Developing Samatha (Concentration Meditation)

Notes from a 2-day retreat with Stephen Snyder and Tina Rasmussen

Knowledge is only true when the experience is true for you. Your strength is your belief in what you know to be true.

What I am writing here is what I know to be true. But until you experience it yourself, you will not know it to be true. It will only be knowledge. Unapplied knowledge is ignorance.

What is Samatha (Concentration) Mediation?

Samatha meditation is a form of concentration on the breath. Specifically at the point of anapanda region (the space between the upper lip and the nose from which we inhale & exhale).

Samatha creates a small place for your consciousness to be concentrated. Like a laser, which is a concentration of light to a confined space, samatha concentrates your awareness to a confined space (between your upper lip and nose).

Concentrate your energy on the present. Samatha is like a metronome for our awareness. When our attention is in harmony with the metronome (of our breath) we create pleasurable music.

You can't control your thoughts, but you can control your breathing. Dim down the light on your thoughts, Dim up the light of your breath.

The purpose is to:

When we meditate, we open up space in our awareness. We are able to act more skillfully outside mediation because of it.

Capacity of Awareness

How aware are you? You are only as aware as your capacity to be aware allows. To increase awareness, you must increase your capacity to hold it.

We normally live in a space of duality because it's less weight to carry. A perception of Non-duality or oneness requires a larger container, one that most of us don't have. When you are in a state of flow, you get glimpses of it. When you entire awareness is consumed by the task at hand, and it all just flows... flows effortlessly. To the observer, they might call it talent, or skill, or ability. But to the doer, they are simply perceiving all as one. They are one with the entire universe in that moment. Nothing derails them.

Does your outer reality reflect your inner consciousness? This is a practice of unification.

How do we strengthen our container? Through concentration meditation.

Each time we meditate, we are increasing our capacity to hold a deeper level of consciousness. To see what actually is. As our awareness increases, it's our capacity to perceive the world as one.

It differs from Vipassana meditation in that the focus of concentration remains on one point (the breath in the region of anapanda). We put all our attention on the breath and the now.

Flow

Next time you engage in an activity you want to experience flow, try Samatha. Make the breath your primary object of awareness and let your higher consciousness take over.

Most of the time, it's the self-chatter that take us out of our flow state. We tense up, we start worrying. We worry we'll make a mistake, we start reliving past experiences. We start second guessing ourselves.

This takes practice, but the more you do it, the easier it becomes. You'll discover that focusing your breath between the upper lip and nose forces you to breath from the back of the throat. Just like your Yoga teacher tells you to do. Samatha breathing is calming, so it's no surprise when you calm down, you preform better. This is one of the secrets to peak performance.

Stay light with your breath, light like a feather.

Give this practice 30 days and notice the improvement in all areas of your life. This type of breaking will aid in both your formal (mediation) and informal (awake) mindfulness practice.

Now is incomplete

One of the attendees shared an epiphany she had during a mediation. She stated that the challenge we have with staying in the 'now' is our need to complete that which is incomplete. The now is uncertain, and we crave certainty. Because we need completion, we create stories to link our past to the present. It's the brains need to complete the story. To explain what happened then by what's happening now, even though the two are very much not connected. This is further confused by the dimension of time and space we base our entire reality on. If you zoom out far enough, the distance between the beginning of your life and the end of your life is seen as a single point. When people experience their entire life flashing before their eyes, they are zooming out.

Techniques

Count from 1 to 8, and back down again. Whether you count 8 twice does not matter. What matters is that you don't go beyond 8 (or when you do, you return back to it) and that each number follows the pair of our in and out breath. By focusing on our breath, we loosen our grip to the everything else we are attached to.

How long to sit? A bit longer than is comfortable! Think of concentration mediation like weight lifting. The more you do, the strong the muscle becomes, but to grow the muscle, you have to push to your edge.

Posture is key. Chin level. Small S in your back. As you get into deeper levels of mediation, the discomfort falls away. The more you concentrate your attention on your breath, the less you will be pulled toward discomforts that arise.

When you sit, commit to sit! An example one meditator who was a bicycle racer used was that he likened it to 'road miles.' As you train for races, you don't go and train like it's a race everyday. You have to put in the 'road miles' which entails enduring long rides and just getting time in the saddle. He viewed Samatha mediation as the road miles and his vinpasana practice as the races.

Riding the Rail

In kayaking, the term riding the rail refers to paddling into the current. When the kayaker is able to let go of any effort, and stop paddling, they call it 'riding the rail.' All they need to do at that point is keep their kayak on the rail.

Something to aim for (but not strive for) in your Samatha practice is to see when the breath 'rides' the momentum of your meditation. When you can relax into the breath (the current), your meditation will depend. Instead of doing the practice, the practice does us. It's effortless like riding the current in your kayak.

Like driving down Highway 1, you don't keep your gas pedal constant.

Sinking Mind & Rising Mind

Something to look up later is 'The 5 spiritual faculties' (Buddha).

