Goenka-style Vipassana

Since I started meditating back in 2014, I have always sought out ideas and knowledge from a range of teachers and traditions. One major influence on my practice has been the Vipassana courses taught by S.N. Goenka. This method of Vipassana is one of two main lineages in the Therevada tradition of Buddhism, originally taught by Sayagi U Ba Khin in Myanmar. It has now spread throughout the world as a result of the systemisation of the teachings, which includes a set meditation schedule and recorded instructions.

Over the past several years I have sat three 10-day retreats within this system, two in Australia and one in Taiwan. From my experiences, I have mixed feelings which I will try and lay out below. One caveat: having sat three courses, I consider myself relatively inexperienced with this technique and my comments are therefore made in the spirit of exploring some thoughts I’ve had about the courses and of broader system, rather than being a critique per se.

The 10-day course consists of approximately ten hours of seated meditation each day, intermingled with recorded instructions and chanting from Geonka. In the first three days the teaching focuses on developing concentration via an ever-more refined awareness of the breath. Vipassana instruction is then given on day four, where attention opens up to the body which is scanned in a systematic way for any sensations that might be present.

As sensations are noticed our natural inclination is to experience them as pleasant, unpleasant or neutral. The job of the meditator is to practice experiencing all such sensations with a sense of equanimity, noticing their ever-changing or impermanent nature.

The course is effectively framed as a microcosm for life, with the pleasant and unpleasant sensations one experiences during meditation being analogous to the vicissitudes of normal life. Sensations are therefore a means of training an equanimous response, which offers an antidote to our default tendency of reacting to what is pleasant with craving, and unpleasant with resistance.

Overall I think the teaching and the methodology underpinning the technique is basically sound, and provides a good introduction to what Vipassana meditation is all about. While I do not strictly practice this specific technique at home, I do practice Vipassana and certainly integrate some aspects of the Goenka method into my practice.

In addition, there are some obvious benefits to Goenka-style Vipassana courses. On a practical level, the courses are accessible for many people around the world, both due to the number of centers that exist and the donation-based payment policy. This means that such courses represent the first taste of an intensive Vipassana experience for many people, many of whom no doubt benefit from continuing to practice meditation in some form (it would be nice if there was some data on this).

It is also hard to not like Goenka as a person. While his nightly discourses feature no shortage of meandering stories and unhelpful analogies, he has a sense of charisma and humour which make the discourses quite entertaining. Some are more insightful than others – while the content is not fresh in my mind I remember the discourses on days 4 and 9 being particularly useful.

I do however have a number of reservations about the courses and the broader system that has been created to preserve the way the courses are delivered.

The progression of the course has a somewhat paradoxical nature that can at times be difficult to reconcile in one’s mind. As the meditator practices focused attention and then Vipassana, one gets the strong sense that they are involved in a process of developing an ever-more refined sense of awareness. With respect to the Vipassana section of the course, this awareness of bodily sensations typically progresses from noticing relatively gross and uninteresting sensations (pain, numbness etc.) to more subtle and pleasant sensations.

We are reminded however that the kind of sensations we experience are unimportant and rather, it is our relationship to them that is key. It is hard to escape the conclusion though that the kinds of sensations we experience do serve as a useful marker of progress for the deepening of one’s practice (which is kind of the point of doing one of these courses).

I think this paradox could be dealt with more effectively than it is. For instance, I think it’s perfectly coherent to acknowledge the fact that experiencing of more subtle sensations does serve as a marker of progress while also warning against the tendency of the mind to develop attachment to such sensations. This subtle shift in emphasis would serve as a good analogy for life – we can have aspirations for positive outcomes in our life and put in the necessary effort to help make them happen while not being attached to the outcome in such a way that might cause us to suffer.

There is also a sense of dogmatism about Goenka’s teaching the overall system that has been created to deliver the teachings that I have concerns about. This feeling emanates mostly from how Goenka presents the technique, and from my interactions with the ‘assistant teachers’ who deliver the teachings.

