The case for a meditation practice...
Updated: Oct 19, 2021
We live in an age of overconsumption--too much food, too much information. Our bodies and minds are drowning in so much stimuli that we don't have the time to experience our selves unless we carve out a way to do it intentionally.
Last Winter, while staying with friends, I was invited to sit at their morning meditation. Using an iPhone to time their sessions, I noticed that, according to their app, they had been meditating for over1,000 consecutive days! At first, I was amazed… then curious. What keeps them going day after day? I very much wanted to find out...
I decided to conduct an experiment, and see what effect 100 consecutive days of meditation would have on me…
I sat 20 minutes each day. I would sit on a cushion, light a stick of incense, place my attention on my breathing, and that's pretty much it.
Here's what I've noticed...
Note: All the quotes below are from the 1970's classic: Zen Mind, Beginners Mind by Shunryu Suzuki. See the resources section below.
#1: I wake each day with more to do than I could ever hope to accomplish. Sitting puts my day in order, allows me to know what needs doing next—transforming the process from an overwhelming (not to mention discouraging) 20+ tasks down to a sequential process of just a single (obvious) task at a time. For this reason, I’ll often compose a hand-written checklist immediately after sitting....which I often complete!
…without being aware of it, we try to change something other than ourselves, we try to order things outside us. But it is impossible to organize things if you yourself are not in order. When you do things in the right way, at the right time, everything else will be organized. You are the 'boss…' When the boss does something right, everyone will do everything right…
#2: When I meditate in the morning, my whole day seems to (better) organize itself around me. It’s easier to see what needs to come next. Rather than feeling caught up in chaos, I feel more like the eye of the hurricane: the more empty I am at my center, the more energy and possibility I can feel moving toward and around me. And like a hurricane, the eye (my mind) is seldom if ever truly empty. Small thoughts are always popping up and disappearing, but the overall process creates an expanding vortex of possibilities, rather than obstacles.
#3: While I aim to keep my mind clear when sitting, inevitably I wander off my breath and start thinking about something. Sometimes a nagging emotional issue, but more often than not, it's some mundane thought without any real meaning to me. My mind just defaults to thinking. When I notice, I no longer get down on myself for lapsing in the technique. No matter what pops up, the rhythm of the breathing, like ocean waves lapping the shore, will eventually erode my interest in the topic. Before long my mind (and body) is once again attending the meditation.
#4: When meditating, I’m in direct contact with the state of my body. I experience a direct, language-free impression of how it feels: My energy level, the effect of any meal or beverage from the day before, soreness from physical activity. As I perceive parts of my torso that are inflated by the lungs, I'm able to notice areas that are stuck or where there's holding. Simply noticing these areas will often dislodges thoughts or events from my personal history that I am unconsciously carrying. A memory sometimes emerges from the stiffness, and then the constriction is released.
…to concentrate you mind on something is not the true purpose of Zen. The true purpose is to see things as they are, to observe things as they are, and to let everything go as it goes…Zen practice is to open up our small mind. So concentrating is just an aid to help you realize 'big mind', or the mind that is everything.
#5: I'm learning to see my thoughts, rather than react to them as they arrive. When my world is 'shaken up' by some unexpected event, my mind feels like a snow globe with a thousand thoughts suddenly swirling around me, disorienting me and raising anxieties. With consistent sitting practice, my attention is not distracted by myriad thoughts. I remain present to what is happening. Then when an idea worthy of action arises, I’m ready to seize it and act. I have more facility in evaluating each thought when my mind is calm.
If you want to obtain perfect calmness in your zazen (meditation), you should not be bothered by the various images you find in your mind. Let them come, and let them go. Then they will be under control…. To give your sheep or cow a large, spacious meadow is the way to control [them].
#6: Thinking always seems to be there, rising and falling out of the lens of the attention…I try to give my thoughts the “large, spacious meadow” Suzuki speaks of (above) so that the thoughts can be 'feed' themselves. The ideas often return in more mature, clearer form.
#7: Counting (consecutive) days has helped me to be consistent. There is ‘something to lose’, so I’m not blasé about skipping a day. The consistency of practice is building something that did not arise in years of occasional practice. This 'handshake' that I’ve made with myself builds my self-confidence as I see myself doing what I set out to accomplish.
#8: The simple act of breathing becomes a completely satisfying activity. There is joy in this simplicity of only having one thing to do and doing it. I feel totally unburdened in those moments, having totally satisfied that one and only commitment…then the rest of the day holds out great promise, because you are in possession of your self, having already succeeded in perhaps the most important task of your day: knowing thyself.
#9: There’s one more benefit I find hard to put into words...I notice that my intuition is sharper, and I’m better able to listen to it. Sometimes I’m just walking down the street, and something stops me and tells me I’ve forgotten my keys, or there’s something about to happen. They’re the type of things I never notice when my mind is cluttered with thoughts.
I'll check back in on and update this topic when I reach another milestone. Interested to read your comments in the meantime.
The quotes above are all from the 1970's classic for starting meditation: Zen Mind, Beginners Mind by Shunryu Suzuki. A preview of first 43 pages is available thru Google Books (link above), which is more than enough to get you started.
Another foundational book I like is Chogyam Trungpa's Shambhala: The Sacred Path of the Warrior. It also is previewed on Google, with meditation technique beginning in Chapter 2. When Trungpa fled to the West to escape the Chinese invasion of Tibet, he "westernized" the traditional Tibetan mediation practice to make it more digestible to his western students
Insight Timer is the free phone app I use to time my meditation sittings, and keep count of consecutive days of practice. I does a totally adequate job, but make sure you create an account and sign in initially, or you may lose you consecutive day count (like I did) when they upgrade their software. They also have a community function that lets you form groups with others you know use the app, so you can keep each other engaged. If you try it, look me up under, "Evan Inner Waters".
Sky Lake Lodge is a meditation center located in Rosendale, NY. It teaches in the Shambhala Buddhist lineage founded by Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, author of the book recommended above. While I've not formally taken Buddhist vows, I enjoy doing sitting practice at the center's open weekend sittings. It's a totally different experience sitting with other people. There is a mood and energy to a room, and this center definitely resonates with the energy of its founder and many dedicated practitioners who have used this space. They offer meditation instruction, and you can even do the sessions via Zoom. The Lodge is located on a lovely quiet property that lends itself to contemplative walks and wanderings.
Zen Mountain Monastery is located in Mt. Tremper, NY. Prior to the Pandemic, you could visit the monastery and sit on Sunday mornings and Wednesday evenings. I found the Sunday morning program really inspiring, with sitting, chanting and a dharma talk. If you take up a meditation practice, this is a great experience. The website currently notes that all the programs are online until further notice, but perhaps that will change by the Spring of 2022.
In my practice, I help people stay healthy by helping them maintain a balance. I can divide that balance into 5 elements:
3. Community & relationship
4. Sleep & rest
5. Meditation, spiritual practice, self-knowing
From time to time in this blog, you’ll see short articles on all of these element