Introduction to Insight Meditation

meditation-764026_1280You probably have heard of it under of its many different names, mindfulness meditation, Buddhist meditation, and Insight Meditation. But in the original language of Buddhism, known as Pali, it is called Vipassana.

To help you better understand Vipassana meditation, I would like to share a few definitions of what Vipassana is.

The Venerable Rahula, in his book What the Buddha Taught, defines Vipassana as, “Insight into the nature of things, leading to the complete liberation of mind, to the realization of the Ultimate Truth, Nirvana. This is essentially Buddhist ‘meditation’, Buddhist mental culture. It is an analytical method based on mindfulness, awareness, vigilance, observation.”

Larry Rosenberg, in his book Breath by Breath, explains that Vipassana means, “Insight, seeing clearly. The direct observation of mental and physical objects in their aspect of impermanence, unsatisfactoriness, and lack of an inherent, independent essence or self.”

William Hart, in his book the Art of Living: Vipassana Meditation as Taught by S. N. Goenka, says that, “Vipassana means a special kind of vision: observation of the reality within oneself. This is achieved by taking as the object of attention one’s own physical sensations. The technique is the systematic and dispassionate observation of sensations within oneself.”

Jack Kornfield, in his book Seeking the Heart of Wisdom, says that “Although the forms vary, the genuine practice of insight meditation is this single quest: to establish a foundation of harmonious action, to collect and concentrate the mind and body, and to see the laws of life by our own true, careful, and direct observation.”

Bhante Gunaratana, in his book Mindfulness in Plain English, states that, “The whole meaning of the word Vipassana is looking into something with clarity and precision, seeing each component as distinct, and piercing all the way through to perceive the most fundamental reality of that thing.”

The Venerable Sujiva, in his book Essentials of Insight Meditation Practice, explains that, “Insight meditation… does not just involve holding the mind still. It also involves penetrative observation. This kind of penetrative observation, without any thinking, without any conceptualization, allows the mind to realize the true nature of things as they really are, things like the nature of our mind and body processes, the nature of the person and the nature of the world.”

Vipassana is the exploration and observation of inner space, and one who practices Vipassana is a scientist of inner space. But we need to move beyond the concepts to the reality, from thinking to experience. Joseph Goldstein is right, “One of the most important aspects of meditation is going from the level of concept to the level of direct experience.” Vipassana meditation can bring you into the present moment and allow you to see it as it is.

Is Vipassana Right For You?

So is Vipassana meditation right for you? I can’t answer that for you, but I can tell you why I choose Vipassana. In doing this I must emphasize that these reasons are subjective, personal, and are no way downplaying the importance or legitimacy of other paths. We have to look at paths as skillful means, not absolute truth. We need to avoid dogmatism, fundamentalism, and sectarianism. Fanaticism comes when you cling to your path.

My background in Christianity has influenced my choice of which meditation path I prefer. Christianity is a devotional path focusing on God the Father, Jesus the Son of God, and the Holy Spirit. I left Christianity believing Jesus was just a man, a good Jewish teacher maybe, but nothing more. This is why Pure Land doesn’t appeal to me. It is a devotional path similar in many ways to Christianity. I am not interested in replacing Christ with Buddha. That is why Tibetan Buddhism doesn’t appeal to me either.

From this, you can understand why Zen Buddhism appealed to me. Zen tends to be non-doctrinal. It gives you a practice but doesn’t really give you the full Buddhist philosophy behind the practice. I don’t want to know just what to do, I want to know why. So Zen’s weakness is in not always helping you understand the path.

This is why the Theravada tradition was very helpful to me in my own journey. It is the oldest Buddhist tradition, it has a direct link to the historical Buddha. No other branch can really claim that. It gives a complete philosophical background to the practice. It focuses on the meditation practiced discovered by the Buddha, namely, Vipassana meditation.

Instructions for Vipassana Meditation

If you can, sit in the lotus, half lotus, Indian, or Burmese position. Otherwise, most Westerners will probably have to sit on a chair. Put your hands on your lap in a comfortable position. The cosmic mudra is the traditional Theravada hand placement, right hand on top of the left with thumbs touching. (In Zen it is opposite, left on top of right).

Close your eyes. Keep your back straight. Relax. Relaxation is one of the first conditions for mindfulness to arise.

Begin with meditating 10 minutes a day. Don’t increase the time until you can stay focused for the full 10 minutes. Increase by 5 minutes each time. Aim for 20 to 30 minutes.

For the actual meditation itself, focus attention on the diaphragm rising and falling. Some suggest focusing on the feel of the breath on the tip of the nose. Most can’t feel anything. As you breath make a mental note, “in” and “out”, or “rising” and “falling.” When the mind wanders, softly and gently note thinking, imagining, judging, etc. Then refocus on the breath. When thoughts or feelings arise, simply observe them without getting involved.

Think of yourself as a scientist observing an experiment. Objectively observe your subjective experiences. Remember the point is to observe, not think or analyze. Complications will arise, too many to cover in this short introduction.

For free meditation timers in mp3 format check out If you have an Android smartphone or the iPhone check out an app called the Insight Timer. If there is one in your area, I strongly suggest that you get involved with a local Sangha or meditation group.

For Further Study

If you are interested in studying more about Vipassana meditation, let me recommend four good books to get you started.

• Mindfulness in Plain English by Bhante Henepola Gunaratana
• Seeking the Heart of Wisdom by Joseph Goldstein & Jack Kornfield
• The Heart of Buddhist Meditation by Nyanaponika Thera
• What the Buddha Taught by Walpola Rahula


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1 thought on “Introduction to Insight Meditation”

  1. I’m curious – is this different than the article explaining introspection? They seem to both involve stilling the mind then using non judgemental observation of what arises


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