How I tripped in a Vipassana retreat and realized that its a cult

On 20 Dec, I decided to embark on a Vipassana 10 day silence meditation retreat.  It’s quite an unusual activity; you surrender all your valuables, make no contact with the outside world, take only 2 vegetarian meals each day and weren’t allowed to talk with anyone. (Yup, that included eye contact) Did I mention that you have to wake up at 4 am every day, meditate for about 10 hours and weren’t allowed to have your cell phone, any valuables or writing materials? Oh and you are to abstain from killing any beings. Yup, that included ants, mosquitoes and bugs.

 Photo by fcscafeine/iStock / Getty Images

Photo by fcscafeine/iStock / Getty Images

Founded by S.N Goenka, the Vipassana group has centers all around the world. Financed by donation and ran by volunteers, the group claimed to be secular but it’s mostly Buddhism, interpreted and delivered by a man, S. N Goenka, recorded on a camera. Males and females are segregated in this retreat and each meditation sessions progresses with instructions from a DVD and recordings. There is a meditation teacher on site but he doesn’t do much except to observe and delegate a teaching assistant to remind agitated students to close their eyes and etc... They do this via a written sign. The teacher and course manager are the only two you can establish verbal communications with. Students who have questions must request for an interview that happens daily, after lunch.

 Photo by selimaksan/iStock / Getty Images

Photo by selimaksan/iStock / Getty Images

I first heard about the Vipasana retreat from my friend Karla when I was in Thailand.  She has completed one a while back and I jokingly told her that I was interested. As my interest in mindfulness developed, I grew fond of attending a more extensive meditation program.  Vipassana came up and I did some research. Even though things sounded extremely cultist, I decided to give it a go.

 Photo by CREATISTA/iStock / Getty Images

Photo by CREATISTA/iStock / Getty Images

Here’s my experience and thoughts in sequence. I have travelled to many places and this is the first time that I am away from my sketchbook. Admittedly, this has also been one of the toughest things I ever enrolled into.

Day 0-

 Took an ATR from Singapore for the first time

Took an ATR from Singapore for the first time

Took firefly ATR prop plane from Singapore. I signed up for the program at Malaysia’s Dharma Centre. It’s located in Kuantan and the site was donated by a wealthy family that ran a plantation and hotel next to it. Met two volunteer servers at Kuantan airport and we shared a cab to the Centre. Paul and the other lady have attended Vipassana more than 6 times. I asked them about the retreat and they both told me that it’s going to be painful.  Paul later turned out to be our course translator who helped translate questions from English speaking participants to the teacher. Our teacher was a Chinese man, maybe in his 70s with white beard and white hair and he spoke mostly Mandarin.

Before the commencement of noble silence, we signed an agreement form and were reminded that if we can’t comply with the rules, we should leave now. We surrendered our ‘contrabands’ (phones, passport, money, wallet and etc) and were each assigned to our rooms. The room was small and basic. There’s a thin mattress, a pillow and there’s a toilet with cold running shower. Hot water can be fetched outside with a pail. There’s also a meditation seat in the room. Each day, the program outline is written outside the cafeteria. There were times you can remain in your rooms to self-meditate. Other times, you needed to be in the hall with other students for instructions.  

 The hall we meditated in

The hall we meditated in

 Rooms we slept in

Rooms we slept in


Day 1 –
I was pleasantly surprised that I could sleep the night before and was awoken up by this rather annoying siren at 4 am. The siren is a loud ‘Gong’ that lasted about 10 times, every time it's activated. Every time it went off, it meant that a meditation or meal session is to begin.  It’s hypnotizing after hearing this for more than 10 times a day.

The first day, we were taught Anapana. Basically, we sat and observed the breathing sensation in-and-out of our nostril.  The area that we had to observe this sensation will be reduced over the next 3 days. 

Whenever I closed my eyes to meditate, my monkey mind would kick into high gear and I would drift into various thoughts, ideas, and fantasies.  The thoughts were extremely random and I wondered if I was going crazy. By the end day 1, I was mentally exhausted and developed a raging headache. There was pain everywhere.

I thought about leaving but wanted to give this a little more time.    

