Sunday, November 10, 2013

Practice Makes

Most mornings I wake up while it's still dark for another hour, or two, crawl out of my warm bed and put on sweatpants and layers of sweaters, a knit cap, fingerless gloves, giant Russian babushka scarf and sheepskin slippers.

This house is so big it's always cold.  The first month, I could not face sitting on the floor for a half-and hour in the dark and cold, so I would pat down to the kitchen and sit on a chair instead. I keep my hands on my lap, resting against my abdomen, my left, the dominant hand over the other right, feet planted on the floor. I square my shoulders and breathe out. The first exhalation is "one", the first inhalation is "two", exhale "three", inhale "four", all the way to "ten" and then starting over with "one" once more. This is my practice. It's called Zazen  "sitting meditation".

At first I'm always about to fall asleep and it's all that I can do without nodding off. Then the thoughts come: "I want tea." "How long has it been?""I'm so cold." "If I stop now, I could have tea/write a page/ crawl back into bed/ make a fire/ surf the internet..." Sometimes they're easy to brush off, at others they stick to my hair like so many fat, dried-out thistle pods pricking at me to brake my concentration.

I have a restless mind, always have. After seven years of a more or less steady practice of some kind, mine still feels like a beginner's mind. It always takes me a while to find a rhythm, to push aside idle thoughts and feelings. Sometimes it's damn near impossible and I have to keep counting to engage my busy, racing thoughts, but most often when I'm done, I'm surprised by the passage of time. Sure, thoughts still come and go, but they're less formed, easier to shake. Once in a while I even have a hard time returning back to acknowledging that my thoughts merit some sort of action.

There are mornings when I simply can't make myself sit still. When I make the tea and surf the internet.
But most often I sit anywhere from ten minutes to an hour, most often thirty, or forty minutes. Sometimes I sit at night right before bed too. If I'm traveling, I tend to either not sit, or sit at odd times when I'm alone and in a place where I can do it. Even if I can't sit for an extended period of time, for some reason, or another I do at least a few minutes throughout the day.

Sometimes I sit on my lunch break, or in the library, or on the train. I do walking meditation in short intervals. In the summer I like to sit outside, on the porch, or just stop at an attractive spot in the woods or on the beach. On stressful days I often use meditation techniques throughout.

A few mornings a month I'll read books, or listen to a podcast. This gives me a sense of focus, helps me readjust my ideas about the practice. Having no community, no Zen center in the neighborhood, I often feel like my progress has totally plateaued. One of my goals for this year was to focus more on the "intellectual" side of my practice.  It's been a mixed bag so far.

I've not gone to a retreat, even though it's been six years since the last one I went to, nor have I found a "meditation buddy", someone I can sit with, once or twice week; but I have added a spiritually motivated practice of doing something "good" twice a month. A lot of this practice is the same stuff I was doing anyway, but looking at it from a religious point of view has made it a lot harder to cop out because I'm tired, or "what difference does it make?". Most months I  just write letters; for environmental campaigns, to prisoners, to congressmen. Last month I phone-banked for a political campaign. In the spring I helped a friend write countless grant applications for a children's charity she wants to launch. Some of those things I would have done either way, but looking at it as my duty, rather than an entirely voluntary, extracurricular activity, made me put more effort into them.

This year, because of setting goals, I  actually remember my prayers more often. Prayer seems important to me, yet I have a hard time actually remembering to do it. We try to pray over food, pray to rise above hardships, pray to process anxiety about what is happening in the wider world, but often we're too weary, or tired, or self-conscious to to do it. It's funny how much of a difference determination makes. Something that was hard before, suddenly becomes inevitable, a second nature. Promise yourself you'll start running and it's more likely to happen. Same with praying, or meditating.

If there's a practical obstacle, determination to better your practice helps you remove it; re-configure the space you need, to make the time you need.

