A while ago I signed up for a meditation retreat (https://www.dhamma.org/), got approved to attend it, and have now just returned. First, the logistics.

  • The retreat is 10 days long (+2 to account for arrival and departure days)
  • It is supposedly non-sectarian and non-religious
  • Every day starts at 4am and goes till 9pm
  • You meditate up to 10 hours a day, in stretches of 60 and 90 minutes
  • During the ten days, you don’t talk, read, or write, nor you do any heavy exercise (walking is OK)
  • Breakfast is at 6:30AM, lunch is at 11AM. At the lights out time at 9PM, you will not have eaten for 10 hours already
  • The course is completely free, donations are accepted only after you have finished the course

Keeping crazy hours, going off grid, minimising mental noise, and maxing out on meditation, looked to me like an excellent quadruple whammy to try out. I went in with very little expectations and then just let the process carry me.

To jump ahead a little, it was quite awesome, at times trippy, I learned a good few bits about myself as well as about my meditation and, at times, it was odd, annoying, and even infuriating, with the negative categories serving a meta game of extra holding-your-shit-together-ness.

The hardest part, of course, was to sit without fidgeting for long periods at a time. The longest back-to-back sessions were 90-60-90, with 15 minute breaks between them.

I feel quite ambivalent about the whole thing, however in the sum I think it was a strong net positive. Though if you are considering the course yourself, I would suggest doing some more softcore meditation first, e.g. using the headspace app or similar. Speaking of headspace: if you go through the 10 day trial and find out you’d like to try it out for longer, give me a shout and I’ll send you a code for a 30 day subscription.

Premises

The premises were top-notch. I had a private room with full control over a radiator, the meals were decent, the location was in countryside (an hour’s drive west of Gloucester in my case, but they have ~200 venues world-wide) with not much noise going on around, and the meditation hall (my first time to be in one) was spacious and appropriately lit/dimmed. You got a padded mat, and cushion on top of it to sit on, and there were also chairs for the ones who meditate that way, as well as people were bringing their own gear. Oh right, the total number of people was around 200 – way more than I’d have expected.

Oddities

The first thing to mention is that the meditation teacher is not an in-person human but rather a set of video and audio recordings made in 1991. The “assistant teacher” is essentially an iPad DJ, starting and stopping the tracks as per schedule. During the course he didn’t utter more than just a few “let’s take a short break” lines at the appointed times. So 99.5% of what you’ll hear, will be a recording made in the nineties.

The second oddity was the chanting. The teacher in the recording explains that these are not religious chantings, and that they are there to just put you in the right mood. For me they definitely did not do the job. If you can sit through five minutes of this, you’ll most likely be fine. The chanting happens three times a day during the core meditation sessions, three minutes in the beginning and three in the end, with the duration increasing quite a bit as the days went on. The coping mechanism I developed was to keep my eyes open during the chanting, as well as, not knowing Pali, imagining that the old man is reciting to me his shopping list.

The third oddity were the discourses—75 minute long sessions of recorded video playback each evening. If you can sit through 30 minutes of this without popping a vein, you’ll most likely be fine, too.

If you, just like me, can’t deal with either the discourses nor the chanting, you’ll still be fine, you’ll just be running the course on “hard” setting, making yourself more badass in the process.

Finally, the content itself while not necessarily sectarian or religious (a point the teacher insists on repeating), is not exactly secular either. At times stories are retold as “truths” and opinions/interpretations as “laws of nature”, all of which can be forgivable when you treat your teacher for what it is: a recording from nineteen-nineties of a grandpa explaining why it is important to eat cabbage five times a day and how that will allow you to reincarnate into a cave bat in your next life.

