Welcome to this article on Samatha meditation. I go deep into the details of the practice to give you everything you will ever need to know to gain all of the benefits of this amazing practice.
But before we dive in, I first want to mention a bit about the word Samatha and the practice. Samatha is a term of art for a specific realization that comes after the development of single-pointed concentration. Put simply, Samatha is effortless single-pointed concentration coupled with a special bliss of pliancy. This bliss is far greater than any other worldly bliss you can experience. Samatha meditation is a style of meditation leading towards the attainment of Samatha.
Now you may see Samatha rendered as Shamatha. The first is the Pali, while the latter comes to us from the Sanskrit language. The English translation has multiple variations, but here I will use Samatha or the English calm abiding.
What is Samatha Meditation
Samatha meditation is the practice of a special kind of concentration that possesses the bliss of pliancy that arises in dependence on the nine stages of mental abiding and has the faculty of being able to direct the mind to an object as wished. 1
Concentration and Samatha are therefore different insofar as Samatha has a special type of mental factor that allows for the mind to remain focused single-pointedly for extended periods and remain incredibly blissful. While concentration is a general term for focusing on any object. Upon the realization of Samatha, you have the ability to concentrate very deeply. Your mind is extremely clear, and therefore the object of meditation you are using for the practice of Samatha is extremely vivid.
One of the special characteristics of Samatha is a special tranquility or blissful pliancy. This pliancy is a mental factor that renders the mind serviceable, such that the person who has realized Samatha can hold their mind on any object for as long as they wish. Because of the special bliss of pliancy that accompanies Samatha meditation, someone that has attained Samatha can sustain their meditation for weeks, months, and perhaps years without the need for food or water. It is said that the historical Buddha meditated like this for six years.
From a physiological perspective, the attainment of Samatha has a profound effect on the nervous system. It remains to be seen how, or whether, such a theory and the corresponding physiological changes can be detected objectively and understood in modern scientific terms. But there are first-person reports to this day from Buddhist contemplatives over millennia by where the attainment of Samatha is marked by a radical shift in the nervous system and is characterized by a brief, and not unpleasant, sense of heaviness and numbness on the top of the head, followed by experiences of physical bliss and then mental bliss, before settling into a deep sense of well-being that pervades the body and the mind. 2
The Benefits of Samatha Meditation
Traditionally it is said that all the qualities of the path to enlightenment are results of the practice of Samatha and Vipassana. When combined, these two are the actual means to release oneself from the three levels of suffering – physical, psychological, and existential suffering. The reason for this is that once you attain Samatha and then leverage this stable mind to focus on the metaphysical reality of oneself and the world, you can release the hidden psychological forces that create the three levels of suffering.
But more than this, Samatha meditation, even for a novice, can have a profound effect on one’s life because your ability to get things done is your ability to remain focused on a given task without having to push or squeeze your mind increases. This is a boon for productivity. But more than this, Samatha meditation can have a lasting effect on your psychology, such that thoughts and afflictive emotions are naturally diminished as you develop your practice. And as a result, a deeper sense of well-being becomes the foundation of your lived experience. Indeed, even when negative mental processes arise, the duration of these negative states of mind is shorter and has far less hold over you.
The Buddhist tradition also claims that upon the attainment of Samatha, various forms of extrasensory perception can be developed. These include the ability to read others’ minds, hear and see far-off objects, and the ability to know the future. Claims such as these are commonplace in a traditional Buddhist setting. Yet, for the modern western sensibility, they seem far-fetched. Indeed, it seems so far from our intellectual systems that it could be easy to dismiss these claims. Do so at your own peril.
The Prerequisites for Attaining Samatha
There are six prerequisites for the attainment of Samatha or calm abiding.
