[The shortcut to regular sitting sketched in this post was written with beginners in mind, but experienced meditators might find it useful.]
The most important element in a successful practice is regularity. (We can put off the definition of “successful practice” for now.) To do some amount of seated, inner work on a daily basis is the quickest way to acquire the skills that make it possible to bring about lasting changes in attitudes and behaviors. It is also the key to consolidating the gains made in “breakthrough” moments. Retreats provide opportunities for extending and intensifying contemplative experience, and should be attended as often as possible. However, in the absence of a regular schedule of cultivation, the benefits of intensive practice quickly dissipate because they cannot be sustained or integrated. There is no substitute for daily sitting.
The single greatest obstacle to the establishment of a regular sitting practice is the perception that there is not enough time. A common response to the prospect of daily sessions is something along the lines of “I already have too much to do. Sitting is just one more thing to fit into an overcrowded schedule.” Signs of stress can manifest at the very thought of adding yet another commitment to a long list.
Some of you will be familiar with an anecdote that is pertinent to the topic. The new student asks how often s/he should sit. The teacher suggests that s/he might start with half an hour, twice a day. The student becomes agitated, and says, “That won’t do at all. I’m much too busy to sit for 30 minutes twice a day!” “In that case,” the teacher replies, “Sit for an hour twice a day.”
The point of this story has nothing to do with time. Rather, it is a way of saying that we all take the concept of time far too seriously. Time is an idea, whereas the sense of time’s passage is a measurement of events in relation to each other, mental events included. Time expands and contracts according to the way we choose to observe the many changes that are always happening and how we feel about them. Ultimately time is just what we think it is. Therefore, when we cease to pay attention to our thoughts and begin to observe the various kinds of change within the flow of sensation—which is what we do when we meditate—the sense of the passage of time is attenuated. We could say that constraints on our time get in the way of our practicing only when we think about them.
A friend’s young son was disappointed because while on vacation they could not stop to visit an amusement park that was located along their route. The boy listened as his father explained that he had to be back at work by a particular date. “I just don’t have enough time,” he said. The boy pondered the matter for a few moments. Then his face brightened and he said, “I know! I’ve got plenty of time. I’ll give you some.”
The objective aspect of time comprises events and their relations, but those relations frequently change, and the perspectives from which we measure them shift with changing circumstances. The subjective aspect of time is marvelously elastic. Despite those challenges, and the social pressure to believe that time is an external force driving us along inexorably, it is possible to initiate a regular daily practice of meditation by adopting a simple strategy, namely, to set one’s sights upon a modest goal to be attained by modest means.
Anyone, no matter how busy, can sit for nine minutes a day. If necessary you can set the alarm clock to ring ten minutes earlier than usual and sit as soon as possible after waking up. There are at least two obvious virtues to such a discipline. First, the early part of the morning is quiet. If you arise before the others in your household, you are less likely to be disturbed. Second, within fifteen minute after rising you have accomplished your task. If you can manage to sit for nine minutes in the evening, too, so much the better.
For some people it will be necessary to drink a caffeinated beverage first thing before sitting; others will find that a warmup and stretching, or a 30-minute walk, will greatly improve their ability to relax and focus. Do what you must, but sit. Set the timer for ten minutes and give yourself a few seconds to assume the posture and settle down.
Bear in mind that, in the cultivation of mindful attention and clear comprehension, quality is more important than quantity. Nine minutes of consistent attention to posture, for instance, is preferable to forty minutes of daydreaming and waiting for the buzzer. For nine minutes, make the effort to stay on track. Unless you are one of those rare “naturals,” you will be distracted at some point, probably by your own thoughts. Don’t be hard on yourself if you find it to be difficult for a while. Perfect concentration is not the practice. Returning again and again, calmly and gently, to the task at hand, that is the practice. Stay with the process for nine minutes and do not concern yourself with the results, which will show themselves in their own good time.