Dharma talk delivered October 3, 2019, at the Village Zendo.
This talk was advertised as Five Methods to Establish a Rock-Solid Meditation Practice, but I need to start out by admitting that none of these is the method that actually established my meditation practice. The moment when my habit was established for good was in a checkout line at a Whole Foods.
This was in 2002-ish, I was in my early 20s, I was living in Austin, Texas. I was working for a small software company and I was kind of failing at that job. I would smoke pot in the morning before I went to work, and around lunch time I would go out into the parking lot, smoke up in my car again, and then go across the street to Whole Foods to get lunch.
On this particular day, when this Whole Foods cashier changed my life in the checkout line—I’d been meditating for a few months. I kinda knew that I was fucking up my life with failing at my job and smoking pot every day, so I was looking for something.
I had read some Zen books. I had set myself a 30-day meditation challenge. And I was super fortunate because a Zen center moved into a house around the corner from where I was living around that time. It was kind of hard to ignore a signal like that. I’d been going a few times a month and I’d started working with this grouchy, blind priest named Sozan there. Sozan was great, he still is great.
Sozan wanted to teach meditation in the county jail outside of Austin and he needed somebody to drive him. So I’d been going with Sozan to this meditation class at the jail for a little while, and even, in my incredibly naïve way, trying to contribute some kind of instruction to this class.
I’d been getting involved with meditation and with Zen Buddhism, but I wouldn’t say that my practice was firmly established until Cashier Day.
On this particular day, I was in the line and I reached the end of the conveyer belt, me and my sandwich. And I looked up at the cashier and I recognized him. I knew right away that I’d seen him before. He was tanned or sort of sun-worn, even though he was only about my age. Blond guy. And I recognized him from the meditation class in jail. When I’d seen him there I identified with him. He was kind of like me. So I knew right away it was him.
I said, “It’s so great to see you.”
He said, “Yeah, it’s great to see you too.”
And he explained in just a couple sentences while he was ringing up my sandwich that our class had really helped him. There was one moment when he was about to get in a fight, and then he remembered to stop and feel his breath go in and out for a moment. And that allowed him enough self-control to walk away. As I was hearing this I was thinking, well maybe, if he had been in that fight, he wouldn’t be standing here with me at the Whole Foods.
So he said, “Thank you. I wanted you to know.”
I said, “Thanks so much for telling me,” and I swiped my credit card and that was that.
But for me, that was really the moment. That was the moment when I got serious about meditation, because up until then, I’d been playing with it and I sort of thought it probably worked. But it was his personal witness that even one class had made such a difference in his life, that I thought maybe this is for real. And that set me on a path that has led me all the way here.
You have to believe in it. You need some faith. And Cashier Day was when I started believing in it.
I think meditation saves lives. I think it saved mine. It saved me from wasting my life on superficial, deluded shit. I still spend a large portion of my life on superficial deluded shit, but I don’t spend my whole life on it. And I think that is a consequence of my having a regular meditation practice.
I think otherwise I would be obsessed with being disgusted by myself, with setting unrealistic standards for myself and failing them. I would waste it on hating other people and also wanting them to admire me. I would waste it on pot. That I have not wasted my life is thanks to practice.
So what I’m trying to say is the first step in establishing a meditation practice is you’ve got to really want to transform, and have faith that you can achieve that. And that’s pretty inspiring. But then comes the humiliatingly boring chore of actually putting that into practice one day after the next after the next.
There’s a psychology paper from 2010, it’s called How are habits formed: Modeling habit formation in the real world—this is very influential. The researchers define a habit as “producing a behavior in response to a cue.” So when you are in the same environment, experiencing the same cues, you do the same thing.
When my alarm goes off at 7:30, I get up and I go meditate because that’s what I did the time before. When I smell the incense, I try to concentrate because that’s what I did last time. The way that habits produce actions in response to cues means that it doesn’t require any thinking or any willpower, even if you don’t feel like doing it, you still do it.
This obviously has really interesting implications for bad habits and how they work, if we want to break them, like breaking an addiction. This is useful information. But I want to talk right now about how to establish a good habit intentionally.
These researchers, they followed this up in 2013. Their names are Phillippa Lally and Benjamin Gardner. They wrote a paper about forming good habits and they say there are four stages.
