Posted in The Spiritual Life, Zen Buddhism

The Meditation Habit

I’m currently re-reading “The Seven Habits of Highly Effective Bodhisattvas.” No, wait, it’s “The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People” by Stephen Covey. But this time, I’m reading it as Bodhisattvas, and it works great that way!

Covey says that a habit is formed by the intersection of knowledge, skill, and desire. As I was listening to this section (okay, I’m actually listening to it on audiobook rather than reading it), I wondered how to apply it to meditation. This is what I came up with.

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Knowledge

Knowledge of meditation answers the questions “What?” and “Why?”
So what is meditation, anyway? Here’s a great answer from buddhanet.net: “Meditation is a conscious effort to change how the mind works. The Pali word for meditation is ‘bhavana’ which means ‘to make grow’ or ‘to develop’.”

In Zen, we sit without a goal. If we have a goal, we set ourselves up for disappointment, and then, suffering. But if we could have a purpose without getting attached to the outcome, it would be to pay attention to our mind moment-to-moment.

As for the “why” of it, you probably already have some good ideas on this question or you wouldn’t be reading this. Just yesterday, a new study came out showing that meditation can alleviate post-traumatic stress disorder in active-duty military members. (Read more about that here.)

It’s long been known that meditation helps us to slow down, relax, and be calmer. Scientists have confirmed that meditation changes the physical structure of the brain, leading to greater happiness:

“As we showed in ‘Super Genes,’ actually meditation changes your gene expression so within one week of meditation you see a 40 percent increase in the enzyme called telomerase, which is an anti-aging enzyme,” said [Deepak] Chopra, who co-authored the book “Super Genes” with Dr. Rudolph Tanzi. (Read the story here.)

And in keeping with the Bodhisattva ideal of Mahayana Buddhism (of which Zen is a part), when we’re happier, we tend to be kinder to others, which makes them happier, so they’re kinder to others, and so on, and so on, and so on…

Skill

Skill in meditation answers the question “How?”

Sometimes it seems that there are as many ways to meditate as there are people on earth! Here’s a simple one, called “Mindfulness of Breathing.”

Pay attention to your breath. Notice where you feel it moving in your body: your nose, upper lip, throat, chest, stomach – there’s no one answer here; it’s where you feel it. Once you’ve felt it, just keep paying attention. That’s it. When you’re breathing in, be aware that you’re breathing in. When you’re breathing out, be aware that you’re breathing out. When you pause after you inhale or exhale, be aware that you’re pausing.

Simple, right? Certainly. Easy? Well, we call it practice for a reason.

Here are some more tips to keep your thinking mind occupied with your breath. You can count your breaths. Start over when you reach 10, or when you catch yourself thinking. You can recite a mantra silently to yourself as you breathe. Breathing in, ask “What is this?” Breathing out, answer “Don’t know.”

When thoughts come, and they will, gently release them and return your attention to your breath. You might think the word “thinking” to yourself, labeling the thoughts as you let them go. Don’t go into any more detail, like labeling the type of thought, or you’re just indulging in more thinking!

Desire

So now we know what meditation is, why it’s good for us and the world, and how to do it. But if we’re not sufficiently motivated to get our butts on the cushion, none of that matters.

Desire, for me, comes down to motivation. Here are four things that motivate the hell out of me. See if one or more of them works for you.​

This Precious Human Existence

Many people think that this merely means they were born human this time around – and if you don’t believe in rebirth, this isn’t terribly motivating. But it means far more than that. This precious human existence refers to the fact that you have encountered the Dharma and are capable of understanding it. Think of how many billion people alive today don’t have that advantage.

The Impermanence of Life

As a cancer survivor, this is the one that really gets me. As Pema Chodron asks, “Since the fact of death is certain, and the time of death is uncertain, what’s the most important thing?” It probably isn’t checking Facebook.

The Defects of Samsara

“Samsara” refers to our cyclic existence of birth, death, and rebirth. And the defects are ways that life can suck. We suffer when we’re born; we suffer when we die. And in between, we suffer from illness and aging. We suffer when things change; we suffer when they stay the same. Luckily, meditation helps break our clinging to wanting to have things our own way. We crave less, and therefor suffer less.

Cause and Effect

Ah, karma, let’s not forget you. What goes around, comes around. You want to be surrounded by people who love you? Love other people. You want to have less drama in your life? Stop being a drama queen. You want to live an abundant live? Give generously. You get the idea. Meditation shows us what’s really important. Over time, we come to live our values. And then karma takes care of itself.

The Meditation Habit

Let’s put it all together. You have the knowledge of what meditation is and why it’s a good practice. You have the skill of how to do it. And, hopefully, you have the desire or motivation.

So get busy. It’s no accident that Lent is 40 days long. That’s how long it takes to form a new habit. (Sorry, one month doesn’t cut it for many people. Plan on 40 days.) In the beginning, you may need to experiment with what time of day to sit, where to sit, and for how long. The answer is whatever you’ll stick with. But do stick with it for 40 days.

Meditation has changed my life for the better, as well as the lives of billions all over the world and for thousands of years. If, after 40 days of sincere practice, you’re not completely satisfied, your suffering will be cheerfully refunded!

Author:

Ven. Dr. Myodo Jabo (Sandy Gougis) is a Zen Master and Priest in the Five Mountain Zen Order. She began studying Theravâdin Buddhism in 1998, adding Zen in 2003, and Vajrayana Buddhism in 2008. She currently practices in both the Zen and Tibetan traditions. Her Zen teacher is Most Ven. Wonji Dharma of the Five Mountain Zen Order, and her Tibetan guru is Lama Tsultrim Allione of Tara Mandala. In her free time, Myodo enjoys painting, jewelry making, and other creative endeavors.

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