Shamata Meditation

A Teaching by Geshe Dakpa Topgyal

There are two types of Shamata meditation. In one, the meditator focuses on the objects of meditation, maintaining a single-point focus. In the second, the meditator concentrates on compassion or bodhichitta. It’s important to understand that, during this second type of meditation, you are not using compassion or bodhichitta as an object of meditation. Rather, you are transferring your mind or thoughts or feelings into the nature of compassion.

In the initial stage of generating compassion, you need some form of analysis. Our deep sense of always looking out for No. 1, of seeing our self as more important than others and our happiness as more important than others' happiness must be recognized. Our compassion for others will come, once we dissolve the deep sense of looking out for No. 1 and see that helping others is more important.

Once we are able to let go of our self-cherishing attitude and replace it with an understanding that the happiness of others is more important than our self, we can cultivate or sustain this attitude of compassion. We maintain it without the deep sense of I, without looking for the self. So we are not using compassion as an object of focus.We are, instead, practicing the experience of compassion.

When we do single-point focus, we use our own breath or an attractive, appealing image of Buddha that has a calming effect. We are not transforming our minds into the nature or aspects of Buddha; we remain separate in mind and emotions. We are simply using an image of Buddha to maintain one-pointed focus. We are not becoming Buddha; Buddha is not becoming us. The image simply is used to practice and to learn concentration. We want to stay with the awareness of an image – and nothing else.

In either of these meditations – single-point focus or generating thoughts or feelings into compassion – mindfulness is the key element. In single-point focus, we use an image to maintain focus; this is a means of controlling the mind. When generating compassion, we are generating the thoughts or feelings of compassion, then remaining with that thought or feeling. To understand better, it helps to understand the general state of the ordinary mind.

The ordinary mind during day-to-day life does three things:

  1. The ordinary mind is constantly thinking of the past, whether it’s useful or not, and then creating conceptual elaborations.

  2. The ordinary mind is always thinking of the future, whether it’s useful or not, imagining plans, projects and with those imaginings, feeling fear, worry, expectations, anticipation.

  3. The ordinary mind is trying to change the present situation.

It’s almost impossible to find a time when the mind is not doing at least one of these three things. And it’s not enough to just stop doing these three things; that alone is not meditation. But it is a beginning. Not moving, just sitting, that is not meditating. We must acknowledge that our ordinary mind is usually doing these three things and recognize the time when our ordinary mind is not doing these three things. Then it’s easy to recognize the beginning of meditation.

Notice that when the mind does not engage in these three activities – dwelling on the past, dwelling on the future, or changing the present – the mind is resting. When you are sitting, it is most important to prevent the mind from engaging in these three activities, and that is the hardest thing, the greatest struggle for most of us.

Sometimes we stop these three activities, but our mind thinks about something irrelevant, something unrelated to our lives. That, too, is bad; the irrelevant thought is an imprint. The nature of gross mind is to be attracted to external objects. Without control of the gross mind, we can’t activate our very subtle mind.

How to meditate using single-point focus

Use any form of a solid object, an image of Buddha, a flower. You don’t have to look at the flower. Your five senses do not play a role. You use your own mental picture of the object you have chosen for your single-point focus. The object of meditation is not the actual flower, but your image of it.

Close your eyes, and the image is there. Just think of the image. If possible, let the image be "in" your mind. Try to eliminate the separation between your mind and the image, so there is nothing but the flower. Become one with the flower, the flower one with you.

When your concentration is strong and stable, you don’t need to think, "This is a flower." Even though you are using your imagination, when your concentration is strong and stable, the flower becomes a "real" flower. You can even smell it!

If you are using the image of Buddha, you may start to experience personal contact or communication with Buddha. You may feel this contact or communication is about to happen or is happening. This is of great significance in Tantric practice.

Stay with your awareness. Don’t try to change it; don’t try to go deeper. Just stay with it. There should be no difference between your awareness of the image and of yourself. At that moment, you will have lost your sense of self. Stay there long enough, and when your meditation ends, you may feel what some people would call "disoriented." You aren’t actually disoriented.

You are experiencing the gap between self and a sense of no-self. You just have lost your sense of self temporarily, and this causes some temporary confusion.

Question: When you’re meditating, if you have an emotional response, if you feel touched, is that good or bad?

Answer: Any emotional feeling, whether it makes you feel good or bad, ignore it. Put it aside; don’t listen to its tone. If you try to force feelings aside or try to redirect, you will agitate yourself. If you successfully stay in your meditation, in a resting place, you may, however, experience an unusual feeling of inner quietness or emotional joy or bliss.

Question: Who is Buddha?

Answer: A person or being whose mind is completely purified and reaches perfection. It is a state of mind. We also talk of the historical Buddha. He was born in India 2,600 years ago to a Hindu family. At a young age he renounced the material world and became a monk. He chose to live in the jungle in solitude, meditating and searching to understand the cause of human suffering. He found the cause of suffering and the means of getting out of suffering. So he taught the Four Noble Truths, which deal with the existence of suffering, the cause of suffering, and the ways and means of ending suffering.

When we talk of Buddha, we are often referring to the historical Buddha, who reached enlightenment and the highest form of human happiness.

Question: What is meant when we talk about letting go of our sense of self?

Answer: It is important to dissolve the sense of I. The stronger the sense of I, the more likely you will feel everything is insecure, the more likely you will be fearful and will worry. If you have a strong sense of I, even a small pain becomes big. If you have a strong sense of I, happiness becomes fragile. A sense of I intensifies small pains and reduces big happiness. Most meditators can reduce physical pain by dissolving a sense of self. They can enhance happiness or joy by diminishing the sense of I. Then everything becomes secure. The mind remains calm and without bias. When we work to dissolve the strong sense of I, we are not really destroying who we are. We are only destroying a mistakenly recognized I.

Notes from a teaching by Geshe Dakpa Topgyal in Columbia, South Carolina, March 17, 2001.