I won’t claim to be an enlightened guru, patron saint, or meditation instructor. All I can tell you is the practice of meditation enriches my life.
The habit of meditation is a cornerstone, a non-negotiable. It helps me focus on work that matters, be present in the moment, and deal with difficult circumstances. On days I’m struggling or feel overwhelmed, it’s an anchor to return to. It is my practice of mindfulness.
There is no right way to meditate. Some approaches focus on a mantra or passage of scripture. Others center around breathing and quiet. Still others involve walking or another physical movement.
What works best? I can’t say for you. You have to find that out for yourself. You have to experiment. I can, though, offer what I’ve learned from my experience.
where moves the fair tree
but to remain still and straight
founded upon earth
Prepare to meditate. I find it helpful to have a ritual such as brewing a cup of tea. It prepares the mind to enter the practice.
Pick a quiet place to sit or be. I use a cushion on the floor in my bedroom that looks out into the beautiful morning sky. Maybe you have a comfortable chair in your house or a special place outside in nature.
Turn off all distractions. For me that means putting my phone on silent, turning off my computer, and shutting the door to the bedroom. It also means keeping the space uncluttered and neat. Visual noise can be as much of a distraction as audio noise.
Take your seat. It doesn’t matter whether you use a cushion on the floor or a chair. I like the floor, but I’m also young and flexible – or at least that’s how I like to think of myself. If on the floor, fold your legs cross-legged in front of you. If on a chair, sit with your feet flat on the ground. That is, unless that is uncomfortable to do so.
touched by sunlight
and the wind that comes and goes
now is wonderful
Begin the meditation. Enjoy being in the moment. Right now can be wonderful if you let it. Peace, joy, and compassion are available to you.
Relax into your seat. Sit in an upright posture, but not so much that you feel stiff. Be present with your body.
Draw attention to your breathing. You don’t need to change how you breathe. Just notice it. What does it feel like to gather the breath on the inhale? What does it feel like to send out the air on the exhale. In. Out. In. Out.
The object of your meditation can be whatever you want it to be. You can use a piece of scripture, a poem, a song, an image of God, or the sound of water. I like focusing on my breath because it draws my attention to the fact that I am alive and that I’m in the present moment.
flexible yet firm
immovable trees ignore
the sway of the wind
Keep returning to your center. From time to time, you will find your attention absorbed by thought, emotion, or something in your environment instead of of the object of your meditation – your breath. This isn’t a problem.
I used to think that meditation was about ceasing all thought. But really it’s the opposite. Through the practice, you feel and accept your thoughts without judgment. Instead of being controlled or dominated by those thoughts, you observe and understand them.
When you find yourself absorbed in thought, just make a mental note and gently return to your breathing. There’s no need to feel bad or upset with yourself. Your breath is there waiting for you. You can always come back.
Enjoy your breathing. Enjoy the moment. Enjoy yourself. You are alive.
roots ever deeper
tree branches ever higher
join earth and heaven
When your time of meditation is finished, gently rise from your seat. Carry your practice into the rest of the day.
As with many things in life, the strength and impact of the practice comes not from one amazing or extraordinary instance but rather a daily habit, built up over time. I learned this the hard way.
When I first started, I’d sit for thirty minutes one day. But then I wouldn’t meditate at all for two weeks. And as each day passed, I’d feel worse and worse about not practicing. When I felt miserable enough, I took action and tried to make it all up in one day. I’d sit for forty minutes that time. It was great. But I satisfied the urgency and the next day abandoned the habit once again. Then another two weeks would go by before I meditated again.
I tried to force myself. But my willpower was limited. I could push through on a couple days, but I wasn’t strong enough to maintain the high level of activity I was going for.
I wanted the end result – more peace, more joy, more compassion, more concentration, and more focus. But meditation isn’t about an end result. It’s about the practice itself. The goal of meditating is simply to meditate.
After several months without success, I realized I had to change my approach. I needed to form a habit. So I started from the beginning.
tiny little seed
though it will one day be more
right now is enough
Start with the tiniest step possible. Make it so easy that you cannot help but not do the habit. I chose five minutes a day. But you could start with simply taking your seat and breathing deeply three times. When you finish that step, celebrate your victory. You did it.
Create a trigger. It’s easier to keep the habit if you do it at the same time every day or after the same activity each time. For me, I meditate first thing after my shower in the morning. Other good times are after a morning run or exercise, just before you start work, or before bed.
Build up slowly. Increase the time period bit by bit. There’s no hurry.
Give yourself lots of grace. If you miss a day, you can always pick up your practice again. Beating yourself up over the past, which is beyond your control, doesn’t help you move forward. Just pick up where you left off.
Some practice is better than no practice. Sometimes, I get to the end of a day and realize I forgot to meditate. I’m tired and ready to go to bed. On such days, I’ll sit on my cushion and breathe deeply for a minute. It isn’t as much time as I like to give myself, but allowing myself the freedom to practice a shorter period helps me keep the daily habit going. This also helps prevents meditation from becoming an obligation.
At first, it may not feel like you’re making a lot of progress, but the most important thing is the habit. Even after five months of consistent practice, I still feel like a beginner. I still have a lot to learn. But the habit is valuable. It gives a foundation for deeper work.
When I first thought about adding the practice of meditation, I saw it as an one more thing to fill an already busy day.
But I have time for what I make time for. Everyone has the same twenty-four hours in a day. If I don’t have time to meditate, then I don’t value it enough. If I value it, then I have to make it a priority.
As I practiced, I discovered that I have more time. By taking away stress, anxiety, anger, and frustration, meditation gives me the space to create and work. I’m able to touch the lives of others. And some days, to borrow the words of Gandhi, “I have so much to accomplish today that I must meditate for two hours instead of one.”
My thanks to Susan Piver, Thich Nhat Hahn, and Richard Foster for all their instructions and guidance on the practice of meditation.