It’s March, and that means Meditation Month is back! Our annual challenge to sit every day until March 31 is a great opportunity to reinvigorate your practice or get one off the ground. And you won’t be alone. With a new guided meditation video each week, a steady stream of helpful articles on Trike Daily, and a Facebook discussion group where you can get in on the conversation with practitioners from all over the world, you’ll have all the resources you need. Join here.
To return to your cushion again and again, day after day, as the world, and your own mind, does its best to distract you, is a critical challenge for all lay practitioners. How do you find time to sit? What inspires you? What motivates you? What draws you back to your practice each morning? Tricycle editor Peter Alsop asks six busy people, living with hectic schedules, jobs, children, and partners, how they make time for a daily practice. For some, like recent congressional candidate Dan Rosenberg, the answer is to create a schedule for sitting and to stick to it, regardless of the circumstances of each day. For others, the unpredictability of life necessitates a more flexible approach. Professor Connie Hilliard uses some of her practice time for a “laundry meditation.” Eva Follenius, a registered nurse at a New York hospital, has a movable altar, sitting when and where she can.
In the end, what these people finds in common is a deep-seated commitment to just practice, no matter what.
I’m a registered nurse and a case manager at St. Vincent’s, a pretty busy hospital in New York. My job is scheduled nine-to-five but it never works out that way. Sometimes you just have to stay – people have needs, they need to talk. Also, the evenings are often the only time I can meet with families. I do a lot of that work, so I need to be there for them when they are able to get off work. I have a caseload of about twenty-five patients, and if there are a lot of problems it can just keep me there, because it’s all waiting for me the next day.
I am married, six years, no children. My situation at home – I’m fortunate because my husband is really supportive – he’s not a practitioner, but from the beginning he’s been very supportive. I think in part that’s because I took things slowly to give him a chance to adjust to my involvement with the practice. And also I’m very careful to discuss things with him, in terms of going to sesshin [seven-day retreat] and what times would be best and giving him advance notice and that sort of thing.
My husband also has a chronic illness, so he was very sick for two years. He’s just now coming out of that, although he’s not well. For two years I was the sole support for us, and that was kind of challenging in terms of how I was going to use practice to work with that.
I do make time to sit. I sit daily. My practice is zazen. I generally sit at least once a day, anywhere from forty minutes to an hour. I have kind of a movable altar, because it depends upon whether my husband is tired or whether he needs to go to sleep early or what happens. I now have two places that I’ve set up to sit and we kind of work that through together – when that time will be. Generally for me it is late in the evening, around eleven o’clock. Sometimes I sit in the morning, although I am not a morning person, to tell you the truth, so I’m not consistent with that. I also do monthly zazenkai, which are longer, all-day sits at the temple, and sesshin at least twice a year.
How do I find time to do it? In my tradition and community we talk about vows. Part of what my teacher has said, and I’ve really found it to be true, is that once you make the vow, make the commitment to yourself, it removes a lot of the options that you normally have. I think that this is what has happened in my life. It is now much easier to decide what needs to be taken care of at any given time. “To save all sentient beings” – well, of course, that begins with my immediate family and extends out from there. So it’s pretty easy for me to say in this moment it’s important to take care of this particular issue with my husband, or this other thing with my family. That other stuff, whatever that may be, comes secondary to that.
I used to spend a lot of time thinking and worrying about what I needed to do. It’s amazing how much time that can use up. So I actually just take care of the time I sit and the time I spend with my family. And sometimes cooking meals and that sort of thing fall by the wayside, but I live in New York City – you can take out or pick something up.
I work in a field where I am faced with life and death every day. So in terms of my own motivation to practice, in a way it’s easy for me because the question of what’s really important is very clear. What’s important for me is to live a life that I will not have any regret for. Because I’ve seen a lot of people die with tremendous regret. And I’m reminded of this every day. For a lot of reasons, it just seems to be a part of my life. I chose nursing because I felt it was going to be a life-changing practice for me. And it has been. It has made it pretty easy to sit every day. It’s just clear. I may never get enlightened, but that I’m moving in that direction matters to me.
I’d never thought about politics before, but when I moved up to North Fork, which is a small town in the center of California just south of Yosemite, I met our congressman. I was actually kind of appalled that this guy was a congressman. No Democrat had run against him last time. He’s a real Gingrich Republican – the president of the freshman class of ’94. And I didn’t think he had done so much. He votes with the party line, the right wing of the party. He’s never written any legislation. He’s someone who struck me as needing to be at least challenged, if not defeated. And I decided to run.
