The further you delve into the world of meditation and mindfulness, the more you’ll find out about the vast amount of different practices, techniques, and traditions that exist. What we call mindfulness today has its roots in ancient Buddhism, which means that on our path towards greater happiness, calmness, and peace of mind, we’ll come across a variety of terms and concepts which may sound unusual at first.
In this article, we’re going to explore two concepts that represent the foundation of mindfulness meditation: Samatha and Vipassana. These are the two types of meditation practised within the Theravada tradition; and while you might have heard these terms used in relation to meditative practice, you may not fully understand them. For that reason, we’re going to outline the basics for you, and explain the key differences between Samatha and Vipassana practice. We’ll take you through the origins of mindfulness, and explore how in order to cultivate an effective practice, you’ll need to think about combining aspects of both these ancient methods.
What is Samatha Meditation?
Samatha meditation practices are all about quieting the mind, in order to achieve states of great focus and calmness. Derived from Sanskrit, Samatha is a Pali term that translates roughly as “tranquillity of the mind”, “peaceful abiding”, or “mind-calmness”. It exists in a wide variety of Buddhist traditions and is generally considered as the second quality of mind within Buddhist meditation, alongside Vipassana. We’ll go into this second quality shortly; but first, let’s dive into Samatha in more detail.
According to the Theravada tradition, Samatha practices calm the mind and manage stressful or negative thought patterns using concentration-based techniques. One of the most common Samatha techniques is breath counting, which can quieten an overactive mind and improve focus. According to Buddhist monk Yuttadhammo Bhikku, breath meditation is “a tranquillity meditation, only for the purpose of quieting the mind. You should use it as a preliminary technique before moving onto examining the physical and mental aspects of the breathing, and of the body and mind in general.” This definition captures the idea that by developing samadhi (“concentration”) by resting the attention on a particular meditation object like the breath, Samatha can offer a prelude or pathway to greater wisdom or insight.
Samatha is often categorised into five main characteristics, which are as follows: effortlessly stable attention (samadhi), powerful mindfulness (sati), joy (pīti), tranquillity (passaddhi), and equanimity (upekkhā). The process of using stable concentration and mindfulness to eventually cultivate joy is what underpins the principle of Samatha. This joy can then be translated into tranquillity and equanimity. For more focused guidance on the concept of equanimity, become a MindOwl member and get exclusive access to our online course on the subject.
What is Vipassana Meditation?
While Samatha composes, steadies, and concentrates the mind, Vipassana is about achieving greater insight and vision. Vipassana, which can literally be translated as “insight”, refers to a clear awareness of exactly what is happening in the present moment. The point of Vipassana meditation sessions is to understand the true nature of your personality, your life, your experiences, and those of the people around you. By viewing the world with greater clarity, Vipassana meditators can let go of things that are holding them back, and come to terms with the physical and mental phenomena impacting their lives.
Vipassana meditation moves beyond simple breath awareness and concentration-based mindfulness techniques, and encourages the non-judgemental tracking of any of the five senses — seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, and touching. This also extends to thoughts and feelings.
This slightly more advanced form of meditation is intended by some to provoke a kind of awakening or realisation of an ultimate reality. Vipassana can transform certain aspects of experience; however, it’s important to remember that you don’t have to have these kinds of lofty ambitions. If the purpose of your mindfulness meditation is mainly just to improve your mental health and general well-being, Vipassana can still be useful (as can Samatha) — you don’t have to be on some sort of deeper path towards ultimate truth. Meditation should be accessible to everyone.
What is the Difference Between Samatha and Vipassana Meditation?
When we first learn how to meditate, we’ll generally start by directing our focus towards a particular object and trying to stop it from wandering. Concentration practices can use various different objects of meditation, from counting the breath, to repeating a mantra or chant (like in Transcendental Meditation), or staring at the flame of a candle, a method practised in Trataka Meditation. If your session is built around practising a focused degree of concentration on an object of meditation, it’s likely that it’s closer to Samatha meditation. Vipassana practice, on the other hand, moves beyond attention training to help meditators see things with greater clarity and less judgement.
