Meditation: Samatha

“If you have time to breathe you have time to meditate.” Ajahn Amaro

Last time we spoke on the expectations that can hinder a meditation practice and really tried to look at it for exactly what it is — not what modern culture will try and tell you it is. The difference can be quite stark depending on where your cultural input is coming from. But all this is useless if we don’t talk about some meditation techniques to get you started in the first place. So today we will cover that a bit.

I see a few forms used as introductions to meditation. While I was originally going to go to Zazen topics, a friend recently reminded me of Samatha Meditation, and frankly I believe it is a better introduction. Thus… we start here.

Samatha Meditation

We’re picking Samatha first because in this practice your results are oriented toward a calming sensation. If that’s not worth pursuing I don’t know what is.

In this form your priority is to be mindful of your breathing. Now with “mindful” being a fairly new catchphrase in the world, we should review it really quick. This term is to emphasize that your focus is on the present moment. If you’re being mindful of your breath, then you are focusing on your breathing, right here, right now, and letting all else slide behind it — like watching a river flow. You would attempt to offer no attachment to any one part of that river water as it goes passed you. As such, in our meditation we will attempt this with our thoughts by putting our mind directly on the sensation of that breath.

For your sitting posture, as with most of these, find a comfortable surface to sit. Chair, floor, dog, whatever, it’s your practice. We won’t recommend laying down for this, as the mind will try and associate this with rest and not awareness. It’s hard to be mindful if you’re crashing out. Put your hands in your lap, the right palm up and cradling the left also palm up. The form may feel odd if you’re not used to it, but for the mind this is a nonaggressive hand gesture that also symbolizes receiving — we typically react more to symbolism than we think, so this is a great example of tapping into that little channel.

From here all you need do is focus on your natural breathing cycle. Some people choose to put their attention the rise and fall of their chest, some on the air as it passes through their nostrils, perhaps the sensation of warm and cool on the edge of your nose, this is up to you — as long as you can feel the process of bringing that air in and then letting it out that’s good enough for now. I personally found that if I put my attention on the gap between the breaths at times that even that helped me find my calm awareness.

Regardless, you will lose your focus occasionally — each time you do, just acknowledge the thought, and gently bring yourself back to the breathing sensation. If you are finding it very difficult to do this, try counting each breath from one to ten for a few repetitions. This gives you a task to achieve while going through your practice, but the attention still remains on the breathing. Again, if you lose your place? Just start over. There’s no award at the end so it’s not like there needs to be any judgmental ego involved saying, “dammit, I got lost at SEVEN!” It flat out doesn’t matter.

Remember, if you get frustrated, your focus is on the wrong thing. This is a mental training exercise, if it were always easy to focus on the breathing we wouldn’t be doing this. So be gentle with yourself as you guide the mind to where you need it. To generalize a bit: I’ve found that between my own self and meditating peers, our minds tend to settle down a lot at the 12–17 minute mark. Sometimes less, sometimes more, but that has been a common average that I hear. So if you JUST can’t get it to settle down… give yourself a little more time. To be compassionate with the world, we have to be compassionate with our own selves — so start with yourself here and allow yourself time to find that calm.

Now, yes, there are variations and nuances that are typically employed in the Buddhist tradition over this practice. We won’t be covering those today because while they can be rather empowering, I don’t want this all to be about Buddhism. Our interest is purely about getting people meditating. If more information is desired on this we will gladly revisit with some deeper details.

Next week we will likely try another meditation technique — one that will help with self awareness. Until then, remember that questions and thoughts are always welcome.

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