Vipassana Retreat #1: A Contraband Diary

Yep, I went on a 10-day retreat and ruined it for myself by writing a diary the whole time. Goenka-style vipassana retreats have clear rules about the use of a diary (don’t), reading (don’t) and doing yoga (well, you get the picture!) and I broke them all.

A dubious honour perhaps! But here’s the thing: there are few things that I’ll never give up, but that small list happens to include journal writing, reading and yoga. All three are against the retreat Code of Discipline, which (me being me) I saw as a set of rules to be broken. Despite this, I loved the retreat and look forward to doing another one. But there remain some aspects of Goenka’s vipassana teachings that I don’t agree are necessary. The rule against journaling is one of them.

As you’ll see, I was not in fact a model student. For this first retreat, I was approaching it more as a “dip your feet in the water” type fact-finding exercise to learn what the hell this whole retreat notion was all about. I didn’t really take it too seriously (maybe that’s not such a bad thing with a new experience). I also have to admit to being a smart arse, and second-guessing pretty much everything that someone tells me. Especially if it’s expressed in terms of Rules. So much so, that when we received instruction from Goenka where he says “start with a calm mind. Balanced and equanimous mind…” it made me quite mutinous. At first I thought he was joking! But I’m getting ahead of myself now 🙂

Retreat begins with Day Zero, the arrival:

Day Zero :: Arrival :: 27 Dec 2008

Have arrived at Vipassana course. No room of my own: I am in a barn with 12 other men! Very dormitory-styles, although there are sheets strung between each bed and in front, to make curtained cubicles and give a little privacy.

The Men’s Manager reckons the barn is quite an experience and though I asked about rooms he sounded doubtful. I guess this course is especially busy being holiday-time for everyone.

I will not let it stop me from remaining open to whatever comes along. In fact, it’s a great opportunity to practice & has already yielded a lot of feelings that I can watch.

At least there’s a flush toilet 🙂

Day 1 :: 28 Dec 2008 :: 7:30am

OMG. I can completely understand how Dave (note: not actually Dave) went manic in this place. I want to break every single rule and precept purely because everyone is acting so bloody devout! It’s like: give me a friggin’ break! You guys are just ordinary like me! Get over it!

All walking around as though already in pain, slumping in the shoulders and trudging. Trudging!

It’s a freaking miracle that we are here, alive, able to learn … and people take it like martyrs. Maybe I’m not getting something, but it’s driving me nuts.

This place is beautiful. Why so miserable?

Day 2 :: 29 Dec 2008

Things I like about this retreat:

  • Technique of teaching Anapana works for me — extended sitting is great for discipline and I already feel much closer to my practice.
  • Being only supported through dana removes all questions of “is it a cult”, “is it a bird”, “is it a plane”.
  • The food is delicious!
  • Plenty of insightful dharma instruction around impermanence

[Edit: there are plenty of other things to like about these retreats, but I didn’t list them in this journal entry. They are embedded in the later entries.]

Things I don’t like about this retreat:

  • Very little content / dharma discussion around around no-self/True Self.
  • Some of Goenka’s statements are confusing/distracting. E.g. “You are bound to be successful, bound to be successful”. I found this statement quite misleading. Define “success”.

Day 3, Day 4 :: 30 Dec 2008 — Nothing to report

Day 4 :: 31 Dec 2008

Further things I don’t like about this retreat:

  • Rules against reading and writing without justifying it. This gives a bootcamp feel. Reading and writing are important to my sanity. I’d like a bit more explanation around why the rule is in place before I’m prepared to honour it.
  • The retreat leader (aka the “Assistant Teacher”) doesn’t seem to add much value. All the instructions and dharma discourses are recorded video and audio from Goenka himself. Although Goenka has a good presence, I think more active teaching from the retreat leader (e.g. pause the tape, give a few tips and some interpretation of the more confusing instructions, restart the tape) would create a more “well held” atmosphere.
  • No walking meditation.

