What is Vipassana Meditation?

vipassana meditationVipassana Meditation is a valuable ally for a person seeking to understand themselves and achieve real inner peace.

In short, Vipassana is a type of meditation and its underlying philosophy. It’s a set of tools and instructions to help a person recognize how their body and mind work and therein learn to use it more artfully.

Where many meditation techniques focus the mind on a word or image, Vipassana is done by focusing on sensations as they occur in the body. This simple process is done by noticing what is right now, acknowledging it, and not getting caught up in cycles of reaction.

While this sounds easy, it’s tremendously difficult in practice. The mind wants to project into the future or into the past and in doing so hog all the attention. Zen Buddhists have a evocative term for this quality: Monkey Mind.

A practitioner of any kind of meditation quickly learns the truth of this statement. The mind chatters away incessantly and seems to actively fight focusing on one thing to the exclusion of all else. This low-level resistance enables many behaviors which cause suffering unnecessarily.

Where some meditation techniques are focused explicitly on their benefits, Vipassana is focused on precise technique.

There are two good reasons for this. Emotional grasping for pleasure, such as the joy of a new insight or release from pain, is considered a primary source of much suffering. By not emphasizing the rewards and making the work’s process the focus, it avoids adding to this type of suffering.

The second reason is Vipassana meditation isn’t a word-game or mind-game.  It’s a direct experience. Words can only approximate the actual mechanics of the technique. This is true in the same way words can never describe a  smile perfectly.

Words can get many individual aspects of a smile right, can describe many details. But no pile of words can replace seeing it for yourself.

Guided meditation

Benefits of Practicing Vipassana Meditation

All that said, the technique has a long enough history to be able to give newcomers a general idea of what kinds of changes they can expect as they use it. Because every person has a unique set of experiences and habitual reactions it’s impossible to say exactly what a person will experience.

The basic benefits of meditation apply: Reduced stress, increased concentration, increased awareness of one’s inner dimensions, increased intuition, feeling less cluttered, and less mental chatter.

In addition, over time a Vipassana practice will help a person grow out of old and toxic habit patterns, find inner peace, release emotional baggage, and develop a relaxed pause between perceiving something and reacting to it. This last benefit is especially useful in conflicts and relationships where it can keep us from escalating a situation unwisely.

Learning Vipassana

The most common way to learn Vipassana is through a ten-day silent meditation retreat. At these retreats, a person fully immerses themselves in the practice. They get up before dawn, eat pure vegetarian food, and meditates multiple times per day. There is also an hour or so of instruction every night.

By going to a meditation retreat people create a clear space where they can test the technique out in depth. With all distractions aggressively removed they can focus more intensely than a person having to live up to their regular obligations. This intensity allows them both to learn the technique well enough to get real understand of it in the mind, the heart, and in the body.

Because Vipassana is so simple it is possible to learn and do any quiet place, but this carries with it risks such as doing it incorrectly, not following through because one lacks a support structure, and not doing it enough to get the benefits. The technique is not a magic pill. It’s a steady, quiet effort to expand one’s awareness and become free of mental rubbish.

Is it like Zen?

Vipassana and Zen Buddhism have much in common. Both are technique and isolation driven practices which force a practitioner to recognize their own habit patterns by doing something slightly uncomfortable. However, they are both separate traditions and cultures. Each can lead to great realization but they take somewhat different paths to get there.

You can think of them somewhat like two different tool boxes containing similar-yet-different equipment. For some people, the tools in one set will be more valuable.  While the person sitting next to them will find the opposite to be true.

Is it a guided meditation?

Yes and no. Most guided meditations have a leader telling a group what images they should imagine. The technique is about focusing HOW its practitioners experience instead of what.

Vipassana meditation is a time-tested system for reliving one’s suffering. It takes a low-frills and a “slow and steady wins the race” approach to eliminated suffering and growth.

Image by tiseb and Mooganic.