These excerpts were taken from a program offered by Christina at the Barre Center for Buddhist Studies in September of1999.
Samatha is a Pali word meaning stillness, tranquility or calm. Samatha practice involves a sustained, unwavering attentiveness to a single focus or object. Whenever the attention is drawn to other thoughts, sensations or sounds, one simply lets go of them, and attention returns to the object. In the deepest development of samatha, the absorption states, there is a temporary suspension of the activity of body and mind, which means there is also a temporary suspension of the hindrances and of all the obscurations. Although concentration itself does not liberate, nevertheless its benefits are manifold.
Some people think concentration practice is somewhat irrelevant, and even regard it as a distraction, because the states of absorption are only temporary. They think the obscurations are going to return in exactly the same way as they were before, but this is not what actually happens. When there is sustained focus—one-pointedness through not dwelling anywhere except the chosen object of meditation—the grip of agitation, the grip of discursive thinking, and the grip of the mental meandering loosens. Sustaining one-pointed attention is actually a practice for learning how to let go. And learning to let go is a training for our lives.
Just because we decide we’re going to focus on the breath, or some other object, doesn’t mean that the mind is suddenly cooperative and amiable. The practice of one-pointedness challenges our life-long habits of distractedness and grasping. Despite our intention to apply and sustain one-pointedness, the mind continues to regurgitate its habitual patterns and become lost in its own busyness. How many times do we have the intention not to get caught up in greed, anger, delusion, and yet, somehow, through the force of our conditioning, we end up in places far from where we wish to be?
With training, gentle persistence, and the sustained commitment to let go and disentangle, concentration begins to deepen. Concentration practice refines the skills and qualities of perseverance, wise effort and patience, and lays the foundation for true serenity. The body begins to calm down, and a deep physical ease emerges. The agitation of the mind too begins to calm, and our mind begins to rest in a deeper wellbeing and ease. The obscurations of dullness, agitation, aversion, craving and doubt begin to loosen. When these familiar obscurations begin to be penetrated by serenity, there’s a great deal of happiness that begins to emerge. The first immediate benefit of concentration practice is thus the making of deep happiness.
Samatha practice does not hold the development of insight as its primary purpose, yet inevitably there are some profound insights that emerge. Samatha practice is a training that has the power to change the shape of our mind in an enduring way. Another of the great benefits of the practice, which comes with the discovery of such rich levels of inward happiness, is the discovery that there is actually nothing to be gained through any of the sense doors that can match the pleasure of that happiness. This is a major insight, and has the power to change our entire relationship to the world.
We often live for the projected promise of desire. We tend to believe that, “If I had this meal, or that taste, or that experience, or that person, or that life style, that would make me really happy.” The promise of these satisfactions, projected onto experience, draws us into cycles of pursuing and avoiding, of striving and attaining. And we live with all of the fallout that comes with that—tension, disappointment, feelings of failure and frustration, and all the agitation that comes with the projection of happiness onto the world outside of ourselves.
The discovery of inner happiness that does not rely upon getting something externally or getting rid of something externally, but relies upon the resources that lie within our own heart and consciousness, is, in many ways, a shattering discovery. With the withdrawal of projected promise, we learn how to let go much more easily. There is greater equanimity about the highs and the lows, the pleasures and the pains, that inevitably come to us in life. We learn how to rest and trust in that quality of happiness inwardly and know that it’s always available to us. This too is of lasting benefit.
Another benefit comes as inner confidence. Samatha practice is an empowering practice. So much is spoken in the Buddha’s tradition about the potential of consciousness, the potential of the mind. When we develop samatha we discover for ourselves that our own consciousness has this extraordinary capacity to see clearly, to penetrate deeply. With that confidence, there emerges a deep faith both in the practice and in ourselves. Faith is an antidote to doubt, a deeply debilitating quality in our life. With faith comes inspiration; with faith comes motivation; with faith comes devotion; with faith comes a clear sense of direction, of what is important and what’s maybe not so important. And ultimately that faith is in ourselves, in our capacity to hold and embrace all things; it’s something we can trust in, and we can trust in its wholesomeness. Such trust leads to happiness, and to understanding.
Also with samatha practice comes a very deep level of calmness, and the discovery that calmness is peace. This is not bad news. Our lives are not made less rich by the absence of drama and intensity. It does not mean the absence of some essential vitality. Calmness is simply peace. What happens when we discover this kind of peace? It changes the shape of the mind.