The Day 3 discourse is brilliant! Inspiring stuff about Gautama’s life. Loved the deconstruction of reality down to wavelengths, wavelengths, wavelengths. I don’t buy all the pseudo-scientific clap-trap about kalapas tho 😉

“Today you are angry because your wife dropped hair in your soup, but last night you were saying ‘Oh, such beautful hair. So wonderful.’

“Where is beautiful?”

Goenka makes it plain that we must experience directly the Three Characteristics to attain “right understanding” of insight. This is in line with other Buddhist teachings as far as I can tell.

What’s my middle way?

Me: v conceptual, intellectual, escapist. Lack emotional integration.

  • Strict discipline is good, because I’ll do it in an escapist manner and not get carried away thinking enlightenment means “to follow the rules”.

Dave has good ability to integrate emotional swings already, developed through his habit of pushing to the limit and beyond to see what will happen. A bit short on the conceptual stuff perhaps.

  • Studying of scriptures good because he’ll duck back into the realm of direct experience (vipassana/zazen/asana/daily life) when necessary. Won’t try to think himself to enlightenment.

Unresolved questions:

  • Does Yoga have the same result as Buddhist meditation?
    • What about pranayama?
  • Zen emphasises posture more than Theravada — is the Zen emphasis similar to Yoga full-body awareness?
  • Is posture the Yogic object of meditation? Or the breath? Or both?
  • Does mindful awareness of controlled breath (ujayyi/pranayama) and posture give the same results as mindful awareness of natural breath and bodily sensations?

Day 5 :: 1 Jan 2009

I’m so tired! Struggling with the vipassana technique. Strong feelings of being not good enough 🙁 I don’t know if it’s ADHD or not, but I can’t keep track of where I’m up to on the body scanning, and can’t even feel anything in most areas. It takes me ages, like half an hour, to scan through my body just once.

During self-directed meditation periods I will use a clock, so that I stop at an unpredictable place on the body: good for developing equanimity. Otherwise it becomes a race to reach said part so I can rest my mind.

More positive reinforcement from teacher or Goenka would be helpful here. I wonder how many other people have these problems as beginners.

Obviously Goenka has a great depth of experience in these matters. But I find that his teaching methods for vipassana are not entirely suitable for me, struggling with a lifetime of Western-style thinking. Instructions such as “have a balanced mind”, “remain perfectly equanimous” are too much a temptation for the perfectionism that lurks within me. Within most of us modern souls, let’s be honest. From what I’ve read, this is a peculiarity of our culture. So our meditation practices could perhaps benefit from an approach that takes it into account.

Especially in an atmosphere like this retreat, which is so goal-oriented already. He should explain:

  1. How realistic it is for a beginner to have “perfect equanimity” (not very)
  2. How suppression can easily be mistaken for equanimity
  3. Some tricks to help people approach equanimity instead of just being told “remain equanimous”. It’s like: ok, but HOW?

E.g, for me the following help:

  • Use a clock so that I am not rushing to reach a certain number of scans through my body, but instead “I will sit until 11am and during that time I will scan”
  • If at a blank spot, don’t strain further. Don’t try to study harder. Don’t call it a blind spot! (“Blind spot” is Goenka’s term for areas that have no apparent sensation). Don’t try to attain freaking “perfect equanimity” at the same time!
  • I’d love to have a few more for this list… *significant look at Goenka*

On the topic of blind areas, his instruction is to wait one minute on that blind area then move further. This is the reason why it takes me about half an hour to make a body scan (so many blind areas). It also leads me to a kind of droopy-eyed boredom and then I forget where I was up to and must start all over. Nevertheless, I do find that the one minute idea is helpful, because some blind areas are starting to “come online” and I can feel sensation where previously there was none. But I’ve had to ignore the way he words it. He says “if no sensations after one minute, maybe next round. You will soon reach the stage where you can feel sensations over the entire body”. OMG!

My mind interprets this as “I must reach the stage of feeling sensations over my entire body”, completely contradicting what he said earlier about remaining equanimous. I’m sure that’s not how he intends it to be taken, but I’m finding the technique so hard! And statements like that just feed right into my feelings of inadequacy and self-criticism.

