sangha

Waking up together (Six benefits of spiritual community)

I want to talk about community. Community, or Sangha, plays a very important role in Buddhism. It’s regarded, along with the Buddha, who represents the goal of awakening, and the Dharma, or the teachings that lead to awakening, as being one of three objects of reverence that are collectively known as the “three jewels.” They’re called this because they’re precious. They could also be called the “three treasures,” though, which I think might be a more helpful translation. Sangha is something that is treasured.

Sangha literally means just “a bringing together.” It’s a bringing together of people around a common purpose, which we could say is spiritual development or even spiritual awakening. We come together in order to practice together, so that we may wake up together.

And here we are, having connected through Wildmind, which is a community-supported meditation initiative, or sangha-supported meditation initiative. Here we are, creating a community. So the question arises, how can this community help us to wake up, spiritually?

I’m going to describe seven ways that coming together as a community can help us wake up, but before then I want to say that sangha is not just a question of membership. It’s not that you pay your dues, or whatever, and then by some magical process we’ll experience all kinds of benefits. Sangha is something we have to do and to participate in if we want to benefit from it. We benefit by doing.

So I’d encourage you to make use of the online community that’s open to all sponsors. (If you haven’t figured out how to access that, then shoot me an email — you can do that just by replying to any of the community newsletters.)

1. Community Encourages Us When We’re Down

We all struggle sometimes. We get depressed or despondent. We doubt ourselves, don’t believe in ourselves, and lose touch with a sense of our own worth. And at those times we need others. We may have lost confidence in ourselves, but others still believe in us. And they can remind us or our own value. They can encourage us. And that word “encourage” is rather beautiful. It has “courage” embedded in it. When we lack confidence in ourselves, other people can give us courage. There’s something magical about that!

2. Community Strengthens Our Practice

I remember noticing, quite early on, that it was much easier to meditate when I was sitting with other people. Sitting on my own, 20 minutes of meditation might seem like a struggle, but sitting with others it was easy to sit for 30 minutes or more. Most people have the same experience. When we’re on our own we might feel a bit restless and shaky. Our practice doesn’t feel very strong. But when other meditators surround us, we feel rock-solid. Even with online community, where we’re not physically present with each other, just knowing that others are practicing with us can help us to commit to meditating.

3. Community Offers Us Connection

This is perhaps the most obvious benefit of community. We’re social animals, and even those of us who are introverts need a sense of being meaningfully connected to others. We have a deep-seated need to feel that we are part of something that is larger than ourselves. We have deep-seated needs to see others, and to be seen by them. We can share what’s going on with us, and we can learn what’s going on with others. These connections aren’t just of the mind, but are of the heart. We can care for others, and be cared for by them. This is a particularly meaningful — and perhaps the most meaningful — form of connection.

Sangha lets us see we’re not alone. Sometimes we struggle, and we might think that we’re inadequate — worse than others. And then we see that others have the same kinds of struggles as ourselves, and feel feel less alone, and judge ourselves less.

4. Community Challenges Us

It’s great connecting with other people, but it’s also difficult. That’s why Sartre said that “Hell is other people.” Sometimes people don’t behave well,  or they react to or point out a fault in something we’ve said, or maybe they just express something we don’t like. Recently I found it very hard to deal with the fact that another member of my Order was a climate-change skeptic. I had to deal with quite a bit of reactivity around that. But in the end that’s good. I have an opportunity to learn more about myself, and to work through and rise above my reactivity.

The question arises, “How can I relate respectfully and kindly to someone whose views I disagree with? How can I disagree in a way that doesn’t fall into belittling or name-calling?” Reactivity is a centrifugal force that pushes us apart. We see that in social networks when we block or mute people in order to keep life comfortable. Being committed to a community provides a centripetal force that counteracts this and helps us to grow through our discomfort.

5. Community Helps Us See Our Own Worth

We tend to discount our own positive qualities, but other people can be better at seeing us than we are at seeing ourselves and help to teach us our own worth. As part of my training to join the Triratna Buddhist Order I used to go on special retreats, in which we’d often participate in small discussion or study groups. At the end of the retreat the group would “rejoice in the merits” of each person in turn. Everyone in the group would talk about something they’d admired in that person. There can be a certain amount of discomfort when we’re on the receiving end of this kind of rejoicing, but it helps us to see ourselves more accurately and more positively.

