Sit quietly. That’s all. Just sit quietly for a few minutes. “Easier said than done,” you say. Yes, you’re right. It IS easier said than done. I first tried to do it – meditation, that is – when I was a lot younger. Back then I had, or should have had, not a care in the world. But even then it was easier said than done. Today, with the challenges brought by COVID-19, it can be really challenging. So I have included links at the end to some things that I hope you will find helpful and enjoyable.
Staying essentially confined at home, we find the usual outlets for our normal energies are denied us, and those we live with are suffering from this same deprivation. When we do go out, for essential needs only, we are still confined; we can’t express even a neighborly smile through a mask, and might be afraid even to touch the world we live in. Lost income while bills and expenses go on and continue to mount. Who could possibly sit still and be anything other than miserable in the midst of this?
But it CAN be done, and it is well worth doing: not to become “enlightened” or to find “nirvana,” necessarily; but just to find a few moments of peace and rest for your tired and troubled soul. Every one of those few moments can pay dividends. You may have heard of the science that has shown this to be true, so I won’t go into that – at least not today. These are just a few thoughts and resources from my own experience that have helped me. I hope you will find them useful.
Think back on recent days. What has your own daily pattern been like? Each of our lives is different, but we are creatures of habit, and we do have routines, even in times like these. You are looking for where there might be just a few minutes in any part of your recent days when you had just a moment. It may have been a time when you realized even more clearly the unpleasantness (or worse) of your current situation. Surprising as it may sound, that time is your target.
You might think of those hours or minutes at the end of the day when you were too tired to do anything other than ruminate on that day; or perhaps there was a time when those you live with were, unaccountably, quiet for a few minutes. Or maybe when you first awakened you had a few minutes before you made that first cup of coffee; you know, when you thought you were too groggy really to think? Chances are, these brief interludes will happen again today, and tomorrow, and…
The second step is to set your intention. You know, just like you have done at the beginning of your yoga practice. This time you are simply setting the intention to fill those moments a little better by using them for a brief meditation.
But what will you actually do when your next window of a “few minutes” arrives?
Well… now, before it arrives, flesh out that intention with a little preparation. For a long time my place to “sit quietly for just a few minutes” was the narrow space on the floor between my bed and the closet beside it. Yours might be sitting at your breakfast table, or…
You will want to be comfortable, but not to the point of sleep, and you don’t want to be distracted by an excess of physical stress if possible.
My first practice was, and is, simply to follow my breath, each inhale and each exhale, while my eyes are softened, but with a bit of awareness of an object in my near field of vision. Doing this, you will find that your “stillness” will quickly become occupied by all those thoughts that you hoped for release from. Don’t worry about that. It’s normal. But you will find that you can still come back to noticing your next inhale, and the exhale that follows. Do that. And then do it again.
Your body will bring itself into a state of relative equanimity. This is key to everything that follows. It will open doors that you did not even know were there. But it’s not magic. It’s just the natural mechanism of the body that you are learning to use and like anything you do, the more you do it the better you get at it. You might not actually feel the equanimity the first time, or even the first few times that you “sit for a few minutes” but it can still be working at a deeper level. You will feel it. Just keep at it.
But you need more than just my word for it. Let me share with you some teachers and resources that I have found helpful and enjoyable. Again, each of us is different. There are many schools and traditions. I have benefited more from some than from others but I found these ones especially helpful.
Sharon Salzberg’s book “Real Happiness”
“There is no better person to show a beginner how to harness the power of meditation than Sharon Salzberg, one of the world’s foremost meditation teachers and spiritual authors. Cofounder of the Insight Meditation Society, author of Loving kindness, Faith, and other books, Ms. Salzberg distills 30 years of teaching meditation into a 28-day program that will change lives. It is not about Buddhism, it’s not esoteric – it is closer to an exercise, like running or riding a bike. From the basics of posture, breathing, and the daily schedule to the finer points of calming the mind, distraction, dealing with specific problem areas (pain in the legs? falling asleep?) to the larger issues of compassion and awareness, Real Happiness is a complete guide. It explains how meditation works; why a daily meditation practice results in more resiliency, creativity, peace, clarity, and balance; and gives twelve meditation practices, including mindfulness meditation and walking meditation. An extensive selection of FAQs cover the most frequent concerns of beginners who meditate – “Is meditation selfish?” “How do I know if I’m doing it right?” “Can I use meditation to manage weight?” ”
“Thousands of years prove it, and Western science backs it: Meditation sharpens focus. Meditation lowers blood pressure, relieves chronic pain, reduces stress. Meditation helps us experience greater calm. Meditation connects us to our inner-most feelings and challenges our habits of self-judgment. Meditation helps protect the brain against aging and improves our capacity for learning new things. Meditation opens the door to real and accessible happiness.”
My first formal training in meditation was a key part of my Yoga training. Tias Little is an amazing teacher; more than that, he is an amazing soul. Here are just a couple of opportunities to encounter his teaching.
This training might be thought of as more advanced, since it is introduced by a 10-day silent retreat. While that is a profound experience that I highly recommend; this book is chock full of wisdom and can be read to your great benefit at any time.
“A full-length study of the teaching of S. N. Goenka, prepared under his guidance and with his approval. Useful for meditators and non-meditators alike. This was the first book to appear in English that accurately describes the practice of Vipassana at length for the general reader. It includes stories by Goenkaji as well as answers to students’ questions that convey a vivid sense of his teaching.”
This may be the whole book: (I have not listened through all of this link)
Sam Harris, Neuroscientist, Meditator
I encountered Sam Harris’s work as a neuroscientist long before I knew of his meditation practice and studies. His book Waking Up benefits from his scientific background, not to mention his razor-sharp intellect.
Sam’s Waking Up Course comes online and in an app. It includes dozens of short daily meditations. The first ten days are a course in meditation intended for beginners. In addition to meditations there are also lessons on many aspects of practice. It is a truly valuable collection. The course is available by subscription. But note: Sam wants this to be available to all who need it. He frankly says you can get it for free if you can’t afford it. I know this is true because when I was unable to continue my subscription on a paid basis, an email about my situation was all that was needed to reinstate me. I truly value this and use it daily.