Insight Meditation (aka Vipassana): The What, Why, How & The Difference from Secular Mindfulness

vipassana image 5

I practice and teach a style of Buddhist meditation called Vipassana (aka Insight Meditation).

Many people have heard of the transformational eight week course, Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), which has helped make mindfulness meditation a household term.  What many people don’t know is that it’s mostly just a secularization of Vipassana meditation.

However, even though they initially seem to be the same thing, there is also a big difference between the two.

I sometimes joke that if the Buddha were a 21st century dharma teacher, he would describe Vipassana Meditation as Mindfulness-Based Wisdom Cultivation (MBWC).

The rest of this post will explore what is meant by MBWC, and will answer the following questions:

1) What is Vipassana meditation?
2) Why are we shifting our basic perceptions?
3) What are we shifting our basic perceptions towards?
4) How do we actually, tangibly, realistically, make this happen?

5) What is core difference between Secular Mindfulness and Vipassana Meditation?
6) What is the quickest, most efficient way to really learn Vipassana?

Seeing As they Actually Are Image1) What is Vipassana Meditation?

For starters, Vipassana meditation is not a technique or method.  It does not mean body scanning, breath meditation, open awareness, mental noting or paying attention.

Instead, Vipassana is more of an approach—it’s about developing a certain lens, or way of seeing reality.  The word Vipassana is a Sanskrit term that literally translates to English as “to see things as they really are.”

In other words, Vipassana engages in mindfulness techniques, like those just mentioned, not as an end in and of them themselves, but in order to shift our basic perceptions of reality to be in alignment with truth.


ken-treloar-346065-unsplash2) Why are we shifting our basic perceptions?

It’s important to understand that Vipassana is not a stand-alone meditation approach.  Instead, it is just one facet of the greater Buddhist system, whose primary purpose is to move away from suffering, and towards deeper well-being.

Even further, the underlying premise of Buddhism is that our core views/perceptions/lenses are what’s primarily responsible for our suffering or our happiness.

If we have core views that are in line with how things really are, then we experience well-being.  If we have core views that are not in line with how things really are, then we suffer.  So the idea is shifting our basic perceptions to a mode of being that will produce deeper happiness and well-being.

Here’s an example of how a view can influence the quality of our life.  For starters, let’s say we have a core view that people are awful.

In turn, we walk into the grocery store on a busy day and see the place filled with people.  Our first reaction might be, “this is going to be annoying – I wish all these people weren’t here.”

And, as we move through the store, being around so many people is likely to produce some degree of tension, resentment, negative thoughts and impulses to escape.  In the moment we have to interact with the casher, we’ll probably be somewhat withdrawn, and not particularly interested in engaging.

The above example isn’t exactly extreme suffering, but if that was how we walked through our days, at work, community events, home life, and everywhere in between, we’d likely feel somewhat depressed and generally irritable.

Inversely, if we lived our lives with the view that people are fundamentally worthy of love, respect and goodwill, just imagine the contrasting set of emotions, thoughts, impulses, behaviors and interactions that would occur with grocery store cashiers, co-workers, the noisy person on the airplane, or any unexpected person you’d meet on a given day.

Most likely, this second scenario would lead to more connection, contentment, joy, and the sense of being glad to be alive.

In other words, it doesn’t take too much to see how our core-level views ultimately determine the quality of our life.  


Camera Lens Photo3) In Vipassana, what specifically are we learning to see more clearly?

In the greater Buddhist system, there are many views or lenses that are helpful to cultivate; such as the importance of being truthful, cause & effect, or how all other beings are worthy of love (no matter what they’ve done).

However, remember that Vipassana is just one facet of the whole Buddhist system, and it primarily focuses on cultivating three specific lenses that are sometimes called “ultimate truth,” or, the ways things really are.  A person who has internalized these “Vipassana lenses” is said to be wise, and generally experiences a greater sense of ease, freedom and joy in their life.

I’ve previously elaborated more deeply on these three lenses, but here I’ll present a brief overview on what they’re trying to get us to see more clearly.

1) Inconstancy or Impermanence

The most fundamental “ultimate truth” is inconstancy.  This is not a philosophical proposition or some abstract idea that everything that is born will eventually die.

Instead, this lens points us towards our momentary experience.  It shows us that everything we can possibly notice is in a constant state of change – external events as much as our feelings, thoughts, sensations, beliefs and everything else inside.

The most basic vipassana instruction will always be, “notice change moment-by-moment-by-moment.”  This is somewhat mundane by itself, but it implies the next two lenses, which have major implications for our well-being.

2) Not-self

As we examine our moment-to-moment experience, we start to realize that I am not my thoughts, feelings, sensations, beliefs and so on.

This realization slowly comes as we see those inner states are constantly changing; they are not “self.”