Each day, before the end of our last meditation session, there would be a discourse and we would watch a recorded video of S. N Goenka teaching Dharma. They were mostly entertaining but it slowly progresses into witty mockery of others religion and beliefs in the next few days. Goenka is quite a charming person and with his well-integrated humor into various Buddhist teachings, the room of quiet attendees quickly erupted into a room full of laughers. Was laughing considered a violation to noble silence? I wondered

Day 2 -
My sleep degraded. I was back to the boxing ring and today we narrowed our breathing sensation to the area around our nostrils to the upper lips. My monkey mind didn’t show up. Instead, whenever I developed calmness and focus, my mind would drift into a subconscious or a light non-REM sleep state. It’s quite hard to explain this transition because it happened so smoothly. Frustrations developed and I wondered why my will-power often cannot correlate with my wants. Once, I drifted into my subconscious, only to realize that I was in a dream state with imagery of myself stirring a spoon in a cup. I woke up to realize that my physical hand was actually moving. It was quite a trippy experience.

By the end of the day, I had a slight headache and couldn’t sleep at night. Whenever I felt like I have fallen asleep, I am still alert. It’s hard to explain this but imagine how one’s breathing tends to be super long and slow during a sleep... Well, I was having that except that I was wary of every single breath. It felt like my conscious mind and subconscious mind has flipped their role..

Day 3 -
I woke up to barely any sleep.  Was super tired but was not really sleepy. Today’s meditation instruction was to focus on the sensation on the area around our upper lips.. I kept drifting into my subconscious and felt that things have gone hay-wired. I asked the teacher how to continue and he advised me to take breaks, wash up and to fight things off. My willpower was on full throttle but I can’t seem to exercise sufficient control. When asked about my sleep deprivation, he said that meditators don’t have to sleep so much and told me not to worry. I grew increasingly frustrated when I kept dozing off merely minutes into meditation. Once, I saw in my sleep with synchronized breathing that I was walking a dog that was leading me to nowhere. When I snapped out of it, I realized that my subconscious in control. There was another participant behind me who was equally frustrated and he started to hit his head repeatedly really hard whenever he dozed off.  I wanted badly to talk to him but would later learn that he have left the retreat on maybe on day 5 or 6.  The management made people’s exit quietly so others aren’t influenced into quitting. There seems to be manipulative and psychological factors designed into this retreat.

Day 4 -
We officially completed Anapana and the real Vipassana mediation begins. According to Goenka, the first 3 days were merely preparation for our ‘mental surgery’. The concept is simple:
1) We lost our sense of the subtle vibrations that is happening on our changing form. I believe some may call this Chi, others may call this chakra and in the case of Vipassana, Goenka term this as sensations.  According to him, Buddha traced the root of sufferings to our attachments to pleasures and aversions.  Equanimity according to him is the answer
2) We meditate and re-conditioned ourselves to eventually feel these sensations.
3) We don’t place any label on these sensations because of label = fully developed concepts that we become attached to.
4) Once we can feel these sensations throughout our body, we were supposed to observe them as what they are and not label them as good or bad. This is an analogy to the acceptance of our ever-changing realities.

Today was a turning point in my meditation. We were supposed to go through 3 sittings without moving our pose for an hour. The ritual was supposed to awake our senses and eradicate all our past bad deeds. I didn’t think it was possible to sit still and was still losing to my subconscious. Before lunch, I realized that I have been projecting my breathing onto an imaginary self.  This happens so naturally and I almost didn’t catch it. Every time, I close my eyes, I instinctively picture the image I see of myself in the mirror. I mean, most of us probably never realize that the image of ourselves is a one revealed to us via the mirror and it’s always laterally inverted.  When this revelation happened, I thought about the way I treated my subconscious and realized how brutally abusive I been to my other self. Perhaps its time I be kind to myself… 

When I got back to the meditation seat in the afternoon, I finally managed to meditate without falling asleep. I was still distracted by pain all over my body but my subconscious was finally working with me. Later in the afternoon, we were taught to shift our focus somewhere around the top of our head. The accent was quite hard to catch and I thought we were instructed to move focus to the top of our hip.  When I did that, I felt this cooling sensation that swept across to my hip.  It was quite intense and the day ended well with me feeling that I have achieved something.  I slept better that night.

