Impact of Vipassana Mindfulness Meditation on Well-being During the Pandemic.

AuthorMahindroo, Nikhil


In an HBR article, ChadeMeng Tan (2015), who led the creation of a mindfulness-based emotional intelligence program called 'Search Inside Yourself' at Google (Tan, 2014), explained how mindfulness could make you more effective; in 'just 6 seconds'. Two years since, Van Dam and colleagues (2017) urged scientists, media and the public to 'Mind the hype' in their critical evaluation and prescriptive agenda for research on mindfulness and meditation. Two years hence, the tweet from the then CEO of Twitter (Jack Dorsey [@jack], 2019) read, "Finished my 3rd vipassana 10 days at Dhamma Pataka in South Africa. Continues to be the toughest and best thing I do for myself ..." Two years hence, the WHO (2021), in the Comprehensive Mental Health Action Plan 2013-2030, explicitly encouraged using evidence-based traditional practices like yoga and meditation to promote mental health and well-being for all. So, does mindfulness wield a positive impact at the level of individual, organization and society? This becomes pertinent at a time when the United Nations (2021) asserts that the COVID-19 pandemic has halted or reversed a decade of progress in health. This study aims to investigate the impact ('what' and 'how') of Vipassana mindfulness meditation.

Unfolding Mindfulness

The word mindfulness derives from the Pali word 'sati', which can be found in the early Buddhist scriptures such as Abhidhamma. Right mindfulness (samma sati) is the seventh factor of the noble eightfold path as taught by the Buddha (Bodhi, 2000; 2011). Roots of modern-day mindfulness-based interventions (MBIs) like mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) and mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT) can be traced to Vipassana and Zen meditation, which are rooted in the teachings of the Buddha (Chiesa & Malinowski, 2011; Gilpin, 2008; Rapgay & Bystrisky, 2009). Consciously blending different elements, "MBSR is mostly Vipassana practice...with a Zen attitude" (Kabat-Zinn's email cited in Gilpin, 2008: 238).

As the names suggest, MBSR was developed initially to manage chronic pain and stress-related disorders, while MBCT was developed within the field of cognitive behavioral therapy (Gilpin, 2008). The objective was to make the practice "relevant and compelling in the lives of the participants, yet without denaturing the dharma dimension" (KabatZinn, 2003: 149). MBSR & MBCT have since been the two most widely employed and investigated MBIs (Gu et al., 2015). So it is understandable and evident from the bibliometric analysis (Wang et al., 2021), meta-analyses (Chiesa & Serretti, 2009; Grossman et al., 2010; Khoury et al., 2013; 2015; McClintock et al., 2019) and systematic/integrative reviews (Gu et al., 2015; Schlechta Portella et al., 2021; Shahbaz & Parker, 2021) that [a] most research over the past few decades has been on MBIs (especially MBSR and MBCT) [b] majority of the research initially focused on clinical settings and associated outcomes and [c] there is an absence of consensus on meaning, definition and operationalization of mindfulness (Van Dam et al., 2017).

Consequently, this study endeavors to address the gap that was succinctly highlighted by Chiesa & Malinowski (2011: 416), "there is an almost total absence of studies investigating the mechanisms that underlie Vipassana and Zen meditations," and that less attention has been accorded on the possible benefits in healthy subjects (Chiesa & Serretti, 2009). With ever-growing evidence of the positive impact of mindfulness (mainly MBIs) on workplace outcomes (Janssen et al., 2018; Shahbaz & Parker, 2021); including the pivotal role that mindfulness can play in fostering well-being during the Covid-19 pandemic (Sanilevici et al., 2021; Toniolo-Barrios & Pitt, 2021), the objective of this study is to investigate the (causal) impact and unearth the underlying mechanisms through which Vipassana meditation may exert a positive effect on various dimensions of subjective well-being in healthy professionals during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Vipassana Meditation

Vipassana, as taught by S. N. Goenka in the tradition of Sayagyi U Ba Khin, is a meditation practice based on the teachings of the Buddha. The standardized 10days residential course is offered at 225 centers and 136 non-centers across the globe for free. Vipassana, which means to 'see things as they really are', enables the practitioner to experientially realize the nature of reality, i.e. changing and impermanent (Hart, 2011; Vipassana Meditation, 2018). Vipassana meditation is often referred to as 'mindfulness meditation' or 'MM' (Chiesa & Malinowski, 2011). Vipassana MM trains one in sila (virtue), samadhi (concentration), and panna (wisdom), that encompasses the threefold division of the noble eightfold path leading to liberation from suffering (Hart, 2011; Nyanaponika, 1962). As explicated by S. N. Goenka, "The Buddha never taught any 'ism' or sectarian doctrine. He taught something from which people of every background can benefit: an art of living" (Hart, 2011 : 18). Previous re se arch indicates that Vipassana MM is associated with reduced mental disorders and enhanced tolerance to stress (Chiesa, 2010), increased well-being and mindfulness (Szekeres & Wertheim, 2015), improved workplace outcomes like employees' well-being and communication skills (Pradhan & Ajithkumar, 2018; 2019) and neuroplastic changes underpinning cognitive processing and enhanced states of well-being (Kakumanu et al., 2019).