Instead I deal with blind areas by having a very matter-of-fact, on-the-job conversation with myself. “Got anything at your left temple? No? Ok. How about now? No? Ok. How about now? No? Ok. How about now? No? Ok, fine. Time’s up. Next… ”

Like a supervisor of longshoremen, going through a manifest. Tick tick tick cross (wait a while, cross, cross, cross). Cross. Tick tick tick tick. Neither the longshoremen nor their supervisor particularly care about the crosses or the ticks … they care about an accurate inventory. Missing cargo is the responsibility of the Customs officials! Same as missing sensations — leave it to dharma (the law of nature) as Goenka would say.

Some further gripes (Jeez I’m such a moaner!)

  • Schedule is gruelling (bootcamp feel again) and from what I’ve read quite extreme compared with most Zen or Tibetan retreats, which break the sitting every now and then for a bit of walking meditation
  • One-size-fits-all: how would a low-IQ person fare? Someone in a wheelchair? This may be a problem with Theravada or Buddhism in general…
  • Rules against Yoga… I mean come on! WTF? Why not incorporate some gentle yoga practice? Some of the people here need to relax & strengthen their back muscles. Myself included lol.
  • Reading and writing not incorporated because it would mess with the (IMO far too gruelling) schedule and “impair progress”. OK, I get that writing can be a distraction (here’s looking at me, not exactly meditating right now) but surely sometimes it can help to avoid getting caught in emotional loops and circling needlessly for a couple days. Maybe some structured writing or worksheets would be a good idea. So we can get it out of our heads and move on. I dunno. Automatic writing could be great way to unclog after a long tiring sit.

Day 6 :: 2 Jan 2009

Aversion from aversion.

Problematic. How to prevent aversions without averting from them?

So I have finished my meditation due to aversion from pain. Not because the timer rang, or because of any other reason than because I hurt. The awareness of having done that, in turn has sent me down a rabbit-hole of self-doubt and regret — “oh, I’m so useless at this stuff, why did I let myself stop just because my body was sore…” This is literally how my thoughts roll. They are averting from the fact of my aversion.

The important thing is … not to try and “prevent” anything. I have awareness of that happening. I observe the thoughts. I do not in turn react to that aversion from aversion by deepening my fear of aversion to aversion from aversion … this is classic anxiety. Fear of fear. If I had ended my session due to time and not pain, with equanimity, then that would have been one thing. But since I did not, that was another. No problem. No need to fix. Reality is. Awareness and how one reacts (or not-reacts) to the unceasing occurrence of Buddha nature … that is all.

When one seeks freedom from all sankaras, it means your mind will get stuck in a fixed pattern of “I should not react”. When the mind does react because we have not yet attained to enlightenment, what should we do? We see misery — we need not react to our reaction. But if we do? Then, maybe we need not react to our reaction to our initial reaction. At some point it becomes possible to just rise above it and say “all of that stuff? I allow it. I’m just going to accept it, and watch it change.”

Respect oneself and ones effort… do not kick at yourself for strengthening sankaras from time to time. It is natural. Just be aware. Just observe. And if you forget this instruction and you kick yourself anyway, if you become aware of it, just observe. Just be aware.

In fact, to think “I should not react” is the wrong understanding. There is always a reaction — one should just do the non-action of not-to-react!

To think “I should not react” or “I should not have sankara” is the same as saying “I wish I had no sankara”. None of this is living in the moment. It is not-nowness, which is itself a sankara.

Even if you got rid of all other sankaras by doing this, you would still have this fundamental sankara towards sankara itself. And because that aversion to sankara is the tool you have used to apparently rid yourself of all other sankaras, then that final, fundamental aversion to aversions and cravings carries with it all the weight and investment of all previous cravings and aversion with it. Like a giant tree whose roots are all tangled up in the huge forest that surrounds it.

To exterpate the root of the final, deep deep sankara, you would have to learn to react again. Learn to be one with the chaos and randomness out there, one with your own cravings and aversions and the feelings of atta (self) that go along with them. Without averting your gaze and without recreating all those sankaras that you thought you’d escaped from.

