Ten Ways to Support Your Meditation Practice

1. Lighten Up. Meditation is making roomlighten-up to be kind to yourself (and by extension to others).  Sure, in this economy it’s good to have extra work, but being hard on yourself is a job you can afford to quit.  Just “let it be” a little.  It’s simple: breathe, look, listen.  It’s a long story.  Let it go.

2. Tell the Truth.  In sitting meditation you face facts (other things too).  Scheming doesn’t help; you’re only fooling yourself.  Choose your words, but say how you feel.  Don’t defend your point of view, just express it.

3. Sweat the Details.  Meditation is paying attention.  Life is only moment by moment.  Breath by breath. If you are sensitive to the details of life, they become sensitive to you.  Tidy up.  Dress nicely.  Speak well.  Keep your dignity. When you are here, you find what you need.

4. Give (Intelligently). If there’s a knock at the door, open it. Given enough? More could be needed.  Offer what you have, not what you don’t.  When you give, life gets easier.  Life is giving. Meditation moves with the flow of life.  Sooner or later, this body of yours will be somebody’s breakfast.  Don’t expect anything.

5. Prioritize.  You do already, just do it consciously.  Look back.  Look ahead.  How have you spent the last five years, the last five minutes?  How do you want to spend the next five (if you have them)? Time is ticking, acknowledge it.  Understand time.  Hint: meditation happens now.

6. Simplify.  Say “no” to the next bright idea, the next invitation.  In sitting meditation, we let thoughts come, then we let them go.  If you’re not the President, why do you need his schedule?  Make time for rest, for work and relationships, but learn to say “no thank you.”  An open morning or weekend isn’t a failure, it’s an accomplishment.

7. Find Company.  Meditation is making friends with yourself.  It matters who you hang with.  A date with Tony Soprano could be interesting, but it might not end well.  Choose the examples in your life.  Emulate who you admire.  Study the words of wise people.  We all have grudges, but they make poor friends.  Don’t let them drive the bus.

8. Suffer (a bit). Life hurts and is a mess.  You can change it, but you can’t fix it.  Don’t be afraid to feel your own heart.  Don’t be afraid to lose.  Recognize pride.  Don’t be a stranger to yourself.  You will be hurt; it’s not a punishment.  It means you’re human.  Meditation doesn’t fix suffering, it explores it.

9. Get Physical.  You need a body to practice meditation.  Have a physical discipline that gets you outdoors.  Breathe, see, hear, touch, taste, and smell.  Garden, run, do Tai Chi.  Sweat.  Relax and enjoy your world.  Don’t push your body like a mule.  Eat well, enjoy your bath and your bed.

10. Make Room.  Create a time and a place for meditation.  Leave your meditation cushion (or bench or chair) where you can see them.  Let them talk to you.  Your home is your castle: arrange your kingdom.  Be your own monarch.

Editor’s Note: And then do it. As Michael’s list suggests, meditation isn’t the “icing on the cake”.  Meditation is the cake. It’s at the center of a culture that supports a meaningful life.  Since we all have a mind, meditation is also what we do anyway. (If you wonder where your mind is, it’s where you last left it.)

If you need meditation instruction, get it. If you need a meditation cushion, find it.  Don’t wait for everything to be “right” before you sit down to practice, it never will be.

Meditation Space: A House?

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freeclipartvwbus-croppedLet’s face it. A house is not Zen.

I never really wanted a house. It was my wife’s idea.

My ideal scenario was to live in a van. There are many advantages to a van. Maybe it’s a guy thing.

For one, who ever heard of painting a van? I mean the inside. This just wouldn’t come up. There is something beautiful about steel, whatever color it’s painted.

Second, keeping the van clean would be easy. Cleaning my house is like cleaning the Potala Palace in Lhasa. There are more rooms than I care to count. Once I vacuumed the whole house. It was summertime. I had to be treated for heat exhaustion. I won’t do that again.

