Meditation retreats are generally a good thing for most people, but aren’t without their dangers. They can be really hard to get through – but can give you great results!
We talk about the risks, the potential benefits, the general format of most courses, the physical and mental challenges, and specifically what we’ve learnt from attending the Goenka Vipassana Foundation 10 day courses.
Daniel Ingram’s “Health warnings for meditation” gets a mention!
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- Our interview with Daniel Ingram – for more on the risks and benefits of meditation.
- Global Vipassana foundation site
- UK Vipassana foundation
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Bill Tribble 0:08
Well, welcome. Welcome everyone to another episode of The Awake In podcast.
My name is Bill Tribble. And this is Jasmine.
Jasmine Che 0:19
Jasmine che. Jasmine che,
Bill Tribble 0:24
che, che, I’m pronouncing your name right. I’ve known you for over a year. Che. Che Yeah. And we’re going to talk today about things you should consider
Jasmine Che 0:36
before going on a meditation retreat. Yes. So this will be meditation retreats of any kind, long and short. The longest you’ll likely be able to go on is a 10 day course.
Bill Tribble 0:53
And it’s quite likely that you’re considering going on one that’s run by the Goenka-ji Vipassana Foundation,
Jasmine Che 1:00
or one which is quite cheap, from any of the kinds of Buddhist centres available in and around the UK, or around
Bill Tribble 1:12
the world, maybe around the world, maybe even do some spiritual tourism in Thailand for a month. Who knows, maybe you’re gonna go on a extended yoga retreat.
Jasmine Che 1:24
But specifically, we’re likely just talking about meditation retreats, yoga may fall into a little bit of this, because some will have meditation. But we’ll be covering yoga, and other spiritual practices on another episode. Here, we’d like to really just give you a comprehensive introduction, and kind of detailed caveats and concerns and shared experiences of what to consider before going on one, whether it’s the right thing for you what some of the risks are, and if you might be ready for it. So Bill, would you like to start off with what some first considerations you would be thinking about?
Bill Tribble 2:26
So the impetus for this conversation is partly Daniel Ingram, who, who I’ve heard say many times that, you know, as a doctor himself, he was a, an emergency doctor in America, that meditation should come with a health warning. Like any any medicine he gives to someone, you do this kind of, I forget the exact name for it, but like the risks and opportunities thing that you talk through potential problems that might happen, and the potential benefits of this medicine. And that that’s the main thing that I like to kind of promote in the conversation is that no type of meditation is without some risk. And the risks are very small. And generally, the benefits are worth it. But it’s something that everybody should be aware of before they undertake any sort of meditation, even a half hour session. Because it does happen that, that these traditional spiritual practices do sometimes yield traditional spiritual results, even in small doses. And those experiences can be very disruptive and even deadly for people who weren’t really expecting them or prepared for them.
Jasmine Che 3:56
Yeah, so I think it’s just as a word of caution, because this is generally otherwise, not so spoken about. Likely, and we’ve spoken and Bill has, and in other episodes, we have spoken about this. So we won’t go too much into again, why we can refer back to other episodes. Like the last episode, we went into this even on the one with Daniel Ingram, specifically on going his retreats. So we won’t really say everything, but we’ll try to be as comprehensive as possible.
Bill Tribble 4:40
Yeah, we’ll do our best. I mean, I think it’s safe to say that neither of us are massive experts on this stuff, but um, I’ve done several retreats in the going good tradition. And Jasmine, you’ve done a few as well. Yeah. And it’s
Jasmine Che 4:58
and some other retreats. Yeah. and some others.
Bill Tribble 5:01
And I think that that’s kind of the main thing that I wanted to flag here is that it is something that’s safe and beneficial for most people. The, to their credit, the Vipassana Foundation, and perhaps it was purely out of necessity, say that the courses are not suitable for anyone with mental health issues.
Jasmine Che 5:25
It is not a health is not supposed to be here as a health cure.
Bill Tribble 5:30
Yeah. But as Jasmine pointed out, like, what is it a third of people in the world, probably
Jasmine Che 5:35
one in four or one and five is have mental health issues, whether it’s anxiety, depression, on some level,
Bill Tribble 5:46
and that’s right now, right. So right now, and so during the course of their lifetime, it’s pretty much 100% of people will have some issue with mental health at some point.
