#20: Three Lessons from a Vipassana Meditation Retreat

The Dark

I don’t mind admitting that a ten-day Vipassana meditation retreat with no running, dancing, skipping or cycling, no meat or refined sugar, no speaking or smiling, no alcohol or caffeine, no reading or writing, no email or internet, no music or games, no computers or radio, no news or advertising, no physical touch and no mingling of the sexes at all sent me absolutely bonkers. To be more precise: by the end of the retreat, I was paranoid that everyone hated me. It was HARD.

It seems churlish to object to the peace-loving ethical precepts, and equanimity seems a pretty harmless life goal (if a little dull), but there is a dark side to mediation that isn’t often talked about. Meditation can cause mania, panic, depression, low motivation, impaired reality testing, confusion and disorientation, increased negativity, being more judgemental and psychotic breakdown, as well as (no surprise to me) boredom and physical pain.

Among the researchers studying this less publicised aspect of meditation is Deane Shapiro, who found that 17 of a group of 27 Vipassana meditators reported at least one of these negative effects after a retreat and two suffered “profoundly adverse effects”. These were experienced people who had been meditating for at least 16 months and some for more than eight years.

Given that the side-effects of meditation can be so severe, the frequent claim that difficulties are mere obstacles to be overcome on the path to enlightenment sound glib in the extreme. Meditation, just as any practice that messes with your head, should only be undertaken with care and good preparation.

The Light

Nevertheless, in the snatched moments when it wasn’t sending me crazy, I did also manage to find some peace in the quiet. Auroral joy would steal over me before dawn, as I stamped my feet in the cold and sucked the misting rain from my upper lip, looking out over the valley and the woods, shadows of rabbits hopping around in a secret pre-breakfast silence.

For ten days and nights, I bore witness to not just every sunrise and sunset, but every moonrise and moonset too. One night, waiting to enter the meditation hall, a group of us formed an auditorium around a nest of spiders, trapping their prey in the spaces between the thorns of a rose bush and a spotlight. With our vow of no killing, there was no sweeping away of cobwebs. Short nights between pillow and gong made for long dreams and, somewhere in between all the madness, I meditated. A bit.

When we were released from our silent commitment, my heart rushed with liberation, my senses sharpened by ten days of constraint, my mind untangling and overloading. I was a schoolboy again, on the last day before the summer holidays: boundless freedom stretching before me, but knowing that it was the ordeal behind me that had laid the groundwork for this pleasure, already gently nostalgic for my comrades and the simple hardship.

Reunited with my possessions, I slung my pack, tripped down the steps of Dhamma Dipa, and hitched a ride to Gloucester. Walking around the town, my first contact with civilisation in ten days, I was particularly struck by the ubiquitous public outcries of pain that we call advertising. The colours on the myriad billboards and posters were garishly unnatural, the screaming supplications for consumer validation were unseemly, unfitting for a noble creature such as man could be.

While I waited for my coach back to London, I sought refuge in Gloucester cathedral, finding peace among the medieval stone columns and the dormant rose beds of the courtyard garden. I sat down and started writing a ten-day back-logged diary, processing three central lessons I have never forgotten from this experiment.

1. Everything is changing, all the time

Much of the meditation focussed on observing sensations in the body, noticing feelings of pain or pleasure arise and then pass away. Our bodies are in constant flux, but usually we scarcely notice. What is true for our bodies is also true for every situation, every emotion, every other person, every animal and life form, and even every molecule in the Universe: all exist in constant flux, in every moment.

If all things are constantly changing, constantly arising and passing away, then change is not to be feared, but observed. This idea is the foundation for the development of equanimity, which can help us make better decisions under pressure and feel more balanced during the natural up and down swings of life.

Before going on the retreat, I was pretty impecunious (hence the attraction of a free ten day holiday). Afterwards, I found it calming to reassure myself that this was just my current financial situation and that it would change over time. Sometimes I might have money, sometimes I might not. This is the nature of existence and I must adjust and accept both equally. As Goenka liked to remind us: “This too shall pass.” Very Stoic.

