Setting up for sitting
Traditionally in a Buddhist temple we leave our shoes at the door before entering. We do that not just to keep the floors clean (although don’t knock that) but it’s also a symbolic act. When we leave our shoes outside the meditation room we’re also leaving the dust of the world behind us, and that symbolizes that we’re leaving behind unhelpful attitudes and habits.
Or at least we’re intending to leave those things behind. If getting rid of unhelpful mental habits was as easy as taking our shoes off we’d all be enlightened by now!
Still, intention is valuable, so let’s honor the symbolism inherent in leaving the shoes outside the door, and think a bit more about ways in which we can prepare for meditation. Preparation is not something we do for the sake of it. It’s not a meaningless ritual that we do because it’s “the done thing” or because past generations have done it. We do it because it helps our meditation practice to be more effective.
Having a little quiet time before meditation is helpful. It gives the mind an opportunity to “shift gear” in stages, from busyness, to sitting quietly, to sitting in meditation. Rushing straight from activity to meditating can lead to strong restlessness and even frustration.
You might want to let people who are around you know that you’re going to be sitting so that they won’t disturb you. You may want to put a do not disturb sign on your door in case someone comes into the house.
Unplug the phone, and leave a note reminding you to plug it in again afterwards. Merely taking the phone off the hook can result in loud noises coming from the speaker, so avoid doing that. Without the note you may forget to reconnect it!
If you’re anxious about unplugging the phone because someone may try to contact you in an emergency, then that’s just a sign that you really need to unplug the phone and meditate! (Unless of course there’s good reason to expect an emergency, like you know someone’s about to give birth or someone’s just gone into Intensive Care).
You may have pets to deal with. Some cats and dogs are happy to sit with you. Others may demand your attention. So you need to learn what your pet’s individual response is. Having a pet scratching at the door can be more distracting than having a pet pawing you a few times. To get pets used to you meditating you may want to pet them a few times during your meditation.
Also, remember to send lovingkindness to your pets, and to any other beings who may be disturbing your meditation. Pets can be very sensitive to the vibes you give out.
It’s traditional when entering a meditation room to bow. This isn’t a symbol of submission, but a way of honoring the spiritual teachers of the past and also of honoring your own potential for enlightenment.
The meditation space
It’s good to have a dedicated meditation space. As best you can, create at least a small area where you can keep your cushions, mats, bench, etc. And make sure that the space is clean and tidy. It’s hard to clear your mind when your surroundings are cluttered.
Having an altar can give you a focal point for the mind. You can have flowers, candles, incense, pictures, and objects that are meaningful to you. Many people have natural items on their altars — leaves, stones, crystals, etc.
The base of an altar may be specially made, or it may simply be an upturned cardboard box draped with a cloth.
Some people prefer simple altars, while other people have more elaborate ones. It’s really up to you.
Incense can be particularly evocative. Often we just have to smell a particular kind of incense and we find that we’re calmer and clearer. Japanese and Chinese incense is the most refined. Tibetan incense can be rather overpowering and heavy, and many brands of Indian incense can smell like an accident in a chemical factory. Just make sure you choose an incense that you find pleasing.
Some people go for a full yoga workout before meditating, while others don’t do any stretching at all. But even a couple of minutes spent stretching the hamstrings, back, and shoulders can help you to sit more comfortably and can also help you to feel more energized. But be careful! Stretch only if you know what you’re doing, and be sensitive to yourself at all times.
The first time I chanted before meditation (following along with others at a local sangha gathering, many years ago) I had a strangely enjoyable meditation afterwards. I described the chanting at the time as being a kind of “meditation before the meditation.” That chanting was in Pali, an ancient Indian language, and was the traditional chant known as the Tiratana Vandana, or Salutation to the Three Jewels. Another common chant is the Refuges and Precepts. These are good chants to learn.
But chanting any text that is spiritually meaningful to you will be helpful. For Christians, chanting the Lord’s Prayer might be appropriate, for example.
These kinds of preparations may seem to be optional extras, but in reality they’re part of the meditation practice. Coming back to the notion of intention being important, the more we can blend meditation with daily life, the more effective will be our meditation practice. And daily life will be a bit easier too!