lesson
4

The Practice of Shamatha

1 0f 6

In peaceful abiding, you ground your mind in the present moment. You place your mind on the breath and practice keeping it there. You notice when thoughts and emotions distract you and train in continually returning the mind to the breath. This is you we shift your allegiance from the bewildered mind that causes its own suffering to the mind that is stable, clear, and strong. You proclaim your desire to discover this mind of stability, clarity, and strength by learning to rest in your own peace.

In this lesson you begin the practice of shamatha meditation or peacedul abiding.

Taking your seat

My father would always sneak into my meditation room at the beginning of my session to see if I was beginning properly He was looking to see how I was taking my seat - if I had the appropriate attitude toward training my mind.

Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche

Posture

The idea of posture in meditation is very important. The aim, however, is to create a solid firm foundation for practicing mindfulness, not to be uptight or frozen.

When you sit down, take a balanced, grounded posture to allow the energy in the center of your body to move freely.

If you're on a cushion, sit with your legs loosely crossed. If you're in a chair, keep your legs uncrossed and your feet flat on the floor. Imagine that a string attached to the top of your head is pulling you upright. Let your organs, muscles, and bones settle around your erect spine, like a coat falling around a hanger. Your vertebrae should feel as though they are stacked like gold coins, allowing for the natural curvature of the spine.

     

Your legs should be crossed in front . Ideally the knees should be lower that the hips. If your hips not higher than knees, you need a support cushion or to be raised somehow. As Westerners who have grown up in chairs, it’s a little uncomfortable for some of us; our hips open over time. Do what you can, but be sure hips higher than knees.

Legs are as relaxed as you can. You can alternate one leg in front of the other if this helps.

Your torso is upright . Have a sense of strong back, direct spine, with a slight curve in the lumbar region. Your chest open.

An erect posture, with spine stright, is posture of openness and dignity which allows smooth breathing. If you slump over, the breathing becomes strained, it becomes very claustrophobic and you'll be struggling with discomfort in your body at the same time that you're trying to train your mind.

It’s important to realize is that there is a relationship, a correlation, between what happens in your mind, your body, and your breathing. You want to be synchronizing your body and mind. We’re not sitting up straight because we’re trying to be good schoolchildren; our posture actually affects the mind.

Statues and paintings of the Buddha in meditation posture beautifully illustrate how the posture is designed to allow natural strength and groundedness with some kind of openness and dignity. By taking an upright sitting posture, we enable the body to relax and the mind to be awake. You can use different postures for meditation, but under ordinary circumstances, sitting on either a cushion or a chair is best. If you're unable to sit, it is possible to do this technique while walking or standing or even lying down. However, the most efficient posture for this practice is sitting.

Hands

After you get your spine straight, place your hands on your thighs. They shouldn't rest so far forward that it begins to pull your shoulders down, nor so far back that the shoulders contract and pinch the spine. As a guideline your upper arms should be hanging from shoulders — let them hang.

The fingers are close and relaxed—not spread out in a grip, as if you can't let yourself go.

Note: If you wish, you can hold your hands in the "mudra" or position you see in the statue of the buddha above.

Head

Tuck your chin in. Many of us lead with our head. Your head is erect as if there’s a little string going from the top of your head into the heavens.

So butt on the earth, head erect.

Mouth

Your mouth is mostly closed, although it might have a little gap in it. Keep your jaw relaxed not clamped shut. Relaxing the face and jaw is important. The tongue should be relaxed. When it's relaxed, it begins to touch the back of the upper teeth. This reduces the saliva collection at the back of the throat.

Gaze

Gaze downward with your eyelids half shut — a meditative gaze, as it were. The eyes aren't looking; the eyes just see. If you are trying to look, it becomes a meditation of looking. Your eyes are open and they can see, but they're not looking. You are not staring at something. It's just as though you are having a conversation with somebody and listening to that person's voice—your ears hear the background noise, but you're not particularly listening to it.

If the gaze takes in too much, it will be hard to abide peacefully. We’re just trying to work with the mind, and the more we raise our gaze, the more distracted we’re going to be. It’s as if you had an overhead light shining over the whole room, and all of a sudden you focus it down right in front of you. You are purposefully ignoring what is going on around you.

On the other hand, closing the eyes completely may encourage you to fall asleep or to withdraw inside your mind from, losing the technique. The goal is not to sedate the mind.

If your mind feels removed and insular, intense and dark, try raising the gaze and allowing more space into your practice. However, if your gaze becomes too high, you may begin to look too much, and your eyes will become strained.

It is the same with sound—we aren't listening, but we do hear. In other words, we're not focusing with our senses.

Breath

As you start the practice, you have a sense of your body and a sense of where you are, and then you begin to notice the breathing. The whole feeling of the breath is very important. The breath should not be forced, obviously; you are breathing naturally. The breath is going in and out, in and out. With each breath you become relaxed.

You will learn about placing your attention on the breath in the next section of this lesson.

Try it

The basic principle is to keep an upright, erect posture. You are in a solid situation: your shoulders are level, your hips are level, your spine is stacked up. We use this posture in order to remain relaxed and awake. The gaze should be downward focusing a couple of inches in front of your nose. The eyes are open but not staring; your gaze is soft. The practice we’re doing is very precise: you should be very much awake even though you are calm. If you find yourself getting dull or hazy or falling asleep, you should check your posture.