Meditation: Practicing for Life
Veteran teachers Ezra Bayda and Elizabeth Hamilton talk about the challenges and joys of sticking with meditation through life's ups and downs.
Ezra Bayda and Elizabeth Hamilton, husband and wife, have been practicing Zen meditation for over 40 years and have taught for the last 20 at the Zen Center of San Diego. They lead retreats across the United States and in Australia and France. Both have led meditation in hospice venues, and now they offer it in a retirement community.
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recently interviewed them about the rising interest in meditation and what has kept them practicing for so long.
Meditation is becoming more mainstream in Western society. And “mindfulness” is a buzzword these days. The rising interest in living more mindfully is surely something to be celebrated, but do you have any concerns about how this is unfolding? For example, some people start teaching meditation when they have been practicing only a few months. Can we “fast-track” meditation?
When mindfulness first became so popular, I had some concerns, particularly that meditation practice would become diluted and perhaps even superficial. I was even more concerned when people started teaching meditation with just a few weeks of training. Now, however, I look at it a little differently. I still believe it takes many years of meditating, including learning how to deal with the numerous blind spots and stuck places that arise, in order to be a good teacher of meditation. But I also believe that even a little exposure to the inner silence and stillness that is possible with meditation can be a good thing. This doesn’t mean that a deeper meditation practice can be fast tracked—I don’t believe it can; but some people can benefit by learning to simply settle down, even for short periods.
My first meditation teacher used to say, “Meditation needs to provide a big pasture—for all the wild horses that show up!”
We try to make it possible for people to start where they are. Whatever reasons we have for taking up meditation are fine. When we start, the gamut of motivations runs from wanting to be calm to seeking answers to the deepest existential questions. Increasingly, however, we find that some people come to meditation mainly as a way to learn enough to begin teaching mindfulness.
My only concern with this is that people might begin teaching before they’re ready—that is, before they’ve truly experienced what meditation really is. If people start teaching with very little experience, it can cause problems for themselves and for others, because we don’t know what we don’t know, and meditation can bring up deep-seated things for all involved.
A lot of Americans who take up meditation are seeking relief from hectic lives fraught with distracted thinking. But when they sit down to meditate, their minds are still busy and they feel physically restless. New students may quickly become discouraged, feeling impatient with themselves or disappointed in the practice. What would you say to them?
Since everyone I’ve ever met has difficulty, at least in the beginning, with distracted thinking, I let students know it’s quite normal, and that it doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with them or with their efforts. When we become aware that we have unrealistic expectations, which in turn lead to self-judgments and discouragement, it’s much easier to lighten up on ourselves and continue a meditation practice. In fact, seeing through our expectations and judgments is one of the many benefits of meditating.
Sometimes folks don’t know until they sit down, quietly, that their mind is all over the map. It’s necessary to know this; otherwise we may believe the notion that meditation can immediately give us a quiet mind.
As we practice, we can discover that there’s something healing about cultivating the ability to simply be where we are, in the present moment—instead of having our thoughts head toward the future (planning) or the past (dwelling on memories).
Ironically, people sometimes don’t realize the benefits of meditation until they’ve stopped. When they experience hard times—that’s when they sense the value of meditation, and often return to the practice.
Of course, it’s not only beginners who encounter discouragement. Each of you has maintained a meditation practice for over four decades. What more than anything has helped you to sustain your practice, even through illness and hardship?
It’s really a mystery to me why so many people drop out of meditation practice, because if it weren’t for the foundation of meditation it would have been very difficult for me to get through the rough patches in my life.
I learned a phrase early in my practice: “Cheerful perseverance is the key to success.” This phrase has stayed with me, and over time I’ve learned that perseverance—the ability to make efforts regardless of how we feel—is perhaps the single most important quality in maintaining a meditation practice. Once we learn this, it helps us get through the inevitable times when we feel stuck or confused or ready to give up.
Until we’ve hit a difficult spell in meditation, it’s hard for us to appreciate how similar hardships happen to so many others. Then we start to realize that having difficult times is part of the process. It’s also in these times that we begin to value the importance of teachers and communities, to support us in adversity.
With some ongoing experience in meditation, many report discovering a qualitative difference between times when we meditate regularly and others when we take a half-hearted approach—which often leads to discouragement.
We have to stay alert to the misguided yet sincere “magical thinking” that can make us believe that meditating means you won’t get sick, or you’ll never be bothered by things. Someone recently heard I’d had an anaphylactic shock reaction, and said that it shouldn’t have happened to me, because I’m a meditator! You can see how this kind of thinking can lead to disheartenment.
We’ve been talking about some of the challenges that inevitably arise in a practice life. But there wouldn’t be such a thing as meditation if it didn’t yield rewards. Why do we meditate? How does practicing meditation inform and enrich our lives?
I remember my mother and some others saying I seemed “nicer,” or more empathic, and less distracted, after I’d been meditating for a while. Whether or not that was true, it’s obvious that I’m more genuinely interested in others than I used to be when I was caught in self-centeredness a large part of the time, and didn’t even realize it.
These are big questions: Why do we meditate? How does it help us? Often the answers change as we become more experienced meditators. For example, I first began meditating in order to be free of anxiety. Sitting still and following the breath certainly helped, but I would have to admit that during that early phase my practice was still somewhat superficial.
Later, as I experienced life difficulties, particularly with my health, I had to go deeper in my meditation practice in order to find genuine benefit. It’s hard to put this into words, but the reason I meditate now is to help uncover my true self; and the benefit has been an increasing sense of equanimity, in both good times and difficult times.
There are individuals who work hard to maintain a meditation practice on their own. Do you have any advice for them? Are there advantages to working with a teacher and sitting with a community of other practitioners?
Some folks are able to meditate on their own. However, years of teaching music taught me that those who taught themselves often developed counterproductive habits that ultimately made things harder.
Access to communities and teachers has been invaluable for me and has helped me recognize those times when I’ve been off the path and into the ditch, without knowing it. Interestingly, people seem to reap the benefits of teachers and groups more in the beginning of practice (when it may be hard to meditate on your own) or in the middle (as some tough times come along). Then, after our meditation practice strengthens, we may want to participate in a group as a way to give back to others, by supporting them through our presence.
Maintaining a long-term practice on one’s own is difficult, even for someone with a lot of self-discipline. There are bound to be times when we lose our motivation, and without others to encourage us, we may stop practicing. When we’re in a group of like-minded people, it is much easier to keep going, even when we might not feel like it. It may be even more important to have a teacher, who will not only encourage us but also, hopefully, lead by example. Moreover, a good teacher can point out our blind spots and help to guide us through the many obstacles that arise on the path of meditation.
It seems there is a new study published every month about the hazards of sitting (being sedentary). This might deter some people from even contemplating a still, silent sitting practice. Could you comment on that?
I recently read an article that asked, “Can too much sitting make you anxious?” This is a good question, since often when we first meditate—sitting still without doing something else—we’re confronted with an agitated mind and body. We may not have been aware of this agitation before, and we may even fear that meditation is making us more anxious, rather than just revealing the anxiety that was already present.
Interestingly, after meditating for a while, many report becoming aware of the need for a
sedentary lifestyle. So in this sense, meditation can lead to taking up health-enhancing activities and appreciating the value of movement.
It’s very unlikely that sitting still for 30 minutes a day—the recommended amount of time to meditate—could do any harm. In fact, there are probably an equal number of studies published on the health benefits of meditation, such as lowering blood pressure and reducing stress. However, if sitting is really a concern for someone, there are some excellent forms of walking meditation, where one can simultaneously meditate, move the body, get fresh air and perhaps even enjoy the outdoors.
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