The Good, the Bad and the Weird of Vipassana Meditation

I completed the 10 day silent Vipassana Meditation course at the Dhamma Torana center outside Toronto, Canada. It was my first meditation course, and it was an interesting mix of enlightenment and a big test of self control.

tl;dr:
The 10 day Vipassana course is quite unpleasant but totally worthwhile. Yes, you should do it.

Good

Mental Benefits
Meditation is peddled as a cure for problems in all aspects of your life. This sounds like bullshit, but because it was recommended by so many respected people I figured it was worth a try.

They were right. The week following the meditation was far more peaceful than any other in the past few years of my life. I confronted issues that were bothering me, and feel more at peace with myself. I even feel a little more control over my emotions, a little more able to handle awkward or frustrating situations by taking myself out of the moment. It isn’t some miracle drug, but it seems to have some significant benefit.

Physical benefits
Before the meditation I had terrible posture, muscle imbalance and weakness in my core but but wasn’t fully aware of it. This course forces you to confront this, because you’ll have plenty of time to focus on you posture while sitting in an uncomfortable position all day. It also seems to do much more than just give you better posture. You develop a better mind muscle connection through the practice, enabling you to better activate muscles, and also be more aware of issues in your body. For me this was huge, and did more for me than seeing actual physiotherapists about my issues. Again, not a miracle drug for this, but it feels like it put me on the right path.

Free
The course is totally free, and paid by donation. Sounds too good to be true, but suprisingly there’s no fine print and this isn’t a scam. You should donate if you find it beneficial, but it will still be the cheapest 10 day “vacation” of your life.

Not a cult or religion
It sounds a little sketchy to go meditate with random people somehere in the woods in Ontario, but as soon as I arrived these fears were gone. The whole center is run by a bunch of volunteers who really just want to spread the benefits of this meditation.

Willpower
As you’ll see below, the 10 days will be a big exercise in strengthing your willpower.

Bad

After you leave the meditation center everything looks nicer, colors are brighter and food tastes better. I imagine this is a more mellow version of how a prisioner feels after getting released. You can’t help but feel good after being stuck in this environment.

Boring
If sitting quietly in a room all day doesn’t sound so exciting, you’re not going to like this course. Almost nobody I talked to found the course to be enjoyable. This was by far the most boring 10 days of my life. There is almost no mental stimulation, and for the entire time the meditation consists of feeling sensations in some part of your body. To be honest I hadn’t even checked what this meditation was before I arrived, so it was a big shock to find I would be noticing sensations around my nose for three full days, and for the next 7 the sensations in my whole body.

Painful
Mediation is horrible. No matter how peaceful people may look sitting cross legged, when you discover pains in you back, knees and neck within the first 30 minutes of meditating, you’ll have no peace when imagining how the next 10 days will feel.

Free?
It may not cost anything, but 10 days is a huge time commitment for anyone with any semblance of a life. This could be over half of your yearly vacation days. It looks a little more costly when you realise you have to give up that vacation somewhere warm to spend 10 days meditating.

Science
In the evening videos Goenka (the popularizer of this method) will inform you of how scientific meditation is. Don’t get too hopeful, because his explainations won’t involve hypothesis, theorems, or empirical evidence. Better to take it as a practical exercise than dig to much into his thoughts about subatomic particles.

Weird

Chanting
Chanting is pretty strange, and this will happen multiple times per day during the meditations. This part was certainly never altered to make it more palatable for a western audience, so probably it will be strange. I treated it as another exercise to try to remain equanimous during the chanting.

Where do the benefits come from?
I felt better after the meditation, but how much of this was from the mindfulness meditation itself, and how much is from being forced into this unusual environment of no phone, no computer, no talking for 10 days?

For the time of the course very little outside information is entering your brain, so you have nothing to do but to deal with your own thoughts. This is good for sorting out some issues you may have, and a lot of this will happen even if you don’t meditate at all.

My guess is that the combination of the mindfulness meditation goes very well with this lask of information. You would see benefits from isolating yourself from technology for this time, but when combined with the meditation, you also learn a better way to deal with all the thoughts that are coming toward you.

There is real research supporting the benefits of mindfulness, and so clearly this is a good idea, I just think it would be interesting to isolate the benefit of removing technology vs. meditation vs. exercising your willpower.

Should you do it?

The retreat is like a little reset button for your life. It is a great way to generally improve your life, and if you keep up some amount of meditation practice they claim these results will last. It is also easy to start new habits after leaving the meditation, so you are in a very good position to improve yourself in whatever way you see fit.

In conclusion, I see this meditation as a way of sacrificing 10 days for the chance at living a more peaceful life. This is a good gamble.

Rene Bidart
Rene Bidart
PhD Candidate

PhD candidate at University of Waterloo - Deep Learning