How to do Samatha Meditation
In a previous post, I talked about Vipassana and how it is practiced. In this article I will discuss Samatha meditation which is simply “one pointed concentration” meditation. Both Vipassana and Samatha are like different sides of the same coin, so to speak.
Samatha, in essence is the Buddhist practice of the calming of the mind using single-pointed meditation. One of the most common examples of this type of meditation is mindfulness of breathing. This is a practice found in both Theravada and Mahayana traditions.
The word “samatha” or “shamatha” is composed of two components, the first of which is “shama” which means ‘pacification’, “slowing down”, “cooling down”, and “rest”. The second component “tha” means “to abide or remain”. Taken together it means “slowing down the mind by abiding in single-pointed concentration”.
Samatha is also translated as “calm abiding”, “single-pointed consciousness”, and “calm meditation”.
In Theravadan Buddhism, samatha is the prerequisite for vipassana (insight meditation). So in other words it is considered to be the condition for insight.
In the Mahayana sutras, samatha (or shamatha in Sanskrit) and vipassana (vipashyana in Sanskrit) are mentioned in conjunction with one another. The general result of samatha practice is meditative absorption (samadhi) though it is said that practicing samatha meditation can result in the development of the siddhis (magic powers) or clairvoyance and magical emanation. Though practicing samatha just for the sake of developing magical powers is not considred to be skillful practice.
In the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, Dzogchen Pönlop Rinpoche talks about the merging of shamatha and vipashyana:
“The ways these two aspects of meditation are practised is that one begins with the practice of shamatha; on the basis of that, it becomes possible to practice vipashyana or lhagthong. Through one’s practice of vipashyana being based on and carried on in the midst of shamatha, one eventually ends up practicing a unification [yuganaddha] of shamatha and vipashyana. The unification leads to a very clear and direct experience of the nature of all things. This brings one very close to what is called the absolute truth.”
How to Practice Samatha/Shamatha Meditation
If you are new to meditation, I would recommend doing the following for 5 minutes a day and then gradually increase it to 15 – 20 minutes a day. I would recommend setting an alarm (though not too loud) to signal when to stop.
- Sit comfortably in a cross legged position (if you are unable to do this for whatever reason, then sit in a chair)
- Sit straight but not unnaturally straight, in a balanced position
- Keep your eyes half-closed, or completely closed if that is more comfortable for you
- Take a few deep breaths and try to relax your body
- Now focus your awareness on feeling your breath moving in and out of your nose
- Now mentally note “breathing in” and “breathing out” with every breath
- If you find yourself thinking, simply label it as “thinking” and re-focus on your breath. Don’t beat yourself up over it.
- Check your posture and you’ll probably find that your posture has slackened. Gently adjust your posture and return your attention to the breath.
- Keep doing the above over and over until you hear the alarm you’ve set.
Here is a guided meditation given by meditation teacher Terry Hodgkins:
This kind of practice is often taught nowadays as “mindful breathing” in the various mindfulness courses and classes that are popular throughout the world today. The only difference is that they have been stripped of their Buddhist context, which in my opinion takes away from the practice.
Samatha and Vipassana meditation are two sides of the same coin and both practices flow into one another and both are essential practices on the Buddhist path.