I'm excited to be setting up with a little meditation corner in our bedroom, because it's the only room that's warm in the morning and I'll be able to sit in half-lotus on the floor again making meditation that much more appealing in these cold winter months. Most likely having a designated place will also help me focus better.

Another, wholly unexpected spiritual perk for me this year has been getting back into reading my cards. Think what you will of divination it's a wonderful tool for self-reflection. Every morning, after I make my cup of tea, I do either a one card reading, or a three-card one, if I actually have a question that I'm pondering. Do I think these cards tell the future?  I'm not that worried about the future. I'm pretty sure it'll arrive in a timely manner. But regardless of the what it maybe hold, the cards help me focus my mental energy and challenge my own ideas about whatever issues and dilemmas I might currently face.

Of course, reading the Tarot and practicing Zen, is exactly the kind of indulgent smorgasbord mixing of spiritual influences and practices that our age and my generation is prone to, but thankfully as a religious discipline Zen Buddhism is as lenient about what you should and should not do as a religion can be. So much so, that other spiritual practices are not mutually exclusive with practicing Zen, at least the practical aspects of it. Just as Yoga has, for better or for worse, gained a dedicated following outside its spiritual origins, there's a lot of folks out there who meditate more as mindfulness tool, than for religious reasons.  Some days that's how my practice is: a coping mechanism, a way to function better, to be more present, to enjoy what you're doing more.

The older I get, the more I find that a spiritual practice is one of the things that improves my quality of life immensely with fairly little effort. It's the meditation itself, yes, but also it's something beyond that simple act of sitting and breathing. In those early morning moments when time stops, or passes unnoticed, or on walks when I snap suddenly back into attention to the world, a small window opens, offering a different view, a connection to a simpler world that I am fully part of, not separate from. I can't always tap into it, but there it is, just within my reach if I can just sit down, shut up, breathe...

Do you have a practice? What is it? Why not? Is it religious, or secular?

ps. Not only is taking photos of yourself pretending to meditate totally obnoxious and pretentious, it's really hard to do. So even in these not really "classic" meditating pictures I look grumpy 'cos I'm trying to actually meditate and that means relaxing your face. Meditation does not usually make you grumpy ;)


  1. "The older I get, the more I find that a spiritual practice is one of the things that improves my quality of life immensely" I agree with this statement completely. I find though, that it takes a lot of effort for me. I have to be determined, disciplined and persevere. I usually don't have much, if any, quiet time so I pray when I get a chance. Most often I say the Rosary in the car, read my prayer book in the morning, we pray before meals and say night prayers with the kids. The ultimate goal is to be praying without ceasing and one way I do that is by offering up daily activities for certain intentions. If I know I'm doing it for someone or a specific cause it makes it a little easier and gives more purpose to the action. The spiritual life is crazy! It can be so hard at times and so effortless other times. My favorite Bible verse is, "The spirit is willing but the flesh is weak". This gives me consolation because I know everyone struggles but as long as the will to do good is there, there is hope. I love this topic and although our spiritual practices are different, I still enjoy learning about what other people believe. So, needless to say, I really enjoyed this post :)

    1. I was hoping you'd show up, girl. You know, it's funny, I think I've mentioned this before, but I always feel like it's easier for me to talk about this stuff with someone who is religious, regardless of their faith, than someone who's totally secular. Last time I took the train, I had the most fascinating conversation with a lady who was a Seventh Day Adventist, for instance. I mean, sure I thought she was kind of nuts and I'm sure she thought I was a lost sheep, BUT we had a lot to talk about and a warm, interesting interaction. Plus I learned about Seventh Day Adventists, whom I knew nothing about before.

      Prayer is so though. It's like a habit you have to cultivate and keep cultivating. It's particularly interesting because meditation itself is an absence of thoughts and prayer is a focused thought. Prayer for me is an exercise in maintaining a positive emotional state, while meditation is an absence of emotion.

      I love that Bible quote too. The whole point of a practice to me is that it's a struggle, it's not just skimping along the surface with some scented candles and limitless, smug joy. When the good moments come, when the joy happens, it feels like coming home after a long journey.

