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 Art of Making Friends with Yourself
Now let’s look at how you actually practice shamatha. The instruction in shamatha meditation has three aspects to it. When you sit down to practice, it can be very helpful to begin by going through the three aspects of body, speech, and mind in order, whether the session is ten minutes or an hour or whatever.
In meditation, body, speech and mind are called the “Three Gates” because all of the experiences you have in your life are going to come to you only through one of these three portals. The principle of Body is connected with the importance of your posture. Speech is connected with using your breath as the object of attention. Mind is connected with meeting whatever arises in your experience of nowness—whether it is your thoughts, emotions, feelings, bodily sensations or sense perceptions.
So when you sit down to meditate, on either a meditation cushion or—if you find that uncomfortable or painful—on a chair, it is very helpful to attune yourself first with Body, then with Speech, and then with Mind. Finally, you synchronize all three with each other and practice shamatha.
Preparation: Remembering the View
Before we begin the instruction and the guided practice, bring to mind your motivation and your view as to why you are here, why you want to practice shamatha. Talk to yourself about the view out loud or silently. As you do this, remember that the meaning of the word shamatha is “peaceful abiding,” remember the aspiration to be brave and gentle with your experience, and reaffirm your commitment to make friends with whatever arises.
Connecting with Body
My teacher used to say that just taking the meditation posture can uplift your mind more than it was before. He encouraged us to notice that when people are depressed, their posture slouches. Just taking this posture, as described in the coming pages, can cheer you up! It’s very powerful and very simple.
Having recalled the view, you relate to Body. To do this, close your eyes and have a sense of dropping down into your body, of gathering and collecting your physical energy. With your eyes closed, it is easier to cultivate the feeling that you are dropping down from your involvement with your thinking mind into the “mind” of the body—which pervades the body and is expressed as bodily sensations as well as an underlying feeling of the body.
Just sit with that, without any judgment about what you are experiencing. If there are places of tightness or pain or tension, simply extend a sense of kindness and relaxation to them.
Next, feel your connection with the earth, with the ground. Your body is an expression of this ground, and for that matter, the earth can be thought of as a gigantic body. Elementally it is no different than your own body.
In particular, feel that you have a good seat: your buttocks are firmly on the cushion and your legs are comfortably crossed. It’s as if you have formed a tripod of your buttocks and your knees. It is very stable and it connects you firmly to the earth. Your hips should be higher than your knees, so that there is no strain on your back. Depending on what is more comfortable for you, place the hands either with palms down on the thighs, or with one hand cupping the other at the level of the abdomen. The arms should be loose and relaxed. If your hands are placed on the thighs, make sure they are not too far forward over your knees, and not too far back towards your abdomen, since both will put a slight strain on your back. Just let them rest very comfortably.
Remember the principle of uprightness, straightening the spine and the back. You can lift your shoulders slightly, exaggerate that and then let the shoulders drop and relax, while the spine remains straight. If you are sitting in a chair, sit upright, have your feet parallel to each other, firmly planted on the floor in front of you.
So straighten the posture, feel that connection with the earth, and then relax! Systematically relax various areas of the body. Relax the muscles around your heart and your belly; let it be very open and soft. Relax your shoulders. Relax the muscles of the face and the jaw by parting your lips very slightly as if you are about to say “Ahhh” and placing your tongue on the roof of your mouth behind the front teeth. Finally, tuck the chin in ever so slightly so that there is a slight curve at the top of the straight spine.
Take a moment to fully feel this posture. Grounded… upright… relaxed.
Connecting with Speech
Now we turn to the principle of Speech. Speech here refers to the breath because breath is the basis of speech and the voice, of any sound you make. Breath is also the living, energetic connection between the body and the mind. The word yoga, which means “union”, refers to this joining of body and mind through the vehicle of the breath. So breath is very important in meditation practice and has been for several thousand years. As an object of mindfulness, the breath has several wonderful qualities. First, it is always with you, as long as you are alive. Second, it links you directly to nowness. Third, it is inherently gentle and soothing.
The instruction for practicing shamatha is this: Place your attention
on the movement of your breath as it goes in and out of your body.
Let the eyes remain closed. Notice now that your breath is a moving bodily sensation and place your mind on it. Place your attention on your breath as it moves through wherever you experience it in your body: maybe in your abdomen, maybe in the chest at the level of the heart, maybe in your throat, your nostrils, or your lips. Maybe you experience it in all these places. Let your attention rest on the feeling, wherever it is. It is important to tune into the sensation of the breath, rather than locking tightly onto it. Don’t try to sustain a continuous experience, as there will be little highlights of sensation, there will be little gaps where the sensation is not prominent, or is even altogether absent. Just go along with it, with a light touch.
Remember, you’re not using the breath to centralize inwards, nor to induce a state of trance—you’re using it to identify with nowness. To help do this, flash on your posture now and then. Feel your connection with the ground, gently straighten your spine and relax your shoulders. If there’s tightness in the jaw, or the face, or in the area of the heart or the belly, just be aware of that and relax. Just let it relax. Your connection with Body will support your connection with nowness.
