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What Is Vipassana Meditation? Origins, Purpose & Practice

By rgblog

Vipassana meditation: one of the most time-honored and ancient meditation techniques to promote self-awareness. 

This meditation technique traces its roots all the way back to Gotama the Buddha, or roughly 2,500 years ago. 

Vipassana encourages both greater mindfulness and self-awareness to help you understand and release anxiety, physical ailments, and daily stresses found in our hectic lives.

In this guide, you’ll learn what Vipassana meditation is, where it came from, how it’s different from other styles, and whether it’s right for you. Let’s start with a basic rundown before we get into the technical practice.

What is Vipassana Meditation?

Vipassana meditation is one of the oldest known forms of meditation. The translation for Vipassana means “to see things as they really are”[*]. 

The goal of this ancient technique is to improve your concentration and self-awareness by focusing on self-observation[*]. 

To do this, you’ll pay more attention to your thoughts and the physical sensations you feel within and outside your body. When these sensations come up, Vipassana meditation teaches you to analyze but not dwell on them.

By tapping into these thoughts and physical sensations, you’ll develop insight about how you engage with your internal and external worlds[*]. This goes beyond mindful awareness.

Vipassana meditation helps you identify whether you’re holding onto the past or creating anxious feelings about the future. Then you’ll learn how to center your awareness on the here and now. The goal is to release these feelings to enjoy the present more fully.

Putting your focus on the present has been shown to reduce psychological and physical stress[*]. These two benefits explain why so many people have turned to this type of mediation for centuries.

The History and Origin of Vipassana Meditation

history of vipassana meditation

Vipassana is India’s oldest meditation technique and boasts a rich history dating back over 2,500 years[*][*].

The revered Gotama the Buddha spent the last 45 years of his life teaching people how to break free from suffering. It was through Vipassana that he taught this technique, which he learned after his enlightenment in 528 BCE[*].

Vipassana meditation spread throughout Buddha’s homeland in India for over five centuries. It then reigned supreme during Emperor Asoka’s time in 273-236 BCE[*]. 

Emperor Asoka created the golden age of peace and prosperity by bringing India together[*]. Asoka’s reach spread to nearby kingdoms, including what is now Myanmar. Vipassana meditation and the word of Buddha then expanded beyond India’s borders[*]. 

That’s why Vipassana meditation is well-known in many Buddhist traditions, including the Theravada Buddhist teachings[*]. And Vipassana (called Vipashyana in Sanskrit) was believed to be the “universal remedy for ills”[*][*].

However, Vipassana meditation slowly started to disappear from India roughly 500 years after it was first practiced.

Vipassana: A Second Resurgence 

Vipassana’s adoption in Myanmar kept the techniques alive and well during its brief lull[*]. These teachers never stopped practicing Vipassana mediation and became responsible for its global resurgence[*].

One key figure in the Vipassana movement was S.N. Goenka. A retired industrialist of Indian descent, S.N. Goenka was born in Myanmar and received Vipassana lessons from world-renowned teacher Sayagyi U Ba Khin[*]. 

U Ba Khin was the first person to teach this style of meditation to westerners because he could do so in English[*]. U Ba Khin appointed S.N. Goenka to teach Vipassana in 1969, which he gladly did and brought back to India, where it’s still practiced today[*].

S.N. Goenka is widely credited for the reason why Vipassana meditation remains so popular today. His ability to teach the practice on a global scale, emphasizing its importance as a secular path to liberation, kept this style from being forgotten by history[*].

This knowledge was crucial because Vipassana has a unique twist unlike other mindful meditation techniques.

Is Vipassana Meditation Different from Other Forms of Meditation?

Whether you’re new to meditation or a seasoned veteran, you may be wondering what makes Vipassana meditation different from other meditation styles.

The best way to explain the difference is that Vipassana combines two common mediation practices:

  1. śamatha meditation (mindfulness)
  2. vipassana (self-awareness).

Śamatha: The Foundation of Meditation 

vipassana meditation

Śamatha meditation is the practice most people are familiar with. During this type of meditation, you’re encouraged to quiet your mind, acknowledge thoughts or stimuli in your environment, and let them go without dwelling on them.

You can accomplish this by bringing your thoughts back to your breathing. Concentrating on your inhales and exhales frees your mind from worrying thoughts and helps you achieve a clear head.

As you continue practicing śamatha, you’ll be able to recognize creeping negative thoughts throughout your day, and simply let them fade away as you take deep breaths. This increases mindfulness, helps you relax, and puts you on the path toward enlightenment.

When you can release these negative thoughts, you can free yourself from daily external stresses in your life that are out of your control. Your focused breathing will bring you back to your center and empower you with a greater sense of self-direction.

Vipassana: The Next Step 

Vipassana builds on the mindfulness cultivated in śamatha and other meditation styles by allowing you to sit with the thoughts and physical feelings that arise during your quiet time.

While the goal of śamatha is to acknowledge and release your thoughts, Vipassana encourages meditators to come face-to-face with these sensations before letting them go.

This active conversation with yourself fosters greater self-awareness so you can finally uncover what’s at the root of your suffering. 

The more you tune into these thoughts and feelings, the better your ability to address issues and blockages, release them, and set your mind and body free.

Putting It All Together: Śamatha + Vipassana

To practice śamatha meditation, you find a quiet place to sit, focus on your breath work, and try to clear your mind of distractions.

Vipassana meditation teaches you to train your focus from the top of your body to the bottom to identify all the thoughts and sensations that arise. So rather than only being aware that these exist, you’ll actively engage with them.

