The last time I attended an SN Goenka retreat was around 7 years ago. Since then, I’ve been meditating on and off. I’ve also been to a couple of other 10 day retreats from other traditions: one Tibetan and the other Thai.
Mr Goenka has great presence and the organisation that has sprung around him and his teachings is well run. From my limited interaction, the people involved generally seem really nice. The program of sitting very long hours itself is challenging but rewarding.
My problem isn’t really with any of that – it’s with the actual technique itself and also the theory behind it. Needless to say I don’t practice Mr Goenka’s particular take on vipassana meditation.
In summary, Mr Goenka’s technique takes the form of mentally scanning down one’s body in an ordered sequence and observing physical sensations (whether pleasant or unpleasant) within the area scanned. This in itself is not a bad thing – it brings one back to one’s body, it teaches one in a very real way that physical sensations come and go, one learns that a portion of physical sensation is actively created by oneself. In the long hours of sitting, one may even encounter other mind-states or initiate physical reactions that other traditions formally recognise.
But the physical level is where the technique stops – or rather is where the 10 day course stops. Oh, there’s a bit of talk about piercing and scanning internally to rummage through one’s organs etc but that’s still physical. Nothing is taught about the management of thoughts and emotions while meditating. Never mind that the satipatthana sutta itself moves from physical feelings to consciousness (ie: thoughts and emotions) and then on to mental objects (ie mental states), Mr Goenka stays determinedly on the ground level.
Moreover, Mr Goenka then goes on about how physical sensations themselves are manifestations of past-life burdens/habits and as they come up and are observed to pass away, so to is the meditator liberating themselves from this, bringing them in turn one step closer to enlightenment, or to quote the man himself: “real peace, real harmony, real happiness”.
Real poppycock, more like.
Anyway, one of the memorable metaphors from Mr Goenka’s nightly discourses is particularly apt. Four men in Varanassi partake too much of bhang lassi and decide to go for a night canoe ride around the ganges. After rowing mightily all night they discover in the morning that they’d forgotten to untie the canoe from the bank. All their effort had resulted in very little benefit.