(Readers who are new to meditation might find How to Meditate useful. More experienced meditators might also appreciate Meditation Tips.)
Our Ancestors, from the Buddha forward, gave specific instructions for setting up a meditative environment. The particulars are as universal as they are basic:
Sit lotus or facsimile on a cushion in a darkened, but not dark, room.* Maintain temperatures on the cool but not cold side. Exclude distracting sights, sounds, and smells. And (in some versions) close all doors and windows to prevent stray breezes from breaking your concentration.
(*Cœnobites generally insist on sitting indoors. Since they also do most of the teaching, the "conventional" instructions reflect their values. Hermits, for our part, typically accept, and may even prefer, sitting outdoors. For a brief discussion of this difference, see the end of this post.)
I can testify that these instructions work. In fact they're thunderously effective, and once you've created such a setting and positioned yourself in the midst of it, it's harder to avoid zazen than to embrace it.
'Course if I had ready access to such an environment, I wouldn't need enlightenment. I'd just move in and call it a life.
So for my neighbours here south of the long-lived god realm, I'd like to kick off this new year of practice by sharing some hard-earned pointers for hacking meditative space out of an unmeditative existence.
Unhelpful sounds are one of the most common and troublesome challenges. If you can't get away from them or wall them out, you'll find modern headphone technology a godsend. Queue up something contemplative on your iPod, computer, or other device and turn it up just far enough to allow you to meditate. Ideally the masking material will not include human voices (though unintelligible chanting may work for some) and will not otherwise draw your attention in any persistent way.
The result isn't pure zazen, but it beats no sitting at all.
Nature sound recordings (surf, forest, rain) work best for me. Wordless ASMR videos are good too, though they can turn into a relaxation session if you're sensitive to ASMR. This isn't the end of the world either, as long it doesn't replace zazen practice entirely.
Though New Age or religious music often markets itself as a meditation aid, I find it stimulates discursive brain function and prevents zazen.
Finally, by all means don't overlook good old earplugs. For some reason this simple, cheap solution is largely unknown to a large segment of the population, but those disposable foam plugs working people use to avoid going deaf on the job clear all kinds of sound-borne obstructions. They're most effective on low-pitched noises, such as machinery, but greatly attenuate music, television, and voices as well.
Foam earplugs can be had at any hardware store. Having a pair ready on the nightstand can mean the difference between a sleep interrupted and a sleep ruined.
Physical inconvenience is yet another pernicious trial, particularly if you're infirm, or far from your zafu. Meditating in a modern office chair can solve this. Scientifically-designed to distribute your weight as widely as possible, these ubiquitous devices are fully equivalent to a buckwheat zafu and good zabuton. They're a great fall-back for us cushion-sitters, and if you can't sit lotus at all, they flat-out give you your practice back.
Use is straightforward: lower the seat until your feet are flat on the floor. Place your hands in mudra, if comfortable; if not, rest them on your thighs. Meditate.
There may not be any statues of the Buddha sitting in a polyester swivel chair, but you're doing exactly what he did all the same, and that's all that matters.
Note: most how-to-meditate guides say that if you sit in a chair, you must not touch the back. I've sat both ways in an office chair and enjoyed equal success. I still usually sit bolt-upright, because I'm a macho puritanical Japanese-trained Zen Buddhist and there's an angel in heaven who keeps track of these things and will reward me after death. But if you'd rather sit comfortably, research suggests there ain't one difference.
Bad smells are something beginners seldom anticipate, but for my money they're the hardest thing to sit with; all the more since zazen strops your sense of smell to a razor's edge. Trouble is, barring hard-helmet diving gear, you can't insulate yourself from the atmosphere and live.
I've already covered the value of incense for mitigating stench, even deeply nauseating ones like sewage and cigarettes. The trick is to pony up for the good stuff; cheap incense is one of the stinks we're trying to escape.
Different religions (Christian, Buddhist) and traditions (Tibetan, Japanese) cultivate different vibes, so you might have to shop around to find an incense that works for you. But high-grade Vajrayana, Zen, and Roman Catholic incense have all worked for me. Hippy Crap®, on the other hand, makes me gag.
Sometimes you can't sit. (Like, at all.) Maybe your rooming situation won't permit it. Maybe your schedule makes seated zazen impossible. In such situations it's legal to meditate in other positions and places. My two favourites are in the bath and in bed.
For the bath, fill the tub with hot water, sit down in it, fold your legs lotus-style, and lie down on your back. This has the further benefit of enveloping you in a warm, soundproof, weightless cocoon. I've had some fabulous "sits" like this.
For the bed, same drill: tuck self in comfortably, assume position, and meditate.
You're likely to fall asleep in both cases – I actually do it on purpose at night – but you'll get in some good meditation in the meantime. (You might also drown, in the bath tub. So far I've always woken up, coughing and spitting, before that happened, but if you have some kind of condition that might preclude this, you should probably avoid bath-sitting.)
And of course there's always real meditation. Instructions be damned, the Ancestors advised us to meditate with our surroundings, not apart from them. Try befriending your irritations, looking deeply, understanding your annoyance, and accepting them and it. Doesn't always grow corn, but I've had some ringing successes. At any rate, sitting with my own frustration is one of the most useful practices I do.
Which brings me at last to the indoor-outdoor question. The Buddha sat outdoors. Bodhidharma sat half outdoors: facing the wall beneath a tree in an enclosed courtyard.
Yeah, there are more distractions outside. Stuff falls on your head. Wildlife walks by. It gets hotter and colder. Bugs, uh… bug you.
But I like it. These reminders that "the world" isn't a synonym for humanity powerfully support my practice. Also, sitting lotus in a stifling meditation hall, as I've been constrained to do at the zendo, with sweat soaking my clothes and heart-rate turned up to 11 by the sauna-like air, because going outside would "distract" me, is dumb.
And nothing that's dumb is Buddhist.
But whatever your perspective, do what works, without fail. If you find manufactured discomfort spiritually useful, have at it. And if Norwegian death metal creates mindful space for you, then by all means, with my delighted brotherly blessing, bang your head in good health.
(Photograph courtesy of Stuart Heath and Flickr.)