While I am a huge fan of Vipassana, 10 days of meditating 12–14 hours a day combined with a non-traditional sleep and eating schedule, no speaking, no mobile phone, no books, or any other form of distraction, can be hard for most people. The tips below are meant to mainly help new students have the smoothest experience possible, in hopes of getting the most from their first ten day course.
Don’t quit — My number one tip — don’t quit. While I have met people who didn’t fall in love with Vipassana or couldn’t maintain their practice after leaving, it’s rare to meet someone who felt Vipassana was a waste of time. So even if you don’t enjoy the technique, just stick with it. Even if you don’t meditate, just sit and observe. But try to listen to the nightly discourses and stay the full ten days.
Maintain noble silence — I have heard from various people and have seen folks who break noble silence. This not only impacts your experience, but affects the person you speak to. And if others hear you, it will impact their experience or worse make them feel like it is okay to speak. It’s only ten days of your life. Don’t speak!
Consider the weather — If cold or hot weather is something that usually impacts your motivation or ability to focus, be thoughtful about the weather at the center you’re thinking about going to. The morning meditation bell rings at 4am. You don’t want the weather to inhibit you from getting up. Some centers don’t use or have AC which can also be pretty uncomfortable when it’s very warm.
Choose a center wisely — While the same course is taught everywhere, cultural differences can make the experience different in different cities. For example, while India has many centers with a strong Vipassana tradition, cultural differences for foreigners going to a center in India might make the experience more challenging. Also, some centers are known to be more intense or have “humbler conditions”. For first time students this may be an additional obstacle.
Cushions and back support — You’re going to be sitting and meditating 12–14 hours per day trying to learn the technique, so being comfortable is very important. If your body is in pain, finding mental focus will be harder. Try to find out if the center has sufficient cushions to use and if getting a back support or seat along the wall is possible. For your first course I wouldn’t recommend trying to “tough it out”.
Stay healthy — Along with being comfortable while sitting, being physically healthy is also essential. If you get a stomach bug, terrible headache or something else, they will certainly impact your practice. That said, try to be particularly cautious about your health leading up to the course. And if something comes up while you’re in the course, speak to the teacher to get their medical advice.
Rest — During breaks I would try to rest or sleep as much as possible. You want to utilize all your physical and mental energy on meditation, which can be more tiring than you might expect. Proper rest will help you avoid napping during meditations and allow you to be as attentive as possible when practicing the technique.
Ask questions — Sometimes the technique can be confusing or questions may come up during your practice. While I’d recommend trying to find the answer on your own initially or waiting for the nightly discourse, if you’re still unclear about something definitely speak to the teacher.
Be patient but persistent — Focusing one’s mind 12–14 hours simply on meditation isn’t easy, especially if you’re new to the practice. It takes a mix of patience and persistence. So while it is unlikely you’ll naturally get it at first, don’t worry. Just be patient but persistent. Push yourself to do the best you can over the ten days, but don’t be discouraged if it takes time to establish yourself in the technique.
Be skeptical but open hearted — If you’re the skeptical type about “spiritual” practices, no problem. You should not blindly believe that Vipassana is great. But also keep an open heart and mind. If the practice begins to win you over, try to relax and take it in. However, if your goal is to disprove or find a flaws about Vipassana, you’ll never give the technique a fair shot.
Read the Code of Discipline — The code of discipline provided by the Dhamma organization provides various other important details and aspects of the practice. I would highly recommend giving it a quick read.
Listen to the discourses carefully — Each night there is a nightly discourse with S.N. Goenka. Goenka taught hundreds of courses in his lifetime and likely responded to every question imagable. His nightly discourses usually cover many of the questions most people have. Plus, he is a powerful communicator, capable of describing somewhat complex issues and concerns in a simple way. There is much wisdom in his talks.
That’s about it. While day laboring in an open field may be more challenging, Vipassana isn’t easy either. The course is simply meant to teach you the technique. These tips should help you get the most out of your ten days.