Day 5 -

Today, we were to sweep the focus from the top our head to the bottom of our feet; to observe but not to react to these rising and dissipating sensations. Incredibly, I managed to feel these sensations, stayed equanimous and not moved an inch during the 3 lock-down sessions of an hour each. It was my first experience of mind over matter. My horrifying pain in my legs and back all turned into mere sensations that rises and passes away.  Once, a mosquito landed on my finger, drew a bunch of blood from me and all I could feel with my eyes closed was a strong sensation. Without registering these as pain or pleasures, I had no clue what was happening until the session was over.  That night, I developed a raging headache and when I lay down to sleep...  I also felt an incredible pressure on my face. I surrendered to the stretching pain and fell asleep somehow for a few hours. These unpleasant sensations during sleep persisted and intensified over the next few days

Day 6 -
The meditation went on well and I felt that something was wrong but couldn’t pin down what it might be. Was I still projecting my imagination into my practice that was causing problems? I pushed on with the meditation with increasing instructions to mobilize focus on the body. At night, I felt the same stretching sensation on my face and I could only fall asleep for a few hours by lying down on my back. It was also getting scary because I felt it being asymmetrical and I worried that it may be a warning sign of getting a stroke.

Day 7 -
I realized that to register the movement of scanning my body parts, I was still projecting some kind of imagery in my mind. I wondered if that was imagination and asked my teacher. He told me to not look for sensation but to sense them.  I explained to him that I wasn’t and asked how one can know where the arm is if one doesn’t imagine it first.  My teacher later told me that if the eyeballs are moving during the practice, it was not the right instructions and may have caused my headache and stretching pain. I explained to him that I was an artist and there was just no way for me to stop my eyeballs from moving in my mind when I have to scan from head to toe….. At that point in time, I realized that no matter how hard I try, it was impossible to stop my eyeballs from searching for a placement.  I wasn’t frustrated. In fact, I was quite glad to know about this but wished that my crazy headache would go away. The stretching sensation on my face intensified during the night when I relaxed my face. I wasn't able to breathe well.

Day 8 –
I made up my mind that I would leave the retreat today.  The teacher was insistent that I should stay and felt that the sensations were great news and merely the effects of Sankharas or past bad deeds that get eradicated when you practice Vipassana meditation. (Cult alarm)  Another theory according to the teacher is that when you practice Vippasana, your senses become so sensitive and these sensations may also be a warning sign of underlying medical ailments.  If that’s the case?  Should I be concerned that I may get a stroke soon instead of completing some retreat? Nope, apparently, the folks were so ‘into’ this ‘Sankharas’ thingy that they felt that I would get the full benefit of this retreat if complete the retreat. I explained to them that I am neither disappointed nor upset and my departure was merely my full understanding of equanimity.  The teacher kept insisting that I was giving up. I concluded that these guys are defiantly in a cult and needed to get out. They reluctantly comply with my request, allowed me to pack up and instructed me to wait in my room until the rest of the students get to the meditation hall so they won’t see me leaving.  I packed up and left with a cab at 1 pm. Before I left, my neighbor, Hiroshi noticed something different in my dressing and we secretly walk to a far end of the property to talk. We laughed as we both break the noble silence and we started discussing how crazy this experience was. He was also from Singapore and is a scientist in a research facility.  Interestingly, I didn’t know that he been suffering from bug stings all over his body. I have jeard him sprayed stuff and I thought he brought an air refresherner to the retreat. Little did I know that he has actually been suffering in silence?  I told him about my entire experience and jokingly said that I will skip lunch and have KFC. We bid farewell and the cab came at 1 pm and drove me to Kuantan Sentra Terminal.  The management returned all my valuables but I have forgotten to shut down my cell when I surrendered them in.  With a flat batter, I was kind of lost in the middle of nowhere. Eventually, I found my way to Kuantan city, checked into a hotel and took a warm shower. Once checked in, I couldn’t fall asleep and decided to walk around.

 My only sketch done in Kuantan

My only sketch done in Kuantan

 8 hours of bus ride back to Singapore !

8 hours of bus ride back to Singapore !

That night, sleep didn’t come easy and I only fell asleep at around 11pm and would wake up at 4 am. Somehow the retreat must have programmed my sleep patterns.. The next morning, I decided to travel back to Singapore. My flight was supposed to be 3 more days away but I figured that an early departure equals to help in Singapore.  I took the unpleasant bus trip back and eventually got home after more than 8 hours on the bus. The spastic asymmetric stretch on my face didn’t go away and I visited a Doctor that night.. he took my blood pressure , hear my heart beat and prescribed me with some sleeping pills and I passed out.