Escape. That’s what we all want and can never have. The good news is that you yourself are already full of freedom, you just have to accept it. Which is the final freedom.

To unravel the sankara of sankara you may have to undo all the work you have done. And you may become a tyrant to your own mind and others long before then. Better not to be so bothered by things… follow the path of spontaneity and allow your reactions to happen naturally without either amplification by sankara or suppression by sankara to occur. Live in the pure moment. There is no “I wish that…”

All things in moderation, including moderation.

Your Free Choice is the expression of Buddha nature that is fore-ordained.

Day 7 :: 3 Jan 2009

I really should stop writing in this diary so much 🙂

(I should not-write while here).

Craving abstract success (or aversion to abstract failure) aka perfectionism is a bane of the mind. It amplifies all the other attachments by adding a secondary chenpa.


  1. “Never generate new sankaras”
  2. “Come out of misery”
  3. “Do not crave a particular sensation or you will create deep deep sankara, that means deep deep misery”

Good discussion of the alternative viewpoint in Zen Mind, Beginnner’s Mind by Shunryu Suzukiroshi (Chapter “Repetition” esp. pp. 53, 54).

Chapter “Excitement” is also of a different flavour to Goenka. Practice zazen once a week!? At first I thought Suzuki was joking, but he means the rest of the time just practice what you are doing, your everyday routine. I will continue with daily meditation practice, but I can appreciate the attitude Suzuki is illustrating: you already have a life. Don’t live for your practice.

Chapter “Right Effort” speaks of putting in too much effort, and getting prideful in our practice, which he calls being “Dharma-ridden” or “practice ridden”.

Being Dharma-ridden could also mean taking Suzuki’s dharma too seriously and being prideful of having no pride 😉 Spontaneous practice could be the goer… set aside time daily or weekly and do or not-do on the spur of the moment, without gaining ideas or attempts to achieve things … mostly 🙂

Non-achievement is dharma and as such it refers to itself and is paradoxical. Non-achievement should be understood to contain “Achievement” within it as a spontaneous side-effect.


I am now officially over it. “Do this, do that, perfectly calm mind blah blah blah…”

I would like to see some of Goenka’s reference texts and whether he uses appropriate English translations of Pali.

But mostly I’m just over this retreat’s style of learning. Not afraid of hard work, but I would benefit from a less hurried training. It feels a bit like a production line. Why not learn anapana only on the first retreat? Take home, practice for a year or two, then come back and learn vipassana afterwards? Take that home, practice regularly and return for guidance.

Instead of this you-must-practice-for-12-hours-a-day-or-you’ve-failed rubbish. I quote: “continuity of practice is the key to success.” Define success for me.

That’s posted on the dining hall noticeboard every day, in the most prominent position. And the endless rules…


A handy tip: if you are sneaking fruit back to your room in contravention of the Rules, don’t do it via the meditation hall for evening discourse unless you have a handy sweater to wrap it in. Hiding oranges up your trouser leg becomes quite distracting after a while.


I don’t dislike vipassana — I’ll practice it for a year or two, just because I can practically feel myself growing new brain cells and taking medicine is wise. but I’ll do it in a way that I can practice sincerely — once a day, say, 30mins. Instead of this sankaras-up-the-arse style of practice.

Like Dave said also (except that’s not his actual name. I don’t know a Dave): I’m glad to be doing this and I’ll see out the camp to save money changing airfares if for no other reason 🙂 Nah, I will also make an effort (a sincere effort, not an OTT effort) to enjoy the remaining time here. I’ll do the 3 additthana each day (what Dave jokingly called the “Hour of Power”). I’ll go to the hall this afternoon for teacher (sorry Assistant teacher) guidance, but other than that, maybe the 4:30am practice because it’s so quiet and nice… could do 4:30 — 5:30 then watch sunrise!

9-11am is now optional.

Take a nap from 12-2:30 if I feel like it (wake briefly at 1:30 to take final medication).

3:30-5pm is now optional.