Peace…changes the shape of the mind.
We lose our addiction to entanglement in anxiety, worry, guilt, busyness and regret. If you reflect on the kind of tapes running through your mind, isn’t it amazing that we can think so much about so little? Not “little” in the sense of unimportant, but that we can think so much about the same things. So much of our identity is tied up in what we think about or obsess upon. It gives us the sense that we are someone. But somehow we seem to miss the point most of the time: thinking more does not make our life better or clearer; it does not liberate us or fix our life. It fills up a lot of space, and in doing so it suffocates silence.
If we are faced with a dilemma or problem, our primary response is usually to think about it. We rarely give stillness a chance in this life, because we’re so busy thinking. So, in becoming still, the mind begins to lose some of its addictedness. It’s not that thoughts are bad, or are magically going to disappear forever; but we need to learn how the mind can be an ally to us rather than an adversary. As an ally, it articulates insight, and has the power of reflection and contemplation. We can learn to practice in such a way that the mind becomes a great friend. There is a vast difference between intentional thinking—wise and appropriate thinking—and all the messy, confused, entangled activity of thinking. Wise thought is born of stillness. We discover calmness within the thoughts, and in the space between the thoughts. Discovering the richness of serenity, we discover we are much less inclined to become lost in the meanderings of the mind.
Another dimension of samatha, and another of its lasting benefits, is the discovery of non-stickiness, non-holding. In becoming attentive, we begin to discover how much agitation is born of the stickiness of grasping. We discover how the apparent continuity of things is created by grasping and holding, in all their manifestations of aversion and craving. We discover that grasping is actually the fuel that makes the contents of the mind linger; that without grasping or aversion or holding on to things, there is really little that lingers.
Many of you have experienced this in the course of your meditation practice. You know that you can have an experience of an agitated mind, where everything seems to stick. You can also have another experience where there is a lot of calmness, and many of exactly the same thoughts or images will arise—and yet they just pass away, without sticking. What has changed is not the content of the mind, but the climate of the mind. Instead of agitation, there is calmness. In samatha practice a non-sticky environment is created, in which there is a lessening interest in clinging. And one of the insights that emerges in that environment is a clear view of how holding causes suffering. We begin to enlarge the capacity to let go—with interest, with compassion, with understanding, and with a knowledge that this is happiness. The distinction between what is suffering and what is freedom becomes very clear
Everything in consciousness becomes increasingly visible to us.
Another of the lasting benefits of samatha practice comes from its role as a purification practice. Not purification in a self-righteous sense of the word, but purification practice in the sense that everything in our consciousness becomes increasingly visible to us. It’s like a process of opening doors in consciousness. And when that happens, there are very few skeletons that don’t get shaken out of the cupboard. This process does not necessarilly happen only within the deep states of samatha; often it happens upon coming out of the deeper levels. Upon coming into contact again with the world and all our responses to it, one can begin to see some very powerful places of holding and sticking.
The process of purification is not just a matter of shaking things out of the closet and moving them into consciousness. Purification is also accomplished through the calmness that builds up in samatha practice. Steadiness and equanimity are there, so when things arise it is more possible to simply let them go. Thus samatha practice opens the front door and the back door at the same time, so to speak. It is not just that things arise and we get battered by them; rather things are arising and moving through.
If there are multiple unresolved issues in your life…the conditions for samatha practice are not ripe.
There is some significant preparatory work involved in doing samatha practice. One of the areas that needs attention is environmental. In the Tibetan tradition they talk about finding a place that has long views. Long views means having a sense of spaciousness and openness around oneself. Having proper environment really helps in cultivating the lightness, the spaciousness of mind that is necessary for concentration practice, because it involves such an intense inward focus. It should be a place where you are undisturbed, which is simple, and which allows you to do your samatha practice with an unencumbered mind.
And there should be preparation in terms of entanglements. The Buddha said it is not the right time to undertake samatha practice if you have a lot of things in the world demanding your attention. If you’re heavily in debt, or have family or relationship obligations that require attention, or if your body is ill and you are having to care for it. If there are multiple unresolved issues in your life that are going to be continually demanding your attention, then the conditions for samatha practice are not ripe. It is said that in order to begin the deep dimension of samatha practice, it is important that the mind must be fairly happy, it should be easy to collect itself, that it’s not kind of stirred with things that are causing a lot of anxiety or concern. This is really important.
