Meditation Timers: Modern Gadgets Meet Mindfulness

At our Tuesday Sangha Nights we usually do things in a pretty traditional way. We salute the shrine, we chant the Refuges and Precepts, both in Pāli and in English, and then we sit to meditate. There’s a meditation leader, usually an order member or someone who’s asked for ordination, and he or she marks the beginning of the meditation and the start of each stage with a tingsha meditation bell, pictured here. The ambience is peaceful, with candles and incense, and a groupdragon tingsha of sangha members sitting on cushions in various postures, or on chairs, and soon enough the noise of the city fades away as we get into our meditations.

At home, a lot of us use more modern tools. There are several different timed meditations on the Triratna-NYC site, and you can simply play them from your computer to do a 20, 30, 40, or 60 minute Metta Bhavana or Mindfulness of Breathing.

And as with most things in life these days, there’s an app for that. My informal survey of our sangha has the Insight Timer as the clear favorite, but there are plenty of others. I’m in the Insight Timer camp myself, and I have several pre-programmed meditations of different lengths that I use. If you like a social media angle, you can make a profile of yourself, have ‘friends,’ join groups, send messages… all of that stuff. Personally I don’t use those features, but I can see the appeal if you want to have a kind of virtual sangha and see who, across the planet, you’ve just been meditating with.

insight timer

You can also keep a journal, adding notes on each time you sit – which meditation you did, what hindrances may have arisen, and so on. If you’re a lover of stats, you can see how your meditation practice has been going by the numbers – total number of days meditating, consecutive days, amount of time spent, etc. Of course you can ignore all of that, too, and just meditate.

The great thing about these timers is that you simply touch “start,” and then you don’t have to worry about keeping an eye on a clock or watch. Not that a clock or watch isn’t a perfectly suitable alternative if you prefer not to use a smart phone.

There are also links to several other meditation tools, including special clocks and timers of the physical, non-app variety, as well as CDs and MP3s. If you have other favorites that are not included, leave a comment and let us know.

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That Eureka Posture

I think it’s safe to say that right after I began meditating, the object of my concentration was neither the breath nor the cultivation of metta, but rather the pins and needles in my feet, the cramps in my legs, the ropey knot in my back, and the soreness in my buttocks. I tried many different postures – sitting on the mat, sitting further forward on the mat so that my knees touched the ground, sitting in a chair, straddling the cushion… they all seemed great at first, but within five minutes or so, the pins and needles, cramps, knots, and soreness began, then slowly got so bad that I was silently begging for the final bells.

Many of the books I was reading at the time had sections or entire chapters devoted to posture. At first I scanned them only because posture just didn’t seem important. I wanted to get on to the “real” stuff of meditation, and I couldn’t imagine that to be related to how one places one’s butt on a cushion. But soon enough I saw that my failure to take meditation posture seriously was going to be a huge hindrance to my practice. I went back to those books and read those sections carefully, but I still couldn’t quite understand what, exactly, I was doing wrong.

It wasn’t until my first retreat that I asked more experienced meditators for advice. We eventually decided that straddling was the best position for me, and then several of my sangha mates when to work erecting some strange contraption involving a folded yoga mat, two meditation cushions, a rolled up towel, some blankets, and some sort of foam block. The keys ingredients of my position on the contraption were:

  • knees on mat, foam, or something soft
  • proper height of cushions so that I was neither slumping nor teetering, so that…
  • …my sitz bone acted like a fulcrum, balancing the weight of my body above it
  • …and my ankles were lifted a bit off the ground so that my feet weren’t bent under too much weight

I was a bit skeptical, but we sat for an hour-long meditation, and at the end, I was thrilled to report that I felt no cramps, anywhere. When I got home from retreat I quickly reconstructed my meditation contraption.

cushions_mat_ankle restkneeling_medititation_posture

If you’re new to meditating, do not underestimate the importance of posture. And do not underestimate the advice of experienced meditators who can help you work your way through a few different options. Straddling the cushion is just one solution, and it worked for me, but it may not be the best solution for you. In our sangha we have people who straddle the cushion, people who sit cross-legged on it, and people who sit upright in chairs, with all sorts of minor variations. You’ll know when you’ve found your eureka posture, and then you can get back to the actual practice of meditation.

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