When you Google “Samatha,” you’ll probably find dozens of sites talking about focusing on the breath.
They’re not wrong, the breath is a huge part of samatha (tranquil abiding), but it’s not the only part. Tranquil abiding teaches us how to stop relying on impermanent things for permanent satisfaction. Instead of trying to control everything around us, we learn to control ourselves, and it turns out that self-control is satisfying in itself.
If we don’t control ourselves, the world will do it for us. We’re gonna be tossed around by circumstances, always looking outside of ourselves for a sense of enduring stability that we’ll never find. Tranquil abiding untangles us from that. It isn’t just a meditation method, it’s a way of life.
Tranquil abiding contains three principles and three practices. The principles are: 1) Pay attention 2) Remember the method and teaching 3) Use the method and teaching.
The three practices are: 1) Regulating the body 2) Regulating the breath 3) Regulating the mind (mental processes). These are actually the three pillars of Buddhism: morality, concentration, and wisdom.
Regulating the body means doing everything with attention, care and dignity. When we’re walking, we’re immersed in walking and walking in such a way that our movements seem to flow. When we sit, we’re aware that we’re sitting, and we’re sitting in a relaxed—but dignified—way.
We can pay attention to how each movement and posture leads to the next without any interruption, even stillness is a part of it.
This practice applies to all of our words and actions. Immersed, appreciative attention, dignity and carefulness. Just this practice alone helps to settle the mind quite a bit.
Then there’s the breath. Here, we’re using the same principles we do with the body. Sitting, focusing on the breath, remembering to breathe carefully and nobly. The breath is our anchor in practice, it keeps us grounded on the path.
Once we’ve mastered the body and breath, we can move onto the mind. Some people go for the mind right away, but there are a lot of potential roadblocks ahead when you do that. The body and mind aren’t two. The mind is just the body’s interactions with the world and itself. So working with the body and breath is really an aspect of working with the mind.
An old Chinese saying goes, “If you’re off by an inch, you’ll be off by a mile.” It’s important to start practice with the proper footing, building up our foundations.
In this context, the mind is our thoughts, feelings, impulses, and attention. When the body and breath are both settled, our mission is to watch our minds while being aware of impermanence. We’re watching our thoughts, feelings, impulses and even concentration itself come and go. Grounded in the breath and body, we don’t judge anything we’re experience, nor do we run from it or push it away.
It’s like watching ripples on a pond that’s reflecting the sky. The ripples distort the image. Suffering comes from believing that the turbulent reflections we’re looking at are reflecting the actual state of things. As we sit, the ripples start to grow smaller and smaller until the pond is completely unperturbed—that’s perfect enlightenment. The mind’s nature is obvious and suffering fades like a dream.
A lot of people bash tranquil abiding practice, and I’m not sure why. There are dozens of sources supporting it as an enlightened path.
Here’s the straight dope on meditation: You can start with tranquil abiding, then go to vipassana (insight meditation), and then mozhao (silent illumination). You can just practice one of them, or you can do them all at once, or two at once and then another… Actually, there are 32 different combinations you can try.
None of them are better or worse, they’re all suited for certain people at certain times. All of them are in tune with the Way.
I like tranquil abiding because it helps us to let go of the idea that we can control others, or that we can have complete control over the circumstances. Focusing on the body and breath helps us to let go of that belief. Working with the mind, we realize that “self”-control is the true source of enduring happiness and peace of mind.
We can still help others, in fact it’s a part of the practice, but all of the neurotic energy has gone out of our helpfulness and our lives. If there’s a problem, we use careful logic to solve it. If there isn’t a problem, we don’t run off to make one.
By stepping back from everything that’s impermanent and dependently arisen, we find ourselves face to face with independent, timeless compassion and wisdom.