The distinction between Vipassana meditation and other styles of meditation is crucial and needs to be fully understood. Buddhism addresses two major types of meditation. They are different mental skills, modes of functioning, or qualities of consciousness. In Pali, the original language of Theravada literature, they are called Vipassana and Samatha. In Vipassana mediation, the meditator uses his concentration as a tool by which his awareness can chip away at the wall of illusion that cuts him off from the living light of reality. It is a gradual process of ever-increasing awareness of the inner workings of reality itself. It takes years, but one day the meditator chisels through that wall and tumbles into the presence of light. The transformation is complete. It’s called Liberation, and it’s permanent. Liberation is the goal of all Buddhist systems of practice. But the routes to the attainment of that end are quite diverse.
Vipassana meditation Meaning
Vipassana, which means to see things as they are, is one of India’s most ancient techniques of meditation. It was rediscovered by Gautam Buddha more than 2500 years ago and was taught by him as a universal remedy for universal ills. This non-sectarian technique aims for the total eradication of mental impurities and the resultant highest happiness of full liberation.
Vipassana meditation is Oldest Buddhist Meditation Practice
Oldest Buddhist meditation
Vipassana is the oldest of Buddhist meditation practices. The method comes directly from the Satipatthana Sutta [Foundations of Mindfulness], a discourse attributed to the Buddha himself. Vipassana is a direct and gradual cultivation of mindfulness or awareness. It proceeds piece by piece over the years. The student’s attention is carefully directed to an intense examination of certain aspects of his existence. The meditator is trained to notice more and more of his own flowing life experience.
Vipassana is a gentle technique. But it also is very, very thorough. It is an ancient and codified system of training your mind, a set of exercises dedicated to becoming more and more aware of your own life experience. It is attentive listening, mindful seeing, and careful testing.
Learn to see the truth of impermanence
We learn to smell acutely, to touch fully, and to pay attention to the changes taking place in all these experiences. We learn to listen to our thoughts without being caught up in them. The object of Vipassana meditation practice is to learn to see the truth of impermanence, unsatisfactoriness, and selflessness of phenomena.
We think we are doing this already, but that is an illusion. It comes from the fact that we are paying so little attention to the ongoing surge of our own life experiences that we might just as well be asleep. We are simply not paying enough attention to notice that we are not paying attention. It is another Catch-22.
Vipassana meditation as Discovery
Through the process of mindfulness, we slowly become aware of what we are down below the ego image. We wake up to what life is. It is not just a parade of ups and downs, lollipops, and smacks on the wrist. That is an illusion. Life has a much deeper texture than that if we bother to look, and if we look in the right way.
Vipassana is a form of mental training that will teach you to experience the world in an entirely new way. You will learn for the first time what is truly happening to you, around you, and within you. It is a process of self-discovery, a participatory investigation in which you observe your own experiences while participating in them as they occur.
Forget about theories and prejudices and stereotypes
The practice must be approached with this attitude: “Never mind what I have been taught. Forget about theories and prejudices and stereotypes.
If you pursue your meditation practice with this attitude, you will succeed. You’ll find yourself observing things objectively, exactly as they are flowing and changing from moment to moment. Life then takes on an unbelievable richness that cannot be described. It has to be experienced.
Vipassana and Bhavana
The Pali term for Insight meditation is Vipassana Bhavana. Bhavana comes from the root bh, which means to grow or to become. Therefore Bhavana means to cultivate, and the word is always used about the mind. Bhavana means mental cultivation. Vipassana is derived from two roots. Passana means seeing or perceiving. Vi is a prefix with a complex set of connotations. The basic meaning is “in a special way.” But there also is the connotation of both “into” and “through.”
The whole meaning of the word is looking into something with clarity and precision, seeing each component as distinct, and piercing all the way through to perceive the most fundamental reality of that thing. This process leads to insight into the basic reality of whatever is being inspected. Put it all together and Vipassana Bhavana means the cultivation of the mind, aimed at seeing in the special way that leads to insight and full understanding.
