On a recent Monday evening, a sangha member asked about daily home meditation practice, what that looks like, and how to sustain it over time. I thought maybe those who weren’t present would like to know about this as well. It’s a common and important question. I’ll tell you about my daily practice. This is not to say that you should copy exactly what I do. Establishing a daily practice means fitting it into your own life, not like cramming your foot into someone else’s shoe, as it were. Still, maybe there’s something in my experience that might be useful to you.
I have practiced Zen since the fall of 2000, and my ongoing efforts at daily practice have looked different at different points. My routine has depended on where I lived, my work schedule, my sleep schedule, the schedules of those I lived with, and frankly, my level of effort and dedication. Like everything else in life, these factors will never be fixed for all time, so a phrase like “daily practice” conjures images that may or may not reflect reality. It’s not as simple as saying, “Okay, I am a daily sitter now. Forever and always.” Life has its fluctuations.
When I practice at home, I basically just sit down, set a timer, and simply do zazen, usually for 25 to 40 minutes. Sometimes afterwards I read a Zen text or engage in my current endeavor of sewing a robe, and sometimes I silently chant the daily text from our STO Home Practice Book. But in Soto Zen, zazen is central, so that’s the non-negotiable for me in my home practice. If it helps you to light a candle, burn incense, and chant the Heart Sutra, by all means do those things as well. For me, it’s a time factor as much as anything. I love and value those other dharma practices, especially engaging in them with a group, but if I have to choose one over the other, I choose zazen.
When I first started with Zen, I lived in Bloomington, Indiana, just blocks from a small Zen group with its own dedicated practice space – something I hope we can establish here someday. I attended sittings there 3-4 times per week and did zazen at home on the days I didn’t. The structure of group practice made it a lot easier to sit regularly, especially as a beginner. Both when I lived in Germany in 2002 and then moved away from Bloomington in 2005, I did not have a sangha. I had to go it alone, and at times I struggled maintaining a daily practice. I never gave up, but there were significant periods of time when I did not sit every single day. Sometimes there were months at a stretch when I didn’t sit at all. After a while, though, I would feel the negative effects of that neglect and would start sitting again. The idea of just quitting altogether never occurred to me. Zazen had me at “hello,” you might say.
My struggle to work practice into my routine nevertheless continued. Ironically, I struggled most when I needed it most. When major transitions happened in my job or personal life – a near-constant for me in the mid 2000s – I had a hard time with sitting. Finally, at a serendipitous time in 2007, a lot of factors came together to remind me of just how important my zazen practice was, and I became a much more dedicated practitioner. I didn’t have to try. It just sort of happened. The value of daily zazen became so abundantly clear, that I stopped struggling.
At the time, I fit meditation into my routine because I was kind of an insomniac and would wake up well before my alarm went off. I started getting up whenever I woke up, and I would go sit until the alarm, whether that was 5 minutes or 50 minutes. Usually it was around 30 to 45. That’s where zazen fit in for me at the time, so that’s when I did it. For a while I kept a cushion in my office and sat in the afternoons, but by and large I have remained a morning sitter. These days, I do it as soon as possible after I get up, during my partner’s morning routine. If it doesn’t happen then, it’s harder for me to fit in later in the day. I’m mostly a once-a-day sitter, whereas some people like to sit twice a day. We all have to find what works best through trial and error.
The time of day, specific number of minutes and number of sits per day may vary from person to person, but everybody has those precious minutes somewhere in the day. It’s just a matter of finding them.
As the saying goes, “Sit 20 minutes a day. If you don’t have time for that, sit an hour a day.” Our guiding teacher Taiun Elliston also likes to quote his teacher Soyu Matsuoka: “Five minutes zazen, five minutes Buddha.” The meaning there is that any amount of zazen is far better than none. I don’t believe the number of minutes you spend each day is as important the consistency and the cumulative effect over months and years of practice.
Ultimately, it’s not possible to force a daily practice to happen. In my own case, I finally accepted that this is something I need to do in order to live the life I aspire to live, and the practice developed from that understanding. It just became crystal clear. Perhaps that’s what it means to establish a regular home practice: to get to the point where it becomes inevitable.
I’ve also known people who place a cushion where they have to step over it or trip when they get up in the morning. That’s another way to make it inevitable, I suppose.