There are two forms of meditation in The Theravada tradition: Samatha: Calming meditation; and Vipassana: Insight meditation.
Vipassana can be translated as “Insight,” a clear awareness of exactly what is happening as it happens. Samatha can be translated as “concentration” or “tranquility.”
Samatha meditation is focused on calming the mind, whilst Vipassana meditation is focused on insight or clearing the mind. Both meditations have their uses but which one you should practice depends on what your goal is.
Vipassana is used to achieve insight into the true nature of things. This is very difficult to get because human beings are used to seeing things distorted by their preconceptions, opinions, and past experiences. The aim is a complete change of the way we perceive and understand the universe, and unlike the temporary changes brought about by Samatha, the aim of Vipassana is permanent change.
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What is Samatha Meditation?
Samatha meditation refers to meditation aimed at calmness or tranquility. It is specifically focused on quieting the mind and can be used to achieve great states of calm and focus.
In practical down to earth terms, the Samatha meditation that most people who first get into meditation will practice is that of counting breaths. So they will simply focus on their breath, counting up from one to five or ten and then starting again at one. It is generally advised to not go past ten but start again at one.
Note though that in Samantha meditation you are focusing on a concept rather than a reality. The breath itself is a concept we create in our mind, as is the numbering we use to track it under this practice.