Can’t get out of 6-7pm additthana or the discourse, but they’re quite fun anyway.

This means I will make good effort at the times I choose to meditate, instead of driving my brain into rebellious states out of mental exhaustion and failing to be sincere about the practice.

I’ll still donate. I think that Goenka is a good man and his retreat centres are a force for positive change, that will benefit a lot of people. Have benefitted me too in a fairly brute force way, so I am grateful. And I’ll pay for the next person’s place. But I think that this is not going to benefit me as much as I might have wished. That’s not arrogance or humility speaking, I just have to trust my own instinct about it.

It’s not like I’m coming into this blind. I’ve experienced huge chunks of suffering and impermanence and felt insignificant in the face of the Big All. I’ve battled addictions to many things, and phobias.

I became aware of these experientially, by just being alive and paying attention (as Daniel Ingram would say) and OK I still have plenty of work to do — all good. The blooming Universe is one big lumbering snotty turtle anyway.

I’ll for sure continue to practice vipassana and anapanasati, but on my own terms. I can definitely see that having an understanding and familiarty of the touch door can help unshroud the mysterious spontaneous push that so fleetingly arises and passes… but even if not, if I remain caught up in all the aversions and cravings I currently carry, even adding more as I go… that is ok too. It all adds up to an enlightened universe.


The Sakyamuni Buddha (as in, Gautama, “The Buddha”) chose to never be reincarnated … Where did he go? Was his misery so great that he chose annihilation to escape it? That is what Goenka tells us. Isn’t that an ultimate suicide?

I do not think I would do such a thing. Perhaps I have been too sheltered, or have not grokked the weight of misery around me, but what price existence? Is that grasping of me, to crave existence? I suppose it could be … but is it aversion to existence that led him to not reincarnate?

But I’m not sure I believe in reincarnation anyway, so to me it’s just a philosophical question, not a real gut-wrenching truth. Perhaps that’s why I don’t understand. One thing’s for sure: existence exists. If anything matters, we do; existence does. If nothing matters, then why am I still writing this?

You pop into my head though I
Stop my ears and
Block my mouth and
Squeeze tight my eyes to
Keep from screaming
I cannot stop that
Caustic soda pops
Into my head

Day 8

Recurring Dream: Surf Beaches and Whitewater Rapids

  • Rhythmic feeling of water rising and falling
  • Swimming in this current, it catches me, flows around, over, through me
  • I feel out of control but completely fearless
  • Water rising higher and higher,
  • Dream ends with a seemingly limitless surge of power, the water bursts its banks or overflows the dunes
  • I am washed into a Strange New Land, garden-like and mysterious
  • First occurred at age 13, repeated monthly for six months or so, then tapered off. Nowadays I have them about once per year

Potential A&P Events?

Fever Dreams: Fast-Slow events, Big-Small objects, Unglowing Lights

Blasting Ecstasy:

  • Complex intuitive grokking about universe during the rush phase
  • Masses of bodily sensations
  • Collapsed on bed in a postmeditation-like state
  • Arose declaring I knew the meaning of life: to live a long life, and to help our “host universe” live a long life

Acid Trips:

  • Liquid sky, black snow falling, experiences of fear un-nameable: perhaps heralding entry into Dark Night. It would fit with subsequent life events (separation from long-term girlfriend, descent into paranoic feelings and loss of sense of self)

Datura: definitely was not an A&P Event. I am still sorting out the meaning of that one.

At about age 14 I fell into periods of dissolution, fear, misery, disgust, desire for the end. This would have been just after the first occurrence of the Surf Beach dream. I’ve been cycling ever since, with disastrous results in my personal life, and it shows no sign of letting up, except perhaps recently with my intensified focus on yoga and recently-started practice of Buddhist meditation. Ask any of the people I’ve hurt in this time about how quickly and witheringly I can: point out their futility or my own, their hatred or my own, play to their worst fears, reverse course or apparently become a different person from one moment to the next. I now recognise the pain I’ve caused to others during this time, and I also have some compassion for myself. It’s been no fucking cakewalk.