2. Pain and pleasure are interpretations

From this follows the second lesson. The meditation practice taught us to observe the sensations we felt in the body, with total equanimity and without any reaction. Pain and pleasure were treated with the same neutral emotionless observation. If this is possible (which it was, even for me), then there can be no sensation or situation in the body or out in the world that could dictate to us our emotions or reactions. It is rather the ingrained patterns of my mind that interpret sensations and situations, and consequently direct my emotional reactions of aversion or craving.

This lesson falls directly in line with the body-first observations of modern psychologist William James, or the teachings of ancient Greek Stoic Epictetus:

“Men are disturbed, not by things, but by the principles and notions which they form concerning things.”

Personally I think it’d be a shame to face down our joyous emotional reactions to glorious situations with equanimity. But perhaps this lesson can be used to stay present when we try to cling on to magical moments, feeling sadness for their passing before they are over. There is no chance of feeling FOMO if we accept that this situation is no better or worse than any other, and only our controllable reactions dictate to us otherwise.

This lesson also helps tame our impulsive thrill-seeking behaviour, and to resist the empty promises of materialism and advertising. There is no object in the world that can dictate my emotional state: a new phone cannot make me happy because my emotional happiness is entirely independent of external objects.

Equally, this teaching makes the prospect of cleaning the toilet much more pleasant: that mysterious stain on the bowl need not necessarily provoke gagging aversion. There is no reason why I cannot enjoy the pebble-dashing as just another object in the world, like frolicking in the snow, the climax of Finding Nemo, or pancakes for breakfast. In the words of Epictetus:

“If any be unhappy, let him remember that he is unhappy by reason of himself alone.”

3. Hard work is the truest path to success (whatever that might mean)

Goenka’s favourite mantra wormed its way under my skin:

“Work diligently, patiently and persistently, and continuously. You are bound to be successful, bound to be successful.”

Written down here, the words are hardly profound, but repeated six times a day, every day, in that sonorous ponderous voice, turned hackneyed positive thinking into the closest thing to truth I found in Shropshire.

This truth balances the potentially acquiescent or appeasing notions of radical acceptance contained in the two previous lessons. Life is not about sitting around and waiting for enlightenment or whatever. Without going at it like a bull in a meditation hall, we must all work hard for the things we believe are worth working for, in a habit boot camp of our own design.

These are all valuable lessons, but do they amount to No Ego? Not really. I have good friends who have found moments of ego dissolution through meditation and I’m quite prepared to admit that I simply haven’t worked hard enough. Quite apart from the large part of my ego reluctant to commit to a life-long pursuit of sitting down uncomfortably, there’s also a part that feels like I’ve been looking in the wrong place, by chasing No Ego through a culturally alien practice.

Other activities that can cause dissolution of the ego include sleep deprivation and acupuncture, but the acupuncture only needles me and a week of sleep deprivation results in nothing more than an inordinately clean house. So where now? Notwithstanding our international reputation for self-effacing modesty, it’s hard to spot the No Ego in the British culture we have created – our bank-bailing, public-privatising, hyper-consumerist, imperial-monarchic, credit card British culture.

That’s when a friend tells me about The Psychedelic Society…

Further Reading

Shapiro, Deane H. “Adverse effects of meditation: a preliminary investigation of long-term meditators.” International Journal of Psychosomatics (1992) quoted in Perez-De-Albeniz, Alberto, and Jeremy Holmes. “Meditation: concepts, effects and uses in therapy.” International Journal of Psychotherapy 5, no. 1 (2000): 49-58. http://minet.org/www.trancenet.net/research/2000perezdealbeniz.shtml

Farias, Miguel and Wikholm, Catherine. The Buddha Pill: Can Meditation Change You?. Watkins. 2015. Particularly Chapter 6: The Dark Side of Meditation.

Epictetus. (c.A.D. 50–c.A.D. 138). The Enchiridion. Translated by Elizabeth Carter. Paragraph 5. http://classics.mit.edu/Epictetus/epicench.html

Epictetus. (c.A.D. 50–c.A.D. 138). The Golden Sayings of Epictetus. The Harvard Classics. 1909–14. Translated by Hastings Crossley. CXXII http://www.bartleby.com/2/2/122.html


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David Charles is co-writer of BBC radio sitcom Foiled. He also writes for The Bike Project, Thighs of Steel, and the Elevate Festival. He blogs at davidcharles.info.

