What to Expect at a First Time Vipassana Meditation Retreat

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Vipassana is an ancient mediation technique that originated in India and has recently spread across the globe. Vipassana centres all over the world offer a free, standardized, 10 day mediation course.

This detailed infographic & guide is for anyone considering a free, first time Vipassana retreat. For me the word ‘free’ made me both interested AND distrustful.

Keep reading after the infographic (below) for a more critical review of my Vipassana experience. Here are the topics you’ll find after the infographic:

  • Who should do a Vipassana retreat
  • Daily life, and what it’s like
  • Learning Vipassana meditation
  • Vow of Silence
  • Vipassana food (and what was served)
  • Vipassana: First day & last day
  • What I didn’t like about my retreat
  • Is a Vipassana retreat worth it

Why I made this first time Vipassana guide

Before attending my first Vipassana 10 day course I had been practicing meditation with 20-minute guided audio sessions called Headspace. I wanted to take meditation more seriously so I signed up for a Vipassana meditation retreat. I didn’t really know what to expect.

Prior to attending the 10 day course I was worried Vipassana may be a religion in disguise. Or worse, a cult.

I made this Vipassana infographic & guide to give back, so others can know what a Vipassana course is like, before they go.

And spoiler: my Vipassana experience was (mostly) positive. I can’t say I’m 100% sold on the practice, but I did learn a bunch. And I would recommend attending a course if you are interested in meditation.

Infographic: What is a Vipassana retreat like?

Vipassana meditation infographic and guide

Should I do a Vipassana retreat?

There’s no way to predict if you’re going to like doing your first Vipassana retreat. It’s likely the toughest mental / emotional thing you’ll ever attempt. But even if you don’t like it you may benefit from it.

The pointlessness of many religious practices is discussed which could be offensive if you’re religious

The 10 day Vipassana course is ideal if you want to learn how to meditate, or to take your meditation to the next level. Consider these points before committing to the 10 day course:

  • You learn to meditate. The 10 day Vipassana course is a good way to learn to meditate because many of the meditation skills you learn are transferable (if you decide the Vipassana style isn’t for you).
  • You face yourself. The ‘Noble Silence’ and lack of distractions will make 10 days into an eternity. You will have successes – and failures – and not be able to express either of them.
  • The course is intense. Boot camp seems like a good idea: work hard, get results fast. Are you the type to quit after 2 days if it’s tough? What if the course is not what you expected? Before signing up check your commitment to stay till the end because I guarantee you’ll be tempted to quit before day 7 (when most people start realizing the benefits of their work).
  • The validity of religion is questioned. Vipassana itself is not a religion and the meditation technique fits with any religion (or lack of religion). However, the pointlessness of religious practices is discussed. Are you confident enough to have your faith questioned?
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What is a Vipassana retreat like?

Daily life & what it’s like

Every day starts at 4:00 A.M. when a gong (yup, a gong) is rung. During the day you will meditate up to 10.5 hours. That’s 3.5 hours of mandatory (supervised) meditation, and up to 8 hour or non-supervised meditation. That’s a lot if it’s your first time meditating. Your day ends at 9:00 P.M.

On top of the 10.5 hours of meditation expect:

  • 1 hour for each meal (breakfast, lunch, dinner)
  • 1.5 hours of video lessons every day
  • 2 hours every day is free time (nap time!)
  • ~6.5 hours of sleep every night

Hour-by-hour, here is the standardized Vipassana schedule:

Learning Vipassana meditation at a 10 day retreat

The 10 day course is silent so the teaching is done by evening video lessons. The recordings are of the pioneer of Vipassana in the western world: S.N. Goenka. Here’s what to expect when learning:

  • You can sit on the floor if you want to. But there are pillows, cushions, chairs, and meditation benches available.
  • New, old, and volunteer students. The course will be a mix of first time Vipassana learners and experienced meditators. Sometimes the in-classroom teacher will ask old students to stay behind and allow new students to practice in their rooms.
  • Goenka is wise, but… The video & audio of him are live recordings, and not well produced. The camera shakes and his meditation class in the background cough, sneeze, and sniffle near the microphone. Nethertheless, the knowledge Goenka shares does the trick and you will learn.
  • Goenka likes to sing. And he isn’t very good at it. Just accept his toad-like singing for what it is (terrible), then get back to meditating.
  • The course has a good flow. Every evening you are assigned a new skill to practice. You are then given ½ an hour to practice before going to bed. Just enough time for you to anticipate trying again the next day.

