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?
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?
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.
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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- In silence you cannot compare. Everyone experiences meditation differently. When nobody speaks they don’t compare experiences, building up false hopes, fears, or negativity.
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
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).
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.
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’.
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?
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