Four of us from the New York sangha spent this past weekend upstate, in rural (and currently rather snowy) Columbia County. By four of us, I mean four of us human beings. There were also three dogs among us: little Mona, medium-sized Dante, and bigger Inu. The ride up was surprisingly tranquil, despite all seven mammals being carefully wedged into a not-so-spacious hybrid car. The dogs seemed to get on famously, having decided to overlook whatever nuttiness it was on the part of their human companions that had brought everyone together in such a small space for a two-hour-plus drive.
We decided on the drive up that we’d meditate together in the mornings. We were all going to do so anyway, so it made sense to make an impromptu shrine area somewhere in the house and sit together.
An aside. The small dog, Mona, is mine. She’s a pug, and she’s over fourteen years old. If you know pugs, you know that they make a not-insubstantial amount of snorting noises. The older Mona has gotten, the more impressive her wet, smacking, slurping, snorting repertoire has become. I’ve meditated with her at my side many times. I certainly don’t set it up that way, but very often I sit to meditate, and at some point she gets bored and comes looking for me. Clip-clip-clip down the hallway I hear her nails, and then comes the symphony of mouth and nose noises, with an occasional spray on my arm. Without fail, she decides that my sit is over before the timer has, so she starts to mewl, or paw my arm. Not paying attention to Mona is simply not an option.
I call her the Sixth Hindrance.
So you can imagine that I was a bit apprehensive about exposing my friends to all of this while they meditated. She didn’t disappoint, but she was hardly alone. From all three dogs there were a lot of licking sounds, licking of paws, of undercarriages, of the floor, of our arms… There was a lot of restless movement, at first at least. There was slapping of tails against us as the dogs weaved in and out of the circle we formed. There was nuzzling. There was slurping of water in the catch-basins at the bottom of the planters. There was sniffing of, well, pretty much everything around us. And there was the occasional period of heavy barking and mad-dashing around the house every time the radiator made an odd noise or one of them saw a squirrel or deer through the window.
But here’s the strange thing. Particularly on Sunday, our second morning, we agreed that we’d had a really good sit. We were doing the Mindfulness of Breathing, and typically it’s quite a challenge to keep my mind focused on the breath for very long. But not so on Sunday. I had what seemed like long stretches of strong focus and concentration, with very little distraction or wandering. And I wasn’t alone in experiencing that, despite the bouts of doggy bedlam going on around us.
I wonder if it was the degree to which one distraction completely overwhelmed every other potential distraction. The dog noises were so front-and-center that all of the other needling distractions that I usually face didn’t stand a chance of gaining prominence. And at the same time, I was completely relaxed about the dog noises. If it had just been Mona I probably would have been mortified. But it was Mona, Dante, and Inu, all dogs being dogs and doing what dogs do. We also all took a rather light-hearted approach to the whole situation. There was just no way to take the tableau seriously. There we were, sitting in a circle around an improvised shrine, chanting the Refuges and Precepts in Pali as the dogs wandered in and out, wagging their tails, nuzzling us, wondering what on earth it was we were doing.
I don’t think I’ll be adding the Mindfulness of Dog to my regular meditation routine. But as they often are, these dogs were good teachers. They seemed to say: Relax, and enjoy the situation. There’s nothing you can do to change our nature, so just be with it and see what happens.
I recently got back from a two-week vacation, and I had really been determined to find time to meditate every day. The challenges were: quite a long (16 hours) flight in either direction, jet lag, staying in several different locations throughout the country I was visiting with different types of accommodations at each stop, traveling not just with my partner but also with another couple, and a good amount of travel within the country by plane and by car.
I’d guessed some of the challenges I’d face before I left, but I also found that I had to improvise as I went, which was a nice learning experience. I’m happy to report that I did manage to meditate every day, and I think these are the points that made this possible:
- Be flexible with time. Grab a chunk of it whenever you can, and don’t be too fussy about whether it’s the same time every day, unless you’re really certain your schedule will allow you to live up to that. Since I was traveling with my partner, we figured out that the best time was when he was in the shower, so I had a bit of privacy in the main room. But some days I had to make time on planes, in cars, or in the evenings.
- Be flexible about space and posture. Don’t be very demanding of the environment that you’ll meditate in. You may find yourself propping up pillows or blankets to simulate a meditation cushion, or simply sitting on the floor or against a bed or wall. Airplane seats are not the best place to do anything, let alone meditate, but even they can work.
