We are honored to exclusively share with you, our dear readers, excerpts from Frank Berliner’s new book, which you can purchase here if so inspired. Frank is a Buddhist and Shambhala teacher and professor at Naropa University, and our original Buddhadharma columnist (going 12 years back!). He is my meditation instructor and life coach, of sorts (I just call him “mentor”…or consiglieri), and his ability to convey simple wisdom about how to be fully human is powerful, dignified and helpful. May it be of benefit! ~ Waylon Lewis
The Practice that Brings Bravery
The actual practice of working with hope and fear, the territory of your experience, begins to cultivate the intelligence that can connect you directly with the living Buddha within you. The practice that accomplishes this is shamatha meditation.
The Sanskrit word, shamatha, means “peaceful abiding.” Sometimes it is translated as “cultivating peace”, or “resting the mind”, or simply “mindfulness.” Whatever the translation, the same basic point is being conveyed. The underlying purpose of the practice is to develop a settled mind—a mind that is not easily agitated by external factors and is able to meet the challenges of life with some level of equanimity. This is a gradual, ongoing development.
The practice of shamatha meditation is not a specifically Buddhist practice, in fact its origin predates the life of the Buddha. During his lifetime, shamatha was practiced widely in the spiritual culture of India, and he learned it from other teachers. Almost all forms of meditation include some aspect of shamatha, so you can think of it as a kind of generic or universal practice that creates a foundation for all the others.
A Foundational Tool with Profound Effects
On one level, shamatha is not a particularly spiritual pursuit but a very ordinary and practical human pursuit. It is a somewhat mechanical practice in the sense that one of its main objectives is to help you develop an ability to rest the mind on a specific object of attention, such as the breath, a saying, or a visualization. It can have all kinds of useful applications, such as enabling you to become more focused and better able to handle the details of your daily life effectively. It can help you bring greater concentration and precision to all of your life’s activities. For example, it can help you to accomplish a task that is as simple, but enjoyable, as making a cup of tea that is neither too weak nor too strong, but that is just right.
On a more spiritual level, learning how to rest the mind on an object of attention is the foundation for everything that comes afterward. The Buddha practiced variations of it for many years during his spiritual journey, before he discovered his own way of meditating, and set off in his own direction. Depending on how you learn it, shamatha can become the platform for practices I described earlier that are based on centralizing inwards, or on trying to become higher, as well as on becoming completely identified with nowness as the Buddha advocated.
The Buddha could not have discovered enlightenment without first having being thoroughly trained in shamatha. This is a key point historically, and it also determines how the Dharma is taught and how it’s practiced.
When we translate shamatha as “peaceful abiding,” there is frequently a misunderstanding about what is implied by “peace”. It is easy to think the purpose of shamatha is to create a cocoon of self-absorbed peacefulness while the chaos of the world is swirling all around you. Your peace is impenetrable, as if you are sitting in meditation in your apartment in midtown Manhattan and you no longer even hear the taxis honking their horns and the ambulances wailing their sirens. This may be the peace of centralizing inwards, but it is not the peace we want to cultivate through shamatha practice.
To cultivate the true, all-encompassing peace of shamatha, you remain open to the energy and chaos both within you and around you. To do this, you remain open in a very particular way—not too tight, not too loose.
Your practice is too tight when you are trying to fabricate, or force, an experience of peace by shutting out the liveliness of both your mental processes and the external world. It is too loose when the energy and chaos of your nowness overwhelms all your efforts to remain present and mindful and instead it carries you away into distraction and confusion.
Shamatha is the practice by which you become familiar with the balance between too tight and too loose, and through this you learn how to ride the energy of the mind with a sense of stability. If you are going to become completely identified with nowness, then you have to be open to whatever arises: good or bad, happy or sad.
You can’t pick and choose your preferred version of nowness. This is the pitfall of centralizing inwards. The peace of shamatha is not the peace of the cemetery where you “rest in peace”. You are not learning how to be dead—actually you’re learning how to be more alive. You are learning how to be as fully present and undistracted as possible with whatever arises.
