What is the difference between mindfulness and Vipassana meditation? Even I was confused for a long time. When I am focusing on my breathing, what am I doing exactly? Vipassana meditation or mindfulness?
This is a question that has been asked by many people, and there is no simple answer. The two practices are similar in some ways, but they also have key differences.
In this blog post, we will explore the similarities and differences between mindfulness and vipassana meditation, so that you can decide which practice is right for you.
What is Vipassana meditation?
Vipassana is a form of Buddhist meditation that focuses on looking inward and observing reality without judgement—that allows you to explore the depths of your own mind and body.
The practice originated in India over 2,500 years ago, and was later reintroduced in the 18th century by Konbaung and Toungoo.
The focus is on observing the physical sensations that make up your life, and how they are constantly interconnected and affecting your mental state.
This includes observing how our thoughts and emotions affect our physical reactions, as well as how external events can trigger mental and emotional responses.
By paying close attention to these sensations, you can begin to understand the scientific laws that govern your thoughts, feelings, and reactions.
By carefully observing our own behaviours and reactions over time, we can begin to see patterns of habitual response.
This allows us to choose to change our reaction in situations where we would normally react automatically or impulsively.
With this direct experience, you can see how you produce suffering or how you can free yourself from it.
Through Vipassana, life becomes characterized by increased awareness, non-delusion, self-control, and peace.
The process of Vipassana meditation involves four main steps:
1. Developing mindfulness of the body and breath
2. Noticing and observing thoughts and emotions
3. Developing compassion and kindness towards oneself
4. Accepting reality without judgment.
The practice of Vipassana can be traced back thousands of years to the time of the Buddha. He discovered that the key to true happiness lies in understanding the mind-body connection.
By observing the physical sensations within our own bodies, we can begin to understand how the mind works and how it affects our daily lives.
Through this practice, we can learn to control our reactions to the events of our lives, rather than being controlled by them.
Vipassana is not simply a technique that you can use to achieve a temporary state of peace. It is a journey of self-discovery that can lead to lasting transformation.
The benefits of Vipassana are far-reaching and long-lasting. If you are willing to commit to the practice, you will likely find that your life becomes more peaceful, joyful, and fulfilling.
The Buddhist Understanding of Vipassana and Mindfulness
There are two main types of mindfulness in Buddhism – the commentary approach and the sutta approach. The commentary approach is based on later commentaries of what the Buddha taught in his discourses, while the sutta approach is based directly on the Buddha’s own teachings.
The so-called ‘insight’ meditation or ‘vipassana’ meditation is a product of the commentary approach, which classifies meditation practices into two categories – calm, tranquility and concentration (Pali: samatha) and insight (Pali: vipassana). This approach suggests that some meditation techniques can lead to profound states of consciousness, such as deep calm, concentration and altered states of mind while others can lead to firsthand experience, enlightening insights and direct knowings of reality itself.
However, a closer look at where mindfulness is supposed to come from – the Suttas that record the Buddha’s teachings – reveals that this is not what the Buddha himself said. In his model, samatha and vipassana are two sides of the same coin. There is no genuine insight without at least some level of calm or tranquility.
The four foundations of mindfulness – commonly taught as ‘insight’ meditation techniques – can be found in the Mahasatipatthana Sutta. This sutta makes it clear that there is no such thing as ‘insight’ meditation, and that insights are products of deep calm or clarity of mind.
What is Mindfulness Meditation?
As mentioned above, the Buddhist texts called mindfulness “sati” but what does it really mean?
Here’s a beautiful poem by Thich Nhat Hanh, one of the biggest proponents and masters of mindfulness practice:
Breathing in, I know I am breathing in.
Breathing out, I know I am breathing out.
Breathing in, I notice my in-breath has become deeper.
Breathing out, I notice that my out-breath has become slower
If you understand the essence of the above verse, you understand mindfulness meditation.
Mindfulness meditation is a way of training your mind to focus and be present in the moment. It is about being aware of your thoughts and emotions, and not letting them control you. It is a form of self-understanding that can help you to be wiser in your actions.
To practice mindfulness, you need to be mentally prepared. This means focusing on your breath and keeping your eyes closed. You also need to be open to sharing your thoughts and feelings with others. This allows you to have direct contact with your brain and senses.
Mindfulness is not just about meditating with your eyes closed. It is also about being aware of your surroundings and not overreacting to things. It is about being grateful for what you have and being present in the moment.
To be successful at mindfulness, you need to be patient and consistent with your practice. It is a training that takes time and effort to master. But once you do, it can be a powerful tool for living a happier, more present life. Read more about its effects here.
Vipassana Meditation vs Mindfulness
The primary source of the Vipassana meditation or the mindfulness, that is, the Suttas, does not really differentiate between the two.
