Each of us arrives to the cushion with our own unique individual aspirations and reasons for wanting to meditate. Why d you practice meditation?
It is said that the Buddha only taught about two things: suffering and freedom from suffering. You may meditate to reduce the stress of your everyday life and cultivate more peace of mind. That’s creating freedom from suffering. Each of our flavors of suffering may be different, but in any case, our suffering often motivates our practice.
Daily meditation practice helps us relate more peacefully and compassionately with whatever is going on in our lives. The Buddha taught that much of our suffering comes from trying to escape reality. We are often struggling against the way things are. Meditation is a way of making contact with our immediate experience and befriending ourselves. We do this by training the mind in sustained attention–the ability to stay in the present moment, attentive to whatever is happening right now.
Be Here Now
The style of meditation that I teach is called Shamatha meditation. Shamatha is a Sanskrit word that means to abide peacefully. Peacefully abiding does not mean to feel peaceful all the time. It means to be at peace with our experience of ourselves in the present moment, no matter what the present moment holds. This means that you can peacefully abide through moments of anger, or irritation, or grief, or sadness, or excitement, or joy. Peacefully abiding does not mean to be free of thought and emotion, it means to be attentive and aware of what is happening moment to moment in our experience.
In Shamatha meditation, we train in staying present by resting our attention on the breath. One reason why is there is not a breath that you can breathe that is not a present moment breath. The breath is always happening in the present.
Sitting Like a Mountain
Our posture in meditation is extremely important. It doesn’t matter if we are sitting cross-legged or kneeling on the floor supported by a cushion or blanket, or if we are sitting in a chair with our feet on the floor. What matters most is that we take a posture that feels stable and that we sit with a long spine and an open heart. When we have postural stability and we allow our bodies to rest in stillness, that stillness becomes very supportive of attentional stability. Then we can more easily attend to the breath. Attending to the breath means feeling the experience of the breath coming in and going out.
As we sit in stillness and breathe, we will become aware of sounds, sensations, thoughts, and emotions arising in our experience. All of that is perfectly okay! When something arises in our experience, it does not need to be regarded as a distraction, but rather an invitation to notice what is happening now. Our task as meditators is to recognize what is happening in our experience without getting carried away by it. As soon as we recognize that our attention has moved away from the present moment, we simply acknowledge what has carried us away, and restore our attention in the feeling of the breath moving in and out of the body.
Cultivating stability in our physical meditation posture helps to cultivate stability of mind, the ability to repeatedly return our attention to the breath. Commitment to our daily practice further fosters stability because when we meditate a little bit every day, we are able to meet our daily lives with a more stable response.
- Breath – Focus the attention on a specific place in the body where we feel the breath most easily. This could be at the nose where we feel the breath moving in and out through the nostrils, or in the rising and falling sensations of the lungs, or in the more subtle movements of the belly. Having a physical place to return to can be very helpful in cultivating attentional stability. When the mind wanders, no problem! It doesn’t matter how many times our attention wanders, the only thing that really matters is that when we notice we’re distracted, we come back.
- Hands – Another way to cultivate stability is the placement of the hands. Placing the hands palms down on the thighs is called Resting the Mind mudra. It can help us to feel a little more grounded and stable.
- Gaze – Keeping the eyes open and resting the eye gaze a few feet out in front can also be very helpful in staying anchored in the present moment. It’s much easier to drift off when the eyes are closed.
Make a Commitment to Yourself
I hope you are able to make a commitment to yourself to begin to practice a little each day. The greatest benefit comes when we practice a little bit every day over an extended period of time. It is extraordinarily helpful to choose a particular place in which to practice, to practice at about the same time every day, and to decide clearly how long you intend to practice for each day. Whether it is 5 minutes a day or 50, time spent on the cushion is time well spent! Arguably, it is the most important thing you could do with your time. Cultivating an everyday meditation practice requires a commitment, otherwise we become easily distracted by the busy-ness of our lives.