One, you decide to act. And then two, you act on the decision. Three, you do that repeatedly. And four, you do it in a way that creates cue-behavior associations: When I experience this thing, I do that thing.
So this brings us to the first of the five methods.
Method number one is to do it the same way every time. If experiencing the same cues triggers the same action, we can use that to create a groove for ourselves when we keep consistently meditating in response to the cue in our life.
Meditate at the same time every day. It really has to be the morning, I think. There’s a 2017 psych paper about habit formation where they took two groups of people and told them to do a particular kind of stretch once a day. They found that those who tried to do that in the evening, it took them 150 days of trying to create a fully automatic habit where they didn’t experience any willpower or thinking. They just did it. Those who did it in the morning also took awhile, but it was only 100 days, not 150.
The psychologists had some complicated theory about cortisol levels, but I think it’s pretty clear why the morning is better. In the evening, my schedule is less predictable. I may have been drinking. If I want to do something every day, I’ve really got to do it after I wake up. The most precious slot of the day is the first thing you do when you wake up. So I devote that irreplaceable slot to meditation.
And besides just meditating at the same time, have a rich routine around meditating. Like having a cushion that you use for that instead of sitting on the couch or a bed pillow. Lighting incense. Having a candle and an altar. Doing it in the same place. All of these things will continue to reinforce that habit and make it stronger and stronger.
So method number one is to do it the same way every time.
Method two is to start small. When I first started meditating, and I set that 30-day challenge for myself, I got a meditation cushion and all I promised myself was that I would I would sit on it cross-legged once a day. My goal was to sit for 10 minutes, but it was okay to sit down, cross my legs, and get up. I could still check the box and feel the satisfaction of keeping a promise to myself. Because that was good enough to reinforce the habit.
We know this about a lot of things, right? You go to the gym and it’s okay if you turn around and do nothing. It’s still establishing the habit pretty well. So, if you’re trying to establish a daily practice, or trying to maintain it through a difficult time, just start small. Just do something that you know that you can accomplish and then work up from there.
And even though these researchers have found that it might take 100 days to achieve complete automaticity, to do it completely automatically, without any willpower, it doesn’t have to be that intimidating. Because first of all, the habit gains strength fastest at the beginning. Just doing something one morning and then the same way the next morning, you’ve already started to create a habit that will gain strength very rapidly initially. And then the progress from “almost completely automatic” to “absolutely completely automatic” might take a hundred days, but the first few weeks are going to see a real strength develop.
The other reason to be encouraged is that even if you miss a day from time to time, these researchers have found that that’s fine. As long as you are taking this approach of trying to do it the same way every time, missing a day now and then doesn’t actually set you back that badly.
Method number three is to sit with other people.
Without a doubt, the main reason why I have a regular meditation practice now is that my partner Keishin and I sit together on weekday mornings. We have a default that on a weekday morning we set the alarm for 7:30, we get each other up and we sit together.
It’s quite far from perfect. Sometimes we don’t go to bed early enough, or we don’t get up early enough, or we’ve got something that we have to do in the morning. And then other days, we know we’re coming here so we know we’ll sit together, so we don’t do it in the morning. But as a default, most weekday mornings we sit together, and we never get that far off track because one of us will always pull the other back.
So if you live with somebody, try to get them to meditate with you. And do it now, because this is the year. Mindfulness is at peak trendiness. There’s never gonna be a time like this to proselytize, so if you’ve got a skeptical spouse or roommate and you’re not sure—don’t hesitate any longer. This is the best it’s ever gonna be. The backlash is coming so hook ‘em now.
If it can’t be somebody you live with, you can do this remotely as well. I’ve talked to a lot of people who will actually meditate together by video chat. They’re sitting at the same time with their laptops. And it’s pretty good. It’s pretty effective.
Or if you can’t sit at the same time of day, you can have just a meditation buddy that you text every day to say that you are beginning your meditation period. And then if the day goes by and you don’t get that text, you can say “get back on track,” and vice versa. That’s pretty effective, too.
