Monday, July 1, 2024

What is Vipassana Meditation? Goenka's 10-Day Course Explained

Goenka's 10-Day Vipassana meditation course attracts people from all backgrounds who seek an immersive, intense, and potentially life-changing experience.  Most people though, know very little about this meditation technique and the course structure before joining the course. 

I know that was my case. That's why I've decided to try to explain, in layman’s terms, what is Vipassana meditation and what exactly you do during the 10-day Vipassana meditation course.  So I hope that old and new students will find this article helpful.  

It is based on my personal experience after completing two 10-day courses and also based on these two books “The Discourses Summaries of S.N. Goenka,” and “The Art of Living: Vipassana Meditation as Taught by S.N. Goenka,” by William Hart, a student of Goenka.  

The first book summarizes the evening video lectures given by Goenka during the course, which explains the theory, meaning the Buddhist philosophical background behind the Vipassana technique.  The second book is also based on the discourses plus additional articles written by Goenka.

If you are planning to join the 10-day course in the future or if you've already completed one course before I think it's a very good idea you read both books.  They will help to refresh your memory and to deepen your understanding of Vipassana meditation.  

But just to be clear, the meditation technique is not explained in the book.  The technique is explained during the guided meditations throughout the 10 days.  So the best way to learn the technique is to join a 10-day vipassana meditation course.  

Of course, I will give you a good overview of the technique so that you know what exactly it is all about.

First I will talk about Vipassana and then I'll talk about the 10-day course structure. And, since I'm a student of the yoga tradition, I will also give you my own interpretation of how this technique works from a yoga philosophy perspective.

No, I won't talk here about the things I hated about the course.  I already used my previous blog post to vent.  Lol. So this one should be a more objective article.  

What is Vipassana?

Vipassana is a word in Pali, the language used by the Buddha for his teachings. It is usually translated as deep insight or wisdom and it's a practice that is common to all Buddhist traditions.  That includes the Theravada and Mahayana traditions.  

In Mahayana Buddhism, such as Tibetan Buddhism or Zen Buddhism, Vipassana is a type of analytical meditation where you contemplate or reflect on the nature of reality to realize that things lack inherent and independent existence.  

This is known as emptiness or suññatā (śūnyata in Sanskrit), one of the core teachings in Mahayana Buddhism.  The Heart Sutra, my favorite teaching from Tibetan Buddhism, is a teaching on emptiness.

In the Theravada tradition, which is practiced mainly in Sri Lanka, Thailand, Burma, Laos, and Cambodia, Vipassana is a sitting mindfulness meditation practice that focuses on the direct realization of impermanence right within ourselves.  

The Buddhist monks I met in the forest monastery I visited in Sri Lanka belong to the Theravada tradition.

So in Mahayana Buddhism, the insight or wisdom referred to by Vipassana is the realization of emptiness and in Theravada Buddhism is the realization of impermanence.  

The Vipassana meditation taught by Goenka is part of this Theravada tradition which focuses on impermanence. 

I'm not familiar yet with how Goenka's teachings on Vipassana might differ from other Theravada traditions.  So keep this in mind.  Whatever I'll explain here about Vipassana is based exclusively on Goenka's teachings.

What is Vipassana Meditation

Vipassana meditation is a Buddhist meditation technique that focuses on mental purification and on the development of wisdom, that is, the realization of impermanence.  

All this is attained by simply observing the body's sensations with perfect equanimity.  

That's it.  

You simply pay attention to the physical sensations in your body and that alone will purify your entire physico-mental structure leading you all the way to nibbāna, liberation, as long as you observe these sensations with perfect equanimity.

Ok, so let's break this up.

How could observing physical sensations purify the mind?

According to these teachings, whenever our senses come in contact with the external world we experience a sensation in the body.  This also includes contact with mental objects such as thoughts, memories, ideas, emotions, and so on.  They also come along with a physical sensation.

Because of past mental conditionings, we experience these sensations as pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral.

Then, as soon as we experience a body sensation we immediately react with craving if the sensation is pleasant, or aversion if the sensation is unpleasant.  This happens so quickly that we are almost never aware of the sensation but only of the reaction. 

These reactions of craving and aversion are what pollute the mind and the cause of suffering.  

Every time we experience them they leave an impression in the mind, a saṅkhāra1, which is like a seed that will sprout and create more reactions of craving and aversion whenever we are confronted with the same or similar situation.

But, if we observe these pleasant or unpleasant bodily sensations with equanimity, that is, without reacting with like or dislike, craving or aversion, we stop the formation of new mental impressions and the old ones gradually come up to the surface to be extinguished.   

Testing Vipassana meditation

Perhaps it will make more sense if I give you a real-life example. 

In my previous blog post, I told you that one of the things I hated about this course was Goenka's chanting in Pali, which he does at the beginning and end of every meditation session.  

With every passing day I was feeling more and more irritated by his chanting, I was experiencing more and more aversion towards it.  Not just with every passing day, but with every meditation session.  The moment the chanting would start I would get so annoyed that I had to stop my meditation practice immediately.  