Samatha and Vipassana are divided by subtle differences, so it can sometimes be tricky to understand exactly what separates these two practices. Probably the key thing to bear in mind here is that Vipassana meditation involves paying non-judgemental attention to one or more aspects of present moment experience, while Samatha will generally revolve around just one object of attention. Expanding your field of consciousness to include other sensory experiences is great for the mind, and this is exactly what Vipassana seeks to do.
Analysing sensory experience is about breaking them down into different components and then examining how those components interact. This process of developing insight is the bedrock of Vipassana meditation. But what if you’re after something simpler? How should meditators choose whether to practise Samatha or Vipassana? In the next section of this article, we’ll try to answer that question.
Should I Practise Samatha or Vipassana?
Put simply, this depends on what you’re looking to get out of your meditation practice. If your main goal is simply to bring a little more calmness, stillness, and tranquillity into your life, Samatha meditation will help you develop it. Many people view meditation as primarily an exercise for bringing peace and tranquillity, similar to techniques such as yoga. There’s nothing wrong with this; however, it’s important to remember that meditation is so much more than just relaxation.
If you want to go further and gain greater insight into your mind and body, a deeper kind of insight meditation built around the values of Vipassana would be ideal. Vipassana is particularly helpful if you’re interested in letting go of negative thoughts and feelings or cultivating acceptance. This is because meditation allows you to see things a little clearer and identify what really matters in life.
Viewing your own thoughts, feelings, and emotions as impermanent and constantly subject to change can stop you from clinging to them, and increase your sense of calmness and happiness in the present moment. Vipassana will help you develop these crucial qualities of mind. That being said, we believe the best way to achieve positive results is to combine the two practices. Let’s look into how exactly that can be done.
How To Combine Both Practices
Combining the mental discipline of Samatha with the enhanced perception and awareness of Vipassana is a recipe for success. Even advocates of more advanced techniques like Non-Dual Awareness are aware of the effectiveness of Samatha meditation in boosting participants’ levels of concentration and attention management. But truthfully, we shouldn’t really view these practices as separate at all.
In Vipassana, the meditator uses the skills of concentration and single-minded focus developed by Samatha to gain insight into various aspects of indirect and direct experience. Vipassana can help expand one’s consciousness and improve numerous mental qualities, but this rests on a foundation that relates first and foremost to Samatha practice. Therefore, while it’s useful to understand the difference between Samatha and Vipassana, you shouldn’t let these distinctions get in the way of your meditation journey. You’re much better off keeping an open mind and viewing everything as interconnected.
An integrated approach to mindfulness which takes into account different forms of practice and considers the relationship between meditation and everyday life can help increase calmness and happiness, reduce negative thoughts and emotions, and ease painful sensations and physical tension. Our new membership program is designed to help you access these benefits using a variety of mindful techniques including balance breathing and breath awareness, positive emotion cultivation, and the art of noting. Not sure whether it totally suits you? Try out our free meditation taster course, and you’ll soon realise that the amazing benefits of mindfulness meditation can be accessed by anyone.
Frequently Asked Questions:
What are the benefits of Samatha meditation?
We’ve already discussed how Samatha meditation can calm the mind and improve the concentration and awareness skills of practitioners. However, there are numerous other benefits. One of the most crucial ones you should note is that Samatha can help quieten the monkey mind, which is a phrase we use to describe the chaotic, constantly distracted nature of our brains. Find out more in our article on how to tame your monkey mind.
Did the Buddha teach Vipassana?
The Buddha was a real person named Siddhartha Gautama, who lived about twenty-five hundred years ago. One of the main techniques he taught was Vipassana, which represents one of the key foundations of mindfulness meditation. To learn more about the origins of this practice, check out our comprehensive guide to mindfulness meditation.
How many types of meditation are there?
There are hundreds, if not thousands, of different forms of meditation being practised today. Some of these date back to ancient Buddhist and Hindu philosophy, while other meditative techniques, such as Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy, were developed in a more modern context. In order to simplify things, we’ve grouped all forms of meditation into six main categories. You can read about the six main types of meditation here.
MindOwl Founder – My own struggles in life have led me to this path of understanding the human condition. I graduated with a bachelor’s degree in philosophy before completing a master’s degree in psychology at Regent’s University London. I then completed a postgraduate diploma in philosophical counselling before being trained in ACT (Acceptance and commitment therapy).
I’ve spent the last eight years studying the encounter of meditative practices with modern psychology.