I’m no Zen master.
But I can honestly say that I meditate almost every day of the year, for somewhere between twenty and forty-five minutes. Based on personal experience and the ever-growing list of scientifically validated benefits of meditation, I believe this is a good thing.
I’m not sharing this to show off. I’m sharing it to exemplify two things, both of which use the word “regular”:
- Any regular Joe can meditate
- The benefits of meditation arise from regular practice
Simple enough. But I want to talk about how a regular Joe like me established a regular meditation practice, and hopefully you can glean some ideas from this as you go along on your own journey.
1. Find local meditation groups
I’ve checked out a good handful of meditation groups on the West Coast. Most of them are Buddhist. And most are free.
I’ve found an overall inviting atmosphere in these groups, and most are either secular or only semi-religious. Obviously Buddhist teachers do talk about Buddhism, but the Western iterations are so liberal-minded that they don’t exclude anyone.
I am cursed with long legs and general awkwardness, and I don’t like meditating cross-legged on the floor, but luckily every meditation center I’ve attended has rows of chairs for those who prefer it.
The meditation sits I’ve attended almost always run something like this:
- People gather in the meditation hall at the scheduled time, find their seats, the teacher rings the bell and the meditation begins, running anywhere from twenty to forty minutes.
- After the meditation, there is often either a group discussion or what Buddhists call a Dharma talk, which is like a short lecture on some aspect of meditation, mindfulness or Buddhism generally.
Meditation groups tend to meet weekly, so I have have to maintain a practice on my own the other six days of the week. But just having a place to meditate with a group inspires me to practice more because I become part of a meditation community.
In the Bay Area, I can recommend:
- Spirit Rock Meditation Center (Marin County)
- Insight Meditation Center (Redwood City)
- San Francisco Insight Meditation Center
Here is a list that spans California.
In Portland, Oregon I can recommend Portland Insight Meditation Center.
Another great way to find groups: Search for “meditation” in your area on Meetup.com. There are a ton.
2. Read meditation books
When first I began meditation practice, I imagined that the act of sitting down and closing my eyes for a while was the locus. I didn’t need to spend much time learning from teachers, I just needed to sit my ass on the chair and make this enlightenment thing happen.
But over time I’ve come to realize that I need a balance of two things:
- The act of daily meditation and mindfulness practice.
- An understanding of the theories that support the practice.
So reading books, along with listening to talks by some great teachers, has become my way of doing the latter. You don’t have to do this, but I recommend it.
Here is a short list of books that I’ve found influential:
- Mindfulness in Plain in English by Bhante Henepola Gunaratana
- The Issue at Hand by Gil Fronsdale
- Wherever You Go, There You Are by Jon-Kabat-Zin
- Meditation for Beginners by Jack Kornfield
- Real Happiness at Work by Sharon Salzburg
- The Buddha Walks Into a Bar… by Lodro Rinzler.
- The Experience of Insight by Joseph Goldstein.
I continue to find myself simultaneously humbled and inspired by the words of these great teachers. Each time I return to these books, my meditation practice becomes deeper and more meaningful.
If you’re unsure of which book to buy, a good way to start is to Google the authors. Find some talks by them on YouTube. See which author resonates with you.
If you take time to study the words of these great teachers, you may find that it inspires you to maintain a regular practice.
3. Be gentle
This one was the most important for me.
In our culture we have this attitude that success at anything comes from shear force of will. If you want to accomplish a goal, man up and kick some ass.
The problem for me was when I tried to apply this sage wisdom to meditation, it only stirred up chaos in my mind. And chaos, it turns out, makes meditation miserable. In some meditation sessions I would become so frustrated by incessant thoughts or spidery itches on my skin or dull backaches that I would literally jump from the chair saying, screw this!
In my first attempts I was simply struggling against myself. My mind wouldn’t calm so I tried to grab it and pull it down to earth.
I wanted so badly to get to a place of serenity and happiness. I wanted it to work, and I was aware of no methodology but the one of ass-kicking. Try harder. Bite your lip. Don’t give up.
This attitude may be all well and good. And there are moments in life where austere advice is the best thing you can give yourself. But this is not the object of mindfulness meditation.
The method of mindfulness invites a more amiable way of being: Simply begin with gentleness. And so I did.
I realized that I didn’t need to be so rigid in order to establish a meditation practice. I started by making some agreements with myself:
- I don’t need to stay perfectly focused on the breath in order to have a worthwhile meditation session.
- I don’t need to sit on floor. I struggled for a long time to make peace with this. In my mind, real spiritual masters sat on the floor, but I just couldn’t do it without extreme discomfort. But I finally asked myself, is it more important to live up to some caricature of meditation, or to find a comfortable way of meditating every day that I can live with?
- I want to meditate every day, but it doesn’t have to be at the same time or duration like clockwork. Some days it’s at 7 am, other days it’s a 9 pm. Some days it’s for 20 minutes, other days it’s 45. And it’s OK.
Making these concessions was instrumental in my progress. Next I examined my attitude while I was sitting. During meditation I began to investigate:
- Are there places in my body where I’m holding tension? In my shoulders? In my stomach? What happens when I try to release a little of that tension?
- Is there restlessness in my mind? Frustration? Sadness? If so, I try to remember to hold it with gentleness, and soothe it like it’s a crying baby.
Mindfulness meditation isn’t a pumped up workout at the gym. It’s a way of opening to life, and I can think of no better way to do that than with a sense of sincerity and gentleness.