Category: Community

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!

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

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

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.

The Gift of Lovingkindness Meditation

Still Sitting Meditation SupplyLovingkindness meditation is a way of offering friendly kindness to yourself, to others or to the world.
Lovingkindness is based on Buddhist teachings that emphasize compassion, love and kindness. This is also be referred to as Metta meditation. In Lovingkindness meditation, there are phrases to repeat to yourself throughout the meditation.  The phrases below are taken from Real Happiness: The Power of Meditation by meditation teacher, Sharon Salzberg. It is a book that we often recommend for those looking to start or restart a meditation practice. For our review of this book, please take a look at this post.

How to Practice Lovingkindness Meditation

In this practice, phrases are repeated to oneself. Depending on which resource you follow, these may vary somewhat, but the general feeling is the same. The phrases are intended to ground you in offering feelings of love, compassion and kindness.

May I be safe, may I be happy, may I be healthy, may I live with ease.

Or if you are focusing on someone else:

May you be safe, may you be happy, may you be healthy, may you live with ease.

You can start by setting a timer for 10 – 20 minutes, sitting comfortably, with a straight spine, and silently repeating the phrases to yourself at a relaxed pace. If you are short on time, start with just 5 minutes. In lovingkindness meditation the repetition of the phrases is the anchor, rather than the breath.

Resources for Lovingkindness Meditation

Many meditation teachers and authors have guided meditations available online to either guide you or provide further information. Below is an audio from Sharon Salzberg to get you started. Of course, there are so many others out there, it might take a few tries to find one that resonates with you.

Here is an example of a way to use lovingkindness in your daily activities from a video project Salzberg developed called Street Lovingkindness:

The above video is an example of how once we are fluent in the phrases and feelings to evoke, even sitting still is not required. Whether sitting on your cushion at home or standing in line at the grocery store, offering lovingkindness to yourself and those around you can be a powerful practice.

Two New Products: Folding Zabuton & Rinzai Rakusu Kit

We are so excited about our latest new products. They have both been over a year in the making and it is such a joy to see them finally ready and on the website.

Our Folding Zabuton

The folding zabuton was inspired by the foam zabutons we used in Norway. These were very comfortable and easy to store. We then looked into how to make them even easier to carry and store and our folding zabuton was born. This is our first foam cushion and folds neatly in half. It is easily stored and even easier to carry around. This zabuton is intended to go with you on retreat or to create a spontaneous meditation space anywhere. We also find it to be very comfortable for such a thin cushion.

img_9551-copyRinzai Rakusu Kit

Our other new product is a response to requests we’ve gotten over the years. One of our popular custom items is the rakusu. A rakusu is a small version of the Buddha’s original robe. In some Buddhist traditions, it is customary to sew your own rakusu. This can be a daunting task without proper instruction and assistance. Our expert rakusu maker and seamstress has created and perfected a complete kit. It comes with a thorough instruction booklet that includes diagrams and step by step instructions, as well as all the fabric pieces already cut out. It even comes with over the phone support, should you have any questions along the way. Rakusu Kit

Making a rakusu is no simple task and it is our hope that this kit will allow more people to make their own. This post on the making of a rakusu is a great illustration of the process.

In the next month we will announce another new product: Black samue jackets and pants!

Prison Sangha at Washington State Reformatory

A most gratifying aspect of our work at Still Sitting is creating products that serve people in meditation. We are honored to provide a comfortable seat to anyone engaged in this challenging, quieting work.
We recently had the pleasure of speaking with a community leader who uses our cushions for a very special purpose. Amy Darling is a Seattle-based acupuncturist, herbalist, and mindfulness teacher. Darling, who has been practicing meditation for 20 years, has spent the past 9 years traveling to the Washington State Reformatory (WSR) in Monroe, where she leads a group of prisoners in meditation each month. Darling is one of several Buddhist volunteers who support inmates at WSR.
The sangha is a group of men whose experience with Buddhism is mixed—some grew up with it in the home, others first encountered it as adults. The group meets either inside the WSR chapel or, on dry days, in the garden just outside. The garden is surrounded by chain link fence with hurricane wire running along the top and has designated sections for various faith groups.

“There’s a Gnostic section, a section for Wiccans, for Native American groups, and we are in the center. We get the tree,” Darling says, referencing the tree that was dug up from a crack in the concrete and transplanted by an inmate decades ago.

 
prison
Twice a year, the group conducts all day sesshin in an event known as Buddhafest.
“I hungered to offer the guys a taste of monastic practice in prison, some experience of the training I do at Tahoma One Drop Zen Monastery on Whidbey Island. I wanted them to have a spacious period of silence and time. And they come and they stick it out, 12 hours on linoleum covered concrete; sitting, walking, a bit of Qi Gong to bring ease to the body, meals served right there –DOC issued baked beans and hamburgers.
We asked Darling if there’s an emotional toll to spending all these hours inside the prison.

“I’m filled with awe at the fruits of cultivating the mind that I see with the guys out there. I feel grateful to continue to share time with them. And it’s not an emotional toll, not a net negative, but a net holy cow.”

Darling says members of the prison sangha are on the same journey with meditation as anyone in the general population. She tries to meet them where they are, to bring something concrete, and to assist in cultivating awareness in ways that will be most beneficial to the individual.