I called up the Board of Elections and asked, How do you run for Congress? They told me and I filled out all the papers. At the beginning I just thought somebody should be on the ballot to run against the guy, but it turned into a real campaign, and I had a full staff, raised about $200,000, almost all from individuals. In the end I got 32% of the vote – my opponent got 64%. Even though we lost, I’m very proud of what we were able to accomplish – I think I was able to inspire a lot of people to care about politics.
Because of the campaign, life became very busy – very, very hectic. And ultimately very stressful. But through it all I kept sitting.
During the campaign I rented a house to run the campaign out of, and I lived in it as well. So I would wake up, meditate, and as soon as I walked out the door of my bedroom I was in the thick of it, people there asking me questions. It was from eight in the morning until ten at night, every day.
I learned how to meditate during a trip to India. I sat a Vipassana meditation course there, a ten-day silent meditation course in Jaipur, in the tradition taught by S. N. Goenka. And after that I began a daily practice. I sit for one hour a day now in the morning. It has become part of my life, part of my ritual, and now I rarely miss it. I’ve found that if I don’t meditate in the morning, I feel it throughout the day. I feel more agitated, my mind feels more unfocused.
Vipassana meditation involves observing sensations on your body and understanding that they’re impermanent, and not reacting to them: Remaining equanimous, balanced. When we do a ten-day course, the first three-and-a-half days are what’s called anapana meditation – just observing the breath, watching your natural breath, not controlling it. When your mind is very agitated and when you are really finding it almost impossible to concentrate and observe sensations on your body, you can use anapana just to calm your mind down. To do it for just a minute or two has a real effect. And I found that during this year, during the campaign, during stressful times when I became agitated, I often fell back on anapana to calm the mind down. That was very useful.
There are always obstacles to daily practice. Some are quite obvious: Traveling, staying up really late, changing your schedule a lot. For the most part, I’ve found the difficult obstacles to be the ones that come from within, those mental tricks we all use – you know, it’s early, it’s cold, I can’t sit. The biggest obstacle is just the mind. You think you’ve got to get up right away and make some calls, or have breakfast, or go do this other thing. Your mind always tries to play these tricks. Things suddenly seem really urgent. For me the solution has been to create a schedule, to find for myself some disciplined time, to just get up every day at seven no matter what. I’ve made it a habit to get up, brush my teeth, sit – in that order – before I do anything else. And then, of course, after you sit you finish and you say to yourself, “What was so urgent that I felt I couldn’t sit?”
At first my husband didn’t know what to make of my involvement with Zen. He thought that this was just some odd thing, and he didn’t really respect the time and the space I was trying to create for practice. For instance, I would sit down on my cushion in the morning and begin to meditate, and then the next thing I knew my husband would be calling me: “Where’s my blue shirt?” And I would get very annoyed, very frustrated; it was exasperating. But after a time, several things began to happen. I began to realize, first of all, that by interrupting me in this way, my husband was really trying to express something. You see, I work a lot – I tend to be a workaholic – and I was really not giving him very much attention.
I recognized that my meditation should never be a barrier between me and my family. So I made a few adjustments in the very beginning. I tried to lessen my own rigidity, tried to become a little more patient with him. I gave him permission, in a way, that if I’d sit there and meditate, he could call me and ask of me whatever he needed. He began to feel less closed off from my spiritual practice and from me. This little trick of just trying to be more attentive – it changed everything. My husband realized that I was serious, that this was something real, that it wasn’t like some little New Age thing, Zen today and crystals tomorrow! He saw that this was something grounded and deep, and he was impressed. And then he became very respectful of the fact that I was developing my own spiritual practice.
My husband and I have a small two-bedroom house in Lewisville, Texas. We’ve turned one of the bedrooms into a meditation room – except my husband is actually a Christian minister, so my meditation room is his prayer room. In this little meditation room I have a small altar, and I have two cushions, one for my husband and one for me (although he always uses a chair). On the altar I sometimes have a picture of my mother (my parents have passed away), or sometimes I have a flower or a candle. I like to keep this room very simple, uncluttered. All I have to do is pass the room and I feel more relaxed.
