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What Vipassana Meditation Is Not – 8 Common Misconceptions

Updated on February 1, 2015
Meditation is means, and also the end.
Meditation is means, and also the end.

General Confusion about Meditation

Debby wants to learn meditation but thinks she does not have enough ability to concentrate so she does not go for it.

Jaspal thinks he is a hardcore atheist so how can he possibly learn meditation that has to do with god and soul.

Ramona thinks meditation is for old-fashioned religious people; being a doctorate in physics how can she go for an obscure stuff like meditation.

The word “meditation” has different meaning for different people. Different religions and spiritual philosophies prescribe different ways based on what they believe and want others to believe. In this Internet age ideas spread very fast – correct or incorrect. An uninitiated person can easily accept any idea if marketed convincingly. Often people make statements about meditation as if they are universal laws, while they might be actually propagating certain religious or philosophical beliefs. It is also not uncommon to find people talking about meditation without ever having meditated themselves!

Today when people hear about meditation, they mostly think it is only for stress relief. Those who are spiritually inclined, take up meditation merely to concentrate the mind on some object of their faith. They chant some mantra sacred to them hoping it will ultimately connect them with some higher spiritual powers. Then there are people who having noticed the ever fleeting nature of mind want to keep it under control and be able to concentrate it at will. They rush to different Gurus and look for ways to concentrate their minds. They generally remain struggling just to concentrate the mind on the given object and to keep stray thought away. After trying for some time they generally give up realizing that it is really not so easy to bring the mind under control or dictate it. Yet, these practices also bring some amount of relaxation and relief from stress.

Concentration comes with tranquility.
Concentration comes with tranquility.

Concentration Meditation Vs Mindfulness Meditation

Meditation is no doubt an ancient technique used for self evolution or self purification in different ancient cultures around the world, but most particularly in India. Yogis in the Vedic period in ancient India practiced asceticism including meditation which was deemed to strengthen their minds to make them superior to gods (devas). Seeking various super-normal powers they evolved different meditation techniques to produce powers to overcome nature's normal forces. For example, many sought powers to levitate, telepathy (communicate with others at distant locations), know past lives, float or walk on water, powers to influence others and so on.

Later, in the Sankhya period, their interest shifted to Moksha (liberation) or Union with the Absolute. Psychic powers produced their practices were widely used for worldly purposes. After the Buddha 2500 years ago, the meditation practices got clearly defined with clear outline of how to practice them. Two forms of meditations got clearly established, the later one is the unique contribution of the Buddha..

Two Types of Meditation

(a) Samatha Bhavana: Concentration Meditation

This is the most widely known form of meditation in all cultures. Most traditions teach meditation as a way of concentrating on something. Therefore, most people still equate meditation with concentration. Here the aim is to concentrate the mind on the chosen object and ignore everything else. This object can be your breathing, gazing at a symbol drawn some distance away, repeating a mantra (a given word or phrase), visualizing some form or figure, and so on. You try hard to keep the mind focused on the meditation object.

It must be clearly noted that meditation is not a good English translation of Bhavana which means cultivation or development of mind. Samatha means calmness, tranquility or concentration. Therefore, Samatha Bhavana means development of calmness by developing one-pointedness or concentration. When the mind is concentrated on any single object of meditation, it becomes free from mental states like lust, hatred, ill-will, worries, restlessness and so on. It creates qualities like tranquility, calmness, concentration, will, energy, confidence and joy. Under deeper concentration the mind becomes powerful and endowed with supernormal qualities.

Benefits of Samatha Meditation: The purpose of Samatha meditation is to attain deep concentration of the mind on a single object. As the mind enters into stages of deeper concentration, it successively gives up all sensory and mental inputs which normally occupy the mind. When the mind is deeply absorbed on the meditation object, mental defilements like desires, lust, anger, greed, conceit, fear etc are temporarily kept away from the mind. This makes us feel calm, peaceful, and happy. But these states don't last long nor do they help us understand the reality of mental and physical phenomena. The mental states in deep absorption are quite distinct from the three main states of normal consciousness - waking, sleeping and dreaming. The Yogi is neither asleep, nor awake, nor dreaming; he is mentally in a different plain of consciousness.

