LSD is the quickest, easiest option. But, it’s illegal, somewhat hard to come by, unreliable, and only offers temporary, conditional glimpses.
The point of formless Samatha is to investigate something that can’t be investigated—your own absence. In Vipassana, what we’re really doing is looking for ourselves in all phenomena. We’re looking at thoughts, views, feelings, desires and, seeing that they’re all evanescent and dependently arisen, realizing that none of them are I, me, or mine.
That might be enough (or even too much) for those without a drive to understand. It’s easy to mistake that for liberation. Really, if we stick with that, we wind up with a worse case of ignorance than we had before because we’ve ventured from the extreme of, “I am,” to the other, even more insane, extreme of, “I’m not.”
The B-Man said that it’s less harmful to believe, “I exist,” than, “I don’t exist,” because at least people who believe they exist have some motivation left to better themselves and the world. Nihilists are useless people.
Wiping out the beliefs that clinging doesn’t cause suffering, that things are permanent, and that there is a self distinct from causes and conditions is only half the adventure; the other half involves wiping out beliefs in the cause of suffering, impermanence, and not-self.
That’s the Middle Way between extremes.
So, after going through Vipassana, it’s recommended that we practice Samatha: tranquil abiding. You don’t have to follow that program. But, unlike those in the Vipassana Movement, I think that both types of meditation are important, regardless of which order we practice them in.
The Mahayanins only recommended Samatha as a followup because it cleans up the mess that Vipassana makes in the mind. Vipassana is a chaotic meditation; it leaves bits and pieces strewn about everywhere as it disassembles our preconceived habits and notions. Whether your Vipassana is the modern secular kind, based on the Abhidharma, Satipatthana, visualizations, koan zazen or huatou practice, they’re all messy, destructive methods.
Samatha is clean, whether it’s one-pointed focus on the breath or another object, Silent Illumination, shikantaza, or mantra practice—they’re all clean-up time methods. It’s a myth that Vipassana involves only insight and Samatha only tranquility. Samatha is about revealing subtle insights that can’t be gleamed through analysis. Also, Vipassana practices involve some degree of tranquility as well. Don’t let them fool you, it isn’t a this or that ordeal.
Samatha practice is all about samadhi/dhyana/jhana. It is Zen. It’s the living expression of Zen. The moment you sit and practice Samatha, you already doing the work of Buddhas. All varieties of Samatha have a few things in common: let go of preferences, views, and expectations; dedicate the sit to the well-being of all beings.
The jhanas are important, and no one really talks about them or practices with them anymore. Even though, in the Suttas, Buddha never said, “Got do Vipassana,” or, “Go do Samatha.” He said, “Go sit jhana.” Secular Buddhists especially downplay the role of trance states in Buddhism. They’re wrong; misled by pragmatic apologists. Naturally occurring altered states of consciousness are the bread-and-butter of Buddhism, they tie the whole room together.
These states aren’t extraordinary, they’re everyday occurrences that we just aren’t ordinarily aware of. Samadhi itself synonymous with just paying attention. It’s just that our attention is usually shallow, picky, and all over the fuckin’ place.
The four jhanas, Four Immeasurables, Four Frames of Mindfulness, and the Four Noble Truths all go together. With the first jhana corresponding to the first Immeasurable, the first frame of mindfulness, and the first Noble Truth, and so on for the others. Together, these methods manifest as the Perfections and the Seven Factors for Enlightenment.
The first jhana can involve concentrating on the body. When attachment to the body drops away, there’s insight into it being the host of suffering. This realization can prompt loving-kindness for oneself and all beings. This loving-kindness floods the mind and that’s the bridge from the first jhana into the second.
The second jhana deals with concentrating on feelings: whether contact is pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral. When attachment to feelings drops away, there’s the insight that craving pleasant feelings is the cause of suffering. This realization can prompt compassion for oneself and all beings. This compassion fill the mind and is the gate to the third jhana.
The third jhana is about concentrating on perception, volition-intention, and states of mind. When attachment to these falls away, there’s the insight into the Path leading to the end of suffering. This realization causes the eruption of joyfulness, and paves a road into the fourth jhana.
The fourth jhana involves concentrating on consciousness. When attachment to consciousness falls away, there’s the insight into the cessation of suffering. This realization is the foundation of equanimity and culminates in the formless jhanas, which are really just deeper and deeper states of the fourth.
That’s one method. I don’t practice that myself, though. I just rest my attention nowhere in particular. Whenever it grasps onto something, intention and mindfulness bring it back to focusing on what isn’t part of the experience; what isn’t seen, sensed, or known but intuited.
Whatever the mind rests on isn’t it, isn’t the meditation object. Keeping that in mind, we rest the mind in the formless, the ineffable “Don’t Know” mind. It’s important to monitor one thing, though: the sluggishness-excitability scale. Too much relaxation can lull us into a dead meditation; too much exertion can make the sit manic.
You should feel like you’re sitting easily poised on a pinhead beneath a sword that could drop on your head at any time. Weightless, but alert. Patient, but not lax. Diligent, but not aggressive.
This isn’t just bound to the zafu either. We can live our day-to-day lives with this open, indescribable meditation object, carrying it with us through all of our activities. Nowhere is very light and easy to travel with. It brings out a naturalness and genuineness in our words, thoughts, and actions.
Never forget the aim though: We’re focusing on the absence of subject and object duality. That’s the indescribable space we’re placing ourselves. A nondual awareness that is neither self nor other nor in-between. We’re mending the imaginary fracture that ignorance has caused in the mind.