Journey of Awakening; A Meditator's Guidebook
By Ram Dass
Where to Meditate
Meditation is work. It helps to have a physical space to work in-a room or corner set aside for meditation. All you do there is meditate, study holy books, or chant. Do nothing there that's not part of your spiritual practice. If you have the choice, you may want to keep this corner of the room simple, just bare white walls. Or you may decorate it in keeping with its unique part in your daily routine. A candle or stick of incense may do. Or maybe add a few pictures of beings who inspire you-Christ, Buddha, or Ramakrishna. You might also keep a few helpful books there such as the Bible or the Bhagavad Gita.
When you sit down in that comer or go into that room, make sure that all you do there is meditate or study. Don't use it for any other purpose. Dedicate it to the awakening of your spiritual self. Such a space becomes invested with the effects of your every attempt at meditation. You consecrate it. If you keep its use pure, the space fills with a vibration that smooths your way for meditation.
Find a quiet place, free of distractions. A beginning meditator is easily distracted. In deeper meditation it won't matter what your surroundings are, but in the beginning the outer quiet helps you find an inner silence. Familiar places, where there are few things that catch your attention, are best.
While it is desirable to have a specific space or a private comer for your meditation, it is not necessary. Once you have a meditative practice that suits you, you can do it most anywhere. You will find many ordinary moments in your life are perfect for meditation: when you are waiting in the dentist's office, or for the bus, or sitting on a subway. Moments which usually were times for boredom or wandering thoughts become a gift-a chance to meditate.
Often I have had my deepest meditations when I least expected them: not when I was sitting on my meditation cushion surrounded by other meditators, but while driving my car, or sitting in an airplane, or waiting in the Internal Revenue Service office, or standing in line in the New Delhi railway station. Even standing in a crowded subway you can go within. The stronger your meditation, the less your surroundings distract you. Eventually, you will be able to meditate anywhere, anytime.
When to Meditate
When should you meditate? Timing, like place, is important in the early stages. Just as you should find a comfortable place to sit, you should find a convenient time of day for your meditation. If you've just eaten a large meal, you may become drowsy. If you're hungry, that too may interfere with your meditation. Most serious meditators practice at least twice a day, in the morning after awakening, and sometime during the evening. The first sitting puts your mind in a relaxed state before your day begins. The second sitting refreshes you for the evening.
It's best to meditate each day at the same time in your daily rhythm-for example, before leaving the house each morning and before dinner each evening. Find or make times when you can be free of concerns and responsibilities for a while. Let someone else answer the phone or mind the children. The habit of meditating daily provides an outer framework for the inner process of meditation. So be regular.
In the beginning, twenty or thirty minutes is a good length for each meditation session. You can gradually extend the length of your sitting by increments of five minutes or so up to forty-five minutes to an hour, as your schedule and inclinations allow.
You can keep track of the time with a kitchen timer or with a watch, opening your eyes briefly to see if the time is up. These quick glimpses to check on time won't disrupt your meditation. As you continue practicing, your sense of when the session is through will become increasingly accurate.
How long you should meditate varies. Sit as long as you can, but no longer than you're ready for. Whatever time you set for yourself, be diligent in sitting out the allotted time, even if it means clockwatching. Don't stop meditating at the first impulse to get up and do something else-meditation is the time to let all such thoughts come and go, without attachment.
If you meditate regularly, even when you don't feel like it, you will make great gains, for it will allow you to see how your thoughts impose limits on you. Your resistances to meditation are your mental prisons in miniature.
With Whom to Meditate
Find other people with whom you can share your interest in meditation. They can become your support system. The nineteenth-century Indian saint Ramakrishna remarked that a beginner in spiritual life is like a young tree that needs to be circled with a fence for protection. This is the seeker's need for satsang, a group of fellow aspirants who strengthen one another's sometimes shaky faith on the journey. In sharing your experiences with other meditators you benefit from their feedback. You get a broader view of what's possible in meditation than you would have if you meditated alone.
To meditate with a group will certainly strengthen your practice. Your mind will create ruses to disrupt your practice. At those moments when you feel bored or agitated, if you were alone you might be inclined to stop and get up An agreement to meditate with another person for a set time keeps you in place. When you sit with others, the pretexts that arise in your mind for quitting meditation are more often simply observed, rather than acted upon.
At a more profound level, meditating with satsang creates a group vibration that often intensifies your meditation, it's as if there is a summation of quieting thoughts that pass from one person to another. I have often come into meditation halls in Japan and in the United States where the hall itself would seem thick with these vibrations. Many churches and temples provide this peaceful space.
Your group could meet in someone's living room, light a candle and perhaps some incense, and sit quietly for an agreed period of time. Gradually you might add other activities done in a meditative spirit. For example, eat together afterward, or take turns reading aloud from books about meditation, or chant together.
Finding such a group may be as simple as checking bulletin boards or putting up a note in the laundromat, health-food store, or bookstore, asking if anyone would like to meditate with you one or two evenings a week. Maybe a friend would like to meditate with you. Or you might sit in at a Quaker meeting, for their form is itself meditative in nature. There may already be a neighborhood group that meets informally in someone's home, or in an adult-education evening course, or perhaps regular sittings of some meditation group.
The directory at the back of this book may help you find people with whom you can sit. There are listings for nationwide meditation organizations and for smaller meditation groups-perhaps there is one in your community. Each group has its own style and view, and in the long run, any one of them may or may not be attractive to you. Initially it makes little difference so long as you feel comfortable with the group. Later, with more experience, you may find you prefer to drop out of one group or join another. But don't waste too much time in the beginning by trying to judge this group or that, this individual or that. The important thing is to start meditating.