Written for the Mountain Hermitage e-newsletter, July 1, 2014
Samatha is part of the threefold central Buddhist path to liberation, namely sila (ethical cultivation), samadhi (cultivation of the mind), and panna (cultivation of wisdom). In this context, samadhi refers to more than just the establishment of one pointed concentration, but also includes the cultivation of other meditative practices through mindfulness and loving-kindness. The practice of samatha, nevertheless, lays the foundation in establishing the stability in the mind for cultivation of these essential mental qualities.
Samatha is often translated from Pali as the English word concentration. The word concentration, unfortunately, often has the connotation of tense effort and conjures up the image of a furrowed brow, with a practitioner needing Herculian effort to stop distractions in their tracks and working hard to pull a distracted mind to one pointed concentration. A more apt translation, often used by many Buddhist teachers, is stablizing or calming the mind. Here, the idea is not so much to attempt to tame the lion of the unruly mind with force or threat of a whip, but giving gentle and affectionate, yet continuous, reminders to a beloved puppy.
The mind training and establishing of samadhi is not achieved by the force of will, but by putting the right conditions into place for the mind to stabilize in a state of ease and calm by itself. The same way that we cannot will ourselves to fall asleep (have you tried? and how did it work?!), we cannot will ourselves to a state of samadhi. We can only put the right conditions in place, with right attention, ease, kindness to ourselves, gentle yet persistent effort (atapi), and the mind will naturally settle into a state of calm, just as a child who is fed and rocked gently will fall asleep in her mothers arms.