Updated: Sep 17
Shamatha meditation, also known as calm abiding or tranquility meditation, is a foundational Buddhist meditation practice that aims to cultivate a calm, stable, and focused mind. The word "shamatha" is derived from two Sanskrit words: "shama" meaning "peace" or "calm," and "tha" meaning "to dwell" or "to abide." Thus, shamatha meditation is the practice of dwelling in a peaceful and calm state of mind.
The practice typically involves focusing on a single object, often the breath, to develop concentration and mindfulness. By maintaining unwavering attention on the chosen object, practitioners learn to let go of distractions and mental chatter, cultivating mental stability and clarity.
The stages of shamatha meditation progress from the initial settling of the mind to a state of deep, unwavering concentration. As practitioners advance in their practice, they may experience various levels of mental absorption known as "dhyana" or "jhana" in the Buddhist tradition.
Shamatha meditation serves as a foundation for insight and wisdom practices, such as vipassana (insight meditation) and other forms of contemplative meditation in Buddhism. By developing a calm and focused mind through shamatha, practitioners are better prepared to engage in these advanced practices to gain insight into the nature of reality and achieve liberation from suffering.
Stages of Development
Traditionally the stages of shamatha development are listed as steps representing progressive stages of mental stability, clarity, and focus that a practitioner experiences as they deepen their practice. The first five steps are:
Directed Attention: The practice at this step is characterized by the initial effort to direct and focus the mind on a chosen object, such as the breath. The practitioner's attention may be unstable, and they experience frequent distractions and mental wandering.
Continuous Attention: Here, the practitioner develops the ability to maintain a continuous flow of attention on the chosen object, with fewer episodes of distraction. Although the mind may still wander occasionally, the practitioner can recognize and redirect their attention back to the object quickly.
Resurgent Attention: As the practitioner's focus improves, they reach a stage where their attention remains primarily on the chosen object. When distractions arise, the practitioner can recognize them and let them go, allowing their attention to naturally return to the object without much effort.
Single-Pointed Attention: Practice here is characterized by high mental stability and focus. The practitioner's attention is firmly anchored on the chosen object, with minimal distractions or mental wandering. Their mind is calm, clear, and concentrated.
Effortless Attention: In this advanced stage, the practitioner focuses on the chosen object without conscious effort. The mind is naturally stable, calm, and clear, and maintaining focus becomes a spontaneous and effortless process. Distractions are minimal, and when they do arise, they are quickly recognized and released without disturbing the overall stability and focus of the mind.
At this stage, the practitioner has developed a deep level of concentration and mental stability, allowing them to engage in more advanced meditation practices, such as vipassana (insight meditation) or other forms of contemplative meditation, with greater ease and effectiveness.
B. Alan Wallace, Ph.D., a prominent Buddhist scholar and meditation teacher, has provided a framework for understanding the development of shamatha meditation. Wallace has written and taught extensively on shamatha meditation and has outlined various stages of practice. One of his works, The Attention Revolution: Unlocking the Power of the Focused Mind, presents a 10-stage model for developing attention and concentration in shamatha meditation. This model is based on the teachings of the Indian Buddhist master Kamalashila and the text "Stages of Meditation" (Bhāvanākrama).
In "The Attention Revolution," Wallace describes the progressive stages of shamatha meditation, which can be summarized as follows:
Fully Pacified Attention
Each stage represents a deepening of concentration, stability, and mindfulness in meditation.