More than four decades is a long time to be engaged in one activity. Have I managed to do meditation every day no matter what? No. Have I often experienced states of bliss that kept me going? No. Did my knees hurt? Yes. Did my shoulders ache? Yes. Was I sometimes filled with anger, aggression, tormented by old ragged memories? Yes. Did I burn with sexual desire, crave a hot fudge sundae so bad my teeth ached? Yes.
Why did I do it? What kept me going? First, I liked that it was so simple, so dumb, so direct, so different from the constant rush of our human life. When I sat I wasn’t hurrying toward anything. The whole world, my entire inner life, was coming home to me. I was tasting my own mind; I was beginning a true relationship with myself. This was good—and it was inexpensive. All I needed was my breath, a cushion or chair, a little time.
Over the years I have heard much instruction on how to meditate. Recently I listened to someone tell students that it is better to sit for five minutes every day than for an hour three times a week. I thought, That’s good advice. Then I smiled to myself. There are no prescriptions for a long relationship. Things change. Five minutes every day might work beautifully for three months. But then what if you miss a day or a week? Have you failed? Do you quit altogether? I hope not. But sometimes our minds set up stiff expectations, and when they’re not met, we drop the whole thing. This is just the opposite of softening the mind, which we hope will be the result of meditation.
So maybe the first rule we should begin with, if we want meditation to be in our life for a long time, is: Don’t make a rigid structure and then chastise ourselves when we don’t live up to it. Better to keep a limber mind and develop a tenderness toward existence. We missed a day? We’ll begin again the next day. There’s no race. Where are we going anyway but right where we are?
Related: Meditation Beyond the Method
But I also want to encourage having a structure. Perhaps this is the second rule: Structure is a good thing. It’s easier to return to something solid than to an amorphous intention. So let’s begin with that five minutes—that time structure—and even clarify it more: When will I sit those five minutes? First thing in the morning? Right before I go to sleep? When the clock says noon, no matter where or what I’m doing? If a time is picked, it sturdies the practice.
And if we pick a regular place, it deepens the intention. Where will I do it? At my desk before I begin work? In front of the altar in my bedroom? Under the sycamore in the yard?
Structure allows us to drop in more simply without giving monkey mind a lot of space. What is monkey mind? You know. It’s the person in us that wiggles around a lot, that is indecisive, changes its mind, never settles, tries to talk us out of whatever we plan to do. It says: Not today, I’m tired. I’m hungry. I’m worried about my exam. I can’t sit still.
Look around. Is there anyone sitting still except the floors, the walls, the mountains? Monkey mind will have a hundred reasons not to meditate. Structure helps support our urge to do it anyway. A fluid mind keeps the structure from getting rigid. A structure that worked fairly well for three years may suddenly collapse. We have a new job with different hours; we’re traveling for two months; our wife just gave birth to a second child and the house is endless chaos.
Maybe the third rule, which includes the first two, should read: Be creative and flexible at the same time that you continue your meditation relationship. Learn to meditate in a chair while sitting in the waiting room of the dentist’s office, or in the car as you wait for your daughter to finish soccer practice. Meditation is about having our large life smack in the center of our everyday life. How do we stay open and continue?
I was at a retreat at Plum Village in southern France when the person next to me asked the Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh, who was then in his sixties, how he kept his practice alive.
He smiled a wry, sweet smile. “So you want to know my secret?” She nodded eagerly. “I do whatever works and change it when it no longer works.”
I thought of the small round labels that were handed out to us at the beginning of the retreat. We were instructed to put them in the inside of our shoes. I still have that note glued on the left insole of my turquoise moccasins. I walk for you. Every time I put on those shoes in early summer, a gap opens and I remember: I live connected to everyone.
Be creative and flexible at the same time that you continue your meditation relationship.
When Writing Down the Bones first came out in 1986, I was invited to teach in Selma, Alabama. I was delighted by the thick air and the abundant trees, so different from my dry New Mexico, and I was curious about an author who lived an hour away in the country. She’d just won the Hemingway Award for a first collection of her short stories. She was in her seventies. Unfortunately, my visit was too short for me to meet her, but I had the privilege of speaking to her on the phone.
“Have you been writing all your life?” I asked her, elated at the victory a writer could still have at seventy.
“I wrote through my twenties and then got married and had a son. I didn’t start up again until my sixties, when my husband died.”
I was a gung ho writer then, wouldn’t give it up for anything. “Well, was it hard? I mean, giving up writing. Did you resent it?”
“Oh, no, I didn’t feel bad. All the years I didn’t write I never stopped seeing myself as a writer.” She paused. “Anyway, I could never have created anything as fine as my son, David.”
I always remember that conversation. Even if you can’t write, you can see the way a writer does, notice, take in, digest the details and stories of what surrounds you.
I think this is also true of a life of meditation. There might be periods—a year or even two—when we can’t get to the cushion, but that doesn’t mean we have to give up. This might be the fourth rule: We can still carry meditation inside, still see and feel as a meditator, but physically practice differently.
This is when I made walking my meditation. In Santa Fe I lived near the downtown plaza and close to cafés. I’d do mindful walking to the places where I wrote. One foot after the other. I’d feel my toes bend, heel lift, hip shift, the weight of placing one foot down and the rise of the other. I’d notice how my feet carried me. Then when I was done with three or four hours of writing, I’d walk some more. I’d join the tourists strolling up Galisteo, left on San Francisco, cross over to Burro Alley. I’d transfer the power of my writing concentration down into my feet. I’d leave the mind of my imagination and land in the mind of the streets. My feet became my focus under the one sky, near parking meters, amid the rustle of cottonwoods, the smell of roasted chilies. Even though I consider writing an inner physical activity, where my whole body is engaged—my heart, lungs, liver, breath—walking grounded me to the physical world around me.
Even now, ten years later, when I pass through Santa Fe I feel the birth of my walking life and have a gratitude toward that city. If you saw me in those years, you saw a woman knowing the present pleasures of a mind weighted down into the soles of her feet.
From The Great Spring: Writing, Zen, and This Zigzag Life, by Natalie Goldberg, © 2016 by the author. Reprinted with permission of Shambhala Publications.
Start your day with a fresh perspective
Thank you for subscribing to Tricycle! As a nonprofit, we depend on readers like you to keep Buddhist teachings and practices widely available.