Creating a Meditation Practice
by Allan Lokos
Probably the biggest step is to commit to practicing every day
or at least as close as you can to every day.
Decide on the time of day that you feel would be best to devote to meditation. Many meditators prefer the morning since it is often quieter and the day’s activities have not begun. However, the time of day is not nearly as important as the commitment to practice every day.
Start with sittings of a modest length of time, even five minutes is fine, you have nothing to prove. In the beginning five minutes can seem like an eternity. Spiritual practice in any tradition is not easy. Facing an hour of an activity that may present physical, mental, and emotional challenges is not inviting. Again, the important thing is consistency. With time your concentration will become more focused and your body will adjust. There is no ideal length of time for sitting although many teachers suggest working your way up to 45—60 minutes. This might seem like a major commitment, and it is, but you are always free to choose your priorities. Remind yourself at the start of each session that your purpose is to alleviate suffering and sorrow for yourself and those around you. Over time you will be glad you put in the effort.
Select a specific place for your daily practice. Turn off the phone and let others know that you would like not to be disturbed during your practice time. You don’t need an entire room for meditation. (Few apartment dwellers could afford such a luxury.) A table with a fresh flower, candle, book, photo, or anything that you find inspiring can be helpful, though not essential. Your chair or zafu (cushion) should be nearby as well.
The traditional lotus sitting position is not comfortable for most westerners, especially those over five years of age. A particular position does not by itself make one a better meditator. The Buddha taught that the proper positions for meditation are sitting, standing, lying down, and walking. You want to find a comfortable position in which you can be both alert and relaxed and that you can maintain without moving for the duration of the sitting. It may take several weeks to establish that position, but if you work calmly and diligently it will be meditative time well spent.
If sitting on the floor is not comfortable, a chair is fine. There are also meditation benches with which one sits/kneels during the session. Standing and walking are also excellent choices at times. Whatever posture you choose, have the back straight. If sitting, be slightly forward so that you are not leaning back against the chair. Let your hands find a comfortable position where they can remain without moving through the entire sitting. Eyes can be closed or slightly open taking a soft focus.
You can start the sitting with a body check beginning at the top of the head, gently letting go of any stress or tension you notice as you move your awareness down through the body. Do this without judgment or self-criticism. You deserve to be happy, you didn’t purposefully create stress. Get a sense of what it is like to experience the sensations of being within a body.
Now move your awareness to an object of concentration such as the sensations of the breath. You can note these sensations at the nostrils, abdomen, chest, or wherever works best for you. The object of concentration will be your anchor during the sitting, that to which you will return when your concentration wanders. When concentration does wander, simply return to the breath without criticism or judgment. The drifting of the mind is normal and your effort is then directed to returning to the breath again and again. Each time you return to the breath is a moment of awareness and is viewed as the most important moment in your practice. Your gentle yet firm determination is what matters, not how often the mind wanders. Over time your concentration will strengthen, but it does take time.
In the early stages it can be surprising, even shocking, to observe how the mind wanders from thought to thought, from the long ago past to far into the future, remembering versions of what was and creating versions of what is yet to be. Directing the mind to stay in the present can be a formidable task. People often think that the mind suddenly becomes hyperactive when they sit down to meditate. In truth, we are simply seeing what the mind has been doing all along, only now we are taking time to be aware. The term “monkey mind” aptly describes the phenomenon. Remember, nothing will come up in meditation that was not already inside of you.
Doubt can be a powerful hindrance to meditation practice. “I can’t do this” “This is not for me” “I have more important things to do” are thoughts familiar to most meditators. Try to remember that they are just thoughts, not reality. As such, they have no power other than what we give them. With experience these thoughts become part of our practice simply because they are what is happening in the present moment. It is always wise to remember that you do not have to believe everything you think.
You might hear people say that anything can be meditation. Frankly, one usually hears that only from non-meditators, the reason being that while the statement could be true, it is highly unlikely to be so without the mindfulness training that comes from formal practice.
Enjoy your meditation and may your practice benefit all beings.
THE KARANIYA METTA SUTTA
This is what’s done by one skilled in what’s good,
Who reaches toward that most peaceful state:
One would be capable, and straight—quite straight;
Well-spoken, gentle, without too much pride;
Content with little, easily maintained,
Not doing too much and lightly engaged;
Thoughtful, with a peaceful demeanor, and
Modest, without greed among worldly things.
One would not do even the slightest thing
That others who are wise would speak against.
May they be secure and profoundly well;
—May all beings be happy in themselves.
Whatsoever living beings exist,
Without exception, whether weak or strong,
Whether tall and large, middle-sized, or short,
Whether very subtle or very gross,
Whether visible or invisible,
Dwelling far away or not far away,
Whether born already or not yet born
—May all beings be happy in themselves.
Let no one work to undo another.
Let no one think badly of anyone.
Either with anger or with violent thoughts,
One would not wish suffering on others,
Just as a mother would watch over her
Son—her one and only son—with her life,
In just the same way develop a mind
Unbounded toward all living creatures.
Develop a mind of lovingkindness
Unbounded toward the entire world:
Above and below and all the way ‘round,
With no holding back, no loathing, no foe.
Standing, walking, sitting or lying down,
As long as one is devoid of torpor,
One would resolve upon this mindfulness
—This is known as sublime abiding here.
Without falling into mistaken views,
Endowed with insight and integrity,
Guiding away greed for sensual things,
One would not be born again in a womb.
Translation by Andrew Olendzki
The practice of metta has the potential to become an enormously powerful and liberating force in one’s life. The benefits of this meditation become clearer the more one practices it. Metta gives us options, other ways to respond to our own thoughts and the words and actions of others. It is a radically different way to face the battles within our mind. When we experience impatience, frustration, judgment, sadness, anger, or hatred, metta can be the active practice that cools these sources of suffering.
To practice metta is to experience liberation. Metta literally offers us another way to live our lives––another way to think, speak, and act. This way is immensely positive, loving, and filled with hope. Metta is the specific act of training the mind to be more kind, loving, and generous of spirit.
(Short version for everyday use. Modify the phrases as desired.)
May (I and) all beings be safe;
May (I and) all beings be happy;
May (I and) all beings be healthy;
May (I and) all beings live with ease.
(To “live with ease” refers to dealing with life’s everyday activities––relationships, children, traffic, the workplace, etc.)
• Use the above phrases, or your own modification, offering metta first to yourself:
May I be safe; may I be happy; may I be healthy; may I live with ease.
• Next offer metta to a benefactor (often described as one who brings a smile to your face)
May you be safe; may you be happy; may you be healthy; may you live with ease.
• Next offer metta to a close friend: May you be safe . . .
• Next offer metta to a neutral person––someone for whom you have no strong feelings of like or
dislike: May you be safe . . .
• Next offer metta to someone with whom you are having difficulty: May you be safe . . .
• Next offer metta to an ever-widening circle––those in the room with you: May you be safe . . .
in the city, the state, the country, the earth, the universe, the cosmos: May you be safe . . .
Offer these phrases at a comfortable pace that allows you to maintain concentration.
THE FIVE BASIC PRECEPTS (THE FIVE MINDFULNESS TRAININGS)
• To refrain from killing or harming any living being (which includes tiny creatures)
• To refrain from taking what is not freely given (which includes small things like paper clips)
• To refrain from sexual misconduct (which includes with vulnerable people)
• To refrain from false, harmful, and harsh speech (which includes gossip)
• To refrain from abusing intoxicants (which includes anything that can cloud your thinking)