First, Goenka makes claims about the technique being the authentic teaching of the Buddha, which has been perfectly preserved over the past 2,500 years and delivered by Goenka. From my research, there seems to be a lot of doubt about the Buddha’s life and the precise nature of the insights he had into the nature of mind, and the teaching he developed. This doubt seems to warrant a degree of humility when making claims about exactly what the Buddha taught, which is clearly missing from Goenka’s commentary.

As a result of this perception of purity with respect to the teaching, Goenka strongly discourages mixing the technique with other spiritual practices. He illustrates the point with ridiculous analogies about trying to ride two horses or boats (with one leg on/in each) at once. This guidance is contrary to my experience and my way of thinking about how meditation works to improve one’s life. Fundamentally I think the most important aspect of a meditative path is the development of one’s own wisdom which in my experience, has involved taking in knowledge from anywhere it may exist and applying to my life. This process of learning through experience, responding to what works and what doesn’t, is how I would refer to the idea of developing one’s own wisdom.

Vipassana is fundamentally not a complicated practice. While there are differences in the technique taught within the two main Vipassana lineages, it mainly consists of paying close attention to one’s present moment experience while cultivating a sense of acceptance and equanimity to whatever arises. And when distraction inevitably arises, the meditator should simply notice and begin again.

Through his comments about the purity of the technique, I get the feeling that Goenka is seeking to build an air of mystique around the teaching that is not justified. For instance, on several occasions he equates the practice to making a “deep surgical incision” on the mind and warns of the ways things can go awry if one deviates from the proscribed path. The analogy of meditation with surgery is I think a bad one that seems intended to create a sense of fear in anyone who might be considering modifying their practice in any way that deviates from Goenka’s instructions.

With respect to the assistant teachers, from my limited interactions it is my impression that they are essentially instructed to stick very close to Goenka’s script whenever responding to questions or concerns about the technique. This gives the impression of a teaching that is inflexible and not open to improvements over time or improvisation by the meditator. Again, I believe this attitude stems from the idea that Goenka’s teaching represents the authentic mode of practicing Vipassana, direct from the Buddha, which I don’t think is justified.

I also feel that Goenka’s view of the human experience as being characterised by a universal sense of “misery” lacks nuance, and may not be relatable to many people taking the course. This might be particularly relevant to those with aspirations of achieving something like a state of transcendence or human flourishing via their practice. Misery seems to be not only overly pessimistic but also an inaccurate representation of the original Pali word duhkha compared to how it has tended to be translated by contemporary Buddhist scholars. A better translation of this word thus seems to be something like “unsatisfactoriness”, which relates to the feeling inside us when we feel something is lacking in our life, and our inability to satisfy this feeling for anything more than fleeting moments through our worldly pursuits. This seems to map more closely on to the human experience than “misery”, and thus is more likely to appeal to a modern audience.

I also have questions about how narrowly focused the technique is on bodily sensations, which might come at the expense of working with other aspects of the human experience such as thoughts. It is true that thoughts can arise along with some sensation in the body, and in fact either one can potentially giving rise to the other. I believe however there is merit in sometimes working more directly with thoughts rather than via the sensations they’re related to.

One less substantive issue I have with the delivery of the course is the lack of any attention to how one should sit during sessions. Many people sit such courses with little or no prior meditation experience and as such, have not given much thought to the best way of sitting during seated practice. While this may not be a problem for home practice, it quickly becomes a problem when one is required to sit for ten hours each day. The experience is thus made that much harder by the fact that many people sit in sub-optimal positions, and therefore probably experience a level of discomfort that at least to some degree makes the experience unnecessarily unpleasant.

In summary, I have mixed feelings of the Goenka courses. While I think the overall Vipassana technique that is taught is sound, I have concerns about some of the ways the teaching is presented. When asked, I still tend to recommend Goenka courses to friends that are interested in meditation. And mindful of the need for them to go in with an open mind, I tend not to prime them with many of my views other than to tell them that while the courses aren’t perfect, they represent a good first step to getting established in Vipassana meditation.

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