Jasmine Che 5:55
And often meditation can be something that is recommended to relieve anxiety. So when you’re given something which is likely going to be helpful, isn’t always helpful and can make issues worse. So like meditation straight off the bat shouldn’t be for people with PTSD, it often makes it worse, you know, going into like, accessing trauma that really should be worked on only with someone who might be psychotherapist, health provider, someone who’s equipped to do that, in meditation retreat setting, you’ll be thrown in with guidance from quite minimal guidance from any teachers, you’re supposed to really be working alone in this. So you should think of it as not any sense of spoon feeding, you’re really alone.
Bill Tribble 6:55
Yeah, yeah, that’s very cool. So
Jasmine Che 6:57
it’s almost like going on a boot camp, the equivalent of a boot camp to improve your fitness, mental fitness. And you do have PTS who are just there to help you. Well, they might be pushing you in terms of effort. But you might, you know, twist your ankle, or you might have something happen to you.
Bill Tribble 7:22
Yeah, I suppose a physical equivalent might be you’ve got to do 20 pushups and 20 squats every half hour, but you’re not given any guidance on how to deal with?
Jasmine Che 7:34
Yeah, I’m probably. And then that, you know, because there’s a physical aspect we know that was physical house or exercises, there can be injury, especially if we don’t have like, good technique or form. And many people do exercise and actually do get injured. Yeah. Whereas for the mind, especially because we’re even only becoming more aware of taking care of our minds. We don’t really consider these health risks. That actually, if you are exercising the brain in a certain way, you might get sick. Yeah. If something bad might happen, you might injure yourself mentally.
Bill Tribble 8:20
Yeah. Yeah. And I mean, again, I keep wanting to repeat here that the risks are small, but they are not insignificant.
Jasmine Che 8:33
If you are a person who something bad happens to.
Bill Tribble 8:38
Yeah. And it’s, it’s an odd one, because the fastener foundation generally doesn’t really talk about this stuff, much. It’s regarded. It’s marketed basically, perhaps marketing is the wrong word, because it’s a free course. Right? But it’s still marketing as something that’s safe for people who are just sort of mentally normal. And there’s, there are many, many cases and you can you can look these up of where it has not worked out well, for the average punter who’s rolled up with not necessarily anything on their radar in terms of their mental health. And they don’t really talk about it much and I mean, my brother has gotten really into passenger courses, for instance, and he spent quite a lot of time serving Dharma deeper, which is the Hereford place and he’s seen all kinds of traumas and peep. I think one course he was on someone was carted away in an ambulance, and another one, a guy ran away in the middle of the night without enough clothes on and died of pneumonia or something. And that was just an inner you know, inside a month of staying at this spent. So that I mean, these are anecdotal things. We don’t know the statistics on this stuff. Yeah.
Jasmine Che 10:06
And we’d also say that, you know, let’s say the person with the ambulance, we don’t know what had happened to them, the person who did run away, did run away, for example. And I guess was the pattern or they say, for you to have to stay? Like they do say, you have to stay because it’s like going in surgery and cutting yourself open. Yeah. And then you’re in a worse place if you don’t finish the surgery. So I would say, in terms of considerations, people should really consider that it’s quite a large undertaking, especially if you haven’t had much practice meditating before. And, you know, if something does happen to you, and you do want to leave, you really might find yourself in a really difficult situation. Yeah. Especially if you didn’t drive there. Yeah. And got a bus, which many people do cardio to get there?
Bill Tribble 11:04
Yeah, it’s, and they do
Jasmine Che 11:07
say to you, like, as you get there, like, this is going to happen. Do you consent? Like, yeah, again, like they do say that right before? And they say you have to stay here. Yeah. And then people are like, yeah, that’s completely fine. Like, of course, I’m here for a free meditation retreat. That’s amazing. Yes. So again, cautionary,
Bill Tribble 11:32
and I think some people go into it expecting that it will be a time to relax. And, you know, I’m just going to really chill out and get in touch with myself and be really spiritual and, and I’m going to come out so much better. And, you know, in some ways, this, you might come out a better person, and you might come out relaxed, but the actual thing that you’re getting into, is going to be one of the hardest things you’ve ever done in your life.
