The single thing that improved my daily life the most in 2013 was starting a daily meditation practice. Specifically, Buddhist meditation based on techniques from the Ānāpānasati Sutta and Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta. In this post I will share why I started, how I did it and some pleasant results.
As I suspect many new parents do, I felt deeply anxious about money after my daughter was born. A better home, private school, an Ivy League education and other bourgeois desires were constantly on my mind. How would we pay for all that stuff in addition to the ordinary accessories of family life?
The more I examined this feeling, the more I realized how prevalent it was. I craved the things I thought we needed as a family, most of which involved material wealth, and feared losing what we had. Not only that, the pattern repeated elsewhere. I craved more personal time and feared the loss of it. I craved professional success and feared the loss of it.
The First Noble Truth
The pattern sounded an awful lot like the “First Noble Truth” of Buddhism, which I’d read some years before and had stuck with me. The First Noble Truth is that suffering is part of life. “Suffering” is a common translation of the original Pali word, “dukkha.” Here is Wikipedia’s version of what that word means:
- The obvious physical and mental suffering associated with birth, growing old, illness and dying.
- The anxiety or stress of trying to hold onto things that are constantly changing.
- A basic unsatisfactoriness pervading all forms of existence, due to the fact that all forms of life are changing, impermanent and without any inner core or substance. On this level, the term indicates a lack of satisfaction, a sense that things never measure up to our expectations or standards.
This seemed to match my feelings in more ways than one.
A way out?
I won’t go into the other claims made in the Four Noble Truths except to say that they promise a way out of the suffering described. That was the other thing about Buddhism that stuck with me over the years. The promise of a means to live better was powerful enough, and I was perturbed enough, that I decided to devote serious time to investigating these claims.
I picked up some books by Thich Nhat Hanh and started reading. I also began trying to find a meditation practice that worked for me.
Learning how to meditate … again
I was exposed to meditation several years earlier from books in the Soto Zen tradition, so I tried those techniques first. Every morning I spent five or ten minutes counting breaths and avoiding thought. It didn’t work. I squirmed and couldn’t wait for the timer to go off.
This was a surprise because I had the unarticulated assumption that specific techniques — things as small as what to do with the eyes or breath — did not matter. (Spoiler alert: they did matter and they meant the difference between me squirming for five minutes or meditating for thirty.)
I put all my personal projects and hobbies on hold and committed to trying different meditation techniques, and eventually I found a few that worked. The important thing was not that I found one set of practices that worked 100% of the time, but that I expanded my pool of available practices. I reacted better to different approaches depending on my physical and emotional state, location and the weather outside (not a joke, you’ll see).
What worked and what didn’t
The practice that stopped working for me was the half-lotus position, breathing in through the nose and out through the mouth, with spine straight, and eyes in what is sometimes described as “soft gaze.”
The biggest problem I had was soft gaze. I had read that you should avoid closing your eyes while meditating because doing so invoked a sleep-like state. (Or something like that.) My understanding of soft gaze is that instead of closing your eyes, you leave them open, fix on an object and relax them until they lose focus. I used to be able to do this, but on trying again I found that it was distracting. In the spirit of Thich Nhat Hanh, who advised to avoid discomfort, I eliminated it. Instead, I closed my eyes.
That left me with half-lotus, breathing in through the nose and out through the mouth, spine straight and eyes closed. It was an improvement, but I soon found that having to open and close my mouth was also distracting. I tried keeping my mouth shut and breathing through my nose only. It was a small change, but it eliminated another distraction.
By this time I was meditating around an hour a day, and I started to develop knee pain. Again following TNH’s advice, I dropped the half-lotus position and sat upright in a chair instead. This was hardly what a monk might consider “meditation,” but I didn’t care. I was seeing good early results, like the ability to enter a calming state while meditating and to enjoy greater ease throughout the day.
Why sit when you can walk?
After I established my technique, sitting meditation went better than it ever had, but I didn’t love it. After sitting all day for work, I didn’t want to sit even more to meditate. That was when I decided to try walking meditation, which I had read about it in TNH’s books.
I had never tried walking meditation or wanted to do it before, mostly because I felt like I would look silly. Once I shrugged off worrying about what my neighbors thought of me ambling around the neighborhood, I could do twenty or thirty minutes of meditation that way easily, and I looked forward to it. I stopped working out at the gym and instead took a couple of 1 – 3 hour walks on a local wooded trail during the week, meditating the entire time, and shorter walks on some mornings before work. In the early morning, at night or when the weather was bad, I would sit.
