May is National Meditation Month, a Time for Beginning
“If your mind is empty, it is always ready for anything, it is open to everything. In the beginner's mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert's mind there are few. ” ― Shunryu Suzuki, from Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind.
I had a coffee mug with a slogan that read, “Don’t just do something, sit there.” I bought it on my first trip to a Zen center in California, where I learned the phrase, “There are two words that describe Zen-not always so.” That’s where I also learned that meditation is so simple that it’s difficult. You just sit there. How hard it that? The trick is you just sit there. You don’t think, you don’t worry, you don’t mentally complain how stuffy the room is, you don’t fidget, sleep, daydream, chew gum or think about what the monks are making for lunch.
The Zen philosophy came from Zen Buddhism but the word Zen is often used to describe things that are paradoxical. No matter what type of meditation you choose, there is no denying that meditation is so Zen. It’s so easy it’s difficult and the very highest pinnacle to which you can aspire in terms of meditation is that of a beginner.
Maybe that’s why it’s so difficult for those who need it most-over-achievers who want to be anything but a beginner. We could benefit from a practice that stills the monkey-mind, but we are unable to still the mind enough to begin-another paradox.
When people understand that the best thing to be is a beginner, it all falls into place. I have been meditating for twenty years, sometimes with a teacher, group, electronic guru or alone in nature. I have been away from my practice for long periods and always return, but even when I am meditating every day, I am always a beginner.
After twenty years, I still have days when I am unable to not think for a period of even 60 seconds. Other days, I sit and walk in bliss and find myself in a suspended space of mind rest that is indescribable. The biggest breakthrough in my meditation practice came when I realized this is okay, and I don’t need to figure it out, just go with whatever is happening in the moment.
“The journey is what brings us happiness, not the destination,” ― Dan Millman, Way of the Peaceful Warrior: A Book That Changes Lives
When people ask me about meditation, I am happy to tell them what I’ve learned, but I also tell them it is such an individual practice, your experience with it will not be like anyone else’s. It will not be better or worse, it will just be different. One day, at a weekend meditation retreat of around 30 people, I observed my teacher attempting to get the group to move to another location. “Getting Buddhists (meditators) to do anything together is like herding cats,” he said. “Everyone is just in their own place.”
There are two groups of people with whom I regularly meditate. In both groups, we do sitting and walking meditation. I asked them if they would share any advice about things they learned, like I learned about not trying to figure everything out.
Make a meditation space in your home. One friend said his practice improved when he made a small space in his home for meditation. Another friend added that she also found that helpful, and she regularly puts fresh flowers in her meditation space. Others chimed in that they used scented candles and incense, but everyone agreed that making a meditation space, no matter how small, is important.
Find a group or at least a few friends to sit with. Everyone agreed this is important. In his books about meditation, Thich Nhat Hanh states throughout his writing that having a sangha (a group of like-minded people to regularly meditate with) is key to sustaining a meditation practice. Even if you meditate alone every day, it helps to get together with others once in a while for support. You can find a group by looking online for meditation in your area, or get together with a few friends who are also interested, find some audio or printed instructions and schedule a regular time for group meditation.
Just sit for the sake of sitting (walking, etc.)When we began discussing advice for people who are seeking it, everyone said the same thing about beginning a practice. It doesn’t work if you focus on a goal. The goal itself prevents you from attaining it and contributes to the restless mind you are trying to quiet. If you want to meditate for a specific reason, such as improving your health or relieving stress, that’s fine, just don’t concentrate on that goal while you are sitting (or doing walking meditation or Tai Chi or whatever). Again, that’s very Zen, but absolutely true, the more you chase an outcome, the more it eludes you.
My advice is to remember that if you want to practice meditation, you can. You might feel that you just can’t calm your mind and stop your thoughts, or bring you mind back to your breath or some other simple function, but you can. If you’re a movie buff, try watching Eat, Pray, Love, and you will see Julia Roberts portray Elizabeth Gilbert, who authored the book by the same name, struggling with that very thing.
Everyone struggles with it, but that isn’t what we see when we look at a meditation class or watch an instructive program on meditation. In an older movie, The Peaceful Warrior, actor Scott Mechlowicz plays gymnast Dan Millman. The movie depicts Millman’s journey from a physically debilitating motorcycle accident to the Olympic trials in ten months, and all because he learned about being in the present moment (and other important life lessons).
The movie and Millman’s book, The Way of the Peaceful Warrior, are gems, not to be missed if you’re struggling to meditate while dealing with the chaotic, real world and especially if you are a bit of a skeptic, as he was.
My all-time best advice is to find some audio or video programs on meditation. They are wonderful tools. For me it is like having an electronic guru. For beginners (and remember we are all beginners) our Introduction to Meditation Pack is just the thing.
Jon Kabat-Zinn’s Guided Mindfulness Meditation is great for beginners, no matter how long they have been practicing. For those who prefer a DVD, try Mindful Movements, a collection of daily contemplative exercises by Thich Nhat Hanh, one of the greatest meditation teachers of our time.
For most of us, any guided imagery program, such as Belleruth’s Relaxation and Wellness, will help clear the mental clutter and make it easier for us to begin meditation.
“Enlightenment is not an attainment, it is a realization. And when you wake up, everything changes and nothing changes.” ― Dan Millman, Way of the Peaceful Warrior: A Book That Changes Lives. If that seems paradoxical but holds a certain meaning for you, then you are indeed a beginner. My favorite quotes from this book are, “There are no ordinary moments,” and “I had lost my mind and fallen into my heart.”
We at Health Journeys joyfully celebrate National Meditation Month, and we wish you much peace, love and happiness. As always, we love hearing from you, and we invite your questions, comments and stories.