Do you still meditate when you are on holiday? When you are staying in a friend’s house for the weekend? When you are working away from home? Are you the diligent type that always gets a sit in or does your normal routine suffer, or does your routine go on hold until you get home?
I’ve been away from home a lot recently and naturally this has an impact on my meditation routine. I’m in a different place without a big shiny Buddha in it or any zafus to sit on. I’m working to other people’s time schedules, and I am out of all of my routines not just my meditation ones. But this isn’t an unusual situation for me, in fact when I first started to practice I was away from home every week. On top of this, not only was I away from home but I actually worked a different shift pattern every week too. I had a job that required me to work all over the country and my weekly schedule was leave on Monday, stay in a hotel until Friday, come home, unpack my suitcase, put everything in the washing machine, take it out, iron it, put it back in the suitcase and leave again next Monday; the only thing that was different was the location and the start time. Back then I had the fervour of a new practitioner to fuel my dedication, and to be honest in the beginning when you can’t really settle in meditation it doesn’t matter where you do it, you’re going to have a disrupted, distracted meditation anyway.
Ironically the problems can start to set in when you do get a bit better at meditation and you are able to get into calm, focussed states. Once you’ve had a taste of that then it can be hard to sit and meditate in a noisy, uncomfortable environment knowing that you are likely to be disturbed and unlikely to get into a peaceful state. For people trying to meditate purely for relaxation then this is a valid concern, but if you meditate as part of a Buddhist practice then you are looking at the problem in entirely the wrong way as one of the senior nuns at Amaravati pointed out to me some years ago.
I asked her a question about how I spent a lot of time in hotel rooms and I found that I couldn’t meditate as well as I could at home, and did she have any advice on how have better meditation away from home. Her answer was direct but completely correct. “Well, that’s delusion isn’t it?” The answer hit me hard but I recognised what she meant immediately – of course you can’t meditate the same way in a hotel as you can at home, to think that you can is delusion. Of course it’s delusion to think that the point of meditating is for it to be a pleasant experience with no distractions or interruptions. She then expounded on the answer and said how fantastic it was to be able to be in a situation where you have so many annoyances and discomforts to practice with, and get paid for it at the same time – build an altar, put the situation on it, and bow to it she said! This is your teacher.
This is the crux of our issue with falling out of our routine so many times, that we have an idea of the kind of meditation we want to have but we won’t be in the environment that will allow that to happen. We know that the practice is in patient endurance, but we forget that means that sometimes we have to knowingly put ourselves in a situation where we will have to sit through some uncomfortable experiences. We run away from the discomfort instead of running towards it as a fabulous opportunity to practice with something new, instead of putting it on the altar and bowing to it.
Make no mistake sometimes meditation is really hard work, uncomfortable, annoying, too hot, too cold, painful, distractible, and so on. It can take a lot of energy to sit through it, to keep the discipline to pull our focus back to the breath, to keep paying attention to the thoughts and feelings that arise, even to keep being kind to ourselves. When I said sometimes it’s easier when we first start to meditate it’s because we don’t really know how hard it can be, we’ve never really tested ourselves. But when we are experienced and we have plenty of difficult sits under our belt then we know what we are getting into when we try to settle down for a sit in that uncomfortable, noisy hotel room. Like running a marathon we know just how hard it is going to be.
But one crucial thing we also learn from our experience is just how hard it can be to not meditate. Using mindfulness throughout our day we can see the impact that not meditating has on us, sometimes even as quickly as after a day. The most obvious impact can be a busy mind, especially when we try to get to sleep. We can also notice that we experience more agitation, we are less calm, and perhaps we are quicker to get angry or have negative things to say about people and situations. Regular meditation helps us to keep mindfulness as our habitual state, and when we are mindful we can notice negative feelings and thoughts quickly and deal with them before they cause us or anyone else to suffer. But when we aren’t being mindful these things go unchecked and we don’t notice them until we are shouting at someone, or dissolving into an anxious mess over something trivial.
