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TOPIC: explorations of shamatha/vipassana

explorations of shamatha/vipassana 14 Nov 2015 13:32 #101197

(Tom & others-- I don't want to overrun Tom's practice thread with this, so have peeled it off.)

Kate Gowen wrote: I have been noodling lately on the subject of "what do we mean when we say we meditate?" (Off the top-- different things by different people in different stages/ types of practice.)

I have always been interested in the difference between shamatha and vipassana; one way of characterizing them would be: shamatha is FOCUSED (exclusionary); vipassana is SCANNING (inclusionary). Shamatha is crisp clarity about the individual tree; vipassana is the dawning sense of the vastness of the forest in its totality, which is not the same as tree + tree + tree + ...

I think getting caught up in the experiential content, in either case, can be a pitfall. Even though a lot of instruction seems to indicate that the content is highly significant. My own thought is that what we're meant to find is clarity about how mind works. That has clear implications about what the nature of mind is. Its nature is apparent in the Way that it responds to all sorts of things: the "homework exercises" we give it on the cushion, and the real-life problems that are presented to us.
....
Further thoughts: the different character and goals of shamatha and vipassana do not mean that they are opposed in some way, that one is better and the other worse. Just that there are different considerations. To breathe, we need to inhale and to exhale: it is dysfunctional to apply a lot of force to inhalation; on the other hand, exhalation requires some tension in the diaphragm.

In shamatha/ concentration, we are sharpening our skills at purposefully deploying our minds. But that's only half the equation.

In vipassana, we are allowing ourselves to be informed by all that is 'other'-- it is irreducibly mysterious, transcendent. It changes everything.

And it depends on having acquired the skill staying put in our focus, for this transformation to find us from the other side. Just like air rushing in, depends on our having exhaled to make room for it.


Tom Otvos wrote: I love the inhale/exhale analogy.

But I would add a wrinkle to your points, only because so many are influenced by MCTB. The process of noting seems, to me, to be a hybrid of shamatha and vipassana, because it is not the broad, transcendent thing you allude to as "vipassana", not is it as one-pointed as is generally considered for concentration practice. I don't know how significant that is, but that is what I thought of when you wrote that. And I also don't quite know why I am so obsessed about noting and when it is or isn't appropriate, except possibly because I so suck at it and occasionally fret about whether my progress is hampered by that.


I have to admit that I have an outsider take on both MCTB and Vipassana as a standalone approach to meditative practice.

Beyond that, even my discovery of Dzogchen, Vajrayana, Ch'an, Zen, and Daoist cultivation methods-- all came "after the fact," and I evaluated them as promising descriptions of something massive that had happened all but spontaneously. What I was actually 'doing' at the time a tsunami of physiological changes, conversations, and insights washed in, was... sitting. In meditation, as best I understood it; in company with others, willing to listen to their understanding and description of the process-- although I ultimately found it inaccurate; alone, having discovered an interest and a taste for it that exceeded those of others in the group, who had much firmer intentions than I. All I had was the claims of others that something remarkable could happen, even to totally ordinary people-- and a funny feeling that something WAS happening. I'd heard about inquiry-- long before-- and messed around with it some; I remembered the enlightenment stories of Ramana Maharshi and Gautama-- in a background inspiration kind of way.

(My personal particulars are mostly by way of full disclosure. I'm not setting up some kind of model path. It's been a random juggernaut!)

But only in the Western-adopted Thai/Burmese practice traditions that are called "Vipassana" and "Insight Meditation" (and "Pragmatic Dharma")-- at least in its early days-- does there seem to be a blurring of the differences between samatha and vipassana. Vajrayana and Dzogchen teach shi-ne/ lha-tong; neither is the entirety of meditation in itself. It seems to me that clarifying the differences-- in how to practice them, and in the objectives and results-- is the first step in allowing for the powerful synergy that comes of each functioning fully in its own sphere, and the combination producing something beyond the sum of the parts.

I'm sure-- or hoping, anyway-- that others here can pick up this idea and expand on it! Whether by asking questions that matter to them, as Tom has; or by coming up with better-informed answers than I have managed to suggest.
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explorations of shamatha/vipassana 14 Nov 2015 13:41 #101198

Kate --
My own thought is that what we're meant to find is clarity about how mind works. That has clear implications about what the nature of mind is. Its nature is apparent in the Way that it responds to all sorts of things: the "homework exercises" we give it on the cushion, and the real-life problems that are presented to us.

Yes! I couldn't agree more. I started meditating as a response to anxiety and other disruptive mental elements in my life. That quickly changed as I realized that understanding how the mind works was the key to everything I thought I wanted. Trying to reduce or eliminate mental aspects or increase or create other mental aspects pales in comparison to actually gaining wisdom (understanding how the mind works). This is not just an on the cushion exercise and it has elements of active investigation (vipassana) and stillness-based observation (shamatha).
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explorations of shamatha/vipassana 15 Nov 2015 07:21 #101212

I also agree that that the whole point is clarity about how the mind works.

The more I think about it, the more I realize I never really developed a clear definition of noting, noticing, vipassana, shamatha, etc. To me it's all about seeing/figuring out where straining, resisting, ill will, "problemness" exists and then looking into that... and trying not to forget that sometimes the desire to fix things >is< the problem.

I guess I didn't assume that there was something that was inherently wrong with the mind... so my motivation was understanding why things were happening, not trying to stop them. I knew from my own arm-chair psychology study that understanding problems preceded resolving problems. For example, understanding why a defense mechanism existed would often resulted in no longer needing the mechanism, but trying to stop a behavior would indirectly reinforce it.

I figured the same was true for more primal and foundational aspects of mind. And it seemed like meditation practice created the context for understanding at that subtle level. I guess I also had a pretty clear intuition that all meditation approaches were means to an end. So it was never about believing in a practice and trying to do it "right", but rather using the tool and exploring what it did for me.

I really haven't thought about this as much as I probably should... It's hard to describe the method to my madness :)
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