Spirit Grooves Blogs

Published on June 29, 2014

This is part of a series of dharma-related articles trying to drill down on the details of learning and practicing dharma. This one looks at where we start with dharma practice.

Learning meditation is not easy, not because it is all that difficult, but more because there are hundreds of kinds of meditation out there; most Americans have never been introduced to any of them and would not know where to begin. Because meditation is an unknown to them, they just skip the whole thing and stay away.

Meditation is not as easy as just lighting a candle and sitting in a quiet place. Then what do we do next? And it is easy to confuse the many kinds of new relaxation therapies with meditation techniques that have been around a thousand years. There is nothing wrong with relaxation techniques and they do have something in common with traditional Asian forms of meditation, but they are not the same.

Even among Asian meditation techniques there are scores of approaches and obviously we can't just follow all of them. Like highways, if we want to reach a destination, we have to follow one road until the end, even though all roads go somewhere. No one wants to pick the wrong road. So what's a safe way to begin?

Although Tibetans have dozens of words for "meditation," here in America we seem to have just the one, and that covers a plethora of techniques, some of which are authentic and others that have arisen just in the last fifty years or perhaps yesterday. It is no wonder that most people give up trying to meditate or can never figure out which method might actually do them some good. Let's sort this out.

We can start with the technique that the historical Buddha used some 2500 years ago, which is almost the same technique that many Hindu sadhus use as well. That technique is called (in Sanskrit) "Shamata," which translates to something like "abiding in the calm" or simply allowing the mind to rest. This authentic and traditional meditation technique has been thoroughly vetted and found to work for anyone who is willing to put in the time to learn it.

If I recommend Shamata to you, it is not because I invented it or found it in some new-age spiritual persuasion. Shamata is thousands of years old and has stood up all this time as an exemplary technique. This is not to put down or derogate any other meditation techniques, but since we can't follow them all, why not go with something that has stood the test of time. Therefore Shamata is a technique that anyone can learn safely.

Next, we might ask: what is the point of meditation? Why should we do it and what will it do for us? As its name suggests, Shamata is a technique to pacify to mind, to allow the mind to rest naturally in the chaos and business that modern life entails.

Shamata is a pacification technique, one that cuts through our endless thoughts and worries, allowing our tired mind to rest naturally. Along the way it teaches us mindfulness and helps us to become more aware.

Shamata is not the only meditation technique to learn, but it is the place to start and, for that matter, is often required before we can learn more advanced techniques. By required, this means that until the mind can rest, more advanced techniques cannot be practiced, because they require the stable foundation that Shamata meditation provides.

I have been practicing Shamata meditation seriously for forty years, and was trying to learn it before that. Shamata creates a foundation of mindfulness and, while it is easy to learn, becoming skilled at it (like anything else) requires patience and time.

The main point here is that you can rest assured that the vast majority of great meditators would endorse Shamata Meditation as not only a good place to begin, but a necessary first step in awareness training.

Now, as to where to learn it, I can only tell you what I know. I have worked with the teachers at Karma Triyana Dharmachakra Monastery in the mountains above Woodstock, NY since 1983, so I can vouch for them from personal experience. Some of their centers in the U.S. can be found here. One might be near where you live.


There are also many centers in various other countries, which you can find at that same site. If all else fails, you can ask me questions and I will do my best to be helpful. Plus here is a free book I put together called "Shamara Meditation," along with other books on training the mind.


[Photo of a statue of the Buddha Amitabha, from my personal shrine.]