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Don't just do something, sit there

By Ann Allen, The Charlotte Observer, Jun. 6, 2009

Charlotte, North Carolina (USA) -- Despite what you may think, the keys to meditation are beginning it and being in the moment.

<< The hardest part of meditation isn't quieting the mind or tolerating sore knees or explaining to your family what the heck you're doing.

The hardest part of meditation is actually sitting down on a chair or cushion and beginning. Then, to get the benefits of meditation, the instructions become simple: Repeat for a lifetime.

That's why “Commit to Sit” is such a valuable new manual. It gets to the basics, including the initial problem of commitment, without a lot of intellectual chit-chat. Its contributors are many of the best – and best-known – meditation teachers in the West.

The three dozen or so short essays have been compiled from the magazine Tricycle, a quarterly Buddhist review. Although this book has its roots in Buddhist meditation (after all, they are experts), this guidance would be useful to anyone of any religion who wants to explore the fertile territory of silence and contemplation. While its language and metaphors are Buddhist, “Commit to Sit” isn't pushing Buddhist religion. It is teaching the ecumenical fundamentals of meditation practice.

These teachers use the term “practice” deliberately. Meditation isn't something you accomplish, like writing a novel; it's something you practice, like playing the piano. It's both a physical and a mental activity, and it is widely misunderstood.

“Meditation is not about getting away from it all, numbing out, or stopping thoughts,” writes Lama Surya Das in the opening essay, “The Heart of Meditation.”

“Meditation, simply defined, is a way of being aware.... Meditation masters teach us how to be precisely present and focused on this one breath, the only breath; this moment, the only moment. Whether we're aware of it or not, we are quite naturally present to this moment – where else could we be? Meditation is simply a way of knowing this.”

His guided meditation follows – gentle instructions on how to sit comfortably, settle down, use the breath as an anchor to the moment, and then, “Enjoy the buoyant peace, harmony, and delight of natural meditation.”

A sample of the essays:

Sharon Salzberg and Joseph Goldstein on cultivating a daily practice: Meditate around the same time each day; find a quiet place; bring inspiring objects to your meditation space; keep the practice simple, without judgments or expectations.

(The book also includes the magazine's instructions for a 28-day meditation challenge, useful for establishing a meditation habit.)

Yoga for meditators, with photographs, and other essays on movement meditation.

Sylvia Boorstein's “Focusing on the Breath,” with an intriguing look at what we can see in just five minutes of meditation.

Clark Strand on using rosaries and prayer beads to free ourselves from worry. When he talks about meditating on Amida, the Buddha of the Pure Land, a Christian could substitute Jesus and come to the same peaceful place.

Michael Carroll on work challenges, Michele McDonald on surviving a traffic jam, and Sandra Weinberg on using mindfulness to stop overeating, among several essays on how to carry meditation into everyday life.

Jon Kabat-Zinn writes about coping with chronic pain, and Karen Ready gives tips for those with sore backs in “Pull Up a Chair.”

These two essays, particularly, resonate with an underlying theme of the book, and Buddhism, too, for that matter: Life is not all we would like it to be. It seems there's always something wrong, or something changing, or something we're afraid of losing. The path to wisdom and serenity lies in learning how to deal with these difficulties, whether as mild as sleepiness (drink coffee, one writer advises) or as severe as physical pain or fresh grief.

“As human beings we have a very low tolerance for discomfort,” Pema Chodrön writes in the foreword. “But it is precisely at the place where we can't get comfortable that the journey to awakening begins.”

Before you set off on the journey, grab a copy of this book. It's both a map and a companion, and well worth carrying.

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Ann Allen is the Observer's books page editor and a longtime meditator.



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