Vipassana Meditation Retreat Review – IMS (Insight Meditation Society) vs Goenka

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…

Insight Meditation Society - Main Building

The main building at Insight Meditation Society

Insight Meditation Society - Meditation Hall

The meditation hall. Sitting meditation happened here. Walking meditation happened everywhere.

Insight Meditation Society - Bedroom

My bedroom

Insight Meditation Society - Retreat Schedule

Daily retreat schedule at IMS. The schedule is no doubt different for different retreats at IMS.

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.


A Change

I’m making a change: I’m going to start posting even less on this blog than I already do.  Here’s why:

  • I don’t like the narcissistic “Hey look at me!” aspect of this blog
  • This blog is usually not up to date, which results in a nagging guilt in the back of my mind.  It’ll be nice to let that go.
  • I don’t think anyone I know reads this blog regularly, and I don’t see much point in communicating the details of my life to faceless ghosts on the internet.  Does the internet actually care to hear all about my experience learning to swing dance last month?  I don’t think so.
  • Most of my time at work and too much of my free time is spent staring at a computer screen.  I’d like to reduce my screen time.

I will continue to write occasional blog posts, but with these conditions:

  1. I’ll only write a a few bullet points about most of my monthly projects.  And I’ll write about multiple months in a single blog post.  I think I’ll aim for doing an update roughly every 6 months, containing short bullet points for each monthly project.
  2. I’ll write longer blog posts only if I think they’ll benefit readers, or if I think writing will help me to clarify my own thoughts (it has in the past) , or if I feel a strong urge to write about some topic.

Since I’m writing a blog post right now, I might as well do an update on my latest projects.  Here goes: [Read more...]

2 Months of Living in Bali

Gili Air Sunset

Sunset on a small island called Gili Air. Those mountains in the background are on Bali.

I’ve already written an article on another blog explaining some aspects of my experience in Bali, so I’ll keep this one short. First, a few more photos:

Monkey in Uluwatu

Monkey in the south of Bali.

[Read more...]

A Month of Freezer Cooking

Freezer cooked food in jars

My first batch of food. From left to right, the foods are: granola, cabbage salad, mushroom soup, fish scampi, moroccan stew

Preparing food isn’t one of my favorite activities.

So to reduce the amount of time I spend cooking, I decided to try cooking large batches of food in advance and freezing it.

I did this for the month of April by preparing food once a week at most, and freezing a lot of what I prepared.

I loved not having to think about what to eat or spending time preparing food on the other days.

I cheated

Just a little. [Read more...]

A Month of Dictating Instead of Typing (using Dragon)

I’m not typing this.

I’m dictating it using software called Dragon NaturallySpeaking.

I started using Dragon at the beginning of March, and my plan was to dictate absolutely everything for the month and type nothing, if I could. Although dictating everything may have been possible, I discovered quickly that that’s not the most effective way to use Dragon. More on that soon.

Cool Stuff About Dragon

  • It’s faster than typing, so it saves time while also giving my fingers a break. I type fast, but not as fast as I talk. Dragon lets me enter text into my computer as fast as I can talk.
  • It’s as accurate as (maybe more accurate than) typing. Dragon does make mistakes, but I also make mistakes when I’m typing.
  • It learns! It learns not only to recognize the way that I talk, but it also learns non-dictionary words that I use. For example, for work I often use phrases like “Time Doctor”, and and Dragon has learned to start both words with uppercase letters and spell out the word “Doctor” instead of using “Dr.”

How I use Dragon

I’ve found the most efficient way to use Dragon to be: [Read more...]