Though I caution you not to underestimate the amount of time and perseverance involved in this practice, the benefits are great. They make a substantial impact on both our understanding and our way of being, yielding lasting benefits that ripen in all aspects of our everyday lives.
However there are also limitations, insofar as that quality of stillness is not in itself liberating. Although one does perhaps get a glimpse of a happiness that is really possible for us, it is ultimately a temporary suspension of activity, a temporary suspension of movement within the mind and body. As we all know, one gets up off the cushion at some point. And in doing so the world, both inwardly and outwardly, arises, and we are asked to be responsive—to be engaged, present, awake.
The early Buddhist texts talk of activity—of the very world—arising where there is contact. Contact is the meeting of the sense door and the sense information; the eyes meet sights; the ears meet sounds; sensation arise in the body; thoughts, images, plans, memory flood the mind. The Buddha said that the foolish seek to pursue contact, while the wise seek to understand it. And wisdom has something to do with maintaining stillness in the midst of the activity. What does it mean to be able to be really still, unshakable in the midst of a body and mind that is constantly active, in the midst of a world that keeps offering us all its endless sensory information? To understand this, we need to understand the nature of agitation.
How does agitation arise due to clinging? This is something we can explore in our own experience. We cling to form as self. We say, “I’m my body. I’m my mind. I’m my feelings. I’m my thoughts. I’m my personality.” What then is the agitation that arises in that identification? “This happens to me. It’s solid. It’s personalized. I am the owner of this. I’ve had this thought. I have this mission. I have this opinion. I have this responsibility.” In this endless responsibility to fix and alter and improve and modify, to be perfect, we see form as self. Sometimes we see self in form. We have a particular form in our lives of being a parent, a partner, a daughter, a son. We have an identity and a role. We say, “That’s what I am. That’s who I am.” Different mental states of sadness, of happiness, of elation arise and we say, “this is my true self. This is who I am.” I have to then defend it, or to assert it, and there is agitation in the mind.
The agitation comes because clinging does not have any room for change. It does not take account of the fact that everything changes. All of these states—this body, these feelings, these experiences—they all change. Nothing is exempt. And so when things change, and when they are pleasant, we become agitated. When the pleasant begins to disappear—the good health, the pleasant mind state, the nice feeling, the good experience—we also get agitated. Of course, if we’re clinging and what we are clinging to is subject to change, as all things are, there is the agitation: I am deprived. I have lost something. Something is being taken away from me. We become distressed when whatever we are identified with begins to change and we enter into the field of activity and agitation: what we want and what we don’t want; how we suffer or how we’re going to get rid of suffering. We are tied to the forms and all of their changes.
We may at times—many times, actually—believe that the things of the world have the power to prevent stillness in our lives. We may think, “If only this wasn’t happening; if only this event, or this activity, or this person or this noise, or this expectation; if only this wasn’t happening I would be still.” But none of that in the world has really the power to prevent stillness on any level. It is the obscurations and the hindrances that surround all of the activity of body and mind that drowns stillness.
Sometimes we may have the feeling that we move in and out of stillness, or our experience may have the appearance of that movement. Personally I don’t think that’s true. I believe that we move in and out of agitated states. Stillness is always there as the essential nature of our being but we do move in and out of agitation whenever there is grasping that gives rise to aversion and wanting. We move from a place of vastness and spaciousness into a place of contractedness. And that place of contractedness is always agitated. Our world is formed and shaped and at times contracted by what we pay attention to.
In the samatha practice you stay as absolutely simple and bare bones as possible. You don’t need to add anything. Now in insight practice, in vipassanā, you wouldn’t do that because you want the clear comprehension which I am going to be talking about. But in samatha practice you are not concerned about clear comprehension in anything except your primary object of concentration; your only relationship to anything else is to let go. It doesn’t matter what it is, there’s an equal treatment of everything. You don’t even have to know what it is. So there is a real simplicity there; samatha practice is about stillness that comes with emptying the mind, the calming and unifying of the mind and body. And some of the very deep states of stillness that can be experienced are remarkably still places, where there is not even anything ending because there is nothing arising.
