When Pema Chodron, the well-known Western Buddhist writer and ordained nun, went to the dentist and he asked her what she did, she responded that she taught meditation. He told her that one day he would begin meditation when he was less busy. She said you probably won’t need it as much then.
A daily meditation practice is like getting to the gym: The longer you stay away, the harder it is to return to, and the more you do it every day, the more your body eases into the habit. When I first started my daily practice several years ago, I fought the usual demons: Restlessness while sitting, lethargy, laziness in getting to the cushion. It was only through repeated group practice at the non-lineage Interdependence Project in lower Manhattan that I began to integrate a daily practice into my life and start feeling the benefits.
In Brooklyn itself there are many centers that provide courses and spaces for mindfulness and meditation, including the Vajradhara Meditation Center in Boerum Hill, the Brooklyn Zen Center, and Third Root Community Center. Paul Sireci, dharma teacher at Third Root, started practicing when he was fourteen or fifteen. A former monk, he’s had a daily practice since he was twenty. “I think it’s given me a better perspective on my emotions. My lows are less low and my highs are not necessarily less high but they don’t seduce me in the ways they did before. I’m more content and when you are more content you don’t need to be wildly happy.”
A daily practice of even fifteen to twenty minutes can be surprisingly difficult in the beginning. Often sitting alone with our thoughts provokes more anxiety in us than peace, even though (or maybe exactly because) the primary purposes of meditation is to become friends with our own minds. People may not find slowing down easy or pleasurable. My husband enjoys his sitting practice except ironically when he feels particularly stressed or anxious, which is when meditation can really help ground us. Sitting with your own thoughts and feelings can be daunting, and it’s not until one begins to trust how they arise and pass, and approach themselves and others with gentleness and kindness that meditation becomes an essential part of one’s day.
Another hurdle to daily practice is prioritization— it sometimes feel overwhelming to bring in a new daily task amongst all the other responsibilities one has. The crucial turning point often comes when you can begin to see the benefits and changes your practice has for yourself and others around you. There’s a leap of faith and often some amount of discipline to go from the intention of having a daily practice to embracing one. At some point, not meditating feels like not taking a shower—like something is amiss.
Practice doesn’t always have to mean sitting. In fact, sometimes the rigidity of having a sitting practice itself intimidates many and can be an obstacle to meditation. Peggy Horwitz, a Brooklyn-based psychotherapist emphasizes mindfulness and kindness to oneself. “I’ve been meditating for over twenty years but for me practice means paying attention and going inward with kindness. For clients who already judge themselves for not sitting long enough or daily, practicing mindfulness throughout the day and in other ways can be equally powerful.”
While having a specific place and time for practice can help structure the daily routine, I often find that being mindful on my commute or while I am in line can be powerful elements of practice. They involve being kind to myself and others, of relating to those around me, and of paying attention at those key moments when we often forget ourselves and our surroundings the most.
Besides habit, there’s also faith. A teacher at the Interdependence Project, and long-time Brooklyn resident, Kate Johnson is a student at Brooklyn Zen and New York Insight. She remembers how it took her nearly three years to make daily practice a reality. “I had this unconscious belief that I was the one person in the world for whom meditation just wouldn’t work. Of course, I was wrong.
“I think I was inspired to practice daily when I noticed how much kinder I was to myself and others on days that I practiced, and how much more I was able to let go of striving for perfection and just appreciate being alive. I practice meditation because I care about myself, and want to give myself an opportunity to feel grounded, expansive, and connected. I spent so much of my life not treating myself very well at all. Meditation is a way for me to tend to my own heart, so that I can tend to the world with love.”
Ultimately meditation and daily practice—however it transpires in our lives—can be our treat to ourselves and those around us throughout our lives (and especially the winter). And maybe if we’re finding ourselves too busy to consider it, we should feel even more compelled to sit. That challenge could be our biggest gift.
Buddhism and Meditation
Third Root Community Health Center
380 Marlborough Road
Vajradhara Meditation Center
444 Atlantic Ave
Brooklyn Zen Center
505 Carroll St. #2
Rock blossom Sangha at Brooklyn community of Mindfulness: meet Sundays from 6:30-8:30 at Church of Gethsemane in Park Slope