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What is Vipassana Meditation, also known as Insight Meditation?

Before we get into the details of vipassana meditation, some important background about how this practice ties into the story of Headspace: In his early twenties, Headspace co-founder Andy Puddicombe left his Sports Science studies and became a Buddhist monk. For over 10 years, he studied meditation in Nepal, India, Burma, Thailand, Australia, and Russia.

After leaving the monastery with a desire to make meditation more mainstream, Andy arrived in London, which is where Headspace was first born, delivering meditations and teachings rooted in both the Burmese and Tibetan Buddhist traditions, while remaining true to the lineage that first inspired the app.

All Headspace meditation techniques incorporate elements of both “Samatha” (calming) and “Vipassana” (insight) meditation, though some of the technique names have changed from their original translation to help make them more accessible. The guided meditations in the Headspace app make meditation easy to understand and follow, even if you are completely new to the practice. Additionally, all Headspace meditations and exercises have an altruistic intention at their core, ensuring that both awareness and compassion are being trained at the same time.

You do not need to know and understand the background of Vipassana or Buddhist meditation in order to use the Headspace app to meditate. However, if you are interested in learning more about Vipassana meditation, read on.

The Benefits of Vipassana aka Insight Meditation

Vipassana meditation practitioners swear by its mind-body benefits, citing not only a sense of freedom and awakening but also a sense of security. The discipline is rooted in the idea that we as humans do have the capacity to overcome our most base impulses, our pain, and personal conflicts.

Vipassana has been used in prisons and recovery settings to help inmates and patients reduce recidivism and relapse. After a 4-year trial of Vipassana practice for prison inmates, Seattle’s North Rehabilitation Facility reported that King County Jail inmates were 20% less likely to return to prison. Additionally, researchers at the University of Washington found that inmates who participated in Vipassana programs reported lower use of alcohol, marijuana, and crack cocaine, as well as improved social and psychological functioning, and higher optimism. Importantly, they also saw less severe psychiatric symptoms among those with mental illness.

Science has also underscored the overall benefits of meditation in general. Numerous peer-reviewed studies have shown the benefits of using the Headspace app. Just one 15-minute session using the Headspace app reduces mind wandering by 22%, and only 10 days of Headspace has been shown to reduce stress by 14%. Further, after 3 weeks of meditating with Headspace, meditators saw an increase in compassion by 21%.

How to practice Vipassana Meditation

Vipassana teaches us to simply focus on the breath and/or physical sensations and, as the mind feels calmer and more focused, we learn to start observing our physical sensations as well as our thought patterns, therefore bringing a whole new understanding to why we think the way we do.

Like other types of meditation, Vipassana insight meditation starts with finding a quiet place. The goal is to use the breath as an anchor. The focus of breathing exercises is on the rising and falling of the belly along with silently counting each in-breath and out-breath. We use our breathing to center ourselves and to calm and compose ourselves as we go deeper into a meditative state.

In spite of our best efforts, distractions will happen. These are natural; simply note them as they arise for what they really are: a sound, a memory, planning, a smell, etc. Then shift back to your focus on the breath.

Vipassana silent retreats

Ten-day silent Vipassana/Insight Meditation retreats are surging in popularity among tech workers and Silicon Valley executives, such as Jack Dorsey, CEO of both Twitter and Square, who espouse their benefits on social media.

The most-recognized (and free) of these 10-day retreats are the ones started by S.N. Goenka, a Burmese businessman, who taught classes on Vipassana in India in the 1970s. Goenka's method requires beginners to learn vipassana meditation practice during a 10-day silent retreat where participants abide by a set of rules: “no sex, drugs, lying, stealing, religious worship, reading, writing, or physical contact.” Communication of any kind is strictly prohibited.

In fact, these are the rules most Vipassana silent retreats follow today. This means no speaking, gestures, written notes, or use of electronics including mobile phones, iPads or e-readers.

How to start meditating with Headspace

If you have 10 days to spare and the mettle to make it through a Vipassana silent retreat, go for it. That said, it’s recommended that you bring along a baseline knowledge of meditation and experience in sustaining lengthy periods of quiet calm. The Headspace app can help you develop the skills you will need to get through it and get the most benefit out of your experience and time spent at the retreat, with most courses incorporating aspects of insight meditation.

While most types of meditation were originally part of various spiritual disciplines, Headspace uses them in a non-religious way. Designed for modern living, Headspace helps you deal with the stresses and strains of 21st-century life. Are you taking proper care of your mind? You can with Headspace. Our convenient online sessions can help you find increased compassion, greater focus, less anxiety, and improved feelings of wellbeing and happiness.

If you’re looking for an introduction to different types of meditation, check out the 10-day beginner’s course on the essentials of meditation — available for free in the Headspace app. From there, once you gain more experience and confidence, you can explore the whole library of meditations and exercises, covering everything from sleep, compassion, and sports to anger, stress, and more. Get started now!

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