- Be forgiving of noise. You may be in a quiet hotel room, or you may be in a car or on a flight with that drone of machinery and conversation all around you. Noise-canceling headphones are helpful, and a white noise app as well, but you’re probably going to have to just roll with the noise at some point.
- Get support from your travel companions. I found it helpful that my partner and friends knew that I wanted to go off and meditate at some point every day. They were very generous and understanding, and it helped me keep up my practice.
- Be creative with your meditation. I was able to do my regular Mindfulness of Breathing and Metta Bhavana, but sometimes I found that a body scan was more suited to either the position I was in (packed into an airplane seat) or the noise level.
- Be forgiving of duration. Don’t demand 30 or 40 minute meditations if that’s not realistic, or if it’s unfair to your partner/spouse/friends/travel companions, who may be tip-toeing around you, sealed off from their hotel room, or agreeing not to play the radio while you get in a quick Metta in the backseat of the van!
- Accept that your food options may not always be terribly interesting. If vegetarianism is part of your practice, as it is mine, you may need to settle for rice, bread, beans, salads, and an array of grilled vegetables that are prepared by people who don’t really know how to prepare food for vegetarians, and may even look on you with a kind of perplexed pity when you explain that you don’t eat meat or fish. I found it helpful to have soy protein bars, almonds, and peanuts in my bag, especially when I was outside of the bigger cities of the meat-loving country that I visited. If you do eggs and cheese you’ll have an easier time, but it is possible to keep vegan if you’re well prepared, including psychologically!
If you really like to have a focal point for meditation, there are travel shrines available. I have one very similar to this, which has a small Buddha figurine, a candle, and incense burner and some incense. Of course not all hotels – not to mention airplanes – will appreciate your burning candles or incense. And of course you don’t need a travel shrine, or even a small Buddha figurine, or really anything at all. Just a little time, a little space, and you’ll be able to take your practice with you anywhere you go.
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.
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.
One of the first books I read after coming to Triratna-NYC was Change Your Mind: A Practical Guide to Buddhist Meditation, by Paramananda. It was a wonderful resource as I started to practice meditation, with a simple and friendly tone, and clear instructions and advice on everything from cushions and posture to tips on how to bring the benefits of a Buddhist practice into your daily life. I’ve since recommended Change Your Mind to family and friends as an excellent introduction, or as an approachable tool to get back in the habit of regular practice.
Change Your Mind starts with the basics, answering the question What is meditation? and then moves to the essentials in an inviting and personal way. The author gives a thorough explanation of the importance of posture and the different postures a meditator may use. This was particularly helpful to me, since invariably my back knotted up, or my foot fell asleep, or my leg began to ache about five minutes into any meditation I started.
The first meditation covered is a simple body meditation, which helps new meditators become acquainted with their own physical presence as they sit. It’s a very accessible approach that helps beginners learn to focus on the now. Then the author covers the two traditional meditations we do at Triratna, the Mindfulness of Breathing and the Metta Bhavana, or the cultivation of Loving-Kindness, with clear explanations as well as led practices. The author also discusses the role of intention and balanced effort in meditation, and the link between mental, emotional, and physical states and meditation, and how all of that is connected to how we (can) lead our lives.
While Change Your Mind does not focus on Buddhist philosophy, even basic points such as the Four Noble Truths or the Eightfold Path, there is an introduction to the brahmavihāras, or the Four Immeasurables, the compassionate virtues that arise from practice of the Metta Bhavana. This is written in the same friendly, down-to-earth style as the rest of the book, inviting practitioners to experience for themselves the link between meditation and living in a healthier, more compassionate way.
Finally, anyone who’s meditated is doubtlessly familiar with the Five Hindrances, which are also covered, along with time-tested methods for dealing with them and always coming home to the object of concentration. These tools are key to sustaining a practice, especially when you’ve reached a plateau, which most people experience.
All in all, Change Your Mind is a wonderful book to read if you’re a beginner, or if you’ve been meditating for a while but want to go back to the basics for a fresh, friendly, creative, and inspirational point of view. It is neither dry and mechanical nor full of Pali and Sanskrit terms for unfamiliar Buddhist philosophical concepts. It goes right for the middle path, and makes it easy for the reader to follow along.