“Some traditions speak of two types of meditation, insight meditation (vipassana) and calm meditation (shamata),” writes Ajahn Brahm, author of Mindfulness, Bliss, and Beyond: A Meditator’s Handbook.
Vipassana meditation brings insight through a practice of seeing and discerning. Shamata meditation, also known as mindfulness meditation, cultivates calm brought through concentration. Imagine the two as the clasped hands of a blessing.
“In fact the two are indivisible facets of the same process. Calm is the peaceful happiness born of meditation; insight is the clear understanding born of the same meditation. Calm leads to insight and insight leads to calm."
Many yoga classes begin with the teacher instructing us to, “take a comfortable seat.” But what does that mean? In shamata meditation, your seat and posture are the foundations of the practice.
Traditionally, shamata meditation is practiced in the seven-point posture of Vairochana—imagine a seated Buddha or Shiva statue. Because all bodies are (beautifully!) different, “comfortable” could look like something else. Here are seven points to consider for your body:
Let your breath be. Notice it as it moves in and out. In and out. In, out.
That’s it. You’re practicing shamata meditation.
This is where “simple but not easy” comes in. As you practice noticing your breath, almost immediately, mind chatter will start vying for your attention. Where’s a good place to meet your friend for coffee tomorrow? Which route should you take to get there? Wait, does the car need gas?
Before you can realize it’s begun, you’re deep in rumination about the future or the past.
When you notice thoughts, practice letting them go. Pema Chödrön advises a conscious acknowledgment of the thought:
“When you realize you’ve been thinking, you label it ‘thinking.’ When your mind wanders off, you say to yourself, ‘thinking,’” Chodron writes in Start Where You Are: A Guide to Compassionate Living.
“Whether your thoughts are violent or passionate or full of ignorance and denial; whether your thoughts are worried or fearful; whether your thoughts are spiritual thoughts, pleasing thoughts of how well you’re doing, comforting thoughts, uplifting thoughts, whatever they are—without judgment or harshness, simply label it all ‘thinking,’ and do that with honesty and gentleness.”
Not too tight, not too loose.
Return to the breath.
Repeat as necessary.
Many studies have looked at the benefits of shamata meditation. The upsides to this simple practice are numerous and holistic—physical, emotional, interpersonal.
In studies of patients treated for HIV, breast cancer, and rheumatoid arthritis, shamata meditation seemed to strengthen the immune system’s disease-fighting response. The American Heart Association finds shamata meditation may offer benefits to those with heart disease. Shamata meditation might also mitigate cognitive decline.
Shamata meditation is beneficial for those with anxiety, depression, stress, and helps reduce what doctors call, “general psychopathology”. The practice can be beneficial as an adjunct treatment for drug addiction and can increase feelings of self compassion and body satisfaction.
As you bring shamata off the cushion and into your life, you may notice an improvement in overall wellbeing. The attunement and observation practiced in shamata help us take pleasure in our lives as we live them by being present in the moment. Through our practice, we also become equipped to withstand life’s challenging moments.
Not too tight, not too loose.
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