“They have the same questions, answers, inquiries, confusion as anywhere—if you’re at a desk in downtown Seattle or if you’re behind bars—it’s the same for anyone starting meditation.”

For those inside, one of meditation’s benefits may be in dissipating anger.
“If they lash out either violently or with speech, they might end up with an infraction or at worst end up in isolation. This is a downward spiral, and for some, such incidences will have a strong impact on their time in prison. For many, finding tools to shift their relationship to/expression of anger is a big one.”
Darling’s own path to meditation began on a cultural immersion program in Nepal in the mid 90s. She immediately appreciated the spirit of inquiry that was folded into Buddhist teachings. When she heard the simple-yet-profound guidance to notice, when you are taking a deep breath, that you are taking a deep breath, and to notice, when you’re taking a shallow breath, that you’re taking a shallow breath, something clicked. She began practicing in the Zen Tradition a year later and has continued.
Her work with the WSR prison sangha is part of a larger devotion to helping others find solace in mediation.

“When I am more aware, I hurt myself and others less, and I believe and have witnessed that goes for all of us. I’d like to contribute peace in this world, this immediate, rather frenzied and constrained, explosively growing urban environment in which I choose to live.

“I have this vision that if we could all — the entire city of Seattle — be quiet together for just five minutes, we would cultivate peace.”

Real Happiness: May All Beings Read This Book

Discussed: Real Happiness: The Power of Meditation, by Sharon Salzberg. Workman Publishing. 208 pages. 2011.
Book Cover
Real Happiness has had a home on our bookshelf for several years now, and it’s a book we often reach for when we’re struggling to put into words the how’s and why’s of meditation. In this well-loved guide, Sharon Salzberg lays out the murky art of meditation with such simple clarity, beginners and advanced practitioners alike can find their footing again and again.
Meditation for All
One of the founders of the Insight Meditation Society, Salzberg uses her warm and wise voice to speak to anyone with interest in meditation. Real Happiness is equally welcoming to those who see meditation as part of a religious practice and those with purely secular leanings.
Salzberg shares her personal journey, letting readers in on how meditation has led to personal transformation over the decades since she first tried it out, as a young person seeking relief from a painful childhood. She also delves into the science, grounding readers in the quantitative benefits of meditation on health and behavior.
Real Happiness is technically a month-long guide to beginning meditation (though plenty can be gained from reading the book in one sitting, and reading and referencing it again and again). Salzberg opens the door through exercises on concentration, and progresses to the concepts of mindfulness and lovingkindness.
Attention
The simple-yet-profound entry point through which meditation can begin changing your life is through concentration. Salzberg writes:

Imagine reclaiming all the energy that could be available to use but isn’t because we scatter it, squandering it on endlessly regretting the past, worrying about the future, berating ourselves, blaming others, checking Facebook yet again, throwing ourselves into serial snacking, workaholism, recreational shopping, recreational drugs.

Meditation reclaims the lost art of paying attention. Concentration is a skill we all learned in grade school yet often gets lost in adult lives where multitasking is an ordinary strategy for getting through the day.
In this way, meditation runs counter to the ways we typically use our energy, and sitting down and focusing on the breath can seem haltingly difficult. But fear not, in Salzberg’s hands, we’re reminded that the effort shouldn’t be so effortful.
man meditating
“When the mind is at ease, when our hearts are calm and open and confident, we can more comfortably, naturally concentrate.” Salzberg explains that it’s not about subjecting yourself to a painful struggle. Rather, Real Happiness urges us to treat ourselves gently through each step, to skip the harsh judgments, and to simply persevere.
Mindfulness
What to do with the difficult emotions that come up during meditation, and in daily life? Mindfulness is a way of facing our emotions—noticing them and figuring out what do with them—from a place of calm acceptance.  Salzberg has a great metaphor:

Meditation is like going into an old attic room and turning on the light. In that light we see everything—the beautiful treasures we’re grateful to have unearthed; the dusty, neglected corners that inspire us to say, “I’d better clean that up”; the unfortunate relics of the past that we thought we had gotten rid of long ago. We acknowledge them all, with an open, spacious, and loving awareness…It’s never too late to turn on the light.

Mindfulness breaks through our conditioning to push aside the painful feelings and cling to the pleasant ones, and rather to face them all for what they are, as fleeting as they are, and as subject to change.
Lovingkindness
One section of the book you can read just to open your heart in the morning is the section on lovingkindness. This section is full of meditations that guide us to pay attention to ourselves and others with a sense of care. There’s a meditation for times of emotional and physical pain, and one especially for caregivers. There’s one for dealing with difficult persons, and one for quieting the inner critic.
meditating on a mountain
In the Meditation on Seeing the Good, Salzberg reminds us that sitting down to meditate is an act of lovingkindness we perform unto ourselves.

“It’s a way of befriending ourselves, of being willing to expand our awareness, of being willing to step out of some ruts and try something new.”

Real Happiness isn’t a self-help manual on how to reach enlightenment. It’s a clear, practical guide to meditation written from a place of deep experience. This is a book you’ll want to give to your mother, your best friend, your partner, and especially yourself.