Vipassana meditation, or insight meditation, focuses on seeing things as they are. It comes from Theravada, Buddhism’s oldest school of thought.
Vipassana practitioners seek to understand things as they truly are, observing the world from a state of tranquility, awareness, and mindfulness. Instead of focusing on a specific object or mantra, Vipassana meditation involves using consciousness to remove distractions.
The ultimate goal, through years of practice, is to remove the distractions that prevent a person from seeing reality. In so doing, a person can achieve liberation, which is a shared goal of all Buddhist philosophies.
This article examines more about Vipassana meditation, including what it involves and how to try it.
The word Vipassana means “insight.” As such, Vipassana meditation focuses on seeing things for what they really are by turning inward to the mind, body, or both. Practitioners consciously focus on removing distractions from their thought processes, consistently sharpening their attention.
The goal is to eventually remove all distractions, making it possible to attain a state of liberation or enlightenment.
While Vipassana comes from Theravada, a Buddhist tradition that is
In the early 20th century, Myanmar was under the rule of the British. As a colonized country, its local culture and traditions were under threat. In response, Buddhist leaders decided to revive many Buddhist traditions and teach them to the general public.
Previously, the main practitioners of meditation in Southeast Asia had been monks and nuns. During the Vipassana movement, though, laypeople began to learn. The technique they used became known as Vipassana meditation.
Over time, instructors taught Vipassana meditation further afield, and the technique spread throughout Asia and to the United States.
There are five precepts in Vipassana meditation. During a Vipassana course, all participants need to commit to the following code of discipline:
- To abstain from killing any being.
- To abstain from stealing.
- To abstain from all sexual activity.
- To abstain from telling lies.
- To abstain from all intoxicants.
- easing some symptoms of anxiety
- reducing blood pressure, in some cases
- helping with some menopause symptoms
- improving quality of life and mental health for people living with cancer
Researchers have also tested Vipassana meditation specifically and identified some potential health benefits. However, many of the studies are small and only include a low number of participants.
Larger-scale studies are necessary to confirm all of the possible benefits of Vipassana meditation.
A small 2019 study found that skilled Vipassana practitioners who meditated before a task showed a difference in brain waves compared to novices. This finding suggests that the practice may change the way the brain functions, potentially helping improve cognitive performance.
A small 2020 study found that Vipassana meditators had different patterns of memory consolidation while sleeping. The researchers found that regular meditators had a lower density of sleep spindles in the occipital region of the brain. Sleep spindles are a type of brain wave that occurs during non-rapid eye movement (non-REM) sleep.
The authors speculate that this may mean that meditation serves a similar function to sleep when it comes to memory.
Coping with cancer
As with other types of meditation, Vipassana meditation may offer some benefits during cancer treatment.
A small 2020 study looked at the effects of practicing Vipassana meditation for 1 month after 1 month of training. Over the course of the trial, the participants in the practice group saw significantly greater improvements in measures of stress and psychosocial functioning than the participants who received no intervention.
These results indicate that Vipassana meditation may increase quality of life or reduce stress in people living with cancer.
Vipassana meditation is a low risk activity that is unlikely to cause physical harm. The only exception to this is when a person uses meditation as a substitute for medical care.
However, any form of meditation can have mental health side effects. These effects may occur because preexisting mental health conditions can become more apparent when someone sits quietly with their thoughts.
In the first large-scale multi-cultural study on the adverse effects of meditation, findings reported
The effects ranged in severity, but in most cases, they were temporary and did not cause people to stop meditating or seek medical attention.
Achieving liberation via Vipassana meditation takes years or even decades. The goal is not immediate perfection, but rather to observe the changes of ones body and mind and to “experience the universal truths of impermanence, suffering and egolessness”.
Many meditation centers offer classes on Vipassana meditation. A person can also try it at home by following these steps:
- Set aside 10–15 minutes.
- Find a comfortable, quiet place to practice with few distractions.
- Sit comfortably on the ground. Breathe as usual, but be mindful of each breath. There is no need to count the breaths, envision anything, or think specific thoughts.
- Be mindful of sensations that occur around the body and thoughts that enter the mind. When they arise, notice them and allow them to pass without trying to judge or analyze them.
- Continue this practice, focusing on inner consciousness, for the rest of the meditation. If a distraction appears, calmly notice the distraction but then refocus the attention on the breath.
Meditation may feel difficult at first, but a person will start to find it easier if they maintain a consistent practice every day.
A person can practice many different types of meditation. Although it will not work to do two types of meditation simultaneously, a person can practice different meditation techniques at different times. Some other meditation techniques include:
- Mindfulness meditation: As with Vipassana, this technique focuses on mindfulness and awareness in the present moment and does not require a person to use any specific mantras. However, Vipassana focuses more on drawing the attention inward.
- Loving-kindness meditation: This encourages people to contemplate kind, loving thoughts toward others and themselves. Vipassana does not encourage any specific thought process.
- Zen meditation: Similar to Vipassana, Zen meditation focuses on creating generalized awareness and minimizing distractions. However, unlike during Vipassana practice, a person keeps their eyes partially open during Zen sessions.
- Transcendental meditation: This meditation requires a person to repeat a specific mantra that an instructor has given them throughout each session. Like Vipassana meditation, the goal is enlightenment, but a key difference is that transcendental meditation requires someone to get lessons.
- Movement-based meditation: Several types of meditation, such as qi gong and yoga, use movement to cultivate awareness, control breathing, and help a person turn their focus inward. Vipassana is a quiet, still meditation that does not involve specific postures or thoughts.
Vipassana meditation is one of many forms of meditation that draws on Buddhist philosophy and spiritual practices. It is relatively new compared with some other techniques, but it comes from one of the oldest schools of thought, known as Theravada.
Vipassana can help a person gain more control over their thoughts, minimize distraction, turn their focus inward, and cultivate a more spiritual life. The practice may also offer some health benefits, especially when a person uses it to complement standard medical treatments.
People can practice Vipassana meditation at home or find additional support from a meditation center or Vipassana teacher.