I usually begin my morning practice by doing twenty deep bows. The morning meditation is difficult for me, because I’m not a very disciplined person and I can’t get up at four o’clock in the morning. Some people have that energy – they go on extended retreats and they’re really very disciplined – but I don’t have that. So I turn my morning meditation into a twenty-minute sitting meditation and often a ten-minute laundry meditation. I do some chanting. One of my favorite chants is “Gate gate paragate parasamgate bodhi svaha.” I find that this chant really helps me to just clear my mind. I have an overactive mind, and so the chanting is the easiest way for me to settle down. Actually, I use this chant throughout the day – not just on the cushion – as a way of clearing my thoughts, allowing me to focus in different situations. Over the course of the day I’m always chanting my “gate gate.”
After this morning period, I go to work. I do a driving meditation on the way to work and a brief walking meditation to my office every morning. In the evening things are a little bit more peaceful, so I try to do a half-hour or more of meditation. Sometimes I don’t make it. Sometimes it’s only for a few minutes.
I’m a professor of African history and I teach at the University of North Texas. As a professor I have a lot of work responsibilities, teaching classes, consulting with students; I’m also working on two books right now. So it’s very easy for work to eat up my time. But what I’ve come to realize – very much through my meditation practice – is the degree to which I have used work as an escape. I was very good at working, but I wasn’t good at playing, I wasn’t good at relating to the people in my life. Through meditation I became aware of the subtle nuances behind this impulse to work. This feeling – “Oh, I have to go to work,” “I’ve got to get this done or that done” – all of this can actually be very nuanced. Through my practice I’ve become more adept at identifying when I’m trying to escape from something in my life. I realize that whenever I act from this escapist mode there’s always going to be an unintended consequence. I could never see any of this before. So the point for me is to diminish the melodrama in my life by not acting on emotionally unprocessed impulses. Of course I’m still busy, but I’m far more able to identify now what impulse is driving this busyness, and whether it’s skillful or not. I can see much more clearly now whether I’m going to work because I have to go to work, or because I’d rather go to the office than clean the kitchen or be bothered by my husband. I can’t hide from any of that stuff now. And if I can’t hide from it I can actually make more intelligent decisions.
In retrospect I feel as though I was just stumbling through life like a blind person, stumbling in the dark, blinded, not able to clearly understand my impulses, thoughts, and actions and those of the people around me. The more I sit, the more I simply see things. I see that life, my life, is an ongoing process. I can see the larger picture now and therefore I don’t try to reinterpret everything in terms of me, my ego, and I don’t filter things through a lot of emotional baggage. The results of this practice have been wonderful. That’s my motivation.
I work as a professional coach and trainer for a company based in San Francisco. Coaching, simply put, is a methodology for helping people to skillfully develop themselves and others. The organizations and businesses that I work with recognize that people are the most important resource they have and they see that traditional management techniques don’t work so well. So in my job I lead programs within organizations for training people how to do professional coaching and I also teach public courses. I’m pretty busy.
I’ve been involved with Zen practice for almost fifteen years now. I was a resident at Green Gulch Farm and Tassajara, which are part of the San Francisco Zen Center, for about five years – I lived there full-time and practiced quite seriously.
I now belong to a practice group called Bleeding Horses, which is connected with the Zen Center. The name of the group comes from a story in Suzuki Roshi’s Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind about different kinds of horses: there’s the horse that moves at just the shadow of the whip, the horse that moves when it’s whipped lightly, and the horse that is more stubborn and requires to be struck firmly in order to stay on the path. We identify with this last horse!
This group is made up of senior lay students, people who live in the world but wanted to have some form of more rigorous and ongoing training. We’ve been meeting for about four years, once a month. When we meet, we do a morning sitting, during which time we each go in and have dokusan [face-to-face meeting] with our teacher, and then we meet together as a group. We’ve been collectively studying the precepts for the last four years, and we have a discussion about them every time we meet. There are also a series of daily practices we’ve taken on together, including offering incense and doing three bows, sitting every day, and doing a meal chant before lunch.
I have a commitment to this group that I will sit every day, and I make a real effort to keep this. I have an option A and an option B. My intent is to sit every morning, and if I don’t sit in the morning I sit at the end of the day.
The biggest obstacle to practice, I’ve found, is my own resistance, not wanting to sit because it’s often uncomfortable. If I’ve been moving really fast, if I’ve been busy with work, then when I sit down all of the things I haven’t been attending to tend to surface – so sitting is not always so pleasant. And there’s some resistance to that. There’s also just the pull of the things of the world. There are always more exciting things to do than sit!
