I teach a meditation class at a busy fitness centre. The room is bright, well-equipped with blocks and cushions, and located immediately next to the area designated for weight-lifting. As we practice, the room sometimes vibrates with the impact of weights hitting the floor. The steady beat of pop music and the sounds of metal against metal filter through the frosted glass panes that separate the meditators from the weight-lifters.
And, surprise, I think this is fine.
When we practice meditation, we’re contacting an inner quiet. This inner quiet exists independently of what’s happening around us. Beware of techniques that require external conditions to be “just so”. A practice that only works in ideal conditions is a practice that will fail you when you most need it.
An analogy: When my son was four years old I put him in swimming lessons. He didn’t like getting water in his eyes and asked for swimming goggles, which I refused. It was crucial to me that he learn to swim without goggles first. I was concerned that the goggles would act as a crutch and become a necessary condition for him to be able to swim. Should he ever fall in the water and not be wearing his goggles, I worried that he wouldn’t be able to swim to safety.
More to the point: Like many people around the world, I followed the news story of the Thai soccer team who spent 17 days trapped in a cave last July. In the aftermath of their incredible rescue, one of the details that emerged was that the soccer coach, a former monk, taught the boys to meditate to keep them calm. Cold, hungry, and fearful are not the ideal conditions for meditation, but they managed to practice anyway. Imagine if the coach had said “If only I had my mala beads, I could teach you all to meditate.”
When it comes to meditation, I think there’s some confusion between must-haves and nice-to-haves. Here’s how I see it:
A bit of time
A few trustworthy instructions
A cushion, bench, or chair to help you sit comfortably
A timer with a pleasant-sounding alarm
A quiet space
A pain-free body
A good night’s sleep
I believe you only need two things to practice meditation: time and instructions. If you want to encourage a regular practice, investing in a decent cushion and a timer that you can set and forget can help. But if your practice is waiting for the day when you aren’t tired, your knees feel great, and your neighbours have finally finished their renos…well, you might never sit down.
Like a high performance athlete, I believe it’s essential to train in real conditions. It’s precisely when I’m tired, hurting, and surrounded by chaos that I most need to contact my inner stillness. My favourite place to meditate is in waiting rooms, the busier the better. I love to close my eyes and centre myself right in the middle of phones ringing, babies crying, doors opening and closing. If I can find quiet and centeredness there, I can just as easily find it sitting next to a weight-lifting room or in the sacred space of a temple or monastery.
Neither here nor there:
Finally, meditation, like yoga, has been heavily commodified. There are all kinds of meditation accessories you can buy: special clothing, jewelry, scents, candles, music, affirmation cards, and other trinkets. These are completely unnecessary. Likewise, if you buy into popular images of meditation, you might be persuaded to believe that you need to meditate on a mountain top, or at the end of a weathered dock over-looking a misty lake at sunrise. Don’t be fooled: a little time and a few reliable instructions are all you need to begin.
Maybe you have all you need at this very moment.
Image © 2018 Shamit Tushakiran