Jasmine Che 12:02
100%. I completely agree with that.
Bill Tribble 12:09
It’s, it’s, it’s a really challenging undertaking. And equivalent, in some ways to. I mean, it’s hard, hard to, to even use metaphors, but it’s a bit like you’re staring at the mirror, every cell yourself for the whole time and you cannot get away from that image. And you cannot, you have to deal with it, there is no escaping it is just you and your mind, and your body. And everything that you are uncomfortable about will come up during that time, and you will have to face it and deal with it. And that is not fun. And it’s not easy.
Jasmine Che 12:47
Well, if you’re not ready for what Bill has just described, like if you cannot, you know, the types of I guess the types of indications which show that maybe you are not comfortable with that, is if if there are things in daily life, that mean you find it difficult to be alone. This is going to be extremely challenging for you. Even though you’re surrounded by people, you are there to work alone in this. You don’t talk to anyone. So you’re not exactly there socialising. It’s not a social experience. It’s just there to give you the chance to be alone, like that’s fully about what is what are the examples, if you don’t like being with your thoughts, this is not for you. If you feel like you have always needed to maybe even have a partner in your life. This is likely going to be challenging, very, very challenging for you. So these types of social things, if you find it difficult to be silent, and feel like you need to talk a lot. I have a friend who we spoke about this and she said you know, I had to do a sponsored silence for about three, three hours or four hours and I like I got a sore throat after that because probably she was blocked up in her her throat chakra but yeah, she said that she was found that unbearable. So if you’re that type of person who also deals with loneliness, this is not any other not views.
Bill Tribble 14:33
Well, we’ve mentioned mental health. If you if you if you have doubts about it Titan seriously, I would say and and recognise that. That I think is funny. I was I was reflecting on what what we said earlier about country indica Asians, a lot of them sound a bit like the same kind of things that psychedelic people would say, before, you know, you, you, you go on your vision quest, you take a silly amount of LSD, you know, go with a guide, and be prepared because it’s not easy, it’s an incredibly hard thing to do. And so that’s one way of thinking about it. If you’ve read anything about contraindications before your psychedelic vision quest, this is a bit like that. But it’s, it’s maybe even harder, because it lasts 10 days, not just, you know, one day or an evening. The On the plus side, you rather than taking a random street drug or a plant, you do get places under your own steam. And that can give you an incredible amount of power in in terms of managing your mental states. And that’s one of the greatest benefits I’ve personally gotten out of practice, is understanding that my thoughts are not me, and many, many other benefits, but to, to just really sort of dig into whether you should go or not. I think the aim of this, this, this session really was just to kind of talk through this, the things that they don’t generally tell you before you consider taking a meditation course. So if you look this up on any of the centres, you will see lots of pictures of lotus leaves, lotus flowers, and, you know, kind of Zen swirls. And they don’t really talk about how hard it is a lot. It’s just like, oh, come and find your inner wisdom and peace and blah, blah, blah. And actually, it’s really bloody hard.
Jasmine Che 17:06
It was probably one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. To be honest,
Bill Tribble 17:11
that, you know, my last retreat, I was in Japan, like four years ago, I did a three day. And I went in thinking I have three days. How hard can that be? It was so hard. It was it was really challenging me. Partly, that’s maybe the, you know, during the 10 day, the first three days of the hardest, in some ways. That’s that’s one of the real challenging bits. Just to get through that first stretch of like, going from the normal, the daily world into that deep space is really challenging. And I’ve found it’s so hard I was I came out slightly traumatised. I mean, it did me good. And it got me back in to a daily practice at the time. And it helped in some ways. But man, that was hard. It was it was such a challenge. I was. And I think partly is because I expected it to be easy on that one. I’m a seasoned meditator. I’ve done several of these 10 day courses, alga, how can a three day be brutally hard? And that I would do it again. Having said that,
Jasmine Che 18:20
I mean, just because it’s hard. I mean, it doesn’t have benefit, I usually see the benefit.
