Preparing a first 10-day Vipassana retreat: What I wish I would’ve known

Going to your first Vipassana course? Here's what to know, how to prepare, and answers to common questions.

Preparing a first 10-day Vipassana retreat: What I wish I would’ve known

Preparing a first 10-day Vipassana retreat: What I wish I would’ve known 1024 768 Looking out Loud

If you’re reading this, you’re likely considering or planning your first Vipassana retreat. If so, great decision—it may or may not not change your life, but you’ll definitely learn something.

I recently returned from my first 10-day silent Vipassana course. Although I’m a long-term meditator, I went naive of the Vipassana technique and had no idea what to expect.

On the one hand, this isn’t a problem. The routine is simple, and everything you need to know is taught step-by-step while you’re there. Overall, going without expectations is wise strategy.

Still, there are a few things I wish I would’ve known beforehand for reasons I’ll explain below.

My aim is to help you prepare for your 10-day course, answer common questions, and remove unneeded fears. If you know what you’re looking for, you can use the Time Machine to jump to areas of interest:

Let’s start with a basic sense of why you’re doing this.

What is Vipassana? The basic idea

Here’s how the official Dhamma website describes Vipassana:

Vipassana is a way of self-transformation through self-observation. It focuses on the deep interconnection between mind and body, which can be experienced directly by disciplined attention to the physical sensations that form the life of the body, and that continuously interconnect and condition the life of the mind. It is this observation-based, self-exploratory journey to the common root of mind and body that dissolves mental impurity, resulting in a balanced mind full of love and compassion.”

In Vipassana, you pay careful attention to the physical sensations in your body—good and bad—watching them come and go (awareness).

And you try to do this without reacting. Just noticing the sensations—from pleasant tingles to painful knees—as they are, without craving or aversion (equanimity).

By honing your awareness and equanimity, you calm your mind and train yourself to be less reactive to the sensations in your body.

For a bird to fly, its wings must be of equal size and strength.

The basic idea is that all of our mental suffering stems from two sources:

  • Craving = wanting things that you don’t have
  • Aversion = wanting things that you don’t like to go away

Craving and aversion stem from different emotions, and all emotions—anger, fear, sadness, disgust, happiness, surprise—begin in the body. But these physical sensations often go undetected as we get wrapped up in our thoughts and feelings.

By honing your awareness and equanimity, you develop insight into this process, and increase your power to deal with the ups and downs of daily life.

This will all be explained in the course by your teacher.

Meet your teacher: S.N. Goenka

Your teacher for the course will be S.N. Goenka—the same teacher I had.

Goenka is an inspiring guide with a fascinating story. He was born in Burma, became a wealthy businessman and political figure, then helped open over 150 Vipassana centers around the world, where hundreds of thousands of people have received instruction—for free.

Goenka died in 2013. But in the 1990s, he recorded the courses, knowing his time would come to an end. No matter when or where someone sits a Vipassana retreat, the sessions are given by S.N. Goenka through these recordings.

You’ll hear Goenka in two situations:

  1. During the daily meditation sessions. Goenka’s voice gives you instructions for each sitting. I took the course at Dhamma Neru near Barcelona, so Goenka’s instructions were followed by a Spanish translation.
  2. In the evening Dhamma talks. These discourses are full of storytelling, theoretical background, and practical insights. Here’s a quick taste:
S.N. Goenka, a story from an evening Dhamma talk

Apart from Goenka’s recorded presence, there’s also an assistant teacher who sits at the front of the meditation hall during mandatory sessions. They’re available each day to answer questions about the technique. (Yes, you are allowed to talk to them; more on the Noble Silence in the FAQs below.)

Three meditation techniques you practice at a 10-day Vipassana course

Vipassana is the main meditation technique you’ll learn and practice during the course. But I didn’t realize that we’d actually train in three different techniques, each inner-connected.

1. Anapana (Days 1-3)

The first three days you practice anapana, observing your natural breath coming and going, in the triangle area around your nose and upper lip. The aim is to sharpen your attention and train your concentration.

As a daily meditator for many years, I admit I got a bit bored with this. I didn’t realize just how important and necessary this step was to take the plunge into Vipassana. Trust the process, and try your best with this.

2. Vipassana (Days 4-9)

On Day 4, you begin Vipassana. This is a body scanning technique, where you move your attention from head to toe, becoming increasing aware of a range of sensations throughout your body, without reacting to them. Instruction vary slightly each day as you develop your awareness and equanimity.

3. Metta (Day 10)

On Day 10, you extend the peace you are developing to other beings through the practice of metta, or loving kindness meditation. It’s the act of spreading love and compassion, or good vibes, with a sincere desire for the positive wellbeing of all people.

