In many of the Buddhist traditions there are two fundamental aspects to meditation; vipassana and samatha. Samatha is characterized by concentration and tranquility, while vipassana or “insight meditation” is characterized by inner surrender and absorption leading to direct knowing or insight into reality as it is. These two aspects or dimensions of meditation can be found in most traditions in which the perennial wisdom flourishes. Although the words and names change, there is one universal experience of union common to all those who investigate their true nature, which transcends all language and traditions. Samatha and vipassana correspond to dharana (concentration) and dhyana (meditative absorption /insight) described in the yoga sutras of Patanjali. Dharana is the 6th limb of Patanjali’s eight limbs of yoga and describes the concentration aspect of meditation, while dhyana (or jhana in Pali) is the 7th limb of yoga, which refers to meditative absorption which leads to insight.
Unbroken presence and non-reactive equanimity are like two wings of a bird that will take you to Samadhi; yin and yang creating an inseparable balance which is the middle path. Concentration practice and insight practice are not two separate practices to be used sequentially or separately, but integral and complementary aspects of a single investigation into the source of one’s being. Dhyana, the feminine principle is deep surrender, nonresistance or equanimity, which is not a doing but simply an allowing of everything to be as is, or an inner state of non-resistance to what is arising in the present moment. It is a surrender of conditioned patterns that brings about a freeing of inner energy and an effortless abiding with what is. The masculine is unbroken, concentrated awareness and presence, and like the feminine does not involve activity or doing. There is an effort, but it is not the effort to do anything, but to simply be present. Dharana is a penetrating of the veils (the koshas) of activity that the mind is already engaged in, or a penetrating of maya with pure presence. It is possible to practice the effort of presence and the effortlessness of inner surrender simultaneously. When masculine presence and feminine energy/phenomena unite as one, it is Samadhi; a state of effortless effort.
In the Gayatri mantra it is written:
“Om Bhur Bhuva Swaha Tat Savitur Varenyam”.
The primordial emmanation (Om) dispels the illusion of the 3 realms. There is a conjuring up or invoking of the essence of one’s being, as Savitry, the great rouser, the great impeller realizes itself as the Source (Tat). You are Tat, or you are That, and always have been. Meditation and self inquiry awaken the primordial force to penetrate through maya to realize your true nature.
In the ancient teachings the Sanskrit word dharana is generally translated to mean “concentration”, but there are different understandings about what concentration is. Concentration techniques are often taught in the initial phases of meditation, and insight is often taught separately in later phases. Concentration is usually taught in such as way that an object being focused upon is held in the mind without consciousness wavering from it and there is a narrowing of focus to that one single meditation object. For example if breath is your meditation object you might observe the narrow breath limited to the area below the nostrils. Attention can also be wide and one can engage in observing the feeling of the breath spreading throughout the entire body, feeling a general expansion and contraction. Whether the mind’s attention is narrow or diffuse, one’s witnessing presence, the awareness witnessing the mind and it’s narrow-wide focus, can be unbroken and continuously present, or it can become identified or lost in maya (interrupted by thoughts). It is the unbrokenness of awareness that is required for and inseparable from Samadhi. As Patanjali says, awareness should be like an unbroken stream of oil being poured from a container.
In brain science the default mode network is the area of the brain that is functioning when the brain is in a resting state. It is the background chatter or typical daydreaming mind. In the yogic traditions, this is called vikshepa, distraction or mental wandering. Vikshepa (or vritti, vikalpa or vana – all words that point to the autonomous operations of the egoic self), must cease for Samadhi to arise. The autonomous fluctuations of the mind must cease. The single-pointed concentration needed to realize Samadhi is mostly unknown in the world at this time is history, because most people’s awareness is constantly interrupted by pathological thoughts, and it has reached an extreme degree in recent years.
The ability to concentrate and focus the mind has declined as pathological thinking has increased. According to the National Center for BioTechnology Information, the average attention span in North America may now be as short as 8 seconds, down from 12 seconds in the year 2000. The attention span of a goldfish is 9 seconds.
The three main insights of Vipassana are annica, which is the realization of the impermanence of all phenomena, annata, which is the realization that the self structure is fundamentally empty, and dukkha which is the realization that suffering is driven by a deep unsatisfactoriness caused by endless patterns of craving and aversion within the self structure. When a meditator becomes concentrated or present without the constant chatter of the mind, and surrendered or non-reactive to what is arising in the present moment, he or she progresses through various stages of meditative absorption or “jhanas”, penetrating into reality as it is. Samatha and Vipassana are sometimes taught as separate techniques, but both play an important part in mediation. They should not be seen as merely techniques, but rather as complementary skills to be acquired on the path of realization. They are skills that are acquired, but they become assimilated into the mind, actually changing the mind itself so it can function as a better interface with the world.
An analogy can be drawn with music. If you are learning to play the piano it can be helpful to learn the notes, the phrasing and the structure of the music. You learn the tempo, the techniques for how to move your fingers, and how to transition to different keys. If you’re thinking about all the techniques while you are playing, the playing will be mechanical. One must connect to the heart, feeling the music, yet at the same time conveying it through learned technique. Music teachers will sometimes say, “You learn the notes to forget the notes”. The same is true of dance; you learn dance techniques, but to be really free you must forget them.
