Saturday, December 6, 2008

Building Your Meditation Practice: A Few Tips

Learning to meditate is the greatest gift you can give yourself in this life. For it is only through meditation that you can undertake the journey to discover your true nature, and so find the stability and confidence you will need to live, and die, well. Meditation is the road to enlightenment.

-- Sogyal Rinpoche, "The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying"

To experience the benefits of meditation, we don't have to go live in a cave and practice 24/7. But it does help to have a regular practice, with some consistency, even if it's in very small amounts. Consistency and frequency are more important than doing long sessions.

If you're just beginning, don't bite off more than you can chew. Practice in manageable, bite-size chunks. A common recommendation for beginners is 10 minutes a day, which you can gradually increase to 15, 20, or 30 minutes if it works for you. Don't start out trying to do 30 minutes a day at the very beginning, though, because it might feel like too much and you may get discouraged. Build up your tolerance for sitting meditation gradually.

If you have trouble finding even 10 minutes a day to sit down and practice, maybe it's time to reexamine your priorities. How much is your spiritual life worth to you? When you think about it, 10 minutes a day, for something so essential to your own well-being, is not really asking all that much. If you can't find 10 minutes a day to stop running around and sit down and look at your own mind, then maybe you're just too busy.

However long you choose to meditate, use a timer (a stop watch, an alarm clock, or a kitchen timer) to time your sessions. This minimizes the distraction of wondering how much time is left, and you don't have to keep peeking at the clock.

Decide in advance how long you're going to sit, and stick to it. Don't change your mind and abandon ship in the middle of a session. By the same token, get up when your session is over, even if it's feeling good. Try to carry your mindfulness into post-meditation activities and mix it with your everyday life.

Try to sit at a consistent time each day. Some people find it helpful to sit in the mornings before going to work, as this helps them create a more positive frame of mind for going about their day. Others prefer to sit in the evenings. Some like to do both. Experiment and find what works for you, then stick with it for a while and see what happens.

Once you get a daily rhythm going in your practice, continue to sit and practice even when you don't feel like it. If you only sit when it feels convenient or comfortable, then your ego may be in charge of your meditation practice, and that's missing the point.

Don't be discouraged when meditation seems difficult, and don't be elated when it seems easy or pleasurable. Experiences in meditation come and go like the weather, and it's our conceptual minds that label these experiences "good" and "bad." Don't cling to good meditation experiences, and don't reject bad ones -- just keep sitting.

Find a conducive space in which to practice. It should generally be safe, quiet, and free from unnecessary disturbances. But total silence is not necessary.

Some people find it helpful to devote a small space in their home exclusively to meditation. It could be a corner of your room, where you set up a meditation cushion or a chair. If you want to go all out, you could set up a small shrine and include some objects that have spiritual significance to you. This is about creating a space that your mind associates with meditation, so the mind knows when it enters that space what's going to happen.

If your home is totally unworkable as a meditation space, you could go to practice in a church or meditation center. If there's a meditation center near you, take advantage of this -- practicing in a group with other meditators provides a powerful support.

In his book "Wake Up to Your Life," Ken McLeod talks about several basic conditions that need to be present in order for our meditation practice to really flourish:

  • We need to have our basic needs met. Shelter. Food. If we don't have these things, it's hard to focus on anything else.
  • We need to have some sense of contentment with our lives. If we are caught up in desire, pining for more of this or less of that, it's a huge drain on our mental and emotional energy.
  • We need to have a manageable life. As McLeod says, "a manageable life is one in which you can breathe.... You need to be able to sit and rest, at least for the period of formal practice."
  • We need to have ethical behavior. When we do something that doesn't sit well with our own conscience, we spend a lot of time thinking about it afterwards, and burn up a lot of emotional energy on feelings of remorse.
  • We need to let go of drama. As McLeod puts it, "Is everything a big deal, or can you let go of emotional reactivity? ... If you can't step out of reactivity for even a moment, you won't meditate. You will be too busy reacting to the current crisis."

Finally, if you plan to take your meditation practice seriously, don't try to go it entirely on your own. Seek out companions and guides on the path of practice, and talk to them to work through your questions and doubts as they come up. It will also be tremendously helpful to see that other people have many of the same experiences as you do, and face many of the same obstacles.

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