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The Meaning of Vipassana: How to Truly Understand It

Let’s understand the meaning of vipassana both from a strict, scholarly perspective and from the perspective of meditation. What really is Vipassana? Why is there a type of meditation called Vipassana? What is the bigger picture of all this?

And most importantly, we’ll look at how to truly understand vipassana. Like when you want to get to know a new city, you can’t just understand it by looking at images online or reading about its history or browsing through travel guides. You have to go there. You have to taste it. The same goes when you’re trying to understand the meaning of vipassana.

For this reason, we’ll only mention the formal, scholarly definition in passing. It’s important, but what really matters is what it points to.

The Scholarly Definition

In Buddha’s time, passana literally meant “seeing with open eyes”. Vipassana derives from this and means “clear seeing”.

“Vipassana means to observe things as they are, not just as they seem to be.”

Okay, quite simple. Sounds nice, sounds like a nice philosophical principle to follow. But don’t fall into the trap of believing the scholarly definition. This is not just a cute catchprase. It’s something else.

The Real Meaning of Vipassana

Let’s specify what this means: “clear seeing” has a particular meaning in meditation, and in my opinion it’s the only meaning that really matters.

It means observing the mind and body with exquisite clarity to gain insight into their nature.

All the teachings of Vipassana meditation are an experiential guide for us to discover Vipassana awareness. It’s not about believing, remembering, or intellectualising. It’s phenomenological – it’s about gaining direct knowledge of what’s happening in our first-person experience.

And yes, the language sounds sexy. “Clear seeing”, “true nature”. But don’t get caught up in the catchphrases. The only way to truly understand the meaning of vipassana is to cultivate your attention and have direct insight. There is no other way.

The Real Meaning of Vipassana: In My Words

I’ve been practicing vipassana-inspired meditation for nearly a decade, and I can confirm that serious meditation practice takes you to clear seeing. So what really is it? Let me give my interpretation of it.

In essence, it’s about realising who you really are. It’s a shift away from thinking that you’re limited to your mind and your skin-and-flesh body. You realise you’re not separate from anything that you’re experiencing moment to moment. It’s like holding the entire world in your attention, far and wide, realising it’s all you.

And again, don’t just listen to my words. My words aren’t to be believed. You have to see it for yourself, and when you do, you’ll realise both why you can’t simply believe it and why I struggle to describe it.

Why’s this called clear seeing? There are several reasons.

First, it’s because this openness and non-separation is already the case. This is your real essence. You’re always it. You’ve always been it. It’s not a matter of becoming enlightened or reaching some far-out state, but of realising it, of seeing it clearly.

The paradox is that by default, we’re all awake – we’re already seeing clearly. But still, we must recognise it. In the Dzogchen school of Tibetan Buddhism, they talk about Waking Buddhas and Sleeping Buddhas for this reason. We’re all Buddhas; it’s just that some of us know it while others don’t.

There’s another reason it’s called clear seeing, and it’s because to have Vipassana awareness, you do need to see yourself and your life clearly, directly, with embodiment.

Usually, we aren’t seeing clearly. The mind is wild, the body feels distant and disconnected, and it feels like we’re separate from everything around us. We’re lost in our stirred, anxious restlessness. We’re puppets to our mind and emotions. We live in a cage, a false one at that.

The key is to train your attention through meditation. By doing so, you start to see the deeper unity behind all your sensory input, all your urges, all your thoughts and emotions. You see that all of these, even the feelings of separation and limitation, the pain, the apparent boundaries, are waves in the limitless pool of You.

Seeing and living this non-duality or oneness is both life-changing and humbling. Things are never the same again. Yet nothing really changes.

All this might sound nice, or spiritual, or cool, but you can’t believe it. You have to see it, train yourself to see it, to see clearly. If you don’t, you’re nowhere. Vipassana meditation is one of the many tools you can use to do that.

What is Vipassana Meditation?

In many ways, Vipassana is analogous to mindfulness meditation, and its influence on modern, secular meditation is obvious. It’s a form of insight meditation that relies on direct self-observation. It’s one of India’s most ancient techniques and the Buddha rediscovered it over 2500 years ago.

In particular, we attempt to observe the changing, temporary nature of our body sensations. We can experience this in all kinds of body experience, from pain, to pleasure, to pressure.

While our mental world also has these characteristics, we work with the body because it enables direct experience and helps us avoid certain confusions that appear when meditating on the mind. In any case, all mental activity leaves a mark on the body as soon as it appears. So by working with the body, we indirectly work with the mind too.

The Meaning of Vipassana: Who Created It?

Both Mahasi Sayadaw and U Ba Khin’s methods have become famous in recent years. Though both systems are varieties of Vipassana meditation, Vipassana meaning insight into the true nature of reality, Sayadaw’s largely works with the breath while U Ba Khin’s is based on body sweeping.

Sayadaw is a Burmese buddhist monk and one of the great masters of our era. His world-famous intensive courses involve one or two months of 16 hours’ daily practice along with practice in movement. He insists that we must live in each moment with the greatest attention possible, without losing our meditative state in daily activities.

Start to Really Understand The Meaning of Vipassana

If you’d like to get started with vipassana, check out my six-week beginners meditation course. Mindfulness and vipassana are very closely linked, and ultimately they both lead to clear seeing.

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