I’ve made an arrangement in my job that in exchange for making less money, I take more time off. And that was done intentionally so that I can do intensive practice. My husband is a psychotherapist, and he’s also a Vipassana teacher. We joke that we have an interfaith Buddhist marriage! It’s funny that we don’t actually sit together – we’re involved in different traditions and different communities – but we support each other in our practices.
I had this funny conversation with his daughter, my stepdaughter, the other day. She asked, “So how are you doing?” and I told her I had just gotten back from retreat. She said, “You know, I just realized you guys are always coming back from retreat. All you ever do is go on retreat. You have quite some life!” And I realized, she’s right.
I’m the editor-in-chief of O magazine, which is Oprah Winfrey’s new magazine, and the key word is “new.” The first issue of the magazine came out in May, and it’s still in launch mode. We’re still gearing up, finding staff, getting systems into place, and our office has been under construction. It’s like pioneer territory. So that means the day is very, very long. I like to get to the office about 9:15 or so, and I can’t usually pull myself away before 7 or 8. But no matter when I leave, I leave people working as though it’s midday. It’s just very demanding, in a very happy and exciting kind of way, but it’s very time-consuming.
I practice Vipassana meditation, which is insight meditation. I try to sit every day of the week, and I need to sit in the morning because it’s the only time I can control. When I got this job, I was trying to think of how I was going to do this, how I was going to continue with my practice, and I just worked back from when I’d have to be in the elevator at work. So my alarm goes off at 6:30 now, and I sit for probably an average of forty-five minutes – a half-hour one day, an hour another day.
It’s been a long time since I judged whether a sitting was good or not. That’s not an issue anymore. It’s been very important for me to get away from that. Because otherwise practice becomes yet another opportunity for the achievement motivation to kick in. This is not about achieving anything. So if you can get rid of the judgment “This is a good sit” or “This is a bad sit,” then sitting becomes an area that is very private and luxurious rather than another test of yourself during the day. I think we all have enough tests of ourselves. And if you don’t sit, don’t make a big deal of it, don’t make yourself into a bad person. You just start over again.
As Sharon Salzberg and Joseph Goldstein, two of my teachers, say, just show up, just put your body in the position. That’s all. Don’t judge it. Don’t judge yourself. You just do it. It seems to me that I’ve had enough evidence of the value of sitting that I trust that, I trust in the value of this path that the Buddha describes. I think it’s so important just to trust the process. If you just show up, if you put your body in the position, you will be carried by it, by the inevitability of the process. Of course, this realization and this commitment to daily practice wasn’t there from the beginning. It’s taken me some time. I sat for the first time in 1994, and my commitment has slowly grown since. I know people who read one book, like A Path With Heart [by Jack Kornfield], and have been sitting ever since on a daily basis. That didn’t happen to me.
It’s really only in the last year, since I got out of a three-month retreat, that I’ve come to feel this way. Before then, I thought it was a good idea to sit each day but it seemed to me a matter of discipline, in which my resolve would come and go. This doesn’t feel like discipline any more. I really want to sit now. It’s home to me. The value of meditation, what comes of it, is so clear to me now. It’s the difference between being a student who’s going to school but not sure why, and being a student who’s caught by the real excitement of learning. I feel like that happened to me. It became very clear to me that this was tremendously important, tremendously worthwhile, more important than anything. I saw that at the end of this path is wisdom and happiness of a very real kind. When I think about losing that as a regular thing, I see myself becoming really clouded, really lost.
I do get fatigued. I do experience the voice of “I didn’t get to sleep until 1:00, and here is NPR blasting in my ear and it’s 6:30. Can I bear to sit?” And maybe once I will turn off the alarm – that will be the one day of the week I don’t sit. But for the most part I really don’t want to get lost. I think in my life I’ve been undisciplined about so many things that it seems really important to just keep going. Joseph Goldstein always quotes one of his teachers: “It’s easy to be mindful; it’s hard to remember to be mindful.” I’ve found that to be quite valuable. So I do whatever I can to try to remember to be mindful. I don’t want to skip days of sitting. I want that to be a habit. I think it’s terribly easy to talk myself out of it: “Oh God, if I could just have half an hour more sleep.” But making it an everyday thing really helps.