Actually, I don’t really think you can keep a van all that clean. The effort would be in conflict with the van’s nature. It is important to respect the nature of things. Anyhow, cleaning wouldn’t really come up. That would be fine by me. I mean, cleaning something changes it. Have you noticed? Why do we want to change things? Isn’t our practice to accept things the way they are?

Householders have the “house” and the “holders”. The “house” is a shelter from the elements. But having survived, you still need to survive your survival, if you know what I mean. Escape is the only way. At night in a house, I feel alone and vulnerable. I have the cable bills to prove it. But come on, the way to escape is to move. Just one word here: wheels.

As for “holders,” in my tradition we are learning to let go. Not to hold on. If you have a house, you are in charge of your house. Let’s face it; whatever happens in the house, you are responsible. Do you know what that word means, really? If you did, you wouldn’t want to be it. It’s related to the word oblige, which is related to the word bound. Basically, a house is a prison — with windows and a chimney.

Responsible people have to account for their actions. You can’t “account” while you’re moving. Particularly if you’re moving fast. You do what you do and you move on. People aren’t responsible when they’re moving. How could they be? My van is about freedom. You can’t drive if you’re studying the rear view mirror. People miss the point sometimes. We get lost. We don’t always do as we should. But how can you be lost when you’re not there? Two words: floor it.

Houses wear out. They are constant work. Something is always breaking down, requiring attention. That kind of commitment to a “thing” isn’t in keeping with the meditative lifestyle. We need to let go of things. For instance, I let go of my old tube TV. It was huge and it meant a lot to me. But it had to be done. Now I have a beautiful flat screen TV. It’s just not the same.

When a house wears out, it is very hard to trade it in. With my van, I would just drive it to the dealer and drive out with another. I actually think a van is “greener” than a house. So don’t fault me for trading it in. Not to mention the boost to Detroit, which could use a little boost.

Houses have windows. I wouldn’t have any windows on my van. At least not in back. Talk about privacy. Bedding down for the night, even I wouldn’t know where I was. Vans are romantic; they’re cozy, if you get my drift. I think that “desirability factor” is one of the reasons my wife was against it.

Windows allow light in the morning. That can be inconvenient. In a van, this wouldn’t be a problem. Speaking of windows, from my house you can see houses next door. Neighbors. The word says it all. Sometimes they phone me. Like when I’m yelling. I know it’s them from the caller ID. I don’t answer. But I do lower my voice.

Do you know how hard it is to yell when you have to keep your voice lowered? Believe me, there is almost no satisfaction there. You have to hiss, really, to make your point. Which is demeaning.

In my van, I wouldn’t have neighbors. Not permanent ones anyway. Just for the half hour or so it took them to shop for groceries. Living at the grocery store. Well, I mean, in the parking lot. Talk about convenience! And no neighbors. The problem with neighbors – sooner or later they need something. Neighbors are basically guests who haven’t moved in yet. No guests, no neighbors. That’s called simplicity. It’s part of my practice.

One thing about a van, there isn’t room for artwork and potted plants. They’re not practical. Nothing can hang on the walls of a van. I don’t even think they’re called walls. They’re called sides. Who ever heard of hanging a picture on a “side”? It just isn’t going to happen. This would save a lot of time.

It would take too long to hang a picture on the inside of my van. But that’s not what I’m talking about. I’m talking about appreciation. Do you realize how much time in a house is wasted on appreciating things? Art on the wall, the smell of food on the stove, flowering plants. With my wife, every day is plant appreciation day.

I mean, how long can you stare at a plant? By the way, one thing I’ve noticed, if you stare long enough, the plant starts to stare back. Just try it. That’s the flaw in appreciation. You think those things are there for you. But if you really pay attention, it starts to feel like you are there for them. I mean, who wants to be there for a plant? Just creeps me out.

The other thing about a van: no furniture. Either you are driving, going where you need to go, or you are sleeping. I would have a really nice mattress in the back. I mean, I’m a gentleman. Why do we need anything else really? No tables, no chairs. Let’s face it. A chair is really just a poor excuse for a couch, and a couch wants to be a bed when it grows up.

