Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Samatha meditation is the foundation for all other meditations.  If you’re a meditator but not familiar with the term samatha, I assure you that you are at least familiar with the technique.  Samatha is Sanskrit for “calm abiding”, and the technique asks essentially that you focus easily but steadily on a single thing.  Breath, anyone?

photo courtesy of me.
Cultivating samatha is like equipping a car with fantastic shock absorbers.   In life, we drive along, la-di-da…aware of, but not aware of surrounding traffic, Katy Perry on the radio, kids squawking in the backseat.  We’re musing about, say, what’s for dinner and then BLAMMO!  Gigantic pothole.  The car lurches and bounces, everybody SCREAMS.  Your heart races, you hold your breath, everything happens in slow motion and you are, to use a phrase that I cannot claim credit for, nailed to the present moment.*

Then you’re back on course, the kids are fine, nobody’s hurt, the car’s okay.   “So, right-o, I’m thinking maybe meatloaf…”

It’s like that, life is, right?  You’re just driving along and then the potholes appear, you didn’t even see them coming.    The toilet backs up.  Scream!  Your kid gets mono.  Freak out!  You get laid off.  Holla, and I don’t mean in a good way!  Your spouse cheats on you.  Holy shit!  Your best friend is the other woman.  FUCK!

Or, it could just be:  The house is dirty.  Your mom is nagging.  No milk in the fridge.   Your girlfriends went to lunch without you.  Those are potholes, too.  We lurch, and in that split second of clarity, before we make a decision about how we’re going to lose it (because oh, yes; by God, I’m going to lose it), we see exactly what’s going on.  It is what it is and NOTHING MORE, and certainly not about you (sorry).  Then that microsecond passes, our adrenaline spikes, our synapses fire, and we must somehow announce that we are:

A)     ANGRY!
B)     AFRAID!


We live according to rules, customs, norms and expectations because it makes life more convenient to navigate.  That’s not a bad thing. Because we operate within this framework, though, we are subject to having the rug pulled out from underneath us swiftly and ruthlessly. 

Samatha trains us to navigate these situations with less of an “AAAAAAAAAGHHHHHH!!!” and more of a “Whoa.”   

What samatha is not is numbness.  We aren’t steeling ourselves against hurt or surprise or disappointment.  We are in fact moving forward, moving closer, despite the jagged edges of it.  We find that, if we can soften, we can begin too move right through those things and be completely wide-eyed and present with them.  Because those edges are sharp, it stings a little at first (okay, sometimes a lot, and sometimes not just at first - but stay with me here), that softening and opening.  Right inside that, that shell broken open, is the soft guts of bodhichitta, your true nature: compassion, openness, empathy for the suffering of all living things bar none (including yourself; you don’t get to skip yourself – but that is fodder for another post).

Yeah, it’s lofty.  I practice samatha.  Do I feel open, compassionate, empathetic?  Sometimes.  Maybe more and more, slowly.   Sometimes, not so much.   I’m still learning the value of disciplined practice and sangha.  Oh, and that you get to keep coming back without penalty.   That may be the loveliest part, as my friend Liz says: Keep coming back, keep coming back.  With practice, your true nature becomes second nature.  Ironic.

To my friends at Shambhala Dallas, gassho, and thank you.

* anyone care to guess?  if you know me personally, it's not really so hard.


Zen-Chakra said...

Oh how fitting that I found you today! I just wrote a post about the woes of being me and desperatly trying to open myself up! haha Screaming during meditation apparently is not what my guides had in mind! Thanks for the beautiful post, well written and fitting for my message of the day! thanks

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