Mindfulness vs Vipassana

  • By: Ryan Kane
  • Updated: March 11, 2022
  • Time to read: 4 min.

Before I ever knew much about the concept of mindfulness, I went on a ten-day Vipassana silent meditation retreat.

Those dozens of hours of Vipassana meditation were my entrance into the world of mindfulness.

While Vipassana and mindfulness have a shared history and much in common, the two terms don’t refer to exactly the same thing.

Below, I’ll compare both practices, and share a bit about my own experience.

What is Vipassana?

Vipassana is a type of insight meditation that is thought to have been first taught by the Buddha. It’s one of the earliest forms of meditation.

Vipassana involves observing your thoughts and sensations without judgement, and focusing on the present moment.

Vipassana is the primary tradition of meditation in Sri Lanka as well as Southeast Asia.

What’s the difference between Vipassana and mindfulness?

The main difference between Vipassana and mindfulness is that Vipassana is spiritual, and mindfulness is secular.

While Vipassana originated from a religious tradition and the practice is focused on meditation, mindfulness is purely secular, and includes meditation along with other practices like gratitude and yoga. Mindfulness involves paying close attention to what’s happening in the moment, while Vipassana has a spiritual component that’s focused on observing the true nature of reality.

Is MBSR based on Vipassana?

Yes.

Jon Kabat-Zinn, the creator of mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR), was a long-time practitioner of Vipassana meditation.

In some ways, MBSR is a secularized version of Vipassana. For example, here are some parts of the MBSR curriculum that are very similar to Vipassana:

  • Mindfulness of breathing
  • Body scan
  • Sitting meditation

However, the MBSR curriculum includes a number of exercises that diverge from Vipassana, including:

  • Mindful eating
  • Yoga
  • Mindful awareness in everyday life
  • Stress coping strategies
  • Interpersonal communication

While the mindfulness-based stress reduction curriculum is rooted in a secularized version of Vipassana techniques, the full scope of the program is much broader. MBSR focuses on practical applications like stress coping techniques and mindful awareness in everyday life.

How is Vipassana meditation different from other types of meditation?

There are a number of meditation techniques, but broadly speaking, two major categories they fall into are calming meditation, and insight meditation.

Calming meditation is focused on cultivating peace and greater concentration, while insight meditation is focused on creating greater awareness, wisdom, and compassion, often through a focus on the breath.

Vipassana is a form of insight meditation.

Vipassana’s literal translation is to see things as they really are. Vipassana is a part of a larger set of Buddhist practices focused on moving away from suffering.

My experience with Vipassana and mindfulness

In 2016, I took part in a ten-day silent retreat in the Vipassana tradition. It was transformative in some ways, although not necessarily in the ways I expected. One element of the retreat that sticks out to me still is that, although it was promoted as a secular experience, there are traditional elements in Vipassana practice that feel like religiosity.

For example, chanting was frequently how we closed out meditation sessions during the retreat. And the recorded lectures we watched to learn about Vipassana practice focused on the spiritual nature of what we were doing, especially the power of meditation to cleanse the body of negative emotions over time.

Finally, Vipassana maintains links to traditional practices. For example, only vegetarian food is served at Vipassana retreat centers, and no meals are eaten after noon (other than light snacks).

None of this implies a negative perspective on my part. Vipassana is an excellent way to get a foundational experience with meditation.

Mindfulness, on the other hand, contains many elements of Vipassana but is stripped even further of any vestiges of religious traditions.

Mindfulness meditation has no chanting (although some people use mantras). Typically it includes simple awareness exercises like focusing on your breath or on an external object like a flickering candle.

For me, mindfulness meditation, in combination with other mindfulness practices like gratitude, self-compassion, and journaling, provide fuller support for my emotional life than Vipassana alone.

Mindfulness vs Vipassana

You might find (like I did) that Vipassana retreats are a great launching-off point, helping you build a meditation practice and giving you a foundation and momentum.

For me, mindfulness meditation has been a better fit for continuing my practice, particularly when complemented by accompanying mindfulness practices like yoga, gratitude, journaling, and others. I also appreciate that mindfulness is fully secular.

That said, there’s no reason you need to choose between mindfulness and Vipassana. It’s easy enough to jump between the two, experimenting as you go.

Both are similar paths, with the end goal of reducing stress and suffering.

Frequently asked questions

Is Vipassana a type of Zen meditation?

Vipassana is not a type of Zen meditation.

Vipassana originated in India, whereas Zen meditation (and its Chinese counterpart, Chan meditation) originated in east Asia. That said, the practices are very similar. Both focus on nonjudgmental awareness and observation, typically with a focus on the breath. Zen includes a greater focus on postures and how you’re sitting, whereas in Vipassana, this is less important.

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