Have you sat in a chair lately? Basically, you have two painful choices. You can lean back in the chair, which is like lying down halfway. How helpful is that? Or you can sit up straight and face the universe on your own. Who in their right mind would do that? Chairs with wheels, now those I can deal with. A van is a chair with wheels and a gas pedal. I miss my van.

Where was I? Oh yeah, the chair. Well, you can sit up and be still. There is a little problem with being still. I think you know what I’m driving at. The problem with being still? You are not moving. I don’t need to tell you what kind of people don’t move. These aren’t my favorite kind of people. Why would I want to imitate them?

Believe me, you will never distinguish yourself by sitting still. You’ll never get anywhere. In my van, I go places. I make “miles per hour.” I cover territory. My progress can be measured. No movement, no way to measure. If something can’t be measured, it’s either too big or too small. Either way, where’s the point? If you’re not progressing, where are you? You do the math.

Not that I would have to be on the go all the time. When I would drive, I would drive. When I would sleep, I would sleep. It would be Zen.

Editor’s Note: It’s important to have a spot in your living space where you are still and quiet. It is the basis for a sane household, which is your responsibility. Sitting still in meditation on your meditation cushion or bench connects you with space. Space connects you with everything and everyone. Recently, a scientist in the Times pointed out that space isn’t really far away. Just a one-hour drive, if your van can drive straight up. I think Michael might have missed the turn.

The Cool Kids

Being Cool
Being Cool

Recently the New York Times published an op-ed piece on a conference for Social and Affective Neuroscientists (or “Neuros”) which took place in New York this past week. According to David Brooks, the writer, “the leading figures at this conference were in their 30’s, and most of the work was done by people in their 20’s.” And all of them, he pointed out, were “young, hip and attractive.”

Mr. Brooks went on to write, “many of the studies presented here concerned the way we divide people by in-group and out-group categories in as little as 170 milliseconds.” At the same time, another study “showed that if you give people a strategy, such as reminding them to be racially fair,” for example, “it is possible to counteract those perceptions.” As the article points out, to live with a view or idea is not an option, it’s what’s happening. And it’s happening very fast.

The In-Group

As a newly-minted teenager, I ran with the cool kids. I knew who “we” were and who wasn’t “us.”  I knew who was “in” and who was “out.”  I assumed great things from “our” crowd and nothing from the “uncool” whom I ignored (or worse).  In its rigid application of exclusion, and its focus on territory (school was assumed to be “ours”), being cool was a kind of warfare.  Cool was to be joined; uncool, suppressed. To maintain my outlook and compelling view of the world, I had plenty of evidence – subjective and objective. One year later, a move and a new school would prove me (at least the cool me) irrelevant.

School Spirit?

For the first year of high school, my parents’ divorce meant my brother and I moved from Massachusetts to Texas.  Uptight by southern standards of sociability, insecure in the face of so much change (how did high school football, of all things, get so important?), in high school I found myself instantly on the outside of whatever was cool.  I couldn’t even tell who the cool kids were supposed to be.  “You really don’t have school spirit, do you?” a pretty brunette pronounced after understanding that I wouldn’t be attending the pep rally before the football game (not to speak of the game).  I had to admit that whatever school spirit was, I didn’t have it.

Who’s Cool Now?

A few years later, in the middle of my senior year, I visited my old school back east. The band of cool kids was gone.  One kicked out, one transferred, the others relaxed into non-distinction.  Two of the most uncool kids from middle school days were on their way to Harvard. Their futures were promising, those of the former cool gang, unclear.

In the language of meditation, my “view” was changing.  According to the tradition of meditation practice, your view (basically what you think and how you understand life) will determine where meditation practice takes you. From one angle, meditation practice is simply about embodying an understanding of life – deepening our ability to be the person our meditative insight has revealed to us to be.

Who’s That in the Mirror?