Related: Theravada Vipassana Practice
The method we are explaining here is probably what Gautama Buddha taught his students. The Satipatthana Sutta, the Buddha’s original discourse on mindfulness, specifically says that one must begin by focusing the attention on breathing and then go on to note all other physical and mental phenomena which arise.
We sit, watching the air going in and out of our noses. At first glance, this seems an exceedingly odd and useless procedure. Before going on to specific instructions, let us examine the reason behind it.
Why focusing is important in Vipassana meditation?
The first question we might have is why use any focus of attention at all? We are, after all, trying to develop awareness. Why not just sit down and be aware of whatever happens to be present in the mind? There are meditations of that nature. They are sometimes referred to as unstructured meditation and they are quite difficult.
The mind is tricky. Thought is an inherently complicated procedure. By that, we mean that we become trapped, wrapped up, and stuck in the thought chain. One thought leads to another which leads to another, and another, and another, and so on. Fifteen minutes later we suddenly wake up and realize we spent that whole time stuck in a daydream or sexual fantasy or a set of worries about our bills or whatever.
We use breath as our focus. It serves as that vital reference point from which the mind wanders and is drawn back. Distraction cannot be seen as a distraction unless there is some central focus to be distracted from. That is the frame of reference against which we can view the incessant changes and interruptions that go on all the time as a part of normal thinking.
Taming wild Elephants
Ancient Pali texts liken meditation to the process of taming a wild elephant. The procedure in those days was to tie a newly captured animal to a post with a good strong rope. When you do this, the elephant is not happy. He screams and tramples, and pulls against the rope for days. Finally, it sinks through his skull that he can’t get away, and he settles down.
At this point, you can begin to feed him and handle him with some measure of safety. Eventually, you can dispense with the rope and post altogether, and train your elephant for various tasks. Now you have got a tamed elephant that can be put to useful work.
In this analogy the wild elephant is your wildly active mind, the rope is mindfulness, and the post is our object of meditation, our breathing. The tamed elephant that emerges from this process is a well-trained, concentrated mind that can then be used for the exceedingly tough job of piercing the layers of illusion that obscure reality. Meditation tames the mind.
Why breathing is important in Vipassana meditation?
The next question we need to address is: Why choose breathing as the primary object of meditation? Why not something a bit more interesting? Answers to this are numerous. A useful object of meditation should promote mindfulness. It should be portable, easily available, and cheap. It should also be something that will not embroil us in those states of mind from which we are trying to free ourselves, such as greed, anger, and delusion.
Breathing satisfies all these criteria and more. It is common to every human being. We all carry it with us wherever we go. It is always there, constantly available, never ceasing from birth till death, and it costs nothing.
Breathing is a non-conceptual process, a thing that can be experienced directly without a need for thought. Furthermore, it is a very living process, an aspect of life that is in constant change. The breath moves in cycles-inhalation, exhalation, breathing in, and breathing out. Thus, it is a miniature model of life itself.
Breath is a phenomenon common to all living things. A true experiential understanding of the process moves you closer to other living beings. It shows you your inherent connectedness with all of life. Finally, breathing is a present-time process.
The first step in using the breath as an object of meditation is to find it. What you are looking for is the physical, tactile sensation of the air that passes in and out of the nostrils. This is usually just inside the tip of the nose. But the exact spot varies from one person to another, depending on the shape of the nose.
To find your point, take a quick deep breath and notice and point just inside the nose or on the upper tip where you have the most distinct sensation of passing air. Now exhale and notice the sensation at the same point. It is from this point that you will follow the whole passage of breath.
Vipassana meditation is not always easy
When you first begin this procedure, expect to face some difficulties. Your mind will wander off constantly darting, around like a bumble bee and zooming off on wild tangents. Try not to worry. The monkey mind phenomenon is well known. It is something that every advanced meditator has had to deal with. They have pushed through it one way or another, and so can you.
When it happens, just note the fact that you have been thinking, daydreaming, worrying, or whatever. Gently, but firmly, without getting upset or judging yourself for straying, simply return to the simple physical sensation of the breath. Then do it again the next time, and again, and again, and again.
