In TRAINING by Tobin Shenpen McKee5 Comments

Shamatha concentration is the practice of focusing our attention one thing for as long as we can, and then returning our attention to that thing when our attention deviates from it. To do this practice, we place our attention on the object of our choosing, become distracted by something, and then noticing our distraction, return our attention to the chosen object. In particular, the successful moment is when we notice our distraction and return our attention to the object. The amount of time we spend fixated on the chosen object is less important than the activity of returning to awareness after a period of distraction. We are not so much working to become better at concentrating on one thing at a time as we are working to become better at recognizing what distraction feels like so that we can return to awareness more easily and more frequently.

The function of shamatha concentration practice is to exercise our capacity to choose where we are putting our attention. Specifically, we are exercising our ability to let go of habituated, unconsidered, automatic thinking. This kind of thinking shows itself to be the first expression of obscured mind-nature. Often born from fear, desire, pride, and jealousy, and always born from dualistic perception, habitual thinking frequently leads to speech and action based in grasping and aversion. The practice of letting go of habituated thinking and placing the attention elsewhere gives us the opportunity to witness our automatic tendencies toward grasping and aversion in action. This witness position reveals that unconsidered, automatic thinking tends to be a stressor, and tends to promote anxiety and desire. Eventually, through practice, we move away from our addiction to unconsidered, automatic thinking, and toward considered, intentional awareness.

There are many variations on the shamatha concentration practice – each distinguished by the chosen object of concentration. For example, we may choose to concentrate on the breath, or we may choose to concentrate on a visualization. For all types of shamatha concentration, regardless of the object of our attention, special effort is required to release the attention from other sense and thought consciousnesses and return the attention to the chosen object. Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche recommends using precision and gentleness with respect to the activity of letting go of distraction, especially thinking. Precision means that we are precise in our focus of attention on the intended object of concentration. Gentleness means that we are gentle with ourselves when we find our attention elsewhere, gentle in our inner gesture of letting go of distraction, and gentle in our process of returning our attention to the object of concentration.

Shamatha concentration on a single object contains in its structure the inherent possibility of distraction, and depends on focused, intentional mental activity, which is a form of grasping and dualistic perception. In choosing to focus the attention on a single object to the exclusion of all others, we assume separation between objects and the self who is concentrating on them. The concept, I am concentrating on the breath, is inherently dualistic and dependent upon the mental activity of separating I from concentrating from breath. For this reason, shamatha concentration practice is not the complete path, because it is based in dualistic perception, but it is an essential step on the path, because it serves to strengthen our ability to discern between attention and distraction.

Concentration on the sensation of breathing is specifically an exercise of mental focus on the tactile and proprioceptive sense consciousnesses. Traditionally, we concentrate on the sensation of the breath entering and leaving the nostrils. As a variation, we may choose to concentrate on the tactile and proprioceptive experiences of the relaxation of the body on the exhale. Similarly, we may practice this kind of concentration while moving and breathing, as in Yoga asana and pranayama.

Because the practice of one-pointed concentration on the breath is a form of shamatha concentration, we repeatedly release our attention from other sense consciousnesses – seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting – and from thought consciousness – thinking. Each time our attention moves away from the tactile and proprioceptive sense consciousnesses associated with breathing, toward distracting sounds, smells, sights, tastes, sensations, or thoughts, we return our attention to the specific sensation of breathing. Concentration on the bodily experience of relaxing while exhaling promotes gentleness and ease. Bodily awareness on the exhale reveals the physical stress response associated with automatic thinking, and initiates the physical relaxation response associated with letting go of thoughts.

Shamatha concentration with awareness of all sense consciousnesses is often called mindfulness. Like all variations on the Shamatha method, we let go of thinking and return our awareness to the object of concentration. But in this case the object of concentration is not one thing, as in the breath, but all things that arise in our sense awareness. When practicing mindfulness, we are aware of seeing, hearing, feeling, smelling, and tasting. In this way mindfulness is not single-pointed, but multi-pointed, since we are mindful of all that arises in all sense consciousnesses. However, mindfulness is awareness of the present moment, which is a single, multi-faceted display. In this way, mindfulness can be considered to be single-pointed concentration, with that single point being the present moment as it presents itself to our various senses.

Because of the conditioning of ordinary sense consciousness, we tend to focus on one sense at a time, leaving the others functioning peripherally. While we are looking at something, our awareness is concentrated more on our sense of sight, and less on our other senses. Initially, it is gentler to allow ourselves to move freely between zones of focus, sometimes being more aware of seeing than of hearing, than to attempt to become equally aware of all sense consciousnesses at once, as in singular present moment mindfulness of everything. In the beginning, we can allow our attention to shift between sense experiences. We do not need to consider this movement of awareness from one sense to another to be a form of distraction, even though it does involve moving from one object of awareness to another. Allowing these transitions, the only form of consciousness that we dissipate is the thinking that distracts our awareness from our sense consciousnesses.