Because sitting meditation slows us down and allows mind’s natural intelligence to develop, meditation is often called a mirror.  One of the first things we notice when we take up meditation is our view – the thoughts and underlying emotions that create and color our world.  Learning simply how to be, in a genuine way, reveals the glossed fiction of our self-image.  Gradually it dawns on us that whoever we really are, we are definitely not who we thought we were.  At the same time, our convenient and habitual approach to others is exposed.  In the space of meditative awareness, we notice tiny little flickering thoughts, continually evaluating others.

Though the process is more sophisticated than in high school, we are continually sizing people up.  Are they worthy of us, or do they somehow occupy another status, one we cannot reach?  To our astonishment (and some horror), we begin to recognize the birth of instinctive and instant likes and dislikes – based on the thinnest of fleeting perceptions.  Looking closely, we wonder, are these prejudices borne fresh from the encounter with others or do they govern encounters from the beginning (or before)?

Not Exactly…

Faced with this raging specter of snap judgments and hidden discursiveness, we begin to question our view.  For one thing, it becomes clear that the way we think migrates into how we are in the world, what we do.  If world we inhabit is different than the one we tell ourselves we are living, what are we living? To paraphrase the great 19th Century Tibetan Scholar-Practitioner Mipham, we realize that “Whatever we think it is – it’s not exactly like that.”

Meditative traditions emphasize training in the view – that is, studying how reality is – because that is what we do anyway, at least our own version of it.  In this case, study as support for meditation is not so much learning a new dogma or answer for the meaning of life, but shining a light on the views we do hold  (cherish even) without knowing we have them.

The School of Life

The culture of meditation is based on the notion that we can continue to grow up.  That the mind and the way it thinks and feels can develop.  Most of us have moved on from the views we developed in high school.  For me, these views were dispersed by another emerging reality.  I didn’t need to be talked out of a view of myself among the cool ones; when its irrelevance was exposed, this idea vanished like fog in sunlight.

As I get older, I find it harder to expose habitual thinking for what it is. Truths somehow get more penetrating, but I’ve gotten better at hiding from them.  It takes work to expose the self-limiting thoughts that put me and others “in” or “out.” As per the Neuros, it takes a “strategy”.  To grow these days, I often have to admit adolescence all over again. This includes the challenge of being willing to question, in a fresh way, who and how I am in the world.

How Cool is Peace?

In my experience, the discipline of regular meditation practice  (and attending meditation retreats)  is a strategy that works.  With the intention and courage to face ourselves, we give flickering thoughts room.  When these thoughts gang up on us, we neither join them nor suppress them.  Done properly, meditation is the experience of sharing the same boat with everyone.   In the space of meditation, thoughts of who’s in or out no longer make sense.  To paraphrase Suzuki Roshi, when you sit on your Zafu, everyone sits with you.  To practice mindfulness is to practice community, inclusion.  Because our practice moves us beyond limiting ideas about ourselves and others, it is the practice of peace.  How cool is that?

Editor’s Note: Karme Choling, just down the road from Samadhi Cushions, offers a week-long Simplicity retreat for those interested in exploring group meditation. Gaylon Ferguson‘s Natural Wakefulness brilliantly hosts explorations of view.  Sakyong Mipham‘s Turning the Mind into an Ally is a primer for learning the basics and subtleties of mindfulness practice.

Meditation: Your Cup of Tea?

img_00191Sometimes, the formal practice of sitting meditation feels like a stretch.  What does sitting quietly, upright on our meditation cushion, have to do with, well, anything, we ask ourselves? Life is moving fast. It seems to require speed and efficiency. Meditation practice is about slowing down. Aren’t these two heading in opposite directions? We feel trapped in a choice of our own making — life and living it — and our discipline of meditation, which doesn’t relate.

There is the vague sense that the regular practice of meditation had been important to us, but the benefits of practice, if there ever were any, have become distant memories. Now, with fatigue in the face of our daily schedule, or excitement in the face of opportunities arising — meditation doesn’t look practical.

