Shamatha, Vipashyana, and the Awakened Mind

Shamatha and vipashyana are the warp and woof of Buddhist meditation. One might say that shamatha describes the mental stages of meditation, and vipashyana, or mindfulness, as the process of attentional focus. Recently B. Allen Wallace, a practicing Buddhist scholar who has studied under the Dali Lama, has given us a detailed description of shamatha in “The Attention Revolution”. He describes nine stages, or levels, through which one will pass as the process of meditation deepens.

Consciousness as we have described earlier may be broken down into three elements; awareness, content or perspective, and physiological state. One's content or as Ken Wilber calls it, perspective, includes, among other things, one's personality type, stage of ego development, as well as the cultural stage of development in which one is embedded (see Spiral Dynamics Integral). The perspective is the filter for awareness, that is you will always interpret your experiences, at the very least, from this base line of your particular developmental stage and state. If on the Enneagram you are a One, then you will be aware of your experiences filtered through the One typology. This type will also be shaped by your stage of ego development, and your culture.

Your state will vary through the normal states of waking, dreaming and non-dreaming sleep. You may also experience non-ordinary states brought about by drugs, sleep deprivation, fever, or physical exhaustion to name a few possibilities. These states will always be filtered through your perspective. In short our awareness is totally confluent with, and shaped by, our current state and perspective. This, for the most part, is our normal state affairs.

Unknown to us is the possibility that awareness may have a functional integrity independent of either perspective or state. Some of us may have had the experience of lucid dreaming, a dream in which we are aware of the fact we are dreaming without awaking from the dream. We are still immersed in the dream perspective and the physiological state of sleep, but we are also experiencing waking awareness in a state other than our usual waking state. This should be our first clue that we can extract awareness from our normal waking perspective in the same way; that is experience a state of lucid waking.

Shamatha and vipashyana then are about the process of extracting the thread of awareness from state and perspective, much as one would draw out the thread of silk from its cocoon... slowly and carefully. This is accomplished in the first three stages of shamatha by learning to deeply relax the body while not falling asleep. This is accompanied with attentional training, vipashyana, by following the breath, and allowing thoughts to arise and fall without attempting to change or control them.

This may be accomplished more rapidly, and just as efficiently, using the tools of biofeedback and neurofeedback. Using heart rate variability, skin conductance, and surface emg for muscle relaxation, one can achieve a deep state of physiological relaxation in a very short time frame. Attention can be trained using neurofeedback for the gamma brain wave. We have known for some time that gamma in the 40 to 42 hz range is associated with focused attention. For example 40-42 hz increases in the frontal lobes when one focuses on balancing on a balance beam.(Unfortunately in some forms of ADD attempts to focus attention decreases blood flow to the frontal lobes and therefore decreases one's ability to maintain attentional focus.) Recently it has been found that long time Tibetan Buddhist meditators, 20,000 hours plus, can produce extremely high gamma in deep focused meditational states. The significance of this feat is still being debated but it is quite possible it is related to states of highly focused attention.

Deep relaxation training has the effect of reducing the upper beta range between 24 and 38 hz. This has the effect of quiting the mind. One no longer feels as anxious or worried, and fewer thoughts occupy our attention. Most can achieve these states with 20 to 30 hours of neurofeedback training, instead of the hundreds of hours required in sitting meditation.

The next three stages of shamatha are more delicate and require that we not break the thread of awareness while falling asleep. Those who have practiced Awakened Mind training will be familiar with this initial state as one of alpha. Here the sensualization training begins to pay off. In alpha we experience in emergence of sensory imagery. At this point, without the prior training, one tends to fall asleep. Here we need to put our attention on whatever imagery appears, again just allowing it to flow through our minds, without any attachment. Again neurofeedback can greatly facilitate the emergence of alpha / theta states. Once again this can be attained with as little as 20 to 30 hours of training. It is also at this stage that emotional content may rise to the surface. This may include everything from intense bliss states to unwanted fearful memories, and everything in between.

The techniques of energy psychologies can be used when these experiences arise to quickly clear and integrate both wanted and unwanted states. The point here is not to loose the thread of awareness and become totally absorbed in the emerging content. You may also begin to spontaneously experience lucid dreaming during normal sleep. It is best to also work on forgiveness, loving kindness, and compassion, as an aid to your development. Here the new field of Positive Psychology may have some important lessons. There are also biofeedback systems that, to some extent, can help develop lucid dreams and there by speed the training ( “Lucid Dreaming” by Stephen LaBerge).

The next and final three stages of shamatha involve dropping even deeper into non-dreaming sleep. Here delta begins to emerge while alpha / theta states begin to drop into the background. This level is the most delicate as this is what we normally experience as total unconsciousness. This is the normal, healthy, delta of deep sleep, not the delta of pathology, such as stroke or closed head injury.

The neurofeedback techniques for developing delta are not as well studied as the alpha or theta simply because delta was not seen to be useful. However it has been explored more in remote viewing, remote influence, and energy healing. Often what are reported as psi experiences arise in the theta / delta state boundary, so one can begin to have premonitions and see visions of other worldly beings, and remote events etc. When this stage is reached it is important that love, gratitude, forgiveness, and compassion are already part of your moral fabric. Again these experiences are not to be embraced as important, they are only content, not awareness. This content may be used in service for others, but to use it only one's own ends can strengthen attachment to the content and make further progress difficult.

You may now begin to experience a continuous state of awareness during all stages of sleep, that is you will feel your body fall into deep sleep, go through dreams, and non-dreaming states without loosing you thread of awareness.

This is the next to final step in shamatha. One enters a state described as being contentless, luminous, and blissful. This is often taken to be the final step, but it is at this point we must turn awareness on itself, that is awareness becomes its own content. Where as the prior state of continuous awareness is called turiya, this stage, when fully realized is referred to as turiyatita, or non-dual awareness.


Shamatha Project