Lesson 4: Shamatha Meditation

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In the first three lessons we learned about the thoughts that flow through our head, like a constant chatter that I compared to the ripples on the ocean.

Seeing those ripples and noticing if they are calm ripples, caused by a gentle wind blowing over the ocean, or stirred up by fierce weather conditions above.

In meditation, we notice our thoughts, and also notice their quality. Are they positive and helpful? Are they negative? Or neutral?

So let me give you some historical background on these lines, on the Buddhas teaching about that topic.

He approached this in a very scientific way, starting with a diagnosis by self observation.

The result of his observation was: the thoughts that run through our head, they come and go. They are unstable. They are unreliable.

He continued to diagnose himself by observing the thoughts and feelings inside him. And this self observation turned out to be the cure itself and became part of his teaching.

This self observation puts us in a place to check it out ourselves. 

The Buddha did not want his followers to believe what he said, he wanted them to experience it themselves. Diagnose yourself! See for yourself!

And the wonder happens without believing, because we change through the process of observation. The observation itself is the cure.

And in this observation you are making a realisation: 

By watching the sensations that arise in you during the practice, you experience the instability of these thoughts and bodily sensations.

When you try to sit in meditation for a long time and the knees start hurting, you feel the pain as unpleasant, you also feel the urge to change your posture, the impulse to create relief by moving. 

This impulse is precisely the active, purposeful aspect of the unpleasant feeling: it arises with the unpleasant feeling and cannot be separated from it. Under normal circumstances, one would just automatically change the position without thinking about it and perhaps even without being aware of it. 

The same is true for pleasant feelings: while meditating, one might get a little sleepy, daydream, and automatically be tempted to indulge in those feelings. 

Without engaging in meditation, such impulses would hardly be taken note of, so quickly do they follow one another. Under the microscope of meditation, it is revealed that the foundations of our experience are a constant series of purposeful impulses.

The Buddha compared this to a monkey who roams through the forest, grasps a branch and, letting it go, reaches for the next.

Becoming aware of these little impulses that sum up to be our lives, can give our live gradually a better direction.

Practicing to identify the thought patterns that flow through us, will enable us to stop some of the negative recurring thoughts.

And start new, positive ones, replacing the old ones by looking through the magnifying glass onto the present moment and discover the beauty of the moment.

And in turbulent times it doesn’t feel like the ripples on the ocean, but more like boiling water.

Our emotions are high. We’re boiling inside. With force, aggression, pain, fear, loneliness and despair.

Putting a lid on the Pot won’t help.

Meditation is not that lid on the pot, while you’re boiling inside. 

It’s more about finding out what is heating that pot? What are these burning desires, what are the fueling negative energies?

What starts as a small fire, an unpleasant feeling, an anxiety or feeling stressed out or being unwanted or unrecognised  develops into a bigger fire.

Feeling uncertain, anxious and fearful always lets us get into Defense. Like a peaceful village that is turning into a fort, with thick walls and guards, soon armed to the teeth.

From a medical point of view fear pours out cortisol. You’re on Defense mode. Cortisol is a stress hormone. Energises you when necessary. However you pay the price. 

Cortisol will block Melatonin and in Defense mode you’re on watch and can’t sleep nor relax.

A little fire may soon turn into a bigger one, getting out of control, when fear turns into desperation, anger and rage.

This is when things start becoming bad in your life. You lose control of what started out as an emotion and the demons inside you, or as Carl Jung, the Swiss psychoanalyst called it “the shadow” part of your personality takes over.

In meditation you should only use a quarter of your concentration on the breath.

The point of this is that when you meditate you should only be aware of the core phases of the breath; you don’t remain continuously one with the breath.

I recommend focusing mostly on the out-breath. 

The Shamatha Meditation is also a method of sharpening the mind. Often the sheer pace and demands of our lives have a numbing effect. Our mental sharpness diminishes, our perception becomes foggy and unclear. Too much is expected of our mental faculties, they are overstrained. This back and forth between so many thoughts wears us out.

In meditation we follow our breath, and this becomes so boring that the mind can regain its sharpness and we see and experience things much more intensely. In meditation, nothing happens but your breath and your body and a sort of wafting of thoughts.

When our mind finds non-entertainment outside, it increases in sharpness. Think of a child who has only one toy, just this one teddy bear. It will soon know it inside out from top to bottom. It will explore and memorise every detail, every inch of this toy. If you give the child boxes and boxes of toys, it will soon no longer be really interested in any of them. It will then become grumpy and demanding and have temper fits. It is better to have one thing at a time.

As soon as we get involved in the out-breath and have nothing else to entertain ourselves with, the mind-body connection can become very real.

The mind regains its precision and sharpness.

The out-breath is like a whetstone used to sharpen the knife or sword of the mind.  When you sharpen a knife, you draw the blade over the stone, and when you exhale, you draw the blade of the mind over the sharpening stone of the breath. When you inhale, you bring the blade back to the point of contact with the stone, as it were, from which you make the next sharpening stroke. The sharpening stroke always goes in the same direction, which means here that your main focus is on the out-breath again and again.

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