Printed in the Winter 2014 issue of Quest magazine. Citation: Cianciosi, John. "Calm and Clear: Samatha and Vipassana Meditation" Quest 102. 4 (Winter 2014): pg. 13-17.
By John Cianciosi
The Buddhist term for meditation is bhavana. A better translation of this word would be “mental cultivation,” which implies making an effort to bring into being certain wholesome qualities of mind through a systematic training. Often the Buddha referred to this as the practice of samatha and vipassana, or developing tranquility and insight respectively. The two most detailed discourses in the Pali Canon that describe this practice are the Anapanasati Sutta (“The Discourse on Mindfulness of Breathing”), and the Satipatthana Sutta (“The Discourse on the Four Foundations of Mindfulness”). Rather than trying to present a scholastic analysis of these two discourses, I want to share with you a simplified and pragmatic description of the practice following the style of my teacher, the late Venerable Ajahn Cha.
I would like to begin by speaking about developing a good posture for meditation. The ideal posture is one that is balanced, stable, and comfortable. Whether you are sitting on a chair or cross-legged on the floor, try to sit with your back erect. Push the lower back forward a little and allow the muscles of the abdomen to relax. The rest of the back should follow the natural shape of the spine, keeping the top of the head towards the ceiling. Keep your chin tucked in slightly so that the neck is straight. You can experiment with this posture until you find what works best for you.
If you are able to sit cross-legged on the floor without discomfort, try to develop the half-lotus posture, as it gives good stability and allows one to sit for longer periods. You may want to use a cushion, as it will help keep your back erect. Practicing some stretching yoga postures will make it easier for you to sit cross-legged on the floor.
Some people sit on a low stool that is tilted slightly forward. While you are in a kneeling position, the meditation stool straddles over the calves and you sit on it, keeping your back erect. If none of these postures are possible for you, then just sit on a chair. Choose a chair with a straight back and firm seat of a height that allows your feet to rest flat on the floor. Work with your body to see if you can gradually cultivate a good, straight, and balanced posture. The more balanced and comfortable you feel in your posture, the easier it will be to sit for longer periods.
Working with the posture is in itself a very good meditation, especially when we feel very dull. At this time the breath is too refined an object, so take this opportunity to use the body. It is something tangible, it feels solid, and it can help ground the mind. The feelings of the body are immediate, present-moment sensations that can anchor the mind to the here and now. So when the mind starts moving into dull, confused, or distracted states, come back to something really obvious, like the posture. Often the state of the body reflects the state of the mind. When the mind is dull or lazy, the body starts slumping, losing its strength and energy. We can direct our attention to the experience of the body sitting, bringing the mind within the body, letting it sink into the body and animate the body with life—mind sitting with the body. Then we can begin to experiment with improving the posture by putting a little more strength into the back and neck. Not only is this developing posture for its own sake, but it is also disciplining the mind by cultivating awareness and energy.
As for the exercise of concentration, this is what we call samatha meditation. This meditation is good for everyone, because we tend to create, think, and analyze too much. Intellectually we are very active and agile, but this can easily lead to confusion and complexity, because the nature of thought and the conditioned world is complex. We are very complicated beings and when we try to understand ourselves just by thinking, it can be very confusing. One’s mind seems like a jungle of thoughts, ideas, perceptions, and memories. So what we really need is a firm foundation in clarity and stability, where the mind can begin to rest and focus on being still, content in the present moment and not getting lost in thinking. Samatha meditation is the process of moving away from the realm of thought and complexity towards silence, stillness, and simplicity.
A very good method of meditation that can help us achieve this is anapanasati, mindfulness of breathing. This technique uses the flow of the breath as the object of attention for training the mind in awareness, concentration, and serenity. Anapanasati is quite different from breath control because it uses the natural flow of the breath. There is no contriving or constructing, making it into this or that, which is what we do with most other things. In this practice we simply observe the natural flow of the breath, allowing the mind to rest while remaining attentive to the breath. We get out of the way and let the body breathe as it wants. The rhythmic flow of the breath is in itself a very tranquil, peaceful, and soothing experience.
