Vipassana - Dr. Axe

When it comes to meditation, there are many ways to do it. What is the Vipassana meditation technique (also called “insight meditation”), and how does it differ from other types?

Vipassana means “to see things as they really are.” This practice, described as an “art of living,” dates back at least 2,500 years to ancient India.

Similar to mindfulness meditation, it involves training one’s mind through completion of certain exercises in order to increase awareness of one’s own experiences.

Although this form of meditation has been practiced in the U.S. since the 1960s, in recent years the popularity of Vipassana meditation retreats and courses has skyrocketed. Thousands of people attend Vipassana classes each year in hopes of “seeing the true nature of existence,” better managing stress, and improving their focus, productivity, relationships and health.

What Is Vipassana Meditation?

Vipassana is a non-sectarian/non-religious meditation technique. According to an article published in India Today, this technique is the oldest Buddhist meditation practice in existence.

What is the goal of Vipassana? It’s intended to help “eradicate mental impurities” and improve happiness through self-observation and awareness.

Practicing this method is said to lead to self-transformation and a strong mind-body connection by revealing certain universal truths about human existence.

According to Vipassana theory, “insight” is able to happen when someone experiences the truth of impermanence (in other words, how everything, including thoughts, are always changing ) as well the inherent unsatisfactoriness that all people deal with. A higher level of insight involves recognizing selflessness, in which a distinction is made between direct experience and concepts, including the “self.”

What happens in Vipassana exactly?

In many ways, Vipassana is a traditional form of modern-day mindfulness meditation. While practicing, you pay close attention to physical sensations happening in your body, including your breath.

You notice how your mind produces fleeting thoughts, emotions and judgments — however you resist getting caught up in them, instead remaining aware of the present moment.

Types of Techniques

The Vipassana school of meditation has a very long history in India, dating all the way back to the time of the Buddha himself. In fact, Vipassana is considered to be the basis of all traditions of Buddhist meditation.

Today it continues to be the predominant form of Buddhist meditation in most parts of Sri Lanka and Southeast Asia.

After evolving and being passed down by many teachers for several centuries, eventually the practice became more mainstream with help from several prominent teachers in India, including those named S.N. Goenka and Sayadaw U Pandita. These teachers began growing following in the 1960s and ’70s, at which point they trained others to become teachers so the method could be passed on to those living in both the East and West.

While many forms of Buddhist-inspired meditation are now in existence, most have in common two key components: mindfulness and insight (also called śamatha and vipassana). Mindfulness techniques involve focusing on one object non-judgmentally, while Vipassana techniques involve investigating the qualities of self, consciousness and perceptions of things.

There are also several classic principles of Vipassana meditation, according to ancient scriptures:

  • Kayanupassana (continuous mindfulness of the body)
  • Vedananupassana (continuous mindfulness of feelings)
  • Cittanupassana (continuous observation of the mind)
  • Dhammanupassana (continuous mindfulness of mental processes)

Wondering what the difference is between Vipassana and transcendental meditation (TM)?

As explained above, Vipassana has more in common with mindfulness, as it involves returning your attention to an object in your awareness (breath, body, sounds, etc.). TM, on the other hand, uses a specific mantra, or sound, as the “anchor” of your attention.

According to TM theory, repeating your mantra over and over helps naturally calm the mind and allows it to settle. Both have similar goals and benefits, such as improving focus and managing stress.

How to Practice It

How is Vipassana meditation practiced? It’s been described as an observation-based, self-exploratory journey.

Practicing doesn’t require any guided meditation videos, apps, teachers or scripts, although these can all be very helpful when getting started.

Here’s a basic overview of how you can practice Vipassana meditation:

  • Choose a quiet place where you won’t be interrupted, whether inside your home or even outdoors in nature. Sit in a comfortable position, such as on the floor or a cushion, with your legs crossed if that feels OK. Keep your head lifted straight up and your spine erect to prevent slouching.
  • Image your muscles relaxing as you breathe at a normal pace.
  • Choose an object to focus on, such as your breath and the physical sensations it produces, especially in your abdomen. The breath is usually the focal point of meditation because you always have access to it and it’s continuous.
  • While trying to keep your attention fixated on your breath, observe and explore how your mind wanders. Return your attention to the physical sensations of your breath each time you notice it has gone elsewhere.
  • You can practice “naming” what’s going on in your awareness to help sharpen your focus. You do this by naming the sensations you’re feeling or by naming what your mind is doing when it loses focuses. For example, you can silently say to yourself “planning” or “belly falling.” Any sights, sounds, smells, tastes, sensations in the body, mental images or emotions can be all named, since all of these are part of your experience.

