Zen

How to Reaffirm Your Meditation Practice and Get Back Up When You Fail

How to Reaffirm Your Meditation Practice and Get Back Up When You Fail

When you commit to meditation practice, you begin on the path towards self-discovery.

And along this path you'll experience dozens of "little defeats" or adversities. Anyone that's ever worked to do something (anything) has encountered them. It's simply part of the process towards personal and spiritual growth.

Those little defeats don't point to your own inability, though. In fact, they serve as guideposts indicating that you're about to push beyond your current state to something "greater".

Your meditation practice, as well as your goals in the practice, will be unique to you. However, everyone encounters essentially the same types of adversities, or little defeats, along the way that threaten to undermine your efforts: the psychological barrier that convinces us we're being unproductive if we choose to meditate instead of work, the constant busyness that clouds our mind and leaves us asking, "what happened?" at the end of each day, and the fear that we're not practicing properly.

No matter which applies to you, eventually, you're going to lose focus. These adversities and the resulting loss of focus are a natural part of the process (of doing anything, really), so you'll need to know how to get passed them to be able to maintain a consistent practice that brings you calm and clarity.

A loss of focus could last a few hours, days, even months or worst of all if left untreated could lead you to quit on your meditation practice altogether. It's because of this that when these little defeats occur, it's important to treat them with a great sense of urgency.

Free Guided Meditations for Greater Peace and Clarity

Free Guided Meditations

Sometimes, I wonder what the Buddha would have thought about guided meditations.

I think he would have approved of them as useful tools for the beginner learning the ways of meditation, or even for someone experienced that's simply going through a difficult challenge and needs a voice to guide them to a place of greater calmness and clarity of mind.

In any case, more than anything else, it matters what you think. What you feel. What works for you. And that's why I, and why so many others, enjoy guided meditations.

Guided meditations are more than just words on a page (as much as I enjoy writing). The sound of the teacher or speaker in your ear guiding you through the meditation is the closest thing to having a real teacher right there with you as you can get without actually having one there.

My podcast, Zen for Everyday Life, features two weekly episodes. One is a talk discussing similar topics like those I discuss on the blog. The second is a free guided meditation on everything from classic mindfulness meditation forms such as the Zen form of zazen, to loving-kindness, to Thich Nhat Hanh's practice of Going Home, as well as new and unique free guided meditations that I've created such as Healing Through Understanding and Just Being.

Below is a neatly compiled list of the best free guided meditations from the Zen for Everyday Life podcast. Check back here regularly for new guided meditations.

Free Guided Meditations for Greater Peace and Clarity

*Click the corresponding link to go to the guided meditation page. Right click the big yellow download button and click "Save file as..." to download the file to your computer or simply hit Play to listen on the page.

  1. Breath As Life - The basic mindfulness practice of mindful breathing. This is a 1-click free download separate from the podcast. Nothing, not even an email, is required to download this. All you need to do is click the link. Enjoy.
  2. Going Home - This guided mindfulness meditation is on Thich Nhat Hanh's classic mindful breathing practice. This is the simplest of practices and is really what mindful breathing is all about- going home to yourself with mindfulness.
  3. Zazen (Zen sitting meditation) - This a guided meditation for the classic Zen form of mindfulness meditation. It's basically mindful breathing in a very free manner (as opposed to Vipassana, which is more active).
  4. Minful Refresh - This is a guided morning meditation for starting your day off fresh each day with a simple mindfulness practice. This, to date, is one of the most popular guided meditations I've done and a personal favorite.
  5. Just Being - Just Being is very close to the Zen practice of "just sitting" or shikantaza. It's the practice of accepting everything openly as it is with mindfulness and just being in this moment. Another community + personal favorite.
  6. Healing Through Understanding - This is a very active guided meditation and it's all about opening the mind after a difficult conflict with another person.
  7. A Mindful WelcomeA Mindful Welcome is about the fundamental shift from “hostile enemy” to “welcoming friend” we must make to begin the path of healing emotionally.
  8. Mindful Wisdom (@42:16 in the episode)- Mindful Wisdom is a moment-to-moment mindfulness and contemplative practice I created for unlocking your own intuitive wisdom. What would the Buddha do?
  9. Mindfulness of Body (@40:10 in the episode) - The traditional mindfulness of body meditation.
  10. Loving-Kindness - Loving-kindness meditation is the traditional Buddhist meditation practice of cultivating positive feelings and well-wishes for all beings.
  11. Mindful Walking / Walking Meditation (Formal Practice) - The formal practice of walking meditation typically done immediately following a session of sitting meditation in many Buddhist circles.
  12. Mindful Cleaning - A powerful mindfulness practice that takes a typically boring and mundane activity and turns it into something nourishing and delightful.
  13. Mindful Driving - A powerful mindfulness practice for turning a typically mindless autopilot activity into an opportunity for peace and mindfulness. 
  14. Mindful Breathing (Basic Mindfulness Meditation) - The fundamental practice of mindful breathing. When you hear “mindfulness meditation” (which typically refers to the secular practice of mindfulness) this is the practice that’s being referred to.
  15. Mindful Walking (Informal Everyday Practice) - The “everyday” informal practice of mindful walking. 
  16. Mindful Eating - If you’re looking for a way to live your everyday life more mindfully and even meditatively, this is a great practice which serves as one of the core mindfulness exercises.
  17. Being in Your Meditation Space - A special guided meditation from my course Meditation for Everyday Life which is designed to help you "settle" into your designated meditation space and cultivate it into a place of solace.
  18. Mindful Smiling - This guided meditation is all about using the power of intention and the natural effect of smiling with mindfulness.
  19. Rise with the Sun (a Guided Morning Meditation) - Rise with the Sun is about taking inventory before the day gets started so that you’re on solid ground and can handle the challenges of your day with more poise and clarity.

And remember to subscribe to the Zen for Everyday Life podcast for new weekly talks & guided meditations:

How to Meditate for Beginners

How to Meditate for Beginners via Buddhaimonia

"Meditation is all about the pursuit of nothingness. It's like the ultimate rest. It's better than the best sleep you've ever had. It's a quieting of the mind. It sharpens everything, especially your appreciation of your surroundings. It keeps life fresh."

-Hugh Jackman

 

"There are techniques of Buddhism, such as meditation, that anyone can adopt."

- The Dalai Lama

 

"Meditation can help us embrace our worries, our fear, our anger; and that is very healing. We let our own natural capacity of healing do the work."

- Thich Nhat Hanh

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Get the How to Meditate for Beginners PDF (the complete guide in a beautiful PDF format) free by entering your name and email below:

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  1. What is Meditation?
  2. Why Should I Meditate?
  3. How to Meditate
  4. Walking Meditation
  5. Other Forms of Meditation
  6. What's the Difference between Mindfulness and Meditation?
  7. Frequently Asked Questions
  8. Additional Resources

What is Meditation?

Meditation has been practiced for thousands of years and by people all across the world. There are many different forms of meditation and so it can seem difficult to nail down exactly what meditation really is. But, ultimately, they all come down to one major idea:

A mental technique characterized by absorption of the mind on an object (either mental or physical) and used to develop or maintain a state of mind. 

When I say absorption, I mean primarily the mind becoming completely and utterly concentrated or focused on that particular object or objects. It's that absorption which is the central characteristic of meditation. No matter what form of meditation, this complete absorption of the mind on something is there.

Also, you don't even have to be sitting down to meditate. Mindfulness, the central component nearly of all Buddhist meditation techniques and schools, particularly Zen and Vipassana, is essentially keeping one's attention alive to the present moment.

For that reason, mindfulness can be done anywhere and at any time. Sitting, walking, driving, eating, and cleaning are all great examples of effective mindfulness activities. Simply practicing mindfulness is itself a form of meditation.

That isn't to say that anything can replace sitting in meditation though. "Sitting meditation", as the simple practice of sitting and practicing meditation is typically called, is the most concentrated of meditative exercises. Sitting meditation allows the practitioner to attain the highest state of absorption, or the deepest states of meditation (simply put, it's more effective), and is therefore practiced more than anything else.

How to Meditate for Beginners will cover the most basic and fundamental of all meditation practices: the practice of mindfulness meditation.

Mindfulness meditation is a form of Buddhist meditation, having originated more than 2,500 years ago with the Buddha in the area around India and Nepal, and it has remained the central meditation practice for all Buddhists up to the modern day (Buddhist meditation techniques being the most popular, well-known, and highly developed of all meditative practices).

To learn more about mindfulness, read What is Mindfulness? A Guide to Mindfulness Meditation.

How to Meditate for Beginners via Buddhaimonia

Why Should I Meditate?

So, why should you even bother meditating? Meditation is the practice of looking deeply. Looking deeply into ourselves and the world around us. Overall, it allows us to realize the fundamental ingredients for peace and happiness.

Meditation essentially has two major purposes:

  • Complete Rest and Relaxation - A full recharge of the body. A fully rested and totally peaceful state beyond what sleep can give us.
  • Deep Insight - Once complete rest and relaxation is attained, the realization of wisdom (receiving insight) is the next stage. This is the ultimate purpose of meditation and what leads to discovering true peace, happiness and freedom.