      I'm endlessly fascinated by other people's spiritual practices, and find that even if our religious convictions, or even moral convictions don't match up, there's a lot of overlap. I loved the passage that you quoted in your guest post with Mary about the Nature-relationships of Mormons, from Terry Tempest Williams. I've always wondered why most religions are so interested in holding God close to their chests, denying everyone else's interpretation, yet it has NEVER occurred to that people like me routinely do the same thing with Nature. That somehow we often believe that we (as in the Hippies, the alterna-crowd, the New Age folks, the back-to-the-landers) are the only ones with an relationship with the Earth.

      Oh and speaking of praying without ceasing, here's something mind-boggling I came across a while back. I don't really even know how I feel about it, but the phrase "primordial compassion" stuck to my mind.

      Thank you for your thoughts. I still hold out a great hope that one day you'll write all about it. Love ya.

  2. I started a regular practice in the last month and it's partly thanks to you! In an older post you mentioned a book, and after I checked it out, I decided to follow it's advice to do a morning routine in the ayurvedic tradition. And I have to say that I feel like it's been really good for me. I've done meditation and yoga off and on for years, but never had a consistent practice. The effects on my body are obvious - I feel more grounded, present and calm throughout my days - but I think the spiritual element is also inevitable. When you practice cultivating awareness, it's hard not to feel more connected to god or the universe or this vastness we call life.

    I like the idea of practice in general. It's like saying, I'm going to bring myself to this experience and see where it takes me. It could be learning how to play an instrument or practicing a different way of handling emotions or anything, really. To accept that it's a practice, regardless of your level of expertise, leaves room for growth. Or something like that.

    Also, since you've mentioned in the past how bizarre it is to have all these readers and not know who they are, I want to tell you that when I first stumbled across your blog, I was interested because my husband and I have thought of moving to the San Juans. I've never been to Lopez, so I was curious to get a glimpse of what living there might be like. But then I kept coming back because I've enjoyed everything you've recommended, whether it's someone's artwork or music, a book to read or idea to think about. Thank you for all of it!

    1. Wow. Thanks for introducing your sweet self. Thanks for being a reader, for being open and taking some of my little inspirations and making them your own. I feel super honored I could have had anything to do with you getting into a practice.

      The word is so loaded with meaning, practice. Making an agreement with yourself to show up each day, in spite of past defeats, in spite deadlines and lack of sleep and hunger and the day getting going and the night coming in. It's hard, yet whenever I think of that, I also think of how easy it is:

      I don't have to go anywhere, buy anything, talk to anyone else. I can do it in the corner of my room, on the bus, at the dinner table. That's what I mean about it being the easiest thing to improve one's quality of life. It leaves me that much more centered, that much less self-involved and burdened.

      I like how you view your brand new way of being. Thanks for sharing that. Keep at it. It'll make all the difference.

  3. Hi Milla, I frankly admire this daily resolve of yours, since I have a hard time doing the same with yoga, although every single time I actually make myself spend half an hour (or more, cause it's hard to stop once you are in it) on the mat, I feel so much better afterwards and for the rest of the day. And yet this happens, at best, three times a month (except when I'm also taking a weekly yoga class, which is much more motivating !)

    As a Vipassana (basic buddhist) practice, I should do a daily meditation, but somehow it seems that my inability to do so has not been an impediment to developing equanimity and compassion, which I do in real life situations, as a deliberate exercise at first - then quite naturally after a while. But mindfully, always. (And gratefully...)

    Equanimity and compassion not only sustain each other, they also bring more inner peace and a more grounded mind. All of this keeps you open to loving vibrations from people around you (and animals, and plants) and within yourself. Which is pretty much our best way to be here as humans :o) and additionally, to become who you really are.

    I have a undefined but deep feeling that in the spiritual field, what truly works for you is where good guidelines meet your intuition and particular way to feel the world - in a similar way as with our link with Nature and the wild.

