The difference between mindfulness meditation and insight or vipassana meditation

Many people are becoming familiar with meditation these days. It helps them with perspective-taking, becoming more compassionate and less focused on avoiding painful stimuli. It’s only natural for people who derive benefit from something, to start examining what more is out there. In the vicinity of mindfulness meditation, it turns out, actually there is quite a bit to explore. One of the first places people look when starting their exploration is the field of buddhist meditation.

So, how different is mindfulness meditation from the buddhist practice that’s called vipassana – or insight – meditation?

The short answer: it depends on how you’re doing it.

In general, both practices have the same goal: knowing your experience as clearly as possible. They go about it differently, though.

The way of mindfulness is to lead you gently towards a whole new way of relating to your experience. The goal of the gold standard mindfulness course, mindfulness-based stress reduction, is to help you find relief of whatever level of stress you’re experiencing in life. Think chronic pain, depression, anxiety. By knowing your experience as it happens, you find space to breathe. Showing you that stress is something your mind creates results in a reduction of your perceived stress. Rinse & repeat for all of your negative experience.

Vipassana takes a different tack. Everything is stress. Not just your negative experiences but your positive ones as well. Everything.

It works like this.
Experience happens. Your mind instantly reacts with liking or disliking. Now, a mental movement is afoot. Things you like are desired, chased after, held for as long as possible. Things you dislike are pushed away, not wanted, dropped. All these habitual mental movements create karma, a forward movement that perpetuates itself, not just through this life but in between lives as well. It is in the seeing of this mental movement and the NOT reacting that freedom is found. It is from the state of equanimity – neither wanting nor not-wanting – that permanent salvation from all kinds of stress can be approached.

To stop producing karma – sometimes you might hear people speak of “sankharas”, these are thought to be the physical substrata of karmic action – and become totally free, one must follow the eightfold path. This path consists of steps broadly categorizable as having to do with morality, mental development and insight. All steps inform eachother and they are all to be practiced concurrently, leading to the triune insights of impermanence, suffering and not-self, seen as quintessential to attaining nirvana.

You might view this path as the ultimate ancient self-help program.

A program which reserves a very special place for one specific mental factor, called “mindfulness”. Modern vipassana teacher Sharon Salzberg calls this factor the “heart of buddhist meditation”.

So, yeah, the two practices are very close indeed. If one delves really deeply into mindful practices, they might end up at the same place that vipassana leads. It must be said that the vipassana path is clearer from the outset. It does not pretend to be a cure for depression or a way to cope with the stresses of modern living. It gives you a circumscribed, regimented way of life that leads to higher states of freedom. And it is usually knowledgeable about all the weird stuff that can happen along this eightfold path.

Weird stuff?! It’s just meditation, right? Well… in meditation you are looking ever closer at your own mind. It’s not all that glitters is gold. Let me rephrase that, it IS gold, but it may present itself in weird ways.

Which is not to say that every practitioner of mindfulness will encounter (their own) malignant spirits on their journey. Many won’t. Others don’t mind. The question is whether most modern-day mindfulness instructors are equipped to deal with those that do mind.

Just another growing pain for an otherwise very worthwhile endeavour. Anyone who is brave enough to liberate these wonderful practices from ancient and stuffy traditions deserves a mighty feather in their cap. Just let’s not forget that we’re dealing with practices that verge on the spiritual.

So, mindfulness:

  • “easy on the eyes”,
  • lots of positivity going on,
  • no big life investment,
  • allows one to “dabble” a bit,
  • potentially atrocious support when things go wrong.

Vipassana:

  • life choice,
  • tough road, often involving renunciation,
  • clear and honest up front,
  • better support, but
  • cultural differences may weigh heavily.

The Buddha is known for personalizing his teachings to his audience. That’s what I think is happening here as well. It’s a very Western perspective to view everything as a marketplace, spirituality included. When spiritual practices can be borrowed, taken apart and used for parts, MBSR is one of the results. I think this is a wonderful thing. Of course there is a certain beauty in the age-old traditions of vipassana, dzogchen and zazen. And these will still be available to us, if we find that we need something more. But they aren’t “holy” – like other religions’ practices purport to be – and they generally do not fit into our culture.

Mindfulness practices are not better or worse than vipassana practices. To a large degree, they overlap. In some respects, they diverge. The knowledge is out there for those who seek it. That is the beauty of this age. Go out and explore. Get overwhelmed and take a few months to digest it all. And then explore some more!

3 Replies to “The difference between mindfulness meditation and insight or vipassana meditation”

  1. Thank you for this very tangible summary! This question regarding the difference between Mindfulness meditation and Vipassana meditation is raised from time to time among my yoga students, and as the ‘marketplace’ grows, so do the number of inquiries.
    Shawn

  2. there is no need for names or to highlight differences. we are talking about a spiritual field and here the most important thing is rising to a higher level of consciousness. we must not carry our little ego along with us to achieve this higher level. this is one way to do harm.

    spirituality is not a defined discipline with borders so you chooce between an anglicized word and one that is organic

    humanity is one and our progress cannot be different as a result of pettiness. people are people no matter where they come from, what they look like or what language they speak. this is the very first step to recognize and uplift oneself

    1. You’re right, there is no need. Yet, for people who are interested in the differences between vipassana and mindfulness, this description may well prove helpful. Tell me, what do you think is so harmful or petty about that?

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