- Suitable place
- Little desire
- Abandoning multiple activities
- Pure ethics
- Abandoning disturbing conceptions
Suitable place for attainment Samatha
For a place to be suitable for the practice and realization of Samatha, you will need to have easy access to food, water, and other such modern conveniences. If you try and practice by going off to the mountains or a country retreat, thinking you need to get away from people, you will likely be unsuccessful. The reason for this is that most, if not all, obstacles you will face to the attainment of calm abiding are found within your mind.
However, you do need to be in a safe place. For instance, if you are trying to develop your practice in an area that is visited by anyone that could do you or your practice harm them, you may need to think about moving—this includes family members or housemates that do not understand what you are trying to achieve, and because of their lack of understanding will create an environment that makes it impossible to meditate. If this is the case, then perhaps it is best to find a different location. Other than this situation, where you are now is as good a place as any to start your practice of Samatha. Having a safe and supportive environment surrounded by good friends that will also support your health is the ideal place. And this could well be in the middle of a large city.
Having little desire & contentment
While in retreat, having little desire for the finer things in life will help your practice of Samatha. If you, however, grasp for more and more things, more food, better food, a softer cushion, or those special noise-canceling earbuds you saw on the internet last week, this will undermine your practice.
There are two ways in which this happens. The first is psychological insofar as your mind is off in a daydream and better X, and you are therefore not refining your ability to remain in a state of balanced awareness of the object of meditation. The second is physiological insofar as this desire and lack of contentment have a subtle effect on your nervous system.
Traditionally Buddhism talks about the subtle body. This is a network of subtle energy that runs through the body. So by allowing your mind to daydream in this way without transforming the energy of desire will prevent the nervous system from settling. The settling of the energies of the subtle body/nervous system allows the mind to settle into its natural state. And it is the settling of the mind into its natural state that allows for the attainment of Samatha.
Abandoning multiple activities
Because your psychology and physiology are linked in such a way that energizing your physiology will impact your ability to focus, you want to abandon doing too many activities during the practice of Samatha. For instance, while practicing, the thought comes up about an email you need to send, do not get up from your cushion, send the email and then return. Relax around the thought. Then release the energy behind the thought, and return to the practice. This strict approach is less important if you are practicing a style of meditation that employees analysis instead of single-pointedness. But with Samatha, even stopping to note some creative idea that popped into your head is something we need to avoid.
And this is doubly important when on a Samatha retreat. When in a retreat setting for the attainment of Samatha, even too much exercise can harm your practice. That is not to say you cannot take a nice walk or a gentle swim if you happen to be near a lake or swimming pool, but it is to say we need to be careful we are not allowing the nervous system is calm itself so that our mind can more easily focus.
Pure ethics and abandoning disturbing conceptions
What can happen as your practice Samatha—particularly in a retreat setting—is that as you settle in to the practice and your psychology and physiology begin to settle, habits from your past can rise to disturb your practice or prevent you from practicing at all. These can be intense lust, or anger, or even extreme unfounded fear. When or if this happens, it is important not to act. Rather remain calm. If fear arises, ask yourself if it is unfounded fear or not. If it is unsupported, simply let it go. Relax, release, and return to your practice.
The above six conditions are essential for someone considering a retreat on Samatha. They are traditionally listed in meditation manuals for a reason. If you do not have these six prerequisites available to you, your retreat could take a long time to gain the realization of Samatha, so spend some time before entering into a more extended retreat collecting them.
The Five Obstacles of Samatha
As you practice, there are five obstacles you will encounter.
- Laxity & Excitement
As you progress in your practice and your meditation deepens, you will come across and have to work through these five specific obstacles. There are, in fact, many more obstacles than these five but, they are singled out here as each is the main obstacle at a specific stage of development as you progress through the nine stages.
Laziness here is a special type of disinterest in practice. You can think of it as a lack of enjoyment for the practice. Without a sense of enthusiasm for the practice it will be easy for boredom, lethargy, and dullness to arise before, during, and after the practice sessions. Without this energy to sustain your practice, you will easily forget the object and thus find yourself either daydreaming or asleep!