To do this, you’ll take a mental scan of your body, and work through the kinks you may be thinking and feeling.

As you continue to practice this meditation style, you’ll start becoming less reactive to these thoughts and sensations. You’ll feel their presence, but they will no longer affect you the same way. You may even forget they exist with enough practice.

This active engagement is what separates Vipassana meditation from other styles. If you only practice mindfulness, you may not be able to move past these thoughts or sensations. 

Vipassana gives you the freedom and encouragement to tap into what your body’s trying to tell you. As you listen, you’ll gain greater understanding, keen insights, and a clear path toward removing the roadblocks to your health and happiness. 

How to Practice Vipassana Meditation at Home

Anyone can start a Vipassana meditation practice at home. But it’s best to learn from an experienced instructor during a class or Vipassana meditation retreat.

Follow these five steps to begin:

1. Find a Quiet, Comfortable Place 

In order to get to an introspective state of mind, you’ll want to find a nice, quiet, comfortable place to sit. 

Interruptions from roommates, spouses, kids, or pets will break your concentration and focus. So finding a secluded area where you can feel open and free to be alone with your thoughts/feelings is best.

Some ideal places for Vipassana meditation include:

  • Outdoors. Sit under a tree in the backyard like the Buddha, or find a sunny area on your patio, a quiet nook at your local park, etc.
  • A calm bedroom oasis. Light a few candles, essential oils, or incense to set the mood for a reflective retreat.
  • Your bathroom. If your only alone time happens in the bathroom, lock the door and sit against a wall or in an empty bathtub/dry shower.

Since you may be feeling vulnerable or have your eyes closed, make sure this place offers a bit of seclusion yet still makes you feel safe. 

2. Get In the Right Position 

If you can sit cross-legged on the floor, or with one leg over the other, this is the ideal position to adopt for meditation. You can also sit on a meditation pillow or poof. 

Sitting in a chair is another option if you’re not able to sit cross-legged or on the floor/ground due to medical or physical issues.

No matter which route you choose, make sure to sit upright and tall. Release your shoulders so they’re pulled down and away from your ears. Keep a flat back and resist the urge to hunch forward or arch backward.

3. Focus On Your Breathing While You Scan Your Body

Once comfortably seated, close your eyes and bring your focus to your breathing. Notice how your belly expands and contracts as you breathe in and out.

As you focus your attention on each inhalation and exhalation, start to pay attention to the sensations you’re feeling. Take a mental scan of your body from top to bottom, or bottom to top, to identify the physical and emotional cues your body’s sending out.

Do you notice tingling in your feet, for example? Do you feel tenseness in your shoulders? Are you anxious or unable to relax? What’s specifically on your mind?

4. Use Your Breathing to Work Through Your Thoughts and Sensations

Now that you’re aware of the thoughts and sensations felt in your legs, neck, shoulders, etc., breathe into these feelings to work through them.

Send your breath to any areas you feel discomfort. Take deep breaths to focus on getting through these one at a time without spending too much attention on one specific area.

If your mind starts to drift, that’s okay. Simply bring it back to your awareness of your breath and the sensations in your body.

If something distracts you or detracts from your attention, such as a loud noise or interruption, note it and move on. Again, just bring your attention back to your breathing.

5. Repeat the Process Throughout Your Session/Day

You’ll repeat the process of Vipassana for as long as you can during your meditation practice.

Start with a 5 to 10-minute practice if you’re new to meditating. Then work your way up to longer sessions in the 20-minute to 1-hour range.

Remember, your Vipassana practice doesn’t have to end when your meditation time does. You can carry the process of scanning and using your breathwork to work through issues throughout your day. 

Try to add in small bursts of meditation whenever possible. You’ll become more aware of and in control of your thoughts and feelings so they don’t overtake you.

While the practice of Vipassana meditation can begin at home, those new to this technique will gain all the tools for success during a meditation retreat.

What Happens During a Vipassana Meditation Retreat?

The best way to fully understand and take advantage of Vipassana meditation is to attend a meditation retreat - ideally 10 days or longer. 

Back in its early days, a Vipassana retreat typically lasted over seven weeks. So even though a 10-day retreat may seem long, it’s still considered a condensed version.

Practitioners believe a 10-day minimum provides enough time to learn the basic fundamentals before you’re ready to move into the actual practice. Then, your teachers will help you build upon both over the course of several days to help you become in-tune with your higher self.

To give you an idea of what you can expect, an 11-day Vipassana retreat consists of the following daily activities:

  • One daily yoga session
  • 3 to 4 meditation sessions
  • 3 to 4 instructional talks
  • One Dhamma talk

Retreats like this are based on the traditional technique of S.N. Goenka. 

They’re also associated with the Insight Meditation Society, a Buddhist organization founded by prominent teachers Sharon Salzberg, Joseph Goldstein, and Jack Kornfield. 

These well-known instructors strive to bring Theravadan Buddhist teachings to a western audience. And students find they do an excellent job of this through their organization.

Getting Started with Vipassana Meditation

Some of the concepts discussed in this guide may make it seem like Vipassana is an easy form of meditation to master.

While it eventually becomes this way, getting there takes diligent practice, proper technique, and the right focus. 

That’s why we encourage everyone reading this to consider trying a Vipassana retreat to experience the basic principles and best form from the start.

Since Vipassana goes beyond meditation and mindfulness, the right guidance can help you tap into insights you may not have thought possible.

To see what we mean, check out a Vipassana retreat today.

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