To fully understand what is the difference between Samatha and Vipassana meditation. It is crucial to distinguish that meditation practices lay on a continuum. From those that use concentrating on a single object to steady the mind to reach a state of absorption called calm-abiding. To those who employ concentration and calm-abiding to look into and explore and whole of our experience and how we view the self in what is sometimes called open-monitoring or open-awareness practices. Both approaches cultivate mindfulness, although they apply the mindfulness cultivated in different ways.
Samatha and Vipassana meditation: A cognitive perspective
If we look at the difference between Samatha and Vipassana meditation through a cognitive perspective, these have been classified by Dhal et al. (2015) as attentional practices and deconstructive practices, respectively, where:
Attentional practices employ the cognitive processes of attentional regulation and meta-awareness to train various processes related to our ability to regulate attention. Among others, these include the ability to direct one’s attention and monitor, notice and detect distraction to reorient and hold ones focus onto a chosen object. Dhal et al. (2015) propose that the shared characteristic of attentional meditation practices is the systematic training of the capacity to intentionally initiate, orient and direct or to sustain these attentional processes so as to strengthen one’s ability to be aware of the processes of thinking, feeling, and perceiving.
Deconstructive practices use the cognitive processes of self-inquiry to elicit insight into the nature of the self, our cognitions and reality. These have been called insight practices were Dhal et al. (2015) argue that such practices aim “to undo maladaptive cognitive patterns by exploring the dynamics of perception, emotion, and cognition and generating insights into one’s internal models of the self, others, and the world” (p. 518). They argue that self-inquiry is the main process at work within insight practices which they define, “as the process of investigating the dynamics and nature of conscious experience” (ibid. p. 518).
Within deconstructive practices, self-inquiry may involve discursive analysis or a direct examination of the contents conscious experience, and explorations of self-referential related process. Such that insight practices entail identifying any underlying perceptual or cognitive assumptions that we might project onto a particular object or experience with consciousness and subsequently thinking about and questioning the logical consistency of these assumptions.
Concentration practices fall under the categories of attentional practices. In contrast, those that generally use the meta-awareness cultivated through attentional practice to inquire into one’s thinking, feeling, and perceiving processes are usually called insight practices falling under the categories of deconstructive practices. These are two of the primary approaches used in Buddhist tradition were in Theravadan Buddhist literature; they are classified as Vipassana insight practices and Samatha concentration practices.
What is Samatha meditation
Whereas similar to other attentional practices. In Samatha meditation practices, the meditator focuses his awareness on a single object (Sujva, 2000). Such as focusing on the sensations of the breath, reciting a prayer or mantra, or any external object such as the flame of a candle. Or by visualising and focusing your attention on a religious figure or image without letting one’s attention get carried away by any other thoughts or perceptions that might present themselves within consciousness.
With time such practice is said to bring a deep sense of concentration where the meditator becomes full absorbed in the object of practice. Such a deep state of concentration or absorption is sometimes called calm-abiding. When one enters into a state of absorption during Samatha meditation, it results in what traditional text called a “state of rapture” (Sujva, 2000). An alluring temporary condition characterised by a deep, meaningful blissful sense of peace and tranquillity that transcends the qualms of everyday life. A state of tranquillity which must be experienced to be understood.
Traditional text also caution against becoming attached to this temporary “state of rapture” which usually only lasts for the practice duration (Bhikkhu, 1980; Sujva, 2000).
What is Vipassana meditation
Vipassana meditation addresses the other component, insight (Hart & Goenka, 2011). Whereas with other deconstructive practices In Vipassana mediation, the meditator uses the power of concentration as a tool to cultivate a steady mind so as to develop an awareness of thoughts, feeling, emotions, physical sensation and other processes that appear within consciousness by directly applying such awareness so as to look beneath them and into the process that gives rise to experiences that present themselves within consciousness during the practice (Hart & Goenka, 2011).
Such that vipassana meditation involves a gradual process of ever-increasing awareness into the inner workings of how we perceive our sense of self, others, the word and reality itself. Therefore, contrary to Samatha meditation. Vipassana meditation is more of a process of pealing layers similarly to peeling the layers of an onion or like one who slowly chisels through a wall not knowing how thick it might be with the purpose of one day chiselling through the other side (Sujva, 2000). Traditional text argue that vipassana meditation is said to elicit deep insight into one’s sense of self and the experience of suffering ultimately leading to a complete transformation within one’s consciousness and one’s perception of reality and the material world (Bhikkhu, 1980).
Such is usually characterised by a sense of profound wisdom and present moment awareness into the “wheel of suffering” and how to transcend it, leading to what Buddhism calls a permanent liberation from the cycle of samsara (Bhikkhu, 1980; Sujva, 2000).
Fundamental difference between Samatha and Vipassana meditation
Although there are similarities between Samatha and Vipassana meditation putting it simply Samatha meditation can be translated into the cultivation of “concentration” or “tranquillity.” So as to achieve a state where the mind is brought to a rest focus on a single object within consciousness so as not to allow the mind to wander away. When this is done, it usually leads to a deep calm within the body and mind, a state of tranquillity that is generally limited to the duration of the practice.
While Vipassana meditation which is usually translated as “clear Insight,” aimed to achieve an enduring state of clear open awareness into present experience or what Nairn et al. (2019) called “recognising what is happening, while it is happening, without preference” (p. 2%)
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Bhikkhu, B. (1980). Anapanasati: Mindfulness of breathing. (B. Nagasena, Trans.) Bangkok: Sublime Life Mission.
Dhal, C. J., Lutz, A., & Davidson, R. J. (2015). Reconstructing and deconstructing the self: cognitive mechanisms in meditation practice. Trends in Cognitive Neuroscience, 19(9), 515- 523. doi:10.1016/j.tics.2015.07.001
Hart, W., & Goenka, S. N. (2011). The art of living: Vipassana meditation as taught by S.N. Goenka. London: HarperCollins Publishers.
Nairn, R., Choden, & Regan-Addis, H. (2019). From mindfulness to insight: Meditations to release your habitual thinking and activate your inherent wisdom [epub]. Boston, MA: Shambala Publications Inc.
Sujva, V. (2000). Essentials of insight meditation practice (revised ed.). Malaysia: Buddhist Wisdom Centre.