New Year, New Meditation Practice

Post updated 1/22/20

dock on lake, calm space for sitting in meditation

Have a seat

Starting a New Meditation Practice

The new year is a great time to start or restart a meditation practice. Starting anything new can sometimes feel daunting so we’ve put together a few very basic guidelines for starting a new meditation practice. I had a chat with Koshin Christopher Cain, one of the owners of Still Sitting, to get his suggestions for starting a new meditation practice. We covered the what, where and when of getting started. Hopefully these tips will be helpful in getting your buns on that zafu in the new year and beyond.

What: Meditation Cushions and Supplies

Very little is actually needed to start meditating. Of course, we are partial to our comfy cushion sets, but a zafu or firm cushion can be enough. This is especially true if you will be sitting on a carpeted surface. On hardwood floors or hard surfaces, a zabuton or cushioning mat underneath would also be helpful.

We find a timer to be a must. Your phone will work well for this. Make sure to set the alarm sound to something that is not too jarring.
Incense or candles, while not necessary, can help set a sense of intention around your meditation practice. Lighting incense or a candle can be a nice ritual to accompany your experience. The incense scent will linger in your meditation spot and this can be a pleasant reminder of your practice.
Once you get started you may find that you would like to try certain types of cushions, benches, or other meditation aids, but nothing else is needed to begin. However, you do need a quiet place to sit, which brings us to your meditation space. (For more on creating a meditation space, go here.)

Where: Your Meditation Space

Look around your home and find a spot on the floor that feels like a good place to sit. It should be relatively uncluttered, so you can conveniently plop your cushions down and quickly get started. You do not need a dedicated space that is only for meditation. Most of us, when we are starting a new meditation practice, will improvise with the space we have. This could be a cozy corner of your living room or a nice spot in your bedroom.  We have a friend who meditated in her bathroom because it was the quietest and warmest room in the house. Her zafu and zabuton were kept in a nearby cabinet, at the ready.
Of course, if you have the room for a dedicated meditation space, this is an ideal situation. But for the beginner, it’s definitely not required.

When: For How Long and What Time of Day to Meditate

Koshin recommends starting out small, but regularly, with a new meditation practice. “Even 5 minutes a day is better than 20 minutes once in a while,” he says.  If you only have time to sit two times a week, let that be your practice to start with. Determine a time and begin. There are benefits to meditation even when practicing only once or twice a week.
There is no one time of day that is best for everyone. However, once you determine your time, sitting at the same time each session is a good habit to get into. This makes it harder to put off for later or to skip altogether.

A Few More Tips

A Sangha or Group
“For me, one of the most important things is someone else to sit with, a group, or a sangha. To keep it going, keep it fresh, to find a support group, essentially,” according to Koshin. Finding a community or even a few pals to sit with can be a huge support to your solo meditation practice.

Keep a Meditation Journal
Keeping a meditation journal can be a great way to stay intentional with your practice and record your reflections about your experience over time. A journal can help you stay grounded and mindful along the way.

Practice
Don’t forget, meditation is called a practice for a reason. You will be practicing meditation. It is not easy, but thinking about it as something to practice can sometimes help. 

And let us know how it’s going here in the comments. We love hearing from you. Happy New Year and Happy Sitting!

The Making of a Rakusu

making rakusu

Many weeks in our Vashon Island workshop, Lidunn handcrafts beautiful rakusu. In this case from a few years back, she re-purposed a Japanese obi into a custom rakusu for a customer. A shortened version of Buddha’s robe, the rakusu is a symbolic garment worn by Buddhist practitioners. Its form has evolved over centuries, incorporating elements from various traditions as it’s made its way across geography and time.
Buddhist Rakusu Sewing process

History

Each element of the rakusu has a story. The many individual panels recall robes in Buddha’s time, when mendicants scavenged used pieces of fabric, even burial cloth, to make their clothing. The straight lines and right angles resemble cultivated fields, and the wooden ring is a nod to how Chinese monks fastened their robes to keep their arms free for physical labor. Today’s rakusu is most visibly linked to the Zen traditions from Japan.
Making a rakusu process

Modern Use

Buddhist practitioners may begin wearing a rakusu to mark a milestone, such as receiving the precepts in a ceremony called jukai, or becoming a teacher. One’s lineage can inform certain aspects of the rakusu: Rinzai and Soto traditions each determine the number of strips of cloth, the pattern, and the color of the back panel. After receiving the rakusu, it becomes part of the ordained Buddhist’s robes, serving as a tactile reminder of one’s lineage and devotion.
Some practitioners sew their own rakusu, perhaps taking weeks to complete the task. They may also choose to request help from a seamstress experienced in crafting Buddhist garments, like Lidunn.

