The Attention Revolution is a thorough outline of the stages leading to the achievement of shamatha—full mental stabilization—according to Indo-Tibetan Buddhist traditions. Anyone buying the book in the hope of a quick fix, though, is fairly soon put right. The achievement of shamatha, Wallace tells us, is liable to involve “five to ten thousand hours of training—of eight hours each day for fifty weeks in the year.”
At this point I nearly stopped reading. I live in a meditation retreat centre, but even my lifestyle allows for nothing like this amount of meditation—and how much more so for people who have “normal” lives. But I’m glad that I persevered. The book is, in fact, a useful and stimulating resource for experienced meditators, while for those newer to meditation it gives an interesting and sometimes inspiring overview.
- Tejananda’s review of “Never Turn Away: The Buddhist Path Beyond Hope and Fear” by Rigdzin Shikpo
- Tejananda’s review of “Happiness and How it Happens,” by Suryacitta Malcolm Smith
- Tejananda’s article, Making meditation practice your own
- Tejananda’s review of The Meditator’s Atlas
I’m aware from personal experience that the shamatha states of “access” concentration and “the first meditative stabilization” (dhyana) are more readily accessible than the book suggests. The extraordinary levels of shamatha to which long-term full time training can give rise are beyond the scope of all but a very few, but I’d contest that a level of shamatha consistent with effective cultivation of insight is accessible to those with a regular, but not full-time practice, especially if this includes regular periods of meditation retreat.
The book is structured around each of Kamalashila’s ten stages of meditation, with interludes outlining important supportive practices such as the Brahma Viharas. There are also some instructions on how to achieve lucid dreaming as a basis for dream yoga—making the dream state a basis for insight. In fact, it becomes obvious as the book proceeds that shamatha and insight (vipashyana) are increasingly inseparable.
Bearing in mind the reservations above, there is a great deal of valuable material packed into a relatively short book. While the full path that it describes would require extensive practice under a qualified teacher, the book contains much that could enrich the practice of anyone who already meditates regularly.
but if it isn’t “five to ten thousand hours of training—of eight hours each day for fifty weeks in the year” then how long do you think it takes? I am suspicious of thinking we can live “normal” lives or even live in a retreat centre and really give enough time to our meditation practice if we are to make real progress… isn’t that a problem with our tradition that we think we can live a normal life and make progress on the path?
I really think that the depth of shamatha suggested here is not a necessity for insight to arise – which is what it’s really about. As an approach to insight, an ‘effective’ level of shamatha is extremely helpful (though not absolutely indispensible – insight being ‘beyond’ conditions). Enough shamatha to quieten the thoughts sufficiently that one can ‘look’ (or listen, feel …) Some space. I’m sure that people can make real ‘progress’ in terms of insight in ordinary life. Perhaps it’s our beliefs and expectations that get in the way of this sometimes – the possibilities are greater than we think.