Meditation brings up lots of questions - how long at a time, what to do about various challenges - numb legs, monkey mind, falling asleep, and so on. But the most pressing topic is the challenge of cultivating a daily practice. All of us have a story about our first attempts, and they are pretty similar. For myself, it took many attempts in the first year, with lots of bumps along the way. And even now, taking to a daily practice isn’t exactly like a duck to water. Some of the resistance is temperament, and some of it is learning about being a disciple to myself (or better known as self discipline!).
Here are a few tips I have learned. Like any habit-changing effort, the first is pretty basic - start a new habit by making it a habit. Try to schedule sessions everyday at the same time. The brain thrives on routine and after a few days, the mind is ready, even before you begin. Recognize resistance for what it really is - just a thought. And I can say with experience, acknowledging it without judgment seems to have the magic effect of making it melt away. If only diets worked like that! We are very capable of making commitments. We get to places on time, brush our teeth, and pay bills. Setting aside time every day to sit doesn’t compare to a dental appointment, but what makes it seem like it?
Another is to learn under competent and experienced meditation guides and connect with fellow meditators. Meditation is a lifestyle with an ever expanding set of practices that emanates into the rest of our daily lives. What happens on the cushion, happens everywhere. And with every new experience, meditation takes on new dimensions, and new challenges. Connecting with others is also an opportunity to learn about the finer points. A new meditator claimed that not having thoughts was unnatural, so she couldn’t understand the point of stopping them, and in one sense, she had a point. But she may have misunderstood what mindfulness meditation is - not to stop thoughts, but rather, to learn how to work with them. For another, meditation seemed to dredge up feelings of dissociation that required a modification of the meditation routine. When you are facing a challenge in meditation, which is inevitable, reaching out to those with experience and training, will ensure a richer and more productive practice.
Meditation requires our undivided attention, no pun intended. And it’s an art that shifts and changes, if, for the very reason, there is a human being in there, often in the middle of experiencing “the full catastrophe” of life (Zinn). Our meditation community can offer advice, support, adjustments, as we cultivate and grow our own practice, and by extension, ourselves. Finally, a big lesson I learned was recognizing the grand Seeker of Perfection lurking underneath. In the end, the paradox of a good practice is all about what isn’t working because if it were perfect to begin with, what would be the point of practice?
The Power of Meditation - BBC documentary
Meditation and Going Beyond Mindfulness - A Secular Perspective
To be seen or heard, which do you prefer? Mindfulness practice brings the mind into sharp focus - impatient, angry, restless, bored, and the list continues. But what happens on the outside? Conflict brings action into sharp focus as well - same emotional senses, same thoughts, just visible. When we feel conflicted, that is the grist for meditation. On the one hand, we’re proud of our effort to sit quietly, yet on the other, yearn for the bell. In outward conflict, similar mechanisms play out.
In either case, nonjudgmental, kind, dispassionate acknowledgement seems to help us crawl back to equanimity. But it’s never really enough. Transparency, both to ourselves and to others, may bring up other painful feelings. The best antidote is more awareness, not less. What does frustration really feel like? This is why I am so committed to transformative mediation. Its goal is to follow each party’s growth into greater awareness of their predicament, just like we follow the breath toward greater awareness of our minds.
While mediating a case between a runaway teen and her parents, they expressed outrage that their child would trade a wonderful family home life to insecurity and danger. Their outrage was a cover for deeper feelings of pain and fear. What did that say about themselves, but, even more frightening, reality? If all their efforts didn’t prevent what they feared most, than what else could they not count on? What can we ever count on, really? And there lies the source of conflict - what we want and what we get never quite balance out. We want stable and loving marriages, happy children, and long lives. Good luck with that. What we have, instead, is a life full of pain and glory, failures and successes, each moment an offering of opportunity or paradox.
The teen came out during the session. It shocked them. They had no idea and could not understand why that was the impetus to leave home - for another day. Nonetheless, they left with a few concessions including financial support while their child finished high school in another city with the understanding that she keep in touch. They were not quite able to breach into full acceptance, but like meditation when we can only go so far, go back to the essential rules of engagement: gift each moment the touch of loving kindness, and gently tend growing awareness like a seed that will sprout earnestly at any given moment.
Dharma Seed is an online resource that is a support for meditation teachers, communities, students and meditation practitioners. The talks and meditations available through the Dharma Seed website are largely, although not exclusively, teachings from the Western Insight Meditation tradition, as taught at centers like the Insight Meditation Society (IMS), Spirit Rock Meditation Center, Gaia House and New York Insight.
Some of the speakers that I listen to: Stephen Batchelor, Jack Kornfield, Pima Chodren, Sharon Salzberg, Steve Armstrong, and others.
The Metaphor of the Labyrinth: Striving
The human psyche is a pretty messy place. It seems to be the receptacle of all the stuff that no one likes, even to ourselves. I think of it as the Cave of Shame. If anyone really knew what we hid there, they would leave us there to rot. Opening up that space, revealing our most inner dreads, is where support groups are made. When we get to be “ourselves”, revealing our worst fears and impulses, we often find that others share similar stories, which, by the way, is a mix. While a relief to know that we belong somewhere, it’s a bit dubious. If our experiences resembles others, the world really must be as crazy we feared.
Journeying into that space is represented by the age old mythical Labyrinth. Each step is a quest toward liberation and freedom along the winding path of experience. I walked a stone path labyrinth at a retreat, and even though I could have leaped across to the center, I chose to stick to the path, so to speak, and noted when irritation rose up if the path led back to the same spot, or relief when moving forward, and so on. Arriving to the center was an odd accomplishment. What did the center really hold other than myself? And perhaps that’s the point. There is no there, there, as they say. Rather, remaining in the moment, stones revealed beautiful shapes and colors, some even with tiny sparkles that resembled the night sky. Gazing at my feet or looking up at the path ahead were two very different perspectives, but my sense of "I-ness" was the same in either case.
We do know, deep down, that satisfaction, joy, happiness, can’t be gained from the world outside, no matter how much labyrinth walking and awareness practice we do. Rather, there is a bigger, more powerful force at work that changes a mundane rock to a ray of the cosmos at the blink of an eye, an inner innate virtue that is sometimes in conflict with whatever forces are trying to convince us otherwise - Mara or the demons of our own making. In some sense, our inner psyches map the work we must do in this lifetime, our own labyrinth - whether it’s being anxiety prone, or having to hold and work through painful legacies (or what some might call fate or karma). The secret is knowing that it is a hero’s journey, if you care to embark, no matter how mundane or exciting - you chose. The striving for reaching a center is a false start. Rather, can you honor the journey itself, as though the self was always whole to begin with?
Three minutes breathing exercise
Here's a simple practice that can be done anytime, anywhere, that will help bring you back to the present when feeling stressed or overwhelmed. It's also a wonderful way to enhance your meditation practice - a sort of short practice session in between. There are three steps to the practice:
Attend to what is. The first step invites attending broadly to one’s experience, noting it, but without the need to change what is being observed. What is tense, relaxed, or numb? What emotions are are coming up and where are they located in the body?
Focus on the breath. The second step narrows the field of attention to a single, pointed focus on the breath.
Attend to the body. The third step widens attention again to include the body as a whole and any sensations that are present. Notice mindfully the five sense: What do you see, feel, hear, smell and taste?