In the last post we looked at the Buddha’s insights into three core marks or characteristics of existence. The most important thing to know about them is that they can’t really be taught; they have to be arrived at experientially through the practice of meditation and the opening to our own inner wisdom. When insights arise, no matter how mundane they may seem (Oh, leaves fall off trees! Aha! Everything changes!) we can see how they fit into one of the three core insights: Impermanence, No Separate Self and/or the nature of Suffering. But we don’t force insights or have expectations about them. We simply cultivate the conditions for their natural arising through the practice of meditation and through having the deep intention to be present and compassionate in our lives.
So in this post, we are looking more closely at the practice itself. If you have a meditation practice, hooray! If you don’t, perhaps you will be inspired to start one. But wherever you are with the practice, you may have questions. Here are some questions students had about the practice. If you have others, please ask them by clicking on ‘Leave a reply’ above this post.
Q: Can I meditate in bed? I’d like to meditate first thing in the morning, but I’m so cozy under the covers, I don’t want to get up.
A: Yes, you can meditate in bed. But unless you are practicing in order to fall asleep, find an upright seated position on the bed. For this you will probably need extra pillows and a firm mattress. See for yourself if the position feels supportive enough. All the ‘rules’ about posture were formulated to allow the body to be comfortable for an extended time. If you can sit in a way that you are balanced on the sitz bones, the spine is naturally upright, and all the muscles can relax because the bones support the body, then feel free to meditate wherever you choose.
If for whatever reason you are not able to sit up, remember that lying down is one of the four positions of meditation described by the Buddha (sitting, standing, walking and lying down.)
Q: I’m having a hard time setting a regular time for myself to meditate. I’d like to meditate first thing in the morning, because if I don’t I might forget about it and miss meditating all day and at night I’m too tired. But I want to spend time with my husband before he leaves for work at 8:20. I don’t leave for work until quite a bit later.
A: The best time is always the time that fits most naturally into your schedule. In this case I would suggest meditating right after saying goodbye to your husband. With the place to yourself, it’s quite natural to think of doing this solitary practice. I would highly recommend not checking email or news beforehand as all the thoughts they bring up will make the meditation more challenging. And if coffee causes restlessness, just drink decaf, herbal tea or water instead.
Q: How long should I meditate?
A: Even five minutes a day will make a difference. And that’s an excellent way to get yourself started if you are new to the practice. You can add more time at each sitting or each week.
Most people find that between 20 – 40 minutes works well. Some people meditate twice a day, twenty minutes each time. I do 30 minutes, and more on days when I am leading meditation. See for yourself what works best for you. I recommend using the Insight Timer app for convenience and to formalize the practice.
Q: Can I practice on my own or should I join a group?
A: Yes, practice on your own. And yes, join a group! They are two different complementary experiences: One you do every day; one you do probably once a week (and then there are extended retreats as well.) Together they provide what are called the Three Refuges: The buddha, the dharma and the sangha. The buddha is your own buddha nature, your practice and your accessing that inner wisdom. The dharma is the teachings you receive from a teacher. You can read books, but in class you have the opportunity to ask questions and get clarification which can make all the difference. The sangha is your community of practitioners. The support of others who are practicing meditation makes a big difference in your ability to stay with your own daily practice and to see the benefits of the practice in the lives of others as well as your own.
Q: How can I deal with external sounds?
A: Stay present with all your senses, including the sense of hearing. Whatever is causing the sound is ‘external’, but hearing is one of the senses we focus on as we meditate. Listening is an important part of the practice, not a distraction or an interruption. We set the intention to be silent, but that is not a demand that the world be quiet to let us meditate.
When you hear a sound, your thoughts and emotions naturally incline to entangle you in identification, judgments, etc. — perceiving the sound as an outside disturbance. Our practice is to train the mind to allow sound to simply be sound. Think of each sound as one small part of what I call ‘the symphony of now’, a never to be repeated concert of perhaps birdsong, doors, motors, voices, rain, wind, coughing, rustling, jackhammer, etc. When the mind gets entangled in thoughts about the sound — preferences, judgments, identifying, memories the sound reminds you of — come back to simply cultivating the spacious field of sensory awareness, allowing the sound to be purely a sound, and notice other sensations arising and falling away in that field as well.
What questions do you have about your practice? If you have a question, probably many other readers do as well, so it’s a kindness to ask.