- What Is Vipassana Meditation?
- How Do You Do Vipassana Meditation?
- The Vipassana Movement
- Benefits of Vipassana Meditation
- Vipassana Meditation and Samatha Meditation: Complements to Insight
- Vipassana Meditation Versus Other Meditation Techniques
- Vipassana Meditation FAQs
- Relevant and Related Searches
What Is Vipassana Meditation?
You may have heard of meditation retreats, where large groups of people sit on a mat from dawn to dusk, emerging as enlightened versions of themselves at the end of a period of noble silence. This is Vipassana meditation, one of the classical meditation techniques that has gained renewed traction in recent years.
The word Vipassana has its roots in Pali and Sanskrit, ancient languages of Buddhist literature, meaning “seeing things as they really are”. The purpose of Vipassana, also known as insight meditation, is to attain a clear awareness of exactly what is happening in one’s own mind, from moment to moment. It does this through using the mind’s awareness of the breath as it rises and falls.
Vipassana is one of the oldest meditation practices, whose origins can be traced back around 2,500 years, to the very beginning of Buddhism. It is attributed to Siddhartha Gautama, who was the first to attain the title of “Buddha”, or “The Awakened One”.
The idea of focus, concentration, practice, and lifetime cultivation is key to Vipassana and insight meditation. This action of growing toward, and becoming a more cultivated version of oneself is called Bhavana in Pali. Vipassana Bhavana therefore means to cultivate the mind in such a way that insight can grow.
In conjunction with the technique of Vipassana meditation, Dhamma, which in Buddhism refers to cosmic law and order, is also taught. Dhamma discourses include teachings in the fundamental principles of Buddhism, such as The Four Noble Truths, and The Eightfold Path.
How Do You Do Vipassana Meditation?
The Vipassana technique consists of simply observing sensations in the body as they arise, without assigning any judgement to them, nor being attached or averse to them. Easier said than done, the practice of Vipassana inevitably brings the meditator to encounter obstacles such as sleepiness, physical discomfort, distracting thoughts, or doubt as to the efficacy of the practice.
Experiencing and overcoming these obstacles is integral to the process of Vipassana. It enlightens the meditator that whatever sensation arises has to pass. This connects to the Buddhist idea of Impermanence, which frees the enlightened to let go of attachments, which are the root of all suffering. The idea is that if we can first let go of the significance of physical comfort, and thus the pains or pleasures associated with it, then we will eventually be able to let go of our attachments to experiences in the mind, such as thoughts, memories, or ideas, and the associated pains and pleasures that keep us locked into the cycle of craving and aversion.
An important part of Vipassana involves awareness of the breath. It is commonly advised that when the meditator encounters difficulty with concentration on bodily sensations, he or she should return the mind’s awareness to a limited area of the nostrils and upper lip where the inbreath and the outbreath can be detected.
Vipassana is a gentle technique, which does not require the meditator to effortfully force the mind to behave in a particular way. As it is natural that the mind will wander during the practice, the instructions are to simply notice whenever the mind has become distracted, and gently bring it back to the body, again and again.
When practiced consistently on a daily basis, the mind will slowly begin to focus more easily, and for longer periods of time, as well as return to focus when distracted.
Henepola Gunaratana, a prominent monk and writer on Vipassana meditation, likens Vipassana’s effect on the mind to taming wild elephants. When the elephant is first tied to a post, it is not happy, and struggles constantly. But as time goes on, the elephant accepts that it can’t get away, and begins to settle down. At this point, you can feed the elephant, and begin training it. Eventually you can dispense with the rope and start applying the elephant to useful work.
In this analogy, meditation tames the wildness of the mind, allowing you to eventually master it and apply it to serve you, rather than the other way around.
Vipassana has many hurdles and complexities, so it is mostly recommended to learn it from a teacher. However, online guided video meditations are available.
The Vipassana Movement
While Vipassana meditation has existed for thousands of years, its recent global popularization has been largely driven by S.N. Goenka, the head representative of the Vipassana movement. He teaches the meditation technique in the tradition of the Burmese monk, Sayagi U Ba Khin, a simplified version which is taught in long retreats.
Goenka has been instrumental in the founding of hundreds of Vipassana centers around the world, starting with the first in 1976, in Igatpuri, India. The courses have been tailored to a western audience, and usually have English instruction, in addition to being available in the local language.
An important aspect of Vipassana courses is that participants are not charged a fee for attendance, in the effort to make the teachings accessible to anyone who wishes to learn. Participants have the option to make a donation at the end of the course as an act of support towards the next incoming students. Students who have completed a course can also return as servers, to continue passing on their contributions to the community.
