It’s been a couple of week’s since I left the Island. And the resonance of what we explored there seems to be growing.
First off, it was a very powerful group and a lot of powerful magic happened in the 6 days of the retreat – all of it swirling around the central point of samadhi practice.
And secondly, I wanted to take a moment to talk about this practice and what I understand by it.
Historically, Samadhi is one of the two meditation practices outlined by the Buddha in his first teaching after his enlightenment. Of the eight lanes of the superhighway to liberation he calls the ‘8 fold path’, two are concerned with the practice of meditation: right mindfulness and right samadhi.
Mindfulness has rightly been given an enormous amount of attention in the last decade and there are more books and CDs and apps out there for mindfulness than in the whole history of humanity. But samadhi has remained the ugly duckling, the Cinderella of meditation, and I’d like to explore why that is.
First, however, it is necessary to understand what this practice is and more specifically what it is not.
The word samadhi comes from the Sanskrit for putting together, gathering in and steadying. It’s variously translated as concentration or one-pointedness – though the English word I most use is ‘composure’ which has that sense of steadiness, dignity and posture.
Samadhi stands in contrast to the wide-open acceptance of everything that characterises mindfulness. And perhaps the reason that samadhi has never ‘caught on’ is because it requires discipline and it requires saying ‘no’ to distraction.
This steady and concentrated turn away from scattered distraction is what makes samadhi powerful and is also what make it crucially necessary in our very hyper stimulated world.
As we discussed on the Island there are huge billion-dollar industries whose sole purpose is to keep us in a permanent state of distraction. TV, cinema, advertising, social media – all these industries are designed to stimulate our endlessly proliferating thoughts; each one taking us further and further away from the simple satisfactions of life.
Samadhi says a big and firm no to these crude distractions and this is aided in retreat by a ban on mobile phones, computers, a lack of phone signal or Wifi, a ban on reading and writing and taking photos. All these restrictions peel away those very gross engines of distraction, leaving us in the here-and-now to work with the more subtle and internal distractions.
But before we can do this we need to have a safe place to rest our awareness. A place to put our awareness that is an iPad or a mobile phone, a thought-out daydream or a chain of anxious panicky fantasies.
And this is the genius skill that we develop in samadhi practice. First and foremost to cultivate the ability to place AWARENESS where we want it rather than where Google, Facebook or Rupert Murdoch wants it to go. It is a profound political act to grapple back control of our most precious resource: AWARENESS.
Where awareness goes, that is where life flares up and existence becomes alive. This is why the modern economy is called an ‘attentional economy’. Life (and money) pools where our attention goes, so samadhi practice is about grabbing back control of where we put our life energy.
Doing this by force is extremely difficult. Awareness cannot be bossed. Which is why we first must develop a sense of spaciousness.
One of the key elements of samadhi practice is SPACE. In some sense you might characterise mindfulness as a practice that is aware of phenomena and samadhi as the practice that is aware of the space around phenomena. And as subatomic physics and astrophysics bring to our attention most of the universe (inside atoms or between galaxies) is space. So when we develop the ability to put our awareness where we want, samadhi practitioners encourage us to rest it in an ever-deepening, ever-widening sense of space.
This is where Reggie Ray’s brilliant teachings bring samadhi practice to life. His somatic lineage provides us the tools to experience great space inside the body and in the Earth below the body. Concentrating your awareness over time on the spacious energy of the lower belly, gives us somewhere to rest other than in the claustrophobic intensity of our thoughts
Samadhi is a practice that gently detaches from thoughts. Mindfulness practice encourages us to view our thoughts loosely, to witness them arising and passing as phenomena. But samadhi practice really encourages us to cut through the whole palaver of thinking and drop down into the space from which thoughts arise and into which they disappear.
Much of the struggle with meditation practice (of all stripes but of samadhi in particular) comes from us engaging in futile arguments with our thoughts. We think and think about what we should be experiencing. We criticise and judge whether we’re doing it right but the essence of samadhi is much simpler:
Recognise the scrunched up feeling that comes when we’re lost in thoughts, and just relax it.
The only way samadhi can outweigh the decades of habitual and addictive thinking we’ve all engaged in is by being more enjoyable than thinking. The state of being simply and profoundly relaxed in the body opens up a field of experience that – first off – can seem weird and outlandish. The sensation of just being completely relaxed in the body, with nothing to do, nothing to improve or correct: it just feels alien. We’re so used to being in a perpetual coil of tense energy that relaxing is actually a challenge.
This is where Reggie’s body work becomes central. I say it over and over but no one on the course really believes me: it’s 100% somatic and it’s simply about relaxing the body and staying ‘in’. Not rushing out into the tensed-up scrunch of “I-me-my” thinking.
What becomes obvious as we practice in this way – relaxing, enjoying the body, keeping it simple and open – is that the scrunch of thinking about yourself is painful and it’s boring. Those endless repetitions of the ‘i-me-my’ storyline are chokingly dull and really, really boring. Whereas, we discover, to our amazement, being in the body is pleasant, simple, spacious, and endlessly surprising.
And this is what we all discovered on Holy Island two weeks ago – myself included. When you drop down below the boring, scrunched-up ‘I-me-my’ stories into the space of the body, you open into something magical.
It’s like in a dream when you suddenly discover a room or a whole floor in the house where you live and you can’t believe that you never noticed it. Or when you are suddenly transported, as an adult, back to a child-like sense of wonder or excitement that you’d almost completely forgotten was possible. These are the little openings and flashes of the sacred that samadhi practices put you in touch with.
First you learn not to be distracted, then you drop below the boring I-me-my thoughts and they you enter the velvety dark/brightness of the body and below that into the Earth and it’s full of surprises. And it’s sacred.
One of the highlights of the week on Holy Island was the All Night Sit, a tradition from the Theravadan school where I first learned to meditate. Sitting through the night into the wee hours, rotating from lying, sitting and walking in the darkness of the island, something opens up. Tiredness breaks down the daylight objections of the thinking mind and the disorientation of the dark night opens up new senses and sensations.
I found myself on several occasions sitting out in the warm night air just in a t-shirt, so intensely tuned into the humming energy and swirling sounds of the island that it was as if my edges had disappeared and I was being lived on a bigger scale, It was dreamlike but it was also very visceral and vivid.
And I suppose that is what I took away from the island so powerfully this year. That samadhi is not just a dry exercise in clarity and discipline, it is the portal into something magical and something sacred. And that we can’t get there by following the path of overstimulation or by thinking about it. It’s a path downwards, down below thoughts, down through the darkness of the body and out into the magic of the World around us. And it feels good…
If you’d like to learn more about Samadhi then we’re running a short weekend course in Brighton in December. There’ll be no late night sits but there will be a chance to experience the basic practice in a friendly group.