Shi-ne, pronounced “shi-nay” is a meditation designed to produce a clear state of mind, without thought or other mental phenomena like visual images or ideation. Shi-ne is the Tibetan translation of the Sanskrit “shamatha,” Pali “samatha,” meaning “calm abiding.” Samatha is taught in Theravadan and in Insight traditions alongside or as a preliminary to vipassana. There, it is most commonly a concentration practice, focusing on the breath as object, leading to a state of equanimity. Shamatha is also taught in Tibetan traditions: it may be called shamatha or shi-ne in that context.
In Tibetan Buddhist Mahayana, shi-ne may resemble Theravadan samatha concentration methods. In Tibetan Vajrayana, shin-ne is more usually taught as an expansive method, not as concentration. The method, experience, and result of practicing Vajrayana style shi-ne are quite different to shamatha concentration. I wrote a little about the differences between shi-ne in Vajrayana and shamatha here. This page is about how to practice shi-ne. When I use the term shi-ne, from here on, I am referring to an expansive, Vajrayana style of shi-ne.
How to practice shi-ne
The simple instruction for shi-ne is to maintain presence of awareness without focusing on anything, that is, remain uninvolved with whatever arises in mind.
This is not easy, particularly if you have not meditated much, or if you have become used to meditating on the breath or use focused concentration as a method to maintain awareness. Maintaining awareness without focus might even sound like an impossible contradiction if, to date, your conscious awareness has always involved focus.
For that reason, there are ways to approach shi-ne meditation which gradually move towards it. These supportive methods are not shi-ne proper: they are preliminaries, or preparatory practices. They resemble shamatha concentrative methods more than expansive shi-ne does, but the attitude, language and intention with which they are applied are different. This is important because attitude, language and intention prescribe experience. There is more about these supportive approaches later, but to understand the instructions accurately it is necessary first to know what they are not.
What shi-ne is not
Most meditations and secular mindfulness are dissimilar to shi-ne, so it is helpful, particularly for practitioners who have meditated in different contexts, to define shi-ne by what it is not.
Shi-ne is not:
- Focused concentration
- Meditation on an object, including the breath
- Ignoring or repressing thoughts, feelings or sensations
- Noting or labeling
- Intentionally slowing down, or slowing the breath
- Going inward
- Body scanning
The posture, in principle, is “closed.” Less stimulation from outside the body encourages thoughts to settle. Close your eyelids most of the way, letting in only a little light to maintain alertness. There’s a spot at which this feels comfortable but it can take a while to find. Rest palms faced downwards on the thighs or cupped in your lap. Tilt your head slightly downwards. The point of the posture is to remain relaxed and still, without tension. Some meditation instructions emphasize rigid stillness. This is not necessary in this style of shi-ne meditation. There will always be some discipline and some movement – the point is to remain present yet uninvolved with what arises, not to ignore it. It can be interesting to practice not responding habitually to stimuli such as itches and tickles, but do not sit through pain. Adjust your position, maintaining presence.
The primary preparatory practice for shi-ne does use the breath, but does not regard the breath as object. My teacher, Ngakchang Rinpoche, coined the phrase “find presence of awareness in the dimension of the breath”. In this style of Vajrayana, the attitude is always one of finding, not of observing. In practice, the difference may seem subtle and small. Over years, the difference is profound. Watching creates a distinction between subject and object. In shamatha this is intentional and necessary: the end point is the experience of the nonduality of subject and object and so the method works with that duality in order to expose its inaccuracy. In shi-ne, this is not necessary: subject and object are irrelevant. The method creates space not between an observer and the breath, but in and around the breath as experience. If you have practiced shamatha concentration intensively, moving to shi-ne can be frustrating. The difference may be difficult to find. It might also be helpfully revealing, or even liberating.
There are other preparatory practices for shi-ne; some are described in the Aro lineage online email course. You may find more in the resources listed below.
Why practice shi-ne
The content-free, clear state of mind shi-ne produces usually changes one’s emotional reactivity for the better. When difficult situations give rise to strong emotions, there’s awareness that:
- The emotion is arising
- The emotion describes a quality of the circumstances
- There is a choice whether to express the emotion or not
In other words, you find more capacity to hold emotional reactions within conscious awareness, without getting so involved that the emotion instantaneously prescribes your reaction.
For most people, shi-ne also changes the experience of thoughts in a similar way. Becoming more aware that you are thinking, when you are thinking, is interesting. Remaining uninvolved with thoughts while they come and go gives your thoughts less purchase: you can choose which ones to hold in high regard and which to laugh at, which ones to act upon and which to leave be. Thoughts cannot be harmful when they no longer demand cognitive involvement.