Even if we wanted to sit still for a while in our meditation room or spot, we wonder if we could. Sitting still seems either too exertive — it makes more sense to use the little time we have to just lie down and rest — or we are just too hassled by the pressures of our schedule, which while partially self-imposed, seems to have taken on a life and momentum of its own.

There is a hint of pride. We feel inspired or at least obligated to meet the challenges of our life and hopeful that we could rise to the occasion. Sitting down on our meditation cushion on the other hand, could be messy. We’re pretty sure that whatever the practice of meditation is supposed to be, we wouldn’t be doing it well. Who wants to do something that’s meant to be helpful and uplifting and be bad at it? Why impose that humiliation on ourselves?

Out of guilt or nostalgia, we might dust off a book on how to meditate by one of our favorite teachers. But the words don’t make sense in the way they once did. If we are honest with ourselves, we admit that beyond losing interest, there is the sense that our heads are full enough. Adding new ideas, however sublime, to the mix isn’t going to help. There just isn’t room.

We begin to think that the practice of meditation, perhaps even spirituality altogether, is for those who see things that aren’t really there — a matter of talking oneself into something other than life as it is — a kind of wishful thinking. We’ve heard about meditation as a path or “Way,” but if there is a way forward, we don’t see it.

This is a place all meditators have been. And let’s not mince words, maybe it really is time for you and your meditation practice — at least the one you think you had — to part company.  The discipline of meditation is a relationship. It takes work. Like any relationship, much depends on what you think you want out of it, and how you plan to go about getting it.

In his book, Turning the Mind into an Ally, Sakyong Mipham describes meditation practice in terms of concentric circles – the innermost circle being the practice of peaceful abiding, or the mind at ease in its own stability and strength.  Each circle in the concentric circles approaching the center is a step to uncovering this inherent quality of mind.

At the outermost circle, Sakyong Mipham makes an interesting observation. He points out that while formal meditation practice is focusing the mind on an object or sensation (like the sensation of breathing, for example), we are always holding the mind to something — a thought, a wish, an intention or irritation.

Of course, without the influence of a meditative discipline, we generally experience this holding on in a scattered or fixated way. But the point is taken. We are always meditating. It is just a matter of how. Sakyong Mipham has a word for the outermost circle of meditation: he calls it Life.

It turns out that formal meditation isn’t doing something different from what we do anyway.  Because it involves slowing down, however, it is a way to see what we do when we engage the world. Sometimes of course, we don’t want to see. We sense that if we saw the truth of our relationship with life, we couldn’t handle it. Or, even if we could handle it, now is somehow not the time.

We cannot escape meditation. Or to put it another way, we cannot escape our own intelligence, our own awareness. Looking away, avoiding, is seeing. As Pema Chödrön once put it, there is wisdom in going beyond any effort to escape the sharp edges of life.

Because stability and clarity are inherent qualities of mind, meditation practice is simply a way of slowing down and allowing these natural qualities to manifest. Sakyong Mipham’s point is that, in this effort,  “Life” and the way we live it, plays a role.

When the formal practice of meditation seems ambitious or impractical, he suggests, sit down at the kitchen table. Look out the window. Go for a walk.  In short, be friendly to yourself. If your schedule doesn’t permit extending hospitality to yourself, who is it for? Who’s in charge? Who sets the tone?

If you take the time and give some room for mind’s natural balance and intelligence to reassert itself, you can be there fully for a proper cup of tea. Enjoying a cup of tea with yourself, you may be inspired to explore and deepen the relationship. Formal practice no longer looks meaningless or threatening, it is simply a logical next step.

It’s About You

Editors Note: A key aspect of a successful meditation practice is a view or orientation. To this end, some study of meditation is important. At Samadhi Cushions, we recommend books and media from fellow practitioners of meditation as an essential companion to the actual practice of sitting on your meditation cushion or kneeling bench.

