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There are different types of meditation, each with different goals and paths. One of the most interesting and ancient is Vipassana Meditation, although before putting it into practice it is essential to distinguish it from other styles and understand its basics.
Unlike other styles, Vipassana Meditation is less complicated, but it is very complete and its results are very effective. A study conducted at Sultan Qaboos University found that after only 10 days of practice, people showed significant improvement in physical and emotional well-being, so it is recommended to combat stress, anxiety and depression, as well as to alleviate the symptoms of psychosomatic disorders.
Other studies have shown that Vipassana Meditation determines an activation of the prefrontal cortex and the anterior cingulate gyrus, related to the control of emotions and cognitive functions. Among people who have practiced this type of meditation for years, they have also seen a thickening of some cortical areas linked to attention and the increase of gray matter in the insula and the hippocampus. This means that it is an excellent technique for keeping the brain young and active.
What is Vipassana Meditation?
In Pali, the original language of theravāda literature, one of the schools from which Buddhism originates, the word vipassana means “To see things as they are”. In fact, pashias means “To see, to contemplate, to understand correctly”.
Vipassana Meditation is a process of personal purification through self-observation. In reality, it can also be translated as “insight”, referring to a clear awareness of what is happening here and now.
There is also Samatha Meditation, another word that comes from Pali and can be translated as “concentration” or “tranquility”. It is a state in which the mind stops, focuses only on one element and is not allowed to roam freely. When we reach this state we are invaded by a profound calm that permeates the body and the mind and we experience a state of enormous tranquility.
Most meditation techniques emphasize the samatha component. This means that with meditation we focus on some elements, like a mantra, a candle flame, a song or anything else, in order to exclude all the thoughts and perceptions of our consciousness. The result is a state of ecstasy that lasts until the end of the session. Those who have tried it do not hesitate to describe it as “beautiful, delicious, meaningful and relaxing”, but it is only temporary.
Vipassana Meditation is aimed at another component: perception. In this type of meditation we use concentration as an instrument through which our consciousness can break down the wall of illusion that separates us from reality. It is a gradual process in which we increasingly expand our awareness, which means that it takes years of practice. According to Buddha, the moment comes when that wall falls and finally we complete the liberation.
The oldest practice of Buddhist meditation
Vipassana Meditation is one of the oldest Buddhist meditation practices. The method comes directly from the Satipatthana Sutta (The basis of awareness), a speech attributed to Buddha.
Vipassana Meditation allows you to cultivate attention and awareness directly and gradually. It is a slow and gradual process, in which your attention is directed carefully through an intense examination of some aspects of your existence. You train this way so that you can notice more intensively the flow of your experiences.
It is a system for training your mind, a series of exercises that allow you to be more aware of your life experiences. It is, listening carefully and watching carefully.
We learn to smell intensively, to fully touch and pay attention to the changes that occur in all these experiences. We learn to listen to our thoughts without being trapped in them. The purpose of Vipassana Meditation is to learn to perceive the truth of impermanence, dissatisfaction and disinterest of phenomena.
You probably think you’re already doing all this, but it’s an illusion. In everyday life we pay very little attention to our experiences because we are almost never present completely. According to the Buddha, it is as if we were sleeping. We simply do not pay enough attention to realize that we are not paying attention. It is a word game that is understood only when practicing this type of meditation.
Vipassana Meditation is a fantastic journey
Through the process of full attention, little by little we realize that we are really living subjugated by our ego and do not take advantage of reality. Vipassana Meditation is a form of mental training that teaches us to experience the world in a completely new way. We will learn to see what really happens, both around us and within us. Therefore, this type of meditation is a process of self-discovery, a participatory research in which we observe our experiences as they occur.
However, in order to make the most of Vipassana Meditation we must assume the attitude: “I do not care anymore of what I’ve been taught”. We must forget theories, prejudices and stereotypes. It means making a journey in which we gradually free ourselves from our beliefs in order to touch life directly. If we persevere and succeed in adopting this attitude, we will experience great changes in our lives.
Vipassana Bhavana: Cultivate the mind
The term Pali for this type of meditation is Vipassana Bhavana. Bhavana derives from the root bh, which means ‘to grow’ or ‘become’. Therefore, bhavana means to cultivate and the word is always used in reference to the mind. Bhavana therefore means “Mind cultivation”. The full meaning of Vipassana Bhavana would be “Cultivating the mind to see in a special way through full understanding”.
