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  • Malika Bouhdili

The Right Conditions: Shamatha Meditation

I have an orchid plant whose robust blossoming is, in many ways, completely mysterious to me. When she blooms, it's with gusto (currently she has no fewer than 34 flowers on her four small, delicate branches.)  It seemed to have happened overnight, preceded by several months of quiet bare waiting. What caused her to erupt so magnificently? And how is it that I can see and experience the display?


On the one hand, we could say that the causes and conditions are too vast in number to name.  There was her original seed, the person who first planted her, the care of the grower, both of their parents, and their parents' parents, the sun, the water, the person who transported her to the farmer's market, the farmer's market organizers, my preferences for pink-colored petals, the availability of an ATM (as I had no cash that day), and the ability to witness 2018-pink-orchid-bloom-a-palooza, brought to you by functioning eyeballs, consciousness, brain neurons and on and on and ON.  Plus, each of these causes have their own vast number of causes and conditions too.  For example, even if we only reflected on the truck that brought the orchid to the farmer's market, we would soon be dizzy considering the myriad of people, technicians, business(wo)men, fire-power, air, space, blue prints, screws, nuts and bolts that combined to make that machine.  Without one of these conditions, we can't really be certain that I could witness this particular orchid's 34 blossoms as I write this.  When I think of all that goes into the experience, my conceptual mind quite literally can't hold the vastness of it.


At the same time, we could look at my orchid right now and agree on some key conditions that led to her blooming:  she needed a parent seed, sun, water, space for her branches to extend, and soil for her roots to grow strong.  So, we could agree that, at a minimum, those key conditions were necessary for her to be in bloom right now. Whew, it feels good to have a list. I like lists.


Similarly, many many many Buddhist teachings (dig lists) and discuss the key conditions that lead to a successful meditation practice.  Meditation is the heart of Buddhist practice. Without it, we cannot understand the nature of reality. When we don't understand what we and reality are, we get confused, fall into cyclical patterns, and suffer.  Realization comes from deeply understanding the nature of reality -  that is, truly and experientially knowing what we really are. Compassion is what naturally expresses itself from the wisdom of realizing the truth.  Although it's possible that some people are capable of spontaneous sustained realization, most of us need the path of meditation to uncover wisdom. The only thing standing between us and Buddhahood is the recognition that we are Buddhas already.  To recognize is to see. Meditation helps us focus and see clearly.


For most of us, meditation can be challenging, especially in the first few years (as a beginning meditator - I should know!) Our minds aren't used to sitting still, and yet, we need a relatively stable mind to see what is happening.  Luckily, Buddhist yogis and meditation masters over the last 2500 years have done a lot of meditating and have jotted down some really helpful stuff! There are teachings that discuss the key causes and conditions that lead to stability of mind (shamatha meditation) and others that discuss the key causes and conditions of insights into the nature of reality (vipashyana meditation.) In short, these teachings discuss the seed, sun, water, space, and soil short-list that will help grow your meditation practice. The lists are by no means exhaustive, but I've found them very helpful. They are also challenging. Testing these teachings by putting them into practice has led to some pretty big changes in my life, many of which were difficult to adjust to.


There are many more teachings on the key causes and conditions of shamatha and vipashyana meditation than I could ever mention here. And, if you're wondering about my sources, the info that follows below is pulled from: (1) Mahamudra: The Moonlight, Quintessence of Mind and Meditation, the (in my mind, essential) compilation of Buddhist teachings by various masters originally assembled by Dakpo Tashi Namgyal and translated by Lobsang P. Lhalungpa; and (2) Moonbeams of Mahamudra: The Classic Meditation Manual, by Traleg Kyabgon Rinpoche.  I must give props to my kalayanamitra and partner, Dave, for (being beautiful) and introducing me to these and other really helpful texts.


