I regret that it’s taken me so long to be able to write that sentence. For decades I was a Buddhist without a regular sitting meditation practice, which I long carried as a source of guilt. Forget guilt – who knew that I was missing out on such a source of joy! I needed years of repetition before I could finally internalize what so many Buddhist teachers have said and written: sitting meditation shouldn’t be painful, shouldn’t be dour, shouldn’t be a chore. As Thich Nhat Hahn says, “Sitting is an enjoyment, not hard labor for enlightenment.” Meditation should be – it is – a source of peace, strength, and joy. I have to smile when I think that for so long I clung to each precious second of sleep in the morning and now I find myself rising before the alarm in anticipation of my sitting meditation. I bow in gratitude to the precious people in my life who have supported me in establishing a regular practice.
There are many excellent resources for meditation. The loving support of Sangha (a community that practices together) and an in-person teacher to provide guidance on the practice is incomparable. I also highly recommend the support of one other person in your life who also commits to sitting on a daily basis. Thank you, Mom! Regardless of whether you sit together, knowing that the other person is also making meditation a priority is a tremendous support. Delighting in the other person’s meditation is an excellent practice of sympathetic joy. I find it helpful to remember that my meditation benefits both myself and others; this is practice in generating bodhicitta, the mind of enlightenment to benefit all sentient beings. As Thầy says in Awakening of the Heart: Essential Buddhist Sutras and Commentaries, “Meditation is not an escape. It is the courage to look at reality with mindfulness and concentration. Our world needs wisdom and insight.”
There are some wonderful free online resources. I really benefited from participating in the online Tricycle retreat “Working and Playing with the Breath”, led by the American Theravadan monk Thanissaro Bhikkhu. The first recorded retreat teaching is accessible to all and Thanissaro Bhikku makes his excellent meditation guide With Each & Every Breath available for free here (search for “With Each”). It is a clearly written and beautifully formatted book, ready for any e-reader or computer. His excellent 40-minuted guided meditation on following the breath is also available as a free audio file at the bottom of this page (I recommend the file called “Breath Meditation with Instructions for Leaving Meditation (40 minutes)”). I listened to that several times until I internalized the instructions so that I can now “play” them mentally at the start of each meditation period. Following the breath in sitting meditation translates very naturally to following the breath in walking meditation, a topic that Thanissaro Bhikkhu covers in his book.
For myself, a key component in finding the joy in meditation has been realizing that the breath energy is more than just the air moving from my nose to my lungs and back again. Following the breath can be very interesting – and interesting rewards the brain for its attentiveness, which inspires continuation of the practice. As the practice continues, peacefulness and contentment grow. Once I realized that meditation was bringing me joy, I had much less difficulty in “finding time” to meditate, something that had always been an issue before. To think of it in terms of an analogy Thanissaro Bhikkhu uses, my mind is composed of a committee and some committee members are more skillful than others. When I reward the skillful committee members, I strengthen their position and clout on my mental committee and thus become more naturally skillful.
The benefits of sitting meditation are strengthened with mindfulness practice, which allows me to touch that place of joy wherever I am throughout the day. Thich Nhat Hahn has written so many books about mindfulness practice that it’s hard to recommend just one. A good starting place would be Peace is Every Step: the Path of Mindfulness in Everyday Life and The Miracle of Mindfulness: An Introduction to the Practice of Meditation. Right now, I am reading Thầy’s book Awakening of the Heart: Essential Buddhist Sutras and Commentaries, the first part of which is the Sutra on the Full Awareness of Breathing, perfectly suited for establishing a meditation and mindfulness practice. In his commentary, Thầy writes “To be mindful means to be here, fully present, with body and mind united, not in a state of dispersion… Mindfulness makes it possible for us to understand, to accept, to love, and to relieve suffering.” Thầy’s commentary Seven Ways to Practice specifically addresses the feeling of joy in meditation, which promotes concentration and clarity, and discuss how to deepen that joy into the more stable feeling of happiness.
How wonderful it is to know that my own intentional actions can bring peace and clarity to my mental attitudes, the lens through which I view my entire experience in this life. How wonderful it is to feel that in establishing a regular meditation practice, I am nourishing not just myself but also my family and this world full of sentient beings.
It could happen at any time, tornado,
earthquake, Armageddon. It could happen.
Or sunshine, love, salvation.
It could, you know. That’s why we wake
and look out – no guarantees
in this life.
But some bonuses, like morning,
like right now, like noon,
– William Stafford, The Way It Is