It requires a lot of patience before the mind will come to rest with this simple meditation object, because we are used to exciting mental gymnastics and this is just a very simple task, only observing and staying with the breath. We need to be patient and have confidence in the teachings of the Buddha and in our teachers. If we have confidence, it will give us the resolve to patiently bring the attention back to the breath, turning towards the breath more fully. When the mind starts running off and gets interested in something else, what does that mean? It means that we see greater value in those other things; we think they will give us more excitement, more happiness. We think that memories of the past or plans for the future are going to give us more happiness than staying with the breath. That’s why the mind moves away from the breath: we always seek happiness.
We can have confidence in this practice because this is what the Buddha practiced on the eve of his enlightenment, and it has been passed down to us by many great masters. Bringing this to mind helps us to focus our attention on the breath more easily. We are able to turn towards it and sustain our attention, be with it, being completely contented. If we become really peaceful and develop deep concentration, we will experience rapture, bliss, and happiness that far exceed the normal pleasures of the sensory world. If we keep this in mind when we sit down to meditate, it will motivate us to let go of all other things and give our full attention to the breath, incline towards it, be satisfied with it, knowing that it will lead to an experience of profound joy.
Now when we begin, it is quite difficult. We can’t force the mind or strangle the stray thoughts. We have to be very, very patient and remain vigilant. Meditation cannot be just a mechanical exercise. We need to notice what is happening using present-moment awareness. Notice when the mind is being attentive to the breath, and also notice when the mind starts drifting away towards something else. Notice and then bring the attention back to the breath. Try to sustain the awareness that knows “this is an inhalation” and “this is an exhalation.” When images, discursive thoughts, and memories arise, we notice them and we let them go without chasing them or fighting them. It’s like cutting our way through a jungle made of thoughts, images, words, memories, and plans. We keep coming back to the reality of the breath. The breath is something that is present right now and can be experienced directly through the subtle sense of touch. It does not require thought or imagination. We do not need to create it. The breath comes in, this is an inhalation, we know that. The breath goes out, this is an exhalation, we know that. We simply relax and settle into being an interested observer of this natural flow as though we have nothing else to do and nowhere to go. Gradually the flow of the breath becomes more clear and prominent in the mind. Now we can begin to notice the beginning and the end of each breath with more clarity. Knowing the beginning of the inhalation; knowing the end of the inhalation; knowing the beginning and the end of the exhalation.
So we are disciplining the mind by using the natural flow of the breath as an anchor for attention. As we begin to thin out the jungle of thoughts and reduce the amount of inner imagery and discursive chatter, the mind gradually becomes more clear, silent, and peaceful. Then it is a matter of focusing more closely on the breath; inclining towards it is all you can really do. Allowing the mind to sink into the breath, to touch it, to get as close as we can to it—the more we do that, the deeper the concentration and tranquility will become.
We can read all sorts of books on how to practice mindfulness of breathing, but the only real teacher is the experience that comes from practice. It is not a matter of “doing it right,” but more of learning from our attempts at training the mind. We know that our practice is going in the right direction if the mind is becoming a little more clear, focused, and peaceful. Regular practice is very important because the skill is cultivated through repetition, learning from each meditation period. There will be many ups and downs; sometimes the mind is peaceful and sometimes it is restless; it is all a learning experience. The goal of tranquility meditation is quite simple; it simplifies the mind and focuses the attention.
It is the same with walking meditation. We can use the touch of the feet or the movement of the legs as our focus of attention. It is a very real and tangible object to anchor the mind on. Each step has a beginning and an end for us to focus on. We begin to simplify, moving away from the world of thinking, projecting, and complexity to being in the “here and now” with present-moment awareness of each step. Walking is simply taking one step at a time.
