An Introduction to Vipassana Meditation

  • By: Ryan Kane
  • Updated: August 15, 2023
  • Time to read: 4 min.

Vipassana and modern mindfulness meditation are two closely related practices. Vipassana involves observing the true nature of reality.

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’s goals are to release suffering and to internalize the truth of impermanence.

Here’s how S.N. Goenka, the most influential modern teacher of Vipassana, described the practice:

“Vipassana focuses on the deep interconnection between mind and body, which can be experienced directly by disciplined attention to the physical sensations that form the life of the body, and that continuously interconnect and condition the life of the mind. It is this observation-based, self-exploratory journey to the common root of mind and body that dissolves mental impurity, resulting in a balanced mind full of love and compassion.”

– S.N. Goenka

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

Vipassana vs mindfulness meditation

Vipassana vs Mindfulness Meditation 2

The main difference between Vipassana and mindfulness meditation is that while both are focused on observing the present moment without judgement, Vipassana’s deeper focus is on uncovering the true nature of reality.

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

While Vipassana is not religious, the terminology and examples used in its teaching often reference its Buddhist legacy. For example, the Vipassana Research Institute includes references to Buddhist philosophy, morality, the Buddha’s Four Noble Truths, and the life of the Buddha.

When you take a Vipassana course, you agree to abide by the following codes of conduct:

  1. To abstain from killing any living creature
  2. To abstain from stealing
  3. To abstain from all sexual activity
  4. To abstain from telling lies
  5. To abstain from all intoxicants

People returning for additional Vipassana courses also observe these rules:

  1. To abstain from eating after midday
  2. To abstain from sensual entertainment and bodily decoration
  3. To abstain from using high or luxurious beds

In some ways, MBSR and modern mindfulness meditation is a version of Vipassana stripped of its more Buddhist-related language, philosophy, and moral teachings. However, the core activities and teachings are quite similar:

  • Mindfulness of breathing
  • Body scan
  • Sitting meditation
  • Mindful eating
  • Mindfulness in daily life

MBSR curriculum often includes specific units on:

  • Stress coping strategies
  • Interpersonal communication

How is Vipassana meditation different from other types of meditation?

Vipassana vs Mindfulness Meditation
Vipassana is a form of insight meditation. Vipassana’s literal translation is to see things as they really are

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
  • 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 at a 10-day Vipassana retreat

What happens at a silent meditation retreat

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.

In my experience, the traditional elements of Vipassana practice are a noteworthy difference from a typical modern mindfulness meditation retreat.

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 discussed philosophy that comes from the Buddha’s teachings (although the retreat itself is strictly non-religious).

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 references to Buddhist philosophy.

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.

Entering the world of mindfulness through 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 good fit for continuing my practice, particularly when complemented by accompanying mindfulness practices like gratitude, journaling, and others.

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.

Further reading

For more on Vipassana, check out my full write-up on my 10-day Vipassana silent retreat:

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.