I got back from my first Vipassana Meditation course a week ago. It was intense.
This was the intro course, so it was 10 full days in a monastic environment. Reading and writing material was banned. Electronics were banned (except for an alarm clock and flashlight). Touching was banned. Trying to communicate with anyone for any reason at any time was banned (except for a few limited times with the course management). Basically, the only things you could do were eat, sleep, rest or meditate.
We meditated a lot. There were about 10 1/2 hours of meditation scheduled per day.
The first three days were spend learning anapana meditation. The idea here is to focus the mind by concentrating on the sensations caused by natural breathing on the nose and upper lip. This helps to build awareness of sensations on the body, and mental focus.
The next seven days were spent learning vipassana meditation. The idea here is try to feel the sensations on each part of the body, and to react with equanimity. At first we were instructed to move through the body part by part. Later on, we were told to feel more and more of the body at once. This helps build awareness of sensations on the body, and equanimity in the face of both pleasant and unpleasant sensations.
The basic theory behind vipassana meditation, from the little I know, is that everything results in some sort of sensation on the body, be it an emotion, an action or even a thought. In many cases, people are not able to prevent unpleasantness (or a cessation of pleasantness) in their lives, but they can improve their lives by learing to deal with unpleasantness effectively. By reacting to events in life with equanimity, people can avoid the getting fixated or stuck on negative events or emotions in their lives.
Since it is often difficult to directly practice dealing with bad events or intense emotions, people practice with the sensations that naturally arise from the body instead. By practicing both awareness and equanimity, it is believed that people will be better able to understand what it happening inside of themselves better, as well as to be less affected by the negative parts of life.
It is true that taking such a large period of time of the one’s schedule can be a challenge, but I’m completely convinced that this is worth the investment in time and energy. It personally took me a long time - some time during the 5th day - before I could even sit for an hour with equanimity. I believe that the long, extended time period and the monastic environment really helped me to learn the techniques being taught (not that I am a master, by any means). There was also a real element of peer pressure during meditation that I think helped me a lot. Being in a room full of 80-odd people, all of whom where meditating quietly and largely without moving was enormously motivating.