What is Vipassana Meditation? A Beginner’s Guide
We will all agree that often times we find ourselves overwhelmed by various negative thoughts and feelings. We get angry, disappointed, sad, discouraged and even feel completely out of harmony with ourselves. This makes us send off those negative energies to the other people around us and make them unhappy too.
Definitely, it is not something we do intentionally but the things we go through life may make us do it. But is there a way in which we can reduce all the negative thoughts, feelings and energy and be more on the positive side, feeling energized, motivated, peaceful, happy and having proper inner balance?
Vipassana meditation is a great practice that helps us become more peaceful, calm and have inner harmony through purifying the mind from the negative thoughts and feelings that make us suffer. It brings a sense of mental stillness and clarity that helps us live better lives.
What is Vipassana Meditation?
Vipassana meditation is a type of meditation that is aimed at helping the meditators transform themselves by observing themselves and their experiences.
The word “Vipassana” means seeing things as they really are. It is also referred to as “seeing clearly ” or “insight”. You get to see things as they actually are by observing them without making interpretations, judgments or forming opinions.
By doing this, you gain the insight into reality of things and their true nature. The kind of nature that is not taught verbally but experienced by the meditator.
The practice helps to get rid of any impurities in the mind that liberates the mind and make it possible for it to experience peace and happiness.
As you do Vipassana meditation, you aim to direct your attention to the physical sensations of your body, feelings and thoughts.
This helps you access the deepest part of your mind and its interconnection with the body which then allows you to release all the impurities of your mind that hold you from experiencing peace, calmness, love and happiness.
Through this exploration of the self, you are able to understand yourself much better, know your pains and their real causes, which makes it fairly easy to work on them.
S.N. Goenka, a global Vipassana leader and teacher who introduced Vipassana meditation to the western world, says that Vipassana meditation is a science of the mind and matter. It goes into how the mind is influencing the body and in return, how the body is influencing the mind.
It works from the root level of the mind which is constantly in contact with body sensations and helps create a calmer mind which is balanced.
Some of the benefits you get out of this practice include mental clarity, awareness, being compassionate and understanding.
History of Vipassana Meditation
Vipassana meditation is considered to be among the oldest forms of meditation. About 25 centuries ago, it was practiced by the famous religious leader, Gautama Buddha, under whom Buddhism was founded. It is said that he had also rediscovered it from other teachers who had been working with it for years.
Buddha would later become enlightened in 528 BCE and he ventured into teaching others the fundamentals of the Vipassana (commonly known as Dhamma or Dharma) to help them end the suffering in their lives. This practice grew in popularity and lots of people took it up for about 500 years that followed.
When this ancient tradition was at its peak, the great Emperor, Asoka, who was reigning at the time decided to send the Dhamma diplomats in his country to other kingdoms around him, and Burma (what is now known as the Republic of the Union of Myanmar) was one of them.
That is how Vipassana as well as the teaching of Buddha became popular.
5 centuries down the line, Vipassana meditation had been forgotten in India, where it had originated. However, other regions like Myanmar were still practicing it. It was later brought back to India by S.N. Goenka, who lived in Myanmar and had been taught by Sayagyi U Ba Khin, who was a well-known Vipassana teacher in the West.
S.N. Goenka taught the practice in India and then to the rest of the world through other teachers he trained and gave the mandate to teach the many people who were showing interest in the practice.
Today, Vipassana meditation is practiced by people from all religions, races and countries.
How Does Vipassana Meditation Work?
To put things into perspective, Buddhist meditation is mainly divided into 2 categories, Vipassana and Śamatha meditation.
Vipassana goes deeper than Śamatha but it also uses some of its basic concepts. It is mainly about learning to be mindful and aware. You first learn how to be “in the now”. When you have mastered that skill, you then go ahead and use it to enquire into the self.
You seek to understand what the self is and how it works, your perception of reality and your level of consciousness. This reveals deep insights about ourselves and the universe.
To get to this level, it is recommended that you get an instructor who is well versed with this form of meditation to help you through the path the proper way. There are lots of difficulties in doing it and proper guidance from an experienced teacher will go a long way in making the process seamless for you.
Śamatha meditation is what is commonly referred to as Mindfulness. It is also called mindfulness meditation, mindfulness based meditation or tranquility meditation.
Here you focus on an object that is chosen for you to help your mind to calm down and focus on the present moment. Mostly, meditators why use this style focus on their breathing. The main aim is to focus on your breathing and observe your thoughts, emotions and sensations without forming opinions or conclusions.
You only become aware of them. When your mind is lost in thought and you notice it, you return your focus to your breathing. By being mindful of your mind and body, you are able to get into a state of relaxed wakefulness.
Now Vipassana takes mindfulness to the next level by directing attention to deep examination of aspects of life. You take note of the way your life experiences flow to understand what truly happens within yourself, around you and to you from the outside.
