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In the Meditation Myths episode, our Prajna Sparks podcast dipped into the question of developing a meditation practice. This article takes up that question in more detail.

First, the Basics

It doesn't take long, when listening to Prajna Fire Dharma talks, to hear that the Tibetan word gom, usually translated as "meditation," means to habituate, cultivate, build familiarity. The etymological connection to "habit" is strong: the Tibetan word for habit, gom, is a homonym, and carries similar meaning.

Viewed in this light, meditation practice can be understood as a practice of cultivating a habit-- a familiarity with mind, its ebbs and flows, its quiet and chaos.

For example, the practice of shamatha, the Sanskrit term we translate as "tranquility meditation," refers to the meditation techniques associated with the iconic image of a pacific yogin sitting cross-legged in a state of sublime bliss.

In the Kagyu lineage of Tibetan Buddhism, shamatha technique focuses on cultivating familiarity with innate mental faculties such as recollection, vigilance, and heedfulness. Meditation, introduces us to these mind forces, how they function, respond (and don't) to different stimuli. We learn in time to cultivate them, harnessing their power to sustain a delicate and dynamic balance between the stillness and lucidity intrinsic to mind.

Simply put: mind fine tunes mind.

To the extent we cultivate wholesome habits that harmonize mind with its implicit beauty, shamatha progresses. To the extent we reinforce preexisting habits of agitation and laxity, we strengthen embedded tendencies towards mental wandering and torpor instead. It takes engagement, depth, and the delicate touch of mind upon itself to gently steer our counterproductive mental habits towards the equipoise of stillness and lucidity. Shamatha practice is habit as art--creative, unique, vibrant, and responsive.

Next, the Context

Unsurprisingly, we can take that sense of habituation further, extending it into the process of developing a meditation practice in and of itself. To some extent, cultivating a regular meditation practice does have parallels with instilling any habit. For this reason, the process is often equated with going to the gym, or brushing our teeth, or any number of other habits that are not necessarily spontaneous, but benefit from consistency.

The science of habit formation is fascinating, diverse, and responsive. [1] It can inform how we go about kickstarting a habit of crafting a container that supports a regular meditation practice. For example, habits form more naturally when tied to experiential cues rather than abstract goals. If we resolve, "I'm going to meditate for half an hour every day," that is a goal, or resolution. Maybe we do it, and maybe we don't.

Let's say we would like to meditate for half an hour every day. We decide to buckle down. This is our new resolution, our shining goal. Maybe we even do it a few times, or for a few weeks or months. Then perhaps we fall off our habit, and it is difficult to recover. A slippery slope materializes. Maybe we even lose the progress we made. We slide down further as we lose our habit, and some self-confidence with it. Perhaps we slip further, feeling ashamed.

Before you know it, a narrative springs up to explain why we could not keep up with something as positive, valuable, and simple as sitting in one place for thirty minutes a day, following our inhalation and exhalation. "I tried, but I failed. I'm no good at it. I'm not the meditating type. I'll never learn." You get the picture.

What happened? A goal such as "I will meditate for half an hour every day" is abstract, untethered, and lacks structural support. Lacking context, it is at least as easy to forget as to recall. What is difficult is reconnecting to it.

A more textured approach is multidimensional, emphasizing tangibles such as context and environment over intangible ideals, and tethers the aspiration (meditating for half an hour every day) to a space, or container aligned with our intention.

Now, Bring It All Together

How might that look?

Let's say we identify a time that is usually at our disposal, say 6:30 in the morning, before the din of the day's demands begin to grow. We identify a space: a corner or whole room that is comfortable and private at that time, say a study. Recognizing that small steps build habits, we don't overcommit from the get go, either as to frequency or accomplishment.

Bringing all that together, we name our aspiration, recognizing it as an aim, rather than a rigid goal: "I'm going to sit in meditation posture in my study every Monday, Wednesday and Friday, at 6:30 in the morning for twenty minutes." This is a context, tangible, trackable, and integrated, rather than abstract, slippery, and unconnected to our day.

See the difference? Shaped out of the wisely identified place, timing, duration, physical stance, and activity, the container is woven into our life context. These components create a space that is primed to be associated with the positive sensation of accomplishment.