First-time meditators in the Vipassana technique are required to complete a 10-day course. Following successful completion, they are then able to participate in shorter or longer retreats, such as 20 to 60 day courses. There are also special courses, such as the Satipatthana Sutta course, where more detailed study of important Buddhist discourses takes place.
Benefits of Vipassana Meditation
People have practiced Vipassana meditation, as well as other forms of meditation for thousands of years as a way to cut through the illusions of perception, free themselves of attachment to both pleasurable and unpleasant thoughts and emotions, and to gain insight into the nature of consciousness.
On a more immediately practical level, Vipassana meditation can help an individual to:
- manage symptoms of depression and anxiety
- focus a distracted mind
- deal with challenging circumstances
- process difficult events
Individuals have often seek out Vipassana meditation during a time of personal crisis, or from recognition of a need for a meaningful change in their lives. Through consistent and dedicated practice, meditators have been able to initiate transformations in their inner and outer lives, and learn to move through life with more mindfulness, ease, and joy.
Vipassana Meditation and Samatha Meditation: Complements to Insight
The Vipassana technique involves becoming aware of sensations as they arise in the body, without trying to control those sensations, or one’s reactions to them. Vipassana directs the mind’s attention inward to simply notice what is experienced at the bodily level, without focusing on an object that is not already part of the current reality. The idea is to not generate additional thoughts or direct the mind away from the present.
This can be compared with Samatha meditation, which involves concentrating upon an external object, such as an image, candle flame, or stone, or on an internal focus, like a mantra, chant, or visualization.
Both Vipassana and Samatha meditation have as their objective to clear and calm the mind. However, the main difference is that Vipassana meditation has as its primary aim to increase awareness, without putting any effort into changing the meditator’s reality, while Samatha meditation aims to develop calm and concentration.
These two meditative practices complement each other, as the focus from Samatha meditation, and the insight from Vipassana meditation are each dependent on, and increase the efficacy of the other.
Vipassana Meditation Versus Other Meditation Techniques
Many other meditation techniques have evolved alongside Vipassana, and also exist as good choices for those interested in learning to meditate. Some examples include Zazen, Tibetan meditation, walking meditation, guided meditation, and other kinds of meditations which involve visualization, music, or chanting a mantra.
Vipassana differs from these meditations in that it is relatively minimalist. There is no guidance except for the instructions of how to perform the technique, and the meditator simply sits in silence, without the use of any physical tools, or objects of focus. In this way, it can seem more challenging to beginner meditators who require more guidance in developing a practice.
It should also be noted that as the various meditations employ different techniques, it can become confusing for a beginner meditator to engage in too many different kinds of meditation. It is much better for developing a strong practice to engage in one technique for an extended time.
Vipassana Meditation FAQs
Q: Can anyone do Vipassana meditation?
A: Yes, anyone is able to learn Vipassana meditation. The teachings are widely available and free of cost. Even courses at Vipassana centers are free of charge, and available to any religious denomination or atheists.
However, Vipassana meditation, requires dedication to learn, and the practice of the technique can be rather ascetic for some. Sitting in silence for extended periods of time in the same position can prove physically challenging, and though the technique is simply to sit and observe the breath and sensations in the body, this is much easier said than done, and maintaining this practice over a long period can be a deterrent for some.
Vipassana meditation can therefore be for anyone, but is likely not for everyone.
Q: If Vipassana is originally Buddhist, how can it be a secular practice?
A: Though called ‘Buddhism’, Buddhist principles can be seen as more of a philosophy than necessarily a religion in the sense of the worship of an all-powerful deity, as with other religions. The core of Vipassana meditation lies in self-examination and the value of direct experience, and so is in this sense, a scientific practice. Practitioners of Vipassana meditation are instructed not to take the word of the Buddha at face value, but to rather come to one’s own conclusions following their practice of the technique. Meditators are not encouraged to believe anything, or to place their faith in anything that they have not directly experienced for themselves.
In this way, members of other religious groups can practice Vipassana without renouncing their faith, and people who do not identify as Buddhist can take part in Vipassana meditation.
Q: Do I need to go to India to learn Vipassana meditation?
A: Though India is the birthplace of Vipassana meditation, Vipassana centers now exist around the world to facilitate the teachings in many local languages. Vipassana centers taught in the style of S.N. Goenka all follow the same structure. There are also various online channels where one can receive instruction in the technique, however immersion in a course setting is much more effective in establishing a foundation for continued practice.
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Lion’s Roar. “Bhante Henepola Gunaratana on Vipassana Meditation.” September 8, 2016. Accessed September 21, 2017. ↩
StackExchange. “What exactly differentiates Vipassana from Samatha meditation?” Accessed September 21, 2017. ↩
Dhamma Wheel. “A Buddhist discussion forum on the Dhamma of the Theravāda.” Accessed September 21, 2017. ↩