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 Month of Kundalini Yoga

Sat Kriya Drawing

Position for doing the “Sat Kriya”.

For the month of September I did Kundalini Yoga.

Before I tell you a bit about my experience, I want to let you know why this blog post will likely be shorter and less polished than most. I’d like to reduce the amount of time that I spend staring at screens, so I’m limiting myself to 1 hour to write this post. Most posts take me several hours.

Why Kundalini Yoga?

Kundalini Yoga is weird yoga. I suppose one could say that all yoga is wierd, with all of its unusual poses. But I think Kundalini yoga would seem even weirder than most yoga from an outsider’s perspective.

For many years I’ve been interested in Kundalini Yoga, but hadn’t tried it due to fear of the potential negative side effects. I finally decided to try it due to the potential benefits and my recent “not holding back from life” attitude.

I was interested in yoga primarily for the spiritual benefits. [Read more...]

A Month of Psychedelic Drugs

Oversoul by Alex Grey

Psychedelic Art by Alex Grey

Warning: In this post I explain some of my experiences on psychedelic drugs during roughly the past month. But before I do, there’s a lot of preamble. I hope you’ll read the preamble rather than skipping ahead to the “fun” part of this post. I think the preamble is needed to create the right context for you to understand my experiences and why I decided to try psychedelic drugs (which I refer to below as “psychedelic drugs” and “psychedelics” interchangeably). Can you keep your mind open? I hope so!

Disclaimer: This post is not intended to endorse any type of drug or illegal activity.  Consult your doctor and the law before deciding to take any drugs.  Kids, don’t try this at home (or anywhere).

Day 1, 10:00 AM:  I’m writing this about 3 hours before I will take a psychedelic drug for the first time. I’m going to ingest some [Read more...]

Inner Journey Seminar Review

Spiral Shell

At the end of February I did a 3.5 day personal development “retreat” (*) called the Inner Journey Seminar which is designed to stretch/grow participants in all directions. I found it highly worthwhile and will explain a bit about my experience here.

The Basics

On my Inner Journey (IJ) retreat there were 14 people: 6 men, and 8 women. There was also a staff of I think about 30 supporting us who were almost all volunteers.

We lived (slept overnight) at the retreat location for the 3.5 days. It’s an intense and experiential retreat; there’s not much sitting back listening to talks. Most of the time, we were actively participating in a diverse range of activities.

For more detail on what it’s all about I suggest reading this page which explains it better than I can.

What I Can & Can’t Explain

Before I tell you about my experience, let me explain [Read more...]

A Month of Studying Evolution

Evolution of humans from monkeys

I was raised Christian, and first believed, as I was told, that God created people.

When I was old enough to start reasoning, I heard about evolution as well as many of the holes that people try to poke in it (for example “Imagine a hurricane going through a junkyard and accidentally assembling a Boeing 747. That’s the kind of random chance required by evolution – it’s nuts!”)

The idea that random chance caused all life on earth did seem to me like a crazy idea. But an all-powerful God sitting outside the universe pulling invisible strings seemed like an equally crazy idea. I realized it didn’t make sense to reject one crazy idea (evolution) only to replace it with another crazy idea (God) for which I had no evidence.

So for a long time my opinion on how we came to exist was an agnostic “I don’t know.” [Read more...]