The second obstacle is, forgetfulness and here that means forgetting the object of meditation and or the instructions of Samatha. Forgetfulness here also includes losing the object of meditation, say, in the sense of losing a visualization.
The third is laxity and excitement. These two come in course and subtle versions and are the twin enemies to the practice. Laxity is a dull lax mind. Excitement is an over-energized mind. Of course, with laxity, your mind will feel heavy, and if left unchecked, you may even fall asleep while meditating.. The mind will have no power to sustain a single-pointed focus. The subtle form of laxity or dullness is harder to recognize at first and will only become clear to you after the fourth stage but can be summed up as a lack of vividness or intensity of clarity.
When you find yourself daydreaming, and you have lost the object of meditation, and you find yourself thinking about something other than the object of meditation, this is, of course, excitement. It is an unsubdued mental factor that is a type of attachment to attractive objects. Subtle excitement, on the other hand, again only becomes evident after stage four, and it is an over-energized mind that wants to move away from the object. It feels like a subtle form of mental restlessness.
Both subtle versions of laxity and excitement are closely related to the transformation of the nervous system. That is to say, as your nervous system softens and the subtle energy becomes refined, so too does your meditation, and less mental energy is required for the mind to remain focused for longer periods.
The last two obstacles in this list of five are related to the previous two stages of meditation. Non-application is neglecting to apply the antidotes when subtle laxity or excitement arises. And over-application is continuing to apply antidotes when none are needed.
These last two may seem odd at first reading, however, because at the eighth stage of Samatha, your meditation is so powerful that you never lose the object of meditation even for hours at a time, there is the real problem, albeit a subtle problem, that you will become complacent when subtle laxity arises. At this point, we are making fine adjustments to the intensity of clarity, much like you would dial in an old-school transistor radio to the correct frequency.
The last obstacle comes about through the habit of continuing to fine-tune your meditation when you no longer need to, such that the subtle movement of mind of this fine-tuning prevents the final transformation and the attainment of Samatha.
The Eight Antidotes
We use the eight antidotes to overcome the five obstacles.
The eight antidotes are:
By reading the benefits of Samatha, you will develop a deep appreciation for the practice. You will then have the enthusiasm to learn the instructions such as the obstacles, antidotes, stages, etc., and this will give you the confidence and aspiration to overcome the first obstacle, laziness. Thus you will begin to develop the initial serviceability of body and mind called pliancy.
We overcome forgetfulness with the mental factor of mindfulness. Mindfulness here is retaining the instruction and the object of meditation. It is, therefore, a non-forgetfulness.
Laxity and excitement are overcome with the antidote of awareness. Awareness, or perhaps we could use the word introspection, acts as quality control for the practice, altering us whenever laxity or excitement is noticed.
Application is the antidote to the obstacle of non-application and equanimity to that if over-application.
The Nine Stages of Samatha
The nine-stages of meditation are a means of dividing up the process of developing Samatha from the beginning to the realization. It’s meant to give you signposts and milestones along the way so you can evaluate your progress to identify better the main obstacle you face.
The nine stages of development of Samatha are:
- Placing the mind
- Placement with continuity
- Patch-like placement
- Close placement
- Complete pacification
- Single-pointed concentration
- Placement with equanimity
The First Stage — Placing the mind.
When you first begin the practice of Samatha meditation, you can only place your mind on the object of meditation for a short time, and even then, there is little continuity. Through your introspection, you may even, for the first time, begin to become aware of the extent of mental activities and wonder if your mind has become worse as a result. The truth is your mind is always this chaotic, but it’s only now that you have come into close contact with this chaos. Despite this, when you can hold the object of meditation for one minute, you have attained the first of the nine stages.
The Second Stage — Placement with continuity
In the second stage, we begin to lengthen the continuity of our meditation. At this stage, we will start to notice periods of uninterrupted meditation. And although there is more distraction than continuity of concentration, there are gaps of interruptions where stillness is beginning to occur. The ability to hold the object of meditation from two to five minutes is the attainment of the second stage.