    Also, I have been in contact of some of these guidelines (through books, for instance) way before I was ready to take them in, so I found them interesting, but nothing happened. Then years later, after major changes in my life, I came across the very same books, quotations or ideas, and I realized I knew exactly what they meant. I was living inside their truth, but it was important for me to have my intimate experience expressed there, in such a clear, illuminating way. It can be an essay, but also a poem. A specific haiku, or a text by Sylvia Plath, or Kathleen Raine. They ring clear and far, like a small gong on top of a mountain :o)

    Have you often felt this when reading poetry - Gary Snyder for instance ?



    1. Emmanuelle, you're so eloquent! I love how what you have to say about equanimity and compassion, they're my two goals, and often my two fails.

      And this:
      "I have a undefined but deep feeling that in the spiritual field, what truly works for you is where good guidelines meet your intuition and particular way to feel the world - in a similar way as with our link with Nature and the wild." YES! Undefined? I think you just put it into words, my friend.

      I feel like my entire journey in Buddhism has been a kind of inadvertent exposure mulled through time. Like all the while I've had the pieces, yet fought the practice, the internalization kicking and screaming. I feel like almost all of my knowledge of myself, of this world has come from literature, yes Snyder, Rilke, Oliver, Dillard, Jansson...They've totally spoken to me in a language so specific and universal it helped me understand all these different things I've been struggling to put into words.

    2. Yes! Exactly - there are many authors whom I have been exposed to, just like you, who helped me understand how I feel the world.

      Sometimes a whole book (like Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, or The Serpent of Stars by Jean Giono, or The way of the world by Nicolas Bouvier), or most of what I read from an author (Plath, Rilke, Mary Oliver, Tove Jansson, indeed! and Carson McCullers, Woolf, K. Mansfield, Eudora Welty... also Christiane Singer, you would truly relate to her writing and ideas I think.)

      And sometimes one or two sentences, paragraphs or pages will light a wonderful, warm, bright fire inside my soul, connecting me, I guess, with all the illuminations going on in a similar way all over the world, from one person to another. So I came to understand that we are all bathing inside this warm loving light, at all times. It's just that so many things come up between this simple, universal current, and our perceptions.

      Hence the opportunity of practice: making space inside ourselves for this current to flow freely through us :o)

    3. Also, I am sure you are a very compassionate person - passionately so :o)

      Compassion helps me finding my way towards equanimity in situations when somebody is being not nice to me, for instance - but on the other hand, compassion most often prevents me from remaining equanimous (i.e. calm and helpful) when I see or hear someone suffering. I get way too emotional to be of any help... so I wanted to add this here because my statement up there was far from being accurate in my case. Hopefully time will help!

  4. I admire that you made this post. I often want to post about religious beliefs and spiritual practices, but then wuss out, and hope that my belief comes through in my writing and photos. I love that you have a morning ritual. I have forever tried to establish one, but then find that upon waking up I feel such a strong urge to get things done, that it is difficult for me to quiet down so quickly.
    For me, it is much easier at night. A few times a week I take an hour before sleep to stretch and pray, reflecting on the day, and re-centering myself. Often my mind wanders around, but just the ritual of syncing my movements with my breath has an incredible affect. Plus, the more I do this, the more I find myself being guided by intuition, rather than analysis. Also, simply taking walks. Nearly everytime I am outside I am quieted by all the beauty around me and have an overwhelming feeling of thankfulness. I think it is the moments of gratitude that are the most fulfilling and powerful spiritual practices. Everyday, taking a moment to step outside of the everyday, and be thankful for what is around you. Sync the gratitude with moments of compassion for others and I find that life is much richer.
    I think the thing I would like to work on more is a constant prayer, a monologue that lines itself up with all of my actions. Also, to strengthen my intuition and faith to the point where the constant mental buzzing finds some sort of peace.