What does it mean to stop? It points not to the cessation or the eradication of the activity of our inner or outer world, but actually to the cessation of ignorance, of grasping, of holding. And this kind of stopping is said to be the true stopping or true stillness. The cessation of the grasping and agitation and all the noise when our inner world or outer world is defined by our likes and our dislikes, our wanting, our pursuing or avoiding. Even in the deepest states of concentration, or coming out of them, there can still be ignorance because the latent seeds of agitation only get suppressed. When there is a true cessation or stopping, all these latent seeds or tendencies get eradicated and what is left is simply the suchness. The “what is” of whatever appears. The world is actually liberated from our own agitation. In that quality of stopping, that quality of cessation, whatever happens to the mind it remains unmoving, imperturbable, equanimous. It is undisturbed and serene in all things.
The Buddha said that the foolish seek to pursue contact, while the wise seek to understand it.
In talking about insight meditation, it is important to keep in mind that we don’t actually practice insight meditation; we practice mindfulness. This is a critical difference. When we practice mindfulness, if we are fortunate—and if all the other factors are present—then insight arises. There’s a lot of emphasis on insight in Buddhist tradition, because insight is what leads to liberation. In mindfulness practice, the emphasis is solely upon the development of wisdom, of breaking down our concepts and our beliefs and our images about ourselves, and understanding what is true. And mindfulness practice is usually focused upon the uprooting of ignorance. Please understand that ignorance in the Buddhist tradition is not a personal insult; it’s not considered, you know, your fault or something you should blame yourself about. But ignorance is essentially defined as not understanding what is true. And not understanding what is true is said to be the root of all agitation.
Sometimes ignorance is defined as seeing something as satisfactory when it really is not. Now that has many levels. For example, we can see fantasy as being satisfactory when actually it’s just disconnectedness. You know, we can see sloth and torpor as being satisfactory whereas actually it’s just being asleep. We could see the pursuit of fame and gain as being satisfactory while it may be all layers of delusion. Ignorance is sometimes defined as seeing continuity in things that are impermanent. You can delude yourself into thinking this is going to last forever. “This is who I am. This is, you know, unchangeable, unshakeable, this mental state defines who I am.” To see all of this as solid when actually it is not. Ignorance is sometimes defined as seeing solidity and self in that which has no independent self existence. Ignorance in that sense is often kind of an underlying belief system; but all of these underlying belief systems find their expressions in greed and anger and delusion.
Now the practice of mindfulness is said to be a wisdom practice. Concentration supports it, but concentration is not the goal. In the Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta, which is the root source of mindfulness practice in Theravada tradition, the Buddha does not actually prescribe any particular technique of insight meditation. What he does is lay down the guidelines for contemplation, for investigation and for reflection. This is one of the major differences between samatha and vipassanā—the investigation factor. Insight meditation is here to understand, to investigate what arises with a calm and clear attentiveness. Countless techniques of insight meditation have evolved over the centuries, and they are not only found in the Theravadan tradition of Buddhism. I first learned insight meditation with my first Tibetan teacher, for example.
It’s a little bit hard to talk about insight because it is kind of a charged word, especially in this culture. You know, people feel like they ought to be having insights and they’re not even sure what they look like. Never mind what kind of insights they’re supposed to be having. People keep talking about insight meditation, and there’s often this kind of uncertainty about, you know, have I got the insights? Do I know if I’ve got an insight? (Laughter) Does it come in headline banners, like a sudden awakening experience?
Sometimes you don’t even know the way insight develops.
Can I have insights and not even know it? Yes! Sometimes you don’t even know the way insight develops until you might go into a charged situation in which you previously reacted in a particular way. And suddenly you’re not doing it any more. Something has changed, and you don’t even know when it changed. You don’t know when you let go of something. But something has been let go of. It is a kind of fruition, a very gentle fruition of systematic practice. Yes, there are also those dazzling moments when you seem to suddenly “get it.” But I think it’s good to know that insights come in both forms.
We need to remember that that the purpose of insight is to awaken, to liberate, to bring an end to suffering and anguish. We don’t seek insight in order to suffer more, or to deprive ourselves in some way, or to make ourselves unhappy. But insight is a process, and it is not always easy. That is because this path of awakening, this path of developing insight, almost always involves leaving something behind—that’s the hard part for us. What we have to leave behind might be an illusion we have fostered for a long time about ourselves or others. It might be an image or a craving or a goal we’ve held onto for a long time. We might be asked to leave behind a particular belief or an area of contractedness. And it is not just unpleasant things that have to be left behind. Sometimes we are asked to leave behind even our more pleasant illusions—“Oh, I’m so wonderful. I’m so terrific. I’m a success. I’m this. I’m that.” We’re asked to be willing actually to leave everything behind. And then we begin to see what opens up in that leaving behind.