The practice I used for walking meditation came from TNH. I would say “in, in, in” as I took steps — one “in” for every step on an in-breath — and “out, out, out” — one “out” for every out-breath. This helped me to reach a meditative state quickly.
Other things I tried were lying-down meditation and guided meditation. These also worked well, in particular listening to guided meditations on my back, as long as it wasn’t too late at night.
Wait, why was I meditating?
Meditating was nice, but I realized pretty quickly that I was just using it to relax. Having greater ease in my body and a reliable way to enter a relaxing physical state were great, and reduced some of the tension and anxiety I was holding, but I did not feel that I had addressed the root problem of my original uneasiness.
I decided to move on from more introductory books on Buddhism and expand directly into the sutras. TNH’s collection of sutra translations and commentaries, Awakening of the Heart, was my first attempt. The book collected several of what TNH considered the most important Buddhist sutras. It was exactly what I needed.
Going to back to the source
The first sutras I read were the Ānāpānasati Sutta (The Sutra on the Full Awareness of Breathing), which had instructions on meditation techniques, and the Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta (The Sutra on the Four Establishments of Mindfulness), which detailed “mindfulness” practices. What I loved about these sutras was that I immediately saw results after trying their instructions. Of course, all of my sutra reading involved a bit of cultural interpretation because my life is so clearly different from that of a two-thousand-plus-year-old monk. TNH’s commentary did a great job of helping bridge the gap.
The next notable sutras I read were the Prajñāpāramitā Hṛdaya Sutta (The Heart Sutra) and the Vajracchedikā Prajñāpāramitā Sutta (The Diamond Sutra) and commentaries. These seemed more like Buddhist analyses of reality than instructions (even though part of the Diamond Sutra implies it can be practiced — maybe you practice it by teaching it).
The commentaries were key
TNH’s commentaries identified some of the core ideas behind the instructional texts, which I found easy to incorporate as mental and physical practices during meditation. Practicing these rather than reading them was most important. The opposite was true for the Heart Sutra and the Diamond Sutra, which I found if I spent the time to contemplate regularly, influenced my appreciation of nearly every aspect of my daily life.
I now own a vast collection of translated sutras many of which I haven’t read yet, but I still prefer Awakening of the Heart. It’s more focused than the historical collections in which basically everything anyone ever ascribed to the Buddha is written down, including a bunch of stuff I doubt many modern readers would find seriously useful, like cosmologies and long discussions of past lives. Buddhist practice is hard enough to learn without having to also deal with the strange cultural artifacts littered through thousands-of-years-old texts.
In the sutras and commentaries I found a context for meditation that opened up a shift in my perspective on life. I won’t navel-gaze into the specifics much except to say that I gained a fuller appreciation of my existence as being relational and unquantifiable in effect and consistency. Hand-wavy, right? I can at least enumerate some of the positive results of staying grounded in this perspective:
- I felt a lot more steady
- I was relieved of much ambient anxiety
- I did not fear death actively (like while flying)
- I experienced a richer relationship with my wife and daughter and a deep sense of gratitude and awe toward the natural world
- My empathy expanded, leading me to become much more committed to a vegan diet than I had been
I also fully accept that this was a consequence of some amount of cognitive reprogramming, which seems to be a goal of Buddhist practice.
Meditation was great. Doing it while reading and contemplating Buddhist ideas was even better. It changed my perspective on life and eliminated much of my anxiety. The strong feelings of empathy meditating seemed to generate helped me to understand better the incredible amount of work my wife undertakes every day, which I like to think brought us closer. I deepened my commitment to a vegan diet and lifestyle.
Meditating did not, however, stop me from getting defensive with my wife or magically become more self-sacrificing, thought I felt I could throw a brighter light on those things when they happened.
Also, as with exercise, any positive benefit seemed to vanish if I stopped the daily routine. Meditation appears to be an activity I need to maintain continuously.
I’ve tapered down from my peak of 1 – 2 hours a day and I definitely miss that level. Next I hope to find the right balance of practice to other aspects of my life. I may join a community of people who meditate together, but I would probably settle for getting my wife into it.