    1. It's weird, I think how hard it is for most folks to discuss spirituality, when we it is one of the basic human needs. I get it, I do, but at the same time, this post has garnered a larger-than-usual-number of views and ya'll are the only commentators. I feel like in post-modern society to say that you believe in this one bigger system of belief is old-fashioned, or limiting, and maybe that why. People don't want to declare allegiance to a particular faith, or practice, simply because they don't want it to color the way others view them. I certainly don't march around telling everyone I'm Buddhist and partly it's because I feel like that would make people expect certain things of me (equanimity-see above, calmness, qualities that are still beyond my grasp) and also because unlike in writing, people don't really seem interested in hearing what that means to you as a person, they just slap a sticker on you and go "Catholic." or "Buddhist", or "Jewish". I find myself doing it too sometimes.

      I totally understand what you mean about a night practice, it's hard for me too, I just want to get on with my day already, but for me I've found that it sets me up for the day better and so I persist.

      I love how constant prayer keeps coming up. It's such a magnificent, intense concept. There are times when I totally feel it, when I feel like I'm in sync with everything that's happening around me, and my conscious mind steps aside and I just am. That feels like constant prayer to me.

      Thank you for your thoughts, dear.

  5. Thank you for this lovely post. I was in a VERY regular practice of meditating for 30 minutes to an hour while my little one napped, and the other was at school...and I have somehow gotten away from it. This post has inspired me to start up this daily routine again. Everything in life just seems more "right" when I am meditating, and immediately after meditating my senses kick into overdrive. Colors are brighter, smells are sweeter, sounds clearer...I think I see the world more as how it truly is...Why is it that something that enriches our lives so much takes so much discipline to stick with? Thanks for the inspiration! Oh, and my practice is to breathe in LOVE and breathe out FEAR.


    1. Girl, you are SO RIGHT ON!
      "Why is it that something that enriches our lives so much takes so much discipline to stick with? " I used that sentence in my post today, because it is a truly puzzling aspect of human nature. Why do we struggle so to do the things that we KNOW are good for us? Self-sabotage? The sin of fear and laziness. I don't know, but you're so right and I for one I'm gonna try harder for my best self to win each time. Also I LOVE that your practice is about love and fear. Take good care dear.

  6. Thank you for this post. I have really loved so many of your posts lately and haven't had the chance to comment. This really resonates with me right now. I grew up in a rigidly (borderline fanatic) religious environment. Coming to a peaceful reconciliation with my spiritual self is often a daily struggle. Its hard work dealing with some of the anger and resentment that instantly swells up in the face of organized religion and the path to love and Light can be a rocky one, but I journey on. I am a deeply spiritual person and struggle to find the balance of some kind of practice that can honor this and help me to grow without subscribing to any formal religion. (if that makes any sense...) Anyways, thank you for this! Meditation is something I really want to make a more routine part of my life as well.

    1. Hey Laura, great to know you're out there. This is such an interesting topic. I'm sure it's very personal, but I'd love to hear more about your experience. I have a post planned out about my (lack thereof) religious upbringing and I have such an opposite experience: no religion and such hunger. I think if given half a chance I would have clung to any yahoo/ spiritual guru that came along growing up. I really do recommend meditation, but it is hard. I can't even get C to do it. Just be merciful to yourself. Start with something simple and a few minutes and then see how it makes you feel. Thanks for your thoughts, dear.

    2. Thanks Milla! Yes, I have a lot to say about this subject. Haha- some days more than others... I'm also working to make writing a regular habit again and perhaps get back into my blogging routine. I have been wanting to create a new space for myself out in the vast "inter-ether" where perhaps some of my family may not readily find find me because this is a subject I always want to write more about, but have some restraint for fear of hurting others, ect. I really miss the interactions that develop with blogging! I know we've talked about this before, but I live in Tacoma and would love to "meet" if ever you should be out this way (or when I make it to the Islands again) Looking forward to your post!