Aside from the thoughts that draw attention away from awareness of the senses, mindfulness is less subject to distraction than concentration on a single object like the breath, because all potential distractions present themselves as sensory events. By making all sensory events the objects of attention, no sensory event becomes a distraction, unless it draws the attention so strongly that we end up concentrating on that one event to the exclusion of others. For this reason, it is useful to cultivate an attitude of inclusiveness and non-distractibility when practicing present moment mindfulness. This means that when we hear potentially distracting sounds or feel potentially distracting bodily sensations, we simply include them within the sphere of our mindfulness and immediately dissipate their power to distract us.

After some time spent in multi-pointed sense consciousness, shifting from one sense object to another, we can begin practicing single-pointed concentration on the sensual presentation of the present moment, with no particular focus. This is best initiated as a broadening of our senses, a softening of our focus, and an opening of our attention to all input, except thinking. Practicing in this way is essential preparation for the subsequent practice of concentration on awareness itself as the object.

Shamatha concentration practice with the attention on a physical object is specifically an exercise of concentration on the sense of sight. It is the same as shamatha concentration on the breath in that it is an exercise of one-pointedness, particularly to the exclusion of thinking. We can use concentration on seeing a physical object in the same way we use concentration on the breath and achieve similar outcomes. Namely, by keeping the mind attentive to an object in our sense consciousness of sight and letting go of thoughts that draw attention away from that focus on seeing, we exercise our ability to do something on purpose with our attention.

There is a functional difference between concentrating on the breath and concentrating on seeing, and because of this difference, the two practices can lead to significantly different outcomes. While concentrating on the breath promotes bodily relaxation and gentleness, concentrating on seeing a physical object strengthens the sense consciousness of seeing, which is linked to image formation in the mind. Concentrating on seeing a physical object is a preparatory practice for concentrating on a visualized object, which is the next stage of practice.

For the purpose of developing the ability to form objects in the mind without dependence on the sense of sight, it is useful to practice looking at an object that reminds us of the nature of mind itself. Some recommended objects to look at include a statue or painting of a Buddha or a deity, a photo or a painting of a teacher, the syllable AH associated with Dzogchen practice, or clear blue sky. However, one may choose any object to look at, as long as it gives rise to a sense of devotion, compassion, love, and pure perception.

Shamatha concentration with an imagined or visualized object is specifically an exercise of our capacity for thought consciousness to generate inner images. Often, habitual, automatic thinking is image-based, or contains images as well as inwardly-spoken words. In the case of concentration on a visualized object, we are exercising our ability to release habitual image generation in favor of intentional image generation.

Image generation plays a huge part in our somatic experience of thinking. Our bodies respond directly to visualizations as if the images are real. For example, if we imagine something genuinely frightening, we experience a somatic fear response in the same way as if see a frightening thing. At the level of brain function, there is little significant difference in brain activity between a visualized image and an image developed in the brain through stimulation of the sensory apparatus of the eyes. Using Buddhist terminology, an image is always generated in the sense consciousness of seeing, whether or not the source of the image is input from the eyes or from thought consciousness.

Visualization practice seeks to utilize this phenomena in an effort to remind ourselves of the nature of mind by intentionally visualizing things that remind us of that mind-nature, rather than by habitually and haphazardly visualizing things that remind us of fear and desire. That is why when we are concentrating on the sense consciousness of seeing a physical object, we look at a statue or painting of a Buddha or a deity, a photo or a painting of a teacher, the syllable AH associated with Dzogchen practice, or clear blue sky. After spending some time doing that, we can practice concentrating on the same object as we visualize it in our minds. As an intermediate practice, we can look at the physical object, and while looking at it, begin to generate our inner visualization of it. Then, we close our eyes and continue our visualization. Finally, we remove the object and then visualize it with our eyes open.

We can identify the success of our visualization practice by noticing our somatic, bodily response to that which we are visualizing. When we successfully visualize something that reminds us of our mind-nature, we experience an awakening and the associated sensations of clarity and bliss, which are manifestations of wisdom and compassion. It is important that we do not practice visualization in an effort to attain the sensations of clarity or bliss, because as soon as we do that, we are no longer remaining in one-pointed concentration on the object of visualization, but have slipped into concentration on the sensations of clarity and bliss. Rather, we attend to the wisdom and compassion that are the ground from which clarity and bliss arise – that wisdom and compassion that is embodied in the object of our visualization. Because this is a shamatha concentration practice, we are still constraining our attention to the intended object, not seeking the mental experiences that arise as a result of the practice.