For the first time, gently open your eyes. Because the chin is tucked in very slightly, your eye gaze naturally falls downward, three to four feet in front of you. With the eyes open, we now move into the instructions for working with Mind, the third of the Three Gates.
Connecting with Mind
The connection between the eye gaze and the mind is very important. In shamatha meditation, the eye gaze is soft and diffused and relaxed. The reason the gaze is soft is because you’re using the eyes to look at the mind, not to look out there at objects.
Obviously, if your eyes are open you are going to see the visual field, but don’t focus on it. Your eyes don’t grasp at what they see the way they usually do. You’re not looking for any feedback from what you see.
Instead you’re looking inward, directly at the mind. “Mind,” in this case, is all the activities of which mind is capable and which you can experience in nowness: your thoughts, your emotions, your feelings, your bodily sensations and your perceptions from the five senses. Whatever arises in nowness that can be known in any way is “mind.”
Once again, flash your attention on your posture. Adjust it slightly if you need to, flash on your connection with the earth, make sure that the back and spine are straight, that the front of your body is open and relaxed, and continue to place the mind on the movement of the breath—in and out.
Then include the instruction for working with your mind, which is this: Whatever occurs, neither suppress it as it arises, nor follow it once it appears.
Another way of saying this is that you should neither block the thoughts at the beginning, nor chase them at the end. The instruction not to suppress is important because it cuts through any misconception you might have that meditation is about forcefully stopping thoughts or emptying the mind. Thoughts themselves are not regarded as an obstacle. You do not stop their flow in shamatha practice. You never stop their flow. For periods of time the flow will stop on its own. This is fine, and pleasurable, but you do not attach any special importance to this experience of stillness.
Thoughts are not the problem. Only your habitual tendency to identify with the thoughts, fixate on them, and be distracted by them, is the problem. This tendency is addressed by the second part of the instruction: not to follow the thought once it appears.
Once again, we are practicing the art of not too tight, not too loose. This balanced approach is a thread that runs through all the practices and all the teachings we will be exploring. When working with thoughts, this balanced approach means that we respect the energy of our mind in each moment of meditation, but we don’t let our fascination with the content of our thought process hijack our ability to remain present with whatever is happening.
A helpful metaphor is that practicing shamatha is like sitting at ease on the grassy bank of a stream. The stream is flowing endlessly. All kinds of debris pass by in the current of the stream: leaves, branches, old orange peels, soda cans—flotsam and jetsam of all kinds. Sitting there, you just let it flow and observe what passes without moving from your comfortable seat on the bank. In the same way, sit in meditation and observe thoughts, feelings, and sensations flowing through your experience.
There will come a moment when you realize you jumped in the stream, and that, as you paddled after something that was flowing by, you were swept downstream. In other words, you were absorbed in a thought,and for a while it thoroughly distracted your mind.
Here’s the magic of meditation: The moment you realize what has happened, you don’t have to laboriously pull yourself out of the water—you’re immediately sitting back on the bank again! Then you simply continue the practice by flashing on your good posture, tuning into the sensation of the breath, and observing your mind without blocking or chasing what arises in nowness.
The Effects of Practicing the Instructions
Shamatha develops your capacity to know that your thoughts, feelings, emotions, bodily sensations, and sense perceptions are occurring at the moment they’re occurring, and to be able to distinguish them from one another in nowness. The mind of shamatha knows, “A thought is happening now.” Or, “Oh, strong anger is happening now!” Or, “The sound of that bird call is happening now.” It’s almost like a clerk at a checkout counter with a very mechanical quality to the knowing.
At the same time, this knowing can only happen if you’re not distracted by what’s happening in your mind in the present moment. And being undistracted in that way is no small accomplishment! When you practice shamatha, you are training yourself to dis-identify with your thoughts, emotions, and so on. In doing this, you create the witnessing mind—which you begin to identify with, rather than the thoughts themselves. That mind is the first stage of knowing.
To create, or strengthen, that witnessing mind, we give it an object of attention—something it can keep coming back to that’s neutral, such as the breath. In shamatha, we call this an object of virtue.
“Virtue” here doesn’t mean that it’s holy, particularly, or that your thoughts are profane. It simply means that bringing your attention back to it will not create any further mischief in the form of neurosis. For a long time— countless lifetimes, according to the Tibetans—you have been familiarizing yourself with your confused thoughts and emotions, which have created pain for you. The general word for meditation in Tibetan is “gom”, which means “to become familiar with.” So far, for much of your life, you have been meditating only on your neurosis.
In the practice of shamatha, you are instead becoming familiar with the breath as an object of attention. Why not familiarize yourself with something helpful, rather than something harmful? If you really understand the truth of this, you will dedicate yourself to meditation, and you will learn what peaceful abiding means, firsthand.
But that is just the beginning of the process of knowing, which keeps going deeper as you journey along. Continuously deepening and refining this capacity to know is the basis of the whole spiritual path.
Love elephant and want to go steady?
Editor: Rachel Nussbaum
Photo: Frank Berliner