My wife Susan and I spent last week in Santa Barbara on Shamatha retreat with B. Alan Wallace. It was a real eye-opener for us.
Given the successful completion of his Shamata Project’s two three month retreats last year and my recent “discovery” of his Hidden Dimensions as a cutting edge Yoga Science text, we had to go meet him and get a taste of Shamatha for ourselves.
The retreat was held at the Old Mission Renewal Center, a rather institutional Catholic facility built by the Franciscans, but clean and quiet, and attached to the wonderful Mission Santa Barbara and its Church – often called “The Queen of the California Missions” – filled with the wonderful energy of centuries of worship to the present day.
The retreat consisted of a full schedule of guided meditations, dharma talks, and Q&As – meals were adequate, beds were comfortable, rooms mildly Spartan without bathrooms, but since it was designed to be a retreat center, the MRC worked perfectly well for us.
We had 7-8 meditation sessions daily, each 24 minutes in length – a time apparently identified in Vedic times as 1/60th of a day and a duration considered well-suited for those beginning this ancient practice.
There were only about 45 of us, so it felt intimate enough that we could all get our questions answered, and yet there was plenty of room for everyone to stretch out when need be – one of the recommended postures for the practice is supine, and it can be wonderfully relieving when knees or back set to aching.
The extent of Alan’s guidance during the meditation sessions varied and decreased gradually as we became more familiar with the process.
Alan taught three distinct methods: “mindfulness of breathing” – the main method taught by the Buddha himself and practiced continuously to this day in Theravada schools, “settling the mind in its natural state” from the Vajrayana tradition taught by Padmasambhava, and “awareness of awareness” from the Dzogchen tradition.
It wasn’t easy – compared to our usual daily schedule, this was pretty demanding – but our way was eased by Alan’s relaxed pacing with plenty of breaks to stretch and walk, the short sessions, the encouragement to lie down when fatigued, his wonderfully explicit instructions, and his remarkably articulate, authoritative, and wide-ranging expositions from the classical Buddhist literatures in Pali, Sanskrit, and Tibetan – in all of which he seems to be fluent.
As the week progressed he gave detailed “experiential instructions” and exposition of each of the ten stages of Shamatha, all broken down into a step-by-step process that unpacked for me aspects of Yoga that I’ve known for years were there but never before seen explicated with such clarity and elegance.
So the combination of short alternating sessions of theory, instruction, and practice combined to make a most effective learning experience – we came away feeling that we had learned – in some real sense for the first time – how to focus the mind and relax the body simultaneously as well as where this practice can lead.
My own experience was one of moving gradually during the course of the week from the endless rush of random mind-forms (many drawn from the intense several weeks I had just spent writing PSESM), day-dreams, and bodily aches and pains, into quite consistently pleasurable effects of the combination of alternating concentration and relaxation that became more characteristic as I moved through and beyond Shamatha Stages 1 and 2.
The fruits of this practice are demonstrably useful in nearly every situation in life – a growing literature attests to the many benefits of improved attention skills and bodily relaxation.
These are clearly acquired skills and ones that I have studied over the years in some detail from a medical standpoint drawing on the extensive scientific work done in the 20th Century by Edmund Jacobson – “the father of progressive relaxation” – and his student Joe McGuigan (I’m hoping to explore this connection in much greater detail at a later date, but asap).
But the real eye-opener came from me in the talk Alan gave on our final full day together on Shamatha Stage Ten – his description of the psychophysical transformation that occurs at this stage of “attainment of Shamatha” struck me as virtually identical to descriptions I’ve heard over the years of full Kundalini awakening.
There is much more to be said about Kundalini than I can even begin to get into here, but suffice it to say, it is an ancient word used to describe a dramatically transformative process that can occur either spontaneously – as occurred in the extensively documented case of Gopi Krishna – or as the result of various kinds of Yogic practice.
Kundalini has acquired all kinds of connotations – secret, sexual, dangerous, and yet profoundly transformative – and a vast amount of lore has grown up around it over the millennia.
Here, however, in Alan’s Friday presentation, I heard and felt for the first time a clear description of how it could be the culmination of the most relaxed and truly natural process you can imagine – for that is exactly how Alan portrays and explicates Shamatha.
Yes, it requires preparation, proper circumstance, proper life style, time, support, proper guidance, and an unusual degree of commitment – but it looks like the pay-off will be enormous – once Shamatha is attained, a whole new world of enhanced capacities opens up, applicable then to both ordinary and spiritual ends.
Although it seemed inappropriate to ask exactly if and when Alan himself had “attained Shamatha,” it strikes me that his dramatically productive career since leaving his 14 years as a monk in Nepal is clear testimony to the many good uses to which these awakened capabilities can be put.
A most encouraging outcome of last year’s two three month Shamatha Project retreats is that Alan now has some 14 (out of the 70 participants) who are continuing with their practice, and he is clearly optimistic that some of them will be able to persist all the way to the attainment of Shamatha.
What is more, these 14 are among the most extensively scientifically studied meditators in history – not only was a huge amount of data gathered on each of them during their three month retreats, they have each been sent laptops loaded with software designed for them to use to gather on-going follow-up data.
Alan knows that once one or more of these individuals breaks through to Shamatha, his friend and world-class cognitive neuroscientist Cliff Saron will be there gathering state-of-the-art scientific data on multiple aspects of their psychobiology.
From my perspective, an unexpected and important benefit may be that this work will shed some scientific light on the mysterious Kundalini as well.
Meanwhile, Susan and I are redesigning our schedule, we’ve downloaded the BuddhaBell software (an inexpensive meditation timer), and we are continuing to love the practice sessions – they feel so deeply nourishing.
Interested readers should check out Alan’s book The Attention Revolution which lays out the step-by-step practices almost exactly as we received them.
More scholarly background details are to be found in some of Alan’s other books such as Natural Liberation and Balancing the Mind.