Essentially, Vipassana meditation is a process of retraining the mind. The state you are aiming for is one in which you are aware of everything that is happening in your perceptual universe, exactly the way it happens, exactly when it is happening; total, unbroken awareness in the present time.
It takes practice, so we start small. We start by becoming aware of one small unit of time, just one single inhalation. And, when you succeed, you are on your way to a whole new experience of life.
How to Practice Vipassana Meditation?
Do you want to relieve stress, improve your breathing, and clear your mind? If so, you’re in the right place. “Vipassana,” which translates to “special seeing,” is the oldest form of Buddhist meditation and it’s a breeze once you get the basic posture and breathing pattern down.
Part One: Preparing for Insight Meditation
- Being in a room alone may do the trick, but beware of sounds from adjacent rooms or from outside.
- A light, open room with plenty of space can aid in the meditation process, and an unkempt room can harm the process.
- Do not try to soundproof the location. Having some exterior sounds can aid the process.
- If you have back issues, and a normal, crossed-leg position is uncomfortable, then using a chair may help you to get into the correct posture.
- To put your body at peace, you may have to sit for a long period. Ensure the position is one you can sit comfortably in for quite some time.
- Various meditation positions such as Half or Full lotus are also acceptable.
Part Two: Focusing on Breathing
It’s possible to become somewhat sleepy when you are focusing on breathing. Refocus your attention on breathing, letting your mind and concentration take control.
- It may help to associate the process with simple words or phrases (e.g. full, empty, high, low) and think about them while breathing.
- Sometimes placing a palm on the abdomen helps focus on breathing.
Think of this process as a buoy’s movement in the water. When focusing on a buoy, you notice the movement of the buoy. It floats up and down, and you hardly notice the actual water forcing the movement.
Part Three: Overcoming Distractions while Meditating
Focus briefly on distractions
Set meditation minimums
Return to breathing
The process can be free of thought, just allowing the mind to focus on the surroundings.
Benefits of Vipassana Meditation
Although there’s some research on the benefits of Vipassana for mental health and wellness, it hasn’t been as widely studied as other types of meditation. However, research has found that Vipassana offers the following benefits:
Vipassana, like other meditation techniques, can reduce our response to stress.
In a 2014 studyTrusted Source, participants took part in a Vipassana meditation course. A 6-month follow-up found that the participants who took the course had lower self-reported stress levels than those who didn’t take the course.
According to the study, Vipassana participants also experienced increased:
- Self-kindness, and
A small 2001 study found similar results after a 10-day Vipassana retreat.
In addition to easing stress, Vipassana meditation may also help decrease anxiety.
In a small 2019 study, 14 participants completed a 40-day mindfulness meditation training that included Vipassana. Their anxiety and depression levels were lower after the training. According to a 2013 review, mindfulness programs, including Vipassana meditation, may help alter parts of the brain involved in anxiety.
Improves mental wellness
The stress-relieving effects of Vipassana may improve other aspects of mental well-being.
A 2013 study of 36 individuals upon completing a 10-day Vipassana retreat found a significant increase in well-being and a possible, though inconclusive, improvement in heart function.
In a 2018 study of 520 individuals, those who practiced Vipassana reported higher levels of:
- Engagement and growth, and
- Positive relationships.
Promotes brain plasticity
Practicing meditation, including Vipassana meditation, may help increase your brain plasticity.
Brain plasticity refers to your brain’s ability to restructure itself when it recognizes the need for change. In other words, your brain can create new pathways to improve mental functioning and well-being throughout your life.
A small 2018 study by Trusted Source found that a regular Vipassana practice may help promote brain plasticity. The researchers came to this conclusion by using neuroimaging scans to examine the brain networks of Vipassana practitioners.
Helps treat addiction
An older 2006 study found that Vipassana meditation may benefit those with substance abuse. The researchers noted that the practice might be an alternative to conventional addiction treatments. According to a 2018 review, mindfulness-based training programs with Vipassana components may improve such factors as self-control over habits, decision-making, and response inhibition, all of which are crucial to reducing drug use and maintaining abstinence. Additionally, meditation can ease stress, a factor linked to substance use.