Over the past month or so, I had the wonderful experience of leading a three-part meditation series on Zoom, courtesy of Soberocity. To those of you who were there, thank you for your full, enthusiastic participation; your thoughtful questions; your kind feedback; and above all, your willingness to try out some new forms of meditation together.
For those of you who weren’t with us, I want to use this month’s blog to distill some of the tips for meditation I presented, as well as some things there weren’t time for. While I’m a firm believer in the value of learning from our own mistakes, I also know how helpful it can be to be given a few basic ideas from those who have been practicing for a while. I’m profoundly grateful to all of my teachers, whether of meditation, movement, martial arts, or other practices, who shared with me their experience and their processes of trial and error. Most of what I’ll be saying here will either be things I learned from them, or things I discovered on my own, the hard way. So here goes.
I love the title of a book by Cheri Huber, a Zen teacher in California, How You Do Anything Is How You Do Everything, because it really sums up one of the key ideas I try to present on meditation, to change how people think about it. The statement suggests that we tend to approach everything in our lives with a personal attitude that colors how we see things and deal with them. Because we do this all the time, we also tend to be unaware of it. And meditation is all about increasing awareness.
So the thing I try to impress on people interested in learning meditation is not to think of it as something separate from the rest of your life—something you do at 6:30 in the morning or after work—and doesn’t show up the rest of the time. Meditation techniques or practices are one thing; meditation itself is another. The techniques, even the regular practice, exist to make mindfulness and awareness something that’s online in our consciousness all the time.
If you took my course or have read a few of my blogs here, you know I also like to emphasize the importance of the body in meditation, rather than thinking of it as mostly a mental thing. Part of that comes from my martial arts background. Both my Tae Kwon Do and Tai Chi Ch’uan teachers stressed the importance of inner awareness in these physical disciplines, and its opposite, a clear grounding in the body in meditation. My Tai Chi grandmaster liked to say “whole body has mind,” or intelligence, what sometimes gets called “somatic intelligence”; but the way most of us learned to separate body and mind growing up, that intelligence tends to be asleep, at least in some parts of us. It’s our job to wake it up so we can use it to benefit our lives and the lives of those around us. When we do, it comes to our aid in many ways.
One way to begin waking up the quality of intelligence or mindfulness throughout our daily life is by consciously connecting our meditation practice on the cushion, chair or bench with the environment in which it takes place. How we approach our meditation practice is as important as what we do in the practice itself. Think of your time in sitting practice as an intensive, in which you devote special focus to awareness and mindfulness by removing distractions and concentrating on those qualities as much as possible; but also think of it in terms of then carrying the qualities off the cushion into your daily life.
One of the first things I recommend, especially if you’re just beginning a practice, is to have a place dedicated just to meditation. It doesn’t have to be big or elaborate; a corner of the room you screen off near a window, for instance, is just fine. It’s where you keep your meditation cushion or whatever you use, and maybe a small table or stand for a candle, some incense, a bell or gong or timer, an image that says “meditation” to you, and practical necessities like tissues and a bottle of water. If possible, others living with you should leave this as your special place. Having it and taking good care of it establishes the value you place on meditation in your subconscious mind, and helps anchor regular practice.
Once you have your place—even if it’s just one end of the sofa—instead of shifting abruptly from rushing around with all of the usual things buzzing in your body and mind and plopping down on your seat to meditate, shift gears gradually and wind down a little first. This doesn’t have to take a lot of time; five minutes or so will probably do it. But just put on the brakes and put all of the other concerns aside for the time you’ll spend in meditation, however long or short that is.
On the other hand, if you’re tired or stiff and feel out of sorts, rather than jazzed, you may need to shake it out first. You wouldn’t start a run or aerobics without warming up first. Why would it be any different with meditation? You want to cultivate a special type of sensitivity, and it’s just like developing a muscle that hasn’t gotten a lot of use before. It takes a little work.
It doesn’t need a lot of time or effort, either. The main thing is to stretch the body out, to loosen up the kinks if you’ve been sitting reading or watching TV for a while, and to get more oxygen into your lungs, bloodstream and brain. If you have a stretching routine, you might want to do a short version of that; but any type of freestyle movement will help. When you slow down and take your seat, you’ll feel more alert and alive and have more energy for meditation.