On a related note, one of the things that stops people from contributing in an online community is that sense that they have nothing to offer. But it’s simply not possible for us to know what we have to offer until we offer it. At the very least, putting yourself out there when you think you have nothing to say is modeling the act of putting yourself out there. The simple act of saying something gives others permission and encouragement to come forward themselves.

6. Commmunity Inspires Us

Seeing other people act kindly, compassionately, and with wisdom challenges us in a very positive and even inspiring way. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve seen members of the Wildmind community (when, in a previous incarnation, it flourished on the Google Plus platform) show great kindness to each other. Often they would respond to each others’ struggles in ways that would never have occurred to me. I’ve learned a lot about kindness in this way. Seeing other people having insights is inspiring. Seeing people develop friendships is inspiring. Community enlarges our sense of what it is to be human.

Let’s come back to that question, “How can this community help us to wake up, spiritually?” In order for it to help us we have to be prepared to be a part of it. Community isn’t a given. It’s something that arises out of people reaching out to each other and making connections. We create it by being part of it. Together we forge community by innumerable acts of bravery, kindness, and communication.

Community is a treasure. It’s invaluable. In fact the Buddha said that acts of spiritual friendship were not half, but the whole of the spiritual life. Awakening isn’t possible without community. So let’s do it. Let’s make this community happen.

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The Zen predator of the Upper East Side

Mark Oppenheimer, The Atlantic: Nearly 50 years ago, a penniless monk arrived in Manhattan, where he began to build an unrivaled community of followers—and a reputation for sexual abuse. The ongoing accusations against him expose a dark corner of the Buddhist tradition.

I. “That was the beginning of the sangha”

Eido Shimano, a Zen Buddhist monk from Japan, arrived at New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport on December 31, 1964, New Year’s Eve. He was 32 years old, and although he had just spent four years in Hawaii, part …

Read the original article »

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Bringing accountability to your practice

An older girl helping a younger girl with her reading.

I’m just getting over a bad habit relating to meditation that’s plagued me for over thirty years.

It was reading a blog post on developing good writing habits that helped me. The idea came from Brett Cooper who, like me, found that he tended to write in fits and starts, with long periods of non-writing, followed by spurts of intense production.

Two ideas came to his rescue. The first was that he realized he needed to establish “a small, non-threatening daily writing habit,” and that a goal of 100 words a day was innocuous enough to be doable.

The second idea was the realization that he needed accountability. Left to our own devices, it can be all too easy to let ourselves off too easily. So he found a friend who agreed to be his “100 words accountability partner.” The partner doesn’t have to comment on the writing or even read it. She just has to give Brett a hard time if she doesn’t receive at least 100 words of writing each day.

As it happens I had my writers’ group meeting the day after reading Brett’s article, and so I proposed that I undertook the same two practices. So two of the people in my group agreed to be my accountability partner, and I theirs. Now each of us is emailing the other two at least 100 words a day.

It’s worked great. 100 words is such a non-intimidating target that I find it easy to sit down to write, and I inevitably end up writing well over 100 words. At this rate I’ll be adding a chapter to my novel every two weeks or so. And this is after several months of producing nothing. It’s a big turn-around.

Now, when it comes to meditation, I’ve been meditating daily for a long time. I’ve hardly missed a day in the last two years or so. But my sits have at times become very short — sometimes just five or ten sleepy minutes at the end of the day. And although it’s better to do five or ten sleepy minutes than to do nothing, that’s far from ideal. Five minutes was supposed to be an emergency provision for those days when I genuinely didn’t have time for a longer sit, but it threatened to become my default. It’s as if I hit 100 words and then stopped in mid-sentence.

The bit that was missing from my meditation practice was accountability. This is where my long-standing bad meditation habit comes in; I’ve always resisted accountability.

I’ve often resisted meditating with others, or following set schedules, or even using apps like the Insight Timer, which announces to other app users how much meditation you’ve done. I think the reason I’ve resisted these things is that I’ve wanted to be sure that my desire to meditate was coming from me, and not from a desire to fit in, or to gain acceptance from others, or to show off. And while it’s good to want to meditate because it’s what I really want to do, I think that habit has long outlived its usefulness. It’s led to what’s almost a kind of secretiveness about how much meditation I’m doing, and that’s not good. Bad habits flourish in the dark.

So I decided that as well as my commitment to daily meditation practice (with an emergency fall-back position of five minutes a day) I needed a commitment to sharing what I do, so that I hold myself accountable. So on Wildmind’s community on Google+, I’ve been sharing how long I’ve been sitting, and what I’ve been doing.

This has already made a difference. When I meditate in the evening, which is often the first opportunity I have to meditate, I’m sitting earlier rather than later, when I’m often tired. I’m sitting for longer. And I’m being more mindful of the effort I make in my practice.

And the great thing is that I still have the feeling that I’m doing all this for me, not to please other people, so that fear has gone. I’m glad to have left that old habit in the past, where it belongs.

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How to make enemies

toy soldiers

I’ve been making a lot of enemies lately. People I don’t even know. A guy passes me on the street and looks a little too fashionably dressed and carefully coiffured. I pass a negative judgement (“what a poser”) and the world looks a little nastier. When cars overtake me at unnecessary speed I resent the fact that such idiocy exists and again the world has a few new enemies in it. A lady wearing expensive clothing and a fixed look of disgust on her face stares through me from the passenger seat of a car, and I feel my own face begin to crinkle in disgust. She’s one of them.

For every enemy I add, my world gets darker, more lonely, more frightening. I can feel it happening even as I am doing it. But when I step back and take a moment to consider what’s going on, I can see that the only thing happening is that I am painting the world black. I’m not making any discoveries about some outside reality – life continues all around me as before. I haven’t identified my enemies, I’ve created them.

I’m constructing my own reality and I’m doing it in an unskillful way. I’m feeding the wolf of hate (to use Rick Hanson‘s image) because some part of me believes that I am protecting myself from the things and the people I don’t like. But I’m not. Instead I’m just creating more things and people to dislike and surrounding myself with them. I feel like I’m under siege.

Yesterday, with the help of my Wildmind sangha, I started to break that siege. Yet another potential enemy approached me on the street: A young man with big shades and bigger hair, designer clothes and matching scowl.  I caught myself in the act of creating a new enemy and the phrase “Is this what I want to fill my mind with?” – suggested by a friend in the sangha – arose. Into that famous ‘gap’ between stimulus and reaction I introduced a new thought, aimed at the approaching youth – “may you be well”. I began to remember the stomach-churning pressure to fit in and look good that comes with youth, and I felt a wave of sympathy for him. The relief was instant. I can still feel it now as I write. There is more space in my experience. More warmth. More colour. The world continues to do what it always does, but I don’t have to paint it black.

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Taking refuge in the Buddha

As a teacher I’m often asked: What does it mean in Buddhist practice when you agree to “take refuge” in the Buddha? Does this mean I need to worship the Buddha? Or pray to the Buddha? Isn’t this setting up the Buddha as “other” or some kind of god?

Traditionally, there are three fundamental refuges are where we can find genuine safety and peace, a sanctuary for our awakening heart and mind, a place to rest our human vulnerability. In their shelter, we can face and awaken from the trance of fear.

The first of these is the Buddha, or our own awakened nature. The second is the dharma (the path or the way), and the third is the sangha (the community of aspirants).

In the formal practice of Taking Refuge, we recite three times: “I take refuge in the Buddha, I take refuge in the dharma, I take refuge in the sangha.” Yet, even though there is a formula, this is not an empty or mechanical ritual, but a practice meant to expand our understanding and intention.

With each repetition, we allow ourselves to open ever more deeply to the living experience behind the words. As we do, the practice leads to a profound deepening of our faith: The more fully we open to and inhabit each refuge, the more we trust our own heart and awareness. By taking refuge we learn to trust the unfolding of our lives.

The first step in this practice, taking refuge in the Buddha, may be approached on various levels, and we can choose the way most meaningful to our particular temperament. We might for instance take refuge in the historical Buddha, the human being who attained enlightenment under the Bodhi Tree 2500 years ago.

This doesn’t mean that we are worshipping the man who became enlightened, or setting him up as “other” or as “higher” than ourselves, but bowing and honoring the Buddha nature that already exists within us. For instance when the Buddha encountered Mara, he felt fear—the same painfully constricted throat, chest and belly, the same racing heart that we each experience when fear strikes our heart.

By willingly meeting fear with his full attention, the Buddha discovered fearlessness — the open, clear awareness that recognizes the arising and passing of fear without contracting nor identifying with it. Taking refuge in the truth of his awakening can inspire us on our own path toward fearlessness.

At the same time, those who are devotional by nature might seek safety and refuge in the living spirit of the Buddha’s awakened heart and mind. Much like praying to Christ or the Divine Mother, we can take refuge in a Being or presence that cares about our suffering.

In taking this first refuge, I sometimes say, “I take refuge in the Beloved” and surrender into what I experience as the boundlessness of compassion. When I am feeling fear, I surrender it to the Beloved. By this, I am not trying to get rid of fear, but rather letting go into a refuge that is vast enough to hold my fear with love.

In the most fundamental way, taking refuge in the Buddha means taking refuge in our own potential for liberation. In order to embark on a spiritual path we need faith that our own heart and mind have the potential to awaken. The true power of Buddha’s story, the power that has kept it alive for all these centuries, rests in the fact that it demonstrates what is possible for each of us.

We so easily believe limiting stories about ourselves and forget that our very nature—our Buddha nature—is aware and loving. When we take refuge in the Buddha, we are taking refuge in the same capacity of awareness that awakened Siddhartha under the Bodhi Tree. We too can realize the blessing of freedom. We too can become fearless.

After taking refuge in the Beloved, I turn my attention inward, saying “I take refuge in this awakening heart mind.” Letting go of any notion that Buddha nature is something beyond or outside my awareness, I look towards the innate wakefulness of my being, the tender openness of my heart.

Minutes earlier, I might have been taking myself to be the rush of emotions and thoughts moving through my mind. But by intentionally taking refuge in awareness, that small identity dissolves, and with it, the trance of fear.

By directing our attention towards our deepest nature, by honoring the essence of our being, our own Buddha nature becomes to us more of a living reality. We are taking refuge in the truth of who we are.

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Hugging strangers

Free hugs

There’s a frightfully corny saying that you’ll find on postcards and posters for sale all over Ireland: There are no strangers, just friends you haven’t met yet. I say corny, but only because I’ve seen it so often in the context of overpriced woolen jumpers, stuffed leprechauns and tee-shirts with alcohol-related humour. The fact is, for all its corn, I think the saying contains solid gold truth.

I was walking to the supermarket the other day, in a city far away from woolen jumpers and leprechauns, and I started to pay attention to the few other pedestrians I encountered along the way. Many of the faces I saw expressed emotions that ranged from neutral to the quiet desperation that Thoreau wrote about in Walden. My own expression was probably not particularly joyful either, mind you, not because I was sad but because I was among strangers and joy is something we reserve for our friends. But the thought crossed my mind that any one of those faces could in principle be a member of the Wildmind sangha.

I don’t actually think there are any other people in my sangha living in my city, but even if there were, I wouldn’t recognize them. I haven’t met any of them, and know a few only through their profile pictures. And what would happen if I suddenly came to realize that the person I was passing on the street was a member of  that group? I’m pretty sure that our neutral expressions would transform into delight and we would greet each other like long-lost friends.

The thought crossed my mind that all of the people I encountered did belong to a group of friends – just not mine. And for every person that passed me, there was at least one long lost friend who would have embraced them in delight on seeing them. I’m not suggesting that hugging random strangers is the way to go (though I really love what the Free Hugs Campaign do). But simply keeping in mind the fact that all strangers we meet are friends to somebody, can change the way we see them as we pass them in the street on the way to the supermarket. It can release a hint of that joy we feel when we meet our friends. And I don’t know of anyone who has too much joy in their lives.

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What is at the center of your life?

In the 12-step tradition of Alcoholics Anonymous it clearly states in the third step that we need to make a decision “to turn our will and our lives over to the care of a God as we understood him,: if we are to maintain sobriety and abstinence.

Buddhists, whether in recovery or not, or have an addiction or not, turn their lives over to the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha. When we surrender to this action, we are placing positive refuges at the center of our lives. We are placing the ideal of liberation and freedom, the teachings of the Buddha and the spiritual community at the center of our lives.

What this means is that we surrender to the potential of waking up to reality and begin to see things clearly, without the story, judgments or interpretation. This is what helps to take care of our lives.

‘In reference to the seen, there will be only the seen. In reference to the heard, only the heard. In reference to the sensed, only the sensed. In reference to the cognized, only the cognized.’ From the Bahiya sutta.

It is a different way of experiencing the world one that helps to dissolve our obsessions and addictions.

Inevitably what we often go to refuge to will bring about suffering. Those of us with addictions know that all to well. Our addiction has been the thing that has been at the center of our lives.

‘We are likely to have used our addiction as a refuge to cope with difficulties, and we may have engaged in other damaging behavior, such as self-harm or getting involved in destructive relationships, to manage painful emotions. We call these refuges that don’t help us in the long run, false refuges. False refuges look like they are going to be reliable, are going to relieve our pain, but they let us down. They don’t work, except perhaps in the short-term.

They are like a derelict house, empty, no life, or breath, with weak walls and a leaky roof. We flee from the storm only to find that the rain starts to come through the roof. Then as the wind picks up, the whole structure blows over, and we are left exposed to the elements with pieces of the building falling on us. We are no nearer to safety. Instead we are soaked and have cuts all over from the fallen timber.’

‘When we reflect on what is truly valuable to us, what we really want our lives to be about, and what sort of person we deeply want to be? If we are clear about what is important to us and what we really value, it is easier to steer our lives in a meaningful direction, and it helps us to keep going when the going gets tough.’ Eight Step Recovery – Using the Buddha’s Teachings to Overcome Addiction.

“A God of our understanding” does not have to be a person – do not let that fool you. A God of our understanding can be the compassionate care of practices, like mindfulness, loving kindness or ethics. Far better to have qualities like these at the center of our lives rather than relationships, people and teachers, because inevitably one day these relationships will cease. We may abandon the practice of mindfulness, loving kindness and ethics for a while, but we can always go back to them and cultivate them again in our lives. They will not let us down in the same way people will. They are far more reliable.

  • What is at the center of your life?
  • What do you spend most of your time thinking about?

The answers to these questions will tell you what you go to refuge to.

  • How reliable are the things you put at the center of your life?
  • Are they a false refuges or positive refuges?

Next month we will look at one of the reliable Buddhist teaching that is helpful to put at the center of our lives.

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Gratitude for the teachings and teachers (Day 75)

100 Days of Lovingkindness

So you’re here to learn something about meditation. From me, a person who enjoys sharing his experience. Perhaps you’re grateful that I do that. I’m grateful you’re here.

I learned meditation from many people, the first of whom was a man called Susiddhi, another Scot, who was teaching at the Glasgow Buddhist Centre in Scotland. And now that I think about it, I am very grateful for what he taught me, and I’m grateful to the many other teachers I learned from, who often taught each other. This process of teachings being passed on isn’t a linear process of teacher to student. Teachers are also students of each other. Often students teach their teachers. So I’m going to say “thank you” to all these teachers, including the teachers who have been my students.

Most of those people who I learned meditation from learned to meditate, originally at least, from Sangharakshita, an Englishman who went to India to become a Buddhist monk. Now I’m very grateful indeed to Sangharakshita for having gone to India, and for having explored meditation there, and for having sought out a number of teachers, some of whom were Indian, several of whom were Tibetans who had recently left their homeland in order to escape the Chinese occupation and the persecution of their religion, and one Chinese man who happened to be living in Kalimpong. And I’m grateful to all of Sangharakshita’s teachers for having passed on meditation instructions along with their other Dharma teachings. Thank you, Sangharakshita. Thank you, Dhardo Rinpoche, Yogi Chen, and all the other teachers who spent time with him.

And I’m very grateful to Sangharakshita for having returned to Britain after something like 16 years in the East, and for having set up what was at first the Western Buddhist Sangha, but which became the Western Buddhist Order, and is now the Triratna Buddhist Order, of which I’m a part.

I often wonder what my life would be like without the Dharma, and without the spiritual community of which I’m a part. I was a difficult person in my youth, and I’m not sure any of the other Buddhist organizations that were around in my young adulthood could have offered me the challenge and the friendship that I needed. We’ll never know. But when I think of all the people who helped me, even though I made it hard for them to do so, I’m very grateful indeed. There have been times I’ve choked up and been unable to talk while expressing my gratitude. Thank you to all the people who have helped me and challenged me to grow.

I often wonder what my life would be like without the Dharma, and in fact wonder if I would even have a life. I was prone to isolation and despair when I was younger. Two of my friends, one of whom was my best friend for several years, killed themselves. I think it’s possible that that might have happened to me. So I’m grateful to be here, and grateful for the Dharma that made it possible for me to be here.

And the Dharma made it not only possible for me to be here, but possible for me to live more happily, and to be a better person — easier for others to be with, and less prone to making others suffer. I’m much happier and kinder as a result of my Dharma practice.

And this Dharma, which I’ve immersed myself in, and which was made available to me because of the actions of a maverick monk from England who decided he was a Buddhist at the age of 16 and who spent 16 years living and teaching in India, goes back, of course, all the way to the Buddha himself, 2,500 years ago. How many teachers are there between the Buddha and Sangharakshita? We’ve already seen that the process of Dharma “transmission” (I use the scare quotes so that what I’m saying won’t be confused with the linear Zen idea of transmission) isn’t linear. The route back to the Buddha isn’t like a river flowing straight to the ocean, but like entwined braid of criss-crossing streams. The number of teachers between me (or Sangharakshita) and the Buddha is literally uncountable. How many people there are for me to feel gratitude for? There’s no shortage!

And there’s the Buddha himself. One of the things I most admire about him, and that I’m most grateful for, is that he refused to settle. He said he felt a “thorn in the heart,” and he didn’t settle for putting up with that. He had a comfortable life, even if he wasn’t the prince that legend makes him out to be. He didn’t settle, and went off wandering. He attained deep states of meditation with Alara Kalama and Uddaka Ramaputta, and could have settled for those spiritual accomplishments, but he didn’t. Nor did he settle for becoming a leader of either man’s group. He explored asceticism, and didn’t settle. And then he rediscovered the jhanas, and didn’t settle for those, either, although he realized that these were the path to awakening. And he didn’t settle until he’d found the thorn in his heart and plucked it out. He could have just enjoyed the rest of his days peacefully meditating, but again he didn’t settle, and spent 45 years relentlessly wandering and teaching. How fortunate for us! Or for me, anyway. I’m deeply grateful for his perseverance, and even though he’s long dead I say “Thank you,” and bow deeply. Gratitude turns naturally into puja, or devotion.

And it’s incredibly lucky that the Dharma found its way through the centuries — found its way to us. It seems that had been enlightened teachers before the Buddha, but they were pre-Iron Age, and a society living at a subsistence level couldn’t support an ongoing spiritual community. We call these previous awakened individuals Paccekabuddhas, solitary Buddhas, not because they lived alone (as people erroneously think) but because they were isolated in time, leaving no enduring legacy. In the Buddha’s own day there was once a drought so severe that people criticized the monks and nuns for begging from householders. This was potentially a lineage-killing event. We’re lucky the sangha survived this. Buddhism was in fact wiped out in India by persecution from Hindus and Muslims, and it’s only because Buddhist scriptures were transported to Sri Lanka that we have an extensive collection of records of early Buddhism. There’s much to be grateful for.

Being grateful makes me happy. And every moment in my life is an opportunity to be grateful. I should make more effort to remember that!

PS. You can see all of our 100 Days of Lovingkindness Posts here.

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Day 100: Just do it

Just do it. Neon sign.

So, today is the 100th Day of Wildmind’s Meditation Challenge. Actually, for me this is my 185th straight day of meditating, as far as I can tell. That’s one of the longest stretches of daily meditation that I’ve done in my life, but my goal, frankly, is to keep meditating daily until I’m dust.

But since the first of January this year, a bunch of us have been encouraging each other to stick to meditating daily. We “hit the ground sitting” on January 1, and this is the 100th day of the year, and of the challenge.

Here are a few lessons learned:

  • My “mantra” really seems to work for many people. “I meditate every day; it’s just what I do; it’s part of who I am.” This affirmation helps to change your self-view so that you actually see yourself as a daily meditator. You lose your tendency to waver, and to let yourself off the hook. You just do it.
  • If you missed a day it wasn’t that you’d failed the challenge; the challenge was to build a habit of sitting daily, and in any habit-building there’s going to be learning about what does and what doesn’t work, and there’s going to be times when the habit falls to pieces. The important thing is to pick up those pieces again and to get back to the task of building the habit.
  • A day is organic, not a calendar day. This turned out to be very useful: a “day” in terms of “meditating every day” is the time from when you get up until the time you go to sleep. So it’s not necessarily a day ending at midnight. There was at least one day when I didn’t manage to sit until after midnight. If I’d been counting calendar days I’d have “missed a day.” But because I sat before I went to sleep (at 12:30 AM or whenever) I kept to my commitment to sit “daily.” It’s funny how these little things help.
  • It’s easier to build a habit if you do it in company and if you check in with others. Wildmind’s online community has been a tremendous source of inspiration and support for many people. We’ve had participants who are experiencing major emotional upheavals, depression, bereavement, separations, etc., and who have kept their practice going. I’ve experienced the benefit of this myself. There have, frankly, been several days when I was exhausted and overwhelmed and couldn’t meditate until late at night. Part of the reason I did sit was because of my mantra (“I meditate every day”) but part of it was most certainly that I didn’t want to let the team down. Thanks for being there, guys!
  • Five minutes is enough (at a pinch). A lot of people end up not meditating because they don’t have time to do a forty minute sit. This is kind of crazy, really. The idea is that it’s better not to meditate than to meditate for a short period. Of course the reality is the reverse of this; any amount of meditation is better than none, and it’s much better to do a five minute sit and maintain (or build) your habit of meditating daily than to break the habit and feel bad about it. Sure, aim to sit for 40 minutes a day, or whatever you can manage, but know that it’s OK to have a five minute sit as your emergency fallback position. It’s like emergency rations, eaten not because they’re haute cuisine, but because you’re hungry and it’s all you can have.
  • Short sits add up. We all need breaks during the day. They keep us sane and make us more effective. And if you do a couple of five or ten minute sits during those breaks, they really add up. Add in a walking meditation on the way to or from work, and a more formal sit, and it can be surprising how much meditation you can fit into a day. Some days I’d manage an hour and a half, or more, and half of that time, at least, would be shorter sits squeezed into gaps during the day.
  • There will be times that you just go through the motions. I’ve had some blissful meditations over the past 100 days. I’ve had some that were purely token sits, where I was on the cushion for only five minutes and ended up falling asleep. (Once I fell asleep for nine hours during a five minute meditation.) It doesn’t matter. Just do it. You’re not sitting to have good sits, you’re sitting to transform your life. And transforming your life isn’t always going to be easy.
  • There’s no such thing as a bad meditation. Really. Well, I’ll concede that a meditation you didn’t do is a bad meditation. But every sit you do is a good sit. It’s good in that you’re building that habit. You’re keeping faith with your practice and with yourself. You’re showing determination and tenacity. And down below the threshold of awareness you’re doing things like building new neural pathways in the brain. Your brain is building those pathways, strengthening your ability to regulate your emotions and to live compassionately and mindfully, whether or not you enjoy a particular sit. So your meditation wasn’t just monkey-mind? It was a cage full of ADHD monkeys on speed, throwing poop at each other? At least you did it. You rock!

I’m sure I’ve missed some points, but perhaps other people can chip in below and share their experience.

And what’s next? We have another 100 day challenge coming up! This one is 100 Days of Lovingkindness. Stay tuned, and keep sitting.

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Join us for Wildmind’s 100 Day Meditation Challenge

100 day mediation challengeWe all need encouragement with our practice, and many of us need help in meditating regularly. So to provide some support that will hopefully continue long after other new year’s resolutions have worn off, we’re running a 100 Day Meditation Challenge, starting January 1, 2013.

The aim is to support people to meditate daily for 100 straight days. There aren’t any “rules” as such, but we suggest that a “sit” should consist of a minimum of five minutes of practice, which could be sitting or walking practice. Ideally, though, you’d do at least 20 minutes of meditation a day. A “day” counts as the period between waking and sleeping, so if you sit after midnight before going to bed late, that still counts.

If you have the Insight Timer app for Android or iPhone, you can use that to log your meditations.

You can let us know how you’re getting on by posting on Wildmind’s Facebook page [we subsequently withdrew from Facebook, disturbed by the negative effect the company was having on society] or our online community.

I’ll try to create a 100 Day post each day of the 100 Days, so that you can post there what sitting you’ve done. There will also be opportunities to post on Wildmind’s blog, where I’ll create special 100 Day posts.

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