Of course it’s always possible that I’m just a psychological basket case 🙂

Regarding the beach dreams, it feels almost as if the ocean has a consciousness that is not entirely benign. Not malign either, but simply rigorous and uncaring (for me personally) yet very much consistent and caring about some larger scheme of which I am unaware and unprepared. A feeling that here is something larger than I am, and I may participate in that, in fact I should participate in it. But I am not in charge.

Getting a lot from pp 61-63 of Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind:

You are living in this world as one individual, but before you take the form of a human being, you are already there, always there. We are always here. Do you understand? You think before you were born you were not here. But how is it possible for you to appear in this world, when there is no you? Because you are already there, you can appear in the world. Also, it is not possible for something to vanish which does not exist. Because something is there, something can vanish. You may think that when you die, you disappear, you no longer exist. But even though you vanish, something which is existent cannot be non-existent. That is the magic. We ourselves cannot put any magic spells on the world. The world is its own magic. If we are looking at something, it can vanish from our sight, but if we do not try to see it, that something cannot vanish. Because you are watching it, it can disappear, but if no one is watching, how is it possible for anything to disappear? If someone is watching you, you can escape from him, but if no one is watching, you cannot escape from yourself.

Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind pp 61-63. Shunryu Suzuki.

Looking forward to return home and get something of a normal routine happening. 30mins meditation before (after?) pranayama. Work, errands, simple walks. Gardening. Maybe get to the beach now and then. Spend holidays together.

I think my path involves at some point the equanimous generation of new sankaras and equanimous reinforcement of old sankaras. But I’ll settle for the non-equanimous generation and reinforcement if it is the only alternative to ultimate suicide. No amount of suffering seems worth annihilation of the spirit. And I’m equanimous with that right now at least 🙂


If sneaking food back into your room or contravening the Rules in any other way, and it makes you feel:

  1. Unfazed: great! Long may it last.
  2. Guilty, sad, scared, disappointed … lonely … etc: go easy on yourself. Welcome to Equanimity 101.
  3. Defiant, angry, powerful, excited: wait a few days, then goto 2.


Just now I walked past a server who was packing up to leave early (servers can leave early if they wish). I felt a sudden urge to leave as well. When I spoke to him, he got twitchy, started looking over his shoulder and sent me to see Ben (male manager) who was very nice and got me an interview with the assistant teacher, also very nice.

Walking to the teacher’s private meditation room, I suddenly realised I have been intimidated by the teachings all this time. My retreat into the safe territory of my journal, and the defensive entries herein… like a mediocre way of consoling myself for the future failure I considered a certainty, without even knowing it. Before I even reached the room, I had tears in my eyes. Didn’t want to leave. Felt unworthy to stay 🙁

As if it’s possible to fail something like this.

During my interview with the teacher, he said I was welcome to leave if that’s what I truly want, but also pointed out there are not many days left, and I’ll have a better feeling afterwards if I see it through. Also made me realise I was being perfectionist. That self-doubt was one of the enemies of practice (Goenka talked about this just last night).

In the words of my wise and foresighted yoga instructor: “feelings of inferiority and superiority come from the same place.”

The assistant teacher’s advice on dealing with the perfectionism was to just be aware of it, and have a “little chuckle” with myself. Also, advised that vipassana goes quite deep, and to wind down the vipassana to anapana for the rest of the retreat.

Going to follow his advice. Makes sense.

After the interview, it was time for another aditthana, so I went to the hall and spent the whole hour silently leaking tears. No uncomfortable feelings of vulnerability when everyone around you is meditating 🙂

I’m scared of going home a changed person because of the unknown effects it might have on my life. But don’t want to go back with all the same weaknesses I brought with me.

Unfortunately both are inevitable!

[Edit: the diary ends here. I’ll leave it to stand on its own without any interminable discussion. It’s been good to type this out and go over it with fresh eyes. There are some good insights in here, buried amidst the bad-arse self-defensive fear-of-failure stuff 😉 it seems that’s pretty much how it goes for most people.]