The word samathā can be translated as “tranquility” or “serenity.” In the samathā practices, our primary task is to focus on one object to the exclusion of everything else—in other words, to develop concentration. The Buddha taught more than forty meditation objects for samathā practice, which are described in detail in the Visuddhimagga. The most widely used of these objects is the natural breath as found in the Ānāpānasati meditation practice.
Why would we want to focus on a particular object of awareness to the exclusion of all else? Why would the Buddha have designed these practices? When we attempt to focus awareness on a particular object, one of the first things to happen is that we can’t do it. The mind keeps going to other things—thoughts of the past or future, distractions in our environment such as sounds or physical discomfort, and so on. These difficulties are called hindrances. Undertaking this process is useful because the same hindrances that occur when we are meditating also occur in our everyday lives and ultimately cause us to suffer. This brings us back to the Four Noble Truths—that life inevitably presents us with unsatisfactoriness and that there is a way to meet those inevitable occurrences without mental suffering.
The genius of the samathā portion of the Buddhist path is that it builds our capacity to focus awareness rather than allowing our awareness to be continually distracted and prone to the causes of suffering. Every time we bring our awareness back to our object, we are “building the muscle” of concentration. This can be likened to lifting a twenty-pound weight. When we first lift the weight, perhaps we can’t do it very well. Maybe we can’t lift it all the way, or we can lift it only a few times before we are overcome with fatigue and need to stop. But each time we lift the weight, we build the muscle. With many repetitions, over time and with consistency, our capacity increases. Eventually, the twenty-pound weight no longer feels heavy because our capacity has increased so much.
In samathā practice, we build our capacity in the same way. Every single time we realize that our awareness has strayed from our object and we bring our awareness back, we are building our capacity to be free from the suffering of life, both large and small. Let’s say we are driving in traffic and someone cuts us off. We have a choice: we can allow our awareness to linger over the incident, rehashing the anger or frustration for five minutes. Or, with skillful concentration, we can turn away from that distraction and simply let go. Powerful concentration is an antidote to the hindrances, not only on the meditation cushion but in everyday life. In turn, this concentration and ability to turn away result in a serenity that would not otherwise be possible.
Ultimately, when concentration is honed to a laser-like focus, it enables awareness to penetrate beyond the everyday perception of reality. What do we mean by “laserlike focus”? Settling and stillness accompany deepening concentration. As the mind settles from its habitual chatter, a number of new perceptual capabilities can emerge. When the clutter of compulsive thought is cleared away, the light of awareness becomes powerfully bright. This brightness turned inward in the samathā practice allows access to the immaterial realms that a cluttered mind cannot attain. In vipassanā, when this brightness is turned toward materiality (the physical world) or mentality (thought forms), these can be perceived and experienced in their unconditioned form, without the overlay of conceptual conditioned thought. In this way, concetration can enable us to perceive beyond our everyday, relative reality to the ultimate reality spoken of in mystical traditions throughout the ages. Just as an actual laser beam (which is made of highly coherent light) can penetrate steel, laserlike awareness can penetrate through our conditioned perception of materiality and mentality.
This essay is reprinted with permission from Practicing the Jhanas: Traditional Concentration Meditation As Presented by the Venerable Pa Auk Sayadaw (Shambhala, 2009).