If you look at the Anapanasati Sutta, Satipatthana Sutta, Kimattha Sutta, Cula-suññata Sutta, and any number of suttas mentioning the Jhanas, you will see that it follows a progression from pacifying the monkey mind to achieving a deep and sweet satisfaction (state of “ananda”) to non-judgmental awareness of what’s happening around to understanding the deeper meaning, patterns and laws of the reality (in terms of “impermanence (aniccā), non-self (anattā) and unsatisfactoriness or suffering (dukkha)”, the three marks of existence).
It can be said that the whole process comes in three stages.
Mindfulness (sati) is the practice of sustaining awareness on a single subject for an extended period of time. The purpose of mindfulness is to lead to Samādhi, or the radiant state of unified consciousness that results from mindfulness meditation.
At this stage, you are devoid of any thought, any emotion, any internal objection or external stimuli.
Vipassanā, or discernment, is the ability to see conditioned reality as impermanent, made possible by the clarity of mind developed through Samādhi.
The earlier stages of this process are referred to as Samatha and the later stages — as Vipassanā in Pali (or Shamatha and Vipashyana in Sanskrit).
Here’s a complete overview of the process:
The goal of samatha is to train the mind, so it is designed to be focused and concentrated.
You choose one object to focus on (it could be physical or something you visualize) and then work on maintaining a one-pointed focus on that object.
This requires mindfulness, or the ability to keep the object of concentration in your mind without forgetting what you’re supposed to be doing.
When you are able to focus your attention on one object for several minutes, you can begin practicing anapana-sati (mindfulness of breathing) meditation.
This type of meditation involves using your breath as a way to gauge the state of your mind and calm your thoughts. With practice, you’ll be able to access the whole state of your mind directly, which was previously only subconscious.
Some people refer to this as vipassana, but I believe it falls somewhere in between samatha and vipassana.
When you learn to control your mind using the breath as an indicator, you then move on to creating happy thoughts using positive narratives.
You basically tell yourself a story that is joyful and satisfying, instead of a sad story where reality does not match up with your expectations.
As you keep doing this, you will fathom the significance of the Second and the Third Noble Truth and its relationship to suffering, happiness, and the nature of reality will be further discussed.
These are the first steps in learning Vipassana. At this point, you are not focusing as much on the breath, but on the thoughts themselves—as explained in the Satipatthana Sutta.
As you become more skilled in using narratives to please the mind, you will progress to a point where you can generate joy and pride directly by focusing on the mind itself.
This is told in the Satipatthana Sutta. At this stage, your meditation will not be so much on thoughts, as on the mind itself.
The next level is to get over the generation of joy and cultivate the quiet state of satisfaction, grounded in the experience of inherent purity and harmony.
There is still a little bit of samatha in this.
In other words, we need to find contentment within ourselves and experience inner peace, rather than looking for happiness from external sources.
When we are able to do this, we will be more resistant to the ups and downs of life and better able to maintain our equilibrium.
The next level of meditation is to be aware of what is happening around and inside you without judgement.
This means being mindful of your thoughts and experiences without getting caught up in them.
This is 100% mindfulness meditation AND 100% Vipassana.
This is the level at which the Heart of Prajnaparamita Sutra should be studied.
On the next level, you think about the real-life implications of Buddhist principles like aniccā, anattā and dukkha.
You try to keep the calmness and concentration you achieved on the previous levels.
This is not mindfulness meditation anymore, but total Vipassana meditation now. This is when realization happens.
The next level of meditation is known as the meditation of non-meditation, or the cultivation of non-cultivation.
This is where you experience an uncontrived, natural mind.
This is beyond Vipassana or mindfulness. You go beyond abiding in anyone station and enter what is known as the Diamond Samadhi.
As you can see, the true scriptures of Buddhism do not differentiate between mindfulness and Vipassana meditation in how Westerners (or non-Buddhists) do.
Both a Vipassana meditator and a mindfulness meditator focuses on practice of awareness in essence.
The Vipassana meditator is inclined towards spiritual salvation and thus tries to align and decipher the sensations as per the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism.
The mindfulness meditator simply continues to observe and nothing else.
Vipassana and mindfulness are both practices that focus on the mind, body, and internal/external sensations.
However, Vipassana has a specific goal in mind, whereas mindfulness is simply about being more aware of the present moment.
Vipassana may be used to achieve freedom from the mind/ego, for example, while mindfulness can be used throughout everyday life.
Not to mention that Vipassana was introduced by the Gautama Buddha and mindfulness was introduced by Dr. Jon Kabat Zinn.
Both practices are beneficial in their own ways and it is not necessary to worry about which one you are doing.
As long as you enjoy and benefit from the practice, that is all that matters.