Training the mind with the right amount of effort requires awareness and patience. If we have expectations and no patience, we will soon become disheartened. The Buddha said that it is easier to go into battle single-handed against a thousand enemies armed to the teeth and to conquer them a thousand times than it is to conquer one’s own mind. He did not say this to dishearten us, but the Buddha did want to stress that it is a difficult thing to do. It requires a great deal of patience.
To develop this foundation of concentration and clarity is important, as it gives emotional stability and the ability to cut through the doubts, foolishness, and obsessive tendencies of the mind. When the mind is focused in a state of clarity and stillness, it is a very powerful and useful tool. The Buddha said that a welltrained mind is the most useful thing and the untrained mind the most dangerous thing to have. An untrained mind causes a lot of trouble to oneself and others, so it is worthwhile dedicating time for the cultivation of concentration. Most teachers recommend developing a good foundation of concentration by having a regular daily meditation practice.
What is the purpose of concentrating the mind? Is it just to experience a blissful state? Obviously there is more to it than that. In Buddhism we say that concentration is only one part of the training; there is also morality and wisdom. Wisdom is the most important, but not in the sense of knowledge. It’s not what we can hear from someone else, read in a book, or think out ourselves, but wisdom in the sense of really understanding the nature of experience. This is why it is so important to have a well-trained mind, sharp and clear, with the ability to be collected and to look directly at the experience. A clear mind can look directly, intensely, and penetratingly at experience, see through the superficial appearance, and see it for what it really is. What is the quality of mind that we need for this type of reflection? It is the mind that is still, silent, and fully awake; what we call “bare awareness” or sustained present-moment silent awareness.
We practice samatha meditation so we can bring the mind into this state of calmness and stillness. When we sit in meditation and concentrate on the breath, even if we let go of the breath, we can just be still, and when the mind is silent, there is this knowing, this awareness of the present. Now it is good if we can stabilize that awareness, even if we start with only a few moments. Samatha meditation gives stability to the mind so that we can stay in that alert state of knowing and emptiness for longer and longer periods.
The Buddha said that this thing I call “me” is made up of the body, feeling, perceptions, concepts, and consciousness. These are the five aggregates that make up a human being. These are the things that we are attached to and that we take to be “me” or “mine.” These are the things that cause our problems; we have to reflect on and observe them more closely in order to see them for what they are. How do we do this insight meditation with reflection? We objectify what is in consciousness and then observe its nature. Take the body, for example. We can be aware of the body just sitting. If the mind is quite still, we can be aware of the posture, the nature of the body, before we start labeling it or making anything of it. Then there are the sensations of the body, especially when they become very strong. If there is pain, we can make it an object of our awareness. We stop thinking about it as being this or that, we just experience the sensation, see if we can stay with it. What is the sensation actually like? Is it really you? Is it constant? What makes it pain rather than pleasure? Why is the mind shrinking away from it? What happens if we stay and abide calmly with it? We turn the attention towards the sensation in order to understand its nature by observing it closely with bare awareness.
The important thing is not to just react to every situation. For example, when there is an itch on the leg, we can scratch it and it’s gone, but we haven’t learnt anything because we are acting mechanically out of aversion and desire. There is no freedom there. I am not saying that it is wrong to scratch, but I am talking about insight, about freeing the mind from the power of instinct, aversion, and desire.
Sometimes we can feel very tired during meditation, and the body begins to slump. What is that feeling of tiredness in the body? We can notice what it feels like instead of just reacting and giving in to it. Instead of just feeling tired and lying down, we arouse attention and begin to observe. We see the nature of this state, the lack of energy, and if we stay with it, we may also see it passing away. When we are tired and decide to go to sleep rather than sit in meditation, that is not bad, wrong, or immoral in any way. But we are not learning anything, because there is no effort, patience, or reflection on that which is difficult to reflect on. There is no insight. It is valuable for a practitioner to do that which is difficult in order to cultivate spiritual qualities and to develop wisdom.