Process

How to make a Buddhist rakusu shown on tableLidunn started work on this obi by looking closely at the fabric’s print, color, and texture to see what patterns emerged organically, and how to make it fit the traditional Rinzai layout. Next, she cut the fabric into individual pieces and ironed. Her advice to practitioners doing it themselves? “Always iron. It makes life so much easier.”
Once each piece was set according to pattern, Lidunn sewed them into place. It’s meticulous, challenging work, each rakusu a puzzle to be solved. “It requires precision. And working with a fabric like this is very special.”

Lidunn made her first rakusu for her own ordination at Mt. Baldy Zen Center in 1999. Since then, she has made countless rakusu for practitioners all over the world.

Rakusu Finished from custom floral fabric for Buddhist clergy
At Still Sitting, we make each rakusu individually, so practitioners may choose one of our fabrics, or send in a fabric or a ring of their choosing. For more information, write to us at office@stillsitting.com

Our New Nomad Folding Meditation Bench

Nomad Bench in black on zabuton meditation cushionWe are so excited to introduce our new Nomad Folding Meditation Bench. We launched this bench in 2017 and the feedback and reviews have been wonderful:

This is a beautiful seat. The design is ingenious and by the way it’s functional too! It’s small and light and comfortable.
This bench helped me sit through a 7 day Zen retreat. Adjustable and comfortable.
Sitting in lotus or half-lotus pose for more than 20 minutes is becoming challenging for me as I get older. Sitting seiza-style was my preference but I struggled finding the appropriate bench until now. This bench made it possible for me to extend my practice comfortably.

Woman holding folded Nomad Bench

We saw this folding meditation bench for the first time in Norway a few years ago. We got in touch with the designer, Åsmund Skard, and decided to team up to produce his unique design for Still Sitting. We are currently making it entirely in the Pacific Northwest. Åsmund co-founded the well-known Norwegian architectural firm 4B Arkitekter and has designed several types of meditation bench. With the Nomad, his goal was to design the perfect bench: lightweight, adjustable, easy to carry, economical and stable to sit on. We think he nailed it!
We are absolutely blown away by the comfort and design of the Nomad.

What Makes the Nomad Special

This folding meditation bench combines portability and comfort in a way we haven’t seen before.  It’s our lightest bench by far, folds flat and fits easily in any size luggage.

Nomad Meditation bench folds flat and fits in small suitcase

Lightweight: Under 2 lbs. makes it so easy to take anywhere.
Folds Flat: The small size when folded makes traveling with your meditation bench a breeze.
Adjustable Height: This is unique. The height is completely adjustable with the velcro closure on the seat. This feature allows the bench to be shared or used at meditation centers or retreat. Users can easily adjust it to their own height. The measure on the bottom of the bench helps you remember exactly where to set it back to.
Super comfortable: The hammock style cotton seat molds to your body. There is no need for a bench cushion, like with most benches.
Locally Made: Our custom woodworker at Salmon Bay Woodworking , here on Vashon Island, makes all of our wooden benches, including the wood parts of the Nomad.
Beautifully Simple Design: We fell in love with this design immediately and hope you do too!

Slowing Down : Inspiration From the Sloth

Sloth in tree, looking happy

This guy knows how to take it easy

September can be a very fast-paced month. Summer holidays are over. Our activities are back in full swing, and our days can quickly become crammed with back to back responsibilities. Slowing down, even a little, can be a wonderful way to bring a touch of presence to our busy schedules. We’re not suggesting hanging around in a tree all day, like the sloth in the picture above. But we can take a few seconds, here and there, to consciously s l o w down, even on our busiest days.

Hit the PAUSE Button

We did a little musing here at Still Sitting and came up with a few quick ways to hit the pause button.  Most of these ideas take just a few seconds. Give a few a try and let us know what you think. We found that these can help create a little pocket of space, even in the middle of a crazy jam-packed day.

