find the retreat to be a powerful, very worthwhile experience. I wouldn't want anyone to be deterred from what could be extraordinarily powerful and helpful to them because of misinformation.

        • Juliana, thanks for your comment. I have been to both a Dathun and a solitary retreat in a cabin up in Vermont with Shambhala, I have tremendous respect for them and in the article it is mentioned that they provided with what I needed. They are just different.

          As for the having to talk to the teacher and let them know if you broke a precept, thanks for the clarification guess it was a long time ago.

          That being said I will still stand by my truth and at least for me, the whole environment in Vipassana did help me go deeper due to the no-talking complete silence, no meat and separation of men and women. It was more intense and provided a more focused setting to go within. I wonder if you have tried them?

          • Matthew Cohen says:

            What struck me as a little off base was the phrase "a gentle introduction." The approach in a Tantric lineage is obviously very different from a more conservative one. Tantra encourages engagement with the minutiae of everyday activities like sex, smoking, and eating. When experienced directly, this is considered a "depth" of practice that one cannot touch in rigid isolation.

            On the other hand. Vajrayana traditions also require an extensive amount of solitary retreat practice, which can be even more restricted and isolated – and arguably more "hardcore" – than a Vipassana retreat.

            I've never sat a Shambhala Dathun but I have been to other Dathuns and practice in the Vajrayana.

            I really enjoyed this article, and have been considering attending a Vipassana retreat myself sometime this year. Other than the slight edge in the first few paragraphs, your description has been very enjoyable and inspiring. Thank you for writing this!

          • Matthew, I appreciate your comment and the not taking it personally, I appreciate that not everyone agrees with me in the wording I may chose to write about my experiences and that you found the account of value.

            I also appreciate different traditions, and when involved in the daily minutia of life I aim to dedicate everything to the Divine, as the Gita teaches

          • Matthew Cohen says:

            Of course you do! I hope my post didn't imply otherwise.

            I think what's interesting to me here is how easy it is to confuse form with function when looking at a tradition that isn't our "home." There are criticisms of "depth" that could be plainly assigned in either direction. But what is the meditator's experience? How far does s/he go? How much is let go? These are the more interesting kinds of questions, which you address beautifully in your article, creating one of the more stirring and precise representations of Goenka retreat that I have seen.

  4. Padma Kadag says:

    "I suppose the technique needs to be experienced firsthand. I have to say that the lack of fluff (see point three), makes me wonder and, at least in my mind, adds validity to the claim." Are you suggesting the Buddha would have never taught the mantrayana? Would you regard mantra, the speech of all of the Buddha's, as fluff? Love to hear your thoughts on this.

    • Hi Padma Kadag, I am not suggesting that, no, I am very fond of mantra myself. I do not know exactly what the Buddha taught either, I would not pretend to know, what I do know is that this technique, without any extras, with just the complete focus on just the meditation has worked for me, in this setting

  5. bindifry says:

    the teaching may come from buddha but it IS non-denominational. and definitely must be experienced firsthand. following all the rules.

  6. Juliana says:

    I sat one whole Dathun and many Weekthuns in the Shambhala tradition and I've found them to be very helpful in connecting with sanity, clarity, inspiration, and groundedness. They are also very challenging–the structure forces us to face ourselves in often uncomfortable ways, and stay with it for 28 days–no easy feat.

    In the Shambhala tradition and by extension, in their dathun, you work towards being in the room fully, practicing open-eyed meditation which ultimately helps you work with people and life–whatever arises–for the purpose of benefiting all beings. You're not trying to escape, or seek personal refuge.

    For an alternative perspective on a Shambhala Weekthun, check this out:
    http://www.elephantjournal.com/2009/01/eight-hour

  7. Thanks for another fascinating and highly informative article, Claudia.

    For a fine book about the theory behind Goenka's methods I strongly recommend Beyond the Breath: Extraordinary Mindfulness Through Whole-Body Vipassana Meditation

    Bob W.
    Yoga Editor

  8. Benjamin Riggs BenRiggs says:

    Vipassana's greatest asset and credential is the fact that it is available to everyone. I certainly think the 10 day intensive introduction isn't for everyone, but anyone who commits to it will certainly gain a lot from the experience!

  9. [...] Through yoga I got acquainted with meditation, with the silence, with the witness within. I am a fan of the Vipassana meditation technique, here are 15 reasons why. [...]

  10. [...] at Elephant goes over 15 reasons why I think Vipassana is the best meditation technique out there.?For the rest go here??and by the way, would like to hear what you [...]

  11. [...] Eat, Sleep, Meditate and Poo 15 reasons why Vipassana is one the most effective meditation techniques out there: There are some meditation retreats that cater to people who want a smooth entrance, ie Shambhala where to my surprise during a Dathun (month long . [...]

  12. glad you found something that works. don't throw the TM baby out with the bathwater though, it's amazing! <3

  13. Jeepney says:

    amazing… if only we (old students) and the new ones stick to the rules, meditate at proper times and in our residential quarters (not out under a tree, open nature, open sky LOL) or in the dhamma hall, we will surely have deep samadhi, insight will be deeper and stronger, and will leave the course with deep understanding of the practice thus facing life seriously and stronger. bhavatu sabba mangalam!

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