Category: Sitting Tips

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 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!

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 Benefits of Breathing Deeply

Big Belly BuddhaBreathe in, breathe out. You can’t help it of course, but you can bring consciousness to it -– and that in turn changes your breathing.  Breathing is one of the few activities that we do unconsciously but that we can affect consciously. Meditation can change the quality of our breathing, and breathing deeply can change the way we walk through life.

Breathing Deeply in Meditation

We generally recommend you breathe naturally in meditation. When meditating you may notice your breathing drop, from your chest to your belly. We suggest you notice this, and encourage it. By breathing from your belly you use the lowest part of your lungs, where the highest density of blood vessels live, bringing the most oxygen to your cells. Sitting up straight with good posture is helpful for this as well.

The Benefits of Breathing Deeply

When we breathe deeply, the hormones that create our fight or flight response naturally decrease, and our relaxation response (also called the parasympathetic response) eases in.
And there’s more. When you spend time breathing more deeply, you increase what doctors call your heart rate variability. This is the difference between your heart rate when inhaling and exhaling. In stress mode this variability goes down. Children naturally have high variability, but this drops off as we get older. Studies have shown that high heart rate variability is very good for your health. Heart attacks, anxiety, difficulty sleeping all decrease, as well as overall mortality rates. We have a doctor friend who uses meditation and biofeedback to effectively increase this variability to benefit her patients.
Just another reason to use our cushions regularly. Are you still breathing? We hope so.
You may be interested in our other sitting tips on posture, setting up your foundation and starting a new practice.

Sitting Up Straight

Sitting up Straight
We feel that it’s well worth paying attention to your posture during meditation. Meditation is more than just a mind exercise; it’s a mind-body exercise. Once you have a strong foundation, the next step is to sit up straight. Sitting up straight and relaxed allows your body to open to the world around it. Sitting up straight also helps you breathe deeply, which allows you to relax. Regularly opening like this can help us all move more fluidly through life.

Tips for Sitting up Straight

To sit up straight, sit on the front half of your zafu or cushion. This will help tilt your pelvis forward, allowing your torso to be straight and strong. There are two methods we often use to help maintain a straight, yet relaxed sitting posture. These could be called the String Method and the Sternum Method.

The String Method

With the String Method, imagine a string coming from the top of your head, pulling you straight up as you sit. With this imaginary string holding you up, you can then let the rest of your body relax. Check in with your body and consciously relax each part, especially the shoulders. Many of us have a tendency to hold tension in our shoulders. Try to let your belly, your back and your shoulders all relax.

The Sternum Method

The Sternum Method is another way to work towards a relaxed and straight sitting posture. To do this, start by breathing in and out naturally, and noticing how your rib cage rises and falls with your breath. You will notice that on the in-breaths, your sternum (the front and center of your rib cage) is slightly raised. Keep your chest in this same place as you exhale so that your sternum and chest remain slightly raised and energized. This will allow your shoulders, back, and belly to relax since your chest is carrying the load.

Relaxed Shoulders

Many of us have a tendency to pull ourselves up by the shoulders. This leads to a rigid posture and sore neck and shoulders. If you hold yourself up with your string or sternum, your shoulders can relax. If your shoulders get stiff, one trick is to pull them way up, level to your ears, hold them there for a few seconds, then let them drop naturally down around a strong sternum.
When sitting, your head should be relatively straight. Not tipped forward. The whole posture should feel open, and having your head straight helps you feel open rather than closed.
You may find our “How to Meditate” video helpful with this. Also see this post about setting up your meditation foundation.
As always, we love hearing how your sitting is going. Feel free to use the comments below to be in touch.