Above all, you are learning to make friends with your mind. The discovery that you can fully accept yourself as you are is perhaps the single most powerful and transformative aspect of shamatha. It is the foundation—not only of the entire spiritual path—but of living a happy and fruitful life altogether.
Viewing Your Mind as a Friend
The philosopher Pascal said, “All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.” In the same way, all the problems of the world and all the unnecessary suffering in life begin because each of us, individually, is not able to make friends with our experience. Because of this, making friends with your mind is a very brave and even a heroic thing to do. The ultimate aim of your practice is to fully accept yourself as you are, and having this understanding gives you purpose and strength.
Holding this view is important especially as you begin your meditation practice, when you may not feel very strong or very motivated. If you remind yourself of your own friendliness every time you sit down, it’s extremely helpful. Sitting in meditation is challenging, and if you are not able to remind yourself why you are doing it, again and again, you will eventually stop doing it.
Early Challenges in Establishing a Practice
In the course of my own life as a Dharma student, a teacher, and a psychotherapist, I have seen many people give up on the practice of shamatha. I believe the reason this happens is because early on the deep and priceless value of the practice was not sufficiently imprinted. Particularly in the beginning, you will often experience your mind as very wild, and you may also experience a lot of physical discomfort. In my own case, both these reasons made the first few months of practicing shamatha quite difficult. I probably would have quit, but I learned it during a retreat and there was peer pressure and support from the other meditators. I could feel that we were all riding our minds together, side by side, and this was a great encouragement.
The traditional word for being clear about why you’re meditating is view. You have to have “the view.” When you sit down to do any practice for the first time, you must be introduced to the view, otherwise you don’t know what you’re doing. As with any activity in your life, if you know why you’re doing it, you will go toward it with greater enthusiasm and greater confidence.
It’s important to distinguish the difference between having the view and having a goal, because we are still journeying without goal. Your goal is only your idea of the goal. The goal and your idea of the goal will never be the same. So the whole thing is an endless trap—you thought it might be like this, and then when you finally arrive, it turns out to be something entirely different and you fall into your habits of hoping for the best and fearing the worst. We might also say that having a goal is based on your ambition. Your ambition always involves a sense of poverty because you want to be somewhere other than where you are now or someone other than who you are now.
During the journey, you maintain the view because the view never gets old. The view is never wrong; the view will never lead you astray.
“I am practicing shamatha to tame my distracted mind, to be fully present in my life, and to make friends with all my experiences.” You cannot go wrong with that understanding because having the view is based more on aspiration than ambition. You begin with some kernel of faith that, as a human being, you are already basically good and that you have the potential to fully realize health and strength in your life. You have faith that you have a living Buddha within you, and that you can fully realize that wakefulness, gentleness, and courage.
Journeying Through Peaceful Abiding Practice
As you struggle with hope and fear along the way, holding the view of why you are practicing shamatha will help develop the clear person inside you who can see the fantasy involved with your hope and the strong person inside you who can stare the fear down. You slowly learn that you can outlast them both. You just sit through your fantasies and fears, and in sitting through them you learn that they go away and you’re still there. Then of course they come back again, but not in quite the same way. Perhaps a certain construction of the hope and fear had you in its tight grip, and it is actually loosened, or even dissolved altogether.
Such experiences should not lead you to become complacent or to think that the journey is over, because there will always be more on the path ahead. My teacher often said that the further the warrior goes, the more he or she embraces the challenge of hope and fear. He used the image of the samurai, walking down the street of the village, looking fiercely to left and right. He has already vanquished all the enemies on the street. But he looks down a dark alley off to the side, and says, “Oh, fantastic! Another dark alley where enemies might be lurking.”
You might even develop a similar appetite for turning to face hope and fear. This happens when you have surrendered the goal—in this case the fantasy that your life is going to be some other way than it is—and you let making friends with your mind and relaxing with the endless display of hope and fear be your path.
Love elephant and want to go steady?
Editor: Rachel Nussbaum
Photo: Frank Berliner