In mediation, there's the rise and sinking of the mind. As though activity increase, your mind rises. As thought activity diminishes, a dullness can set in. The key to a 'good' meditation is to find equanimity between the two. You don't want to doze off. You want to stay alert. But you don't want to be so active in thought either. It's really something that you need to develop for yourself through experience.

Hindrances and grooves

Practice selective ignorance on the breath. As thoughts arise, they become hindrances. If we can keep our hindrances in the waiting room, if they insist to be acknowledged, then do so. Like a small child, it may be that the hindrance simply needs to be acknowledged to settle down.

Hindrances are grooves in our brains, hundreds or thousands of thoughts have travelled down the path to carve the groove. It takes effort to get outside the groove. Worth noting here is that the less energy you have, the more tired you are, the less you can resist the groove.

When you are able to see your hindrances and not fall to them as you normally would, you will be able to redirect the energy to your meditation, and go deeper into your meditation.

Your brain consumes the vast majority of your bodies energy, which is why when you are able to redirect that energy, you have real power.

The patterns served you at one time, and have become part of your ego, whose purpose is to protect you. Love your ego to death - spend so much time with it that you know it better than it knows itself. To kill the ego is not the point. Marry your ego. Your ego will be with you to death to you part. At some point, like a good marriage, you will learn to work in harmony with your ego. You will learn to give each other the space and respect one another needs. You will come to love each others differences. We digest ourselves when we eat our ego.

MBSR & CBT can go along way to rewire patterns that have always been present.

Our hindrances are rooted in concept from buddhism. They are: 1. Desire (if I get ___, all will be good. Or if I get rid of ___, all will be good). 2. Ill will (toward ourself or others) 3. Sloth/laziness (are you sleep deprived? get more active.) 4. Restlessness/remorse - agitation. Reliving the past. Regrets. 5. Doubt (of the teacher or the teachings)

What's worth noting is to overcome our hindrances, we simply move towards the opposite of it. In fact, we never actually overcome anything, we just move towards or away from it. If desire is an hindrance, than move towards undesired. If ill will is pulling you down, give yourself or other kudos. If sloth is your problem, get active. If you feel agitated by past or future events, return to the present movement. If doubt is at play, have faith until proved otherwise.

Sidebar: What is Vipassna mediation? When the present moment becomes the point of awareness.

The Dimmer Switch

This concept resonated with several others.

Think of putting your thoughts on a dimmer switch. The dimmer switch can also be used with samatha itself. That is, no matter what we are doing (in our waking state), we can have a slight 'light' of attention on samatha (the breathing itself). As we do, we become more mindful in our actions, thoughts, and see reality as it truly is (without our stories or emotions).

Patterns - Upgrade to You 2.0

Myself and others were noticeably engaged in a discussion regarding our patterns. Our programming is our patterns. At one time, the patterns (programs) we developed (and still run) served us, they served a purpose, allowed us to cope and survive. But as we develop into an adult life, many of the programs we still run no longer serve us. In fact, they become obstacles to our own evolutionary path. Through insightful meditation (Vipasinna), we are able to take the role of observer and see the patterns for what they are. If they are impeding our progress, we can start to work with them.

If our minds are programs, then meditation is like getting a software upgrade. The upgrade allows us to see our programs for what they are, and develop new ones to live more skillfully. Until we replace old programs with new ones, we have no option but to run the old programs. Something happens and the program runs. When you start to see the experiences as triggers and see that the reactions are simply conditioned programs, you can get to work on the necessary upgrades.

You version 2.0 suffers less and excels more. We can begin to turn toward the mystery and away from our thoughts.

Sidebar: It's worth going into some explanation of 'mystery.' Mystery is the great unknown. It's what we can see or understand. It's the unexplained and the source of all. How did we get here? How do we explain intuition? What can't be explained by quantum physics? The questions we can't answer and what lies beyond is the mystery.

Feeling remorse or judging ourselves for not acting in a skillful matter is pointless when you grasp the truth that all of our decisions are the result of the programs we are already and constantly running.

To make better decisions next time, berating ourselves does not help. Instead, implement new programming by recognizing what is preventing us from handling life better (impacted by our old programming).

You know the upgrade is an improvement when you see an old thought pattern, but you don't go there as your usually normal self would. It's like seeing a traffic jam ahead and taking the off ramp. It' like waze for your mind.

They likened your regular meditation (ie. Vinpasana or TM) as cario, and samatha like weight lifting. You need both.

They recommend in meditation that you sit just beyond the point when it feels comfortable to quit. In doing so, you will continue to stretch your comfort zone and eventually find ease in the longer duration.

By focusing on our breath, we loosen our grip on the unseen attachments in our mind.

By meditating, we burn up our prior patterns every time we practice. It takes time to make your soil fertile to plan new seeds. Seeds of intention.

You are never absent of our hindrance, rather you are able to keep them at bay. Freedom from hindrances is a case of awakening. Overtime the hindrances take us out of the present moment, we are no longer enlighten.

We are enlightened (or awakened) when we are free from our hindrances. But rather than a bolt of enlightenment occurring, it happens slowly, over time. As we lessen our compulsive obedience with our habitual ways of reacting to life.

