Starting a Meditation Practice: Rituals Work!

This entry was posted on Jul 17, 2013 by Charlotte Bell.

Starting a Meditation Practice:  Rituals Work!

I’ve never been much for formality. It’s a familial thing. My parents’ spiritual proclivities—if they had them—were very much their own personal business. Even though I haven’t gone in for institutionalized rituals, if I’m honest with myself, I realize that I’ve formed my own personal rituals around all kinds of things—my morning routine, my bedtime routine, and my meditation practice, among others.

Meditation is not easy. After 27 years of meditation practice and 31 years of asana practice, I can say unequivocally that, at least for me, meditation is much more challenging than physical practice. It is challenging because I’ve found my body to be much more cooperative than my mind. Even after decades of steady practice, I still sometimes sit down for my 30-45 minutes of sitting practice in the morning and may enjoy only a few seconds of real mindfulness.

Because meditation is a challenge, it is easy to decide it’s just not working, and it’s time to give up. Even though it is hard and humbling at times, little by little, our minds do change. They do calm down. It may not seem so at times, but truly, equanimity creeps in sometimes when we least expect it.

Sometimes it is helpful to create personal rituals around our meditation practice. In the same way we might have come up with a morning ritual and a bedtime ritual, filled with things we deem necessary to prepare us for our day or for sleep, we can create rituals that remind us that now is the time to sit and be mindful.

Here are some of the rituals that have worked for me:

1. Set aside a sitting space

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.

2. Rituals can help you set intention

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.

3. Make meditation a part of your day

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!

For me, meditation practice is just as crucial to my well-being as eating breakfast, brushing my teeth, practicing yoga. It’s my way of checking in with the state of my mind, and giving it the care and attention it deserves. If our minds and thoughts are the forerunner of all our actions and choices, what could be more important than a daily check-in?

Do you have rituals that help you practice? Please share them!

About Charlotte Bell
Charlotte Bell discovered yoga in 1982 and began teaching in 1986. Charlotte is the author of Mindful Yoga, Mindful Life: A Guide for Everyday Practice and Yoga for Meditators, both published by Rodmell Press. Her third book is titled Hip-Healthy Asana: The Yoga Practitioner’s Guide to Protecting the Hips and Avoiding SI Joint Pain (Shambhala Publications). She writes a monthly column for CATALYST Magazine and serves as editor for Yoga U Online. Charlotte is a founding board member for GreenTREE Yoga, a non-profit that brings yoga to underserved populations. A lifelong musician, Charlotte plays oboe and English horn in the Salt Lake Symphony and folk sextet Red Rock Rondo, whose DVD won two Emmy awards in 2010.

4 responses to “Starting a Meditation Practice: Rituals Work!”

  1. Avatar Phillip says:

    I too have a cushion in one end of a small room, but I have not been able so far to sustain the habit of meditating every morning. I’ve recently been trying.

    Charlotte is my meditation teacher, and one lesson she has passed on that has been working for me—and relieving me of the feeling that I’m failing when I don’t hit the meditation “sweet spot” for the full 20 minutes—is to just focus on one breath at at time. Each breath becomes a new opportunity to be present, and if I get distracted for a few breaths I always come back and can internally say, “Hey, it’s another breath, another chance to meditate.” Nothing has been lost; the meditation of that moment can always be gained.

    It is a very valuable lesson. Thank you, Charlotte.

    And I love Pashmina.

    • Avatar Charlotte Bell says:

      Thank you for your thoughts. I think that the act of committing your awareness to each inhale and each exhale is the essence of mindfulness. It takes commitment. We can’t just say we’re going to be mindful for 20 minutes and expect it to happen. Our minds are conditioned to think, and we most often have chosen to follow the stories of those thoughts. In order to change that habit, we must commit our attention in every moment. I’m certainly still working on this!

  2. Avatar theyogaworld says:

    The best ritual I have started is yoga. It makes amazing changes in my life.

  3. Avatar margo says:

    I bought a meditation stool to kneel on and tuck my legs under and it has made meditation much easier for me. I can’t do it most mornings because my toddler usually wakes me up and I have to tend to her. So when she goes to sleep at night I get ready for my yoga practice, roll out my mat, get on my swing, or do mat and swing combo. That winds me down enough to meditate afterwards. It’s at a different time each night but it is the closest thing I have to a ritual! Oh and I mixed essential oils with water in a spray bottle and spray it all over my mat and head wrap before I practice yoga and meditation.

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