What is Shamata Meditation

Samatha meditation

These explanations on Samatha meditation are based on the personal experiences of Thich Hue Gioi, a novice of the Phat Hue Pagoda, who completed a three-month retreat at the Pa Auk Tawya Meditation Center in Myanmar in April 2007.

I stayed in Pa Auk only for a short period of time, but I still managed to leave the meditation center with a meditation method that was workable for me. Since I can now look back on a comprehensive understanding of Shamatha meditation, which suits my western mind very much, I would like to recommend this method to other people so that they can benefit from it for the development of their meditation practice and also receive assistance, to avoid irritation and confusion on the path.

In theory, the practice is very simple: breathe and watch your breath. However, one needs patience and perseverance in order to understand the method and to practice it accordingly - as is the case with everything that is worth striving for -. For example, expressions such as “natural breath”, “natural focus”, “breath as a concept” and also “mindfulness related to the object” and “concentration” can easily be misunderstood if good guidance, personal experience and practice review are neglected come.

The Theravada Pa Auk Retreat Center is particularly known for its teachings on Samatha meditation and the strict, orthodox application of Vinaya ("basket of religious discipline" - these regulations Buddha had drawn up for practitioners). During my stay, Venerable U. Revata instructed me, his more than satisfactory meditation instructions expressed his patience and compassion for all students present, regardless of their Western or Eastern origins.

Visuddhi Maggaor the path to purity is considered to be the authoritative text for the meditation method used in Pa Auk. Of the forty possible objects for samatha meditation that were presented by the Buddha and in the commentary of the Visuddhi Magga explained, the most common method is mindfulness related to inhaling and exhaling (ānāpāna).

Samatha Meditation: One Method

“Samatha” can be translated as meditation for the development of mental calm and quiet lingering. In this sense, mental calm is not to be understood synonymously with relaxation - however relaxation is necessary. Relaxation is related to the body and when the mind is too relaxed we may fall asleep. "Samatha" is also not a synonym for ‘to put a stop to the process of thinking through efforts to suppress’ - this would be tantamount to unnecessary overexertion.

In contrast to other teachings, Pa Auk usually meditates in the relaxed, “open” lotus sitting position, with the right foot in front of the left foot. The reason for this is that beginners in other sitting postures such as the “half or full lotus” can get pain very quickly and are thereby distracted from their meditation object. Your back should be straight, your hands resting - one on top of the other - in your lap while sitting on a pillow two to four fingers high - which shouldn't be too soft or too hard. Tilt your head gently forward so that it can rest on your spine, then close your eyes (as if you were sleeping). A sense of comfort is important:
If you are uncomfortable, find a different posture that works for you. In longer meditation phases, we naturally adjust to the posture that is comfortable for us. Then calm the mind by letting go of excitement, guilt, and self-judgment. Do not participate in every emotion that arises. This can prove difficult, but it becomes easier when we remember that we are alone and no one can hear our thoughts, and familiarity with samatha meditation will help us overcome any difficulties. The thought, "I want to practice calmness for my children, friends, and all sentient beings," is a mistake often made. It is wrong! Often times people think this way, but their actual practice is motivated on a deeper level by regret, guilt, and judgment of other people. This is diametrically opposed to our practice and will ultimately dilute our progress.

It is better to find some wholesome motivation for us first. We can inspire other people through a stable and balanced mind. The Buddha said, "But there is no such case that someone who has sunk into a swamp himself can pull out another man who is sunken into a swamp" (Majjhima Nikaya, I, 46, Salleka Sutta, P. 130). Ultimately, we gain a deeper understanding of the view that we must first help ourselves before we can help others.

My teacher instructed me to focus as my meditation object on "the natural breath that is noticeable in an undefined area below the nose". For Westerners who are used to indulging in analysis and investigation - but unfamiliar with simple observation and calming the mind - the phrase "an indefinite zone" is noteworthy. Focusing on this area below the nose creates more space to perceive the breath and prevents the mind from focusing too hard on a particular part of the body instead of the breath. If we do not give our mind enough opportunities to calm down and our attention is weak, we often cannot perceive our breath. For example, if we are told to concentrate our breath on a point below the nose, beginners complain of a feeling of numbness or that they feel nothing at all. At some point in the course of their practice, almost everyone will experience some type of numbness or that the breath becomes too subtle to be felt. Usually the cause of that numbness is too much exertion. If all of this occurs, focus on the last point when the breath was observed and attention to the object will return.

