The Pali word vipassana (Sanskrit, vipashyana) is commonly translated as “insight,” and this is a good fit for both its literal and general meanings. To the verbal root pash, meaning “to see,” the prefix vi- is added, which can be taken here as an intensifier, indicating seeing well or seeing clearly. The prefix can also mean “apart” or “away,” suggesting that one is seeing something different from or beyond what is immediately apparent in order to recognize a deeper significance. With this interpretation in mind, we can see why vipassana as “insight” is regularly used as a synonym for wisdom (Pali, panna; Skt., prajna).
When the word is used in the compound samatha-vipassana, it denotes two kinds of meditation. The first, samatha, means calming or tranquility meditation, and refers to concentration practices such as one-pointed awareness on a fixed object. By contrast, vipassana meditation involves pointing a concentrated mind at a flowing stream of experience, with each moment presenting a different object. By watching the ongoing rise and fall of phenomena at the point of contact with the senses, rather than through the filters of narrative and conceptual thought, the meditator is able to see beyond appearances.
In the modern context of mindfulness practice, focusing the mind on an object, whether fixed or moving, provides temporary alleviation of the symptoms of suffering, while insight into the nature of experience accesses a more fundamental understanding that addresses and heals the root causes of suffering.
Any practice that gets the mind out of its default wandering mode and engages conscious awareness with an object in the present moment will offer an immediate refuge from the onslaught of anxiety, depression, addiction, aversion, and confusion that regularly assails us. This is one of the reasons for the current popularity of vipassana practice and for the success of the mindfulness movement.
Allowing us to see with wisdom into the deeper truths that can not only treat but cure suffering, insight shows us that all things arise and pass away in a radically changing stream of experience, that both internal and external phenomena are interdependently conditioning one another, and that the sense of self we create to navigate this process is an arbitrary and contingent construct. Knowing this allows us to abide in the world without resistance, without clinging, and with equanimity. Only when we clearly see the thirst of craving—the underlying cause of suffering—are we able to quench it.
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