The night that Siddhartha was Awakened, he sat beneath the Bodhi tree with a specific attitude: I’m not moving from this freaking spot until I’m free of suffering and understand wtf is going on around here.
He didn’t sit to chill out and relax; he didn’t sit to clear his mind so that he could cope with daily stresses; he didn’t sit to bliss out. He sat to save himself from grief, from dukkha.
This mindset does wonders when you sit. We need a, “I’m sick of this shit, so I’m gonna do something about it,” attitude. This adds zeal and diligence to concentration. It makes it easier to zero-in on the meditation object.
So, that’s the mood we need when we walk up to the cushion. It helps to remember why we’re doing this. If we’re in a good mood, that might mean calling up a little suffering by recalling a painful memory. It’s difficult to practice well when everything feels hunky dory. When we feel good, we get lazy and it’s easier to get distracted.
It’s like if you have some kind of illness you’re taking meds for. When the symptoms start to fade, it’s easier to forget to take your meds.
But the illness is still there, even if the symptoms aren’t, so when we skip some doses here and there, the symptoms return. If we skip too many, we end up back in the hospital again.
Just because you’re happy doesn’t mean you aren’t planting seeds for future unpleasantness. Modest Mouse once sang, “The good times are killing me.” Everything that’s good fades away, so when we cling to the pleasant, we suffer. Winter is unpleasant because we’ve got dreams of summer floating around in our heads. That’s why it’s important to cultivate these skills when things are going well as well. We’re buying winter coats before the snow starts to fall.
After you sit down, it helps to take a few deep, relaxing breaths. Breathe in deep, hold it, and feel all your muscles tense. Then breathe out slowly, feeling your body relax. I recommend doing that at least five times.
Now, here’s the second helpful attitude: Renunciation.
I like to think of meditation as sitting down and becoming a monk for 30 minutes. I’m renouncing all my worldly possessions, my friends and family, my career aspirations, and all the things I want, and instead I’m dropping out of society and joining this inner monastery. Just as a monk’s sole possessions are a robe and bowl, my sole possessions are concentration and whatever it is I’m concentrating on.
I’m renouncing all the roles I have: son, friend, brother, employee, writer, musician, etc., and instead I’m just sitting—that’s who I am, that’s my job, my career, my place in the world.
One time, when my mind was wrought with distractions, I spontaneously went through and imagined all the people and things I was renouncing. My parents, my love interest, my dreams, my possessions, etc. I called them up as images and then let them go. It was little scary, sure. But I consoled myself. “Sssshhh… it’s OK. They’ll still be there when you get back up.”
What these two attitudes do is generate bodhicitta and nekkhamma: the desire for awakening and the pleasure of renunciation. Bodhicitta helps to sharpen concentration, and nekkhamma helps to sustain it.
Since we’re laypeople, renunciation is temporary. All the people and things we love aren’t going anywhere, they’ll still be right where they were when we end the sit. It’s just that, while we’re meditating, meditation needs to be the most important thing in the universe to us. Our meditation object is our family, our spouse, our friend. Successfully focusing on it is our life’s dream, our career goal.
This isn’t gonna make us into zombie monks—it’s temporary. It’s as if we’re carrying all the roles we play, and all the people and things we love and hate, around in a bag all day. When we go to sit, we’re setting that bag down. When the sit’s over, we pick it back up again—only now we might be able to carry it a little better.
You don’t need bodhicitta and nekkhamma when you sit, but they’re indispensable aids. Without them, my practice kind of sucked and progress was slow. They lit a fire under my ass, and that fire is what a lot of secular practices are missing.
When you’re done sitting, I recommend gradually putting your work clothes back on again. Slowly let go of your meditation object and let the rest of the world settle back in. When you get up, make sure you have a few more minutes of alone time to tune back in because you might feel a little dazed. If you just hop back into things right after the sit, you might feel groggy, confused, and agitated.
As a rule of thumb, take five minutes before the sit to get your attitude right, then five minutes after to readjust back to secular life. You just went on a mini-retreat, after all. Let yourself get re-acclimated to the madness instead of diving back in headfirst.