Mindfulness practices do not exist in isolation but are embedded within a matrix of diverse techniques with various purposes and prerequisites. These can be grouped into five primary categories: (1) refining the attention, (2) achieving insight through mindfulness, (3) cultivating a good heart, (4) exploring the ultimate nature of reality, and (5) realizing the Great Perfection—the culmination of the path to enlightenment.
Shamatha: Cultivating Meditative Quiescence and Samadhi
The first of these categories, historically as well as in practice, is meditative quiescence (Skt. shamatha), which is developed by training and refining the attention. The further goal of this contemplative technology is to achieve a state of highly focused and refined attention (Skt. samadhi). A refined mind becomes an accurate instrument for investigating the nature of reality, just as a properly cleaned and calibrated telescope provides the clearest possible observations of the cosmos.
The development of attention was mastered in ancient India, which led the world in formalizing such knowledge. Indian yogis were developing methods to refine their samadhi for hundreds of years before the Buddha’s time. Contemplative practice had become a highly mature and sophisticated matrix of disciplines. These traditions were extensively adapted and developed as they spread throughout Asia, and they represent only one of India’s extraordinary contributions to the world. Many generations of seekers found enormous benefits in extended samadhi practices that reached progressively subtler states. From the beginnings of shamatha, they strove to achieve increasingly refined absorptions in the form realm, where the object of meditation has a form, and in the subtler formless realm.
Mindfulness practice begins with the foundation of shamatha, which supports the development and cultivation of samadhi. In fact, forms of shamatha are found to varying extents in all the world’s great contemplative traditions. Practitioners have long recognized that if one wishes to devote oneself to meditation, the untrained mind presents an obstacle. The ordinary mind alternates between extremes of hyperactive mental activity and collapse into lethargy and sleep. During the daytime, one agitation follows another, and at night we are comatose; the next morning, we repeat the cycle. Ordinary people call it life. Contemplatives have identified it as the normal human condition.
The mind we bring to meditation needs refinement, and that is the purpose of shamatha. These extremely practical methods do not require us to retreat to a cave. They can be enormously helpful in our daily lives, personal relationships, and professional endeavors, as they transcend all barriers of religious traditions, affiliations, and beliefs. Scientific materialists, atheists, and religious fundamentalists alike will experience tangible benefits from a serviceable mind that is stable and clear. Such a mind can be applied more effectively to everything. Shamatha is also the indispensable foundation for more advanced practices, such as vipashyana.
Vipashyana: Achieving Insight through Mindfulness
Historically, the Buddha himself started with the development of samadhi, but then he moved on. Bear in mind that his world was well populated with contemplatives. Many were wandering ascetics, who were often countercultural figures, living on one meal a day and devoting themselves to the pursuit of truth. With so much competition, how did Buddha Shakyamuni distinguish himself over the others of his era? Of course there are many reasons, but from a contemplative’s perspective, he stands out because he refused to take samadhi itself as the goal.
The Buddha’s greatest innovation was to assert that the practice of samadhi—single-pointed concentration with highly refined attention, which enables very subtle states of consciousness that transcend the physical senses and lead to states of equanimity and bliss—only temporarily suspends the mental afflictions (Skt. kleshas). Instead, the Buddha sought lasting freedom. Standing upon the shoulders of the contemplative giants of his era, the young Siddhartha Gautama developed and refined his samadhi, but then he purposefully applied this stable, clear, and highly focused instrument to an experiential investigation. By closely inspecting his own mind, his body, and the relationships among mind, body, and environment, he founded the genre of meditation for cultivating insight, or vipashyana.
As the Buddha formulated it, insight practice begins with a solid foundation in ethics and a wholesome, non-injurious way of life. Upon this basis, the attention is refined into a reliable tool for investigation and employed to probe the ultimate nature of reality, with the mind at the very center of experiential reality. The Buddha’s great innovation was the unification of shamatha and vipashyana and asserted that the unification is the key to liberation—an irreversible healing and purification of the mind. If the afflictive mental tendencies are irreversibly vanquished by severing the root of suffering, lasting freedom will be attained.
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Minding Closely: The Four Applications of Mindfulness by B. Alan Wallace with permission from Snow Lion Publications, www.snowlionpub.com