(b) Vipassana Bhavana: Insight Meditation

But this article is not concerned with the concentration meditation. Here we are specifically concerned with another system of meditation - the “insight” or Vipassana system of meditation. This is the unique gift of the Buddha to the human race. He discovered it himself and got rid of his mental defilements completely and taught people how to practice it and purified. This is a mental purification technique. The word Vipassana comes from Pali language – the language spoken by the Buddha 2500 years ago. It means seeing (watching, investigating, experiencing, observing) reality in a special way – as it is, in its true nature and NOT as you would like it to be. So Vipassana means to observe thoroughly, to investigate penetratingly the true nature of things, precisely as they are; seeing beyond what is ordinarily observed, not superficial seeing, not seeing mere appearances, but going deeply into every aspect of the object under observation.

There is no English word that can convey the complete meaning of the Pali word "Vipassana." It is an observational technique as opposed to focusing or concentration of mind. The practice develops wisdom or insight, so it is also called insight meditation.

It is an art of passionless nonjudgmental observation of yourself – it is a training in seeing reality unfolding moment by moment. It is a technique of self-purification through self-observation. How effectively you purify your mind depends upon how good is your power of observation untainted by ideation and judgment.

It must be added that a concentrated mind is also essential for the practice of Vipassana meditation; without it a Yogi can't hope to attain the insight wisdom (Panna). However, the level of concentration need not be very deep like in the jhanic states. For Vipassana we only need mental concentration enough to ensure a steady, undistracted mindfulness (Sati).

Hope these 8 common erroneous beliefs will also give you the right perspective of what Vipassana meditation is supposed to be.

Introduction to Vipassana Meditation

We normally do not see things as they are.
We normally do not see things as they are.

8 Common Misconceptions

1. Meditation means positive or lofty thinking

Vipassana meditation is a practice in alert and dispassionate observation of the reality unfolding in the present moment. The meditator tries to maintain this awareness moment after moment. He learns to know thoughts and feelings for what they actually are – without intellectual analysis, prejudice or bias. It is an art and science of “mere observation” and “bare observation”. He doesn't seek or think anything but merely observe.

There are certain forms of meditation where people contemplate or think certain thoughts, but Vipassana meditation is not among them. In fact, it has nothing to do with “thinking” and has everything to do with non-thinking and just “being”.

2. You have to believe in god or religion if you want to meditate

Your beliefs and religious philosophies have nothing to do with Vipassana meditation, which is training in the art of observing the reality unfolding in the present moment without prejudice or judgment. It is totally irrelevant whether you believe in god, soul, or certain religious scriptures or not. It is a universal skill that any one from any background can learn. Just as laws of physics are universal truths, so are the laws of nature that shape your feelings, emotions and attitudes. This laws applied on all people regardless of what they believe or don't believe.

3. The Aim of meditation is to get "high"

It is not the aim of Vipassana meditation to make you experience ecstasy or feel high or blissful. However, during the course of meditation one does experience blissful feelings sometimes. But they are not the goal, nor do they always occur. Even when there is a blissful feeling, it is also seen as just a feeling (neither good nor bad) without clinging to it or desiring for it to stay forever.

The progress of a Vipassana meditator is judged from his sense of mental equanimity and not from how long the blissful feelings lasts. A good meditator will remain unperturbed in adverse situations and also will not get carried away when everything is pleasant or sweet. He will see both as passing phases of life – that's they actually are! Whether we like it on not!!

The process of Vipassana meditation does release a lot of stress and tension. This often leads to deep relaxation which some people might call bliss (or high). It is merely a positive side effect, not an aim. The process of purification must continue avoiding attachments to such states. Whenever people start enjoying such good feelings, rather than noting them as fleeting, they get stuck and stop advancing further.

Mindfulness is LIGHT of the Mind
Mindfulness is LIGHT of the Mind

4. Only people with strong concentration can meditate

This is another irrelevant and illogical argument. If having strong concentration were the pre-requisite very few people would ever take to meditation!! On the contrary, the practice certainly develops concentration.

