By Daniel Scharpenburg
When people talk about meditation they’re usually talking about one kind—Shamatha, or concentration meditation.
Vipassana, or Insight Meditation is another kind that’s often done alongside Shamatha.
Shamatha provides ground for Vipassana and the two are equally important. I’m not suggesting Vipassana to be superior to Shamatha. Without a solid foundation of Shamatha practice, Vipassana isn’t really possible.
Shamatha quiets the mind and Vipassana expands awareness. Vipassana is the practice of mystics and hardcore dharma explorers and leads to insight. It plants the seed of prajna—transcendent wisdom—and is the practice that prepares us for the deepest teachings. It’s what allows us to understand emptiness intuitively.
Shamatha is great. It increases our focus and helps us manage our emotions. It lowers our blood pressure.
In short, Vipassana opens a door in the sky.
It’s a contemplative approach of pondering the dharma with a practice that’s dedicated to cultivating awareness. We can use it to peer into the space between thoughts. We want to see awareness without attaching to it.
Vipassana is less focused than Shamatha, but more expansive. It involves letting go, letting things be what they are, and while Shamatha is a literal and straightforward practice, Vipassana is a mystical and idealistic one.
Mindfulness of breathing becomes awareness of breathing. The simplest way I can explain it is this: in Vipassana practice you become aware of breathing as just breathing, not as YOUR breathing. The breath just is.
Vipassana is what makes you aware of the potential for enlightenment. It is dwelling in enlightenment, without the small self, the ego. Dwelling without the ego is important because of the way we fixate and try to put things into neat categories that don’t really match reality. The mind that makes labels is replaced by one that’s just aware, cutting through thoughts just as they arise.
Vipassana develops an awakened mind that’s able to connect with fundamental goodness and understand things as they are.
Shamatha builds up our focus and slows and calms down our thoughts.Vipassana spreads it into vast awareness as it occurs in the space between thoughts. With Vipassana we can experience the vastness of reality. We are able to see the wonder that is inherent in everyday experience.
It’s said that to really understand the Dharma intuitively, one has to practice Vipassana, or insight meditation. In some branches of Buddhism Shamatha and Vipassana are combined into one practice, in others they are trained in separately.
In Vipassana we develop a deep awareness—an ability to see with clarity. And with clarity we develop and strengthen our awareness practice.
It’s said that Vipassana develops in three stages.
- Visions of Emptiness: We begin to have strange sensations in our practice. This is really the beginning of Vipassana, the opening of the sky door. Sometimes even visual or auditory hallucinations, called makyo, will occur. It’s said that when he sat under the Bodhi tree the Buddha saw images of dancing girls and of soldiers ready to attack him. Sometimes our sense of self will disappear, not in an awakened way but in a terrifying way that feels like death.
- Equanimity: We experience simple awareness. We may still experience makyo experiences, but they don’t mean anything to us. We no longer attach to them, we recognize them for the illusions that they are. We have developed strong mental stability and we are able to stay with the practice for a long time.
- Clear seeing: This is where we begin to experience emptiness. We get the sense that we don’t have inherent existence, that our self is a convenient fiction. We go beyond our preconceptions and the labels that we put on everything all the time. We start to see these things as empty. This brings us a sense of spaciousness and freedom. This can bring us a sense of joy. We realize that we really have nothing to hold on to. Instead of being scary, that experience is liberating. It’s like being released. Our delusions are holding us down and Vipassana frees us.
It’s only through Vipassana experiences that we come to realize who and what we really are. This is the practice that introduces us to ourselves.
There is a deep awareness that exists within us. We may not experience this awareness, which I call Buddha nature, but it’s always there. It’s a space within us that is empty and spacious. It is possible for us to tune in to this awareness.
In Vipassana practice we can come to the point where we notice the world without coloring it with our perspective and our baggage, where we just see things as they are. The purpose of our practice is to experience reality as it really is.
Vipassana is intended to be a complete experience, one that goes beyond mindfulness and meditation practice.
Our awareness expands and opens. We can bring ourselves to a more open state of awareness, and a more open state of being. In this way, we can become more open to life. We can include everything in our field of awareness and see things as they really are. Through our practice we can come to realize how much of the world we’ve missed because of not paying attention.
With dedicated meditation practice we can see a world that’s brightened by the sunlight of awareness.
Editor: Dana Gornall