How to Survive (& Thrive in) a 10-Day Vipassana Course
You may have just submitted your application to a 10-day silent meditation retreat and are wondering what the heck you just got yourself into. Or perhaps a friend just completed a vipassana and his/her experience has piqued your interest. Or maybe you’ve been meditating for some time now, and want to dive deeper into your practice. I fell into some combination of all three scenarios above, and while I thought I’d prepared myself as fully as I possibly could have―familiarizing myself with the vipassana center’s schedule, guidelines and other fine print, researching vipassana online, reading blogs of people who’d gone through the experience themselves in addition to William Hart’s The Art of Living: Vipassana Meditation, which summarizes the 10-day experience and teachings of S.N Goenka (who founded the vipassana centers) into a 176-page book — I still found myself wholly unprepared on Day 1.
Looking back, I’m glad I took the time to research and familiarize myself with the 10-day immersive course―it helped set expectations to a degree―unless, of course, you’ve mastered the art of not having expectations, or are able to take things in strides as they come. Still, there are a handful of tips and things that I wish I’d known prior to Day One, advice I’d give to my virgin-vipassana-self.
Below is a compilation of those tips — both practical and conceptual. The hope is that someone out there will stumble upon this post and find some use for it, and perhaps, just perhaps, rather than simply surviving your first 10-day vipassana, you’ll thrive in it.
DO YOUR RESEARCH.
I cannot emphasize this one enough. If you’re reading this post, then you’ve already taken the first step. If you haven’t chosen a center yet, do the research and find the right one for you―do you want to stay in your region, state/province, country, or are you interested in going to a center in Asia? Some centers have only dormitories, while others have private rooms―how important is it for you to have your own space? If you have introverted tendencies or are a light sleeper, look for a center with private dormitories. Check the center’s website and read through their Google reviews. Some centers give you the option to meditate in your own room for some of the sessions, while others require that you remain in the Dhamma Hall (the meditation hall) at all times, so choose wisely. Once you’ve narrowed down a few options for where, decide when. Of course, timing needs to work with your life and work schedule, but if you have any flexibility there, check the weather. You probably don’t want to go to Thailand in April, which is the hottest month of the year. Most vipassana centers (especially in Asia) are pretty bare bones, meaning the Dhamma Hall and dormitories don’t have air conditioning. So unless you’re a bit of masochist, do your research and either find a comfortable time to go or find a center with modern facilities.
Depending on which country you choose, the food will vary greatly. It will be vegan no matter where you go, but the ingredients and flavors will differ from country to country. It’s challenging enough to sit in the same position for 10+ hours a day, to abstain from communicating, reading, writing, exercising, etc., so give yourself something to look forward to. For me, that was food. I narrowed down my centers to two in Japan and two in Thailand because I love Japanese and Thai cuisine, and based on availability and timing, I ended up going to Dhamma Kancana in Thailand, and it was absolutely the right decision (though I’m sure Japan would have been great too as far as food is concerned).
DROP YOUR DIET (UNLESS YOUR VEGETARIAN/VEGAN).
If you’re a bit of health nut, possibly borderline orthorexic, follow an AIP, paleo, ketogenic, low-FODMAP or some other obscure diet because you choose to, not because you have to, then my advice to you is to prioritize getting enough food in your system during the 10 days rather than starving yourself because something isn’t cooked in a healthy fat, or because something isn’t “keto.” While intermittent fasting is allowed to some degree, other kinds of fasting are not, plus 10 days is much too long for a fast anyway. You will not die from 10 days of veganism. Unless, of course, you are celiac, have an autoimmune condition, or an allergy to soy, in which case you should write in to the center you’ve chosen and see if they can accommodate your dietary restrictions. If they can’t, they may at least allow you to bring some of your own snacks and foods―as long as it’s free of animal products.
PACK (AND WEAR) APPROPRIATE CLOTHING.
The idea here is to minimize distraction in every way possible, and by the second half of the course, you’ll find that you’re much more sensitive to the environment around you and will be appreciative of how few distractions there are. So wear clothing that covers as much of your body as possible. This means nothing transparent, tight or revealing. It means wearing pants rather than shorts, short-or long-sleeve shirts over tank tops, keeping your shoulders and chest covered. Steer clear of anything that hugs your body. After four hours of sitting, you’ll be glad you opted for loose clothing rather than something tight and restrictive. You’re not going to a fashion show, you’re going to a 10-day vipassana and everyone’s eyes are closed 70% of the time, so choose comfort and function over form.