Well, on Day 10, the last day of the course, during one of the morning meditation sessions a wise voice within told me that maybe I should put into practice what I was learning during the course.  

So when the chanting started I simply observed my reactions without trying to judge the experience as negative or positive.  

I observed how my body would become tense, how my breath would become a bit restricted.  I observed my irritation, my annoyance, and the physical sensations that came with it without reacting.   

Nothing happened at that moment, but to my surprise, during the next session when the chanting started, I didn't notice it.  

It took me a few minutes to realize that the chanting had started, and when I finally became conscious of it, it didn't bother me at all.  I felt completely indifferent towards it and continued the meditation as if it wasn't there.

This to me was mindblowing.  Think about it.  For nine days, in every single meditation session I would feel irritated, annoyed, and frustrated with this chanting, but then all of a sudden it didn't bother me anymore.  

I broke the cycle of creating more and more aversion, by simply observing the sensations without reacting.

Ok, here is another example that you might find more relatable.  

If someone insults us or offends us in some way, each one of us is going to have a different reaction.  We might feel offended, angry, upset, intimidated, afraid, sad, and so on.  

Whatever emotional reaction we might experience will come along with a body sensation like tightness, tension, heat, cold, tremble, goosebumps, and so on.  

What these teachings tell us is that the body's sensations come first, and our reactions come after.  We experience something, our unconscious mind judges it as positive or negative, and then we react with craving or aversion.  

But if we become aware of these physical sensations with equanimity we break the cycle and stop having further reactions.  In this way, we stop creating new mental impurities and allow the old impurities to be expressed and consumed. 

How Vipassana meditation leads to wisdom

By this same process of observing the physical sensations, which lead to mental purification, we develop wisdom, the understanding of impermanence through direct personal experience. 

That's because when we practice Vipassana we experience within ourselves the impermanent nature of reality as we observe the impermanent nature of sensations.  

You know, all these bodily sensations are constantly changing, constantly arising and passing away throughout the practice.  It doesn't matter if it is a gross sensation or a subtle sensation, a pleasant sensation or an unpleasant sensation, they are always changing.

Sometimes we feel pain, then the pain dissolves, then it comes back.  Or we might experience a pleasant subtle sensation, then it dissolves, then it comes back.  

Eventually even the idea of a permanent self, that is, the idea of who I think I am dissolves as there is nothing permanent in it.  That is the wisdom of Vipassana.

How to practice Vipassana meditation

So how exactly do we practice Vipassana meditation?

We simply sit still in a comfortable meditative posture and then slowly we move the awareness through each body part, from head to toe and then from toe back to head.  As we do this we try to notice any gross or subtle sensations in the body.  

This is just like a body scan but we do this continuously throughout the meditation session observing the sensations with equanimity and objectivity.  That is without reacting with feelings of craving or aversion, and without getting identified with the sensations.  We simply observe at what is without reacting.

We make sure that we cover the entire body in a systematic way, and pay special attention to ”blind areas” to make sure we experience sensations everywhere.  

The sensations we observe can be anything like the touch of the clothes against the body, perhaps a feeling of coldness or heat, perhaps there is pain or discomfort, itching, tingling, pulsation, and so on. 

During the 10-day course, you will most certainly experience physical pain.  Sitting for hours in a meditation posture is quite challenging.  But it's also part of the mental purification as I mentioned in There is No Aim in Meditation (Lessons From My 2nd Vipassana Retreat).

Ānāpāna sati as a preparation for Vipassana meditation

But before we start with the practice of Vipassana we have to develop samatha, a calm, sharp, and concentrated mind.  So the first three days of the course we practice only ānāpāna sati, awareness of the breath.  With each session, we try to get the mind sharper and sharper by narrowing down the area of concentration.  

First, we start by observing the natural breath and the sensations on the entire triangular area around the nose.  By the third day, we have already narrowed down the awareness to focus only on the sensations at the nostrils, trying to feel the touch and temperature of the subtle natural breath.

Notice that although you do this progression in three days, that's 30 hours of practice.  So if you do a one-hour meditation per day it would actually take 30 days until you start focusing only on the nostrils.

I would like to share something interesting here. 

In the Himalayan Yoga Tradition, there is a practice called suṣumṇā application, where we focus our attention on a very specific area, a point right under the nostrils, the space above the upper lip.

When we focus our attention at this point for some time both nostrils will start to flow freely and evenly which leads to the activation of the central channel known in yoga as the suṣumnā nāḍī.  

According to the yoga tradition, this is really important for meditation as it is only at this moment when the mind is in perfect balance, in perfect equilibrium so that it can actually enter the state of meditation.

Well, during the Vipassana meditation course, the old students, those who have done at least one retreat before, are instructed to narrow down their awareness even further to focus on the sensations at this same specific point.  

Isn't that interesting?

The Structure of the 10-Day Vipassana Meditation Course

So as you already know, Vipassana meditation as taught by Goenka is taught in an intense 10-day meditation course, or retreat if you wish. It's intense because you sit in meditation for close to 10 hours per day while practicing noble silence for the entire 10 days.