Bill Tribble 18:24
Yeah. And it’s not just in a sort of, I’ve spoken to people about meditation courses before and they’re like, Well, it isn’t the reason you come out so happy from it just because you’ve survived this awful experience. But, but know that there really is something in it. And small amounts of meditation, you will often find, you come up feeling very refreshed and much better. And it’s a massive version of that. It’s a massive dose of that, for me. It is very challenging to get through but the it, it has changed the course of my life in some ways. And it’s given me a grounding for something. It’s like an anchor that I know I can always depend on how tough things get. I think
Jasmine Che 19:15
we should speak about why it is so challenging, more in greater detail.
Bill Tribble 19:18
Yes, let’s do that.
Jasmine Che 19:20
So one of the aspects is the sheer 10 hours a day of let’s say just the typical formatting. Some will be walking meditations in different retreats. Others like going CO will be purely 10 hours if you add it up a day you’ll have walking sessions and then it will get to a point where they start are begin to ask you to not move your body for one of the sessions. Three of the session three I mean three of the sessions. Yeah. Three hours a day. Is it three? Yes three hours a day and I Um, so one is a physicality aspect of sitting, there are different chair props, you can also bring a chair that you want to sit in, if you’re driving, but even you know, sitting on a chair for 10 hours a day is a lot. And so on a pure physical basis. That’s difficult. A waking up basis of early mornings is very difficult. You’re well fed, you are, you have fresh air. But a routine of physical practice, I mean, the sitting is a lot like it’s is very full on. So if you have struggled with five minutes of meditation, or even up to an hour of meditation, just imagine doubling it, and that will be one session times it by 10 a day, and then times that by 10. Okay, so you can see how this feat is like. Incredible. Yeah, so it’s a lot.
Bill Tribble 21:24
I would also just flag that you mentioned the food. Food is generally Great. Generally only two meals a day. Yes. Which is a really big one. If you’re a comfy. Yeah.
Jasmine Che 21:33
Yes. So you have breakfast. And you can eat as much as you want. They do say that not to eat too much, because it makes you tired for when you sit. And it’s true. Yeah. Because then you get sleepy meditations, versus even tougher. It’s even tougher, because you have to sit there falling asleep in and out for two hours. So there’s that. And then, yeah, the second meal is often big. But then the last, actually, you get fruit.
Bill Tribble 22:04
You get fruit in the evening, a cup of tea.
Jasmine Che 22:08
Yes. And if you’ve got, you know, something you struggle with like, you have dietary requirements, then you can have food. So there is that. So perhaps, so it’s veggie as well. Yeah. Yeah,
Bill Tribble 22:24
that’s fair to you. Yeah. Oh, yeah. And if you’re a smoker, are you like drinking several cups of coffee a day, that might be a challenge as well, because you can’t do either really, you can drink a cup or two, maybe
Jasmine Che 22:35
you can bring us thermos flask, oh, let’s you can bring as many set well, you could have technically as many as required for your coffee demands. And you can make that during the breaks.
Bill Tribble 22:49
There’s a new enemy. So perhaps we could talk about ways you can navigate this all takes to get through? Oh, yeah.
Jasmine Che 22:59
I was going to say maybe we can continue going through why it might be more difficult. So we’ve only been on physical. Yeah, yeah, I’ll
Bill Tribble 23:05
keep going keep going.
Jasmine Che 23:07
The other is that you can’t do any of the things that you would generally do. Like you can’t do other forms of exercise. So it’s quite prescriptive in like, I don’t know. You’re not supposed to write things down. I did see someone wants them to retreat writing things down sneakily.
Bill Tribble 23:26
Yeah. Yeah, the aim is to cultivate a kind of mental quiet. So they don’t want you journaling all the bloody time, which I’ve done on courses. And it’s a terrible idea. Don’t do it. Because it makes it fucking way harder and even more challenging.
Jasmine Che 23:43
Yeah, yeah. And also, they want to be able to help you see that, like in purity, how this method can help you without other things. So you can’t say that. Oh, it was my journaling that helped me. Yeah, they want you to be able to get a fair trial. This,
Bill Tribble 23:57
it was my Reiki healing. That was actually the real benefit. No,
Jasmine Che 24:01
yeah. So you can’t do any of the other practices that you would want to do. And that can be very difficult for people.
Bill Tribble 24:07
Yep. Yeah. If you’ve got religious observances, or you really need an hour of yoga every day, that’s gonna be tough.