  1. Breathe. This is a big one. You don’t need to know anything here, or learn a new technique. Just simply take a conscious breath. Be aware that you are breathing and feel your chest rise and fall. You can do this just once, or as many times as you think of it, throughout the day.
  2. Enjoy traffic. Sitting in traffic is a frustrating part of the day for many of us. Often we get more and more annoyed as we look for ways to get ahead and move faster. For a few moments, stop rushing, breathe, look around. Listening to some great music or a good book may help you enjoy a little time in the car.
  3. Slow your stroll. If you find yourself rushing from place to place, try taking a few steps at a leisurely pace. See if you notice anything new around you.  Feel your feet on the ground and the breeze on your face.
  4. Look outside. Is there a tree? The sky? A squirrel? Just notice your natural surroundings for a moment. This is an especially great practice if you spend a lot of time staring at a screen. Look up, often. Let your eyes find something beautiful to rest on for a few seconds.
  5. Unplug. Turn off your phone for a few minutes when you’re with a friend or family member. Practice just being present with them.
  6. Do one thing. For a minute or two, try just doing one thing at a time. See where your mind will wander.

There are so many small ways to slow down and create a feeling of space in your day, even with small actions like these. Leave us a comment below and tell us what helps you slow down.
“Smile, breath, and go slowly.”  ~ Thich Nhat Hanh

The Sleepy Sit: Staying Awake While Meditating

meditate with tea

Staying Awake While Meditating

When we lived in a Zen Center we started the day at 4 a.m. with a pucker-inducing dose of hot lemon tea, followed by almost an hour of chanting. Both tea and chanting helped keep everyone awake while meditating.
Monks and nuns of all types get up before dawn to meditate and pray. And for millennia they have come up with ways to work with drowsiness and stay awake while sitting for long periods of time.
The truth is, when you’re doing a lot of meditation, you don’t seem to need as much sleep. Those of you who have done a multi-day retreat know that the early wake up becomes easier after a few days. That’s in large part because you’re spending your days in meditation. However, that doesn’t mean there won’t be times when you’ll struggle to stay awake or even doze off completely.
Caffeine has been used to help meditators for a very long time. Bodhidharma, the 5th century monk, is credited with the first instance of green tea growing in China.

Bodhidharma

Bodhidharma

Bodhidharma

Bodhidharma is thought to have brought Zen to China in the 5th or 6th century. For nine years he sat, meditating, near a cave. It is said that one time he fell asleep while sitting and became so fed up with his sleepiness that he cut off his eyelids to prevent himself from falling asleep. He threw his eyelids on the ground outside the cave and this is where the first green tea plants sprung up. To this day Bodhidharma is the patron saint of tea in Japan.

Tips to Help Staying Awake While Meditating

Over the years, we’ve noticed a few ways to help with drowsiness while sitting in meditation.
1. Caffeine can be helpful in moderation. Yet, it can also send your thinking mind go off to the races, so we recommend using it with care while sitting.
2. Another thing to watch for is the temperature of the room – there’s a reason Zen halls are kept cool. It may help to open a window and let in some fresh air.
3. A short walk (kinhin) outside can be refreshing and provide energy to come back to the cushion.
4. A quick nap!
We feel that sometimes it’s important to work against sleep, yet sometimes you have to give a little ground. Dozing a little may make it a lot easier to come back strong.  Sometimes a sleepy sit makes way for a wakeful one.
There are a lot of ways to work with drowsiness – we hope you find your way to a clear and awake state of mind.

The mind is the root from which all things grow if you can understand the mind, everything else is included.

                                   ~ Bodhidharma

A Buddha is someone who finds freedom in good fortune and bad.

                                  ~ Bodhidharma

Create Your Meditation Space

meditation space with meditation zafus, zabutons and dog

A Longtime Customer’s Meditation Space (and sweet dog)

To sit still you need at minimum a couple of things: time and space. We recommend you take time for your meditation practice, and also that you think a little about the space. Do you have a dedicated meditation space? A little sanctuary you can retire to when you need it? How about a clear corner of your bedroom floor? We’ve put together a few ideas to help you create your meditation space.

Your Meditation Space

Some of you may have a dedicated room or part of a room for your meditation spot. Or maybe you pull the zabuton and zafu from a closet to create a temporary sanctuary. The nice thing about a zabuton is that it defines a kind of sacred space for the moment, and cues you to settle down for the next few minutes. This is true whether you have it sitting out all the time or bring it out just when you meditate.
Many people enjoy incorporating an altar or some symbolic statues or other meaningful items in their meditation space. This could be as simple as a small Buddha statue or precious stone or as elaborate as a large altar or framed image.
There are other ways to create a meditation space by using incense, lighting a candle or ringing a bell to signify and sort of announce the intention of the space.