Keep it Simple
You might consider keeping a meditation journal this week, writing down the day and time, and duration of your meditation. You may include notes about what is working in your practice, what is challenging, and insights or questions that arise as a result of your practice. However, you may keep it as simple as writing down the basic details of your practice. It shouldn’t take more than a minute to do so, and it will help you begin to cultivate discipline and structure around your practice and help you track your commitments.
It is easy in the world to live after the world’s opinion; it is easy in solitude to live after our own; but the great man is he who in the midst of the crowd keeps with perfect sweetness the independence of solitude.
— Ralph Waldo Emerson
I come into the peace of wild things who do not tax their lives with forethought of grief. I come into the presence of still water. And I feel above me the day-blind stars waiting with their light. For a time, I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.
— Wendell Berry
May we all grow in grace and peace, and not neglect the silence that is printed in the center of our being. It will not fail us.
— Thomas Merton
If we create an atmosphere of ease through the gesture of caring, peace naturally arises.
— Susan Piver
“Peace: it does not mean to be in a place where there is no noise, trouble, or hard work. It means to be in the midst of all of those things and still be calm in your heart.”
A magnet on my fridge has reminded me for years that peace and stillness are available any time I need them. I value such reminders, especially during the holidays. It’s easy to get caught up in the busyness of the season. For many of us, this is time of joy and connection. The holidays may also bring grief and longing for family members who are no longer with us or for failed relationships. The cooler weather and shorter hours of daylight may be difficult for some of us. The opportunities and challenges of the holidays invite us to come into stillness, a state of being quiet or calm.
A form of meditation called Shamatha Meditation offers us the opportunity to practice peacefully abiding or calm abiding. The root of the word Shamatha is sham, which means to be peaceful, and is the same root as the Sanskrit word Shanti, meaning peace.
In this practice, we cultivate inner peace by connecting with a stillness that is fundamental, all pervasive, and ever present. We are simply slowing down and settling into the stillness that already exists in and around us.
Stillness is not the absence of movement, it is the place from which movement is born. Stillness gives rise to movement, action, dance, life. The stillness we seek is not a rigid, unmoving state, like a rock or statue. It is open and receptive, like a tree, strong, yet flexible. In the practice, we are continually seeking a balance between effort and relaxation. It takes effort to be present, to pay attention, and to cultivate mindfulness, but that effort must be balanced with relaxation and acceptance of who we are and what we feel.
Relaxation is essential to stillness, and so we begin by finding relaxation in the body because outer stillness creates an environment that is conducive to inner stillness. This is why we take the time to focus on posture and alignment as a means of cultivating stillness. Finding the right meditation posture takes more effort in the beginning, but even after we become familiar with what posture works well for us, it is important to take the time to attend to the points of posture and move attention through the body consciously relaxing the habitual tension and tightness that we all carry with us. I recommend two general poses, seated and supine. I invite you to try both variations.
The first is traditionally called the 8-point posture of Vairochana. Here are the eight points:
1. The spine is long and upright, with its natural curves. Having just the right amount of support under the hips is essential here.
2. The shoulders are balanced over the hips and the arms are relaxed by the sides.
3. The hands are intentionally placed on the thighs or in the lap in a way that supports points 1 and 2.
4. The chin is slightly tucked to bring length to the back of the neck as the head balances atop the spinal column.
5. The forehead and jaw are relaxed, lips lightly touching, and tongue resting at the top of the mouth.
6. The eyes are either closed or open slightly with the gaze down at the floor.
7. The legs are either comfortably crossed, or if sitting in a chair, feet are planted firmly on the floor.
8. Breath flows naturally in and out through the nostrils.
Meditating Lying Down
The second posture is called the 10-point lying down posture. The ten points of your feet, buttocks, shoulders, elbows, low back and head are in contact with the floor. It is a good idea to have a yoga mat or blanket underneath your torso in this pose to cushion the back of the body. It is important that your feet are firmly planted, with the knees falling in toward one another so that the hips and pelvis and abdomen relax fully.
