An Overview of the Journey to Shamatha

Dear friends,

This post marks the beginning of my journey to discover shamatha.

Since coming across Alan Wallace’s teachings about two years ago I have seen him as my primary teacher on the contemplative path. I’ve since engaged in deeper study of the plethora of writings, talks and full retreats that he shares freely online. The first podcast I listened to was titled, Get a PhD in Contemplative Science. Instead of transplanting a monastic model from the East to the West, Alan suggests taking the already established model of professional training in the West and using that model for contemplative training. Like how a neuroscientist would go through undergraduate and postgraduate studies, taking many years of full-time study before becoming a neuroscientist, a contemplative-in-training would do the same.

This led to teachings on achieving shamatha and the importance of it. He likened shamatha practices to contemplative technology for observing the mind. Without the invention of the telescope that Galileo used to observe the moons of Jupiter, there might not even be modern science today. And with the advancements of telescope technologies, the science of astronomy has been able to flourish. Likewise without a reliable foundation of contemplative technology (shamatha), no significant discoveries about the mind can be made.

The purpose of shamatha meditation is to develop or unveil the stability and vividness of attention. This is like developing a telescope for the precise, penetrating observation of mental phenomena, including the nature of consciousness itself. In this way, shamatha can be viewed as “contemplative technology,” whereas the practice of vipashyana is a kind of “contemplative science.”

The Attention Revolution

In psychology, one mainly studies behaviour. In neuroscience, one mainly studies the neural correlates. Neither one is truly a study of the mind. In both only inferences about the mind can be made. William James in the early days of psychology had offered introspection as a means to directly study the mind, but his early attempts had failed because of the unreliability of results produced from the people introspecting. He was missing a crucial ingredient: contemplative technology, or more simply, attention training.

James was also of the belief that attention was a fixed genetic trait, which put him in between a rock and a hard place in terms of finding success with using introspection to produce replicable results in psychology. We now know that attention can be trained and improved, although we are 5,000 years late, while Indian yogis have been refining their practice of samadhi ever since. Alan shares more of this in his vision for a Contemplative Observatory.

With the best of contemplative traditions from the East and the best from modern science that originated from the West, this unification could pave the way for a revolution in the mind sciences.

It is quite possible that in contact with western science, and inspired by the spirit of history, the original teachings of Gautama, revived and purified, may yet play a large part in the direction of human destiny.

– H.G. Wells, 1920.

The discoveries to be made here are not about discovering truth for the sake of truth. Like knowing the number of moons around Jupiter – it’s an interesting fact to know, but in terms of our daily lives that fact has very little or no impact. On the contemplative path the discoveries I seek are truths that liberates one from suffering irreversibly.

In this journey for truth that liberates irreversibly, it seems achieving shamatha is indispensable.

Aims of Writing

In his book Genuine Happiness Alan lists these five practices as the epitome of what he has found to be the most beneficial for westerners on the path:

Now each one is a huge, huge, huge topic on their own. And I am at a very early stage. But my understanding thus far says that shamatha is indispensable. It is the foundation for all the other practices. Buddha’s discovery was the unification of shamatha and vipashyana. Vipashyana (and practices like Dzogchen) don’t work without achieving shamatha. They might give benefit when practiced anyway, but they don’t work for what they were designed for: irreversible transformation.

This post then marks the beginning of my journey to shamatha. I want to discover it, walk all nine stages on the path of shamatha so that I may have the bedrock foundation for the latter practices of vipashyana and Dzogchen.

2 responses to “An Overview of the Journey to Shamatha”

  1. Steve says:

    Hi, my name is Steve from England and I would be very interested on how you progress.
    There are many books and topics available on shamatha but not many personal diaries on direct experiences and difficulties.
    I have been trying to learn how to meditate daily for approx 18 months for 30 minutes per day. I would love to spend more time meditating but my circumstances does not allow it.
    I have read Alan Wallace attention revolution and probably find it to be the best book on meditation I have read. Only dissapointing thing I read was the amount of time per day needed to meditate to reach the third stage etc. Most meditation books on the market don’t stress this point too much as I think it would put most people off learning how to meditate!

    Anyway, I wish you all the best on your path and hopefully I will also eventually get there.


    • liamchai says:

      Hi Steve, thanks for taking the time to write this comment!

      There are indeed many books on shamatha but not many personal diaries – even though I am still very early in this journey, I can get a sense of why there aren’tso many personal diaries. The reason why this post is still unlisted is because 1) it’s not yet complete but also 2) because I’m not sure yet if it is skillful to share this journey publicly or not. I think there definitely is benefit, but I might find a way to do it anonymously instead at some point – an edge I am still holding and have yet to make a decision on.

      Great that you’ve been meditating 30 minutes per day! A little meditation is better than no meditation for sure. But I also wouldn’t discount things like 1-day or weekend retreats in order to dive a little deeper – you don’t necessarily have to commit to weeks or months of retreat from the get-go in order to go deeper.


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