Where to Sit

The good news is you can make any space work. When sitting it does help to have a fairly clean place. There’s a reason Zen halls are kept clean.  It’s also helpful to have it relatively quiet, especially when it comes to human voices. Other noise, be it birds or traffic, can more easily become part of your meditation. Whatever your situation, we urge you not to let your available space stop you.

Tips to Enhance your Meditation Space:

  • Keep your meditation area as clean and clear of clutter as you can. This is true whether it is a dedicated room or a temporary spot on the floor.
  • If you are storing your cushions and creating a temporary space, keep your zabuton and zafu in an easy to access place.
  • Choose a quiet space, away from people and possible distraction. If noise is a problem for you, try a sound machine, or app on your phone to help mask outside voices. Find some kind of white noise you find soothing and put it on low.
  • Create a ritual to mark the meditation time and space, such as lighting a candle or incense. This can help connect you to the space and create a transition between meditation and daily life.
  • If you can create a dedicated space for meditation, definitely do so. An entire room is, of course, wonderful. And we have found that even a corner or small part of a room can also work very well. An altar or small table for your incense and bell is great to have.
  • If you do not have a dedicated space, still keep that area clear when not in use. This way it will not a big chore to bring out your cushions and transform your space.

Happy Sitting!

Samue Clothing

samue potterySamue is the traditional clothing worn during daily work by Japanese Buddhist monks. Samu refers to daily work that is done with mindfulness. This can include any work, such as gardening, cleaning or daily chores.
Samue Clothing
The pieces are typically made from cotton or linen in dark colors, such as brown or navy. The style is unisex with a kimono style jacket and loose fitting pants often with elastic or ties at the waist and ankles. Often there are large pockets in the jackets which can be used for small tools or other useful items.
Over the years, samue have
remained much the same, but many have adopted this style of clothing for use well beyond the Buddhist temple.Samue Pants Chickens
Samue clothing have long been worn as home-wear in Japan and elsewhere. Still as useful for daily work, today samue are also frequently worn as meditation clothing,  during meditation retreats or whenever comfort is a priority. Lately we’ve been hearing from more customers who are looking for samue jackets and pants. meditation samueNothing beats the comfort of loose fitting clothing, especially if you will be sitting for some time.
Still Sitting Samue Clothing
Our traditional samue jackets are made from a thick lush cotton, and will last for many years. We recently started also making lighter weight cotton samue jackets and pants. These are perfect for summer or warmer climates or anytime a lighter weight is preferable. You can take a look at our samue options here.
We love hearing from customers about how they are using samue clothing in their meditation practice or daily work. Let us know about your experience with samue clothing.
 

Introducing our New Mini Zafu

Mini Zafu stack
When we started Still Sitting 14 years ago, our round zafu was the first cushion we designed. We spent a long time perfecting our zafu construction, choosing fabrics, and finding suppliers that met our needs for the highest quality materials and business practices.
Our traditional round zafu has continued to be our most popular item over the years. We later added our Travel Zafu and our Junior Zafu. The Junior Zafu is a small version of our traditional round zafu, perfect for younger kids. Our Travel Zafu is a favorite because it takes up very little space in a suitcase or backpack. The filler is a beach ball, which requires only blowing up to be ready for use.
Lately we had begun imagining a new, smaller zafu: one that could be easily thrown in a backpack or bag and used on the go.

Meet our New Mini Zafu


This is our smallest, most portable zafu yet. It is under 3 lbs and is exactly the zafu we envisioned, perfect for throwing in your bag and sitting anywhere. We love the rectangular shape, which gives it a modern look, and also makes it easy to store, or stack.
We tested several sizes and designs before we settled on  14″ x 9″ and about 4″ high. We found this to be an ideal sitting size. We were looking for a size that provided enough room to sit, while still maintaining the small size for portability.
Like our others, this zafu is very versatile. It works well in the flat position and on it’s side. For those who prefer a little higher sit, on the side might be perfect.
We are pleased to offer our Mini Zafu in time for Spring. We think it could be a great option for sitting outside as the weather starts to get warmer. So far, the customer feedback has been fantastic. We’d love to know what you think and where you might take this mini zafu.