 Photo by cyano66/iStock / Getty Images

Photo by cyano66/iStock / Getty Images

What did I learn from this experience?

  • Dangerous to mess with mind activities for a prolonged period of time without proper guidance.
  • Our mind is delicate and complicated. It processes our thoughts and allows us to generate perceptions for just about everything; including our emotions and sensations. 
  • Breathing is not so simple. Though we need air…. how we breathe, the movement, rhythm, speed and even accompanying food, thoughts or ideas form the recipes to our very own well-being.  Some people even managed to create alternate realities from these concoctions.
  • Silence is a great way to hear ourselves. During the silent retreat, I had on many occasions realized the kind of blind judgments and assumptions I had of others just by the way they look, walk or even eat. Silence amplified our own voices and if we form negative concepts to all our voices, we can stay attached to these concepts for a long time and cause suffering not just to ourselves but also to others.
  • Addiction is hard to admit to. During the retreat, I didn’t get to read any news or check up any one’s social media. Though I didn’t miss social media when I was in the retreat, I realized the sheer amount of time I have lost to it.
  • Though I didn’t subscribe to the religious, pseudonym scientific claims, reincarnation values from S.N Goenka teachings. I didn’t fall into a state of an adversary. As a matter of fact, I agree with him on equanimity. Part of the biggest reason why I left the retreat… I am not attached to any of the things he preached and I think a polarized way of devotion =100% suffering.
  • I think humans are ingenious when it comes to discoveries and creations. Religion to me is the pinnacle of creativity and Art; its conceptual, intangible and command the greatest unity to create and also to destroy.  This is the true force of nature.
  • Finance is relative. Though I brought enough clothing to last for 10 days, I ended up doing laundry with just 3 sets of clothing. Clothing became my economy. Since I only had 3 long sleeves shirt and pants that would prevent me from getting brutally stung by the mosquitoes, I needed to plan. When it suddenly poured, I would clean the clothes again and sun dries them. Without entertainment, I grew fond of doing laundry. I loved the entire process of cleaning and the scent of sun-baked clothing brings a profound sense of joy to me.
  • The shower is as close to God as you can find on earth….  The retreat felt like a prison and though we have some places to walk around, exercises weren’t allowed. The biggest joy I found at the retreat beside laundry was the shower. Whenever I took a shower, I felt relieved with a blissful sensation. If there’s a force that’s 100% kind and purifying?  It would be water. When you take a shower, you know it’s going to clean you. A priest, a monk, a prostitute, a Doctor, a Murder, a soldier, a child running through dirt, they all need a shower. Water doesn’t judge, water cleans anyone and everyone.
  • Be kind to yourself and I don’t mean eating and consuming the physical world. The image you see in the mirror daily is who you project your mental well-being to on a very regular basis.It’s our greatest partner and it is eternally married to us. Treat it well because a subconscious mind can register everything we throw at it and it can manifest into so many different things. Treat yourself well and you may find that the world we live in is a lot more tolerable and susceptible to your kindness. Kindness matters.
  • Everything changes and everyone changes. There’s no need for us to lock others in a box and think they are this and that way. How we perceive realities and people can influence a positive change in our life.
  • A milk bottle falls to the ground. Half the milk spilled. 
    Child A picked up the bottle and declared that he lost half a bottle of milk
    Child B picked up the bottle and declared that he saved half a bottle of milk
    Child C picked up the bottled and declared that he lost and saved half a bottle of milk.
    All 3 reflected reality and they are all right and true. Your life is a choice given the circumstances you are put into.
  • SN Goenka teaches a Vippasana technique that is not the same as other Vippasana. Though this is mostly a benign cult, He injected his own theories about science which I felt can be dangerous for some attending this course. I may have actually been led into trance and hypnotized from the intensive instructions from his recordings. E.g : feel for sensations for 40+ hours with sleep deprivation and a discourse that suggested all sort of questionable stuffs. 
  • Commitment is not the same as an attachment. You can commit to running a marathon and despite the outcomes, you can still enjoy the run. If you are attached to beating the clock, getting to the finish line, you may miss every bit of the run and build yourself the biggest prison. 
  • The whole experience felt a little like watching Black Mirror on netflix without a super horrifying ending. 

The song I unconsciously been whistling to when I was alone in my room. 

Maybe its time to try some hypnosis ?