I was teaching a workshop last week about cultivating a mindful classroom, and I had an interesting question posed to me by one of the attendees. I had just led an introductory meditation. Nothing fancy, following the breath, some body awareness, making space for whatever sensations found in a simple awareness meditation. As is typical in such a setting, there was a mixture of experienced and novice meditators in the room, and several people who had never meditated at all. After we were done the floor was opened up for discussion so people could talk about what it was like to use their minds that way.
One gentleman stated strongly that it was rather a waste of time. “Nothing happened” he said, “it didn’t work.” So we began to process what had actually happened when he heard my meditation guidance, but he interrupted me to ask this question: “Why didn’t you have us do preparation to be mindful before we did the meditation? If you had done that then maybe it would have worked.”
At first I was a bit taken aback, as the teachings I was sharing were making clear that mindfulness isn’t something that “works” in the way he he seemed to mean. But then I considered his actual question, his wondering if there’s something I should have done, in essence, to “warm up for the practice,” and I thought “what an excellent question!”
What do we do to prepare for a formal mindfulness practice, whether it’s breath-based sitting meditation, mindful yoga, walking meditation, or any number of the mindful practices available to us. I began to think of my own preparation for a formal sitting session, and realized that I actually do prepare for meditation. But the preparation is so implicit in my routine at this point, that I no longer notice it. So I thought I would share how I prepare for meditation, in hopes that it might give readers some ideas as well.
When it’s time to get on a cushion, or walk mindfully, or do some yoga (my three preferred ways to engage in formal meditation), I become focused on my awareness that I am about to do the practice. In becoming mindful of the intention to be mindful, I begin to slow down a bit. The simple process of walking up the stairs to the meditation room is done with intentionality, placing attention on the sensations of stepping, climbing, the exertion of it all. As I enter the room my mind is drawn to awareness of my breath, if it isn’t there already. Steps are taken slowly; the cushion is placed carefully before my small shrine, or the yoga mat is put in place. If I am walking through the gardens surrounding my home I begin by lacing my shoes or pulling a sweater over my head or striding toward the door with great focus. In all cases, the moments leading up to the formal sitting become intense, with great moment to moment mindfulness.
I also have the great honor of leading different groups of meditators, most notably our group that meets monthly and shares deep fellowship founded in our mindfulness practices, and deepened by our conversations and communal meals (especially the meals!). When preparing to meditate with this group, most of whom were meditation students with me at one time or another, I’ll often read literature that is directly about mindfulness or invokes a mindful quality. Sometimes poetry, sometimes prose, and sometimes a podcast interview with a great teacher. All of these resources are inspirational, and a great “warm up” again to leading our formal practice as a group.
I suppose what I am saying is that we can begin our meditation practice by becoming mindful moment to moment. And the moment to begin being mindful is…..now! The moment I rise from my cushion or mat or walk away from my garden, that is the moment to be mindful, and, in a way, that becomes the moment in which I am preparing for my next period of formal meditation. What a beautiful way to live!
The issue, then, comes down to this: It’s not “when do I start to warm up for my next formal practice period” but rather “why would I ever STOP warming up for my formal practice!”
So go out there and get ready to be meditative, be mindful, in every moment of every day. Set the intention to live this way. And learn from our friends in Alcoholics Anonymous who say “we seek progress, not perfection.” We all get mindless from time to time, but as long as your intention is true, you will find your mindless times shorter and shorter in duration.