In the Zen tradition, our practice is meditation. Zazen, to be specific. Every day we head to our cushions and sit; black straight, head erect, eyes open and looking ahead and down at a 45-degree angle, in silence, for 20-30 minutes. We do this at least once, and preferably twice a day. We light a candle. We light some incense, we bow, we sit. We might chant a little. We bow, extinguish the candle, and go on with our daily life.
It all sounds rather mundane. In a way it is. There’s a rhythm to meditation practice. A peacefulness, a centering…and then we hear it. “It” could be the television in the next room, a siren, our children squabbling, our dog barking or our cat wandering in meowing and rubbing up against us. Poof! Our “zen” is gone. We get irritated and annoyed. We feel frustrated, and perhaps a little defeated. At least, that’s how I felt when I first started my meditation practice. It’s what many people have described to me over the years as their reasons for not being able to meditate. “My kids (partner, pets) won’t let me meditate.” “I get too distracted by the noise.” “I can’t meditate in silence - it’s too distracting.” Do any of these sound like you? If so, you are not alone! There’s nothing “wrong” with you. Many, many of us sat - and currently sit with distractions.
To those of you out there who think (or have been told) that meditation might be good for you, but you’re struggling with distractions and frustration because of distraction. I hear you. Once upon a time I struggled too. If I’m honest, sometimes I still do. We all do. Working within the struggle, letting go of the struggle, is a lot of what this practice is about. Thank goodness it’s called “practice!” So, how do we keep practicing, keep coming back to meditation amidst the distractions? I’ve asked fellow practitioners over at our Facebook group, and together we came up with a short list of things that might help.
Start Slow - Trying to sit for 20-30 minutes when beginning a meditation practice is really difficult. Try starting with 5 minutes. Find a quiet place in your home. You don’t need a whole room dedicated as a meditation space,a quiet nook in a bedroom will do just fine. And if you can’t sit on a cushion or a chair, you can meditate in your bed or on your sofa.
Prepare - If you have kids, a partner or roommates, make sure they know you’ll be meditating for X amount of time. Make sure the kids have something to do. I’ll talk about this again below. Prepare your meditation space with your cushion or chair. You might want to add a candle and some incense, but it’s not necessary. Just having a corner of a room and a chair or cushion is enough. Put your phone on silent - and don’t forget to have some water handy!
Set A Timer - It’s as easy as checking your watch or setting a timer. There are fancy meditation timer apps such as Enso or Insight that have lovely bell sounds and other bells and whistles, but they aren’t really necessary.
Now you’re ready to sit down and start meditating. You sit down, set your timer, get into a comfortable meditation position and begin. And then the dog starts barking, the kids come in or the cat is rubbing up against you. Now what?
Of all these, as a beginning meditation practitioner I found kids to be the easiest distraction to handle. When they were infants, I sat when they went down for a nap. As they reached toddler and school-age, it became more challenging. It seemed I could get them all settled with their favorite movie or TV show, or with coloring or puzzles, but soon into my meditation time, there they were, asking if I was done yet. My solution was to buy a couple of throw pillows, and fill a basket with quiet toys: puzzles, books, coloring and drawing pads. Then, I invited my kids to sit with me. That worked pretty well. On the days it didn’t, I sat at a different time, or for shorter lengths of time.
The dogs and cats wandered in and out. Making sure your canine friend has had a good walk or time outside just before you start your sitting practice is helpful. I had a Boxer dog who would curl up directly behind me. If they needed to go out during my sitting time,(and I tried to take care of this before-hand) I just got up and let them out. When they came back in, I resumed my practice. No. Big. Deal. In the words of a Zen teacher, “Just do what’s in front of you to do.”
Outside noises can also distract. Cars, trucks, construction noises, people talking…loudly - all these can seem to distract, interrupt and pull us away from practice at times. With all distractions, remember what practice is. Practice is dealing with life as it is in the moment without (over the top) reaction. Of course we notice the noise. We can ask ourselves in the moment of distraction, “Do I need to take care of this right now?” If yes, go do just that, and then come back to the cushion. If no, gently return to your practice. Some people readjust their posture or take a sip of water. Some people come back their breath, perhaps counting, perhaps paying attention to each in- breath and out- breath.
Our own thoughts are a distraction too. There have been times when, during practice, I find myself planning dinner, making my grocery list or ruminating over something which I (probably) have no control over whatsoever. Even though this post isn’t about what to do about all the thinking we do whilst on the cushion, it might be a good idea to address it just a bit, here. Here's the thing; we think. As long as we are conscious we are thinking. It’s what we do with those thoughts whilst we are on the cushion that is the practice. What we don’t do is bolt. What we can be sure of is the thought we are thinking will pass.
A friend of mine who lives in New York City says he likens his thoughts to people-watching in Central Park. He will sometimes sit on a bench in the park with his coffee and just relax as people walk by. He says that for the brief moment that people are in front of you, you notice, notice the scarf they are wearing, or their shoes. You might notice their dog. You might wonder about them, or hear a bit of a conversation. And then, they are gone. They have passed the bench and are out of sight. That’s how our thoughts can be on the cushion. We just notice the thought, without judging it, and let it pass. Another one floats into view, and passes. And so on and so on. No. Big. Deal.
We make it a Big Deal. We make excuses and let them become roadblocks. We have this idea in our head about how meditation is supposed to be. When the ideal doesn’t meet reality, we want to give up. But, the key to meditation practice, or anything you want to do, is to stick to it. Make an appointment with yourself, and keep showing up. When you want to get up, sit for one more breath. Just one. Little by little over time, change happens. The distractions don’t distract so much anymore. We are able to sit with ourselves for 20-30 minutes and not get antsy (most of the time). We find that our reactions to the stuff life sometimes throws at us are less reactive. We realize that (the practice of) Zen IS life.
Most people who commented in our Facebook Group said they find sitting with a group helpful, whether at a physical Zen center, or online. There’s something about committing to sit, showing up, and sitting in the company of others that fosters camaraderie and growth. At Rising Lotus Sangha we offer sitting groups three times a week (with more being added in the fall). The groups are small, friendly and accepting. Many people find sitting with an online group less overwhelming and more accessible. Check out the website or our app for our sitting schedule.
The bottom line is that there will always be distractions. There will always be something to potentially keep us from our cushions, or keep us from staying on our cushions. What we do with those challenges, is what our practice becomes - a bunch of never-ending excuses or a growing, vibrant meditation practice. The choice is ours.