Vipassana meditation experts describe it as more of an art of making the most of your senses, that is, getting to see mindfully, listen attentively, smell deeply and feel things completely. It is also about paying attention to your thoughts, sensations and feelings without being involved in them mentally. You look at them like an outsider.
Normally, we are seeing things at surface level which may be misleading, but by diving deep into self observation, we realize that we were initially seeing was just the tip of the iceberg.
As we keep observing our life experiences even as we get involved in them, we get to see a new profound perspective of life that changes our whole idea of life.
The quality of the practice is emptying your mind from all beliefs, stereotypes, life concepts and getting to experience things firsthand for yourself. By experience, you are able to have proper comprehension of the deepest life qualities which also boost the quality of your life.
How is it Different From Other Types of Meditation
People often wonder what difference there is between Vipassana meditation and transcendental meditation or even mindfulness. And while some may think they are very similar, there are clear distinctions in all of them.
Vipassana meditation is about becoming insightful through self observation and enquiries of the self and life.
Transcendental meditation, on the other hand, uses a mantra (a sound or a word) to help you transcend to the source of thought.
Mindfulness meditation is about being mindful of your thoughts and feelings without interfering, mentally, and living in the present moment.
Benefits of Vipassana Meditation
Here is what S.N. Goenka says the benefits of Vipassana meditation are:
1. Can help you find peace and harmony – As you do Vipassana meditation often, you get to reach the depth of the mind and you are able to make the mind and body connection that helps you achieve peace and inner harmony.
2. Helps you overcome bad habits – Through the process of self observation and self enquiry based on your personal experiences, you get to see how the negative habits that you have formed within yourself are constantly changing and you are able to detach yourself from the habits and cravings of things you know are only temporary.
3. It leads you to the truth – The practice encourages the medititator to use it with a “skeptical” mind. You are told to let go of all the beliefs and teachings you have been taught about life and get to experience life in its purest form and draw your own conclusions based on your experience. Then you live the life based on the truth you yourself have discovered.
4. It deepens your insight and perception – Vipassana meditation is also called Insight meditation as it gives you the opportunity to explore the world within and around you. Through observation and experience, you get to learn a lot about yourself and the universe which elevates your level of insight and perception of things.
5. Cultivates love, compassion and good will – By getting into the depths of your mind through the practice, you are able to understand the true nature of reality and the harm there is in immersing yourself in vice. Through observational experience, you understand the source of your negative feelings and energies. And this draws you towards the good, self elevating values like compassion, good will and love.
6. May Improve cognitive function – With frequent practice of Vipassana, you may sharpen your mind and your reasoning abilities and your overall brain performance. Neuroimaging studies on Vipassana meditation suggest that, for people who have meditated on the long term, the practice could be linked to an increase in thickness in the brain areas that are associated with attention, increase in the gray matter in the hippocampus and the right insula as well as activating the prefrontal cortex together with the anterior cingulate cortex while meditating. (1)
7. May help reduce stress – A study done on a group of participants who had a 10 days Vipassana meditation training revealed that their physical and psychological well-being had improved compared to what they were prior to the training. (2)
How to do Vipassana Meditation
To understand Vipassana meditation, it is highly recommended that you attend a 10 days course or retreat on the practice given by qualified teachers to get a good foundation on it. You will get the course in centers built for the practice as well as non centers organized by certified Vipassana teachers in different locations.
Ideally, there are centers and non centers throughout the world and it is important to check whether your country has a center or a non center where you can go for proper vipassana training.
First, you have to apply for admission. You will be given a number of strict guidelines and rules you have to follow which you should review and see if you can follow. The rules are commonly known as the Code of Discipline, which include complete silence throughout the first 9 days you will be doing the course.
Men and women are separated and you will not be allowed to talk to other people including your spouse, family or friends, but only your teachers, only during designated times of the day. Using mobile devices are prohibited too among other rules.
Once you agree to following the rules, you will be admitted to the course where you will spend 10 full days away from the outside world to experience the course in all its purity.
There are 3 main pillars that the course is founded on. They are:
1. Sila (Which means morality) – Here, you are supposed to keep away from any acts that you know can bring harm. You get to practice abstinence from stealing, lying, killing, sexual misbehavior and use of any intoxicants. Following these gives the mind the opportunity to experience calmness and it gives way for the second phase of the training.
2. Samādhi (which means concentration of the mind) – This is the part where you train your mind to concentrate through focus on your breath. You do this for 3 and a half days. It helps you reduce the racing of thoughts and become more aware of yourself. It also gives you more control of your mind. This is beneficial for the third phase.
3. Paññā (Which means wisdom of insight) – This is the last part of the training which is based on purifying the mind through paññā, also referred to as the wisdom of insight. The insight you gain in this phase helps you keep your mind off of anything that would intoxicate it.
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ’s) on Vipassana Meditation
1. Is Vipassana meditation only for Buddhists?
Vipassana meditation is not a religion, a philosophy, or a sect and people from all religions are encouraged to practice it. The same case applies to those who don’t believe in religion. All are welcome to try it out. Vipassana should be viewed as a way of life in which people cultivate admirable human values that are not only beneficial to the meditators but to those they interact with as well.
