Home-Dweller Meditation

It is an old story ~ A practitioner wishes to meditate regularly but either can’t (or doesn’t want to) find the time to do it consistently. The limiting factor can be geographic, physical or mental reasons that prevent them from attending a larger, “proper” sangha.  For my situation, I am stuck between lack of time, massive leftover guilt from my Catholic upbringing and too few local resources to tap.  While my local grassroots Soto Zen sitting group is accommodating, it is still difficult to find time away from family needs and duties to attend regularly.  It becomes a mental battle between the want to practice with a group, my innate guilt for leaving for a time that may be better used and my want to spend some quality time with family.  The ropes tug back and forth.

So, except for some special occasions, my practice is a home-practice.  Which means that the motivation and diligence is squarely in my novice hands, slave to the ebb and sway of work, visiting family, depression and dogs…But luckily, after some trial and error, I was able to come up with a routine that I can stick to, and thought that it would be a good enough time to share a bit of it with the hope of benefiting those in a similar situation.

First, set up everything the night before.  I am a morning person and rarely sleep past 6 AM and it is easier for me to stick to a morning meditation schedule and not an evening one.  But even a the brisk hour of 5 AM, I am still limited in time and discovered that my largest hurdle was laziness in setting up cushions/mats and altar that early in the morning. So I set out everything (mats, cushion, clothes etc), prepare incense and have an online digital timer ready to go the night before.  It has become a part of my meditation routine to include some ritual the night before.

Take a second to set an alarm for 10-15 minutes earlier than your planned sitting time but not so much that you will get caught up in some other task.  Oh my! Dishes need  washing and there is a hamper full of clothes, a litter box full of shit … posts need crafting and hair needs setting.  Since it is easy to become distracted with other bits of living I sit as soon as I come out of the bathroom.  The morning is fresh and my mind is not racing with the myriad of tasks for the day.  This is the best time.

I hate affirmations but…maybe a little something to get into the mood just as you wake up.  Something quick that will get you motivated. Perhaps a blog?  My personal favorites are John Daido Roshi’s “Invoking Reality“, Richard Baker Roshi’s “Minatures of a Zen Master“, Pema Chodron’s “Start Where You Are“, Master Cheng Yen’s “Jing Si Aphorisms” or I just run to Access to Insight and click on “Random Sutta”

Take it seriously and don’t consider it *just* meditation.  We are rotting from the first moment we are conceived.  Nothing slows down the process but this practice may help us deal with it.  I dedicate my practice to anyone that needs it.  Metta to my daughter.  Thoughts to my friends that are feeling the bite of samsara.  The dedication that by beginning to realize myself I can act in benefit for all other sentient beings.  Yeah, its lofty but it *is* that important. 

Laugh and loosen up.  In all this seriousness there is humor.  Sometimes it just won’t happen, accept it.  The dog will need to go out or you will get bum-rushed by a toddler.  All those sentient beings understand that you have a life too and that it affects your practice.  Strive but not to the point of self-defeat.

Start out small and build up rather than go for broke and beat your head against the zendo wall.  I started with 10 minutes and moved up to 15 and then to 25.  That is the peak of what I can do with my current situation and I am ok with that.  Purists will tell you that anything under 45 minutes is a waste of time.  Meditation is never a waste of time.  Any moment spent in the process of realizing yourself is time well spent.

Find a substitution for meditation.  There are times that sitting is out of the question for whatever reason and I have a back up activity.  In lieu of seated meditation I engage in walking meditation up and down a few blocks, yoga or try to do 108 prostrations.  I even had 108 push-ups as a possible replacement when I needed to get in a work-out and had too much energy to sit.  Often, I walk in the morning when meditation isn’t fitting into the schedule.  I walk either silently or listening to a liturgy (Soto, Seon or Shingon) recording.  Dharma talks didn’t work as well since I tended to focus more on the words than on the breathing and walking. 

Practice is more than just meditation.  Some simply don’t like meditation or can’t make it work.  Find a different practice.  There are plenty of Dharma doors that can be opened…they all lead to the same place.

Meditation is a process and not a goal.  Expecting a revelation on the first sit is like expecting to hit a home-run against a major league pitcher the first time you hold a bat.  Yeah, there is a slight chance but let’s be realistic, you are sitting against a trained and capable foe ~ your self.  And the most devious weapon in its repertoire is the idea that there is a “right” meditation versus a “wrong” meditation.  Rather, any moment of self-reflection is of benefit both to you and to those around you.  Don’t expect a good sit or a bad sit.  It is all the same.  When tired, we will have snatches of daydreams drift in an out of consciousness.  When stressed we will mull over problems and puzzles from work.  When angry we will seeth over the causes of our anger.   None of these things negate our meditation.  Just don’t let them dominate.

Meditation won’t make me happy.  It won’t.  It is simply not the purpose of meditation to make us happy.  What it will do is make you more receptive to being happy, content and compassionate in your daily life.  It isn’t a magical elixir that will solve all your problems or make your life a sea of bliss.  Just as brushing your teeth will prevent rot; meditation will prevent the corrosive nature of samsara from rusting your glimmer.  It ain’t much but it will keep you focused on how attentive you are through the day.  How equitable you are to family, friends and complete strangers.  How steeped our actions are in anger or in compassion.  How calmly we handle stress and strain.  How quickly are we to levy blame onto others or ourselves.

