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What is Vipassana Meditation?

What is Vipassana Meditation?

Imagine a world where you feel joy and peacefulness. Your mind is sharp and focused on what you are doing at that very moment. You feel wonder about the world around you. You are in tune with the people around you. And, it feels great.

Are you ready to find out that you have a well of strength inside that you didn’t know about? Are you ready for a personal challenge? Are you ready to find compassion: For yourself? Your family? Even strangers? If so, maybe Vipassana is right for you.

The word Vipassana comes from ancient Pali which originated in India. It is translated as “insight”, “seeing things are they truly are” or “clear seeing”. While there are many styles of Vipassana meditation, they all share a focus on the here and now; being mindful of what is happening in your body and mind at the present moment.

Prominent Vipassana Teachers 

The Godfather of Vipassana: SN Goenka and the Vipassana Meditation Center

When people talk about Vipassana Meditation, they are most likely referring to the style of meditation taught by SN Goenka, the former leader and head teacher of the Vipassana Meditation Center organization. Although Mr. Goenka passed away in 2013, he has been called “one of the great world masters of our time” by Jack Kornfield, who also compared the impact of Goenka to Thicht Naht Hahn and the Dalai Lama in his tribute to the renowned teacher after his passing. Goenka left a worldwide legacy including 163 mediation centers located on every continent including 10 in the United States, 14 in Europe and 70 in India - with Dhamma Giri in Igatpuri, India being the home of VMC and the first center to offer the 10-day course that now serves 120,000 students per year worldwide.

Goenka was born in Rangoon, Burma to a wealthy Indian family in 1923. He became a successful businessman at an early age which shaped his practice later in life. After suffering debilitating migraines for years and failing to find a cure, he sought out meditation teaching from U Ba Khin. 

This was an interesting choice of teacher for Goenka because U Ba Khin was a cabinet-rank officer in the Burmese government who also taught meditation. Because he was a very busy man, Khin taught Vipassana in a practical way without the focus on theory that other monastic teachers favored at the time. Through meditation, Goenka was not only able to cure his migraines but also found a way of life that took him down a completely different path. He eventually moved to India to teach meditation full time.

Goenka impacted thousands of people through his meditation teachings, regardless of the beliefs they brought to his courses. While he asked that all rites and rituals be put aside during the course, students were free to believe what they like in terms of spirituality. The focus was on inclusion and a direct personal experience of the teachings. He spoke to the United Nations during the 2000 Millennium World Peace Summit where he shared a message of peaceful coexistence with religious leaders from around the world. 

In 2012, he was honored with the Padma Bhushan Award, which is the third highest civilian award bestowed by the Republic of India to recognize “distinguished service of a high order to the nation, in any field”. He also formed a friendship with the Dalai Lama after teaching some 50+ lamas in Goenka’s form of meditation. Vipassana has even reached the Christian community, Goenka told Norman Fischer in an interview for Lion’s Roar that “More than two thousand Christian priests and nuns have taken the meditation course.”

Vipassana Around The World

From the thousands of students Goenka has taught, several have gone on to form their own versions of the teachings. Noted authors and teachers Joseph Goldstein, Sharon Salzberg, Ram Dass, and Daniel Goleman all met at a retreat led by Goenka in 1971 at Bodhgaya, India. When Salzberg and Goldstein returned to the US, they went on to form the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, MA with Jack Kornfield. Goenka was a major influence in promoting the idea that meditation can be a non-religious, non-secular activity. His belief that meditation can be more of a science or exercise for the mind, contributed greatly to the success of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) that is taught in hospitals, schools and prisons across the country. 

Vipassana techniques aren’t limited to the teachings of Goenka’s lineage. There is a thread of Vipassana meditation in almost every type of meditation from Tibetan to Zen. And, there are other groups teaching and practicing forms of Vipassana in the US, such as Vipassana Dhura Meditation Society in Aurora, Colorado and Shinzen Young, an innovative teacher giving retreats across the US and Canada. Most of the Vipassana traditions have come from the countries that practice Theravada Buddhism: Thailand, Burma, Cambodia, Laos and Sri Lanka.

Where to Practice Vipassana Meditation

You Have To Work Out Your Own Salvation

First and foremost, Vipassana can be practiced at home: in your own meditation space, while raking the leaves, or even sitting on the couch. It is a very personal practice that is preferably done on a regular basis—daily, if possible. To get started, there are many guided Vipassana Meditations on the internet, including quite a few on YouTube and in the useful Insight Timer app for iPhone or Android. In fact, all of Goenka’s discourses are available on YouTube, so you can explore his teachings before attending a retreat.

A Little Help From Your Friends

To complement a home-practice, it helps to sit with a group from time to time. This helps deepen your practice by building off the energy of others. The little dose of peer pressure helps too, since no one wants to be that person who fidgets and disturbs the person next to them. That little bit of added accountability can really help your motivation, like working out with a friend at the gym. There are many independent groups around the country to join. As well, once a student has been through a 10-day retreat at a VMC, there are an additional 9 VMC halls, which hold group sittings on a regular basis.

The Big Kahuna, The 10-Day Silent Retreat

A long retreat gives a meditator the chance to unwind from daily life and focus solely on their meditation practice. This experience can have a lasting effect that radiates out to every part of your life, once you get home. Whether you are a meditator who has spent hours sitting for longer periods or you haven’t even started, a retreat can be beneficial. For Vipassana meditation, the most common retreats are offered at the Vipassana Meditation Centers mentioned above. Every meditator has to start out with a 10-day course, which is done in silence and guided by video teachings from Goenka himself. Once you have one of these retreats under your belt, a three-day and one-day formats are also offered.

What Does Vipassana Meditation Do For You?

My first 10-day retreat was in 2011 when there wasn’t much information on the Internet so I wasn’t exactly sure what I had signed up for. Now, there are many articles—from men and women, both young and old—as well as videos sharing people’s experience, including all the tough stuff and also the benefits. For my first retreat, I went with an Indian friend who explained it to me like this: “Think of your mind like a sheet that gets knots tied all over it. Vipassana takes that sheet and shakes out all the knots so your sheet is smooth again.” I still haven’t found a better description for the profound change I experienced in my life after my first retreat. My life is just smoother.


The Universal Meditation Technique of S.N. Goenka By Lion’s Roar Staff

Vipassana Meditation Center Website

S.N. Goenka: The Man who Taught the World to Meditate by Jay Michaelson

S. N. Goenka, Pioneer of Secular Meditation Movement, Dies at 90 by Erik Braun

Modern Buddhist Masters by Jack Kornfield

Honoring a Great Meditation Master’s Passing by Jack Kornfield

25th Aug 2017

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