The Third Stage — Patch-like placement
As the power of your mindfulness increases, so to the continuity of your attention. At the third stage, you are mainly on the object, and whenever you fall into distraction, you can return the mind to the object of meditation quickly. The mark of the attainment of the third stage is that periods of distraction are far less.
The Fourth Stage — Close placement
At the fourth stage, your mind is now able to hold the object continuously as your mindfulness has been completely developed such that the object can no longer be lost. Although this is the case, course laxity and excitement can still occur from time to time, and you need to continue to implement the antidotes to each.
Traditionally it is said that it is at this point that one’s intelligence increases. This is because of the power of mindfulness and your ability to focus with ease. So even though there are still four more stages to get through, and you still have a lot of meditation to go before you reach full-blown Samatha, stage four is a real landmark milestone worth celebrating. The boon to your practice and life is quite tangible. You will most definitely notice a shift, thanks to the practice.
The Fifth Stage — Controlling
By the fifth stage, we are becoming expert at recognizing laxity and excitement. You have overcome course laxity and excitement. Thus during this stage, your mind will become strongly withdrawn from the outside world, and because of this, the main obstacle to defend against is subtle laxity.
The Sixth Stage — Pacifying
The difference between the fifth and sixth stages is that on the sixth stage, subtle laxity is overcome, and you are now dealing with subtle excitement. The reason for this is that there was the effort required to increase clarity during stage five as the means to overcome laxity. As a result of this, the mind has become over-energized from which subtle excitement arises.
The Seventh Stage — Complete pacification
On the seventh stage, laxity and excitement may still arise from time to time, but you can immediately balance the mind. The difference between this stage and the previous one is that you are now very confident in your practice of Samatha and are no longer wary of these two interfering with your meditation.
The Eight stage — single-pointed concentration
By the time you have reached the eighth stage, you have overcome the twin enemies of laxity and excitement, and they do not arise at all during the session. At this stage, you need just a little effort in awareness and mindfulness at the beginning of the session, but you can hold the object without any interruption single-pointedly for the entire session.
The Ninth Stage — Placement with equanimity
The ninth stage is effortless single-pointed concentration. The difference between this stage and the eighth is that no effort is required during your meditation. You decide to meditate and turn your mind to the object and slip right into effortless single-pointed meditation.
By understanding how we progress through the nine stages of meditative development by implementing the eight antidotes to the five obstacles, we will have a greater chance of our practice going smoothly and attaining the realization of full-blown Samatha.
How to Practice Samatha Meditation
The practice of Samatha meditation is simple but not easy. It’s simple insofar as the practice of Samatha is about choosing an object of meditation such as the breath or a visualized image, or consciousness itself, and then holding it single-pointedly. By doing so, over time, you will develop the skill to do so—starting with lots of effort, through to effortless continuous single-pointed concentration.
There are, however, several things you can do as you progress that can be divided into three distinct phases, and so I will detail for you now these three within the context of how to practice Samatha meditation with the breath, the contents of the mind, and finally consciousness as the object of meditation. This will give you a good foundation as well as a guide for your practice.
These three phases and the accompanying meditations can be practice in one session or throughout the development of Samatha.
Three Phased Development of Samatha.
Phase One – Relaxation
Begin by sitting comfortably in a chair or cushion—hand resting gently in your lap or on your knees. With your eyes closed or half-closed, withdraw your mind from the external world and rest it on the natural rising and falling of the breath. Do not force or manipulate your breathing. Focus your attention on the natural coming and going of the breath.
As you breathe in, notice the physical sensations of this process, and with the out-breath, imagine all the tension in your body and mind being released. As you do this, your body, mind, and nervous system will begin to release any tension, and you will feel your body-mind complex calming.
