Samatha. . .
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 us, its benefits are wide.
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?
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.
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.
We need to remember that that the purpose of concentration 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 concentration and 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.
Peace and Love, Jim