Last year I spent a long weekend at Green Gulch Farm in Northern California. Green Gulch is a lovely, green valley in the hills above Sausalito. A branch of the San Francisco Zen Center, it is both an organic farm and a retreat center for Zen students of all stripes—from householders wanting to spend a week or more practicing and working on the farm to permanent residents, some of whom have inhabited the center since its beginnings.
I have practiced Insight Meditation since 1986. One of Buddhism’s many branches, Insight Meditation is a mindfulness practice, much like Zazen. However, the form I’m accustomed to has a decidedly Western flavor. We practice traditional sitting and walking meditation, but overall, Insight Meditation fits the informal sensibilities of most Americans. There are no special protocols or rituals to learn. When you sit, you simply sit. When you walk, you simply walk.
Until I visited Green Gulch, I had not practiced with a Zen group. While at at the center, I participated in the morning and evening meditations, and found myself quite lost at the beginning and end of each session. Each sitting meditation was preceded by various practices from chanting to prostrations to being mindful of from which side one approaches his/her meditation cushion. I tried to follow along quietly, but I mostly felt at sea.
I talked with a longtime practitioner about my discomfort with the formality of the practice over dinner one evening. He said that the practices were meant to be done mindfully, and doing them helped to strengthen one’s intentions.
As I mulled this over I realized that I’ve created my own rituals for practice. These rituals, however modest, help me stay focused on my mindful intentions. Over years, my rituals have laid down physical/mental grooves that make daily meditation practice easier.
I live in a very small house, but 25 years ago, I set my meditation cushion and zabuton down in a corner of one room, and that has been my meditation space ever since. I don’t have to drag out my cushion and set it up every time I want to sit. It’s always there, and as soon as I sit there, the years of consistency have trained my mind to settle—at least a little—when I sit on my cushion. If you live in a larger house, setting aside an entire room for yoga and meditation might be an option.
Years ago, a couple that I tutored privately gave me a beautiful Pashmina shawl. I keep that shawl on my meditation cushion. Mindfully draping the shawl around my shoulders and feeling its lightweight warmth surround me creates a sense of comfort that settles me.
Most of the long silent retreats I’ve sat have employed tingsha bells to announce the beginning and ending of each sitting practice. Ringing a bell to start and end my practice allows me to begin and end with a pleasant hearing meditation. After ringing the bell, I allow its sound to vibrate through me.
I’ve never lit candles for meditation, but many people find the ritual of lighting a candle to help them shift from their everyday mind to a more settled mind.
One of my biggest challenges has been fitting meditation into my schedule. I practice first thing in the morning, because I’ve learned that if I put it off until later, it will not happen. Early mornings are the only times I can count on to be able to sit undistracted by the phone or email. Sometimes I practice for a couple hours and include a full-blown asana and pranayama practice. Other times I might just sit for 30 minutes. Five minutes is more beneficial than no minutes!
While these rituals help set an intention for practice, the practice itself can still be challenging. Even after 25 years, I find my mind jumping around like the proverbial wild monkey sometimes. But like anything else, over time practice does gradually move even the most restless mind in the direction of wakefulness. While rituals don’t substitute for practice, they might just make sticking with your practice a little easier.
Do you have rituals that help you practice? Please share them!