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 ;)