This can sound weird before you’ve experienced what it’s like, but when it occurs it seems quite natural. Thoughts, feelings and sensations arise in spacious experience. They don’t define your being, they’re an aspect of it. When you don’t get so lost in them, they add texture and color to your presence.
Shi-ne meditation also tends to produce a relaxed contentedness. This is not the whole point of the meditation, but it does provide an important ground for Buddhist Tantric practice, which involves creative, enjoyable activity.
There are no guarantees that you’ll reach a point where you can’t be triggered and regret it later. On the contrary, there’s probably always going to be something that’ll cause emotional turbulence such that you lose awareness or behave in a way that you later regret. The possibility of fucking up is always present. But shi-ne does make a difference for most people who practice it consistently. For many it radically changes ordinary experience.
Occasionally meditation, shi-ne, shamatha or some other sort, can lead to anxiety or depression. If this happens for you, it’s probably a good idea to stop, find something else more useful, and maybe come back to meditation if you want to try it again later. Some Theravadan meditation paths say that you must go through a “dark night of the soul” before you can experience an effortlessly clear, empty state of mind. That’s not so in this system: something may have gone wrong with your application of the method if you find it’s leading to despair and depression over a long period of time.
With regard to Vajrayana practice, shi-ne is designed to lead to an effortless, spacious experience: expansive mental clarity. This is the ground for Buddhist Tantra. All other Vajrayana practices rely on having at least some familiarization with this state of mind. Without it, other practices are liable to seem pointlessly dull or overwhelmingly intense. If you practice shi-ne consistently there’s a high probability that you’ll experience moments in this state of mind within a year. Stabilizing the experience usually takes at least three years, but can take many more.
Shi-ne in schematic context
Shi-ne is the first of four meditations constituting an approach, or ngöndro, to Dzogchen, the path of “great completion.” The second meditation is lhatong, Tibetan for vipassana. Lhatong means “further seeing.” In this meditation series it is the practice of finding presence of awareness in thoughts and other content of mind as it arises. You allow the arising phenomena, all things cognitive, emotional and sensed, to define the parameters of your awareness. The practice is to let all the content of mind arise without habitually losing awareness in wish-fulfillment, internal narratives, fantasies, thought-stories and ideation.
The experiential results of shi-ne and lhatong are quite distinct. Experienced separately, they do not seem to be the same as each other. The third meditation is nyi-med, “not-two,” a practice that encompasses the naturally alternating experiences resulting from shi-ne and lhatong, to discover one in the other. Nyi-med gives rise to experiencing what is the same about them, despite their apparent difference. This result is called “nyam-nyid” in Tibetan: it refers to the inseparable nature of the two meditation experiences. Nyam-nyid is rigpa, “all-pervading awareness,” in the context of unmoving, physically settled, sitting meditation. The fourth practice in the series is the retention of this unusual experience of mind in ordinary, everyday activity.
These four meditations recur across traditions, primarily in lineages belonging to the Nyingma school, where they are taught as Dzogchen meditations, or Dzogchen preliminaries, and in the Kagyud school, where they are taught as practices of Mahamudra. They are also taught in Bön traditions. In English, they could be referred to as:
- Effortless clarity
- Arising presence
- Spontaneous congruent activity
If you have used resources other than the ones listed here to practice a similar kind of meditation, let me know in the comments. Not all of the resources here are exactly concommitant with the shi-ne described in this page, but they mostly fit with the language, approach and style.
The Aro tradition online email course is a series of weekly emails with more detailed instructions and exercises than is possible here. I find the Aro gTér teaching style both practical and inspiring. If you also benefit from this course, please consider making a donation to the Aro lineage retreat center.
Journey into Vastness is an out of print book by Ngakpa Chögyam, still available second hand sometimes. It is in the style of a step by step practice manual, with commentary. Many people told me that this book was important for them and it was the first meditation book that really did it for me.
Roaring Silence and Shock Amazement are later books by Ngakpa Chögyam and Khandro Déchen. They are more esoteric treatments of the same material as Journey into Vastness. They provide insight into the Dzogchen context of the four meditations described in this page.
Chögyam Trungpa teaches the approach to his original Shambhala meditation in this video from 1974. His book Cutting through Spiritual Materialism is not about meditation specifically, but it is a good introduction to the attitude and stance of Vajrayana.
Michael Taft teaches authority-free nondual meditation. This approach might be particularly helpful for you if you have enjoyed a focused style of shamatha concentration and are now looking to integrate it into a more expansive style of practice and/or if you are allergic to the hierarchical structures in many traditional presentations.