Here, I'm focusing on one of many shortlists that discuss the causes of tranquility in shamatha meditation.  A short aside: shamatha means "peaceful abiding" or "calm abiding"; it is meditation to stabilize the mind.  The idea is that, if you really want to understand the nature of reality, you first need a mind that is steady and clear, i.e., one that can be aware of experience continuously in all its vividness.  This does NOT mean having no thoughts. (If that's your goal in meditation - good luck with that!)  Truly, any experience is welcome during meditation. What makes meditation meditation is when we are able to rest our awareness on whatever experience arises.  Shamatha meditation is important because, it is only when concentration is stabilized and the mind has settled that we can cultivate insight and, ultimately, wisdom.  These insights might be spontaneous based on direct perception, or may arise from conceptual analysis of presently occurring experience. To cultivate either type of insight requires a mind that is steady and peaceful enough to gently follow the flow of experience, even if that experience includes some difficult emotions, wild fantasies, or restless boredom. There is a calmness that can abide even in rough seas by being present with experience again and again. That's shamatha.


So, here is what the masters say. (Again, there are many teachings on the causes of tranquility/shamatha, but I am focusing on a small subset I found personally helpful. So far, of the many I've read, none of them conflict.) To stabilize the mind in shamatha meditation you need these basic causes and conditions:


1. A harmonious environment.  The teachings define a "harmonious environment" as one that is quiet, free from wild animals and disease, and near friends who follow a similar path of discipline.  Though nowadays we are less likely to be concerned about the possibility of wild animals or plagues threatening the stability of our practice, we might immediately understand the need for a beginning meditator to find a quiet place to sit and friends who are encouraging of sticking to the practice.  The crux of this teaching is an invitation to honestly examine our practice environment and assess whether it is truly conducive to cultivating the stability and peace of shamatha.  I'll share a story to illustrate. Not too long ago, I lived with a romantic partner.  He was a wonderful person, but we were on different "spiritual pages" for most of our relationship, and it made meditation practice challenging for me.  If I snuck away from breakfast to practice in our bedroom in the morning, he might pry the door open and ask me questions about groceries we needed that day.  Or, if I was practicing at night I might hear an action movie in the living room, full of loud gunshot noises, car chase scenes, and so on.  It seemed like every weekend my partner wanted to go to parties or other social events when I wanted to study the dharma or just generally be more quiet. I was often asked questions about the utility of my practice, and asked to explain myself again and again.  Of course, there is nothing wrong with inquiring about groceries, watching exciting movies, going to parties, or questioning another person's spiritual practice. But, was my living environment and partner truly conducive to meditation practice?  At my then level of skillfulness, it wasn't. I needed an environment that was a bit more supportive, one where I could practice resting my awareness on my experience with fewer distractions. After all, it's not advised to start practicing meditation in a loud mall. At first, we need all the help we can get given the busyness of our minds. Through many other twists and turns of events, I eventually found myself in a lower-key neighborhood, in a different house, with very sweet quiet roommates. I'm very fortunate that the room I rent also has a small annex room, which I've turned into a meditation space.  My current partner lives in a place apart, but nearby. We share meditation and practice in common. It has been my experience that these changes have truly helped deepen my shamatha practice.


2. Being free from excessive desire and being content with what one has. The teachings describe "curbing desires" as a key ingredient to resting the mind. This means refraining from being too attached to food or clothing, and being satisfied with what one has. This makes sense. When I was a teenager, every five minutes I wanted a new article of clothing. It was a drug, and I was totally addicted to the momentary "high" I would receive from wearing my new something-or-other. Consumption really consumes the mind. Although not impossible, it is much more difficult to rest the mind when we are constantly shopping, constantly planning our next outing, or overly concerned with the latest gadget. It's not that we're bad people for engaging in any of these things, its just that these things make it that much harder to cultivate steady shamatha practice. Since I do sitting meditation before breakfast, a hilarious repeat thought I usually have around the thirty-five minute-mark is "what I will eat when I'm done sitting?" I watch images come to mind of avocado toast or eggs and then let them (and my inner chuckle) float away. But, if in my free time I was constantly on the lookout for the best breakfast foods or constantly online shopping for new gluten free pancake batter or constantly flipping through savory breakfast recipes , you could see how breakfast thoughts might pop up with such frequency that it might be much more difficult to cultivate meditative stability.