“We cannot live in the past; it is gone. Nor can we live in the future; it is forever beyond our grasp. We can live only in the present.” ~S.N. Goenka

  • Noises in the meditation hall. Part of meditation is learning to accept disturbances. Expect to hear bones cracking, coughing, swallowing, throat clearing, and shuffling. To reduce distractions you’re asked not to bring in water bottles.
  • Meditation is war. I had this utterly incorrect idea of meditation being peaceful. Instead of peaceful, imagine silently doing math problems for an hour while your legs go to sleep and your back gets tired.
  • Vipassana is painful at first. Then you learn to stop making mental pain of your physical pain.
  • Sitting of ‘strong determination’. After Day 4 you stop learning the fundamentals and start learning Vipassana. Part of this is a request for you to have a ‘strong determination’ to sit still for an entire hour, three times a day. This is uncomfortable (but helps you learn to stop making mental pain of your physical pain).
  • You make excuses to quit. It will be a love / hate relationship the entire 10 days. My excuses to quit the Vipassana course were leg pain, back pain, neck pain, headaches, and needing to get home to do work. I got over these and now (weeks after the course) feel Vipassana was worth it.
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Noble silence at the Vipassana retreat

The most interesting part (in my opinion) of the 10 day meditation retreat is the 9 days of silence. This goes beyond verbal silence. There’s no gesturing, note passing, smiling, or eye-contact. The objective it to create a void of interaction, as if you were doing the course by yourself.

Before attending the course I assumed the silence was to keep things serene. By the end of the course I realized the ‘noble silence’ (as the Vipassana people call it) had a slew of benefits. Here’s what to expect from the Vipassana silence.

  1. A public notice board. Throughout the course the retreat management will communicate to you via a public notice. Things like schedule changes or housekeeping issues will be posted for you to read.
  2. There are designated people you can talk to. There are managers who help with food / accommodation concerns. And the in-classroom teacher is available at the end of the day for group questions. Alternatively, you can also schedule a 5 minute private interview with the teacher.
  3. You be desperate for distractions. The meditation retreat is opposite of ‘real’ life. Instead of craving a break, you’ll be anxious for a reason to think (at one point I started watching the insects in a peppermint plant like they were a television show). With no distractions available you truly have to face yourself.
  4. In silence you cannot complain. If something bothers you, you’ll learn to surrender to it… because in silence you cannot change it. I found it interesting how a ‘bad’ situation fails to bother me after I accept it.
  5. In silence you cannot compare. Everyone experiences meditation differently. When nobody speaks they don’t compare experiences, building up false hopes, fears, or negativity.
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Vipassana food

At the retreats you will be served a buffet-style breakfast & lunch. Your evening meal will consist of only tea & fruit (for me the selection of fruit in the evening was apples, bananas, and oranges). You will not be allowed to snack or get drinks in between designated meal times.

Without a full meal in the evening I did not get hungry. I assume this is because a day of meditating does not burn many calories.

The food at all Vipassana retreats is vegetarian and suitable for intense meditation. It is a diet full of fiber (I assume to counteract constipation caused by all the sitting). At my retreat the food was delicious. Here is the Vipassana food I had:

Breakfast (everyday) – oatmeal, stewed dates & fruit, plain yogurt, muesli, granola, cereals, nuts & seeds, bread & spreads, fruit (bananas, apples, oranges)

Lunch sides (everyday) – bread & spreads (peanut butter, tahini, jam, marmalade), iceberg lettuce, salad oil, nuts & seeds, grated carrot, apples & oranges

Drinks (everyday) – milk (dairy & non-dairy), tea (herbal & caffeinated), coffee, tap water

Day 1 – Cold carrot soup, hummus & vegetables, corn on the cob

Day 2 – Curried carrot soup, pasta and brown rice, tomato lentil sauce, vinegar slaw, watermelon

Day 3 – Miso infused tofu, green beans, brown rice, roasted butternut squash, mashed date & coconut cookies

Day 4 – Chilli, tortillas, cilantro, slaw, basmati rice

Day 5 – Lentil & sweet potato stew, bok choy, apple & carrot salad, sour cream & chives, brown rice, slaw

Day 6 – Couscous, vegetables in a tomato sauce, sauerkraut, baked cabbage, bean salad, pineapple

Day 7 – Dahl, vegetable curry, quinoa, basmati rice, sauerkraut

Day 8 – Miso ginger tofu, bok choy, roasted sweet potato, green beans, banana bread

Day 9 – Pasta primavera, steamed broccoli, brown rice, hummus & veggies, slaw

Day 10 – Veggie burgers & fries, Indian soup, slaw, quinoa, miso tofu

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Vipassana first day & last day

Vipassana First Day

When I arrived at the Vipassana centre on my first day I was surprised by the amount of people. In total I estimated 120 students (60 male / 60 female). Volunteers in orange safety vests were directing vehicles and people.