The daily Vipassana routine

With small exceptions on Day 4 and Day 10, every day is the same:

4 amMorning wake-up bell
4:30-6:30 amMeditate in the hall or in your room
6:30-8:00 amBreakfast break
8:00-9:00 am*Group meditation in the hall
9:00-11:00 amMeditate in the hall or in your room according to the teacher’s instructions
11:00-12:00 noonLunch break
12:00-1:00 pmRest and interviews with the teacher
1:00-2:30 pmMeditate in the hall or in your room
2:30-3:30 pm*Group meditation in the hall
3:30-5:00 pmMeditate in the hall or in own room according to the teacher’s instructions
5:00-6:00 pmTea break
6:00-7:00 pm*Group meditation in the hall
7:00-8:15 pmDiscourse in the hall
8:15-9:00 pmGroup meditation in the hall
9:00-9:30 pmQuestion time in the hall
9:30 pmRetire to your own room—Lights out
The daily Vipassana schedule. It’s posted at the center, and ringing bells let you know what time it is.

The *asterisks are mandatory sessions, where all students must be in the main meditation hall. Other meditation sessions can be done in your room or other dedicated areas, according to the teacher’s instructions.

How many mediation hours is that? It depends on your dedication, but on average it’s about 10 hours a day.

10 tips for your first 10-day silent Vipassana retreat

Before you decide to attend a 10-day course, ask yourself why you’re going. Like with most things, it’s good to have a reason. But don’t confuse being mindful of your intentions for having a goal or expectations. Leave your mind open, and let the process work its way.

Once you’ve decided to do it, here are ten things to keep in mind for a successful retreat—from mindset to posture.

1. Commit fully for 10 days

You are there for 10 days. Give yourself permission to let go of everything else.

Leave you work, family, kids, house, stresses, personal projects—everything—behind. I have two kids at home, and I know how hard this is (thanks to my wife for this time), but allow yourself to disconnect from the rest of the word. And make sure you let friends, family, and work know you’ll be completely off the grid for 10 days.

Some days you may feel tired, frustrated, or simply want to go home. That’s normal, and working through this is part of your progress. Here’s a trick that helped me when I felt this way:

  • Instead of: “I’ve had enough. I want to go home.” or “What am I’m doing here? This is a waste of time.”
  • Change to: “I don’t feel into this right now. But I’m not leaving. So I can choose to spend my remaining days wishing I was home. Or I can accept that I’m here, and figure out how to best use the time I’ve got. Starting right now.”

You’ve committed to these 10 days. Make the best of the time.

2. Follow Goenka’s instructions

You’re there with the opportunity to learn a specific technique. These 10 days are often referred to as a ‘retreat’, but it’s a ‘course’—one tested over thousands of years.

To get the most from the course, follow Goenka’s instructions as best as you can. This starts by reading and committing to the code of conduct.

You may hear some things you don’t understand or agree with. That’s okay. You don’t have to accept any of the teachings, history, or theory—none of it is necessary for the practice.

Also, don’t mix techniques. If you’ve experimented with—or regularly practice—other techniques, put them aside for these 10 days. You can chose to return to them after, but for these days, you’re there to learn Vipassana.

3. Bring a strong mind and go all out

Like any kind of training, you get out what you put in. So work hard while you’re there, patiently and persistently.

You may be tempted to skip out on the early sessions (4am is pretty early for most of us), or sneak away to nap during the optional sessions. Ultimately it’s up to you, but try to stay awake and stay focused.

And keep your focus between sessions. While you eat, walk, shower, and rest: remember why you’re there, and give it your all.

4. Don’t expect enlightenment

You may feel some nice “free flow” sensations. You may recover deep memories. You may have some form of out-of-body experience. But you’re unlikely to find deep liberation, or enlightenment, on a first retreat.

This practice takes years of training. Go with the goal of learning a new technique, and be open to what it reveals to you.

Go with intentions, not expectations.

5. Find your comfortable position

At home, I meditate on hard foam yoga block. It’s fine for 20 or 30 minutes a day, but I discovered it didn’t give me the cushion or position I needed to sit for hours a day.

The center has a several types of cushions, along with other options for different sitting positions. Use the first couple of days to find the position that works for you. Experiment with cushions and postures up front, and don’t feel that you need to settle for whatever you first try. A still body helps you develop a still mind.

Also keep in mind that it takes a few days to adjust to sitting so long, so expect some initial discomfort as your body adapts.

Dhamma Neru meditation hall, near Barcelona

6. Dissect your pain

You will likely feel discomfort during the course—back, knees, legs, neck—it’s a lot of unnatural sitting. No matter how bad it hurts, try to separate the actual sensations in your body with your mental reaction to the pain. When you observe closely, you start to notice the physical pain is made up of sensations like heat, tingling, and pressure.