  7. I love to hear of your meditation practice. To know how long you have been doing it for. I also always love your writing. I feel a deep sincerity, and essence of where you are when you describe in detail your environment and posture when you meditate. I try to do it everyday and sometimes I forget. I ought to make a list of all the things I want to do each day so that I don't. I do have a practice and it varies. Sometimes I sit in silent meditation. Sometimes I do guided meditation. Other times I do mindfulness walks, although, i must admit that I enjoy doing them on island than in the big city. I did do one though a couple of weeks ago on a cold day and it shifted my mood and perspective in such an amazing way. I will do activities mindfully. Where I focus on the one thing I am doing, the sounds, the smells, the way it feels...It's funny that I should stumble upon your post today of meditation. As I was just researching books on meditation, mindfulness, budhism, and zen. I pull a card most mornings. I have just begun. I pull an angel card by Doreen Virtue. It does provide me guidance for the day. That's all I feel comfortable saying here right now...I do strive to be more dedicated in meditation and other things as well. I admire those that do. I get easily distracted so I must really focus. I also have been wanting to reach out and find more people that are into meditation. It's been a bit lonely in the city and so I am trying to find people with common interests. On meet up and stuff like that. I was blessed enough today to sit on a beach and watch the waves of the pacific ocean crash,. It was a quiet, in spirit, place to be. It was quite lovely

  8. Oli todella mielenkiintoista lukea harjoituksestasi ja kaikkien muidenkin harjoituksista. Itse olen reilut 10 vuotta tehnyt astanga harjoituksen.
    Se on minulle ehdottomasti enemmän henkinen harjoitus ,koossa pitävä voima.
    Meditaatioharjoituksen teen epäsäännöllisemmin.

  9. Thank you for this post, Milla! Thank you!!! I am so glad you shared this. It really hit home - my practice and my spirituality are an enormous part of my life - I feel like they are the foundation of my life, but it's something I don't talk about often. Even though I blog, I am a very private person in many ways, and I find things that are sacred to me to be very vulnerable and difficult to discuss. I hold my practice very dear - I do my best to nurture it in the midst of the chaos of a house full of children. :)

    I practice Tao Fawu Qigong, which is a meditative form of qigong, and a healing art. I have been practicing and studying this for about three years now and it means the world to me - I found it when I was very sick and it was what helped me heal when nothing else could. It was a life-altering experience and I'm dedicated to helping to heal others now. It fills my heart with gratitude when I can help someone.

    My spirituality is feeds my's something that I've always carried with me that I didn't realize anyone had names for. I won't make an attempt to describe it, it's hard to put things like this in a box and why do they need boxes, anyhow? But I do hear the plants speaking...I dream about bears...I talk with my ancestors often and spent time in the evenings listening to what they have to say. I don't feel like that's all that it?! They feel very close to me and our connection has deepened over time. I feel a kinship with trees and animals and things in a similar way. I would say more but I must get this baby to bed, and perhaps I've said too much already!? I wasn't expecting to say all this but this feels like a safe place to do so. :)

    Thank you again! I loved this post, I just love your blog, and I loved your comment at the end - I have never attempted to have a photo taken of me meditating and I can only imagine what it would look like. ;)

    Thanks again ~ goodnight~ <3 Kate

  10. I'm a long time reader but this is the first time I'm commenting. I've been trying to incorporate some of this in to my own life. I'm Catholic so praying before meal times and bed time are so very fixed in my routine that is seems so very natural and effortless. I've been trying to do a rosary once a week it is very methodical, and helps me focus my thoughts. I really love and admire your blog because you write with a very interesting, thoughtful and honest voice. I write because this has been by far the most difficult year of my life and have decided to try to acknowledge and participate more with things, and people in general. This is because life is so very fleeting, wondrous and can also feel so lonely and meaningless.
    thanks for keeping this up I'm certain I'm not the only reader that has never commented but looks forward to your insights.
    Edelmira Guerrero (HA! Washingtonian!)