I was directed to register, and then to hand over any electronics I ‘accidently’ brought with me. After locking my valuables away I was assigned a bed in a dormitory style room.

During the first day men & women can interact and everybody can talk. It wasn’t until the evening meal (yep, you get more than just tea & fruit on your first day) that the sexes were separated. After eating we were given a rundown of the rules and a chance to ask questions. After that the vow of silence and the first session in the meditation hall started.

Do not expect much meditation instruction on your first day. The first real lesson will be the next day at 7 P.M.

Vipassana Last Day

On Day 10 the vow of silence is lifted at 10:00 A.M. and you’re (finally) allowed to talk with the other meditators. I found it felt weird to talk again.

All day there was a table set up for donations. We were encouraged to give what we could afford, but I never once felt pressured to donate. There was also a signup board for cleaning duties.

The next morning (day 11, the last day) breakfast was served and the course was over. Volunteers stayed behind to help clean the rooms and prepare for the next 10 day course (which started later that day).

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What I didn’t like about my Vipassana retreat

I was on a rollercoaster of emotions and considered leaving the retreat almost every day. I’m glad I didn’t. Here are the things about Vipassana that bothered me the most.

  • Promoted as the best way to meditate. The course is overbearing on the qualities of the Vipassana technique. Vipassana is not a religion, but the teaching is zealous about the benefits of the Vipassana meditation style.
  • The last 3 days of teaching. Near the end of the retreat the video discourses strayed from teaching meditation to preaching about dharma.
  • Chanting. Every group meditation session ends with the class saying something in the Pali language, in unison, three times. Apparently it’s a way of thanking the teacher, similar to saying Namaste at the end of yoga. But any group chanting in unison makes me uncomfortable.

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Is Vipassana worth it?

At the end of my 10 days I wasn’t sure how I felt about the retreat. A month after going on my first Vipassana retreat I’ve decided – overall – the course was worth it.

  • I understand myself better. Being removed from society for 10 days forced me to do some uninterrupted thinking.
  • I can meditate for an hour. Previous to the course I had been doing 20 minutes of daily meditation. Now that seems like child play. Being able to meditate more is good. Right?
  • I’m aware of mental vs physical pain. The mind amplifies pain so much to avoid what it doesn’t like. Save yourself a buttload of suffering and learn to silence mental pain.
  • I’m confident to practice mediation on my own. Honestly, meditation is intimidating. After this course I know how to meditate on my own without always wondering if I’m ‘doing it right’.

Final Thoughts

I don’t think anyone can mentally ‘prepare’ themselves for their first Vipassana experience. It’s one of those things you need to experience to understand. I know my 10 day retreat was not what I expected, but I’m glad I did it.

The 10 day courses are free and offered worldwide. Check out Vipassana’s homepage, www.dhamma.org, if you think a course is for you.

Readers: have you done a Vipassana retreat? Would you recommend it?

Share this page to help others find out about Vipassana.

28 COMMENTS

  1. Thanks for i nice review.
    One correction though. After each groupsitting Goenka is chanting “Bhavatu Sabba Managalam” It means “May al beings be happy” The class reacts with “Sadhu, Sadhu, Sadhu” wich is a Pali word which means good, excellent and used by the class to express their happiness or approval.

  2. I love your infographic Tim! What a great way to sum it all up. I remember the first time I heard Goenka chant. I thought to myself “what the hell?”. And, it added to my desire to bolt. On day 8, I was plotting to leave although I had come with a friend and I had the car. But, I stuck it out and woohoo, what a great experience it was. I have since gone back for another 10-day and a 3-day. And, I have to say that when I hear that gravelly voice chant, it warms my heart, every time.

    • Thanks for the support Jill. I’ve signed up for another 10 day course since and I’m actually looking forward to some of Goenka’s chanting (only just a little though).

    • Matt, I have to agree. The 10 day retreat is so tough. Every day I flipflopped between loving it and having to get the heck out of there. Having my wife drop me off, and not having my cellphone to call her, helped me complete it. Basically I was stuck for 10 days without a route for escape. I think even if you don’t finish there are still benefits to attending.

  3. Thanks Tim for the detailed information and the inforgraphic, it cleared a lot of things for me. I have applied for the course due in this October. Hope it will work for me too.