BRING A WATCH.
Familiarize yourself with the daily timetable. It’s the same schedule every day starting from Day 1 all the way through Day 9, with a few minor tweaks to the afternoon schedule on Day 4. You don’t need a watch — since most centers have clocks around and a timed intercom/bell system that goes off throughout the day letting you know when to wake up, when it’s ten minutes till the next sit, when a sit begins and ends―but a watch is a very nice to have. You don’t want to check it compulsively (or at all) while you’re meditating, but I found it particularly useful during the break periods. Knowing exactly how much time I had to eat, walk around, stretch, take a shower, wash my clothes, etc., helped me get the most out of that hour or two. Having an Apple Watch also provided me with some (minimal) entertainment as I strove to close my Activity circles each day.
Most centers provide coffee and tea, and while I can’t speak to the quality of either at other centers, Dhamma Kancana’s offerings included a few non-loose leaf herbal teas (non-caffeinated), Lipton’s Black Tea (caffeinated) and Nescafe packets. So, if you’re a coffee or tea snob, I suggest bringing your own supply. I wouldn’t go as far as bringing a French Press, but you could consider purchasing a travel-friendly silicon coffee dripper, disposable drip filter bags, or stock up on higher quality instant coffee. If you’re used to getting 7 or more hours of sleep per night, caffeine will be your savior. Drowsiness is one of the four horsemen of meditation, along with craving, aversion and ignorance, so do what you can to keep it at bay.
EAT TILL 75% FULL.
Out of all the tips here, this is the hardest for me to uphold. I love food, and have a tendency to overeat, especially when good food is presented in buffet form. But the last thing you want is to go into an hour long sitting with a too-full stomach and a tummy-ache from eating too much, too fast. Sitting for an hour with minimal movement is in-and-of-itself a physical and mental challenge, so set yourself up for success and don’t give yourself a reason to experience more pain than is necessary. My best sittings were almost always a few hours after eating, so eat till you’re no longer hungry rather than eating till you’re full. And if you, like me, can’t help yourself, then walk it out afterwards.
GET COMFORTABLE—GRAB EXTRA PILLOWS, PADS, CUSHIONS.
By Day 3, all the good stuff will be gone. By Day 4, very little, if anything, will be left. So do yourself a favor and be a hoarder on Day 1. Grab an extra cushion or two, a few pillows, a couple of pads, and experiment with your posture and positioning in the first couple of days until you find a position (or two) you can sustain for a period of time, ideally an hour. If you can’t make it to an hour, then whichever position you can maintain for the longest is a good start. I found it helpful to always keep my tailbone elevated by 4–6 inches. Most of the time, I sat cross-legged. For some sessions, I’d insert a 6-inch or so pad under each knee to take some of the pressure off. When sitting crossed-leg ran its course and I could no longer “accept” the blind, numbing pain shooting up and down my feet, ankles, shins and knees, I’d pull my legs behind me into a reverse pigeon and try that for awhile. But keep in mind that everyone’s bodies are different, so what works for me may not necessarily work for you. Thus, experiment!
GIVE YOURSELF PERMISSION TO MOVE, ESPECIALLY DURING THE FIRST COUPLE OF DAYS.
Don’t fight the pain, don’t resist it, don’t try to pretend that it’s not real, it is. Don’t equate moving with failing. It’s not. A little discomfort is normal, your legs will fall asleep, but if you’re in pain and it’s distracting you from your breath, then listen to your body, shift into a more comfortable position and go back to your practice. When you move, if you move, do it slowly, quietly, with awareness and keep your eyes closed. With each sitting, move one time less than the sit before, or make your movements smaller. Rather than opening your legs and changing position entirely, see if you can buy some time with a few toe wiggles or shoulder shrugs. If one of the days, you have one or several bad sits, don’t beat yourself up about it―it’ll pass. Tomorrow’s a new day. You’re going to move much less on Day 9 than you did on Day 1, period. Believe it will happen. Trust the process.
YOU WILL HAVE TWO, AT LEAST TWO, REALLY ROUGH DAYS.
Days 2 and 6 seem to be the hardest (and longest) days for many people. Mine were 1 and 5. When it happens doesn’t really matter, just know that it will and it’spart of the experience. You will most likely have more than two hard days, I did, but it’s almost certain that you will not have ten consecutive hard days (assuming you’re physically and mentally healthy and able).
GIVE UP ON ALL EXPECTATIONS, LIKE FOR REAL, AND KEEP AN OPEN MIND & HEART.