The benefits of meditation are vast, to say the least. The major benefit is as the master tool in the practice of attaining true peace and happiness. This is because meditation is both the practice of receiving deep insight and total rest, both which help contribute greatly to our continued peace and happiness.

On top of that, scientific research has begun showing other benefits as well, making it invaluable for optimum health and overall mental and physical performance.

1. Total Rest

This first benefit is why meditation is becoming increasingly popular in the West. I love this explanation by Thich Nhat Hanh in The Miracle of Mindfulness: An Introduction to the Practice of Meditation on the restful qualities of meditation:

Why should you meditate? First of all, because each of us needs to realize total rest. Even a night of sleep doesn’t provide total rest. Twisting and turning, the facial muscles tense, all the while dreaming—hardly rest! Nor is lying down to rest when you still feel restless and twist and turn.

...It is possible to find total rest in a sitting position, and in turn to advance deeper in meditation in order to resolve the worries and troubles that upset and block your consciousness.

Meditation provides for us the feeling of total rest and relaxation that so many of us crave but can't seem to get no matter what we try. Sitting down to watch TV at the end of a long day, sleeping in, taking a day just to be lazy and do nothing. We try so many different things and yet none of them really make us feel 100% fully rested.

This is because the problem exists primarily in our minds. We therefore need to use a technique that recharges our minds, not just our bodies. This is the practice of meditation.

After a session your mind is quieter and at greater peace. With continued practice, chronic stress and anxiety gradually disappears until all that's left is peace and happiness.

This is a major benefit of meditation in our modern society. We're always rushing around. Trying to get more done, in less time and better than the last time we did it.

We need to have (at least) a moment to ourselves every day in order to help us achieve total rest and relaxation. This simple practice allows us to do that.

2. Insight

But meditation has a much deeper purpose. Meditation can give rise to deep insights about the true nature of yourself and the world around you.

Insight means wisdom gained through direct (personal) experience and is a sort of realization one receives through practice. Thich Nhat Hanh had this to say:

Someone might well ask: is relaxation then the only goal of meditation? In fact the goal of meditation goes much deeper than that.

While relaxation is the necessary point of departure, once one has realized relaxation, it is possible to realize a tranquil heart and clear mind. To realize a tranquil heart and clear mind is to have gone far along the path of meditation.

The insight one receives as a result of meditative practice leads to true peace and happiness. But not just peace and happiness- freedom. Receiving deep insight into the true nature of things frees you from attachment and suffering. This is true freedom. Unbreakable freedom.

Examples of insights you can receive from practice are the insight of a deep-seated sadness, hatred, or fear. And more than just a practice which allows you to notice things, through regular practice the mind can then heal itself of this sadness or fear. This is part of why a regular practice can bring you such peace and happiness.

What other kinds of insights can you receive? They all essentially come together under the umbrella of realizing, or coming back in touch with, your true nature. I won't go into this part in too much detail because it's beyond the scope of the How to Meditate for Beginners guide, but if you'd like to read (or listen) more on this you can check out Episode #1 of the Zen for Everyday Life podcast: How to Be Yourself in Every Moment.

Wiping away all illusions to connect with the ultimate in some sense (whatever you consider the ultimate to be), this is ultimately what a spiritual practice is. And meditation is the cornerstone of all spiritual practice.

3. Additional Benefits of Meditation and the Scientific Research on Meditation:

Over the past twenty years, researchers have discovered a number of benefits linked to the practice of meditation. Such as:

  • Improve your focus and concentration
  • Lower stress and anxiety
  • Improve creativity
  • Increase empathy and compassion
  • Improve memory
  • Reduce the decline of cognitive functioning from aging

It's also been linked to large amounts of grey matter, which increases positive emotion and improves emotional stability

You can read more about the scientific benefits of meditation below:   Scientific Benefits of Meditation – 76 Things You Might Be Missing Out On at Liveanddare.com   20 Scientific Reasons to Start Meditating Today at Psychologytoday.com

Plum Village Meditation Hall Zazen - 11 Ways to Be More Like a Zen Monk

How to Meditate

So, now we know what meditation is and why we should be practicing it regularly. But how do we actually do it?

As this is a primarily beginners guide, I'll be focusing on the most fundamental of meditation techniques: mindful breathing.

But, I'll also take a moment to cover another nourishing mindfulness practice: walking meditation. Plus, I'll quickly cover a few other prominent Buddhist meditation techniques and other mindfulness techniques for you to explore.

Mindful Breathing Meditation

Mindfulness' popularity has exploded over the past decade. Nowadays, the likelihood is if you hear that someone you know is meditating, they're practicing mindful breathing. These are the basic instructions for practicing mindful breathing:

1. Find a comfortable sitting position

First, find a quiet place where you won’t be interrupted. You can then take one of a number of different positions. For simplicity sake, shoot for starting with the half lotus, alternating legs, and then move on to the full lotus.

If you're unable to sit in the full or half lotus position then simply sit in a chair as described below. Here are sitting instructions:

  • Full lotus: The full lotus position makes your body into a tripod, making it by far the most stable or sitting positions. To sit in the full lotus position, sit down in a typical cross-legged position. Now, take your left leg and place it on top of your right thigh. Next, take your right leg and place it on top of you left thigh. This lifting of the second leg will be very difficult at first, which is why I suggest starting with the half lotus.
  • Half lotus: In order to sit in the half lotus position, just place your left leg over your right thigh (or right leg over your left thigh). You should alternate regularly with the right leg on the left thigh. Eventually, with practice, it will become comfortable.
  • Or sit in a chair: If neither of these is possible you can also sit in a chair. Make sure to plant your feet to the ground and sit with your back straight. You can place a pillow or a zafu between your lower back and the back of the chair to keep your back straight here as well.

No matter what position you sit in, make sure to use a cushion of some kind if at all possible. I'd suggest sitting on a firm pillow or a zafu (I've included a link to the exact one I use in the resources section at the end of this guide).

Just sit on the last third or so of the zafu in order straighten your back and bring both knees to the floor, creating the tripod. If you don't do this one knee will stick up slightly while you're in the full or half lotus position, sacrificing some stability.

Once you've found a comfortable and effective sitting position for you:

  • Loosen up: Now that you're in your seated position, relax. Take a few deep breaths. Stretch your back, neck, shoulders and arms a bit. Loosen the muscles in your face by forming a half-smile and take a few deep breaths. Feel all of the tension roll off your body.
  • Adopt proper posture: This is very important. Improper posture can cause you back pain, obstruct your breathing and even effect your concentration so make sure to take the time to perfect the proper sitting posture. Your back and neck should be straight with the top of your head pointed towards the sky. Let your stomach relax. If you tilt your chin downward slightly (one inch) you will gain greater stability as well.
  • Rest your hands: Depending on the tradition, different hand positions are used in Buddhist meditation. For now, don't worry about any of that and simply place your hands on your lap, palms up, one on top of the other.
  • Eyes half-closed or closed: Look down a couple of feet in front of you and then let your eyelids drop naturally. They should end up about half to two-thirds the way shut. The reason you keep your eyes partially open is so as to not invite lethargy and doze off. You look down because it helps your eyelids lower naturally which also keeps you from blinking as often. Alternatively, if this feels funny or if you're having a hard time concentrating, you can simply close your eyes.

2. Be mindful of the breath: 

Now that you have the proper positioning and posture established, you're ready to begin meditating:

  • Be mindful of your in breath and out breath: Close your mouth and breathe in and out through your nose. If a cold or some other condition makes this uncomfortable then it's OK to breathe through your mouth. Breathe in, breathe out. Put complete focus on your breath….Your breath is your object of concentration (the thing you attempt to concentrate on). Do not attempt to control your breath, simply observe it silently. Your silent observation will slowly begin to calm your breathing naturally.
  • Count each inhalation and exhalation: Inhale…one. Exhale….two. Count the number at the end each inhale and exhale. Count to 10 like this. If a thought distracts you, start the 10 count over from 1. When you get to 10, start over and attempt to count to 10 again.
  • Count until your mind calms: Do this for as many weeks or months as it takes until you can count to 10 repeatedly with little effort. Then count each inhale + exhale as one. Then, when that becomes easy, stop counting and simply follow your breath. Don’t rush this step, progress slowly. You are building your power of concentration, which in Zen is called "joriki".

3. Acknowledge + Return:

That's essentially the entire practice of mindful breathing meditation. The only problem is, our overactive monkey minds aren't so quiet to allow us to focus on one point indefinitely, or even for more than a few seconds, are they? If you haven't noticed this yet, you will when you begin meditating.