I found that approaching my pain with curiosity helped me break through some of the discomfort. The good news is that it usually improves as the days pass.

7. Relax

When you’re determined to do well, the tendency is to focus intently on the task at hand. You start by spending three days hyper-focused on the entrance of your nose during anapana. And developing a certain level of concentration is needed to do the practice.

But at a certain point, progress depends on relaxing that determined homunculus in your head. If you feel yourself trying very hard to do well—to feel sensations, to avoid pain—take a breath and sink into it. Relax your body, relax your mind, and stop trying so hard.

8. Relieve yourself before each session

There’s nothing worse than needing to pee in a session of strong determination (see adhiṭṭhāna below). Even the most enlightened people get full bladders. So make sure you empty the tank before heading to the hall.

9. Don’t compare your insides to other people’s outsides

You’re supposed to keep your eyes closed, but you’ll be tempted to crack an eye and peek around meditation hall. If you do, you’ll see rows of people’s backs, sitting still like little Buddhas. Meanwhile you’re distracted and doubting, with a sore back and thoughts running rampantly.

“How do all these other people sit so still?! They all seem to get it, and look so peaceful. What’s wrong with me?”

Nothing is wrong with you. You’re making a false comparison between what you feel like on the inside, and what others look like from the outside. If you could jump inside these others, you’d realize many are struggling too—with pain, random thoughts, and insecure doubts. (We do this in daily life too: at work, in the streets, with friends…)

When this happens, simply close your eyes, and start the practice again.

10. Talk to people at the end of the course

On Day 10, the Noble Silence is broken and you are allowed to communicate after nine days of looking inward. I had no idea this coming, and when I found out I tightened up. I’m introverted by nature, and after nine days of intense, inward-focused silence, talking to people was not what I thought I wanted.

But as Goenka puts it, it’s an important day that serves as a buffer for reentry into the real world. It’s also an opportunity to calibrate experience and get to know interesting people from all over the place. I met people I still keep in touch with. Take advantage of the time.

Men’s walking area at Dhamma Neru, near Barcelona

Vipassana glossary: common words you’ll hear at a 10-day course

You don’t need to know any special vocabulary or concepts before you arrive, but here are a few words I wish would’ve pinged my ear before I went (most are from Pāli, an ancient Indian language).

  • Anapana (a-na-pa-na) – A meditation practice focused on observing the natural breath coming and going, just as it is. It’s used to sharpen concentration (samādhi, see below) during the first few days of a Vipassana retreat.
  • Vipassana (vi-pA-sana) – Often translated as “insight”, “seeing clearly” or “seeing things as they are”. A meditation technique where you scan your body from top to bottom, monitoring any sensations that arise, while trying not to react to them, good or bad. You will be introduced to this practice on Day 4.
  • Adhiṭṭhāna (aad-it-tana) – Strong determination. Starting on Day 4, there are three adhiṭṭhāna sessions a day (the mandatory sessions, with an asterisk* in the table above). During periods of strong determination, you can’t change your posture, move your hands, open your eyes, or leave the Dhamma hall.
  • Mettā bhāvanā (meh-ta ba-va-na) – Loving kindness meditation. Love and compassion. Spreading good vibes, love, and compassion to all beings. You will be introduced to this practice on Day 10.
  • Anicca (an-ni-cha) – Impermanence. Everything changes. Vipassana will point you toward this insight and why it matters.
  • Dhamma (da-ma) – The teachings of the Buddha. Buddhist doctrine about the nature of existence. The path.
  • Equanimity (eh-quin-nim-ity) – Balanced mind. Non-reactive, non-judgmental mind. Seeing things as they are, not as you want them to be. Observing without interpretation or thinking.
  • Sīla (she-la) – Moral conduct; committed to via the five precepts in the code of conduct
  • Samādhi (sa-ma-di) – Strong mind; developed through anapana
  • Paññā (pan-ya) – Wisdom; discovered through Vipassana

To dive into these concepts and others, it’s best to consult the official page. But again, you don’t need to know any of this before attending your first Vipassana course.

First Vipassana retreat FAQs

Below are answers to the basic questions I had before my first course. If you have particular questions about diet, sitting after injuries, being pregnant, mental illness, or otherwise, check the frequent Vipassana questions on the Dhamma’s website or get in touch directly with the center you plan to attend.

