By Brent R. Oliver
Some of us here at The Tattooed Buddha (TTB) tend toward the hardcore side of practice and study.
We’re sort of Buddhist nerds; we read a lot, we pore through sutras, commentaries, and blogs, we have discussions between ourselves that are thankfully private. If the general public was privy to the monumentally geekish discourses we engage in, or the breathless debates we have over the smallest snippets of Buddhist minutiae, they’d give us toilet swirlies and jam us in lockers.
This is a passion, not a hobby. It’s something that infuses our lives entirely; it’s the lens we see through and the yardstick we measure everything with. Even if the goal is sort of to throw away the lens and the yardstick both.
We’re a family here at TTB and, like all families, we sometimes quarrel—especially about the best methods and approaches to practice. But we’re all bound (if not by blood) by the desire to examine our lives and minds, and evolve a dialogue that’s progressive, compassionate, intelligent and honest. I love this family, even though the only member I’ve actually met in real life is Gerald Stribling, and he’s a goddamn weirdo. *
I think we all do a fairly good job of writing accessible articles. Despite our hardcore tendencies, we don’t usually overwhelm readers with lots of technical details and deep, obscure Buddhist philosophy. I also think we write from very personal perspectives, which lends an ultimately human touch to our work. We’re often talking about our path, not just the path.
Today, I’d like to address something that may provoke some disagreement. Not because it’s so hardcore; just the opposite. Of all of us at TTB, I feel like I stress modern mindfulness most heavily as a universal practice. Lately, I’ve been learning a lot from my mindfulness teachers about establishing a meditation routine, and it’s not what I’m used to. However, the truth of those lessons is now being affirmed through my own experiences coaching new students.
Coming from a Buddhist background, I’ve always been taught that meditation isn’t really effective unless it’s done every day. That fit right in with my stauch attitude and, what’s more, it seemed cool. Like those of us who sat every day were the renegades, the punk monks grinding away toward enlightenment while everyone else just messed around doing Buddha knows what.
This is a common approach. And it’s fine for some people, myself included. After all, I write and coach professionally in the world of mindfulness. My ass had better be on that cushion every day, otherwise I’m just a mental personal trainer who’s the psychological equivalent of a couch turnip. But that doesn’t work for everyone, especially in the sphere of modern secular mindfulness. Some people feel that sitting every day is too much of a commitment and, frankly, a little unrealistic. And I’d like to go on record as saying, “Fuuuuuck, yes it is.”
Who practices violin seven days a week? People who want to be professional violinists, that’s who. Who hits the basketball court seven days a week? Players who want a college scholarship and a shot at the NBA. Who does gymnastics every single day? Folks aiming at the Olympics. Who gets up at 4:30 every morning to hone their boomerang skills for two hours before work? No one, but you get what I’m saying. You probably got it two examples ago but I just felt the need to keep going. I get paid by the word. (Editor’s note: Actually TTB has no money, so Brent and the writers here graciously donate their work)
You don’t have to sit seven days a week to get benefits from mindfulness meditation, nor do you need to sit 45 minutes every session in order to see positive results. It all depends on your goals. Do you want to be an Olympic-caliber mindfulness monster and dial your anguish down to zero? Are you looking to be a professional-level enlightenment athlete? Then, yes, you need to meditate every day, twice a day, for at least an hour each time. You should also go on several long retreats each year.
But that’s only one end of the spectrum.
I’m fat and out of shape. I wheeze when someone else lifts a heavy slice of pizza. If I joined a gym and my trainer told me the guy who looks like a rippling wave of flesh-colored tennis balls jammed into spandex shorts is the only result worth having, I’d leave. I’d vomit first, but I’d leave right after.
We don’t all have the same goals. It’s often assumed—especially by traditionalists—that the only use for mindfulness is scorching suffering from the face of samsara. But, well…shit. You can do whatever you want with it. You don’t even need a permit.
Maybe you just want to stop kicking the vacuum cleaner every time it runs over a cat toy and chokes itself unconscious. Or you’d like to stay focused and calm while you study for your PhD in astro-cryptozoology. You could be an insomniac searching for relief, or someone trying to manage chronic pain, or a teacher hoping to stretch patience with a swarming class of psychotic 10-year-olds. Perhaps you just want to live with more concentration, clarity and equanimity, for no reason at all except it sounds nice.
Meditation groups have high attrition rates partly because there’s always the implication that you have to commit fully to get all the good stuff. Casual membership has few benefits and it needs to be a lifestyle, not a mere habit.
Here’s what I say: Just sit.
Try five or ten minutes. If you can work it in almost every day, cool. Please do. If you can only sit 3 times a week, then do that. Try to do it at the same spot in your routine each time, like right after you shower or just before bed. If you find that you can stay sort of consistent a few times a week, maybe sit a little longer. Set the timer for 15 minutes. If it’s easier than you thought to make time for meditation, do it five times a week instead of three. Or, if you like the results, maybe carve more time out of your busy life to do it.
And you will see results. They’ll sneak up on you at first. Your kids do something that usually makes you bananas and you realize you’re not really that upset. When you get to work and find a massive pile of email first thing in the morning, you don’t heave an exhausted sigh like Sisyphus at the bottom of the hill. You see little tidbits here and there and you are calmer for longer when stressed. You find yourself focused more clearly on what’s in front of you.
Sleeping a mite deeper. Waking up a touch nicer.
Make no mistake: the rewards are much greater if you sit every day. But if you’re not into that kind of commitment, don’t let that discourage you from doing it at all. Mindfulness is yours, not someone else’s to tell you what to do with it. And, who knows…you may fall in love with the deeply transformative nature of this practice and end up more ardent about it than when you started. People’s goals change and you may eventually want more out of mindfulness than when you started.
And if you don’t? No worries. Just sit.
*I love Strib. It’s just my computer doesn’t have a facetious font.
Editor: Dana Gornall
Brent is a coach in Shinzen Young’s Unified Mindfulness system because it’s just such an approach. He works with individuals interested in everything from alleviating stress to pursuing classical enlightenment. He also coaches groups, and offers presentations to companies, schools, and organizations curious about the benefits of mindfulness. In addition to being a columnist at The Tattooed Buddha, Brent’s writing has also appeared in Tricycle: The Buddhist Review, and Morpheus. He lives in Lexington, KY with his wife, two cats, and a crippling addiction to horror. Swing by his website brentpurpleoliver.com for more information.