As you release your body and mind into deeper states of relaxation, there is a real chance of laxity and dullness arising. If left unchecked, you may even find yourself falling asleep. We want to avoid this, as doing so will create the habit of allowing laxity to rule your meditation. If this is allowed, you will make no progress in your practice of Samatha.
Therefore, during this phase of the practice, we want to release tension within the body and the mind without losing the clarity of the mind with which we started the session. This is to say, we are learning to relax without becoming dull at the same time.
Meditation is as much as art as a science, so do not overlook this phase as it is a vital foundation from which we build the next two.
Phase Two – Stability
In the second phase of the practice, we shift the emphasis to the development of stability. This must be done only after we experience increasing and deepening relaxation without falling prey to course laxity to the point that we are slipping into gross dullness. If you can release the tension of the body and mind and have a sense of deep relaxation, and become more aware of the contents of your mind, then this is a sign you are at the point to focus on the second phase.
In the second phase, we turn the mind to the contents of the mind itself. The thoughts, feelings, emotions, images that come and go, these are now the object of our meditation. And by doing so, we want to, metaphorically speaking, stand n the face of these mental phenomena without attachment to the pleasant, and aversion to the unpleasant.
We are like a silent witness watching the content of the mind do its thing without being sucked into the vortex.
This phase is all about developing stability, and so if we can remain stable and not get sucked into their stories, then stability is being developed.
The danger here is that if we try too much and use force to hold the mind in its place, we will lose that deepen sense of relaxation. So here, we want to develop the ability to remain still in the face of all the content of the mind coming at us without losing the sense of relaxation.
If we find ourselves tensing up, then balance the mind by relaxing a little.
Phase Three – Clarity/Vividness
When we are able to remain still in the face of the contents of the mind without being distracted into memories or projecting into the future, we are now at the stage we can turn our attention to the development of clarity. Clarity of vividness will help overcome subtle laxity, and so in this third phase of the development of Samatha, we turn our attention to consciousness itself.
We do this by letting go of the contents of the mind and focusing on the experience of being aware. This can feel quite nebulous at first. But this is only because the object is more subtle than anything you may be used to focusing on, but it can have a profound effect on your practice, and so it is worth continuing to refine this experience.
By becoming aware of awareness, being conscious of consciousness, we are naturally developing vividness because the object of our awareness is subtle. As a result of this, there is the danger that the mind will become over-energized, and subtle or course excitement will arise. So pay some attention to balancing the mind to make certain your meditation does not become unstable and you do not lose that deep sense of relaxation from the first stage.
Once you have all three—relaxation, stability, and clarity—and all three are working together in a manner that one reinforces the other two, effortless single-pointed meditation has been developed, and the flywheel effect of the ninth stage is attained. Congratulation!
But you still have not developed the realization of Samatha.
The Criterion of Attaining Samatha
Once you have attained the ninth stage, you can meditate for as long as you wish. This, however, is not the realization of Samatha. Samatha is only attained when you gain a complete pliancy of body and mind after attaining the ninth stage as described above. This special bliss of pliancy is achieved by familiarizing yourself again and again with the effortless single-pointed concentration of the ninth stage. Some people may gain this special bliss of pliancy quickly, while others may take a week or so before it arises. It is worth noting that the special bliss of pliancy of body and mind that arises with the attainment of Samatha is greater than any other bliss of worldy experiences.
From a physiological perspective, the attainment of Samatha marks a dramatic shift in the nervous system, such that tiredness never arising again, your mind and body feel extremely light, and the preception is a subtle phenomenon is a natural byproduct of the practice.
Summary & What’s Next
Learning to meditate can have a profound impact on your life. It is an activity that many people for thousands of years have made part of their daily life, and because of this, their lives we made better. Moreover, being more relaxed, with a clear and stable mind, will enable you to focus on the things you want to achieve in your life. Meditation is not about spacing out or simply resting in the now. Meditation, when done correctly, can transform your life, and as such, I would encourage you to begin the process of learning how to meditate and integrating meditation into your daily life.
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