Dimensions of Subjective Well-being

Subjective well-being (SWB) is a multifaceted construct comprising affective and cognitive components (Diener, 2000). Affective well-being refers to the frequency and intensity with which one experiences affect (positive and negative), while cognitive well-being refers to reflective assessment or cognitive judgment of one's sense of the quality of life, e.g. life satisfaction (Luhmann, 2017; Schulte et al., 2015). There is an increased focus on interventions, including MBIs, that can enhance SWB amongst healthy professionals, as SWB is associated with work engagement (Cameron & Spreitzer, 2012) and crucial workplace outcomes such as higher performance, job satisfaction, and productivity (Sakuraya et al., 2020).

Mechanisms to Enhance SWB

Enhanced levels of mindfulness are associated with positive outcomes in several life domains, including health (physical, mental), vitality, satisfaction (life and job), self-concept, emotional intelligence and relationships (Brown et al., 2007; Eberth & Sedlmeier, 2012; Schlechta Portella et al., 2021). It has been established that mindfulness is associated with and predicts enhanced SWB (Brown & Ryan, 2003; Brown et al., 2009).

There is evidence that trait emotional intelligence mediates the relationship between mindfulness and both the dimensions of SWB (Schutte & Malouff, 2011; Coffey et al., 2010). This is consistent with substantial research that sheds light on the connection between mindfulness and emotional intelligence (Baer et al., 2006; Brown et al., 2007; 2009; Charoensukmongkol, 2014), and that higher levels of emotional intelligence is associated with and predicts enhanced subjective well-being--both affective and cognitive (Schutte et al., 2002; Brackett et al., 2004; Austin et al., 2005).

In a recent meta-analysis of correlational studies and RCTs, Chu and Mak (2020) indicated that mindfulness correlated with meaning in life, and showed how MBIs had a positive effect on the presence of meaning in life. Previous research also shows that meaning in life is positively associated with and predicts life satisfaction viz. cognitive well-being (Halama & Didova, 2007; Ho et al., 2010). The role of meaning in life is vital in coping with uncertainty and promoting hope amongst employees during the Covid-19 pandemic (Miao et al., 2021).

Gu and colleagues (2015) emphasized that a pertinent question on how MBIs work is to examine if the effect on psychological outcomes is mediated (simple/ multiple mediation) by an increase in mindfulness? Given the vast differences between MMs and MBIs (Chiesa & Malinowski, 2011) and challenges in operationalizing and measuring mindfulness (Van Dam et al., 2017), this question warrants examination.

There is a dearth of causal studies that examine the specific and serial indirect effects of MMs on [a] affective well-being via mindfulness and trait emotional intelligence, [b] cognitive well-being via mindfulness and trait emotional intelligence as well as the presence of meaning. This study aims to address this gap, i.e., examining the impact ('what' and 'how') of Vipassana MM in healthy professionals during the COVID-19 pandemic.


One hundred eighty healthy professionals participated in this study during the pandemic. They were engaged as a part of the experimental group (n=90) and control group (n=90). Purposive sampling was used with well-defined inclusion criteria: [a] Working professionals in service or self-employed [b] Age between 20 and 59 yrs. Participants were excluded if they met any of the following criteria: [a] Attended any Vipassana MM course in the past [b] Practicing any other meditation technique [c] Have or had (self-reported) any mental health disorder.

Table 1 shows the demographic characteristics. As seen, there was no significant difference in the participants from both the groups.


Vipassana MM, as taught by S. N. Goenka, follows the standardized protocol across the globe as highlighted in the code of discipline (Vipassana Meditation --Introduction, 2018). On account of the rigor of the 10-days Vipassana course (10+ hrs. of meditation each day, requirement to observe noble silence and five precepts) and philosophy (self-purification suits only those having the intention to work diligently), it would not be practical, ethical or efficacious to compel someone, as per random assignment, to attend their first 10 days Vipassana MM course as a part of the experimental group...

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