Here is a newsflash for you: we learn more from positive reinforcement than negative.

There is even more we can do to make our habit enticing, such as preparing the space in advance, so it is inviting and ready, including our regular cup of tea or coffee at the start or end of our meditation, anchoring our space with a habit we already due regularly, making a tangible record of the rhythm of our sessions, and the like.

The possibilities are endless, depending on individual preference and lifestyle, yielding many ways to be creative. Try this template for a head start:

Creating Sanctuary blueprint
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Each time we sit in meditation posture in the study at 6:30 AM for twenty minutes, the nervous system gets a reward spike, making it easier, thus more likely, for it to reoccur.

Notice the intricacy of the meditation instruction there? No, because there is none. The framework is simply an invitation to embody the experience. Once we are on the floor (or cushion, chair, kneeling bench, sofa, what have you) in the study at 6:30 AM on Monday, we have arrived. Our aspiration is incarnating, stepping out of the realm of the abstract to take physical shape. What if we arrive at 6:35 AM? Or Tuesday? Then it happens then. The schedule is a prompt, not a regulation.

So there we are. Now what? To be honest, at first, it can be uncomfortable, uneventful. When I first started meditating, I was at the office nearly 80 hours a week. I would go to work early, because my biorhythm is keyed to morning energy. When I came home in the late evening, I was spent. The next day, I would rush to work to get the most out of my high energy time.

At first, I just aspired to sit on my meditation cushion for 15 minutes after I finished dinner each day. Many days, that was all I had in me. I just sat there in meditation posture, exhausted. In time, I grew into that; it felt sweet. Then I started to think, "Well, this is silly. If I'm going to sit here anyway, I should at least give it a go." Little by little, I grew.

Rhythm and Ritual

Similarly, once we arrive and are ready, we infuse the space we embody, simply by siting and being present, with the instructions for our meditation practice. We place the mind on the object, lose concentration, notice we are lost, and return to the instruction. We do it again. We do it umpteen times. Awesome. Five minutes down! Keep going.

At the chosen end of our session , we close. We do this again on Wednesday, then on Friday, and so forth. Each minute, each session, each day lines up one after another, our physicality and environment resonating with our rhythm. If it feels helpful we may track our sessions, a simple positive reinforcement technique. Doing so, we sense pen on paper or fingers on a screen or keyboard, see the tick marks building up in a row, adding more sensory texture to the process.

At the beginning and end of our time, perhaps we light a candle, invoke our lineage elders, entrust ourselves to their care, and invite all that lives to partake in the positivity that comes of our practice. Another newsflash: we are all different. I may prefer elaborate rites, where you prefer simple gestures. Fine. The outer appearance does not make a ritual. [1]

Whatever the details, we invite ritual to bracket the drumbeat of our sessions, enfleshing our experience further. Can you feel that? That is creativity happening. We weave ourselves into the fabric of our aspiration, as we knit it into our everyday lives. Our m

editation is interconnected with our body, our mind, our daily rhythms, held by the walls of our room and the time we gift to ourselves. Rituals bracket and ground the rhythms, circumscribing the boundaries of our practice time and space.

Whether we structure our time in advance like this, or take advantage of unexpected time that surprises us, we give ourselves to what is reasonable in our lives in that moment. Out of this we plant a living habit, nourish it, and watch it grow.

Before you know it, you yearn to practice more, perhaps Monday through Friday, at 6:30 AM in the study for thirty minutes. The habit matures, develops, and flourishes organically, with all the fits and starts of natural things.

There's more, of course. As in nature around us, these cycles are macroscopic, mirroring microscopic spirals in their folds. It is not just twenty-minute sessions that connect, day by day, week by week. Look more closely. Each session is composed of small spans of time during which we can hold our attention on the meditation object without exploding into distraction or imploding into sleep. These "micro-sessions" also flow one into another, like lining up beads on a string. (More about this in our next installment.) Employing the habit strategy in interlocking spirals at all levels of our practice further strengthens its weave.

Beyond Habit

As we develop, the habit metaphor differentiates. Indeed it must, if it is not to meet the same demise as endless good intentions that feel dry and lifeless, despite systems to make them more accessible. We can still term our development as habit, because the term has great elasticity, and can touch into later stages of this evolving process.

