Today's Daily Tip
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 rightand 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 minutesa time structureand clarify it even more. When should you sit for those five minutes? In the morning, right before bedtime, when it's noonno 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 placeat your desk before you begin work, in front of the altar in your bedroom, under the sycamore in the front yardit also deepens the intention. Structure allows you to more simply drop in without giving "monkey mind"the inner pessimistic voicemuch space. Monkey mind can give a hundred reasons not to meditate. Structure helps support your urge to do it anyway.