3. Limiting activities. Before heading to graduate school part deux (seminary), I was a legal aid attorney. It's hard for me to describe legal aid work to anyone who hasn't experienced it. It was a job that was FULL, DENSE, and REVERBERATING AT A HIGH FREQUENCY, if that makes any sense. There was crisis after crisis, meeting after meeting, deadline after deadline. Of course, it was also full of dedicated colleagues and inspiring clients, but the point is that it was JAM PACKED. I would try practicing during lunch for fifteen minutes, but some filing deadline or phone call would peal me away. My morning practice would often get cut short too, having to run to an early client meeting, court date, or legal clinic somewhere around the Bay.  Even during a relatively non-busy day, the slightest work obligation would create a painful adrenaline rush. I realized my mind was so used to work tasks equaling stressful urgency, that even non-emergency tasks were creating emergency-like responses. Protecting space soon seemed essential, and not just to find time to sit but also to cultivate skillfulness in sitting. The excessive activity in my life generated a very busy mind-stream, making it difficult for this beginning meditator to rest awareness on experience (imagine trying to watch a drop of rain in the middle of a hurricane.) In short, the busyness of our days translate to the busyness of our minds. There is no doubt that limiting activities in our modern speedy world is challenging. Sometimes you can slow down and still keep your current job, other times - you can't.  After several attempts to find space at work, I realized, given my level of skillfulness and realities of the job, there was simply too much activity for me to cultivate sanity, let alone shamatha.


4. Maintaining the precepts. Buddhist precepts are all about not causing harm. Rather than list them, I think its helpful to discuss why refraining from harm is considered an important condition of shamatha. For me, the power of the precepts is three-fold.  First, they repeatedly (and naturally) lead me to inner inquiry.  I start to wonder, "well - what is harm?" "How do I know if I have caused it?" "Did I just cause it now?" "Let me look."  In that way, maintaining the precepts is about cultivating the pattern of looking into a situation in the present moment.  Second, in cultivating the precepts, I've seen how, deep down, I really don't want to harm anyone. When I see this, it creates a spark of warmth. And, as John O'Donohue would say, one spark is really all we need.  Genuine care for others helps relax the mind and limit distractions. We become motivated by something bigger than ourselves. All of this leads to point three of why the precepts help shamatha. The precepts are meditation practice, simply off of the cushion. You come back, over and over again, to a desire for sentient beings to be free from suffering. You inquire what suffering is, and examine your present experience. You experience the warmth of caring - and you express yourself from there. Far from strict rules, the precepts are practices that only make our shamatha meditation that much more inspired, concentrated, and sharp.


Taken together, these key conditions that help lead to a strong shamatha practice have some similarities. They each ask us to simplify our lives, slow down, and explore what is happening.  It's as if the meditation masters are bellowing over and over again, "Oh you sweet beautiful human, if you want to practice meditation well, please stop, rest, and look!"  They aren't trying to tell us we are bad people if we don't, they are just concerned with the effects of complex living. So, a question I try to come back to, again and again, is: given my resources and needs, am I living in a way that is simple and sane enough to truly steady my mind?


And, what if the answer is no? What I have realized over the years is that the meditation masters did not say that spiritual practice would be easy. The relationship, job, or company you keep might not be conducive to practice. This is particularly relevant when we not only want to practice shamatha, but also want to live a spiritual life.  At one point I realized (and it terrified me), that if I was really going to follow my heart, I would have to face the fact that there were no guarantees that I wouldn't experience great loss, great discomfort, and great change in a short period of time. The heart does not care much about comfort. It cares about realization and awakening, and it will bring us to our knees if it has to. This was my own experience. So, following our heart might mean letting go of the familiar. It might mean being scared of loneliness, and charging towards it. It might also mean trusting ourselves - that our sneaking suspicion that something just doesn't work for us, might be right.  The question is - are we willing? Are we willing to do what it takes to cultivate the steadiness and simplicity we need to walk the spiritual path?

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