Practical Wisdom


By Natalie Goldberg  |  

I have practiced meditation for 25 years. Sometimes in the most likely, and unlikely, places: two weeks in a cabin in northern Minnesota, in the woods under ponderosa pines during backpacking trips, in a root cellar in Talpa, New Mexico, in a chicken coop I converted into a zendo, on the porch off my bedroom, in my living room, my kitchen, on the steps waiting for a library to open.

I have also practiced formally with other Zen students in rigorous institutional environments for up to a week at a time and for 100-day practice periods. For six years in my 30s, I lived four blocks from the Minnesota Zen Center, where I followed a daily routine of sitting at 5 a.m. and then sometimes for two hours in the evening. We had monthly weekend and seasonal retreats where I sat almost constantly from before dawn until 10 at night.

Twenty-five years is a long time to be engaged in one activity. Have I managed to do it every day no matter what? No. Have I often experienced states of bliss that kept me going? No. Did my knees hurt and shoulders ache? Yes. Was I sometimes filled with anger, aggression, tormented by old ragged memories, burning with sexual desire, craving a hot fudge sundae so bad my teeth ached? Yes.

Why did I do it? What kept me going? First, I liked that it was so simple, so different from the constant rush of human life. When I sat, I wasn’t hurrying toward anything. The whole world, my entire inner life, was coming home to me. I was beginning a true relationship with myself. This felt right—and it was inexpensive. All I needed was my breath, a cushion or chair, and a little time. And I feel I’ve learned a few things about meditation during my sitting tenure. I wouldn’t necessarily call them “rules,” but they have helped to keep my practice going when there were plenty of reasons to stop.

A Matter of Time

0ver the years I have heard much instruction on how to meditate. Recently I listened to someone tell students that it is better to sit for five minutes every day than for an hour three times a week. That’s good advice, I thought. Then I smiled to myself. There are no prescriptions for a long relationship. Things change. Five minutes every day might work beautifully for three months. But then what if you miss a day or a week? Have you failed? Do you quit? I hope not. But sometimes our minds set up stiff expectations, and when they’re not met, we drop the whole thing.

That’s my first rule: If you want meditation to be in your life for a long time, do not make a rigid structure and then chastise yourself when you don’t comply with it. It’s much better to keep a limber mind and develop tenderness toward existence. Missed a day? You’ll begin again the next day. Where are you going anyway but right where you are? But that doesn’t mean structure isn’t important. It’s easier to return to something solid than to an amorphous intention to some plan to meditate.

Begin with five minutes—a time structure—and clarify it even more. When should you sit for those five minutes? In the morning, right before bedtime, when it’s noon—no matter where you are or what you’re doing? If you choose a time, it makes the practice sturdier.

And if you commit to a regular place—at your desk before you begin work, in front of the altar in your bedroom, under the sycamore in the front yard—it also deepens the intention. Structure allows you to more simply drop in without giving “monkey mind”—the inner pessimistic voice—much space. Monkey mind can give a hundred reasons not to meditate. Structure helps support your urge to do it anyway.

My second rule is to be creative and flexible in your meditation. A structure that worked well for three years may suddenly collapse: You have a new job with different hours, or you’re traveling for two months, or your wife just gave birth to a second child and the household is in endless chaos. So learn to meditate in a chair, while you sit in the waiting room of your dentist’s office, or in the car as you wait for your son or daughter to finish soccer practice.

Meditation is about having a large life smack in the center of your everyday life. The challenge is how to stay open and continue. I was at a retreat at Plum Village in southern France when the person next to me asked Thich Nhat Hanh, the Vietnamese Buddhist monk, who is in his 60s, how he has kept his meditation practice alive for so long. He smiled a wry, sweet smile. “So you want to know my secret?” She nodded eagerly. “I do whatever works and change it when it no longer works.”

Never Give Up

My third rule: Even if you can’t meditate, carry your meditation inside. When my book, Writing Down the Bones, appeared in 1986, I was invited to teach in Selma, Alabama. The thick air and the abundant trees, so different from my dry New Mexico, delighted me, and I was curious about an author everyone told me about. She lived an hour away in the country. She’d just won the PEN/Hemingway Award for her collection of short stories. It was her first book and she was in her 70s. I had the privilege of speaking to her on the phone.

“Have you been writing all of your life?” I asked, elated at the victory a writer could still have at her age.

“I wrote through my 20s and then got married and had a son,” she said. “I didn’t start up again until my 60s when my husband died.”

I paused. I was a gung-ho writer then and wouldn’t give it up for anything.

“Well, was it hard? I mean giving up writing. Did you resent it?”

“Oh, no, I didn’t feel bad,” she replied. “All the years I didn’t write I never stopped seeing myself as a writer.”

That conversation left a lasting impact on me. Even if you can’t write, you can see the way a writer does, observe and digest the details of what surrounds you. This is also true of a life of meditation. There might be periods—weeks, months, or even years—when you can’t get to the cushion, but that doesn’t mean you have to give up being a meditator. And when you finally do return to sitting, your practice might be even fresher than when you left it.

My fourth rule is that even if you carry meditation inside—still see and feel as a meditator—there are times when you need to physically practice differently. Case in point: When I lived in Santa Fe in my early 40s, I was pushing hard on at least three books, and the mind exertion and concentration of writing felt too much like the experience I had when I sat. So I made walking my meditation.

In Santa Fe I lived near the downtown plaza and close to cafes. I’d do mindful walking to the places where I wrote. One foot after the other. I’d feel my toes bend, heel lift, hip shift, the weight of placing one foot down, and the rise of the other. I noticed how my feet carried me. Then when I was done with three or four hours of writing, I’d walk some more. I’d transfer the power of my writing concentration down into the power of my feet. I’d leave the mind of my imagination and land in the mind of the streets. My feet became my focus under the one sky, near parking meters, the rustle of cottonwoods, the smell of roasted chilies. Even though I consider writing an inner physical activity, where my whole body is engaged—my heart, lungs, liver, breath—walking grounded me to the physical world around me.

And my final rule is this: No matter how far your meditation diverts from the cushion or the chair, don’t forget to return again and again, as much as possible, to that immobile sitting position, where everything runs through you. Think of it: If a writer is a writer, she eventually, even 30 years later, must pick up a pen again and write. A Zen student, no matter how much he or she chops wood or carries water, must return to the zafu. Each practice has its one essential activity. For Zen, it is sitting. This is good. Otherwise we might wander off, get lost forever, and never find the beginning.