1. What should I bring?

The required things-to-pack list is here. Basically:

Must bring:

  • Fitted single bed sheet for the mattress
  • Top bed sheet (the center provides blankets)
  • Pillow case

Nice to have:

  • Basic toiletries and shower stuff – hopefully you know why this is important
  • Your own meditation cushion – if you use one; the center has plenty of option if you don’t have your own
  • Watch – a bell will indicate times throughout the day; but it’s useful for planning your free time
  • Headlamp or flashlight – useful for walking to early morn and late eve sessions, also in shared dorms
  • Water bottle – useful to have in your room
  • Shower shoes/sandals – if you prefer not to be barefoot in shared showers
  • Easy slip on-off shoes – for going between the dormitory and mediation hall
  • Indoor comfy slippers or sandals – for the dormitory; to not wear your outdoor shoes inside
  • Sunscreen – for walking outside, especially during summer months

2. What should I wear at a meditation retreat?

Pack clothes that are:

  • Comfortable
  • Modest (no shorts, dresses, sleeveless shirts, tight stretch pants)
  • Minimally distracting (avoid neon shirts that say “I’m with stupid 👉”)

Sweatpants and plain t-shirts work great.

3. Can I really not talk for 10 days?

That’s right. You shouldn’t talk to, or communicate with, other students in any way during the first nine days of the course.

However, you can speak with your course manager (one for females, one for males) for any material needs (e.g. needing extra blankets for your bed, different cushions for meditation, or the toothbrush you forgot to pack). You can also speak to the assistant teacher during set times for questions or concerns about the meditation techniques.

This Noble Silence is essential and you’ll quickly learn to appreciate it.

4. Am I really not allowed to read or write?

I read and write constantly. The idea of not being able to do these things, especially when you’re expecting to be immersed in such a unique experience, can feel frustrating.

The official rules say to leave all reading and writing material behind, and it’s recommended that you fully follow all the course guidelines. Phones are turned in and locked up when you arrive at the course.

5. Will I be hungry?

No. You may have noticed that you don’t eat much after 12 noon. This sounds scary, but you’ll be fine.

It’s all vegetarian, tastes good, and there’s plenty. I’m not a big eater or vegetarian, but I never felt hungry. The meal plan is designed to maximize your energy. Exercise portion control, and fight against the urge to pile your plate. Too much food will make you sleepier.

6. Is it really free?

Yes. It is completely free to attend a 10-day Vipassana retreat. At the end, you are given the opportunity to donate any amount you feel you’d like to give. It’s optional, and the amount is up to you.

How much should you give? Keep in mind that a previous student donated so that you could attend, so whatever you feel you can give will go to help future students have the experience you did.

7. Do I need any meditation experience to attend a 10-day silent Vipassana retreat?

No experience with any type of mediation is required. You will be taught everything you need to know during the course.

But, some previous practice sitting still in silence is beneficial, as a 10-day course is quite demanding. Don’t go with zero meditation experience expecting easy, peaceful bliss—you’ll likely struggle. But as long as you’re serious and determined, you’ll survive and benefit even without previous meditation experience.

8. Should I attend a silent Vipassana meditation course? How do I know if I’m ready?

Vipassana is for people who are suffering from mental turmoil, bombarded by overly active minds, desiring to be better humans, seeking deeper truths about the nature of mind and reality, and looking for their way through life.

It’s a challenging 10 days. It’s not something you should take lightly. But if you have the interest, or something inside is urging you to check it out, you’re likely ready.

I hope you’ve found this useful. Everything expressed here is my own opinion based on my own experience. For the official word on any of this, it’s best to go to the official Vipassana source.

Wishing you all the best with your experience, and sending lots of metta. 🙏

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  • Varshitha Manjunath December 1, 2023 at 3:28 pm

    Hi this is Varshitha, I am very interested in Vipassana meditation, I am having a mental turmoil and my mind is so hyper active. I really want to experience Vipassana

    • Hi Varshitha, if you have a busy mind and an interest in Vipassana, a course could be a great experience. It’s certainly a unique one. Depending on the type of mental turmoil you’re experiencing, you may want to check with the Vipassana course organizers first to make sure there are no concerns with long periods of silence and sitting in your particular case. Hope you’re well and all the best.

  • Hi Eric,

    I just finished my retreat months ago. How would you differentiate it from the Zen Meditation you’ve done before? I’ve read some of your post and being a dad, congrats! I’m still in the process of travelling and finding my way in the world. Metta

    • Thanks for your comment. I’ve never experienced a formal Zen retreat so I can’t speak for that experience. The Zen practice I’ve done has been in open weekly sessions in temples in Japan over a two year period and self-study. There are different versions of Zen, but it’s often focused on ‘zazen’, which is a particular form of seated meditation. Direct interaction with the instructor also usually plays more of a role in the practice. I can give Zen book recommendations. For a practical introduction including a guide to zazen posture, try Philip Kapleau’s The Three Pillars of Zen. For a historical and philosophical exploration, Alan Watts’ The Way of Zen is my favorite. And anything by D.T. Suzuki is worth checking out. Keep traveling, keep searching! And lots of metta back to you.