After meditating for eight to ten hours every day, I found a rhythm and routine that was beneficial for me and which I have kept to this day. First I relax my body, then I start walking through the body from the top of my head down to my feet. I pay special attention to problem areas like the face, shoulders, pelvis, and lower back, as this is where tension usually builds up. In an honest attitude, I bring my attention to the state in which my mind and body are and try to breathe naturally. Next, I let my mind become calm and clear until I don't think anything - no thoughts. Then I let the breath happen in the body, giving up control of the breath and the thoughts about how I “should” breathe and so I observe my natural breath as it is in the zone around the nose. If our mind is drawn away from the breathing process by thoughts, feelings or noises, then we patiently and gently let go of them and return with our attention to our meditation object.

We are constantly inundated with stimuli in our society - everything is huge, brightly lit, loud, fast, and sexually aligned, and so our minds are constantly jumping from one object to another. The goal of samatha meditation is to achieve one-pointed concentration; this cannot be achieved with two or more objects. Constantly focusing on a single object allows our minds to slow down, settle down, and be at peace. As practice progresses, one learns to prefer this experience to our normally very volatile way of life.


The answers given below by my meditation teacher have been compiled from my diary entries.

How does the experience of natural breath come about?

First, relax your body. Then allow the mind to become clear and calm so that thoughts do not arise. At this moment one perceives the breath in its naturalness. If you don't think or move, your breath spontaneously becomes a highly interesting object of concentration. After raising a lot of questions and experimenting around, I came up with my very own point of view, which was later verified by my teacher. The appearance of natural breath occurs when you allow your body to simply function without any background control. This is the art of getting off the beaten track. There are actually various indications that convey to you that you have left your well-trodden path, such as the sudden appearance of bliss, contentment and trust.

How am I supposed to do the observation?

I asked this question to my teacher and got an amazing answer: "Obviously observe the breath as it is." He also stated: "First relax the body, then let the mind become calm and clear and observe the natural breath as it is". He quoted the Buddha, "See the breath as a concept."
Confused by this answer, I turned to a tall monk with eyes that glowed like fire and ice and asked, "How should I watch my breath?" He replied that it was enough just to know the breath and went on, “Many people make this so complicated. As you can see, I am breathing right now and I know that I am breathing - that's enough. " Both of these venerable teachers instruct us to see the breath as a concept. In other words, do not try to understand the mental or physical nature of breath, or its individual distinguishable properties. Exploring and analyzing the breath in this way does not serve the purpose of samatha meditation. Instead, we should see the object more clearly by letting go of anything other than breath. Breath is breath - don't think so much.

As I progressed further in meditation by simply observing or "knowing" the breath, breathing became my practice. I finally learned that natural breathing and simple observation were linked so that if one were flawed, the other would quickly - or simultaneously - be flawed as well. For example, if we are frightened, the body is automatically tense and the breath is shallow and short, but if we are relaxed, the breath is long and deep. When we are truly calm, the breath becomes so subtle that it is difficult to tell if we are breathing at all.

What does mindfulness mean in relation to an object?

To be aware of an object means to be mindful. But in order for our mind to be filled with the object, we have to be clear about what it is. Fortunately, clarity comes naturally when we have patience and perseverance. By continually returning to the observation of natural breath, our object, the very concept of breath, is perceived more clearly through a direct understanding and the familiarity that goes with it. If the mind has become clear through this, it means an indication that our mindfulness has expanded.

What is concentration?

Many of us fall into a trap because with too much effort we hold on to our meditation object for as long as possible. The mind then tires very quickly, the more we try, the more the object disappears from us, frustration builds up, which in turn leads to anger and doubt. The trick is to see concentration in a different light.

As we meditate, we become aware of the natural breath for a short time and then thoughts, feelings and sounds distract us again. We recognize that we have lost our breath and return to it, knowing full well that we had not noticed it a moment before. The trick is to reduce the time between consciously sensing your breath, a distraction, and coming back to that awareness. It is important not to drag the mind back, to hurry or to get excited, but simply to become consciously aware of the natural breath again. Because it is always there - we never stop breathing - we just have to watch it.
Finally, the time in which we are not aware of the breath decreases more and more and the time in which we are mindful increases. Can we maintain awareness as a matter of course without reaching for our breath and the mind comes to rest at this point, content and steady - we have a well-anchored mindfulness or concentration.

It is important to remember that each meditation session is different. We shouldn't expect to just sit down and pick up on what we experienced last time, because circumstances and daily influences are constantly changing - everything is fleeting. Therefore, we should consistently keep the above steps in mind every time we meditate.

And finally, it should be noted that as soon as the mind is overwhelmed by thoughts, it cannot come to rest. An easy way to get started easily is to count a set of inhalations and exhalations. On-off, one, on-off, two, and so on up to a number between five and ten. Just counting is not trivial - it is very effective. I counted my breath every day for weeks, and eventually counted to ten 260 consecutive times, without interruption, before moving my mindfulness to the actual breath. This is a good practice for those who experience too many thoughts during meditation because it keeps the mind busy enough to keep the thoughts in check.