It’s common for beginners to learn this meditation method by attending a Vipassana retreat, typically a 10-day residential retreat that may involve remaining silent (not speaking out loud to others) the entire time. During Vipassana meditation retreats participants learn the basics of the method under guidance by a teacher.

Where can you find a Vipassana meditation center in your area or somewhere to attend a retreat?

One of the most popular Vipassana meditation centers in the world is the Insight Meditation Society (IMS), a nonprofit organization located in Barre, Massachusetts that was opened in the 1970s. It was founded by several students of the Theravada meditation tradition: Sharon Salzberg, Jack Kornfield and Joseph Goldstein, all of whom still today teach thousands of people meditation every year.

Health Benefits

1. May Help Boost Concentration/Focus

Although it’s most common to meditate while sitting in silence, there are many ways to practice and dozens of variations. No matter which specific techniques you find most helpful, the real point is to become more mindful and aware throughout your day.

You can practice being present while doing just about anything — exercising, walking around, working, cooking, showering, etc. Therefore, technically, there are many ways to meditate.

How does Vipassana meditation boost concentration exactly? It helps train you to keep your awareness (or consciousness) from becoming diffused or dispersed by fleeting thoughts.

One study showed that it can increase frequency of being in a “flow state,” in which you are fully immersed in an activity and undistracted.

No matter what you’re doing, if it helps you focus on the task at hand, you may want to try labeling these activities as you do them.

2. Can Help Manage Stress and Anxiety

Recognizing that your thoughts and emotions are only temporary and always changing is one way to realize that nothing will last or feel bad forever. This can help reduce stress associated with ruminating thoughts and negative experiences, including physical symptoms that chronic stress contributes to.

Research shows that mindfulness-based meditation practices help stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system, leading to a relaxation response and recovery from the flight or fight response. This can contribute to physical health improvements, including reduced chronic pain, fewer tension headaches, improved digestion and reduced blood pressure.

In one study published in 2015, researchers examined the effects of a Vipassana course on subjective stress, well-being, self-kindness and trait mindfulness. They found that six months after completing the course, the majority of participants experienced improvements on stress and well-being scores, likely because of increased mindfulness skills.

Although study results have been mixed, some research suggests that insight meditation practice can also improve ability to cope with PTSD and a reduction in related substance abuse.

3. Can Improve Decision Making and Reduce Habitual Behavior

Studies suggest that meditation can help reduce anxious or depressive thought patterns that contribute to habitual negative behaviors and decreased quality of life. By being present we are able to observe our own thoughts and behaviors from a distance, giving us greater power to make informed choices rather than impulsive, destructive decisions.

A 2016 study found that when participants attended a one-month Vipassana retreat a significant percentage experienced improvements in mindfulness, well-being and personality traits — including being more cooperative, less negative toward others, less reward-dependent and more self-directed.

A separate study revealed evidence that adults who were trained in meditation improved their ability to delay gratification and experienced a decrease in impulsivity. According to a 2010 study, a Vipassana practice can help reduce alcohol and substance abuse due to positive effects it has on certain parts of the brain related to executive functioning.

4. Can Be Done Anywhere (Including While Sitting, Laying or Exercising)

Not only can you practice insight meditation and mindfulness while sitting or laying, but you can also practice this method as a form of active meditation, such as when walking or exercising. In fact, beginning a practice with a walking meditation or something active like gentle yoga is recommended to help the body and mind settle more easily.

No matter how you choose to practice or what activity you’re doing, you keep your mind on all of the sensations you’re feeling.

Conclusion

  • Vipassana is the oldest form of buddhist meditation. It’s also called “insight meditation” and works by improving awareness and focus on the present moment, including the breath and bodily sensations.
  • The meaning of Vipassana is “to see things as they really are.” The purpose is to recognize the impermanence of all things and how each person deals with hardships and unsatisfactoriness. By paying attention to how thoughts and sensations are always changing you can find freedom in the fact that nothing lasts forever.
  • While you can begin practicing on your own, one of the best ways to learn this method is to attend classes or a retreat at a Vipassana center. You can also use guided meditation apps and videos available for free online.