Of course, you don't sit for 10 hours straight.  That would be at another level.

The 10 hours are divided into eight meditation sessions during the day. Each session lasts at least one hour. Some are an hour and a half, and there are a couple of two-hour sessions during the day.

04:30 - 06:30 Meditation
06:30 - 07:00 Breakfast
07:00 - 08:00 Rest
08:00 - 09:00 Group Meditation
09:00 - 11:00 Meditation
11:00 - 11:30 Lunch
11:30 - 13:00 Rest
13:00 - 14:30 Meditation
14:30 - 15:30 Group Meditation
15:30 - 17:00 Meditation
17:00 - 18:00 Tea and Rest
18:00 - 19:00 Group Meditation
19:00 - 20:30 Discourse
20:30 - 21:00 Meditation
21:00 - 21:30 Questions

There is usually a 5 or 10-minute break between each session but there are three long breaks: after breakfast, after lunch, and during tea time.  Normally you'll use this time to move your legs, to do your laundry, or to take a nap.

Oh yes, you don't get dinner but a light snack.  If you are an old student, that means if you've done at least one 10-day meditation course before, you don't even get the snack. 

Noble silence means that you avoid any form of communication.  You can't even read or write.  The only moments when you can talk are if you need to ask a question to the teacher, or if you want to complain to the volunteer staff because your mattress is too thin.  Lol.

So from Day 1 to Day 3, we practice ānāpāna sati, awareness of the breath as preparation for Vipassana. From Day 4 to Day 9 we practice Vipassana meditation.  And during the last day, Day 10, we do a loving-kindness meditation to develop love and compassion for all sentient beings.

All the instructions for the meditation techniques are given during the actual meditation sessions with audio recordings of previous guided meditations by Goenka himself.  

And the theory, the Buddhist philosophy behind the meditation techniques, is covered in the evenings with prerecorded video lectures by Goenka as well.  They are known as the evening discourses.

Although you get all the instructions for the course from the recorded guided meditations and evening discourses there is always a teacher guiding the course.  He is there to support you or answer any questions you might have related to the practice.

Vipassana meditation as a form of prāṇāyāma

Ok, that was a brief summary of what this Vipassana retreat is all about, but now I would like to share a different perspective, another reason why I think Vipassana is a powerful tool for mental purification.  

I like to think of Vipassana meditation as a form of prāṇāyāma.  I know, you'll probably be in shock because of what I just said.  You might even feel offended, but let me explain.

I actually talked about this in this blog post more than 12 years ago, after my first Vipassana retreat, and I still think this is the case. 

First of all, prāṇāyāma is not a breathing exercise.  Prāṇāyāma means expansion or control of prāṇa.  The breath is simply a tool through which we learn to get in touch with this prāṇa.   But, it's not the only way.

You see, if you ever read about the philosophy of prāṇa you probably remember the saying “Wherever the mind goes the prāṇa follows.”  The idea is that wherever you fix your attention within the body the prāṇa starts to flow in that direction.

Well, that's exactly what we do in Vipassana meditation.  

As we keep moving the awareness up and and down the body, paying attention to all the gross body sensations, eventually these sensations develop into subtle sensations, like tingling or a feeling of vibration. 

In my opinion, these subtle sensations are nothing but the movement of prāṇa, and wherever in the body we are not able to perceive any sensation that's simply where there are energy blocks.  These energy blocks are the different saṁskāras, habit patterns, traumas, and so on, stored in the body.  

So by paying special attention to these “blind areas” in the body, as Goenka calls them, to make sure we experience sensations in the entire body, what we are actually doing is removing the energy blocks in the pranic body by using our attention.  

And whenever we experience a free flow of subtle sensations in the body that's when the prāṇa is able to flow freely without any obstructions.

So Vipassana meditation purifies the mind by preventing the formation of new saṅkhāras of craving and aversion, by allowing the old saṅkhāras to be consumed, and by removing the energy blocks within the pranic body which are also saṅkhāras.  

Ok, just to be clear again, that last part is not talked about in the Vipassana course.  This is just my personal interpretation that I'm sharing with you.  Feel free to disagree with me.

Of course, we need to approach the practice without any expectation or desire for any type of sensation, otherwise it wouldn't be Vipassana anymore.  As Goenka says repeatedly during the course, there are no good or bad sensations.  There are just sensations.

Ok, so I hope you found this informative and educative.  Please feel free to share your thoughts and personal experiences in the comments below.

If you are interested in knowing more about my personal experiences during the course you can check my previous two blog posts:

1The Sanskrit word for saṅkhāra (in Pali) is saṁskāra.  The interpretation of this word in the Buddhist tradition and Hindu tradition can be somewhat different.  The interpretation that I'm using in this article as “mental impressions” is based on the yoga and Vedanta traditions, which I'm more familiar with.  But I think in the context of the Vipassana course, according to the way Goenka uses this word, it's not an incorrect interpretation.  Feel free to add your thoughts in the comments below.  


  1. You have explained it very well!
    Very useful blog. Thank you so much for sharing.