Once we can visualize an object, then we can choose where in space we’d like to imagine it residing. First, we bring it to mind in front of us, as if we are facing it and it is facing us. Thus, we are looking into the eyes of the Buddha, deity, teacher, or other symbolic representation of mind-nature. Rays of light representing the enlightened mind shine forth from the object and we absorb that light. Next, we imagine that the object is above the crown of our heads, with wisdom nectar flowing down from the visualization into us, filling us with the enlightened mind. Last, we visualize ourselves as the enlightened being, radiating wisdom light rays out to all other beings.

Like watching a movie in some way gives us the experience of the characters in the movie, so does visualization of the enlightened mind give us the experience of that nature. Just as we experience the fear, love, and humor of the characters in a movie, so do we experience the enlightened mind of the entities that we visualize. When we visualize an enlightened entity, we are able to recognize its enlightened mind because it is our own – it is inherent within us and it is the basis of our consciousness – so when we call upon it, we find it to be there.

Concentration with awareness as the object is not like the other shamatha concentration practices because it does not exclude anything that arises in awareness – not even thinking. To do this practice, we identify the experience of being aware, and pay attention to that. All experience and thinking arises in awareness, so paying attention to awareness, we exclude nothing. When seeing arises, we notice that seeing arises in awareness. When feeling arises, we notice that feeling arises in awareness. When thinking arises, we notice that thinking arises in awareness. It this way, all experiences become reminders of awareness rather than distractions from it, so long as we remember to ask ourselves, “Where does this experience arise?”

Concentration on awareness as the object is still a one-pointed shamatha practice because we still constrain our attention to one object and release fixation from others. Distraction in this context is falling into mindfulness of objects, which include all sense objects, mental images, and thoughts. After recognizing our distraction into mindfulness of objects or thinking, we return to awareness of awareness itself.

The ability to make the distinction between awareness of awareness and awareness of objects is usually dependent on sustained practice of the preliminary shamatha concentration exercises, as we must first develop the ability to consistently pay attention to one thing before attempting to pay attention to that which includes all things. Additionally, study, contemplation, and realization of emptiness provides an excellent framework for this practice, as the realization of emptiness dramatically weakens our tendency to fixate on the seeming reality of objects and thoughts.

In order to benefit from the practices presented here, we must do them. We must sit down, decide what we are going to pay attention to, and then do that as best we can. Then, we will become distracted. Intending to pay attention to the breath, we will pay attention to thinking. Intending to pay attention to awareness, we will pay attention to seeing. In any case, eventually we will notice our distraction and return our awareness to the intended object. Each time we do that, we can celebrate our success. Gradually, over time, we will become more skillful, so that we can pay attention to what we want, when we want. Using that skill, we can pay attention to our own naturally enlightened mind.

About the Author
Tobin Shenpen McKee

Tobin Shenpen McKee


Tobin Shenpen McKee is the Communications Manager and Secretary for Rangjung Yeshe Gomde California, the creator of Middleway Method, and the founder of Middleway Network. He served as the Director of Arcata School of Massage for fourteen years. He studied Early Childhood Education at Naropa University, Lomi Lomi at the Lomi Oluea School of Traditional Hawaiian Massage, and Syntropy Insight Bodywork with Shari Sunshine. He is an active student of Chokyi Nyima Rinpoche in the Chokling Tersar lineage.

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    In the beginning section of the article you make an observation around dualism, noticing that such early stage of shamata is definitely dualistic.
    Later on in the article, you start talking about of that which includes all and everything, the open all-inclusive awareness.
    When such experience of all-inclusiveness arises, duality collapses. It is a spontaneous all-inclusive self-envisionment of the primal ground, of the nature of mind. In such self-recognition of awareness itself, without a witness, happens, out of a sudden, the union of shamata and vipashyana.

    Real vipashyana springs out from shamata progression, spontaneously. With the shamata gradual program you don’t produce the experience, but amplify the possibility that a synchronous moment occurs.

    I love all the progression in terms of shamata you shared in your article. It reminds me the way Alan Wallace guides you in his Dzogchen courses in Wisdom Publications on line (based in Dudjom Lingpa’s Vision of the Great Perfection)

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    Very informative indeed.
    I find myself wondering what the difference between Vipashyana concentration and Shamatha might be.
    I was taught that there is a clear divide between clear seeing and calm abiding but here is presented more like a continuum.
    Thanks again for the article.

    1. Tobin Shenpen Rangdrol Author

      Well my friend, I must demonstrate by example what we do when it comes to our attention that we are caught in a delusion. We let go of the delusion. It is about Shamatha. The whole article. As they say in my family: “Oy!” I can’t believe I didn’t catch that, nor the student who I originally wrote it for, nor the amazing editors of this blog. Thanks Davide. Vipashyana is indeed the sudden, unexpected clarity that may arise spontaneously out of shamatha practice, much like this moment.

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    Very nice! Thank you.

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