2. Why should silence be observed for 9 whole days?
All the people who attend the course or retreat agree to observe what is known as “Noble Silence” which involves the silence of the mind, body and speech. Although, the meditators are allowed to talk to their teachers when they have needs. For the first 9 days of the course, meditators remain silent. However, on the 10th day, silence is broken and meditators can speak to help bring them back to the normal life. Silence is the building foundation of the practice and it helps the meditator continue with the practice successfully.
3. Why does the course have to be 10 days long?
10 days period has been found to be the optimal time for meditators to gain mental calmness and be able to make good use of the mind body experience. It creates a proper foundation for the meditation technique. In the past, Vipassana was offered as a 7-week course. But with the development of the world and technology, Vipassana experts have been able to experiment with various time periods ranging from a week, 2 weeks and even a month to see how they can fasten the course for people with busy lives all the while offering valuable experience that will be of real benefit to the attendants. The time frame that proved to be the best is 10 days. Any time below that cannot be enough to offer a valuable foundation of the tradition of Vipassana.
4. How much do you pay for as far as everything in the retreat is concerned?
Vipassana meditation is completely free. You don’t get charged for the food, teaching or accommodation. Normally, attendants who came before you, gave a donation out of their free will as a gift for the continuation of this beautiful practice. It is not a requirement that you give any gift, but if you feel compelled to help keep the good work going, you can always donate anything you wish within your own means.
5. How is the schedule like for a typical day during the course?
There is a specific schedule that has been created to help with proper learning, experience and understanding of the practice. You get to wake up at 4:00am and sleep at 9:00pm. Through the day, you meditate for about 10 hours with a few rest periods in between. At 7:00pm, you watch a video of a lecture given by S.N. Goenka, to help put into perspective what you went through during the day.
6. Is it necessary for me to cross my legs? What if I can’t?
You are not required to cross your legs in the lotus position if you can’t. If you have a physical issue or your age makes it hard for you to do it, you can always use the chairs provided where you attend the course.
7. Who should not do Vipassana meditation?
It depends a lot on the individual and the circumstances surrounding them. There is a question and answer period before joining the course that is provided to help people who are interested know whether they are able to benefit fully from the course without any problems. It is not recommended for people who are too weak, physically, people with psychiatric problems or those who experience emotional turbulence to attend. The teacher will help you understand better if you are fit for it and where you will need a doctor’s approval, you will be advised how to go about it accordingly.
8. Can Vipassana act as a cure to certain physical and mental illnesses? Like depression?
The main aim of Vipassana is to make people happy and well-balanced in all situations. If anyone attends the course with the aim of getting a cure of any health problem they have, they may end up not gaining any real benefit from the practice and they may even make their situation worse.
That is why it is always advised for someone who wishes to attend the course be transparent about their health condition before joining. You are asked to share your history so that it can be determined if you are up for the course, health wise. If you hide any health issues, like having a severe depression in the past or emotional imbalance, you won’t be able to make a good application of the course and therefore fail to get expected results. Where necessary, you will be asked to work with a professional health care specialist instead of the course.
9. Are special cases like pregnant women and people under strict special diets accommodated?
Yes, pregnant women are accommodated and their needs are well taken care of including the extra food they need and the proper environment to keep them relaxed. As for the people who are under special diet, they are encouraged to share that during the question and answer period before joining so that it is determined if the place where they attend the course will manage. If they can, you can attend the course, if not, the applicant is advised to take some time to take care of their health first until they are able to work with regular diet. The centers provide a simple vegetarian diet for the attendants and no food from outside is normally allowed.
10. Is it possible to leave the course earlier than the expected time?
As earlier said, the 10 days stated and the schedule followed during that time allows for proper learning and application of the technique to get good results. Leaving earlier than that is more of a disservice to yourself as you won’t get the whole technique right, thus you won’t get good results. Even on the last day when things are easier and people are allowed to talk, leaving is not allowed as it is the time to make the transition to the normal life, the proper way.
Fundamentally, Vipassana meditation is about training your mind to become completely aware of all that is going on. The present moment, what is happening and the way it is actually happening without any mental interference such as making judgments. Your state of awareness ought to be complete, from moment to moment, without taking breaks.
This goes on to help you become deeply observant of your life experiences and learn from them. Then you are able to purify your mind as well as boost your level of perception and insight.
This is a really unique level that has lots of benefits to offer the meditator. However, it takes a lot of time, and practice to get there. You have to start somewhere and grow slowly. As you grow your level of awareness during meditation, you gain the ability to be aware even after the practice. And this makes for accurate self observation and enquiry.
You should be consistent with the practice so that you are able to build the skill easily and faster. It takes more than just a few days or weeks to get there. You should look to do it on the long term, for yeas to come. Although, even a few sessions of Vipassana meditation provide a huge effect and do improve your overall life experience.