The result is that we develop a source of well-being that’s deeper than our changing mental-emotional states.  Life begins to feel increasingly spacious, easeful, and we find a great capacity to respond rather than react to what’s happening.

Importantly, this lens is not saying our inner reality is an illusion or that it doesn’t exist.  Instead, we simply notice that everything we believe to be a self is actually changing, and thus is not self.

More precisely, we shift from the core-level view “I am my thoughts & feelings” to “thoughts and feelings are happening.”

3) Suffering

Stemming from the first two lenses, this lens teaches us that whenever we want something to be other than it is, we suffer.

There is certainly value in healthy desires – like the desire to do good in the world, or the desire to get to bed on time.  However, the lens of suffering shows us that our wants can really quickly spill into “craving” and “aversion.”

These two states of wanting things to be different have some really tangible agitation, discomfort and unpleasantness.

Again, this isn’t a philosophical idea – it’s a tangible experience.  In Vipassana, we use present moment awareness to examine the quality of our impulses, desires, and the way to are constantly running from discomfort and towards comfort.

This shows us where we’re in resistance to life, and gives us the capacity to let, and drop further into spaciousness, ease and inner freedom.

In summary, Vipassana helps us begin to perceive our reality in a way that moves us away from holding onto what’s changing (aka suffering), and move towards a more easeful, free and joyous life.


meditation-3480815_960_7204) How do we actually, tangibly, realistically, do this?

Instead of jumping right into what exactly we’re doing in Vipassana, I first explained the purpose—wisdom cultivation.  Once we get rolling, knowing this can save a lot of time and provide a helpful sense of direction.  However, just like reading a map before a journey, it doesn’t really mean anything unless we have a way to actually do it.

In Vipassana meditation, the heart of the practice revolves around mindfulness, or present moment awareness. 

In other words, Vipassana is not about thinking, contemplating or therapizing our way to wisdom.  It’s about being present, and actually noticing what’s happening from one moment to the next.

There are two basic pillars of mindfulness practice, and until someone is at least moderately proficient in these, it’s unlikely any Vipassana wisdom is going to come.  Once again, I’ve covered this in depth elsewhere, so this will be a brief overview:

1) Stabilizing Awareness

When most people begin meditating, they initially experience lots of sleepiness, compulsive thinking, and general reactivity & distraction.  In other words, it’s really hard to stay present!

In turn, the initial meditation task usually involves choosing an “anchoring object,” like the breath, the flow of sound, a mantra, or a specific body sensation.  We then sit still, and focus our attention on that anchor.

As many times as our attention drifts away, we simply recognize it’s gone off, and gently re-direct it to the anchor.

The process of stabilizing awareness does not involve getting rid of all distractions.  It does not mean we stop our thoughts, make sounds disappear and feel completely comfortable in our bodies.  Instead, it involves a slow development of the not-self lens, where we learn we don’t have to react to those things and can just let them float on through.

Eventually, we are able to stay with our anchor more often than not, and at this point it isn’t even essential to use an anchor.  We can just be mindfully aware of whatever is happening, moment-by-moment-by-moment.

2) Right Attitude

Our attitude is our relationship to what’s happening.  There are many attitudes that are useful for meditation, like curiosity, mental relaxation, kindness and patient endurance.

However, the most essential attitude is equanimity, or non-reactive acceptance.

For example, during meditation let’s say we feel really lousy, keep getting caught in thought, and get annoyed by every stray sound.

Equanimity recognizes those are the things that are happening, and gives them full permission to be there.  As many times as we drift off or get caught in reactivity, we just acknowledge it, and gently return to our anchor (or awareness itself).

Ironically, the most essential place to bring equanimity is to our reactivity.  In spite of all our training, all the books we’ve read, talks we’ve listened to, and wisdom we’ve developed, there will inevitably be times when we notice we’ve gotten reactive — when just want our headache to go away, when we can’t help but be annoyed at a loved one, when we criticize ourself for not being perfect, etc.

Whenever we notice reactivity, resistance or craving, that’s where we bring our equanimity — it’s how we break the loop!

How the Two Pillars Lead to Wisdom

The more that Awareness & Right Attitude get established, the easier it becomes to start noticing the truths of inconstancy, not-self and craving is suffering.

In a big way, those lenses just start to happen automatically as our practice deepens.  This is because we are not making this stuff up!  Things are actually constantly changing, and when we refine our attention, it becomes very obvious!

However, there is a classic three part model of wisdom development, that suggests that reading things like this post, and asking ourselves appropriate questions, can help expedite the process.

To give one example of how this actually unfolds, let’s say we’ve developed relatively stable awareness and right attitude.

We might then meditate with the question, “do I notice the difference between pleasant, unpleasant and neutral feelings in the body?”  After we’ve done that for a while, the difference between those three becomes very clear.  We then shift to the question, “how does my mind automatically react to those three different types of feelings?”