You can of course come here to meditate with people. Or whatever group you’re a member of. I find that meditating at a devoted space, a temple, a place that’s been designed for practicing in…. It looks right, it smells right. Everybody is here for the same reason that I am. I sit more still. I make a greater effort. When I get up, I feel the difference in the effort that I’ve put into that period of practice. So come to the zendo and sit with people here. There is probably a time of the week that will work for you. We have approximately 233 different meditation periods every week. So if you’re in the area, find one.
I find that in the same way that sitting at the same time every morning really works for me, coming to the zendo for the same period every week is very effective for the same reason. I try to come here on Thursday nights around six o’clock every week, that’s my default. And that’s worked much better for me than just having a general commitment to coming to the zendo at some time every week. I try to be a Thursday night guy unless something gets in the way.
So method number three is sitting with people. It’s kind of how we get anything done, we do it with people. We inspire each other.
And method number four is not to really expect anything too special from any particular meditation period. A lifetime of meditation is transformative. A single period of meditation, you know…. You win some, you lose some.
When I talk with people about meditation, I so often hear them say, “I tried to meditate but it didn’t work.” Have you heard this? “I tried it and I can’t do it.” It’s heartbreaking because you can see so clearly how that wrong thinking is going to hold them back from transforming themselves.
And it’s funny the way we think about our thinking. We don’t expect that the first time we do pull-ups, we’ll be able to do 10 pull-ups. We don’t expect to understand French the first time we try. But so many people expect that the first time they sit down and meditate, they’ll just be able to stop thinking and sit at peace for minutes on end.
It’s actually really interesting because it shows the outline of where the illusion of self is. What shape it is. Because we think that our bodies are ourselves. But we also sort of know that we’re not entirely in control of our bodies. I can’t do 10 pull-ups just because I want to. We know that about memory; I can’t always remember what I want to. Or about intellect, I can’t always solve every math problem right away. But when it comes to our thinking itself, we think that our thinking is us, and so we think that we are in control of it, and it can be shocking to discover how untrue that is.
And people think that there’s something wrong with them. “But that’s me, how can my intention and what happens in my consciousness be so in conflict?” We can talk more about that some other time. The delusion of self is very complicated.
The main thing for us all to keep in mind is that meditation will often feel hard, and will be unpredictable, and we must not let ourselves get frustrated by this. Because trying to meditate is meditation, and in that sense it’s very easy. If you sit down and try to interrupt your own daydreaming and be conscious of your presence in this room for half an hour, you will achieve something whether it feels like it or not. That said, it shouldn’t always be unpleasant and frustrating.
So, that was method number four, which was not to expect something special.
And method number five is: Enjoy it. Find a way to enjoy meditation so that you will keep coming back.
I would suggest that you really invest in your altar and your cushion—everything you practice with at home. I kind of like to spend money on my Zen stuff, so that I’ll enjoy using it. Our altar has a nice vase made by Myoko; it’s beautiful. And we’ve got a cute little ceramic bodhisattva that I like looking at, and the $20-a-box incense that smells nice. A good meditation cushion. All of this stuff makes me want to come and use it and sit.
It doesn’t have to be spending money, but keep your altar clean, use incense you like. It should be an aesthetically beautiful experience to you, to meditate.
It should be physically pleasurable. So when you sit down, find some part of your body, something you’re smelling or hearing that’s nice, that you enjoy, and let a bit of your mind rest on that. There’s a lot that’s uncomfortable about this, but it’s not supposed to be this grind and if it is, I predict a short career for you. So, find a way to enjoy it and make it a sensual experience.
And avoid frustration, you know? It’s too easy when we catch ourselves daydreaming to think that the way to stop that from happening again is to internally castigate ourselves, and to be angry. But that is also a ticket to burnout. You get up angry and you don’t want to try again.
So, when you interrupt a train of thought, just be glad that you accomplished that, not angry that you were lost. And even if the whole meditation period feels like a total loss—like, you just thought about work for half an hour straight—you did it. You kept the habit up; it’s still there, strong and with integrity for the next time that you try it. So, give yourself a pat on the back, no matter how it went, so that you can look forward to that same sense of satisfaction the next time you sit.
If you do have pain when you sit—it doesn’t necessarily have to be painful. There’s a workshop next Sunday, in 10 days, October 13, it’s called Zen and Your Body: Mutual Adaptation. Yuuka and Howard are leading it and they’re going to help anybody find a way of sitting and a cushion that will work so that you can sit with as little pain as possible. It should be possible to sit comfortably.
