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SHAMATHA
RETREAT

 

In shamatha retreat,  practice revolves around shamatha meditation, called “zhiney” or “shine” in Tibetan. It can be translated as abiding or remaining in calm, quiescence, or as serene presence of mind

 

From “A Spacious Path to freedom”, by Karma Chagme Rinpoche:

“The  Tibetan   term   translated   here  as  "quiescence"  is "zhiney"  (zhi  gnas).  The

first  syllable  means "to pacify,"   for  in  the  state   of  quiescence  the  five  poisons

[the primary mental afflictions:  delusion, attachment,  hatred,  pride,  and  jealousy]  are
pacified. For this to  be truly beneficial,  the  meditator must remain in that  state  in
which  they  are  subdued, otherwise  they will  swiftly re-emerge. Thus,  the second
syllable means "to remain, to be sustained."

Shamata meditation is the indispensable foundation for all other types of meditation, which cannot be cultivated to their highest expression without exceptionally trained attention and a mind free from distracting habits and obscurations, like the five poisons mentioned above. It is the basis of the meditative practices of all contemplative and mystic traditions of the world. However, there is no need to be religious to engage in the practice of shamatha; you can enjoy its benefits regardless of your belief system.

It could be described as contemplative technology for developing, refining and being able to sustain attention, clarity of mind, inner stillness and the ability not to be carried away by thoughts and afflictive emotions into distraction or into causing harm. It has the in-built advantage to diminish certain mental afflictions, as explained above.

It is essential for investigating, from the first person perspective, the nature of the mind and its potential.

In the Buddhist tradition, mind is the sole motivator of all our actions, and the creator of all our happiness and suffering. It is therefore essential to get to know our mind if we want to transform our life from confusion and suffering to clarity and happiness.

 

The goal of shamatha is to achieve samadhi, a state of unprecedented mental focus, quiescence and balance, indispensable to correctly and efficiently engage in all other meditative practices, including vipashyana, Vajrayana practices of generation and completion, Mahamudra, Dzogchen and many others.

"In the practice of quiescence, you calm all transient thoughts, memories, and mental images, and you stabilize the mind so that the attention becomes like a lamp in a room where there is not even the slightest breeze."

-Karma Chagme Rinpoche

For a Buddhist (especially when in retreat), the aim is to be practicing dharma at all times. Dharma can be described as any view of reality that nurtures deeper and deeper wellbeing and diminishes the tendency for harmful behaviour as you engage with it and put its teachings into practice. Practicing dharma means to transmute everything that comes your way, adversity or felicity, into your spiritual practice, to make it meaningful and to make it of benefit for yourself and others.

For the practice of shamatha to be dharma (within the Buddhist tradition),  it has to be imbued with the right motivation (bodhicitta, or the desire to attain enlightenment for benefit of all beings).

There are several ways of practicing shamatha, such as all the variations of mindfulness of breathing, taking the mind as the path, or shamatha without a sign. In retreat, the aim is to be practicing constanly, so the most important thing is to establish a continuous practice  that flows seamlessly from a formal session into your everyday activities, and the method to achieve this is to rest in awareness at all times while not letting any thoughts pass by unnoticed (thoughts, ideas, memories, desires... all mental actions and events). In this way, you are always practicing. It sounds very simple but it´s certainly not easy!

With resting in awareness as foundation, and shamatha as the main formal meditation method, then there are other practices that are used to support, strengthen and balance the quiescence practice when in retreat: heart-opening practices like the Four Immeasurables, Lojong, Tonglen, different sadhanas, Guru Yoga and Vajrasattva practice are a few examples of those.  

The practice of vipashyana is also essential to sustain shamatha: it is important to have an understanding of emptiness (as taught within the Buddhist tradition) to avoid getting distracted and carried away by the mental events observed during meditation. This is crucial when afflictive and negative emotions arise.

This is a symbiotic relationship: vipashyana cannot be practiced successfully without a calm, still mind able to focus properly. In turn, the insight that comes from vipashyana, protects the practice of shamatha from distraction... They strengthen and nurture each other as practice progresses.

 

In retreat, I aim to do about up to 11 hours of formal practice a day. I always start a session with settling body, speech and mind in their natural state, and then progress onto awareness of awareness, my favourite and main practice. I introduce an element of vipashyana here and there throughout the day, both in and out formal meditation sessions.

I do my best to rest in awareness as I go about my everyday activities, which are very simple: cleaning, exercising, eating and cooking. In addition to that, I  try to turn all my actions and everything that I experience into practice (through Lojong, aplying the teachings of Shantideva or prayers), so that dharma imbues every aspect of my life, in the same way that oil saturates a piece of paper. The following instructions, by Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche, illustrate one of the many ways how this could also be accomplished, how everything we do can be a prayer,  an opportunity to cultivate virtue, loving kindness and the wish to benefit others:

  • When putting on clothes we should think: may all beings have modesty and a sense of shame. 

  • When lighting a fire: may all beings burn the wood of disturbing emotions. 

  • When eating: may all beings eat the food of samadhi. 

  • When opening a door: may all beings open the door to the city of liberation. 

  • When closing a door: may all beings close the door to the lower realms. 

  • When going outside: may I set out on the path to free all beings. 

  • When walking uphill: may I take all beings to the higher realms. 

  • When walking downhill: may I go to free beings from the lower realms. 

