Review Of Goenka Meditation Retreats

A couple of weeks ago, I did my first Goenka retreat in Malaysia. In this review I'll share my impressions with you.

As you probably already know, a meditation retreat involves intensive meditation practice for a number of days and generally leads to solid progress.

In Zen Buddhism they often say that if you do your very best at a 7-day retreat, you can make as much progress as you would during a whole year of daily meditation practice.

You're probably asking yourself, how is that possible?

The two most important factors are:

- It involves many hours of group meditation, which usually is a combination of sitting and walking meditation.

- The build up of mental energy in the group boosts your energy level which makes it easier to meditate.

Goenka Meditation Retreats

The Goenka organization is a well structured international network of retreat centers. It's free to attend the retreats and it's possible to give a donation at the end of the course.

Unfortunately, they only allow you to do 10-day retreats in the beginning. As a seasoned meditator you may want to spend a month or two in retreat, but in order to do longer courses within the Goenka framework, you first have to complete a certain number of 10-day retreats and a course in vipassana theory, called the Maha Satipatthana Sutta.

The many centers they have around the world is a plus while 10 days is too short for my liking. The fact that it's free, is especially helpful to meditators with low incomes.

The Retreat Facilities

The quality of the facilities is high. I have been told that some centers offer single rooms with attached bathrooms while others feature dormitories.

The large meditation hall and the smaller video hall are also of a high standard. The same holds true for the dining halls.

The Goenka centers have a strict policy of separating men and women during meditation retreats. So, in the meditation hall men and women sit separately. Men to the left and women to the right, viewed from the back of the meditation hall.

I've never come across this set up elsewhere at meditation centers or monasteries and find it most helpful. It can be very distracting to have a young, attractive person of the opposite sex just in front of you.

It goes without saying, if you're attracted to people of the same sex, it won't be of any benefit.

The separation is planned in great detail, so men and women enter and exit the meditation hall through different doors.

Moreover, all the accommodation is completely separate as well as the dining halls. I find the separation between the sexes really helpful. It makes it much easier to focus on the meditation practice.

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Retreat Schedule

The schedule is quite intensive starting with a 04:00 wake-up call and ending round 21:30.

If you're new to Goenka centers you're offered three meals per day, while experienced Goenka meditators only are allowed beverages in the afternoon. This is a fair policy that is unique to Goenka centers.

I give the food 67 points out of 100. It's strictly vegan and you can eat as much as you like.

The Meditation Techniques

Insight meditation, also called vipassana, is in short about giving attention to the mind and sense impressions. At Goenka centers they teach a sweeping meditation technique with a focus on bodily sensations.

They emphasize that you should observe the sensations equanimously. Which means that you should accept pleasant and unpleasant sensations without getting attached or wanting to get rid of them.

You will also learn how to deal with thinking in a skillful way. Towards the end of the retreat loving-kindness meditation is introduced. Overall, the meditation instructions are very clear.

You can request to meditate on a chair in the meditation hall without anyone questioning it, which is nice.

Unfortunately, Goenka doesn't teach walking meditation and how to be mindful throughout the day. To me, those are the main shortcomings of the Goenka approach.

The very heart of meditation is to be mindful of everything you do. This is definitely how you will benefit the most from your practice. Meditation should never be confined to the meditation cushion.

What makes it even worse is that Goenka teaches sitting meditation with closed eyes. Since walking meditation and mindfulness practice are done with open eyes, it becomes more difficult to learn.

This is the main reason I waited so many years to do a Goenka retreat. I prefer to alternate between walking and sitting meditation.

Walking meditation generates vital mental energy and gives you a chance to stretch your legs. It also eases physical discomfort which makes for fewer distractions.

I suspect that Goenka intends to keep the meditation practice as simple as possible.

All the meditation instructions are given via audio in the meditation hall by the founder himself, S.D. Goenka. In addition to that, meditators watch a 1-hour video presentation every evening in the video hall. The video discourses outline the meditation techniques and in-depth Buddhist meditation theory.

The presentations are inspiring and full of warmth.

In addition to the above, meditators listen to Goenka's chanting in the meditation hall. In total, it probably adds up to almost one hour of chanting per day. The chanting creates a harmonious atmosphere and energizes the energy centers in the body, also called chakras.

Assistant Meditation Teachers

All the meditation instructions are given by Goenka himself, which is good. There is also one or two assistant teachers on the premises.

If you have any questions, you can have an interview with your teacher. Due to the large number of students you won't get much time though.

The quality of the assistant teachers vary greatly. The teacher I had in Malaysia was an experienced yoga practitioner who frequently sent energy to the students, which makes it easier to meditate.

However, if you're unlucky, you may end up with an assistant teacher that completely lacks presence. In my opinion, that's one of the weakest links in the Goenka organization.

Goenka Retreat Rules

You're not allowed to practice any meditation techniques other than the ones taught by Goenka. I saw one facilitator approach a meditator who obviously was practicing walking meditation.

Other than that you're asked not to kill, steal, lie, masturbate or take any recreational drugs while at the retreat center.

During the first 9 days you're not allowed to speak to anyone other than your teacher. On the 10th day however, the meditators are free to converse again. That is helpful especially for beginners, since it prepares you for the real world outside the meditation center.

Final Reflections

Goenka often times exaggerates certain points such as how healing the meditation is and makes a big deal out of day four where the meditators learn insight meditation. This is quite a common practice that I've experienced at various Buddhist monasteries. The intention is to inspire and encourage you to practice well.

Even though the retreats are free, Goenka repeatedly talks about the benefits and importance of donating. It was the first time I ever heard sales pitches at a Buddhist center.

The chanting is truly unique and energizing, but some of you may find it annoying. Occasionally, Goenka also speaks with a theatrical voice.

Every retreat starts with a number of Buddhist rituals that may put some Christians off.

I recommend the Goenka retreats. However, in the long run, you should learn both walking meditation and mindfulness practice.

Best of luck!

Related:   Mahasi Meditation Review   Retreat Tips   Insight Meditation

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