Our practice isn’t simply how we sit – It’s how we live our life.  It is the act of meditation that provides a template of how to express the subtle nature of the Dharma.  But that template is useless if not applied to our everyday life.


26 thoughts on “Home-Dweller Meditation

  1. Thank you John. I’m in the middle of trying to design a home practice, and posts like these are both a great inspiration and a great help.

    These are the times when I find the greater iSangha invaluable.


  2. “Practice is more than just meditation. Some simply don’t like meditation or can’t make it work. Find a different practice. There are plenty of Dharma doors…”

    Any suggestions on other Dharma practices? I stink at meditation and not because I think I’m doing it wrong. I have tried for years to have a daily zazen practice and have always failed for one reason or another, even with the best of advice from Buddhist teachers, authors and friends. I must travel a long way to do zazen with a sangha and it’s just simply not worth the effort anymore.
    So I understand what you’re speaking about all to well. At this point I have given up on it all.

    • Personally, I think chanting and listening to chants is a good way but it is all about internalizing the Dharma. For a time I would practice yoga, and do walking meditation and chant. I find blogging as a form of practice as well. Prostrations are sutra study.

  3. I am not a teacher and never pretend to be. These posts are my own musings as a practitioner and nothing else. I am the first person to insist that readers find their own path or a teacher if it suits them.

    I never said my version of meditating was “right” or “wrong”. It is just what I do and it is in constant flux. Buddhist monks and nuns dedicate their entire lives to practice and that is an amazing feat that I deeply respect and don’t pretend to copy. What I attempt is my own personal practice within the confines of a home-dweller, a family man, a 9-5’er and emerging Buddhist. I stumble through this practice humbly and with compassion to the best of my ability.

    • Thanks. No one has a monopoly on compassion or selfishness. I’m usually better at selfishness than compassion, but I’m working on it. I have enough trouble getting through my own day w/o making it harder for someone else to do the same. Thanks again.

  4. Just to let everyone know. I have trashed Panchenlama’s comments. He/she insists on preaching the same line of crap when he visits and adds nothing new to the conversation.

    This is something that I rarely do and hopefully will not have to do again. Please feel free to comment openly and honestly.


        • Sometimes, it’s just better that way.

          You’ve never moderated (to my knowledge) commenters that simply disagree with you, only the jerk spammers. I had to do the same, when I was blogging on blogger, and someone hit all my posts with a bunch of garbage about how the eightfold path was evil and full of self-righteous hate.

          As the saying goes, don’t feed the trolls.

    • Thanks for the comment! BTW, your recent “parable” is awesome. I’ve been mulling it over and it speaks volumes to me as a compassionate practitioner in that any religious (or non-religious) POV is determined by what the person brings into it.

      That does not differ on tradition. As individuals we bring in compassion, open-mindedness and broad thinking. At the same time we each bring fear, insecurity and hope. It is how we relate these to our practice that matters. I’ll take a kind/compassionate Christian over a fundamental, argumentative, close-minded Buddhist any day.


  5. Thank you so much for this. I echo Michael’s comment about finding meditation practice (at least at this stage for me) more frustrating than it is helpful. Chanting? Yeah…that sounds good. I’ll try that

    • I view it as tools at our disposal. If one is proving ineffective; we need to change it up. There is a point where constant striving at a method that does not fit into our lives will only lead to harm. Better to find a better tool, a new approach.

      I like meditation and I feel it benefits me. The same with chanting, reading sutras and listening to Dharma talks. The meditation opens me to the Dharma, the Dharma opens me more to practice, practice leads to internalization of compassion and wisdom and that leads to a happy life.

      At least I think so.


  6. I have been walking around thinking about this post for the last couple of days and it has really helped me. Thankyou for your vulnerability and your practical insights. I was inspired to write a blog post in return about practicing at home.

    Thankyou for being a helpful person on my path. It has made a genuine difference to me. I have bookmarked and retweeted this post as well.

    With sincere metta!

    • I think it may have been some comments from you and another reader/practitioner that led me to believe that I needed to talk about my practice more, especially the practical and difficult parts.


  7. This post was wonderful with a lot of great tips. I practice yoga regularly, but often have difficulty in the sitting of meditation. However, since taking a yoga/writing challenge in June, its something I’ve been working on. I appreciate your personal challenges and insights.

  8. Very useful and timely. I struggled with this for years. Between work & extra after hours work to make ends meet, combined with helping take of elderly parent… meditation practice suffered many times.

  9. Thank you. This post is very helpful to me. My transition to Pittsburgh the last two months has set me off balance. This post is bell bringing me back, waking me up. Thank you.

    • Nothing was deleted of yours by my hand. This one should still be on the page…

      “Practice is more than just meditation. Some simply don’t like meditation or can’t make it work. Find a different practice. There are plenty of Dharma doors…”

      Any suggestions on other Dharma practices? I stink at meditation and not because I think I’m doing it wrong. I have tried for years to have a daily zazen practice and have always failed for one reason or another, even with the best of advice from Buddhist teachers, authors and friends. I must travel a long way to do zazen with a sangha and it’s just simply not worth the effort anymore.
      So I understand what you’re speaking about all to well. At this point I have given up on it all.

  10. A great post as I too struggle with such things. For me, it was something I rad online about one’s “ship” being off-course and either you make the time to correct it it not. I guess if you ralize your own plight you will be more notivatd that way, like someone who has heart disease and finally excercises and loses weight. This, oupled with similar experiences I’ve had to the ones here helped, at least for now. 🙂

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