The Toll Taker Analogy

Imagine back when there were toll booths on the golden gate bridge. If you were in that booth, where is your focus? On the car at the window. Is your focus on the next car? No. Is your focus on the car that has passed? No. You must give your full attention to the care in front of you. The toll taker never leaves the booth. If there is no car at the window, he waits until the next car arrives.

Concentration works the same way. Whatever the object of your attention is, give it your entire focus. Do not worry about about what is coming later or what has come to pass.

Recognizing patterns. For me, because I have always held an aversion to conflict, the decisions I make are impacted by this old pattern. It no longer applies, but I let it rule over me. For example, I almost didn't teach Ukulele because I didn't want to create a conflict with other Ukulele teachers in the area. How crazy is that? Here is something that bring me immense joy, yet I am not going to do it because of an old pattern to avoid conflict?

Another pattern I recently recognized is belonging.

How did I recognize these patterns? Through meditation. However, don't expect miracles overnight. I had been meditating nearly 3 years by the time I recognized those patterns (hopefully with the insight I am providing you here, it'll occur much faster for you).

The Surf Zone Metaphor

If you have ever dived (or watched divers) go into the ocean from the beach, you'll relate to this.

The diver walks backwards into the ocean. They can't see the waves coming. As they get further out, the waves get bigger. They get knocked down, but get back up. They can't see how far out the waves go, but have to keep walking backwards to get further. The further they go, the larger the waves get. Until at they get beyond the surf zone. Beyond the surf zone the water is calm. It's there they begin to dive. And they dive deep. And all is calm. Serenity at last. Every now and then however a strong current may pull them back into the surf zone. But it easier to swim back to the calm water when you notice the current is pulling you.

Our thoughts that are the waves. The thoughts that hinder our progress into the great unknown. Our old patterns that run over and over again. It's hard to get out of the surf, the surf are deep grooves within our consciousness. It's important to remember we developed these patterns for good reason. They saved us at one point, we had to create them to cope with something we experienced. Perhaps an older brother who as harsh. Perhaps a father who berated you. Perhaps a situation on a playground when you were not picked for a group.

Unenlightened, we are like body surfers. We stay within the familiar waters. We ride the waves again and again. We get beat to the ground in the undertow, never knowing if we just swam a bit further, we'd discover there is no undertow, the water is calm, and we can explore an entire ocean.

The great mystery is a place of uncertainty. The place of unknowing. The uncharted waters. The vast ocean which is unknown. Unknown need not be scary.

The 3 levels of concentration meditation

This is your ability to return to the breath no matter what happens.

Momentary

You are able to be with the breath for a moment (less than a minute). It's like the lamp setting on a flashlight. If you know what a mag light is, it's when the beam of light is widest.

Access

Able to be with the breath for a least 5 minutes, and up to 30 minutes at a time. Using the mag light analogy, you are starting to concentrate the beam.

Absorption

This is Jhana. The light becomes like a laser. The light is condensed and strong enough to cut through steel. It allows you to cut through habits of the mind and operate at a high vibration. You are able to perceive and experience a deeper level of reality. The 'me' goes dormant. The 'I' falls away. I liken this to the concept of pure awareness in TM.

Concentration allows you to turn away from tumultuous events. You can take a position of neutrality towards your own stories.

Cultivating Loving Kindness

What came clear to me in meditation today was how it allows me to cultivate loving kindness for myself. When I awoke, loving kindness was not present. But after meditation, it was. It was the act of meditating that allowed

Personal observations

I do not count the minutes between hours, but rather the breathe between minutes.

I find that when I practice samatha, I am far more mindful about every movement, thought, and action. Using the breath to regulate my tempo, I live with intention. I notice when I am holding my breath, and when my breath is speed up.

Samatha allows me to see what I missed before. By focusing more of my attention on whatever I am focusing on, I can see more of it. It's like when you flip the brights on when driving your car down a dark canyon. You can see more. It's a hightened sense of awareness and accessible at anytime. Under times of great stress, developing the habit of samatha will serve you well.

Where does anxiety come from? For me, I seem to get myself into this anxiety loop quite often. Is it necessary? Isn't it just a pattern? What are the triggers? The upside of the increased workload is a bigger bank account. The download is the increased anxiety that comes a result of lots of unfinished projects, lots of people depending on me, and the feeling of being rushed to get it all done.

Why do we have such a hard time staying in the present?

The present is incomplete. The now is uncertain. We are story-making machines. We want to complete that which is incomplete. Since the present is perpetually incomplete, we tend to spend more time in the past and future which are stories we can complete. Planning is to the act of conceptualizing the completion. Reminiscing is the act of replaying old stories. Old stories are patterns. They are the grooves we've created over thousands of thoughts. They are rooted in our beliefs.

It's interesting that I just started reading Trying not to Try as there some common threads, for example to the state of flow, which results from total absorption in whatever we are doing.

You can only know knowledge to be true when the experience is true for you. Your strength is your belief in what you know to be true.

Further Reading