So, what do you do when you're trying to concentrate on your breath while thoughts of dinner, the bills, and yesterday's argument keep arising in your mind? Here's the remaining instructions:

  • Gently acknowledge any thoughts and impulses: Thoughts will come, do not push them away. This is a good thing, it means you're becoming more mindful. Meditation is acceptance, not avoidance. You want those things to rise to the surface during meditation because that is when the real healing will begin. Fear, anger and stress will rise to the surface so that you can let it run its course and dissipate.
  • Bring your focus back to your breath: Imagine the thought, feeling, or sensation floating passed you like a cloud in the sky, then return back to your breath. This will be difficult at first and you’ll lose focus constantly (every few seconds). Don't become frustrated when your mind drifts, know that it's a normal part of the process. Keep at it, after a while your mind will begin to grow quieter and you will start gaining control over your it. It may take a few weeks or even months to begin noticing significant improvement, but typically you'll start seeing a difference within just your first week or two.

Like ripples in a pond dissipating, as your monkey mind becomes quieter you will begin to see everything around you more clearly. You will feel more and more connected to the world around you and discover a gradually deeper sense of peace.

Some days it will feel easy to sit and some days you'll feel as though a battle is being waged within you. No matter what happens know that it's just a part of the process.

There is no failing at meditation, only you making your best effort. If you do that, you'll see the incredible value of the practice and be better off for it.

How long should you meditate?

So, how long should you meditate for? This is arguably just as important as anything else we've covered, because the single most important effort is to make meditation a daily practice.

My general advice is to meditate for 5-10 minutes, once or twice a day, in the beginning. But, if you're experiencing any form of resistance to sitting (you're making excuses why you can't or shouldn't sit today), then simply make the commitment to sit in meditation for 60 seconds.

That might sounds crazy, but it works. And remember, the most important effort in the beginning is to make meditation a daily habit. For more information on how to make meditation into a consistent daily practice, check out this guide: 5 Steps to Making Meditation a Daily Habit.

Increase your sessions by about 5 minutes at a time whenever you feel comfortable. You should feel gradually able to sit down for longer and longer periods. Work your way up to whatever timetable is best for you, but if you'd like a recommendation I'd say somewhere around two 30-45 minute sessions per day. And there should be no reason why you can't do at least one 20 minute session per day.

Lastly, in the beginning you might find yourself counting the minutes waiting for your meditation to be over. This is the wrong mentality. I used to sit down and eventually grow twitchy and fidgety when I knew my session was almost over. If this is happening to you, try not setting a timer for a while. Just sit.

If you're too conditioned to "get results" in everything you do then a timer during meditation can be counterproductive at first because all you'll want to do is think "check! That's off my list..." There's no benefit in that and meditation doesn't work that way. Just sit.

After a while this feeling will disappear and instead you'll notice yourself feeling like you could sit forever. And it will feel wonderful.

How to Meditate for Beginners - Walking Meditation

Walking meditation

The practice of walking meditation is exactly what it sounds like, walking in meditation, and it's essentially just walking mindfully in a specific way.

Walking meditation has been done by people of various spiritual traditions for possibly as long as sitting meditation, and it's the second most common of all Buddhist meditation techniques.

Walking meditation is a simple but very nourishing practice. I love walking meditation because you can do it throughout your day. When you're walking in your home, from your car to work or vice versa, running errands, or simply when going for a short walk outside. Anywhere you walk you can practice walking meditation.

How to Practice Walking Meditation

These are the most common and basic walking meditation instructions:

  1. Decide where you're walking to: Fix your sights on a location in front of you such as your car, a building, the end of a room or street or a tree. Wherever it is, you want to walk with mindfulness and purpose. Know that is where you're walking.
  2. Match your steps with your breath: Breathe naturally, see how many slow steps you take for each natural inhale and exhale. You can say "in" for each step on inhale and "out" for each step on exhale. So "in, in, in" on inhale if you take 3 steps and "out, out, out" on exhale for 3 more. You can also say a phrase that calms you if you prefer. In that case, just match the number of steps you're taking with syllables. So 3 steps could be "be-at-peace".
  3. Be mindful of your steps: This is mindfulness meditation in action, so your point of concentration will be your steps. Put 100% of your focus into your steps. You'll want to put great care into each step you take, so walk slowly. Thich Nhat Hanh says to imagine your feet kissing the earth with each step. Take this moment in for everything that it is. There is no past and no future. Know that peace and happiness both exist in this moment.

For more information, instruction, and various different walking meditation techniques check out The Beginner's Guide to Walking Meditation.

Other forms of meditation

As I mentioned earlier, there are many different Buddhist meditation techniques and even more forms of meditation and techniques in general. Listed below are various guides and posts to different practices you can explore (Loving-kindness meditation being the second most well-known of all Buddhist meditation techniques):

  1. How to Practice Loving-Kindness Meditation
  2. How to Find Peace and De-Stress with a Simple Tea Meditation
  3. The Mindfulness Survival Guide: 10 Powerful Practices for Overcoming Life’s Challenges and Living Mindfully

What's the Difference between Mindfulness and Meditation?

OK, so you're probably wondering at this point- what exactly is the difference between mindfulness and meditation?

To put it simply, mindfulness is itself a form of meditation. Mindfulness is something you do as a form of sitting meditation practice, but it's also something you can do outside of sitting meditation, during your everyday life.

So, what exactly is mindfulness then? It's two things- mindfulness is both the quality of being, as well as the practice of keeping yourself, alive to the present moment (or present moment events). That's why it's used as a meditation practice (the most fundamental of all meditative practices) but also something you can so outside of sitting in meditation.

If you're walking, you're fully awake to the act of lifting, swinging, and placing each foot down and you're aware of any thoughts, feelings, or sensations that arise while you're walking. Living fully in the present moment, not reflecting on the past or planning for the future.

So, why sit down to practice mindfulness if you can do it while walking, cleaning and eating? Sitting meditation is the most concentrated form of all mindfulness practices.It allows us to enter what's often called in meditation, the highest state of "absorption".

Sitting meditation allows for the necessary level of "concentration" or absorption, for deep insights to occur. That isn't to say that you can't receive insight any other way, just that sitting meditation is the best vehicle.

Frequently Asked Questions About Meditation

Here are some of the most frequently asked questions about meditation. Have a question but don't see it here? Feel free to contact me here and I'd be happy to help.

1. I can't sit still, how on earth am I supposed to meditate?

All the more reason that you need to sit! Those who have the greatest difficulty in meditation are typically the ones who get the most out of it. This excerpt from Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind sums up this point well:

When you are determined to practice zazen with the great mind of Buddha, you will find the worst horse is the most valuable one. In your very imperfections you will find the basis for your firm, way-seeking mind. Those who can sit perfectly physically usually take more time to obtain the true way of Zen, the actual feeling of Zen, the marrow of Zen. But those who find great difficulties in practicing Zen will find more meaning in it. So I think that sometimes the best horse may be the worst one, and the worst horse can be the best one.

2. The same thought keeps coming into my mind while meditating, what does it mean?

Don't worry, this is perfectly natural. Mindfulness is more than just being aware of your breath. It's about being fully aware of everything occurring in this moment. Your thoughts, feelings, and various sensations being a part of that.

If the same thought keeps creeping into your mind during meditation then, as you do with any thought, simply acknowledge it each time it comes to the surface and then bring your focus back to your breath. Do this as many times as necessary. You're letting the emotion run its course.

Whether it's fear, anger or stress, this is a good thing because it's a clear sign that your mindfulness is improving. If you stick to your practice you will slowly and gently unfold your mind, watching all your fear, anger and stress arise and allowing the natural healing process of mindfulness to unfold.

Keep in mind though that to really work on this fully you should practice mindfulness in your everyday life, not just when sitting in meditation.

3. How long can I expect to meditate before seeing results?

It depends on what you consider results. In the most real sense, most of us sit to acquire peace and happiness. This is the wrong way to look at meditation, but I'll talk about that in a moment.

If you're looking to cultivate peace and happiness, the very first day could make you feel more happy and peaceful. In all likelihood though your first couple of weeks will be tough. You'll experience the "monkey mind", as it's called in Buddhism, at its greatest intensity.

Ultimately it all depends on how quiet (or loud) your mind is going into meditation practice. Either way, don't judge yourself. It doesn't matter how quiet or loud your mind is, just that you sit diligently. For the most part, the "rewards" of meditation come on their own timetable so you'll need to practice patience.

For me in my own practice, at the beginning seeing my mind gradually quiet and feeling the increasing sense of peace within myself was more than enough confirmation and encouragement for me. That started happening after just a few weeks and was significant.

You shouldn't sit down to meditate expecting anything, but of course it would be wrong to say that you started your meditation practice for no reason. That just doesn't make any sense. Know why you began your meditation practice, find confirmation of your practice in that and then let go of it.

Sit without any expectations. Only then will you see the true value of the practice.

4. How exactly is slowing down and taking time to do something completely unrelated to my work supposed to make me more productive?

I completely understand this mentality because I was that guy too. I didn't understand how doing something completely unrelated to my work could actually make me more productive.

I was the epitome of a productivity junkie. Everything I did that I felt wasn't naturally productive towards my work I tried to do at the same time as something that was. When I did work I tried to be as quick as possible and was constantly looking for ways to squeeze more time out of each day to get more work done.

It turns out none of those things make you all that more productive, and in fact, they can make you far less productive. When you allow your mind to rest, to step away from a particular project or thought for a period of time, you will notice yourself as being far more creative and productive when coming back to it. It's just the way the mind works, there's nothing more to it.

You don't have to take my word for it though, there have been studies done. And another article here that nicely sums up this point.

5. Can't I just sit down however I want when I meditate? A simple cross-legged position? 

Absolutely, meditate in whatever sitting position you'd like. But be careful, a stable sitting position and proper posture are very important in a regular meditation practice.

The full lotus is the most stable position and, once you get used to it, a comfortable position to meditate in. So you should strive to sit in the full lotus.

This is a difficult position to sit in even with practice for some which is why I mention that you can sit in the half lotus or even sit on a chair if neither of those is comfortable for you.

If you'd like to sit down but prefer not to sit in the full or half lotus positions, you can take the seiza position. The seiza position is one I use often and it's essentially just dropping to your knees from a standing position and then sitting back with your butt touching your feet (spread your knees out a bit for greater stability).

In the seiza position you form the same tripod as in the full lotus and while you can do this position with a meditation pillow (the pillow between your feet), this is also the best position to sit in when you don't have a pillow handy on a flat surface. Keep in mind that if you sit like this without a cushion for too long though (10-20 minutes), your legs will go numb as you're sitting on your sciatic nerve.

Additional Resources

Here are some additional resources to help get you started. Some of these I mentioned above throughout the guide, but I'll mention here again for good measure.

With the exception of the meditation cushions, these are all located on Buddhaimonia, be it posts, podcasts, guides, or books:

More Guides and Posts

  1. Tools to Help You Start Your Home Meditation Practice
  2. The Beginner’s Guide to Walking Meditation
  3. What is Mindfulness? A Guide to Mindfulness Meditation
  4. 5 Steps to Making Meditation a Daily Habit
  5. 50 Awesome Meditation Tips for Beginners

Step-by-Step Guides

Below are short summaries of two of my books, which are some of the best resources I've written on meditation practice. The Little Book of Mindfulness is a "mindfulness A-to-Z" beginners guide while the other is an in-depth moment-to-moment everyday mindfulness practice guide. Here they are:

The Little Book of Mindfulness

As I mentioned, this is a "mindfulness A-to-Z" beginners guide. It's extensive, coming in at about 130 pages, and will give you everything you need to begin your mindfulness practice.

It's also free! All you need to do is sign up for email updates (where I'll send you post, podcast, guide, and book updates weekly) and you'll get access to the complete book:

Read The Little Book of Mindfulness

Zen for Everyday Life

Zen for Everyday Life is an in-depth moment-to-moment mindfulness practice guide. It's all about showing you how to establish a daily mindfulness practice from beginning to end, not only from practice instruction (across nearly a dozen everyday activities) but expanding your practice to your relationship with others as well as to developing and maintaining your practice to keep it healthy and consistent.

If you'd like to learn more about Zen for Everyday Life, click the book image or the link below to go to the official book page:

Learn more about Zen for Everyday Life

 

Meditation Cushions

Depending on the surface you meditate on and what's readily available to you, meditation cushions can be very helpful. In Zen, practitioners usually use two different types of cushions at once: a zafu (a little round pillow, the pillow they sit on) and a zabuton (a wide square-like mat that is placed between the ground and your meditation pillow/zafu, which helps protect your knees on a hard surface).

Here's the meditation pillow (zafu) that I've personally used for years and suggest: buddhaimonia.com/cushion

And here's the meditation mat I suggest as well: buddhaimonia.com/mat

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Get the How to Meditate for Beginners PDF (the complete guide in a beautiful PDF format) free by entering your name and email below:

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The Time is Always Now

We all come to the practice of meditation for different reasons. Whatever brought you here, I hope you found this guide useful in beginning your meditation practice and that you discover the full beauty of the practice.

The Beginner's Guide to Walking Meditation

The Beginner's Guide to Walking Meditation via Buddhaimonia image
In order to have peace and joy, you must succeed in having peace within each of your steps. Your steps are the most important thing.

- Thich Nhat Hanh

It might sound funny, but the very first time I practiced walking meditation was when I was walking my oldest son to sleep one night in a baby carrier.

For quite a while before then I had sat in meditation, practicing zazen (the Japanese word for sitting meditation in Zen).

But it was really after beginning to read Thich Nhat Hanh that I was introduced to the idea of bringing my practice into my everyday life.

The first time I was introduced to walking meditation, I didn't make any immediate effort to practice it and just thought it would be a nice thing to add to my practice at some point. Well, one night that opportunity presented itself most clearly.

As I was walking my son around one night, back and forth across the room to put him to sleep, it hit me: my mind was off in la-la-land.

I then remembered what I had read about walking meditation, and decided to give it a try. That's when I discovered how amazing walking meditation, and really mindfulness practice throughout everyday life, was.

I can't really describe what it feels like to walk mindfully. To walk intentionally, closely and carefully aware of each step that you take.

Each step that you take you're fully present in that moment with all of your being. It instills in you a quiet sense of peace that I find very hard to describe.

The words that most come to mind are: peaceful, harmonious, and connected.

This is a guide intended to help you discover that same sense of peace I feel when I practice walking meditation in my own life.

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Get the Ultimate Guide to Walking Meditation PDF Guide

Click below to download the Ultimate Guide to Walking Meditation PDF and take it on the go:

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What is walking meditation?

So, what exactly is walking meditation? Is it just walking around mindfully? For the most part yes, it's really mindful walking, but depending on how you practice it there's more to it than just that. And there's definitely more to it than simply the practice in itself.

Walking meditation is something which has perhaps been practiced for thousands of years in some form. Indeed, moving meditation of various kinds has always been popular (which includes walking meditation, other mindfulness practices, Yoga, Tai Chi, and others) and walking meditation is one of the most popular.

During the Golden Age of Zen in China, practitioners would travel all across China searching for a teacher who was a perfect fit for their style of learning and who could transmit the highest awakening to them (meaning essentially that they could communicate clearly to them in a way that resonated with them, a sort of chemistry). Because of all the traveling they did, walking meditation was the most common form of meditation at that time in China.

Indeed, as long as you're walking, you might as well walk mindfully. On the surface, there really isn't anything more to walking meditation than to walk mindfully. But just as with sitting in meditation, it's deceptively deep and profound.

To understand that more clearly, let's go over why walking meditation is so significant.

Why practice walking meditation?

Walking is one of the single most common activities in everyday human life. Across all countries, cultures, and lifestyles, walking is a major part of daily life.

We walk from our bed in the morning to the restroom, from our room to our kitchen, to our kitchen back to our room, from our home to our car/bus/bike, from our mode of transportation to work, from work back to our mode of transportation, from there to whatever stores or locations we visit along the way, back from our car/bike/bus to our home, and within our home constantly (all depending on your own specific daily schedule of course).

There are few things we do more often than walk, and so walking meditation is one of the single most powerful and nourishing practices you could ever adopt.

But there's more to it than that. Walking meditation can work as a highly effective "bridge" for bringing mindfulness into your daily life. After long sessions of zazen (sitting meditation), Zen practitioners will get up and practice sessions of kinhin (walking meditation in Japanese).

Why do they do this? The intention is to bring that state they've cultivated during their sitting meditation practice into motion, into their everyday actions. And walking provides the best gateway for doing just that.

Using walking meditation as a bridge for making meditation a way of life, instead of just sitting for a few minutes a day, is invaluable. And for that reason, walking meditation is probably the most important thing you can begin doing if your intention is to take your meditation practice to the next level.

But even if you've never practiced meditation, walking meditation can be an incredible introductory practice. Mindfulness practice of all kinds, especially walking meditation, is highly nourishing and allows you to find a moment of peace and a sense of being grounded or "balanced" each day that's invaluable for our well-being.

I would still suggest beginning with sitting meditation, but if you're naturally very active and tend to find it difficult to sit still for even short periods of time, walking meditation may be the perfect practice to begin with (or preferably to mix in with your sitting practice).

How to practice walking meditation

Walking meditation is simply mindful walking, but depending on whether you're a beginner to mindfulness or you've practiced for a bit, and depending on the situation, the actual practice can vary.

Detailed below are really the 3 major walking meditation techniques along with instruction. Keep in mind, there isn't much of a hard rule about how you're supposed to practice walking meditation, but the first 2 practices listed have been practiced for a very long time, and so I'd suggest following the walking meditation instructions below at least for a time, until you really get the idea.

Counting your steps

The first walking meditation technique is counting your steps, and it's the most common. Counting your steps, like counting your breath, is the easiest walking meditation technique and so the form I'd suggest starting with.

Like counting your breath, counting your steps is all about counting each step as 1 (left 1, right 2, left 3) until you get to 10. Unlike following your breath though, there's an extra step to walking meditation: matching your steps to your breath.

Let's get into the steps exactly:

1. Begin walking at a naturally slow pace. Walk slowly, but naturally.

2. Posture & positioning. Walk with good posture and bring your hands up to around your diaphragm. Place your left hand up against your diaphragm and your right hand directly in front of it, then allow your thumbs to cross so that your left thumb is in front and your right thumb is against your body. Your forearms should be horizontal with the ground.

This hand positioning helps balance and stabilize you while walking.

3. Match your steps to your breath. Breathe naturally and pay attention to how many naturally slow steps you take for each in-breath and each out-breath. The in-breath tends to be shorter, so keep that in mind (in-breath may be 3 steps, while out-breath is 4).

4. Count your steps. Now that you know how many steps you're taking for each in-breath and out-breath, count them. 1-2-3, 1-2-3-4, 1-2-3, 1-2-3-4. Left-right-left, right-left-right-left, right-left-right, left-right-left-right. In-breath, out-breath, in-breath, out-breath.

5. Be mindful. Be fully present as you count each left step and each right step. You're being mindful of the count here most of all, that's what you're focusing on. You can be mindful of the movement of your legs in between counts as well.

6. Acknowledge that which arises. Throughout your walking meditation you'll be concentrated(*) on your steps, but because this is mindfulness practice your awareness should be open and welcoming.

What this means is that as thoughts, feelings, sensations, and even sometimes outside distractions come into focus, gently acknowledge them nonjudgmentally (which is code for: don't intentionally think anything about them. You're just noticing them. Not judging them) so that you can observe them clearly, and then shift your focus back to your breath.

If you're new to meditation, you may find yourself interrupted constantly. This is perfectly fine and will wear off in large part over time. No matter how often a thought, feeling, or sensation arises acknowledge it mindfully and then shift your focus back to your breath.

*A note on concentration: By concentration, I don't mean a head-splitting, vein-popping concentration. I'm referring to a light concentration which still allows your open mindful awareness to take in everything that arises.

Following your steps

Following your steps is the natural progression of counting your steps and is a slightly more difficult walking meditation technique.

If you find it difficult to go directly from there to here, you can always try counting your left (or right) and following your right (or left). In this way, you're doing a practice which is in the middle of the two, which can sometimes be easier if you're finding it hard to transition to this version.

Like sitting in meditation and counting your breath, after you get to a point where you've gotten used to counting your steps and can do it relatively effectively, I'd begin simply walking and following the full length of each individual step.

It's at this point that it's important to really break down the act of walking, because in mindfulness practice it's important to know exactly what you're doing in each moment so that you can be fully present for that moment.

When walking, are you just moving your legs forward, one step at a time? Not quite! Walking is a gross movement, meaning there's multiple movements included within the greater action of walking.

What specifically? The act of walking can be broken down as follows:

Lifting the foot up -> Swinging the foot forward -> Placing the foot back down

And this is really what you should be paying attention to as you follow the length of each complete left step and each complete right step.

To practice walking meditation by way of following your steps, follow these instructions:

1. Begin walking at a naturally slow pace. Walk slowly, but naturally.

2. Posture & positioning. Walk with good posture and bring your hands up to around your diaphragm. Place your left hand up against your diaphragm and your right hand directly in front of it, then allow your thumbs to cross so that your left thumb is in front and your right thumb is against your body. Your forearms should be horizontal with the ground.

This hand positioning helps balance and stabilize you while walking.

3. Match your steps to your breath. Breathe naturally and pay attention to how many naturally slow steps you take for each in-breath and each out-breath. The in-breath tends to be short, so keep that in mind (in-breath may be 3 steps, while out-breath is 4).

Why do we match our steps to our breath, even though we're following our steps in this version? Because bringing our steps in line with the rhythm or our breath creates a sense of unity with our mind and body, and this is a very important principle in meditation.

4. Follow your steps. This is really the essence of this version of walking meditation. Follow the movement of your left foot from the time you begin lifting the foot, as you transition to swinging it forward, and then as you place it back down. Then the same with the right foot back-and-forth.

It's 3 movements, but you'll quickly realize that the act of following your steps is very fluid and that there is no separation between the movements.

5. Be mindful. Be fully present as you count each in-breath and each out-breath.

6. Acknowledge that which arises. Throughout your walking meditation you'll be concentrated on your steps, but because this is mindfulness practice your awareness should be open and welcoming.

What this means is that as thoughts, feelings, sensations, and even sometimes outside distractions come into focus, gently acknowledge them nonjudgmentally (which is code for: don't intentionally think anything about them. You're just noticing them. Not judging them) so that you can observe them clearly, and then shift your focus back to your breath.

The Ultimate Guide to Walking Meditation via Buddhaimonia

Simply walking (in everyday life)

This is both a simple practice and at the same time the most advanced walking meditation technique.

Sure, nothing is technically required for you to get up and begin walking down the street mindfully. But, without some practice with one or both of the first two forms of walking meditation, walking effectively in a typical everyday situation can seem altogether impossible.

First, there's the fact that when you begin your walking meditation practice you generally walk rather slowly so that you can maintain mindfulness (something which won't be a problem with practice, but at first a slow pace is required). This obviously isn't the pace you ever walk in your everyday life.

Then, there's the fact that there's a million other things vying for your attention as you walk: passing cars, street signs, advertisements, store windows, and other people.

So, what do you do? The best advice I can give is this:

1. Continue to practice. Just make the effort to be mindful while walking at a normal pace in your everyday life. This won't be all you need to help you get the hang of it, but it will help.

2. Allow some of those other objects to come into your awareness from time to time, acknowledge them, and gently shift your awareness back to your steps. Even if this happens repeatedly at first, this will still help overtime to improve your practice.

And besides, as long as you're being mindful of what's going on in the present moment, you're practicing mindfulness to some degree (even if it's not of your steps).

3. Have a dedicated walking meditation practice. A dedicated walking meditation practice is different from walking in everyday life. I suggest both striving to walk mindfully throughout your daily life as well as having a dedicated time for walking meditation (preferably right after your sitting meditation practice). In this way, you help support your effort to walk mindfully throughout your daily life.

As far as actual instruction, this is simply the act of walking in the way you walk every single day of your life and at your normal pace, so nothing needs to actually be done except to be mindful of each complete left step and right step. Although that's easier said than done as noted above.

Just use the instructions for 'following the length of your steps' and walk at your normal everyday pace (you may not have your hands up in the kinhin position too, and that's fine).

If at first it seems too difficult to do, just practice for a few minutes at a time and then let go of it. With time it will become easier and your practice will be more fluid.

Additional practices

Aside from the traditional walking meditation instructions, there are other highly beneficial practices you can do.

I'd urge you to get creative and realize that any and every opportunity to walk is an opportunity to practice walking meditation. Some opportunities might make for deeper and more nourishing versions of the practice, but there's many ways to practice and some of those ways have added benefits which I haven't yet listed.

Here are 2 other very powerful walking meditations techniques:

The Ultimate Guide to Walking Meditation via Buddhaimonia

Walking in nature (Walk of Life walking meditation)

Walking in nature can be done simply as-is, meaning as walking meditation is usually practiced, or you can integrate it with your surroundings to create an even more nourishing and balancing meditation.

That's what walking in nature is all about. This is a variation of a simple meditation from my guide, The Mindfulness Survival Guide:

1. Discover the path. To practice the walk of life walking meditation, find a nice quiet place to walk, preferably in nature. If you know of a local park, hiking trail, or somewhere else close to nature you can walk that would be ideal.

2. Connect with the Earth. It's also preferable that you take your shoes off and walk barefoot so that you can feel the Earth beneath your feet. Both above mentioned points will enhance the meditation but are not required.

3. Walk the path. Simply begin breathing mindfully. Once you've taken a few breaths, begin walking. Walk relatively slowly.

4. Walk mindfully. Continue to walk and breathe naturally, don't force a certain pace. Your focus during this meditation is the raising, swinging, and placing down of each individual foot. Be mindful as your left foot raises, swings, and lowers. Then, once your left foot has been placed down on the ground, be mindful of your right foot being lifted, swung, and lowered as well.

5. Breathe the walking. Walk the breathing. Try to match your steps with your breath to create a sense of unity within your entire being. If you can do 2 slow steps for each in breath and another 2-3 steps for each out breath, then say to yourself silently, "step, step" on each in breath, and, "step, step" to yourself on each out breath (or just count 1, 2, 3).

6. Become the tree. Take a moment from time to time to stop and imagine your feet extending down into the Earth, like the roots of a great and immovable tree (you could continue walking and do this as well, but that sense of stability is easier to get while standing with both feet on the ground).

Continue to imagine yourself expanding out indefinitely, your legs as roots, your arms as branches, and many leaves blooming all around you. Focus on your abdomen for a moment, keep your feet planted firmly on the ground, and feel your sense of stability and groundedness.

The Ultimate Guide to Walking Meditation via Buddhaimonia

Walking with others

Walking with others mindfully can be a great joy, although it can be difficult to do at first and therefore is relegated to a rather advanced walking meditation practice.

Walking with others has huge benefits: we're walking mindfully, spending time with others, getting outside (usually), and getting a little exercise while we're at it. It's really a quadruple whammy for our well-being.

While walking with others, I'd suggest keeping it as simple as possible and simply following the length of your steps. Get a little practice in counting your steps in first, then once you're accustomed to this move on to following your steps. Then, if you've done this for a week or two every few days (or every day, better yet), you should be ready to try this.

While in conversation, be mindful of the words the other person is speaking. When speaking, be aware of the words you're speaking. Don't think you have to continue to focus on your steps during that time. There is a way to walk more mindfully while still hearing the other person's words though, which you'll realize with a little practice.

So, where should you walk? If it's a dedicated walk with a friend or loved one, I'd suggest a natural setting outdoors such as a park or hiking trail (suggested in the Walk of Life meditation). Being in a natural setting such as that has many added benefits for our well-being. Simply feeling more connected to the Earth has a powerfully nourishing effect.

So take a moment and try mindful walking with others. You could even get them in on the practice of walking meditation as well and have a silent walk. Walking together mindfully, silently, is a truly beautiful experience (even if for only a few moments).

Walking Meditation FAQs

There are a few things I wish I had known when I began my personal walking meditation practice (which few people seem to be very clear about), and it's here that I seek to clear those questions up for anyone else looking to adopt a regular walking meditation practice.

You might notice some overlap between these questions and some of the information in the guide, that's intentional. I wanted to make sure I mentioned them repeatedly to get the point across, because they tend to be pretty important points.

Here they are:

Q: What pace do I walk while practicing walking meditation?A: It's a common misconception that when you do something mindfully you have to do it slowly. While this isn't true, it is true that:

  • It can be very nourishing to do things in mindfulness slowly.
  • When first beginning a mindfulness practice, it's better to start slow to get the practice down.

So, how fast/slow should you walk? These are my suggestions:

1. At first, walk slowly. About 1 step every 3-5 seconds.

2. After a while, you can practice your dedicated walking meditation practice a little more quickly. About 1 step every 2-3 seconds. I prefer a bit of a slower pace for my dedicated walking meditation practice, but you can choose to walk at a completely normal everyday pace. Many Zen monasteries do so, depending on the school and monastery itself.

3. When walking in everyday life, after doing your dedicated practice for some time, walk at your normal pace. Don't purposely slow yourself down. At first, you may feel the need as you're getting the hang of things. This is OK, but quickly work to be able to walk at a normal pace mindfully.

Q: I find it really difficult to match my steps to my breath. It feels unnatural. Am I doing something wrong?

A: This is something I really wish I had an answer to at the beginning of my personal practice.

No one really goes over this, but it may feel highly unnatural and uncomfortable to try to match your steps to your breath when first practicing walking meditation. Don't worry though, this is perfectly natural and will wear off with practice (and you'll begin to feel the rhythm instead). These are the important tips to keep in mind:

  • Both walk at a natural pace and breathe at a natural pace. Don't force either.
  • Try to notice how many natural steps you take for each natural in-breath and out-breath. This is the number you should be counting if you're counting your steps.
  • Oftentimes, your in-breath will be shorter than your out-breath. This is natural and perfectly fine, but the point is you won't be counting 3 then 3. You'll be counting, say, 3 (3 steps on in-breath) then 4 (4 steps on out-breath) for example.
  • Sometimes, it can be best to just let both go for a while until you feel you're doing both naturally, and then after a minute to come back and simply focus on one, like your steps, and to focus on bringing them in sync.

Q: How long should I practice walking meditation?

A: Like sitting meditation, there's no specific amount of time that you should practice walking meditation. If you find yourself with 5 extra minutes in your day, practice walking meditation. If you have 1 minute, practice walking meditation. For your regularly scheduled practice of walking meditation, I'd suggest starting out with about 10 minutes.

If you feel any sort of mental resistance to this, you can lower that amount down to 5 or fewer minutes while you develop it into a habit. I'd suggest doing your dedicated walking meditation practice right after your sitting meditation practice, to begin bringing the essence of that single-pointed awareness, mindfulness, that you're cultivating if you're sitting in meditation regularly.

Q: What do I do when I'm taking a walk with someone else? Practicing walking meditation? Or be present for them?

A: This can be really confusing at first, and again few people, if anyone, really answers this question. Here are my tips:

- Sometimes you're posed with difficult situations in your mindfulness practice where you're seemingly being asked to choose what to be mindful of. During these moments you have to use your best judgment and primarily be mindful of the most important thing in that moment. If you're walking with a friend of loved one, it's most important to be present for your conversation with them.

- You should though begin practicing with the expanded levels of awareness, which essentially means broadening your awareness to encompass more objects of focus during your meditation and sort of "shifting" or bouncing between the two as each moment is different. While your friend may be talking one moment, there may be a moment of silence the next, and knowing when and what to be mindful of is key to an effective practice.

The expanded levels of awareness are a bit beyond the scope of this guide, but if you'd like to learn about them in detail I'd suggest either my book Zen for Everyday Life, or my online course Journey to the Present Moment.

Additional Resources

If you'd like to take your mindfulness practice further, including the beautiful practice of walking meditation, my books below are the most complete resources I've created for both beginners and experienced practitioners alike:

Zen for Everyday Life

Learn how to live with the energy of mindfulness throughout your everyday life with this moment-to-moment practice guide. You can get the first 2 chapters free by clicking here.

 

 

The Little Book of Mindfulness

Discover the power of mindfulness meditation in simple, straight-forward, and crystal clear language. You can get a free download of The Little Book of Mindfulness exclusively on Buddhaimonia by clicking here.

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Get the Ultimate Guide to Walking Meditation PDF Guide

Click below to download the Ultimate Guide to Walking Meditation PDF and take it on the go:

Walk It Off

I hope you've enjoyed this guide to the beautiful practice of walking meditation. It's time to get out there and begin your own practice of walking meditation. However you decide to do that, if you let this beautiful practice into your life, it's sure to have a powerful effect.

11 Ways to Be More Like a Zen Monk

Photo credit:  thegardenofzen.com

Photo credit: thegardenofzen.com

Recently, I read a story about the state of decline of Zen Buddhism in Japan and of the rapid closure of Zen monasteries all around the country. Most of the current generation has become completely detached from that aspect of their beautiful history, and as a result, the support that these monasteries so heavily depend on has diminished.

Because of this, not only are Zen monasteries closing down by the handful, but there’s a struggle to find qualified priests to maintain those monasteries that remain open. Due to my deep appreciation of Zen, this was undoubtedly painful to hear. We in the U.S. have just begun to explore and be transformed by the vast wisdom of the Buddha’s teachings, and so many have been positively affected by the beauty and boundless wisdom of “the heart of Buddhism”, as it’s sometimes called, in Zen so it's an odd state of events.

This traveling of wisdom around the globe has happened countless times in history. It’s simply the way that the truth moves, as the late mystic Osho (the man whom the Dalai Lama considered a Buddha) once explained in detail (see Meditations on Zen).

As times change, countries change, people change, values shift, and cultures either move from waking up to falling back asleep or vice-a-versa. It’s an ever-flowing process, not necessarily built upon moving towards what’s right or away from what’s wrong, but always the natural flow of things. Each time this has happened Zen has been transmitted to a new group of people, from the Buddha's lineage of disciples down to Bodhidharma, to Bodhidharma first coming from India to China, then from China to Japan, and now Japan to the U.S. which began as a visit to the U.S. from Japanese Zen priest Soyen Shaku in 1893.

And just as it's travelled from one place to another, each time the format for practice has evolved (often multiple times). Zen, Buddhism, and spiritual practice in a general sense in the U.S., while blossoming is still finding it's place in many ways.

In Japan, Zen practice started out as a traditional monastic system where you became a monk or nun and lived in the monastery for either most of or the rest of your life. Then later, the monastery took a sort of university format where they were more students living temporarily as monks or nuns working towards graduation, wherein most would go on to lead normal lives, than life-long monastics.

In the U.S., we have more meditation centers than we do monasteries (although they also do exist in good number as well) and practitioners are more lay (which essentially means they're not monks or nuns and lead normal lives with jobs, relationships, etc.) than full-time monastics, and yet the intent to practice seriously is still very much there. It's a very different format, one which better reflects the U.S. as a whole.

In thinking about all this, I contemplated on what the essential points of Zen practice, and of an effective spiritual practice, were. Forget monastic, lay, monk or nun or not monk or nun, etc. Ultimately, that's not what's important. That's never been what was important, or else Zen practice never would have been able to shift and change like it has while still retaining its essence.

What are the essential keys to Zen practice, the keys which make up the very spirit of Zen practice? How can we live more like a Zen monk or nun without becoming a monastic? In other words, how can we be more like a Zen monk or nun in our everyday life, amid the various responsibilities and challenges we have? And in what way do we need to design our lives to effectively pursue a healthy spiritual practice?

The reality is, at least in the 21st century, most of us aren't interested in becoming monks or nuns, or even necessarily in calling ourselves Buddhist, spiritual, or any other label (not that they mean anything anyway). But we are very much interested in the practice.

The practice is where we truly begin changing our lives. The practice is where we find greater peace, happiness, and the ability to better navigate our daily challenges. The practice is what really matters, not the labels. And most importantly, it's in that practice that we learn to express our authentic selves. ______________________________________

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Zen for Everyday Life Online Course...Coming Soon

If you're interested in learning how to live a more authentic Zen life and bring peace, joy, and balance into your everyday life, then you'll love my upcoming course, Zen for Everyday Life.

If you'd like to be notified when more information is available, as well as get some cool exclusive bonuses from here until release, fill in your name and email below:

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11 Ways to Be More Like a Zen Monk

The below 11 points are some of the most important points I've distilled from that contemplation. Keep in mind, I'm not a Zen monk and am not speaking with regards to experience as one. Rather, I'm speaking from the place of my own practice, making my way living a typical daily life while trying to live true to my practice, and what I've witnessed to be the real essence of Zen practice itself.

You'll likely notice pretty quickly how universal these points are. That's because, as opposed to being some religion or philosophy which holds to a set of ideas, Zen is empty of a defining set of ideas or beliefs. Zen is a practice, it's also the very expression, or living, of the realization of that great wisdom which we all intuitively know exists within and around us. Zen is expressed in many spiritual and religious traditions all around the world, just under a different name. This is because the truth has no name, it's universal. It is it and can never be anything else.

I hope you find these 11 ways to be more like a Zen monk useful in your own life in pursuit of greater wisdom, deeper joy, and more boundless peace.

1. Do one thing

This is the simplest and most straightforward point on this list, and in a lot of ways it symbolizes a key aspect of the spirit of Zen, so I thought it would be a good point to start with.

"Do one thing" is exactly what it sounds like: it's single tasking. Zen monks live in a way that they're totally and completely focused on the task at hand, and a key aspect of that is to simply do one thing- whatever it is that you're doing in that moment. Whatever demands your presence, you're there for it fully.

Of course, there's times in our life where things aren't so black-and-white, but the point is to make the commitment to do so in every moment.

Multi-tasking has not only been proven to be ineffective, it's actually damaging. Making the commitment to live your life in a way that you do the one thing that's most important in each moment means to live with greater clarity and perform more effectively at everything you do.

It also promotes greater concentration and mindfulness, two key aspects of active Zen training itself closely connected with this point.

Photo credit:  Paul Davis

Photo credit: Paul Davis

2. Do each thing with all of your being

“When you do something, you should burn yourself up completely, like a good bonfire, leaving no trace of yourself.”

– Shunryu Suzuki

To do something with every ounce of your being means to live with mindfulness and concentration in every moment. It means to be totally and completely focused on that one thing with every inch of yourself.

This doesn't just mean to do one thing as I just mentioned, it also means to be totally concentrated on that thing. But really it's being totally concentrated and mindful of this moment.

You don't open a door while forcefully pushing away any thoughts or outside sounds that arise, you open the door with all of your being, while still being openly mindful of whatever arises within that moment.

This isn't a hard, vein-popping, concentration. This is a soft but persistent concentration on the present moment. You're being here, awake to your life, in every moment. And that's really what this is all about.

This point is closely tied with Zen's emphasis on sitting meditation, which I'll mention later, but it's the greater effort of bringing that same single-pointed awareness and mindfulness from the meditation cushion into your everyday life.

Nothing special is necessary to begin living your life in this way though. To live in each moment, doing each thing, with all of your being and to the best of your ability, makes a significant and concrete difference in the quality of your day-to-day experience.

The benefits of living in this way are too long to mention, but suffice it to say that it's the most important effort of all. Mostly important to remember is it's the key effort in each moment, the heart of daily practice as a Zen monk or nun, while most of the other points while significant are either things to keep in mind from time to time, establish once, or keep tabs on regularly.

My second book, Zen for Everyday Life, helps you make most notably the mindfulness aspect of this a reality. You can check it out here: Zen for Everyday Life: How to Find Peace and Happiness in the Chaos of Everyday Life.

3. Work diligently to let go of hang ups and nurture true well-being

This point has two parts really: work diligently and let go of hang ups/nurture your well-being.

First, Zen monk's work diligently to realize satori, or awakening. This is considered the supreme effort, achievement, or realization in all of life. And being so keenly aware of one's own impermanence, the precious nature of this one life that we're given, they work day and night to realize this complete awakening for themselves so that they can go beyond hang ups (or attachments), let go, and realize true peace.

Being diligent in one's efforts is very important because all we have is this life. Whether you believe there's something after this or not, all we know for sure is that we have this life. And this life is here and gone in an instant. Time flies, and before we know it, we're gone. For that reason, you should work diligently to realize true peace and happiness.

That ideal life will look different depending on the person, but the idea is the same: we only have a short time to enjoy this life, so we shouldn't waste a minute.

The second aspect to this point is the major effort of this life, and that's to let go of those things which are keeping us from peace and happiness so that we can realize a clear path to living peacefully and joyfully.

Throughout our lives, we resist the natural way of things. It's our job to find that resistance (whether it's an attachment to something we like or aversion to something we don't like) so that we can remove the friction in our lives and life with greater ease and freedom. In this way, we open up a clear path to living peacefully.

This is easier said than done, and is a pretty large topic in itself, but you can start here for more information:

  1. The Beginner's Guide to Letting Go
  2. Zen and the Art of Adapting to Life's Curveballs

4. Simplify your life down to the essentials

By the time we're adults, we've generally amassed quite a lot of things in our lives which are either useless or relatively unimportant (both material possessions and non-material things). The monastic way of life (for any spiritual tradition really) is designed so that only the essentials remain: physical nourishment, a place to rest, a community, and the practice.

Now, this might be a little extreme and even unnecessary to most, but the idea is what's most important. The idea is to remove everything in your life that isn't essential. Essential to what? Essential to your well-being and the well-being of others.

But where do you begin? How do you decide what's essential and non-essential? The best place to start is to ask yourself if the item or thing is ever used or ever holds any purpose. If it's never used, or holds no purpose, those are the first and most obvious things to go.

From there it gets more difficult, but the question to ask is simple: does this thing help contribute to the well-being of myself and those around me? If the answer is no, or even maybe (suggesting it's really not essential), then the likelihood is it not only doesn't serve a purpose but often gets in the way of allowing those things that really matter to shine in your life.

You can also go in the opposite direction by asking yourself:

If I had to live with only a handful of things, what would they be?

Again not just material possessions but non-material things in activities, responsibilities, etc. This question can help distill your life down to it's essence. As an example, when I asked myself that question, I got this:

  • My family
  • My practice
  • Buddhaimonia / my work
  • Laptop computer (strictly for Buddhaimonia / my work)
  • Smartphone (strictly for family communication)
  • My home
  • Physical nourishment
  • Basic set of clothes (few pairs of pants, shirts, one pair of shoes, socks, a jacket)

It might be beneficial to ask yourself that question a few times too, because sometimes you'll put down things you think are essential, but upon closer examination you realize they really aren't. That doesn't necessarily mean you'll want to give it up, but in any case it will give you clarity.

From here, you can work backwards and look at your life. What exists in it now which wasn't included in this list? Why didn't you include it? Can you give it up? Should you? Would you have more time to focus on what's important if you gave it up?

Zen practice as a whole, as we talked about earlier, is very concentrated and intentional. In living the life of a Zen monk, all fluff is removed and only the essentials remain. This can truly help improve our life in meaningful ways, helping to remove that which is useless and potentially distracting and giving us more time for what matters most.

Photo credit:  Paul Davis

Photo credit: Paul Davis

5. Monitor mental nutriment

If simplifying your life down to the essentials is about removing those unnecessary things from our lives so that we can focus on what matters, limiting and monitoring mental nutriment is about specifically identifying those things which are bad for us and actively working to remove them.

By mental nutriment, I'm referring to those various types of "food" which we ingest on an everyday basis. But I'm not just referring to food for our physical body, I'm also referring to mental food: T.V., social media, the rest of the internet, reading, personal associations, etc. Really anything which we ingest through one of the sense organs is included here because it affects our well-being in a very real way.

Most importantly, this is about identifying any sources of poison, or unwholesome seeds, which are affecting us on a regular basis and working to either remove or minimize them and replace them with wholesome seeds.

If it's T.V., either removing T.V. or reducing your T.V. time down to your favorite 2-3 shows. If it's social media, reducing the amount of hours you check Facebook, or whatever it is, in a given day and making it more difficult for you to check it in the first place (deleting the app on your phone so that you have to walk over to your computer, for instance). And if it's the people you're around, considering changing your associations if possible.

You'll know what these things are for you, so it really just depends on your life. But one thing is for certain: each and every one of these things affects our state of mind in a very real way. We should work consistently to keep these things in check so that we can better nourish our mind for peace and joy as opposed to fear and anger.

6. Establish order

This is about living with a sense of order or structure, something that’s very important for training as a Zen monk.

What’s the purpose? In a very real way, it’s order which gives us true freedom. Many of us are afraid of order, of structure, but this is generally due to a misunderstanding.

Think about it this way: what if you could free up an entire hour each day for yourself if you just took the time to establish a daily schedule and stuck to it with discipline? What if this was a real possibility? Isn't this more freedom as opposed to working all day long on work + home responsibilities?

Also, it's by setting up this sense of order that we can occasionally break away, and this can be very liberating. Without a sense of order, we not only wander aimlessly and waste our precious time, but can can't create the right environment for freedom to arise.

To live half-asleep, unconscious to so much of what we do (even though our bodies are doing it), is the opposite of true freedom. Living in this way, we're being pushed and pulled by our habitual patterns and being directed by the winds of life.

To live our lives in a way that we structure our days and live with a sense of order is to live with freedom because we're living intentionally. To live intentionally is to live mindfully, knowing that you're placing one foot forward. If you live like this, you're taking that step. To take that step mindfully, to know you're taking that step and to do it consciously, is true freedom. And it's order which helps us live in this way.

7. Live as if you’re going to die

Photo credit:  Paul Davis

Photo credit: Paul Davis

"Throughout this life, you can never be certain of living long enough to take another breath.”

- Zen master Huang Po

To live as if you're going to die is to live in a way that you're aware of your own impermanence and the impermanence of all things.

Most of us live in a way that we ignore and even push away any thought of our own end, and the end of our loved ones, going to great lengths to either bottle it down or avoid it.

But this is a great mistake, because to live completely aware of our own impermanence can be a great source of joy. By living in this way, we appreciate life so much more and are constantly reminded of the precious nature of this life that we're living.

It can be difficult to face the fact of our own impermanence, and often much more difficult to face the fact of the impermanence of every one and every thing around us. But it's a fact which we must learn to face if we ever hope to live our life fully without regret.

By pushing through those difficult feelings we can in fact realize a deeper and more vibrant life. A life richer than anything we ever imagined.

Check out episode #2 of the Zen for Everyday Life podcast for a simple practice you can do each day to begin working on this very point: How to Live As if You're Going to Die.

8. Express yourself artistically

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Zen is very closely connected with the arts. It's very common for a Zen monk to take up some form of artistic expression such as calligraphy, poetry (haiku), or even chanoyu, the Japanese "way of tea" which originated from the Zen tradition and which is a very artistic ritual in itself.

As I mention in my "simple tea meditation" guide:

The Japanese tea ceremony can be summed up by the Zen phrase “ichi-go ichi-e”, which means “one time, one meeting”. The phrase is meant to remind us of the beauty and uniqueness of the present moment and that life is transient or ever-changing and impermanent.

Why is art such an important part of Zen practice? It's not so much that it's important than it is prevalent due to its effectiveness at showing us ourselves and allowing us to express ourselves fully and honestly.

When we express ourselves artistically, freely and spontaneously, we're allowing all that we are to come forth. Our hesitations, resistance, doubt, anger, fear, and everything else comes pouring out from us fully. To express yourself in this way, knowing this, makes this type of open expression a very purifying process.

In this way, expressing yourself becomes a very effective and very enjoyable form of meditation.

And when those things don't 'get in the way'? When we act in that instant with our complete being? With a single brush stroke we can express our true boundless nature.

It doesn't matter how you express yourself, just that you give yourself a regular avenue with which to do so, so find something that fits you and your life and make it a regular (weekly, or more) practice and see how when you practice expressing yourself that fear, anger, and judgment ("that was horrible", "I'm a horrible artist", "I'm not good enough", "I can't do this") often get in the way of us expressing our authentic selves.

Continue practicing and work to get to a point where you can act in any given moment in a way that you don't get in your own way, that you express yourself without holding back. This is what it means to express yourself fully and authentically through art.

I've yet to write a guide to this topic on the blog (a good idea for the future though!), so here's a few resources for delving into this more:

  1. Alok, Zen Calligraphy
  2. John Daido Loori - The Zen of Creativity

9. Live the Buddha’s middle way

The Buddha's 'middle way' is a principle which essentially refers to the fact that in all things in life we shouldn't remain in the extreme either way. We should live in the 'middle way' of things.

It's difficult to fully express the importance of this principle because it's so prevalent. It literally has to do with our entire lives. Let's take a typical everyday example.

Work and family are typically considered the two major parts of our life. They're distinctly different and encompass essentially all of our combined time on any given day, or at least the vast majority of it outside of sleep.

So, when talking about the balance between work and family life, what's best?

  1. Working all the time
  2. Not working at all
  3. A balance between work and spending time with family

Assuming, like most of us, that you're not in a position to quit your day job/source of income, #3 is the right answer. If you work all the time, your well-being and the well-being of your loved ones will suffer without your presence. But if you don't work, you won't be able to support yourself.

It's that same sort of idea with many things in life. When referring to the Buddha's 8-Fold Path, Right Speech and Right Action are great examples as well.

Should we speak negatively to someone? Of course not. But on the flip side, should we completely refrain from saying something that can help someone just so as to not potentially insult or hurt them? The most important thing is to be helpful and approach the situation with a sense of compassion and love, and sometimes this requires being straight with someone.

With Right Action, there's many things we enjoy doing which could become a problem if we do them too often. We may enjoy playing video games, but if we play them day and night our health and relationships will suffer.

We shouldn't be quiet about important issues, we should speak up and express our opinion. But we also shouldn't try to force others to go along with what we believe either, that's not right. In all cases, the Buddha's principle of the middle way is the right practice. The Buddha's middle way leads to a balanced life free from excess and conflict.

Photo credit:  Paul Davis

Photo credit: Paul Davis

10. Practice Zazen diligently

“Zazen is an activity that is an extension of the universe. Zazen is not the life of an individual, it’s the universe that’s breathing.”

- Zen master Dogen Zenji

This is arguably the single most important point on this entire list. Most would go as far as to say that without this it’s impossible to practice Zen, as this is in fact the heart of Zen practice.

Zazen is just the Japanese working for “sitting/seated meditation” and it was carried over to English when Zen travelled from Japan to the West. But Zazen is its own specific style of meditation, so don’t think it just refers to any form of sitting meditation.

Also, it's not to be (although can very easily be) confused with the very similar Vipassana meditation practice, which is also based primarily on mindfulness but which involves actively naming and identifying that which is noticed with one’s awareness, as opposed to Zazen where these things are simply acknowledged and allowed to float by as if a passing cloud in the sky.

For those of you who have followed me for some time, zazen is the basic meditation instruction I typically give in my various posts, guides, and books (New to meditation or mindfulness? Start here).

Most points on this list are general guidelines which will look differently for different people. This is the only point on this list that's essentially a direct suggestion, although keep in mind that I have no intention of comparing forms of meditation or pronouncing one better than another, here I'm simply referring to the importance of daily meditation in general.

The most important point here is just to establish a daily meditation practice, whatever form works out best for you.

11. Serve others

"Only keep the question, 'What is the best way of helping other people?'"

- Zen master Seung Sahn

It's an integral part of everyday Zen monastic practice to serve either the monastic or surrounding community in some way.

This could include cooking or cleaning inside the monastery, cleaning and keeping up the outside depending on the location, or some other form of service for the local community outside the monastery or for the global community at large.

Any true and effective spiritual practice will gradually cultivate in you great compassion for all beings, and it's through this compassion which the desire to serve is born.

It's sometimes misunderstood that Zen monasteries, and the Zen monks and nuns that live and have lived there, close themselves off from society and just practice zazen all day long. A core part of many Zen monasteries daily life is daily service in the spirit of mindfulness, love, and great compassion.

This is something you can express in your own life quite easily through countless different ways. The most important way to serve? To carry yourself within the things you already do in your everyday life in a way that expresses these qualities of mindfulness, love, and compassion.

Practice kindness with strangers and compassion with everyone you interact with. And every action you take, be aware of the global community and the way in which we're intrinsically interconnected.

In a more outward way, we can take time to serve others through our life's work and in our "off-time". This is a big subject that involves big decisions, but just in the way that it's a big decision that shouldn't be taken lightly, your life is a matter of great importance and what you do for 8+ hours a day, or for the hours of off-time you get each week, over the course of your entire life, shouldn't be taken lightly either.

Living in a way that you're aware of the impermanence of all things as well as of the way that everything is interconnected naturally cultivates the desire to serve. And conveniently enough, it's that service which contributes most heavily to our happiness in life.

However you choose to serve, know that it's a two-way street. You're not serving others, you're simply serving. By serving others, you're serving yourself. And by serving yourself in an honest and authentic spiritual sense, you're serving others as well.

Whatever your life looks like, know that to live a little bit more like a Zen monk or nun and to realize the greater peace, joy, and improved ability to navigate the crests and troughs of life isn't outside your reach. Express the essence of living like a Zen monk or nun by following these 11 points in your everyday life.

Note: Thanks to Paul Davis for the beautiful photos from Thich Nhat Hanh's Plum Village, Blue Cliff, and Magnolia Grove monasteries.