Once you settle into your pose, discover your breath. The breath is the primary focal point at the heart of this practice. When you notice tension returning to your body or that you have become caught up in a “thought knot” in your mind, rediscover your breath and let go with the outbreath. This is the practice. It doesn’t matter how many times you have to do this, just keep coming back again and again and again to the breath. You can pay particular attention to the grounding, settling, releasing qualities of the outbreath, and most especially the stillness to be discovered at the bottom of the exhale. This is a good place to rest your mind. Not holding the breath, just becoming aware of the natural pauses between breaths.
Why is stillness important? Stillness allows us to cultivate discernment by creating space between ourselves and our thoughts so that we are not constantly reacting to our life with a habitual reactivity. Pema Chodron wrote this about being still:
The practice of “remaining like a log” is based on refraining, not repressing. When you realize you’re thinking, just acknowledge that. Then turn your attention to your breath flowing in and out, to your body, to the immediacy of your experience. Doing this allows you to be present and alert, and thoughts have a chance to calm down. With this practice, it can be helpful to gently breathe in and out with the restlessness of the energy. This is a major support for learning to stay present. Basic wakefulness is right here, if we can just relax. Our situation is fundamentally fluid, unbiased, and free, and we can tune into this at any time. When we practice “remaining like a log,” we allow for this opportunity.
Learning to be still takes practice. For most of us, sitting still is difficult. It becomes easier if you practice a little every day. This holiday season, make a commitment to yourself to practice stillness for a few minutes every day. A formal meditation practice is wonderful, but I invite you to be flexible and to cultivate stillness while driving, cooking, or gathering with family.
Practice moving towards stillness by doing just one thing at a time. Can you stay right there with whatever arises in the stillness without moving to fix it or change it or turn away from it? Our practice is to be present for what is, without judgment or needing it to be any other way. That is how we can find peace everywhere.
To benefit from meditation, you need more than just a glimpse. If you stick with the practice, you will have a chance to realize yourself, to understand yourself.
— Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche
Gratitude arises naturally and spontaneously in my life—when my newborn son coos with delight, when my husband graciously cares for everyone in our growing family, and when I sit in a circle of meditating friends cultivating compassion for the world. Yet like everyone, I am aware of moments when gratitude does not arise easily.
In Buddhism, there is a teaching: “Be Grateful to Everyone.” This is an invitation to open ourselves to every person and every circumstance we encounter in our lives with the understanding that everything that we experience is in support of our awakening. Pema Chodron reminds us that we can learn from any and every situation, and it is often the difficult ones that teach us the most. I love the idea of being grateful to everyone, but I often find it quite difficult to do so.
I recently listened to an interview with the Austrian Benedictine monk David Steindl-Rast titled “The Anatomy of Gratitude.” In the interview, he says: “We can’t be grateful for everything, but we can be grateful in every moment.”
He encourages us to look for the opportunities that are available in every moment, especially during difficult times. It is these opportunities that we can be grateful for, even if we cannot feel gratitude for the actual circumstances.
The practice of gratitude is about stepping into a larger more open-hearted space and making room for the fullness of our experience. What do we do when our experience is painful or difficult? How do we meet ourselves and others when there is pain or darkness present? Gratitude is a way of turning towards our experience with openness and appreciation – for all of it – not just the parts that feel good.
David Steindl-Rast says:
Have the courage to let yourself down into the depth that gratitude opens up. When you are confronted with something for which you cannot be grateful, let go of all thought and sit quietly. When you get sufficiently quiet, without having to figure something out, some answer emerges. It may not happen in one sitting, it may take days or even weeks. When you let go of resistance, there is just acceptance. This quiet holding leads to a new birth.”
This is our practice. Day after day, we come into stillness and turn our attention inward so that we can open outward and extend ourselves to the world from a place of clarity, compassion, and gratefulness.
I encourage you to start your days with a little bit of formal meditation and contemplation on gratitude, and notice the moments that are made available to you throughout your everyday life. How does life feel different when gratitude is at the forefront of your awareness?
We can be grateful for obstacles because they push us forward in our practice.
— Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche
Without gentleness, meditation will become just another way in which we’re trying to measure up to a hopeless ideal.
— Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche