Meditation for the working-class family folks.

Via John Pappas
on Jul 20, 2010
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It is an old story ~ A practitioner wishes to meditate regularly but either can’t (or doesn’t want to) find the time to do it consistently. The limiting factor can be geographic, physical or mental reasons that prevent them from attending a larger, “proper” sangha.  For my situation, I am stuck between lack of time, massive leftover guilt from my Catholic upbringing and too few local resources to tap.  While my local grassroots Soto Zen sitting group is accommodating, it is still difficult to find time away from family needs and duties to attend regularly.  It becomes a mental battle between the want to practice with a group, my innate guilt for leaving for a time that may be better used and my want to spend some quality time with family.  The ropes tug back and forth.

So, except for some special occasions, my practice is a home-practice.  Which means that the motivation and diligence is squarely in my novice hands, slave to the ebb and sway of work, visiting family, depression and dogs…But luckily, after some trial and error, I was able to come up with a routine that I can stick to, and thought that it would be a good enough time to share a bit of it with the hope of benefiting those in a similar situation.

First, set up everything the night before.  I am a morning person and rarely sleep past 6 AM and it is easier for me to stick to a morning meditation schedule and not an evening one.  But even a the brisk hour of 5 AM, I am still limited in time and discovered that my largest hurdle was laziness in setting up cushions/mats and altar that early in the morning. So I set out everything (mats, cushion, clothes etc), prepare incense and have an online digital timer ready to go the night before.  It has become a part of my meditation routine to include some ritual the night before.

Take a second to set an alarm for 10-15 minutes earlier than your planned sitting time but not so much that you will get caught up in some other task.  Oh my! Dishes need  washing and there is a hamper full of clothes, a litter box full of shit … posts need crafting and hair needs setting.  Since it is easy to become distracted with other bits of living I sit as soon as I come out of the bathroom.  The morning is fresh and my mind is not racing with the myriad of tasks for the day.  This is the best time.

I hate affirmations but…maybe a little something to get into the mood just as you wake up.  Something quick that will get you motivated. Perhaps a blog?  My personal favorites are John Daido Roshi’s “Invoking Reality“, Robert Aitken Roshi’s “Miniatures of a Zen Master“, Pema Chodron’s “Start Where You Are“, Master Cheng Yen’s “Jing Si Aphorisms” or I just run to Access to Insight and click on “Random Sutta”

Take it seriously and don’t consider it *just* meditation.  We are rotting from the first moment we are conceived.  Nothing slows down the process but this practice may help us deal with it.  I dedicate my practice to anyone that needs it.  Metta to my daughter.  Thoughts to my friends that are feeling the bite of samsara.  The dedication that by beginning to realize myself I can act in benefit for all other sentient beings.  Yeah, its lofty but it *is* that important.

Laugh and loosen up.  In all this seriousness there is humor.  Sometimes it just won’t happen, accept it.  The dog will need to go out or you will get bum-rushed by a toddler.  All those sentient beings understand that you have a life too and that it affects your practice.  Strive but not to the point of self-defeat.

Start out small and build up rather than go for broke and beat your head against the zendo wall.  I started with 10 minutes and moved up to 15 and then to 25.  That is the peak of what I can do with my current situation and I am ok with that.  Purists will tell you that anything under 45 minutes is a waste of time.  Meditation is never a waste of time.  Any moment spent in the process of realizing yourself is time well spent.

Find a substitution for meditation.  There are times that sitting is out of the question for whatever reason and I have a back up activity.  In lieu of seated meditation I engage in walking meditation up and down a few blocks, yoga or try to do 108 prostrations.  I even had 108 push-ups as a possible replacement when I needed to get in a work-out and had too much energy to sit.  Often, I walk in the morning when meditation isn’t fitting into the schedule.  I walk either silently or listening to a liturgy (Soto, Seon or Shingon) recording.  Dharma talks didn’t work as well since I tended to focus more on the words than on the breathing and walking.

Practice is more than just meditation.  Some simply don’t like meditation or can’t make it work.  Find a different practice.  There are plenty of Dharma doors that can be opened…they all lead to the same place.

Meditation is a process and not a goal. Expecting a revelation on the first sit is like expecting to hit a home-run against a major league pitcher the first time you hold a bat.  Yeah, there is a slight chance but let’s be realistic, you are sitting against a trained and capable foe ~ your self.  And the most devious weapon in its repertoire is the idea that there is a “right” meditation versus a “wrong” meditation.  Rather, any moment of self-reflection is of benefit both to you and to those around you.  Don’t expect a good sit or a bad sit.  It is all the same.  When tired, we will have snatches of daydreams drift in an out of consciousness.  When stressed we will mull over problems and puzzles from work.  When angry we will seeth over the causes of our anger.   None of these things negate our meditation.  Just don’t let them dominate.

Meditation won’t make me happy.  It won’t.  It is simply not the purpose of meditation to make us happy.  What it will do is make you more receptive to being happy, content and compassionate in your daily life.  It isn’t a magical elixir that will solve all your problems or make your life a sea of bliss.  Just as brushing your teeth will prevent rot; meditation will prevent the corrosive nature of samsara from rusting your glimmer.  It ain’t much but it will keep you focused on how attentive you are through the day.  How equitable you are to family, friends and complete strangers.  How steeped our actions are in anger or in compassion.  How calmly we handle stress and strain.  How quickly are we to levy blame onto others or ourselves.

Our practice isn’t simply how we sit – It’s how we live our life.  It is the act of meditation that provides a template of how to express the subtle nature of the Dharma.  But that template is useless if not applied to our everyday life.



About John Pappas

John Pappas is a struggling Zen practitioner with a slight Vajrayana palate (but he won't admit it) stumbling between the relative and absolute through the Buddhist Purgatory otherwise known as the Great Plains of South Dakota. Emerging writer, librarian and aspiring hungry ghost, John spews his skewed perception of the dharma all over his personal blog, Subtle Dharma Mouth Punch as well as on the ephemeral Elephant Journal and occasionally (while having no artistic ability to speak of) on Dharma/Arte. John also loves tacos, homebrew, yoginis and obscure Cthulhu references. You can follow him on twitter under the handle @zendustzendirt


9 Responses to “Meditation for the working-class family folks.”

  1. Mark Hamilton says:

    It is really encouraging to read a description of a morning that sounds like mine. First thing, out of the bathroom at 5am, cats are hungry, and I dont get my cushion moved out of the bedroom. Then there are a number of other demands to fill the hour before I must leave. I like your suggestion of putting down the cushion, timer, altar, the night before. This post reassures me, and I sigh with relief. Thank you.

  2. Jack Daw says:

    Thanks. I am glad you found it reassuring. It felt good to put my routine down in a post finally. Since you have cats, I should include that I keep one of those lint rollers handy by my cushion since both of my feline boarders love to nap on my cushion!


  3. Blake says:

    I love this post! Something my guiding teacher advised is doing 108 full prostrations in the morning as a substitute for sitting meditation. It takes a lot less time and you are less likely to be disturbed. Also, you get in some cardio which is always a good thing.

  4. Jack Daw says:

    I do that now when I am in a hurry and am unable to sit. With distractions everywhere, the prostrations (being more physical) become more engrossing…reminds me of doing sets at the gym. More of a working meditation.

  5. Vince P. says:

    Just wanted to say you have an adorable little girl and look to be blessed with a great family! Meditation is pointless if you don't appreciate them every moment you can.

  6. Jack Daw says:

    Cheers! And good luck. Damn, you are out way earlier than I usually am but sometimes 10 minute sitting is better ten minutes watching TV or reading blogs…but not better than brushing your teeth. No enlightened person has gingevitus.

  7. Come to think of it, I've never seen a Buddah image that didn't have a nice smile. 😉

  8. K. Bustillos says:

    Love this! Its encouraging to know that it takes work to actually sit and be quite. And that every little bit counts : )