WHAT IS SHAMATHA?
In shamatha retreat, practice is centered around shamatha meditation, called “zhiney” or “shine” in Tibetan. It can be translated as abiding or remaining in calm, or as serene presence of mind
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 strong mental afflictions. 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 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
PRACTICE IN RETREAT
For a Buddhist, 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 wish to attain enlightenment for the 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, it is important to establish a continuous practice that flows seamlessly from a formal meditation session into your everyday activities, and we receive instructions on how to do so.
Various other practices are used to support, strengthen and balance shamatha in intensive retreat: heart-opening practices like the Four Immeasurables, Lojong, Guru Yoga, Vajrasattva practice are a few examples. Vipashyana is also essential for the succesful cultivation of shamatha.
I aim to meditate up to 11 hours a day in formal shamatha meditation sessions, but I practice continuously as I go about my everyday activities (cleaning, exercising, cooking and eating).
The following instructions, by Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche, illustrates one of the many ways how this could be accomplished, how you can practice in all situations, how everything you do can be a prayer, an opportunity to cultivate virtue, compassion and the wish to benefit others:
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 cultivating the qualities of the heart is as important as developing attention. It is a process of constant training to maintain awareness, of constant balancing and 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. It is essential to have the guidance of a qualified guru, lama or teacher for an efficient, safe and succesful retreat.
THE CHALLENGES OF SHAMATHA
It is normal for yogis in intensive retreat to encounter obstacles and difficulties in their practice, which can be external (adversity in their environment) or internal (deeply uncomfortable and negative physical and mental experiences). It´s important to be aware that shamatha training is not always pleasant, smooth, peaceful... It can be quite the opposite, and it usually is!
These experiences, "nyam" in Tibetan, are an inevitable part of shamatha practice, and although they appear negative, they are a sign of progress.
It is necessary to have the right motivation to process them, as well as the guidance of a qualified teacher who can give specific instructions on how to do so.
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, able to remain in equipoise and serenity, relates to its contents 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.
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).