A Few Common Questions about Meditation

meditation questions
Recently we were asked to answer a few common questions on meditation for a local yoga conference. Many people are first introduced to meditation through yoga, so we took a few minutes in between making cushions to consider the questions. Below you will find the questions and our responses.

Four Questions About Meditation

1. Why is it important to have a regular time and space for a meditation practice?
When you have a regular time and space, it is simply easier to do it and not miss it.  Our lives are so busy that it is all too easy to skip meditation. With a regular place and a regular time, there is a better chance that we will actually meditate.
With a regular space and time, it becomes a part of our lives in a different way than if it’s irregular. It becomes woven into the fabric of our lives and it becomes a habit.
When we meditate regularly and not just when we feel like it, we get the opportunity to work with all of ourselves. When we meditate when we are sad, angry or distracted, all of it, we have a chance to work with our whole selves. Of course this can be frustrating, but this is part of the practice
2. Do I need to be spiritual or religious in some way in order to meditate?  Can I meditate if I am?
No, you do not have to be either. Yet, for some people meditation is a part of their spiritual or religious life. This is not required. Meditation in itself can help people in many ways. One example is in the field of mindfulness stress-reduction. Another is in the work of newscaster Dan Harris, who promotes meditation practice in a non-spiritual or religious way through his 10% Happier Meditations.
That said, meditation and silent prayer are part of just about every religious tradition in the world.
3. Is it normal to have a wandering mind, or unpleasant feelings come to the surface?
Yes! We human beings are special because we have learned to think and this has given us wonderful benefits. The only trouble is that we haven’t yet learned to stop thinking. And so it is natural that we will have a wandering mind at first.
Part of meditation is simply watching that wandering mind, allowing it, but also trying not to follow it unconsciously.
When we meditate, our minds start to slow down. Little by little and over time we feel less of a compulsion to follow wherever our mind leads.
In terms of unpleasant feelings, this is quite normal as well. Sometimes when we get still, feelings that we have long buried or covered up in the course of our busy lives, may rise to the surface. It can be helpful to know that this will most likely happen. Longer meditation retreats can be challenging for this reason. We open ourselves up to anything to come. Yet, by doing this, we have a chance to accept the difficult or broken aspects of ourselves and transform them into compassion.
4. How do I select a style that suits me and my stage of life best and most effectively? 
I think we learn what works for us by trying. There is not a one-size-fits-all answer to this question. See what you are drawn to and try. There is no wrong place to start. For instance, you may want to try a meditation app or a guided meditation. There are many of these available.
At some point, I believe it is important to find a group, a congregation or a sangha. This social, communal aspect can be an essential support to an ongoing meditation practice.
For more meditation tips from our blog, see these: Meditation Foundation, Choosing Cushions, Starting New Practice, or LovingKindness Meditation.

The Resonant Gift of Rin Bells

rin bells in group as gift

A Still Sitting customer has been sharing our rin bells with his close circle of friends for years. He enjoys the connection that comes from each friend experiencing the resonance from the same bell. This past year he had the idea of creating a similar gift for his mother and her friends. His mom has Alzheimer’s and is no longer able to socialize with her close group of friends.

“Mom’s friends aren’t Buddhist…not even close. (Some of them are, in fact (now) cloistered Catholic nuns.) But how cool might it be for them to each have a rin? A rin that [my mom] has rung. A rin that [my mom] has heard. A rin, that when rung on their end, might just provide some of the resonance that I and my little circle of rin-lets have each experienced.”

He ordered 12 small rin bells as gifts for his mother and her close friends. He had them engraved in honor of his mother and included a card with a picture of his mother ringing the group of bells.

In his card he wrote,

“I thought, perhaps, even though she is no longer able to reach out to you, she might still enjoy a bit of resonance, (or connection..such that it is) in knowing that the sound you hear, is the very same sound she also hears. And on the occasions when you ring your rin, there is a *very good* chance that she has recently heard (as well as felt) the resonance of hers as well! :-)”

We are so inspired by this story. It is always heartening to hear our customers’ stories and learn how our meditation supplies are incorporated into real lives.
A bell or gong can be a beautiful way to mark time in our meditation practices. It can help us to settle into our practice as well as transition out. Have a listen to our rin bell in the video below.

We look forward to hearing how you use bells in your meditation practice or in your life in general.