In the same way, with meditation you learn the techniques to forget the techniques. As one becomes absorbed in meditation the technique falls away naturally as pathological thinking diminishes, so that concentration and absorption become spontaneous, and are actually seen to be your natural state of being. Samadhi can’t be reached through techniques, yet neither is it reached through the dropping of techniques. A great music performance is not achieved solely through learned techniques, nor is it achieved by abandoning techniques.The middle way is understanding the transmutation and alchemy that happens in meditation as techniques become stepping stones on the path.
The very techniques we learn to become free of the limited self, are ultimately something conditioned that we add to the self structure, part of the illusion (maya), and can become an obstacle if we remain attached to them. For this reason some teachers object to any form of formal meditation technique. J. Krishnamurti is famous for saying that no one can teach you true meditation. Ultimately of course he was right. He points out how absurd it all is, all these people sitting on cushions trying to awaken, because in most cases it is simply the limited mind trying to attain or acquire something. In most people’s lives their egoic mind is driving the show, always seeking to attain something. Similarly on the spiritual path the mind has simply replaced worldly attainments with spiritual attainments. The mind wants to become more enlightened, more pure, or more free. True freedom requires the giving up of all seeking and all craving and aversion, which is the prison of the limited self. Truth is a pathless land and there is no formula for realizing it. There is great value to meditation, but one’s understanding of it as a pathless path is paramount. Otherwise one can fall into the trap that J. Krishnamurti so poignantly describes.
When we use a meditation technique, we are using the mind to become free of mind, or using illusion to become free of illusion. We are literally cleaning or purifying our self of our self. In Vedanta there is a saying that it is like using a thorn to remove a thorn. Once any technique has served its purpose, one must let it go, otherwise it becomes a conditioned pattern itself and an obstacle to realizing Samadhi. The most basic truth is that it is not possible to use activity to realize stillness. Subtler and subtler meditation techniques can be used as stepping stones so that the mind becomes quieter, and the present moment is less filtered or mediated by mind, thereby creating an optimal environment for the dawning of prajna (wisdom of the true Self).
In Zen there is a great story to illustrate the most fundamental point about meditation. A Zen master saw a student sitting in zazen (traditional Zen meditation posture). He said to the student “what are you trying to accomplish by sitting there?”. The student replied, “To attain Buddhahood”. The Zen master picked up a piece of stone tile and began to polish it. The student asked “What are you doing?”. The teacher said “I am polishing this tile so that it will eventually become like a mirror.” The student laughed, “How can you make a piece of rock into a mirror?”. The Zen master said “How can you make your mind into a Buddha?”
The egoic mind can’t become Buddha. No matter what technique the mind tries, it will never become other than mind. In Taoism, “wei wu wei”, or “doing not doing” has a very subtle meaning which is easily missed by the student. It is an effortless effort, or a doing that is actually just simply being. J. Krishnamurti spoke of a natural state of choiceless awareness as the state of true meditation.
“The ability to observe without evaluating is the highest form of intelligence.” ~ J. Krishnamurti
The tile analogy can be taken to an even higher level of truth. The ultimate cosmic joke is that when one awakens it is realized that the tile was always already the mirror. Like Indra’s net of jewels, the universe is holographic and everything is contained within everything, with a center that is everywhere and nowhere; everything reflecting everything infinitely. The mind of the student was always already Buddha nature. Primordial awareness was disguised as the student, playing a game of hide and seek with itself. When we observe without mind, without concept or memory, we can observe the true nature of a thing, seeing through the disguise to reveal primordial awareness. But then there is no “we” doing any observing of anything; awareness simply wakes up and recognizes itself. When one observes without the filter of the limited mind, one is observing as the unlimited mind, or big mind, which is all that is. Then there is no more localized “me” that is observing; the seer is immanent in all things.
Meditation, if it is to be useful, has to lead beyond any limited ego-centered activity of mind, to less and less pathological thinking and less doing. When there is a cessation of the self structure, or absorption of the self into the ALL (cessation is not a great word to describe Samadhi),
The most important part of meditation is your relationship to it, your understanding of what it is and where it leads, and making sure that you are not merely polishing tiles when meditating. If you engage in a conditioned form of meditation, it may give you a bit of peace in your life, some relaxation, a temporary escape from the world, possibly health benefits, and maybe even some extraordinary experiences, but you won’t realize your true nature.
Perhaps the best instruction to reach Samadhi is “be still and know”. When your true nature is realized is it also possible to “be in motion and know”. Or more succinctly, it is realized that stillness and motion are ultimately just a duality created by the limited mind. From the absolute perspective no such distinction really exists. In Samadhi stillness and motion are realized as “not one, not two”. The “I AM” never moves from that still point that is everywhere and nowhere. We realize fullness as emptiness, stillness as movement, self as other, and understand that it is the limited mind that creates these separations and distinctions.