Once you have seen for yourself how much you lose out on when you don’t meditate it provides the motivation that you need to make sure you do meditate regularly and stick to your routine. Any sit is better than no sit, that is my maxim, even 5 minutes is infinitely better than nothing. But should you try to stick exactly to your usual routine? Say for instance you wake at 5am everyday and sit for one hour; it does take a bit of wise judgement on your part to decide if it is best for you to be disciplined and keep your routine exactly as it normally is, or if it is better to work with whatever time and resources you have got instead – which perhaps might mean you sit for half an hour before bed instead.
Under some circumstances you might benefit from the extra effort it requires to get up early and do that long sit, but under other circumstances you might find that you are being too rigid and are creating suffering for yourself – if you are on your honeymoon perhaps for example! In my case when I was working away from home that rigidness wouldn’t have been wise a lot of the time; sometimes I was working night shift and I was still working at 5am, sometimes I was working 2 – 10pm and getting up at 5am would have left me uncomfortably tired all day. Use your own judgement and take other people into consideration too, would holding too tightly onto your routine cause them distress? I’m thinking about that honeymoon again.
So maybe you can only meditate for 15 minutes just before bed, but you are tired and drowsy. You might tell yourself that it was a waste of time because all you were doing was falling asleep, but don’t discount the possibility that you might learn something insightful about the nature of sleepiness – don’t forget that drowsiness is one of the five hinderances that we are always looking out for. Your sleepy mind might let you see something that your overactive mind stops you from seeing. You might in fact just sit there falling asleep and have no insights at all, but you have still benefitted from the sit; if you make the effort you will always get a reward from it, it might not be obvious but every time you meditate you make some kind of incremental gain.
Maybe the only way to get any time or peace to sit is to get up earlier than you normally o. Your alarm is set for 7am every day but actually if you got up at 6.30am there is a window of opportunity to sit before everyone else wakes up. Again you might have the opportunity to work with drowsiness, this is a common feature of early sits. It’s never easy to get out of a warm bed to go and sit, so if you don’t usually have to do this then you get to work on your self discipline a bit. If you’re like me you might find that you have the type of mind that is much more active in the morning than in the evening, and then you will find you have a lot to work with! If this is you then just keep bringing your attention back to the breath when the mind wanders off, and don’t beat yourself up if your mind spends more time away from the breath than on it. You can get to the end of a meditation and think that you didn’t maintain mindfulness at all, it was just one thought after another; but you were mindful enough to know that is what happened, so really you were still being mindful even though it didn’t feel that way.
Another compromise you might have to make is on the type of meditation that you want to do. If you are practicing concentration meditation and hope to get into a jhana while you are staying in a hotel then forget it! Concentration meditation requires a lot of peace and quiet, both in your own mind and in the world around you. The disruption of being away and the hubbub of a hotel are the opposite of the right conditions. A better solution would be to work with what you have got the conditions for, anything that requires patience, endurance, open heartedness, and understanding to deal with the distractions that are around you. Insight meditation is perfect for this, there are so many thoughts, feelings, noises and sensations happening around you that you have an embarrassment of material to work with. But if you find the environment a bit too unsettling then try metta meditation; this will cultivate some peace in you and will help you to be more accepting of the situation you are in.
What about listening to a guided meditation through headphones? If that is something that works for you then sure, go ahead, but don’t use it as a crutch to avoid having to deal with discomfort. If you never meditate with uncomfortable conditions then you will never learn how to get through them. But if you are really struggling and feeling really unmindful and unsettled then using a guided meditation, preferably one from a monastic or a senior teacher, is a skilful way to ground yourself and get the calm that you need to get yourself back on track.
If all you need is just to block some of the noise out then use earplugs, or noise cancelling headphones on silent. Again don’t do this just to make life easy for yourself, or just to escape from the noise that is distracting you; use it wisely for times when you feel that your mindfulness is fading and you are becoming too unsettled. Give yourself some temporary peace but make sure that you use it to re-establish your inner peace and mindfulness. Once this is back in place then embrace the opportunity to work with discomfort again.
The most important thing though is to let go of any fixed ideas that you have about how you want your meditation sit to be and just embrace what it is on any given day. Once you know that meditating every day is something that is vital for your own wellbeing then make that effort to sit everyday regardless of when, where, or how long the session ends up being. Integrating practice fully into your life, wherever you happen to be, is a key step to starting to make good progress on the path so explore the ways you can make this happen and don’t be disheartened by any bumps on the road.