Meditation I

by zenquaker

My niece is looking to start meditating for stress relief. Being the main meditator in the family, she asked me for any good books on the subject. The thing is I don’t exactly meditate for stress relief, I meditate for suffering relief. Suffering relief includes stress relief, but at the same time it’s all bound up with Zen philosophy that I don’t really think my niece is looking for. Regardless, I thought I would write up how I meditate for her, and if I’m going to write it up I might as well post it here.

First, find a place to meditate. Especially in the beginning, you want it to be an uncluttered place free of distractions. Meditation is practice for dealing with life. I like to think of it like practice for basketball. When you practice for basketball, you don’t play a game of basketball. You isolate the skills that you need and work on them in their simplest forms. You do shooting drills and passing drills and ball control drills. Meditation is the same way, you are isolating one part of life to practice on it. You don’t want to isolate yourself so much that you are totally divorced from your life, but try to simplify things down to a clean quite room where you won’t be interrupted.

Second, sit down. This may seem simple, and we are isolating sitting down because of it’s simplicity, but it bears thinking about carefully. Meditation is mostly a mental activity, so we need our brain working as well as possible. So the key thing is that your spine is upright with your skull resting comfortably on it. That connects your brain down through your spinal cord to keep it all working together. We think of our brain as being in our head, but it is really spread throughout our entire body. Keep in mind that the natural position for the spine is straight viewed from the front, but viewed from the side it actually has a curve to it.

Getting your spine and skull in the right position isn’t that hard. The problem comes in trying to keep it there for a long period of time. That’s where the rest of your body comes into play. The ancient masters all recommend lotus position. Personally, I’ve tried a lot of different positions, and I can’t really disagree with them. However, if I sit even half-lotus for any significant length of time I get massive and persistent pain in my right knee. So this position is not for everybody. Especially beginners. If you’re not experienced with yoga, research it and work up to it. I go for a modified seiza position, with my rear supported by a cushion and my knees spread for balance. You can use a chair, but keep in mind that chairs are not necessarily good at keeping your spine straight. In a chair you want your knees to be at a right angle and your upper legs to be parallel to the ground.

Third, sit there. The whole point is to just sit there. I practice a type of meditation called shikantaza, a Japanese term which means “nothing but precisely sitting.” So you just sit there. As I said this is a mental thing, your mind should just be sitting there too. That is, your mind should just be paying attention to just sitting there. Now your mind doesn’t like to do this. You mind wants to go wandering off into all sorts of fantasies, and will throw all sorts of thoughts at you to try and distract you. Now the goal here is not to stop thinking. You can’t stop thinking. Trying to stop thinking is like standing in a rain storm and yelling “Stop making me wet!” at the sky. The key is not to feed the thoughts that your mind gives. Don’t follow that first thought with a second related thought and a third related thought until you are lost in thought. When your mind gives you a thought, acknowledge that thought, and then just let it go. Let it go and go back to paying attention to just sitting there.

I admit, this is really hard. I’ve been doing shikantaza daily for five years, and I still have trouble with it.

Say you are sitting there and find that you have let yourself get lost in thought. That’s fine. It happens. A lot. Just go back to just sitting. Most especially, don’t beat yourself up about it. The point is to pay attention to it, pay attention to what it is, and accept what it is. If you lose your attention, accept it and go back to paying attention.

I often pay attention to particular things when I am having difficulty meditating. I sometimes count breaths. I count each exhalation, counting up to ten and then back down to one. Where I usually sit I can hear a clock ticking, so I sometimes count seconds. I will count 20 seconds three time. Sometimes I won’t even count. I once heard that we can only pay attention for one breath. So I breathe in, pay attention to sitting. Breathe in, pay attention to sitting. Breathe in, pay attention to sitting. But these are all just crutches to get you back in focus. Once you are back in focus, just sit there.

People sometimes complain about noises distracting them. I’m not sure what it’s distracting them from. Part of just sitting there is noise. You can no more get rid of noise than you can get rid of thought. So just pay attention to it, and accept it as it is. I find that what noise is distracting me from is being lost in thought, and it brings me back into focus. So I welcome crying babies, busted mufflers, passing trains, and praying Muslims.

The fourth thing you do is do it again. Not right away, but meditating once isn’t going to do you any more good than exercising once. I find that people are often more concerned about how long they should meditate for than how often they should meditate. I think how often you meditate is more important. I think meditating five minutes every day is better than meditating a half hour once or twice a week. Of course, meditating a half hour every day is better than either of those. But if doing a half hour is so hard that it keeps you from doing it every day, don’t do a half hour. Start with five minutes every day. When you are cool with doing five minutes every day, do ten minutes every day. When you are cool with ten minutes every day, do fifteen minutes every day. Eventually you reach a limit, if only because your legs are stiff and you need to get up and walk around a little. The recommendations I’ve heard from Zen teachers for the maximum sitting time are 25 to 40 minutes. I do a half hour. YMMV.

Now, that’s sort of meditation in isolation. But I don’t think meditation really works in isolation. It’s a mental thing, but your mind does not work in isolation from your body. If your body is not healthy, your mind will not work well. Meditation in isolation will only help meditation. Most people seem to think that once you have a daily meditation practice down, the next step is to go on extended meditation retreats. I disagree. Meditation to me is practice for life. The next step is not to retreat from your life. The next step is to bring the attention and acceptance of meditation into your life. IMHO.