Jasmine Che 24:13
Yes. Only to read the news or books or other forms of stimulation. Yep. That’s awesome. There’s no devices,
Bill Tribble 24:22
no devices, no phone, no Instagram. No Twitter.
Jasmine Che 24:25
Yeah. Why else?
Bill Tribble 24:30
I would say I just want to caveat there that you can generally get away with a little bit of stretching every day. Yes, because there’s always somewhere you can sneak to do that. If you’re really lucky. You get a solo room to stay in. And you can just do your however long you can manage. In the mornings, maybe you can, you can do a 15 minute stretch or whatever. But if you’re someone who needs to jump around a lot, there’s no real space to do that because it’s distracting basically. Yeah. You’re doing your high intensity training in And the grounds, it doesn’t go. If you’re an animal lover, and you cannot live without your cat or dog, that’s also gonna be a challenge because they’re not allowed to come.
Jasmine Che 25:10
Yeah. Physical, Mental, I think we’ve already touched food we’ve touched. Any other reasons why it’s, it’s challenging. I think that’s mainly all. So how can we get through
Bill Tribble 25:31
that the first thing I would say is that is to take it easy, as much as you can on yourself. And the course, the, the tradition is, well, the going through tradition is non religious, supposedly, but the guy who started it was like a stone Hindu before he got into it. And he’s, he’s got a very kind of, let’s say, slightly militant, attitude to meditation, it’s all very kind of monastic and very hard working, you must work hard. And, and it really, I think for for, if you’ve got a problem with authority, then maybe you could deal with it better. But if you try and follow all the advice that he gives you in the first course, you might be in for a very hard time. I say this, just out of caution, because I certainly had a really hard time on the first course, I was very hard on myself. And I’ve spoken with some people who who didn’t. And they took it easy every time there was a chance to take a break or whatever. And maybe they slept through half the course. And actually, that’s fine. Because if you get through your first course, then maybe you can manage another one. And, and if you are really hard on yourself, then maybe you can run into more trouble than I did. And you don’t even make it through the course. Or you have a who knows psychotic breakdown, and you end up in real trouble, because they’re not really equipped to deal with that sort of thing. So I would say, especially in your first course, take it easy.
Jasmine Che 27:08
Yeah, I didn’t take it easy. On mine. I did see people who had naps, who didn’t go to sessions took time out. Yep. So I think, particularly as we’re talking about what’s really important here is staying in tune with our body. So all of the meditation practices are supposed to help you be in touch with the body, understanding yourself better intuition, self guidance. So on those kinds of principles, it would be well advised to. You know, if you felt yourself maybe if you did feel yourself getting, you know, panic attacks and other types of things where you are super concerned, this has never happened to me. But maybe you do skip sessions, and do stay in your room, maybe it will be like solitary confinement, you’ll want to go home because of that. You may not be allowed to. But you know, maybe you see as fat, my kind of word of warning. And as we see things getting worse. And, you know, we’re not really here to try and get sick. So if you see yourself going into the spiral, it would be maybe just don’t do that to yourself.
Bill Tribble 28:37
Yeah, back off, take easy. I mean, there’s on the going retreats, there’s three main sets that you’ve really got to be in, and that they will if you don’t attend those, and they’ll they’ll be on your case and check up on you. Yeah, there’ll be very concerned. But the the rest of it is basically up to you. And if you want to just nap in your room, and you can’t deal with it, and to do that, because it might help you survive the course and get through it, and you will. And that’s a much better outcome than you getting into real trouble. And, or quitting the course.
Jasmine Che 29:14
Yeah, and actually just doing three hours of meditation today. Even if you did three hours of meditation a day for 10 days, you’d get a lot of benefit, big win. Big, big win. That’s Sorry, I was more than you would have ever done. Yeah. And if in the event for that, maybe I would then say bring some books as a as a just in case.
Bill Tribble 29:38
I wouldn’t do that. I would do that. Honestly. It’s
Jasmine Che 29:44
I don’t know. I don’t know. It’s a very just in case.
Bill Tribble 29:47
It’s something that they they absolutely don’t encourage that they they they forbid they say Please hand all these things in. So you’re going to be kind of breaking your precepts if you do that and Hmm, I don’t know.
Transcribed by https://otter.ai