Easier said than done, but if you go into a 10-day course expecting some life-altering, consciousness-expanding experience, you’re setting yourself up for misery and you’ll have missed the point of vipassana as a technique. Just because someone told you they experienced their bodies “dissolve” or felt tiny, electrical pulses and vibrations shoot up and down their spine does not mean you’ve failed if you don’t have the same experience. As in life, we are all on our own path and own timeline, so take each day in stride and accept what you do and don’t experience, as it is. Keep yourself open to any and all sensations and experiences, whether it is neutral, negative or positive. It may at times feel overly religious, cult-like, new-agey or granola. Strange, unexpected chanting may reverberate your eardrums. Try not to react, overthink or overanalyze, just notice it for what it is, as it is.
MOVE DURING THE BREAK PERIODS.
Whether it’s a short or long break, get up, use the toilet, stretch your legs, walk and move around as much as you can, as often as you can. While yoga, running and other forms of exercise are not permitted (because they can be distracting), there are other ways to move your body and get your blood circulating. At Dhamma Kancana, there was a small courtyard where I would walk around in a loop 15–20 times per day. I also designed a stretch routine that I could easily practice in my bed. Both were wonderful respites from a long day of sitting.
YOUR TIME IS VALUABLE—DON’T WASTE IT.
There will be days that drag on and you’ll wonder if you can really make it through ten days. There will be hour-long sittings that stretch forever and the saying “time is relative” will be experienced in all its pain and glory. Minutes will feel like hours, and hours, days, but then, all good things take time. Vipassana is a technique, and like all things involving “technique,” it takes patience, time and a whole lot of practice. So do just that, practice. Relatively speaking, ten days is not that long, but it’s enough time for you to establish a solid foundation for the practice if you take advantage of it. You’ve already committed to being there, so be there.
You’ll be hearing the word “equanimous” in its various forms over and over again throughout the course. It may drive you mad, but seconds later, you’ll remember how madness and equanimity cannot sit together. If you have trouble remaining still, be equanimous with it. If you feel terrible pain, be equanimous with it. If you experience an extraordinary sensation, be equanimous with it. If you have a great day, be equanimous with it. The idea is to achieve and maintain a sense of mental stability or equilibrium so that the good, the bad, the neutral can flow through you without unsettling you, without causing a reaction within you. It also means not reacting negatively if you aren’t able to remain equanimous (or positively if you are). Rather than re-acting, you’ll simply learn how to act. Baffling, I know.
DONATE WITHIN YOUR MEANS AND/OR BASED ON YOUR EXPERIENCE.
If you’ve only got $20 bucks to spare, then donate $20. If you left on Day 6 because it wasn’t for you, you don’t have to donate a penny. It’s tough to quantify how much an experience like this is worth. You’re able to attend a course because someone before you paid it forward and made it possible for you to come. All Dhamma centers function off of good will, donations and volunteers, so donate more if you have the means and if you benefited from the practice, and less (or not at all) if you didn’t. There’s no pride or shame in either.
I came up with my amount by calculating my costs over the course of ten days — accommodation, food, etc. — and calibrating it to reflect the average costs of similar accommodation and food in the city where the center is located. Since I had the means, I then rated my experience on a scale of 1–5, from no benefit to maximum benefit, of which a 5 would equate to donating an additional 100% of my cost, a 4 would equate to 75%, so on and so forth. If I received no benefits, then I would just cover the center’s cost of having me so they don’t lose money. I ended up donating 50% more than my estimated cost and that number felt right to me.
If the above tips aren’t enough, (I’ll assume you’re one of those overachieving or control-freak types), you can always get ahead of everyone else by reading William Hart’s The Art of Living: Vipassana Meditation as taught by S.N Goenka. The book is a crash course into many of the teachings and anecdotes you’ll encounter during the 10-day course, and provides some history and context behind vipassana as a practice — how it got to where it is today and who S.N Goenka is. (Probably smart to know a thing or two about the man prior to going and spending 10-days at one of his centers).
The only way to end your suffering is through it. This experience is meant to be hard; it’s not a vacation, it’s work. Otherwise, everyone and their mothers would sign up for the “free” accommodation and food. You’re going to be sitting in the same position a lot, for a long time, starting at 4:30 in the morning until 9:00 pm at night (with a few breaks in between), every day for ten days. This is not easy to do, but good, bad or neutral, it will be a journey inwards. So good luck―I think it’s fair to say it will be tumultuous, but here’s to it being insightful (or at least, restful) as well!