This explanation of samatha meditation is written from the personal experience of Thich Hue Gioi, a novice monk at Pagoda Phat Hue, who completed a three-month retreat at Pa Auk Tawya meditation center, Myanmar, in April 2007.
I only stayed at Pa Auk for a brief period but I nonetheless came away from the center with a wholesome meditation method I can practice. Having arrived at a comfortable understanding of samatha meditation that fits my western mind, I would like to share this method with others to benefit their meditation practice and help them to avoid confusion and bewilderment.
In theory, the practice is simple: breathe and observe the breath. However, understanding the method and then practicing accordingly – like anything worthwhile – requires patience and endurance. For example, terms like “natural breath,” “natural focus,” “breath as a concept,” and even “mindfulness of the object” and “concentration” are easy to misunderstand without proper guidance, personal experience and verification.
The Theravada Pa Auk retreat center is especially known for its samatha meditation practice and strict, orthodox observance of the Vinaya (the ‘basket of discipline’ – guidelines laid out for practitioners by the Buddha). The meditation teacher during my stay there was the Ven. U. Revata, who provided more than satisfactory meditation instructions that showed patience and compassion for all students, both east and west.
The Visuddhi Magga or Path of Purification is the definitive text for the method of meditation used at Pa Auk. Of the forty acceptable objects of samatha meditation set forth by the Buddha and explained in the Visuddhi Magga commentary, mindfulness of the in and out breath (ānāpāna) is the most common.
Samatha Meditation: A Method
“Samatha” can be translated as calm or tranquility meditation. Calm, in this sense, is not synonymous with relaxation – though relaxation is necessary. Relaxation is connected to the body, and when the mind is too relaxed we fall asleep. Nor is “samatha” synonymous with ‘overpowering the thought process into submission’ – this is overexertion.
Contrary to other teachings, the sitting position used in Pa Auk is a relaxed open lotus, with the right foot in front of the left. This is because, for beginners, other positions – such as the half or full lotus – will quickly become painful and distract one from the meditation object. The back should be strait, with the hands resting one on top of the other on the lap, and a two- to four-finger high cushion – which is neither too hard nor soft – should be placed under the buttocks. Tilt the head slightly forward to rest on the spine, and close the eyes (like in sleep). Comfort is important:if you experience too much discomfort, shift to a more suitable position. When we meditate for long periods of time, we naturally find a comfortable sitting posture. Next, begin to calm the mind by letting go of excitement, guilt, and self-judgment. Do not participate in any arising emotional state. This can be difficult, but it becomes easier if we remember that we are alone, no one can hear our thoughts, and the cultivation of samatha meditation will help us to overcome any difficulty. A common mistake is to think, “I will be calm for my kids, my friends, and all sentient beings”. Wrong! Often, people think in this way, but on a deeper level their practice is motivated by regret, guilt and the judgment of others. This is detrimental to our practice and will eventually spoil our progress.
It is better to be safe and find the wholesome motivation for ourselves first. When we create a stable, healthy mind we inspire others. The Buddha said, “That one who is himself sinking in the mud should pull out another who is sinking in the mud is impossible” (Majjhima Nikaya, I, 46, Salleka Sutta, p. 130) Eventually, we see with deep understanding that helping one’s self is the only way that we can help others.
My teacher instructed me to focus on “the natural breath in the general area under the nose” as the meditation object. For Westerners practiced in investigation and analyzation – but unfamiliar with simple observation and calming the mind – the phrase “general area” is notable. Focusing on the general area under the nose provides us with more space to sense the breath, and prevents the mind from focusing too strenuously on one point of the body instead of the breath. When we do not give the mind ample opportunity to calm down and our mindfulness is weak, we can often not sense the breath. For instance, when asked to focus on the breath at one point under the nose, many beginners complain of numbness or no feeling. At some point in their practice, almost everyone will experience numbness or moments when the breath is too subtle to be sensible. Normally, the cause of this numbness is too much effort. When it occurs, focus on the last point where the breath was observed and mindfulness of the object will return.
After meditating every day eight to ten hours, I found a beneficial rhythm and routine that I still use today. First, I relax my body, starting at the top of the head and moving down through the rest of the body until reaching the feet. I pay special attention to problematic areas like the face, shoulders, pelvis, and lower back where tension normally gathers. Being honest with myself, I bring my awareness to the state of my mind and body, and attempt to breathe naturally. Next, I let the mind calm down and clear until I think about nothing – no thoughts. Then, I allow the body to breathe by itself, releasing control of the breath and thoughts about how I ‘should’ breathe, and observe my natural breath as it is around the area of the nose. When our mind gets pulled away from the breath by thoughts, feelings or sounds, gently and patiently let go of them, and return to the awareness of the breath at point where it touches again.