  • When seeing happiness: may all beings achieve the happiness of Buddhahood. 

  • When seeing suffering: may the suffering of all beings be pacified.

 

In the words of Lama Alan:

“There´s nothing outside the scope of dharma”

Retreat is a very dynamic, multilayered process, in which mindfulness and introspection play a crucial role, in which cultivating the qualities of the heart is as important as developing shamatha. It is a process of constant training to maintain awareness, of constant balancing, of adapting your practice and methods in response to the moment in ever deepening and creative ways... And it´s a process that requires deep commitment,  utmost honesty with oneself, enthusiasm and grounded courage, which come from the heart´s motivation to become enlightened for the benefit of others.
 

THE CHALLENGES OF SHAMATHA

It is very usual for dedicated yogis to encounter deep challenges and obstacles in their practice, both external (in the environment) and internal (emotional/mental). It is important to know that intensive shamatha practice is not always pleasant or smooth… It can be (and it usually is!) quite the opposite.

Internal challenges might take the form of “nyams”, or meditative experiences that occur as the mind is dredged of its contents in deep meditation. The books The Attention Revolution and Stilling the mind: Shamatha teachings from Dudjom Lingpa´s Vajra Essence (both by Alan Wallace), list a few of them.

In the words of Dudjom Lingpa:

“In general, these are some of the signs of progress for individuals who take appearances and awareness as the path:

  • a sharp pain in your heart as a result of all your thoughts, as if you had been pierced with the tip of a weapon

  • intolerable pain throughout your body, from the tips of the hair on your head down to the tips of your toenails

  • insomnia at night, or fitful sleep like that of someone who is critically ill

  • such unbearable misery that you think your heart will burst

  • various speech impediments and respiratory ailments

  • The sense that even food and drink are harmful as a result of beign tormented by a variety of the 404 types of identifiable, complex diseases of wind, bile, phlegm and so on

  • unbearable anger due to having paranoid thoughts that everyone is gossiping about you and disparaging you

  • compulsive longing for others’ happiness when you watch them, due to your own experience of suffering

  • weeping out of reverence and devotion to your gurus, or out of your faith and devotion in the Three Jewels, your sense of renunciation and disillusionment with samsara, and your heartfelt compassion for sentient beings

  • the feeling that gods or demons are actually carrying away your head, limbs, and vital organs, leaving behind only a vapor trail."

... Such fun!

This is only small sample of nyams; their nature depends on the constitution of each individual, which makes the list endless, but these seemingly negative experiences are actually signs that you are progressing along the path. To have the right motivation is essential to endure them, and so is the guidance of a qualified teacher who can give you specific instructions on how to deal with them.

External challenges usually present as encountering difficulties in the environment.  An example of this is a  suitable environment  suddenly becoming unsuitable or even hostile to meditation practice (due to the appearance of a source of loud noise, for example). But even the apparently simple task of finding a place fit for meditation retreat is extremelly challenging in itself!

They might also manifest as the opposition or contempt of others at one´s choice to enter retreat.

THE GIFTS OF SHAMATHA

According to the accounts of dedicated yogis, these are some of the benefits of sustained shamatha practice:

  •  A transparent mind that comes to know itself in all of its manifestations and hidden dimensions, its darkness, aberrations, catastrophes, toxins, its glories and virtues… A clearer vision of how your mind works.

  • A mind that, knowing the nature of  its contents and being able to remain in equipoise and serenity, relates to them in a sane, balanced way, and is less susceptible to be swayed or compelled  by disturbing emotions into negative or harmful actions of body, speech or thinking.

  • A simultaneous process of the diminishing of mental afflictions (anger, envy, jealousy, resentment, arrogance, greed...) and the flourishing of altruistic tendencies, the yearning for virtue and the strengthening of ethical conduct. The revelation that the natural human disposition is one of caring for others and desiring to benefit them, while the mental afflictions are adventitious and not part of the essential nature of our mind.

 

"These unhappy emotions, when they’re running the show, feel so utterly overwhelming, so absolute, as if they’re at the core of our being. And in our culture we don’t seem to learn methods for changing them; we just assume we can’t." 

- Robina Courtin

  • Naturally present joy and bliss, which do not require the intervention of any external or internal stimuli to be generated, are revealed and experienced as an intrinsic aspect of the mind.

  • Resilience to endure anything that comes one´s way and the ability to imbue it with meaning, to turn it into a positive transformational experience, and to find the hidden blessings in it.

  • Experiencing first-hand the boundless potential for the cultivation of the heart´s qualities: love, compassion, empathetic joy and equanimity for all sentient beings without exception.

  • Fewer material desires.

  • Being able to flourish and be joyful while in complete tune with reality: with the reality that death can happen at any time, the reality of change and impermanence (of relationships, of status, of reputation, of health, of material possessions and finacial situation), and the reality that relying on hedonia only (placing our hopes for well-being on external sources), will never deliver the authentic happiness we seek. This is due to the contentment that emerges from the cultivation of eudaimonia: a sense of well-being that flows from within and that we bring to the world instead of taking it from it, arising from ethics, samadhi (a balanced, clear mind free from afflictions) and wisdom (knowing things as they truly are).

"When more people come to know their real nature, their influence, however subtle, will prevail, and the world's emotional atmosphere will sweeten up."

- Nisargadatta Maharaj