Concentration is a good virtue but Vipassana meditation relies on mindfulness rather than concentration. In Vipassana meditation, if your thoughts are wondering all over the places, you just accept it as a reality of that moment without being angry or upset. After few moments if mind becomes rather focused, accept that too as a reality of that moment. No hating or feeding thoughts! You don't wrestle with your mind in Vipassana meditation - this automatically quietens the mind and it gets concentrated!

The moment you become conscious of the present moment the thinking process is discouraged and halted. Thinking activity and presence of "awareness" are like darkness and light – they can’t coexist. So think of mindfulness as a lighting tool that drives away all your habitual dark acts including thinking. It promotes a sense of mental presence, a sense of "being."

5. Meditation means going into trance

Vipassana meditation does not aim to create any particular mental state. It only aims to develop and sustain detachment along with alertness which keeps you in control rather than make you helpless victim of some emotion or outside agency. If you are losing control, you probably are not practicing Vipassana meditation.

6. Meditation can be dangerous for ordinary people

It is a silly notion. It is an innocent activity that can only make you a more peaceful and balanced person. Come to think of it, everything can be dangerous. Walking across the street and driving a car can be dangerous.

What Vipassana meditation does is to cleanse your subconscious mind of the suppressed garbage and reduce your mental load. This cleansing process often brings up unexpected emotions, but that is precisely why people take to Vipassana meditation. Things arise, stay for some time, and then pass away. This applies to everything; nothing is permanent. Staying with this experience of impermanence with equanimity is the real practice of Vipassana meditation.

If done properly, Vipassana meditation is a gentle and gradual process. However, trying to learn it without guidance of experienced teacher is not recommended – you may be simply wasting time doing that. One of the safest way to learn Vipassana meditation is by joining a 10 day residential camp organized by Vipassana International Academy. The systematic approach of training by devoted and experienced meditators has made it popular all over the world. It is free too - Free means Free! No strings attached.

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7. Meditation is only for religious or holy people

This belief comes from the fact that traditionally meditation has been practiced only in the confines of monasteries and religious centers. However, spread of Yoga has also brought meditation into the limelight and people are no longer unfamiliar with the word “meditation” though they may not know its precise meaning. Psychiatry has adopted many of the principles from different meditation practices.

Increasing popularity of Vipassana meditation around the world is slowly helping people come out of such erroneous notions. Now there are corporate houses that actively encourage their employees to learn Vipassana meditation and provide facilities for meditation at the workplace. There are schools that have included meditation in the curriculum. Even prisons around the world are adopting Vipassana meditation as an effective tool for inner transformation of inmates. There are wonderful documentaries to prove that.

Vipassana Meditation in Prison: 3 Soul Touching Documentaries

The reality is: people living in the modern societies need meditation more than those living in seclusion. It is a healthy activity good for any human-being living anywhere.

8. Meditation is just an escape from the reality

Nothing can be far from the truth. In fact, Vipassana meditation puts you face to face with the realities of your life whether you like them or not! I must warn you: it is easy to face an outside enemy but takes tremendous strength to face the devils hidden inside us.

"True mindfulness is not an evasion of any kind. It’s a peaceful encounter with reality – moment by moment."

The very act of mindfulness connects you with the reality unfolding inside you in the present moment. It aims to have you fully experience life as it actually is - keeping aside all illusory thinking and petty lies you keep telling yourself all the time. It expects you to acknowledge and accept yourself as you really are behind the mask of an artificial personality. It prepares you to be strong enough to be able to face your weaknesses squarely.

Putting on a deceptive mask of personality, telling subtle lies to create an artificial impression on people, and pretending to be someone other than who you are, are actually running away from the reality. It is something we all do in daily life. Practice of mindfulness meditation puts a stop to all that, so be ready for that!!


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    • Goodpal profile image

      Goodpal 5 years ago

      Thanks oooy for sharing. You are right; any form of meditation can be very powerful. That is the prime reason to stay with the simplest maintaining awareness.

    • ocoy profile image

      ocoy 5 years ago from Cedar Crest, New Mexico

      A useful article that clarifies the purpose of common Vipassana meditation. Like breath meditation, it is simple and can be practiced by anyone. However, even simple forms of meditation can have profound results.

    • Goodpal profile image

      Goodpal 6 years ago

      Thanks for sharing. Look forward to your hubs.

    • moneycop profile image

      moneycop 6 years ago from JABALPUR