We are ceaselessly stimulated in our culture of big, bright, loud, fast, and sexy, and our minds constantly jump from one object to another. The goal of samatha mediation is to attain one pointed concentration, something that cannot be achieved with two or more objects. Focusing on a single object continuously allows our mind to slow, settle and come to peace. With sustained practice, one learns to enjoy this experience even more than our normally distracted existence.
The answers below – provided by my instructor – are paraphrased from my journal entries.
How does one experience the natural breath?
First, relax the body. Then allow the mind to calm down and clear, so that one has no thoughts. At this moment one perceives the breath naturally. When one is not thinking or moving, the breath spontaneously becomes the most interesting object of focus. After raising many questions and experimenting, I came up with my own explanation, later verified by my teacher. The appearance of the natural breath arises when you allow your body to function on its own without any kind of control. It is the art of getting out of your own way. In fact, there are many signs that let you know you have gotten out of your own way, such as the sudden appearance of bliss, contentment, and confidence.
How should I observe?
I asked my teacher this question and received a puzzling answer: “Naturally observe the breath, as it is.” He also said, “First relax the body, then let the mind calm and clear, and observe the natural breath as it is,” and quoted the Buddha, “Observe the breath as a concept.” Confused by his answer, I went to a higher ranking monk who had eyes that glowed like fire and ice, and asked, “How should I observe the breath.” He said that just knowing the breath is enough,” and continued, “People make it so complicated. You see right now I am breathing, and I know I am breathing – this is enough.” Both of these venerable teachers instruct us to know the breath as a concept. In other words, do not try to understand the mental or physical anatomy of the breath or it’s separate, distinguishable attributes. Investigating and analyzing the breath in this way does not serve the purpose of samatha meditation. Instead, we should clarify the object by letting go of everything that is not the breath. Breath is breath – don’t think too much.
As I continued meditating, simply observing, or “knowing” the breath and breathing became my practice. I eventually realized that natural breathing and simple observation are linked, so that when one is tainted, the other quickly – or simultaneously – becomes tainted as well. For instance, when we are scared, the body automatically tenses and the breath becomes short and shallow, but if we relax, the breath is long and deep. When we are truly calm, the breath becomes so subtle that it is hard to know we are breathing.
What is mindfulness of the object?
To be aware of the object is to be mindful. But for our minds to be full of the object, we must be clear about what it is. Fortunately, clarity happens naturally when we have patience and endurance. As we continually return to the observation of the natural breath, our object, the actual concept of the breath, is clarified through direct understanding and familiarity. When the mind becomes clear in this way it is a sign that our mindfulness is increasing.
What is concentration?
Many of us fall into the trap of trying to hold onto the meditation object with too much effort for as long as we can. The mind quickly tires of this, and the more effort we put in, the more the object drifts away and frustration builds, generating anger and doubt. The trick is to see concentration in a different way.
While meditating, we become aware of the natural breath for a short time, and then get pulled away from it by thoughts, feelings, and sounds. We realize that we have left the breath and then return to it, knowing that we were not aware of it a moment before. The trick is to shorten the time between awareness of the breath, distraction, and returning to awareness. It is important not to wrench your mind back, rush, or get excited, but to simply be aware of the natural breath again. Because it is always there – we never stop breathing – we just have to observe it. Eventually, the time that we are unaware of the breath decreases and the time that we are aware of it increases. When we are able to naturally sustain the awareness without grasping on the breath, and let the mind settle there, content, continuously – we have obtained well-established mindfulness, or concentration.
It is important to remember that each meditation session is different. We should not expect to simply sit down and pick up where we left off the last time, because conditions and daily influences always change – everything is impermanent. Consequently, we should follow the steps mentioned above each time we sit.
Finally, if your mind is overwhelmed by thoughts, it cannot calm down. A simple technique to start with is to count each set of in and out breaths. In-out, One, in-out, Two, and so on up to a number between five and ten. There is no shame in counting – it is very effective. I counted my breath for weeks, every day, and eventually counted to ten 260 consecutive times without interruption, before I switched my awareness to the breath itself. This is a good technique for those that experience too many thoughts while meditating, because it keeps the mind busy enough to foster the suppression of those thoughts.