This type of exploration will gradually show us how our feelings are constantly changing, how we tend to implicitly believe I am my pleasant & unpleasant feelings, and also how we automatically react to them without any conscious choice (which is the opposite of freedom!).

When paired with the two pillars, investigating ourselves like this quickly leads to a deeper self-understanding; or, seeing reality in a new way.

Although, to make all this more simple, the how to do it really just revolves around being mindfully aware of the present.  That’s the heart and soul of Vipassana – and everything else tends to naturally follow.


venn diagram meditation5) The Core Differences Secular Mindfulness and Vipassana Meditation

Especially in the beginning, it’s very hard to tell the difference between the two.  The foundational practice of mindfulness is the same in each of them, but as we go on, there are two primary differences between secular mindfulness and Vipassana Meditation.

1) The Scope of Success

I’ve heard things like the following taught in secular mindfulness classes:

  • You will never stop getting lost in thought – this is just how the mind works.
  • You will never make your anxiety go away – the practice is instead to change your relationship with anxiety [towards equanimity + self-kindness].

A Vipassana master would never say those things.

From their perspective, it is absolutely possible to not get lost in thought.  It’s true that some degree of thinking is necessary for existing in the world, and there will always be at least some thought.  However, the mind can become so stabilized in awareness that it remains lucid, present and choiceful even when thought happens.  In other words, through Vipassana training, we can actually learn to not get lost in thought.

Similarly, anxiety is rooted in views of mind such as, “I don’t feel safe unless…” or, “things could go wrong if I don’t…”  There are similar views underlying depression, craving, shame, anger, etc.

As our practice deepens, we notice these core-level views start to shift, and then there’s nothing to bubble up into anxiety!  A situation that used to stress us out now is greeted with a deep contentment.

Of course, completely eradicating these core-level views is a pretty tall order.  It’s helpful to not see it as all or nothing, but instead view it on a spectrum.

For example, I personally still experience depression on a semi-regular basis; and yes, through mindfulness practice I do manage it way better than I did 10 years ago.  However, through wisdom cultivation, fewer events trigger it than before, and when it does arise, it feels less intense and serious.

In other words, change comes gradually, but it does come!

Another way to think of this is that secular mindfulness aims to help us become skilled at navigating life’s challenging, whereas Vipassana aims for full-on awakening, which encompasses skillfullness, but goes even further.

2) The Comprehensiveness of the Path

As I said earlier, Vipassana is just one facet of the greater Buddhist path.

Classically, before someone even started meditation, they first worked to develop their ethics, spending years cultivating generosity, goodwill, compassion, and taking on behavioral precepts like non-harming, truthfulness and being sexually responsible.

In other words, the Buddhist path presents an entire way of life.  One part of it teaches us how to skillfully navigate “conventional reality;” things like work, relationships, emotions, pleasure and the various difficulties that come up.  Another part teaches us about “ultimate reality,” which is the stuff of Vipassana meditation.

In other words, just as it doesn’t make sense to do a ton of exercise but then eat poorly, do a bunch of drugs and sleep 3 hours a night; so too in Buddhism it doesn’t really make sense to just do Vipassana without also attending to our everyday life – it’s a holistic path.

Inversely, secular mindfulness sort of just skips right to the meditation part.  It becomes a technique or tool to help us manage our lives better.  It is not part of a greater system or suggested way of life.

Of course, it doesn’t say you only need to do meditation or that other things aren’t valuable; however, apart from offering a few other techniques for things like gratitude or kindness, it just doesn’t have any deeper commentary or suggestions on the other facets of life.

In summary, Vipassana is one part of a comprehensive approach to life, whereas secular mindfulness is more of an isolated tool. 

As an aside, while I very much personally subscribe to the Buddhist approach, I also appreciate and teach secular mindfulness.  I think one of its strengths is that anyone can practice it, even folks from other religions, corporate executives, drug addicts, or people who aren’t looking for a whole lifestyle program.  Mindfulness is a tangible tool that offers universal benefit to anyone who practices it.

Of course, many Westerners use Vipassana in the same way – only practicing the meditation component without delving into the other stuff.  This is also perfectly okay, but it’s really just the tip of the iceberg!


Zen Meditation Seat Zazen Buddhism Meditation
Zen Meditation Seat Zazen Buddhism Meditation

6) The quickest, most efficient way to really learn Vipassana

By practicing it of course!

It can be helpful to read a few books and get a basic orientation; however, we only learn it by actually doing it.  It’s important to log time everyday in formal meditation, and also starting to bring in informal practice.

But most people report that they didn’t really learn it until they started going on meditation retreats.  Spending a few days or weeks doing nothing but practicing meditation is easily the quickest, most efficient way to really learn Vipassana meditation.

If you’re interested in diving deep, I might recommend the following article:

The Four Reasons People Actually Meditate (Instead of Just thinking About it)

Or, of course, you could also just turn off the screen and go meditate!

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