Regarding the full attention, Buddha suggested starting to focus on the breath and then simply look at the rest of the physical and mental phenomena that appear. You just have to sit down, inhale the air from the nose and release it slowly. If you have never practiced relaxation techniques it will seem strange and even useless, but it is a fundamental step.
At this point, you’ll probably ask yourself: If I’m trying to develop consciousness, why not focus on the attention? Is it not easier to sit down and see what happens in the mind? This type of meditation is known as ‘unstructured meditation’, the problem is that the mind often plays tricks, so if we do not have enough experience we can get trapped in the chain of our thoughts. One thought leads to another that lead to another, and to another, and to another, and so on to infinity. Fifteen minutes later, you’ll get up and realize that you’ve spent all your time trapped in your mind’s dream or your worries.
Breathing serves as a focusing point, it is a reference. Basically, there is no distraction if there is no central goal from which to be distracted. This is the frame of reference with which we can see the unceasing changes and interruptions that continually occur as part of normal thought. Therefore, sit down and concentrate on breathing.
Why is it better to focus on breathing?
You’ll probably ask yourself: Why I have to choose breathing as a reference point for Vipassana Meditation? Why not choose something a little more interesting?
First of all, you should know that an object useful for meditation is one that promotes full attention and does not trap you in the mental states you’re trying to free yourself from.
Breathing is something very simple and natural, it is not a conceptual process but something we do without having to think about it. At the same time, it is a process in constant evolution, so for Buddhism it represents a miniature model of life itself.
But the first step in using breathing as an object of Vipassana Meditation is to perceive it. What you are looking for is the physical sensation of the air entering and leaving through your nostrils. Normally there is a point where the feeling of the passage of air is clearer. Inspire and exhale deeply when you meet it. From this point on you will follow the rhythm of breathing.
And after breathing?
In Vipassana Meditation you can focus on the subtle sensations in certain areas of the body, such as the palms of the hands. For example, you can feel them from head to toe and from feet to head. But the most important thing is that you do not get stuck in the observation, but that you can move on.
You can also focus on body sensations such as numbness, itchiness or stiffness that may appear during meditation. If this happens, the mind focuses on the area where the sensation is produced, be aware of it and observe it, but keep focused on breathing. Usually this feeling disappears, but if it intensifies, before moving, be aware of the act you will realize and do it slowly, not impulsively.
You can also listen to sounds or noises. If so, concentrate on hearing and take note of the sound, but stay focused on the breath.
The same must be done with memories and images that can appear while you meditate. Take note of these and go back to breathing. Emotions are a special reflection. In many cases, especially at the beginning, people who start meditating can experience very intense emotions that are not exactly pleasant. Imagine that they are clouds and, as such, that they will disappear.
Normally with meditation we reach a state of peace, tranquility and balance, but it is essential to meditate without any expectation because these would end up tarnishing the experience. Therefore, we must remain open to everything that happens, without judging the experiences. There is no need to repress or reject anything, just as we do not have to force anything, everything has to flow, whether it is pleasant or not, so that everything follows its natural course.
It is not as simple as it seems
If you have never meditated, even if the instructions seem very simple they are not really, so it is important that you prepare yourself psychologically to face some difficulties. Your mind will constantly wander from one thought to another. Don’t worry, it’s perfectly normal. The important thing is that you do not feel frustrated or think not to meditate “well” enough.
When your mind starts wandering, remember that you are daydreaming. Take note of those thoughts and do not get angry, just move your attention to your breath. Do it repeatedly, but gently.
The ancients compared the process of calming the mind with the taming of a wild elephant. When they captured the elephant, they bound him. This got angry and tried to free himself, until it finally calmed down. So they struck the strings. The same thing happens with mental training.
You must also be aware that you need a lot of practice, but little by little you will realize that you will begin to be much more aware of what is happening in your perceptual universe, that full awareness helps you enjoy more every moment.
Chiesa, A. (2010) Vipassana meditation: systematic review of current evidence. J Altern Complement Med; 16(1): 37-46.
Al-Hussaini, A. et. Al. (2001) Vipassana meditation: A naturalistic, preliminary observation in Muscat. J Sci Res Med Sci; 3(2): 87–92.