In 2017 I did a 14-day meditation retreat at Insight Meditation Society (IMS) in Barre, Massachusets. It was 10 years after my last meditation retreat, which was a 10-day Goenka retreat that I wrote about here.
I’ll focus most of this article on the more recent IMS retreat, but at the end I’ll include a table comparing the two retreats.
I don’t have many photos of the meditation retreat because phones, cameras, etc weren’t allowed, so just took a few photos on the first & last day. Let’s start with the photos…
As with my previous retreat, the type of meditation I did at IMS was vipassana. However whereas the Goenka retreat involved a type of vipassana called “focused attention“, the meditation at IMS was primarily “open awareness“. With open awareness it’s fine let your mind get distracted by sounds, sensations, etc as long as you’re getting distracted mindfully; consciously aware of whatever it is that you’ve been distracted by. The breath is always an anchor that you can come back to, but with open awareness it’s perfectly acceptable to get distracted by a bird singing and consciously focus on that bird song for a while until your mind jumps to something else.
So most of the meditation involved trying to be mindfully aware of the focus of one’s attention in the present moment at all times, rather than being “lost” in thought or in the past or future – or even lost in the present moment rather than awake/aware/mindful in the present moment. The difference is hard to explain and is subtle, but there’s a difference between being lost vs mindful, or “unconscious vs awake” or “robotic vs alive” as it sometimes feels to me.
Another difference is that whereas the Goenka retreat was all sitting meditation, the formal meditation on the IMS retreat was half sitting meditation (about 4 hours a day), and half walking meditation (about 4 hours a day). The goal was to be meditating (mindful) at all other times as well.
Since it was a “silent” retreat, there was no talking or even eye contact allowed, except once or twice a day when we were allowed to ask the teachers questions, and as necessary during the daily work period (which for me was drying dishes after breakfast). There were about 100 people on the retreat, and another job I had was to wake everyone up every morning, which meant walking through the buildings at 5:05 am banging on a gong with a stick.
In the days & weeks immediately after the retreat, I noticed that being more mindful allowed me to catch myself earlier when I get into an un-useful thought pattern or mood, and then consciously change it when possible, or at least have some distance from it rather than being lost in it.
Since then, I think I’ve lost most of what I gained on the retreat due to inconsistent practice as well as less intensive practice when I do meditate in my regular life.
The instructors – Michele McDonald, Rebecca Bradshaw, Greg Scharf, and Jesse Maceo Vega-Frey – were all fantastic. The depth of their meditation experience was evident in the quality of their instruction and their ability to clearly answer all questions thrown at them.
Insight Meditation Society Retreat vs Goenka Retreat
Before you read my comparison of Goenka vs IMS, my disclaimer is this: I’ve done ONE Goenka retreat, and ONE retreat at IMS. I believe the Goenka 10-day retreats are pretty standard no matter where they’re run. IMS runs different types of retreats, so my experience may not be representative of all IMS retreats
|Insight Meditation Society||Goenka|
|Amount of talking||Large Group Q&A after daily Dharma talks, Small group Q&A every second day, Optional 1:1 meetings with instructors, Talking as needed during chores||Optional 1:1 Q&A meetings with instructors|
|Is exercise (i.e. walks/runs off the property) allowed during break times?||Yes||No|
|Dharma talks||Great content. Live instructor talks.||Great content. Recorded video talks only.|
|Type of Vipassana||Open awareness||Focused attention|
|Sitting vs Walking meditation||50% sitting, 50% walking||100% sitting|
|Movement during sitting meditating||Movements are allowed when needed to reduce discomfort||After the first few days, no movement during meditation|
|Ticks||Many ticks in spring & summer. They recommend that you check yourself for ticks each day, and provide mirrors for that purpose.||No ticks at the location where I did my retreat|
|Bedroom||I had my own bedroom||I shared a room until my bunkmate quit the retreat. Some Goenka retreats have shared rooms, and others have solo rooms.|
|Chores||Yes. My chores were washing dishes and banging the gong to wake everyone up in the mornings.||No. Volunteers do all chores.|
|Food||Great quality||Very good quality|
|Cost||Fixed cost per retreat; extra donation optional.||No fixed cost. Optional donations only.|
|Overall difficulty out of 10||6||8|
The IMS retreat wasn’t life-changing, but was worthwhile and I’m glad I attended it. Have you done a retreat at IMS? Let me know how it went in the comments below.