Chapter 14 in Sakyong Mipham’s book Ruling Your World is called The Confidence of Delight in Helping Others. It is a thoughtful contemplation on the personal transition toward serving others. In any event, without consistently refreshing one’s understanding, meditation can go astray, as Michael seems to demonstrate in his post.

Is that you in the mirror?
Is that you in the mirror?

It’s Not About Me

As  you’ll see, this is not really about me.  It’s about you.  I have something to share with you.  But we have to start with me.  It will be clear why. Why me? Well, for one thing, I’ve been thinking about me  —  I mean a lot.  And I think this thinking has paid off.  Finally! It’s good to think about yourself.  I mean it takes courage.  It takes letting go.  I don’t know if you know, but it’s a tricky subject – oneself.

I mean, if you look in the mirror, is that you in the mirror? Well, obviously not.  It’s just a reflection. But what if you don’t like what you see? Now you’re on to something. That’s where my meditation comes in. I get to work on what I don’t like about myself.  Anyhow, to do this, what I’ve discovered is that I need encouragement – a lot of it really. I wanted to share that with you.  I thought it would be important for you to know about me.

The Art of Listening

Excuse me, I haven’t finished.  So, where was I? Oh yes, I have a lot to offer, a lot going for me, which is obvious, but I wanted to say it. It’s important to love oneself. This is something that meditation teaches you. I have so much I could give. I see people,  successful people, and they seem happy. Why? I say to myself. Because they are giving. They have found a way to give and it makes them happy.

And then I think, what is keeping me from giving, keeping me from realizing my potential?  What I realized is that I wasn’t thinking of myself. An example? Well, you, I mean I guess, us, for example. When I looked at it, I realized that I was always listening to you. Why? Well, I think it was because you were always talking, but I’m not sure. In any case, that’s the wrong place to start, don’t you think? I should start by listening to me. You, of all people, should be able to understand that.

The Irony

People talk because they want something. Have you noticed? They want to be heard. Are you listening? People take energy, and that was another thing I realized, I need to watch my energy. I can’t be giving, giving, giving all the time. It’s not good for me.

The irony is that people think it’s about them. Which of course it’s not. But how can you tell them? Because of that internal focus, there is so much that people don’t see. Like what? Like the work I’m doing on myself, for example. It’s hard work and no one notices.  As a result, they miss what I have to offer. Which is a lot. You know, you might be one of those people.

Meditation Space

What I’ve learned through my work is that to give and be happy you need to be in the right space – a helpful space. My meditation is a big part of that. I work hard at it, like I said. Mind you, I still have thoughts and some feelings that keep coming back. Which drives me crazy. Why? Because they hurt. They are painful. It’s not the “me” I want to be. But with effort you can control those feelings. Gradually, I think, I’m becoming calmer and much clearer. I see what I need for myself, for example. I could never see that before.

What does meditation do? My meditation gives me space. When I sit on my meditation cushion I feel good. But, to be honest, and that’s something meditation is helping me with – being honest – anyhow to be honest, I need support. How? Well, when I see you after my meditation, you don’t look happy. And this bothers me. Why can’t you be happy? Just once! When you’re not happy it ruins it for me. It really does.

The Secret of Happiness

But there, we got off the topic. But not really, that was the other thing I wanted to say.

What I mean to say is, I love you, and I care for you. I do. But I’m worried. I’m worried about you, about how you relate. For one thing, I don’t know how to say this any other way – and don’t take it personally – but you are a bit self-involved. Being like that is going to lead to unhappiness. That’s what meditation teaches you.

There, I said it. Like I said, my meditation practice has given me the courage to tell the truth, to actually say what I think and feel. I can’t tell you, this is so liberating for me. I don’t actually feel like the same person. I’m a new person, in a way. And I’ve realized that it’s not really about me. It’s about you.

Being Helpful

And I would like to help you. I really feel I can. I want to help you change. It will be hard, it will take work, but I think if we do it together, we can accomplish it.  Yes, I told you, I do love you. But I know you could be better, you could be more you. How? Well for one thing, you could be more helpful. Think of others. Like me.