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If you ever feel caught in a whirlwind of emotions, weighed down by your own mind and unsure of your place in the world, you may benefit from the ancient Indian meditation practice called Vipassana.
Sort of like exercise for the mind, Vipassana meditation trains the brain to focus on the present moment and accept thoughts without judgment. This type of neutral self-reflection not only increases well-being, but can also improve sleep, relieve anxiety, and reduce stress.
What is Vipassana meditation?
Vipassana is a Buddhist meditation that comes from India. Vipassana is a Pali word that means special sight.
Vipassana is said to aid in the quest for dhamma, which roughly translates to “the truth” or “the law of nature.” This is why Vipassana is sometimes referred to as insight meditation.
Vipassana techniques aim to help people see the world and themselves as they really are. Although dhamma is not affiliated with any particular religion, Vipassana is most prominent in the tradition of Theravada Buddhism (Chiesa, 2010).
There are many different types of meditation that employ a variety of techniques. Vipassana is what’s called mindfulness meditation. Mindfulness meditations focus on observing thoughts and feelings without trying to change them. Rather than using positive visualizations or repeating a mantra, Vipassana involves simply sitting and observing thoughts––without judgment or reactivity (Szekeres, 2015).
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In our current age of screens and distractions, time to sit quietly with our thoughts is rare. This is why Vipassana meditation can help combat the racing mind that plagues so many people today. Vipassana meditation is considered an art of living that aims to cultivate mindfulness in all aspects of life.
Benefits of Vipassana meditation
Some benefits of Vipassana meditation backed by science include:
- Preserves memory: When you sleep, your brain consolidates memories throughout the day. Some of these same memory-storing processes happen during the practice of Vipassana (Solomonova, 2020).
- Improves emotions: Vipassana meditation may help improve emotional processing. One study found those who practiced this form of meditation had better emotional memory and lower levels of reactivity compared to those who didn’t (Wu, 2019).
- General feeling of well-being: People who practice Vipassana meditation have been found to have an increased sense of overall wellness and kindness towards themselves (Szekeres, 2015).
- Reduces stress: Although other types of meditation achieve the same effect, Vipassana practitioners have lower levels of stress, are more mindful, and have better emotional awareness (Szekeres, 2015).
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How to practice Vipassana meditation
Vipassana meditation is primarily a mental exercise, but that doesn’t mean the body doesn’t play an important role in calming the mind.
While this meditation can be practiced in different ways in different settings, here’s a beginner’s guide:
- Start small: Vipassana meditation is a mental exercise. Like other forms of exercise, you might not be great at it your first time. Start with a manageable amount of time, around 10–15 minutes.
- Find peace: Choose a quiet space where you can be by yourself and free from distractions.
- Posture is important: While it’s not necessary to hold the classic meditation pose, keep yourself in an upright, relaxed position that feels comfortable for you. Forcing yourself into a pretzel when you’re just starting won’t help you calm your mind.
- Focus on the breath: It can be helpful to focus on the breath as a way to ground your mind. Take long, deep breaths in through your nose and out the mouth.
- Observe: The goal of Vipassana meditation is to observe your mental and physical state without judgment. So listen to yourself: what physical sensations do you feel in your body? What are your thoughts like at that moment?
- Return to the present: Your mind won’t start completely clear. If you get distracted, focus on the breath and try to return to the present moment.
If Vipassana meditation works for you, you may want to explore its roots and practice more deeply. There are plenty of online resources and Vipassana centers that offer day courses and retreats dedicated to the practice and cultivation of meditation.
If you want to focus on incorporating meditation into your daily life, check out guided meditation apps like Ten Percent Happier and Headspace.
- Al-Hussaini, A., Dorvlo, A. S., Antony, S. X., Chavan, D., Dave, J., Purecha, V., Al-Rahbi, S., & Al-Adawi, S. (2001). Vipassana meditation: A naturalistic, preliminary observation in Muscat. Journal for Scientific Research. Medical Sciences. Retrieved on August 17, 2021 from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/24019714/
- Cahn, B. R., & Polich, J. (2009). Meditation (Vipassana) and the P3a event-related brain potential. International journal of psychophysiology: Official Journal of the International Organization of Psychophysiology, 72(1), 51–60. doi: 10.1016/j.ijpsycho.2008.03.013. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/18845193/
- Chiesa, A. (2010). Vipassana meditation: systematic review of current evidence. Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, 16(1), 37–46. doi: 10.1089/acm.2009.0362 Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/20055558/
- Solomonova, E., Dubé, S., Blanchette-Carrière, C., Sandra, D. A., Samson-Richer, A., Carr, M., Paquette, T., & Nielsen, T. (2020). Different Patterns of Sleep-Dependent Procedural Memory Consolidation in Vipassana Meditation Practitioners and Non-meditating Controls. Frontiers in Psychology, 10, 3014. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2019.03014. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/32038390/
- Szekeres, R. A., & Wertheim, E. H. (2015). Evaluation of Vipassana Meditation Course Effects on Subjective Stress, Well-being, Self-kindness and Mindfulness in a Community Sample: Post-course and 6-month Outcomes. Journal of the International Society for the Investigation of Stress, 31(5), 373–381. doi: 10.1002/smi.2562. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/24515781/
- Wu, R., Liu, L. L., Zhu, H., Su, W. J., Cao, Z. Y., Zhong, S. Y., Liu, X. H., & Jiang, C. L. (2019). Brief Mindfulness Meditation Improves Emotion Processing. Frontiers in Neuroscience, 13. doi: 10.3389/fnins.2019.01074. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/31649501/
Yael Cooperman is a physician and works as a Senior Manager, Medical Content & Education at Ro.