Thus, in a living practice, cultivating habit as behavior pattern is just the beginning. The behavior ripens into habit as bearing, how we carry ourselves off the cushion and into everyday life, the attire that marks our aspiration to interface with life mindfully. This organic process differs considerably from engineering something artificial and forcing ourselves to find nourishment in it. How sustainable is that?

Organic development is rough, uneven, perfectly imperfect, like an heirloom tomato: bulbous here, bowed over there. Yet nature is not random; it has trajectory. Cultivating our habit of meditation, like a garden, has seasons fallow and fertile. When the tide is high, we are flush with enthusiasm, and time is plentiful, our river of practice flows abundantly. When time and energy wears thin, we ease up on ourselves. To do otherwise is unwholesome, and not likely to encourage meditation.

Here too, we can spy the symmetry of natural spaces. On a given day, it may be difficult to discern an arc, yet there is one. On the whole, it flows towards an abundant harvest when we respond to conditions in the moment with what American Buddhist nun Pema Chodron terms "precision, gentleness, and humor." Awareness of these three can carry us far. [2]

A caveat: all this is blueprint, not law. Treat it as regulation rather than creative paradigm, and you will suffocate the vitality of your practice, not to mention your interest in engaging it. Indeed, even were we all to follow the very same blueprint, still our individualities would spark myriad variations. Well, yes, that's the point, isn't it? A single well-crafted blueprint can serve as the basis for constructing myriad meditation spaces out of the stuff of our lives, customizing here and there to suit our needs. The habit we create becomes instilled in our bearing until we dwell within it, rather than it occupying us.


At this point, we interact with habit as dwelling. Within the practice space we design and inhabit, we try this and tweak that, learning our mind, how it responds, what nourishes it, what we as practitioners are like. Responding in the present moment of experience, leaning into one subtle inner shift or another is itself practice. Intuitively, as if by feeling our way in the dark, we investigate mind as it slumps into torpor under these circumstances or veers into agitation when those conditions predominate. We gain familiarity with what soothes excitement and what enlivens dullness.

Starting with a context--a definable place, timing, duration, physical stance, and activity--we fashion an embodied environment within it. Tending to that with benevolence, care, delight, and evenhandedness yields a haven to inhabit as we craft our practice itself.

Sitting within our haven, the practice comes alive at the first touch of our attention. It stays fresh, resilient, and vital. By turns easeful, enervating, and exhilarating, its very changeability and responsiveness makes it enjoyable. Mind is inviting; it interests us. Nobody needs to tell us to meditate. We look forward to it. The practice replenishes us for life, and life nourishes the practice. No punishment falls on our head if we do not meditate for a day or a few or a week under the press of other things. Life is inviting us to be gentle for a time. Of course we return to our practice, like a beloved friend. Why wouldn't we?

By letting our life lead, with all its joys and foibles, the space we create for practice becomes a sanctuary within which spiritual continuity happens organically.



[1] See, for example, James Clear, Atomic Habits: Tiny Changes, Remarkable Results (Penguin Random House, 2018). I was delighted, upon first reading Clear's work, to find many of the basic elements helpful to crafting a regular meditation practice. [Return to text]

[2] Nowadays, it is not unusual to encounter individuals who reject ritual, often on the grounds that rituals are mere rote repetitions of meaningless actions. We respectfully disagree. Rites that devolve into rote are not ritual at all. As we use the terms, a rite is an intentional confluence of body, speech, and mind in the present moment, such that outer physical and verbal acts resonate in immediacy with an inner mindset, or motivation. Absent a cohesive motivation, the act is indeed rote: empty, repeated without intentionality. What differentiates rite from rote, then, is intentional embodiment, not outer appearance.

Ritual thus understood is more than a vapid series of randomly assembled rites. Ritual is creative expression using movements and speech to invite, manifest, and/or foster intention, whether secular or spiritual in character. A seamless unity pervades among body, speech, and mind such that the acts are effortless outgrowths of our intent. [Return to text]

[3] Pema Chodron. The Wisdom of No Escape. Shambhala Publications (1991). [Return to text]


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