- TRADITION: Buddhism
- NEED: Health, Stress Relief and Relaxation, Relationships, Positive Attitude, Spiritual Development, Performance
- LEVEL: Beginner, Intermediate
Vipassana is the oldest Buddhist meditation and the root of the modern mindfulness movement. The Buddha believed that the root of all misery and suffering comes from desire and ignorance. Vipassana teaches us to accept life as it is, without judgement or the desire for change.
What’s behind the name of this meditation practice?
In Pali, the original language of Theravada Buddhist literature, vipassana means “to see things as they really are,” or “insight.” Vipassana meditation and insight meditation are used interchangeably.
What’s the concept?
Vipassana is the oldest Buddhist meditation practice, and it remains one of the most universally popular; the modern mindfulness movement is based on the principles of vipassana. Upon enlightenment, the Buddha realized the source of humankind’s collective misery and the path to liberation. In short, if we spend our lives wanting the world to be different from what it is, we will be miserable. We must accept things as they are and act consciously. Vipassana meditation teaches us how to do that.
Vipassana is a way of self-transformation through self-observation. The mind is interconnected with the body, and that connection can only be understood through direct experience. The Buddha found that anything that arises in the mind turns into a sensation in the physical world. During vipassana meditation, we feel the sensations in our bodies without reacting to them. We observe them instead of identifying with them. And in the process, we become intimately aware of the ever-changing nature of our own being and the impermanence of reality. Vipassana meditation requires discipline; it trains our minds to experience the world in an entirely new way. It shows us, in other words, how to wake up.
How did this meditation practice originate?
Sometime between the sixth and fourth century BCE, the Buddha rediscovered an ancient meditation technique that became the essence of his teachings. The practice appears in the Satipatthana Sutta, the Buddha’s discourse on the foundations of mindfulness. Five hundred years later, vipassana disappeared from India, but it continued in neighboring countries and a pure lineage persevered through an unbroken chain of teachers in Myanmar (Burma). In 1969, S. N. Goenka, who came from this lineage, began teaching nonsectarian vipassana courses in India. Ten years later, he taught in other countries as well. Vipassana became one of the fastest-growing meditation practices in America from the 1980s on, and a revolutionary branch of psychotherapy called mindfulness-based stress reduction evolved alongside it.
What’s unique about this meditation?
Most meditation techniques aim to still the mind by focusing it on an object such as a candle flame, or a mantra, prayer, or religious image. This results in a beautiful, albeit temporary, sense of calm. In vipassana meditation, physical reality is not bypassed—everything from an aching back to a tingling foot is felt, deeply. Concentrated awareness is a tool that chips away the illusions that keep us from experiencing reality. It takes years to break through, working bit by bit every day. The process may not be blissful, but the liberation is permanent.
What are its chief benefits?
S. N. Goenka promises noticeable improvements in the mind-body connection with continued practice of vipassana meditation. Anger and other negative emotions dissolve faster because they no longer attach to the ego’s perception of itself. Blind reactions to situations become thoughtful observations. The mind gradually purifies itself, and a pure mind, Goenka says, is one of love and equanimity. “By learning to remain balanced in the face of everything experienced inside, one develops detachment towards all that one encounters in external situations as well,” he says. “This detachment is not escapism or indifference to the problems of the world. [Meditators] learn holy indifference—how to be fully committed, fully involved in helping others, while at the same time maintaining balance of mind. In this way they remain peaceful and happy, while working for the peace and happiness of others.”
Is there evidence of its effectiveness?
In 2014 alone, 535 scientific papers were published on the topic of mindfulness-based meditation. One study found that meditators lose less gray matter in the brain than those who don’t meditate; another confirmed that meditation may “reduce the cognitive decline associated with aging.” Out of all the mindfulness-based practices, vipassana is the most promising in terms of behavior modification. Six months after their release, a group of former inmates at a rehabilitation center in Seattle who had participated in a ten-day vipassana course showed higher rates of recovery and better mental health indicators than their non-meditating counterparts. Three subsequent medical trials of patients suffering from various addictions also showed significant reductions in drug use, heavy drinking, and unhealthy cravings. “What we’re seeing happening is that for individuals whose brains have just been wired to be on autopilot from years of addiction, the ability to take a moment and pause—it’s potentially almost like rewiring the addicted brain,” says the researcher behind the study.
Are there any side effects or risks?
People with a history of psychological issues should think twice before committing to a vipassana retreat. The Buddha compares meditation to taming a wild elephant: when you first tie him up, you need a good, strong rope and the ability to wait as he thrashes for several days. Repressed emotions and traumas often resurface, and not everyone is equipped to deal with them. For some people, long periods of meditation can spark paranoia, anxiety, depression, or feelings of disassociation. Most negative experiences during a course are a natural part of self-exploration, but speak with a mental health professional beforehand if you’re concerned about a more serious reaction.
Are there any controversies?
A scholarly paper by Harmanjit Singh addresses several criticisms of vipassana meditation. The practice, as taught by S. N. Goenka’s lineage, is a highly selective interpretation of the Buddha’s teachings, he says. There is a hierarchical and cultist aspect to the organization, and there are shortcomings to the technique, such as the psychological effects discussed above.
How can it be learned?
A ten-day introductory course is recommended to jump-start a vipassana practice. The course is intensive, held in silence in a retreat setting where the technique is taught step-by-step and more than ten hours each day is set aside for meditation. Visit an Insight Meditation Center for a class or workshop to explore the technique at your own pace.
Are there any charges for learning?
Ten-day retreats are free of charge, and the centers are supported entirely by donations from former students. Donations are not accepted until a student finishes the course and has the opportunity to see how vipassana works in her life. Contributions “pay it forward” for another student’s experience.
How is this meditation practiced?
Vipassana meditation is practiced seated, preferably cross-legged, under a tree as the Buddha suggests or in another quiet location. Once a position is chosen, it must be kept for the duration of the meditation. Awareness is directed to the breath as it rises and falls in the abdomen. All of the senses are directed to the present moment: sights, sounds, smells, tastes, sensations in the body, and mental objects such as visions and emotions are experienced and mentally noted. Our step-by-step guided meditation is available on this page.
Can anyone practice this meditation?
Vipassana meditation as taught by S. N. Goenka, though based on the principles of Theravada Buddhism, is nonsectarian. “When one suffers from anger, it's not Buddhist anger, Hindu anger, or Christian anger,” the teacher points out. “The malady is universal. The remedy must also be universal.”
Who are the well-known practitioners?
Is any equipment or material required for practice?
Experiment with different props and seating positions to find what works best for your body. At a minimum, you’ll want a blanket to pad the floor and a cushion to elevate your seat. Wear loose, non-constrictive clothing. You may wish to wrap a blanket around your shoulders. If you have back issues or experience pain during meditation, use a supportive meditation chair.