  4. Thanks Tim for all the detailed information it was very clever of you it cleared a lot of things for me. I am going for course this janauary Hope it will work for me too.
    Reply

  5. Hi Tim great review. I am about to attend a 10 day course this Wednesday at Hereford, England, and this was a great insight as for what to expect. Which centre did you do it at?

    • Hey Rob, I did my first 10 day vispassana retreat in Montebello, Quebec (Canada). The area was beautiful and the course was done in English and French (which I don’t understand much of). I hope everything goes great for you in Hereford.

  6. Thanks Tim. My wife and I are attending our first 10 in June. This was very helpful. I remain very open to Vipassana and the teachings. I know it will be extremely challenging.

  7. Thanks for your detail articles. What I have seen that people in the west who are much more sensitive to their space, privacy, comfort will always have a skewed and narrow view of how the world needs to work. It is this very reason why there is more suffering in the west where people ‘Suffer’ because of first world problems (“we can’t afford a Europe vacation this year so will have to do with a west coast road trip” LOL). Hope after Vipassana you realize that all these material / worldly comforts are ‘Anicca’ . “Bhavatu Sabba Managalam” means “May all beings be happy”. Agreeing by saying “Sadhu Sadhu Sadhu” is optional but everyone who realize themselves will repeat that 🙂

  8. And to add another thing – Your article mentions aversion towards multiple things – “chanting in unison makes me uncomfortable.”, Cough, Bad quality of video, and the whole “What Sucked” section. The very idea of Vipassana is to free oneself of any aversion and craving and looks like this deep rooted defilement has not left you. You should strive to rid yourself of these defilements and then you will notice a great greater change. “Bhavatu Sabba Managalam”

    • Thanks for the advice (round 1 and round 2); seems like you got your understanding of meditation down. This post and infographic is my perspective as a vipassana first timer, for first timers. So yup. I’ll be sure to keep striving.

  9. What was difficult about the retreat? How much exposure to meditation do you recommend someone have prior to going on a retreat of that scale?

    • Something I found difficult was the lack of mental stimulation. I believe slowing your mind down (so that you can focus on what your minds doing) is part of the point, but half way through I was so desperate for entertainment that I’d watch the ants on the flowers. Just to feed my mind something to think about.
      As for previous exposure: lots of people there had never even tried meditating before, so it can be done from scratch. But personally, I was glad that I had done SOME Headspace guided meditations before. I found it gave the first days more purpose.

  10. Very interesting review and very interesting comment of Raj…
    I just came back from a Shinee meditation retreat of +- 2 days and I feel like I want to push the experience further but I was also glad when the 1h meditation ended and felt so much relief when I heard the gong. And it was only 3 hours of meditation a day, so not that much compared to Vipassana. I felt it was really difficult not to close my eyes and fall asleep during the meditation as I woke up both morning at 5 o’clock (so in which state would I be with even fewer hours sleep…).
    Have you heard feedback from people who didn’t have headaches but felt dizzy ? This is what happened to me on the second day, and I had to lie for some time in my room then the dizziness slowly shade away. I’m afraid that if it happens again during a Vipassana retreat, “they” won’t let met go to my room and lie for a moment.

    And for the practical aspects, when do the meditants take a shower?
    What do you mean by men and wowen are isolated? They don’t take course together? Neither do they eat or walk in the same space?

    • Most people would take showers in the evening, before going to sleep. There was also free time after breakfast, and some other times for yourself. No problems to fit in personal hygiene, but there was a shower/bathroom rush where you may have to wait at popular times.
      Men and women are separate for the whole course (except the first day and the last day). Separate everything (accommodations, meditation halls, dining areas, outside grounds), so that you never see the opposite sex for the duration.
      As for the dizziness, I’ve never heard any feedback from anyone that gets that but I’m not an expert in any sense. (besides this post, I don’t get feedback) However, I don’t think anyone would stop you from going back to your room. Sometimes people get up and leave during the meditations.

  11. Thank you for this informative post.
    I’m heading off to do the 10 day course in Brookton Western Australia in October.
    I’m really looking forward to it, but really have no expectations, so was great to read your experience.
    Thx 😊

    • Glad you found it helpful Tracey! It can be pretty intimidating to set off into the unknown for 10 days. When you have no expectations, you’re likely to get the most out of it. Enjoy!

  12. Going to attend the course day after tomorrow, Thanks a lot for your article, I don’t know either I can stay or not for all 10 days because I am a mobile addict person.

    • I’m glad you found the post helpful. The first 3 days are the toughest as you get used to living without distractions. Get through those days and I’m sure you’ll finish strong.

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