The benefits of Vipassana and other forms of insight meditation stem from the power that these practices hold to bring us towards inner balance, mental clarity, and non-attachment.
Vipassana meditation continues to grow in interest in the Western world as it has for the past half century. As the pace of society quickens and the buzz intensifies, many of us have found ourselves becoming increasingly curious about stillness and silence. What do these qualities have to offer us? As we become more aware of the connection between mind and body – and between the worlds within and out – we open ourselves to a more mindful descent into the inner world, a descent that is possible through Vipassana meditation. Though the roots of this ancient practice weave all the way back to the birth of Buddhism, the implications of this profound practice have a significant impact on our present-day inner workings.
The History and Theory of Vipassana
The roots of Vipassana can be traced back to the origins of this ancient religion, having first been taught by Gautama Buddha himself. The presence and prevalence of these teachings in the east waxed and waned throughout many centuries. In the early 20th century, the practice found renewed life when Ledi Sayadaw made Vipassana meditation accessible to the average man. As he brought these teachings to everyday life, making them applicable to those outside of monastic life, popularity in meditation grew in Burma, India, and other nearby countries. Over time, Buddhist teachers such as Mahasi Sayadaw and S. N. Goenka shared this reemergent meditation practice with the West, making it one of the more prominent and well-known mindfulness practices in the Western world. Meditation centres offering Goenka’s teachings are well-established across the globe today.
But while many have heard of Vipassana retreats and Vipassana meditation, we may not all be as familiar with what this practice entails. We understand, from images we’ve seen and stories we’ve heard, that Vipassana requires silence, but what else does it ask of us? Vipassana is commonly translated to be understood as ‘insight’ or ‘clear seeing,’ but we can explore it further by considering the equivalent Buddhist Sanskrit term Vipashyana. Vi can be understood in English as ‘specific’ and pashya as ‘seeing.’ When the two are combined, we find that Vipashyana (or Vipassana) is a practice of specific seeing, or specific observation. When practicing this type of meditation, we are called to observe things exactly as they are, whether what we are observing is of mind, body, or spirit. In Vipassana meditation we observe all feelings, all thoughts, and all sensations with open awareness, and as we do, we move closer towards understanding the true nature of things.
Vipassana and Yogic Philosophy
Vipassana meditation is of the same strain as the yogic practice pratyahara. The fifth limb of Patanjali’s raja yoga, pratyahara is a withdrawal of the senses. In withdrawing our senses, as is done in Vipassana, we come into greater contact with the inner workings of our true nature. Exploring our present moment experience through open, non-judgmental observation, we find ourselves inching closer towards a non-thinking state of being where silence pervades. It should be noted, however, that pratyahara and vipassana are not one and the same; they are rooted in different traditions – Vipassana in Buddhism and pratyahara in yogic history and philosophy – and so the two practices take different approaches to the same underlying concept of inward observation.
The Buddhist teaching is also aligned with the practice of antar mouna – the yogic practice of cultivating inner silence. In both of these forms of meditation, we are called to witness our thoughts from a place of separation. In both, we internalise our awareness and begin to detach from our stream of thoughts, moving closer towards a state of inner silence and pure, open awareness. Though these techniques may have different teachings and history behind them, what they point towards is of common ground. Both explore how peace and stillness can be found through developing a new relationship with the mind.
How to Practice Insight Meditation
Practicing the official Vipassana technique of meditation requires training. Vipassana meditation is taught to new students during 10-day silent retreats at various Vipassana centres around the world. Upon completion of a 10-day course, students can continue their personal practice at home or return to any Vipassana Centre around the world for retreats of varying durations.
Insight meditation as a non-sectarian practice, however, does not require us to retreat from the world for 10 days. Practicing open, mindful awareness can be explored in any setting and without any formal teaching. Through practice, we harness our understanding of what this type of awareness entails as we become more skilled in the art of detaching from our sensual and mental experience.
Insight meditation techniques vary with teachers and traditions. Osho, for example, explored how we can practice what might be called Vipassana, regardless of where we are or what we are doing. He suggested three practices that, while not official teachings of the traditional Vipassana approach, can help us to gain a clearer understanding of what insight meditation is about:
1. Harness awareness of your actions, your physical body, your mental body, and your heart.
This approach applies to any action we take or any activity we may be engaging in. Traditional Vipassana meditation is conducted while seated and in stillness, though we can strengthen our capacity for inner observation regardless of what form or actions we are presently taking. Whatever physical sensations, thoughts, and emotions pass through us, they can all be witnessed without identification.
2. Become aware of your breathing as it moves into and out of the belly.
As you focus on the way the breath enters the body and fills the belly, and then slowly shifts direction to merge once again with the outer word, the mind begins to soften and inner silence takes its place. This single-focus approach can be combined with the above technique of more open awareness so that when thoughts or emotions enter our experience, these too are witnessed and then naturally released as we return our attention to the breath.
3. Harness awareness of breath entering and exiting the body through the nostrils.
Osho shares a third way of practicing mindful observation. Similar to the second approach, the third form involves awareness of the breath simply as it passes into and out of the nostrils. As with the aforementioned technique, we can expand this practice to be welcoming to and non-judgmental of any thoughts, feelings, and other physical sensations that arise.
A more traditional practice we can explore that is in greater alignment with the formal Vipassana approach requires stillness and silence. In a comfortable, straight-backed seated position, we can tune into the breath, witnessing its natural flow and rhythm and allowing it to ground us in the present moment. As thoughts arise in mind, we can practice observing them from a place of non-identification. We might observe various habits occurring, such as ‘thinking’, ‘judging’, or ‘craving’, just as we might observe and note the presence of various energies and sensations, such as ‘tightness,’ ‘contraction,’ ‘heat,’ or ‘tingling.’ Whatever arises, we can observe it with open awareness and non-identification. If identification occurs, we can note this tendency as well.
The Benefits of Vipassana
Vipassana meditation has a variety of benefits that touch our lives in infinite ways. When we boil it down, the benefits of Vipassana and other forms of insight meditation stem from the power that these practices hold to bring us towards inner balance, mental clarity, and non-attachment. As we come to witness the nature of our inner world for what it is rather than for what it appears to be, we develop a greater ability to witness all of our emotions, our attachments, and our physical sensations in ways that promote healing and wellbeing. We gain a greater sense of control over and clarity in life – both inner and outer.
“Vipassana meditation is an ongoing creative purification process. Observation of the moment-to-moment experience cleanses the mental layers, one after another.” – Amit Ray
Vipassana brings us back to our center. It grounds us in the quiet stillness that rests beneath the waves that move through us. The more we practice inward observation through the withdrawal of the senses and the cultivation of silence, the easier it becomes for us to move into that peaceful state throughout all of life’s trials and triumphs. By connecting to what is rather than what appears to be, we develop a greater sense of peace and harmony within. By connecting to what is, we flow more effortlessly through life.