6 thoughts on “#20: Three Lessons from a Vipassana Meditation Retreat”

  1. A realy insightful look on the lessons you took away from the retreat! This text was exactly what I needed after a tiring and unfulfilling day. Thank you wise man

    1. Thanks Michael! Are you planning to go on a Vipassana retreat? I’d highly recommend it and I had a horrible time 🙂 (Joke.) (Mostly.)

  2. Hi Dave,

    In advance- I apologise for stealing some of your time which I can never return to you. The context is long- stick with it.

    I recently had a chat with a yogi who was selling this retreat to me, but in India. I was intrigued. After all, he had been teaching me the path to Nirvana (though uninvited, I politely and happily received the brief lessons with genuine curiosity) as we crossed paths daily in our Air BnB.

    After further conversation I was surprised by his raison d’être on the ‘ills of the world’. Women working so hard in their professional jobs seemingly being the guiltiest of factors.

    Apparently everyone in India is smiling happily- worry free, all thanks to the women dutifully bringing the ‘joy’ to the family home and not tying herself up in a stressful career. I mean, we all know women are responsible for bringing joy to the family home. Dare they stray.

    Happy to debate this most questionable cause and effect, and with my vagina firmly attached (down dog!), I hoped maybe I could uninvitedly offer some kindling for his never-ending journey of self discovery.

    I asked him how he thought the Indian woman of the household felt: Had India got it so right?

    (Disclaimer- for the sake of framing the argument, we didn’t discuss the circa 30% of women making up India’s workforce – after all, us hard-line, career crazed fanny owners are just as bad wherever we may be. No, we only discussed the swathes of women doing, no doubt, unpaid work in the family home and, well- joy, joy, J-OY!)

    Two facts for your consideration:
    1. A Thomson Reuters survey pinned India as the most dangerous place in the world to be a woman in 2018. This was down to most women feeling unsafe and at risk of sexual violence.
    2. 95% of girls / women raped in India will have been done so by someone she knows. (WHO)

    So my question to you, is, can you be so busy looking internally that you forget to look around you?

    In this case I was surprised that somebody could spend months at a time (regularly in this case) living in a country whilst being completely ignorant of its social context. I’m not throwing all yogis, or mind-bending meditation priests of self-sacrificial devotion into this cesspit of twatfuckery (I am but one mere mortal that would like to be a better person and, well, cake) but I do question the modern bible of looking inwards for everything.

    We are sociable animals after all.

    For fun – Women earning more than the ‘man of the house’ in our ‘sick’ Western society also appeared to hold the trouble causing torch with this yogi. I was surprised by the ego if I’m frank. If I’m expletive- TWAT!

    Looking forward to your insights Dave!

    1. Hi Dom!

      You’ve smashed that comment, to be fair. I couldn’t agree more. I’m actually re-reading The Buddha Pill by Miguel Farias and Catherine Wikholm and one of their chapters is dedicated to the slightly confusing reality that ‘enlightened’ beings can be total assholes.

      The problem you’ve run into seems to stem from the fact that meditation is not ethics. I quote from Farias and Wikholm’s interview with Swarmi Ambikananda, a teacher of Hindu meditation and yoga (p180-181):

      ‘Morality can be divorced from spirituality. My ego can dissolve while I meditate, but when I get up it’s reconstructed. You can meditate 22 hours a day, but in those two hours you have left, you are a human being living in matter, … and this aspect of reality doesn’t care too much if you’re enlightened or not.’

      i.e.: In those two hours you are perfectly at liberty to be a complete twatfuck. And Farias and Wikholm have compiled a whole list of meditating assholes for your reading pleasure.

      Their excellent book – which, I should add, is broadly positive about the potential of meditation for personal transformation – is the only one that I’ve read on the subject that acknowledges anything like a ‘cesspit of twatfuckery’.

      The message of The Buddha Pill seems to be that, while useful, the promise of meditation has been vastly exaggerated, to the detriment of more important things – like how not to be an asshole.

      This is a very real concern, and not only in countries like India. The NHS, as you probably know, have bet the farm on mindfulness-based therapies for depression and other psychological ills. Not only is the science a bit dodgy and at best unproven, but mindfulness is basically just meditation divorced from any ethical teaching.

      Risky business.

      Thanks for your excellent comment, and I hope you are also finding lots of non-twats to hang out with. Have a cracking 2019, and I hope to see you soon!

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