It doesn’t have to be boring, either. I think killing off a meditation period, letting the time go by, getting it over with, is boring. But doing your best to stay present, using every technique and every ounce of willpower at your disposal to prevent daydreaming and to listen to your thoughts consciously, and to be present here, that’s a challenge and challenges are fun. So really do it, and enjoy that challenge.
So that’s method number five, to enjoy it.
I hope that if we keep these five methods in mind, that it will really get us off to a good start and create a solid foundation. So that’s:
- Do it the same way every time.
- Start small.
- Sit with people.
- Don’t expect something special out of any single meditation period.
- Enjoy it.
That’ll establish the habit. That will get you started. But we also all know that just getting started is not enough. It’s not enough to just meditate a little. It’s not enough to just meditate at home.
If you really want to transform your life the way I do, we have to practice solidly every day. We have to practice with a strong sangha, like this one, of people with the same goals and intention as we do. We have to work with teachers, experienced practitioners who will guide us away from dead ends or dangerous paths in our practice. Keep us on the path of awakening. We have to read Buddhist texts.
That kind of chronic meditation can take us far, but we also need acute meditation from time to time. To really go deep sometimes you have to meditate for more than half an hour. We have one-day retreats called zazenkais once a month here, where we sit for half-hour periods—many, many in a row—over one day, and the entire day is spent in silence. You can talk to a teacher and there’s a dharma talk, and this will really get you deeper and have a lasting effect on your practice. Same for the multi-day retreats. We have a weeklong retreat coming up. The Year End Sesshin starts the day after Christmas and lasts through New Years Day. And the whole thing is in silence and it’s a ton of meditation, and that will really make a lasting difference, too.
But it’s not even enough to have a solid, daily practice and to go on these one-day or one-week retreats. We’ve got to share our practice with people. You can’t just achieve peace of mind and then sit there smiling and abandon the rest of the world to its sadness.
In a way, the idea of individual practice doesn’t even make sense. Think about what happened with me and the Whole Foods cashier. I had gone to the county jail and shared my practice with him and it affected his life. Then the next time we met, he shared his practice with me and that affected my life. And I’m keeping the wheel going. I go to Sing Sing regularly with our meditation program there and I share my practice with them. We’re always practicing together. When Buddha had his big awakening moment after he’d sat under a tree for a week, he didn’t say, “Aha! I personally am awake!” He said, “Wonder of wonders, I, all beings and the great earth are simultaneously awakened.” That’s what’s happening for us here.
So meditating and being a regular meditator, is sharing the practice with other people, with your friends and your family, with everybody in the world.
But in my opinion meditating alone is not enough either. We vow to free everybody from suffering. That’s the Zen path, that we vow to be bodhisattvas who are people committed to helping everybody wake up. But, just going around talking about meditation is not enough to end the suffering of the world. It’s great for my friend in Austin county jail, that he personally didn’t get into a fight because of the meditation technique that we taught him. But, the world is broken so long as there are county jails that are full of people who haven’t even been convicted of a crime, who are there because they are too poor to make bail, or because the judge took one look at them and decided that they were a flight risk.
Just going in there and teaching meditation is not enough. It’s why the zendo has been very involved in the Close Rikers campaign. And the same with Sing Sing, where people are serving just absurdly long sentences—decades, or life, absurdly long for the crimes that they’ve been convicted of, and in many cases those convictions are completely false anyway. So it’s great that we go in there and we teach meditation, but we also write letters to Governor Cuomo and stand vigil outside his house demanding more clemency.
So is that enough? If we meditate regularly, if we go on retreats, if we share our practice with others, if we work to transform the world—is that enough? I don’t know. It seems like a lot of work. But I know that everybody here is already doing all of this passionately. Doing everything you can to wake up and to help others wake up. And to transform the world, to end suffering and injustice. I know that, I think, because you’re here. And you have come here to refresh and to strengthen your meditation practice. Because I believe, and you might also believe, that a solid practice is the foundation of everything else that we are committed to.
I hope that my talk here today helped you to accomplish that.
Image: Rock in my Grandma’s yard, 2007.