To sum it up:

  • There is chanting six times a day, at the start and end of the core meditation sessions
  • There are 75 minute long recorded “discourse” videos every evening
  • The content is not secular and can be described as mildly religious

The technique

  • For the first three days we were practicing just observing our breath. While the guidelines of the course suggest not to change anything, I did not see any real harm in counting the breaths to keep yourself focused: counting up to ten and then starting again. During these three days people will be making a lots of noise: fidgeting, sneezing, coughing, blowing noses, tooting, burping and, at times, giggling. Not because they wouldn’t be observing the “noble silence” but because some of them are very new to meditation
  • On day four, with much aplomb, vipassana is introduced, and it turns out to be your plain old body scanning. In the beginning the body scans are more meticulous and can take up to 20 minutes a sweep as you, in your mind, try to get a sense of each body part, but over days it becomes faster and more generic, up to doing a sweep in two breaths. With that also the mediation hall becomes a good deal quieter.
  • On day 10 “metta” is introduced, which is not a meditation technique, unless you consider “groaning nice words to push out your positive vibrations into the world” a technique, in which case by all means please go nuts with it.

Tripping balls

  • On day two I became hyperaware of noise (e.g. clattering of cutlery against dishes, shifting of chairs, birdsong)
  • Surprisingly quickly, the day-to-day mental echoes went away around day three
  • From around day four, my eyes started leaking randomly during meditation sessions due to what I’m guessing was just plain old relaxation
  • I started learning the exact duration of subjective time flow around day five, when I ramped down the daily meditation hours from full ~10 to about seven a day, skipping the two 90 minute optional blocks.
  • I had a mini breakthrough on day five when I gave up on my legs and became able to sit for 90 minutes without changing posture or fidgeting too much. The tracker in my watch started tracking my meditation sessions as “deep sleep”
  • On day 10 the noble silence was lifted and I found that (1) my voice had went up third of an octave and (2) I had suddenly become very thirsty. Ended up sitting in a corner, drinking water and humming to myself for the first hour.

The good, the bad, and the ugly

While there is a ton to be said about the unnecessity of the chanting, the datedness of the discourses, their shortcomings, the absence of explanation skills in the video-teacher, and the absolute lack of editing or revising an otherwise extremely ascetic and thought-through course, the practice was fantastic for focusing on yourself. The main point was also driven home rather clearly through the practice: that self-awareness and detachment (/equanimity) combined is a very powerful tool at the disposal of anyone. The clarity, or at least sense of clarity that came out if it, is quite intoxicating. I’ve definitely crawled out of the cave feeling stronger.

The good

  • The premises are excellent
  • The prolonged meditation + silence combo works and works really well
  • As it is completely no-strings-attached free, it fits all budgets

The bad

  • If your body gives out, you are faced with a choice between physical pain that is bit too intense to sink into vs mental boredom. A way to mitigate that would be to introduce an optional yoga session (yoga came around as means for people to meditate longer). The general dhamma policy is that yoga is ok, but that they don’t have the premises, which has interestingly been the case for last 30 years
  • The course is ripe for a refresh—the original discourses were held at a very different time—meditation has now become more mainstream and has been successfully detached from spirituality, and so the topics the discourses address at times aren’t relevant at all anymore, at least not in the western world
  • There was a weird gender thing going on where the course was run as two courses – the two groups were physically occupying different rooms – there was two of everything, the retreat space basically split in a left and right half, a “male course” and a “female course”. I can only guess on the motivation but it feels like it would have to do with the situation of the still rather apalling state of womens rights in India. This is not India, however, and you could as well have gendered libraries. If one would like to go bit deeper on the gender front, the whole group was split in old male students, old female students, new male students, new female students. The four groups at times were given assignments one after the another, but the order always prevailed to be male→female.

The ugly

  • The chanting does very little for concentration and even less for setting the mood
  • The tone of all communication is prescriptive, lacking any explanations. It’s just “do this in this very specific way” without explaining the why
  • The teacher has a massive propensity towards extreme repetition. Extreme repetition. Addressing that and the verbal incontinence could allow reducing the evening courses from 75 minutes to 30, making them a great deal more palatable