Another obstacle is busyness – you know, the urgency that comes from so much to do that you just go into rush mode and you feel the forward propulsion to the next moment and it seems smart not to sit. But I recognize that as a snare and a delusion. On the way up to work I have about a twenty-minute ride, and now I use that time to just sit there. Instead of getting in a little extra manuscript-reading time, I’ll sit there and I’ll arrive feeling quiet and clear and kind of clean inside rather than being overtaken by this forward pushing into the next moment.
There are so many minutes that get by where I’m not aware. But mindfulness really does come and catch you. I’ll be talking to someone and my mind is in a thousand other places and then I realize it. It makes such a difference, seeing this happen – you become so grateful for this thing that comes and grabs you back into the present.
I am managing director of a large public affairs firm in Austin, Texas, which does politics and public affairs on issues for businesses. I have another company which does web-based grassroots management. That’s a new company and a new challenge. I’m doing both things at once. I am also divorced, with a fourteen-year-old daughter who’s with me a good deal of time now. I could work twenty-four hours a day and still not get everything done.
I’ve practiced in the Dzogchen tradition [of Tibetan Buddhism] for, I suppose, six years now. I sit in the mornings. What I like to do when I have enough time is to sit for thirty minutes to an hour in the morning, and I sit again in the evening, usually sort of late, like 9:30 to 10:30 or 10:45. And I’m pretty consistent with it, but there are some days when it doesn’t happen, when I just can’t make it work.
Time is always a major challenge. This is a very strong belief I have – that one way that the hypercapitalism we live in fuels itself is by taking away our time. Even our leisure is preprogrammed by the culture. And the culture – this is going to sound almost trite – in order to keep us buying things, it’s got to keep us feeling anxious, and the last thing the culture wants is a bunch of contented meditators! Leaving people little time, reducing spiritual practice to an hour in church a week, and making other times of spiritual practice busy times, not quiet times – this is symptomatic. It is a little like the hamster wheel: The faster we go, the faster the wheel goes, and you begin to think that if you stop at all you will get thrown off the wheel. I’m afraid it’s this anxiety which keeps people moving so fast.
Time is a challenge, but I tell you what the greater challenge really is, especially in this rough-and-tumble world I live and work in – It’s living it: living the dharma in a culture and economy, which is driven by individual ambition and achievement, in which every hour can bring a new ethical challenge.
People in my line of work are expected to be extremely hard-driving, somewhat self-centered, and very aggressive. To behave differently can be viewed as a sign of weakness in this world. It takes a great deal of faith to step out of that mentality, and it takes patience, too, because I can get into circumstances just about every day in which the temptation is to join the table-pounding. You have to try to take a quieter approach. I don’t always succeed. I mean, I am a Buddhist, but I’m also a Texan! Sometimes I have to remind myself, after I’ve become a little too aggressive or a little too impatient with others or a little too self-centered, that I have to back up and start again.
I’m inspired, first of all, by my teacher. He’s perfect for me. We’re more or less the same age, and yet we couldn’t have made more different decisions in our lives. I draw constant inspiration from his example, from his lifelong devotion to practice and to the dharma.
And there’s my daughter. She’s fourteen, and in the last three or four years she’s taken a bit of a more critical attitude towards my sitting. She’s not sure what to make of it, even less now than she did several years ago, because she’s constructing the world on her own and finding things that she’s interested in. And I’m not a rap artist! However, the fact is that she’s much happier with me, and seems herself to be more centered, when I’m sitting regularly and the practice is going well. And that’s always been the case. I mean it’s very obvious, it’s not a subtle thing. You always strive to see the benefits of your own practice in others, and with my daughter it is such an obvious development – it’s inspiring on its own.
If I was to honestly evaluate the biggest obstacle to practice, it’s exactly what the tradition says it’s going to be. It’s not time, and it’s not the demands of this fast-paced life – it’s my own confrontation with clinging to myself. I’ll be telling myself, for example, that my practice is going well, and all of a sudden it comes to me that everything I’ve done for the last two days has just been to show off or to think of what the benefit or detriment to myself is.
In my line of work I will often find myself in a competitive situation in which I can fall into games of one-upmanship just because that’s what is going on around me. It’s like I’m in a football game and I’m playing football before I realize I really don’t actually want to tackle that person across from me. How do people like myself, raised in a cowboy state, how do we deal with the real truth of the dharma? How does it alter our nature? These are the questions I ask myself.
Start your day with a fresh perspective
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