If you’ve done either of the warm-up preparations above, it’s time to sit. Form matters, but don’t drive yourself crazy trying to get it perfect, worrying about if you need to sit cross-legged or if your hands should be in your lap or on your knees. As long as your back and neck is reasonably straight but not stiff, your shoulders relaxed but not drooping, your head balanced and your arms and legs comfortable so they don’t pull your attention away from the meditation, you’re good. Then check your inner “form”—your attitude—the same way you did your outer, physical form. Let your posture express a sense of dignity and strength, like a king or queen sitting on their throne. This will help bring your whole being into unity and let your inner resources be more available in the meditation. It also reinforces self-esteem.
Before you close your eyes and begin the actual meditation, take a minute or two to look around the room or wherever you are, and take in your surroundings with feeling and appreciation. Start to increase your mindfulness here and now, by really noticing what’s around you. Hear the sounds, see the objects and colors, feel the temperature and quality of the air. Align yourself with your surroundings; be at peace with them as much as you can. They are making your practice possible, supporting you in your intention. Honor them. Notice any feeling of gratitude that might be present, but don’t try to force it if it isn’t there.
Now come home to your body, and do the same thing there. Check out where you’re at within. How do you feel? Is your body comfortable, happy? Is there something going on that you can’t identify? Take inventory of yourself before entering the heart of the meditation practice. Adjust anything that needs it.
This point at the start of a meditation session is important in setting the tone for the whole period. Have or form a clear intention of what you want to accomplish. If you want, you can dedicate the session to that purpose. This can strengthen your practice. Resolve is a powerful quality that can draw a lot of help to itself.
Different techniques have different qualities, but most of them share this much, which is shifting gears from everyday awareness to a state of greater alertness and nonattachment. I don’t like the term “detachment,” especially not for those in recovery, because it smacks of being out of touch with our feelings, of zoning out; and that’s not what we’re aiming for. Nonattachment means loosening our grip on our usual thoughts and feelings, without losing our awareness of them. It’s like being in a museum looking at paintings, and you realize you’re too close to see the canvas clearly, so you take a step back to bring it into better focus. In nonattachment, we’re not as invested in our personal stuff as usual. We can look at it all with interest and affection, like walking through the butterfly house at the Bronx Zoo, seeing all the fascinating and colorful life fluttering through our awareness, without the need to react strongly to any of it.
Then do whatever practice you’ve decided to do today, or continue with your regular one, in this relaxed, alert, sort of “global” state. Count your breaths; follow the breath at the nostrils or in the belly; focus on the movement of subtle energy; whatever it is, do it from this calm, clear, open perspective. Bring a sense of presence to everything that comes up for you.
Within the meditation itself, if you lose your point of focus, whether that’s the breath, a candle flame, a ten-count, or something else, you can always use any of several touchpoints within the body to ground yourself and re-focus. These include the top of the head or the face; the heart area; the abdomen; the hands; where your buttocks meet the floor, cushion, or chair; and the soles of your feet.
With the hands, you can use either the sensations in the palms or the fingertips to bring yourself back to the present moment. Both are good because we have so many nerve endings there, there’s usually a strong “signal” you can lock in on. Then return to your main practice.
To close the meditation, just reverse the process by which you entered it. Don’t end abruptly. If you’re using a timer of some sort, when it sounds, maintain mindfulness as you turn it off. If your eyes were closed, open them only part-way, to keep a soft focus. Check in with your body and emotions first. See how you feel overall. Note this simply, without a lot of thinking. Then begin to notice your environment again—the sounds around you; the breeze blowing the curtains; the smells of cooking drifting from downstairs; the patterns of light moving on the floor or windows. Feel the space around your body and your relationship to it. Then, when you’re ready, begin to let go of your meditation posture and get up.
You can keep some mindfulness going as you stand and begin to move, maybe putting away your meditation tools with respect. If you want, you can keep a journal or voice recorder near your meditation space to put down any insights or questions that came up. This helps to bring the fruits of your practice into the rest of your life.
In the Tantric tradition, they recommend entering mindfulness for brief moments throughout the day—sensing your body and environment carefully when you first wake; closing your eyes and drinking in the sensations of the shower; really noticing that first sip of coffee or juice; paying attention to your feet as you walk, or any of a thousand possibilities for being awake and aware throughout the day. Doing this strengthens your mindfulness and creates a link between your sitting practice and your daily life.
“How you do anything is how you do everything.” The more you do things with mindfulness, the more that quality will saturate your whole life with the benefits of meditation.