One of the oldest meditation techniques, Vipassana, aims to create a greater awareness of how our mind reacts to sensations.

There’s no single approach to meditation, with practices ranging from mindfulness and transcendental to walking and mantra-based.

But another form of meditation took root before these arose: Vipassana.

This form of meditation has been around for thousands of years, but it’s recently become more popular as it can aid in relieving stress and improving self-awareness.

Vipassana is thought to be one of the oldest forms of Buddhist meditation. It’s been “taught in India for thousands of years, possibly since the time of Buddha,” says Griff Williams, meditation teacher and founder of MindEasy.

Translated, Vipassana means “to see things as they really are.” The practice became more widespread in the 20th Century after Vipassana teacher S.N. Goenka helped establish hundreds of dedicated Vipassana meditation centers worldwide.

Vipassana focuses on enhancing self-awareness of the mind and body.

“One learns how the deep level of the mind is always in contact with sensations and how it is always reacting either with craving or aversion to these sensations,” explained Kirk Brown, Dhamma Dipa Meditation Centre teacher.

“Instead of reacting, the student develops equanimity towards the sensations by understanding their changing, impersonal nature at the experiential level,” he continues.

Brown says that changing how you perceive things allows you to unwind “the negative conditionings of the mind,” — resulting in the “natural cultivation of positive emotions, like compassion and sympathetic joy.”

Vipassana meditation benefits

Studies show practicing Vipassana can offer a range of mind and body benefits, including:

  • reduced symptoms of depression and anxiety
  • better stress management
  • improved self-confidence
  • enhanced self-awareness
  • better empathy
  • improved interpersonal skills
  • enhanced response inhibition, helping to reduce distraction
  • reduced temper
  • improved sleep state
  • higher serotonin, the happy hormone, and melatonin, the sleep hormone, levels
  • increased gamma-ray brain activity, which is linked to happiness

Vipassana versus mindfulness meditation

A traditional mindfulness practice typically involves focusing on one thing, such as the breath.

On the other hand, “Vipassana requires no particular focus,” states Williams. “Instead, it observes the natural flow of consciousness — observing sensations as they come and go without trying to control or change them.”

Williams adds that practicing Vipassana allows individuals to gain an understanding of impermanence. Impermanence is a key teaching in Buddhism, recognizing that everything is constantly changing and will ultimately come to an end.

That said, elements of mindfulness are often practiced alongside Vipassana. For instance, the first few days of a Vipassana retreat (more on these later) involve Apanana meditation, a mindfulness technique that focuses on breathing.

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Ideally, “One should learn from an authorized teacher,” shares Brown. “There are three parts to the technique or practice: Sila, Samadhi, and Panna (Morality, Concentration, and Wisdom).”

Retreat-based courses are held at dedicated Vipassana centers worldwide. Online courses are also available.

A Vipassana session involves sitting in a cross-legged position while keeping your back as straight as possible. You stay as still as possible, instructs Williams, while “scanning the body and observing physical sensations.”

As these sensations arise, you want to observe them and let them pass away — without doing anything to try and control or change them.

Typically, “A meditation session aims to last up to one hour without any movement,” Williams says. This is something Vipassana beginners can find particularly challenging, especially with regard to maintaining the “correct” posture and seating position.

As such, “beginners are advised to practice for as long as they can, even if it’s just 10-15 minutes,” he explains.

If you’re looking for a week of rest and relaxation, a Vipassana retreat isn’t for you. While there are plenty of benefits from learning this practice, the process is not for everyone.

“Many students comment that the course is one of the hardest things they have done in their life but one of the most rewarding,” reveals Brown.

Retreats last 10 days and are typically funded by donations. Longer retreats are also available.

At the start of the course, all participants undertake five basic moral precepts of Buddhism. “These are the foundations of the technique, to keep the mind stable,” Brown says.

For the first three and a half days of the course, Apanana meditation is taught and practiced. This helps participants “develop concentration and the ability to focus on one point by remaining aware of the breath at the entrance of the nostrils,” explains Brown.

From day four onwards, the focus shifts to Vipassana. Williams says that each day involves around 10 hours of meditation — conducted with other students in a group setting or individually — that qualified teachers support and guide.

What are the rules for the 10 days of Vipassana?

In addition to the five moral precepts, retreat students are expected to adhere to specific rules. These include:

  • complete silence for the entire 10 days, except when speaking to teachers
  • no communication with other students, such as through eye contact or hand gestures
  • no using of a cell phone
  • no reading, writing, or listening to music
  • no engaging in other religious prayer/worship or forms of meditation
  • no exercise, aside from walking

Williams explains that the rules of silence and no communication are put in place “to prevent distractions and replicate the isolation Buddha experienced when he sought enlightenment.”

An ancient form of meditation, Vipassana aims to help develop an awareness of impertinence — that everything is constantly changing.

Practice involves sitting as still as possible while recognizing sensations but not reacting to them.

Benefits of Vipassana are thought to include reduced stress and anxiety and enhanced self-awareness and empathy.

“When practiced properly, the practice does not just lead to a temporary blissful experience but to a profound experience of truth realization,” said Brown.