Venerable Ajahn Cha used to say that to practice vipassana or insight meditation one had to be attentive, observe, and finally penetrate the three fundamental characteristics of all conditioned existence: impermanence, unsatisfactoriness, and nonself. The practice of vipassana means to continually reflect on these three signs, make them our point of reference. The easiest of the three signs to observe is impermanence, the process of change. However, it requires a lot of patience. Normally we see the arising of something, but we don’t bother to hang around to wait for the passing away, especially if it is something unpleasant. For example, we may get into a restless state; the mind is agitated and the body doesn’t want to sit still. If this arises during our sitting, we are encouraged to stay with it rather than giving up and walking away. We can be aware; we can objectify and observe the restless state, get to know it, and have the patience to stay around and observe its impermanent nature. It is within the capacity of everyone to see the passing away of things, just ordinary things like restlessness, sleepiness, or a little bit of pain. By making them fully conscious in the mind and staying with them to see the beginning and the end, their arising and their cessation, we can clearly see their impermanent nature.
Impermanence is a very good subject to meditate on. We can observe it in the body, in its various states of energy, pain, tension, and relaxation. We can observe it in the mental states of restlessness, dullness, peacefulness, calm, and joy. We can notice all these changing, impermanent states of body and mind, just as they are. Objectify them. Reflect on what comes into the field of consciousness, whether that may be body, feeling, perceptions, conceptions, or moods. Just observing them all as objects of awareness. Staying with them and seeing them arising and passing away. Knowing that what you see cannot be “you” because it is coming and going. It cannot be “yours” because you cannot make it stay forever. Thus clearly seeing impermanence will help us see unsatisfactoriness and nonself, because they are three aspects of the same reality.
Insight meditation cannot be done with a dull state of mind. It requires an alert, reflective mind with a sharp, attentive quality of bare awareness. A mind that is very clear, no longer chasing or fighting experiences, but sticking around to see the beginning and the passing away of that which is in the field of consciousness, that which is being experienced. This is insight meditation. The technique is not insight meditation. Some people say that if you do this technique, it is insight, and if you do that technique, it is not. That is all rather silly. It is not the technique that makes it insight meditation. What makes it insight meditation is directing the penetrating power of awareness of an alert, clear state of mind to see the beginning and the end, the arising and the passing away of the present object of experience. Seeing the impermanent, unsatisfactory, and nonself nature of experience is insight meditation. Concentration on the breath can be insight meditation if we see the beginning and the end of each breath, not just thinking about it but really knowing it, experiencing it, seeing it clearly arising and passing. We can have insight into any thought, any mood, they are all sankhara: conditioned phenomena, mortal conditions. They are all of the same nature: impermanent, unsatisfactory, and notself. The practice of insight meditation is making the object fully clear in the conscious mind and then, with a clear, aware, and alert mind, seeing its beginning and its ending.
It is possible for us to do this not only during meditation but also at other times. We can open our minds to the impermanent and continually changing nature of everything in our lives. Begin to notice the day, for example. It has a beginning, then it changes, and we call it night. In time, light begins to return, revealing the colors of the day again. We can watch the changing seasons and the weather, being continually aware of the arising and passing of all things.
The Buddha said that to do good things and to give generously is a wonderful, meritorious thing. To have confidence and faith in virtue and to live a virtuous life based on morality is even more meritorious. To cultivate the mind of loving-kindness is even more meritorious than that. However, to be aware of impermanence even for the snap of a finger is of even greater merit, because it results in the arising of insight, the knowledge and vision of things as they truly are. So we should take an interest in noticing change; notice the arising and passing away of all conditioned phenomena with a well-trained mind that is clear, focused, and aware.
Born in Italy and raised in Australia, JOHN CIANCIOSI was a Buddhist monk for twenty-three years. In 1982, he helped found the Bodhiyana Forest Monastery in Serpentine, Western Australia, and led a community of monks and nuns. He also served as mentor for the Buddhist Society of Western Australia. This article is based on a talk he gave in Perth in the late 1980s. John decided to disrobe as a monk in 1995. He is the author of The Meditative Path (Quest Books) and presently serves as director of programming at Olcott.