Meditation for People Who Don’t Have Time to Meditate
Pre-Advent Workshop
Michael Jinkins

Now is the Perfect Time
Advent is a great time to pause and take stock of our spiritual lives. It’s a great time to do this especially because it is even more hectic than usual. As strange as this may sound, it’s true. When we are most distracted by many things demanding our attention, it is the ideal moment to ask ourselves “how can I live a life that doesn’t pull me apart?” So, the hyper-busy, conflicting demands and general hectic-ness of the season leading to Christmas helps us become even more motivated to learn to locate within ourselves those natural resources that are life-giving, such as the gift of calm-abiding in the tornado of life.

What We Will Learn Today
Today all we are going to learn are some basic principles of meditation. That’s it. We’re not aiming for the deep, rich experience of discovery that is the result of long periods of meditation. We are just exploring how short pauses for meditation during the day can help us keep perspective, avoid emotional hooks, bring ourselves to focus on who and what is right in front of us, and (of course) to accept ourselves and others as they are.

A Few Basic Observations

  1. No matter how wonderful life is, there’s this odd and persistent unsatisfactoriness woven right into its fabric. Nothing stays fixed.
  2. While there’s a tendency to dwell on this unsatisfactoriness, it really can undercut our joy when we do dwell in it.
  3. There are ways to overcome that tendency to dwell in the unsatisfactory, and one of the best ways is through meditation.

The Past, the Future, and Right Now
Ironically, the reason we often get caught up in the unsatisfactoriness is because either we (1) try to distract ourselves with all kinds of activities, work, entertainment, and substances (like alcohol abuse) so that we never really sort through the causes of our unhappiness and distress; or (2) we just keep wallowing in the memories of unpleasant and even painful events of the past or spin unpleasant possible scenarios in our heads, worrying about what might happen in the future. In fact, much of the time, we tend to exist in either regrets or anxieties not noticing what is right here before us now.

Learning to live Judgment-Free
Meditation helps us notice without judgment or resistance the thoughts our minds are continually thinking, observing them, but letting go of them again and again. It helps us become awake to what is here and now rather than preoccupied with what has happened or might come about. This is the basic idea of “mindfulness.” It does not avoid dealing with actual unpleasant events and the unpleasant feels associated with them, when they occur, but it does not dwell in them or waste energy worrying about what might come about.

This doesn’t mean we don’t plan or learn from past mistakes, but there’s a huge difference between consciously reflecting on what we might learn from a failure and simply dwelling on regret, self-condemnation and guilt. And there’s a world of difference between planning and simply rehearsing repeatedly our worst fears of what might happen and filling those fears with personal anxieties and doubts about our goodness or competence. The core practice of non-judgment in meditation is a training ground for learning not to judge ourselves and others in life.

How Do we Meditate?
Today we’re going to just sit here and meditate. You can meditate standing, walking, lying down, even while working. But today we’re just going to sit.

First, we’ll find a posture that is grounded and balanced. Nothing fancy. Place your hands on your thighs or folded in your lap. Your back should be straight but not rigid. The crown of your head should point toward the ceiling. You can leave your eyes open, letting them fall naturally downward on the floor a few feet ahead of you and allowing them to be just a little unfocused. Or you can shut your eyes.

Second, you’ll want to notice that you are sitting. This sounds weird, perhaps, but most of us live in our thoughts and feelings with little consciousness at all of where our bodies are in space. Notice your body. Feel your feet on the ground; feel your hands at rest; feel your arms hanging and your bottom resting on the seat.

Third, breathe. Just that. Nothing fancy. Follow your breath in. Follow your breath out. By doing this, you are actually helping your mind to consciously connect with your body. At one level, all basic meditation is just following breath in and out, in and out, in and out. And, of course, be awake to sounds, thoughts, the whole river of life and perceptions and feelings within and around you.

Within a moment or two of starting meditation, a thought will come that will carry you away, as soon as you become conscious of it. When this happens, let go of the thought without judging it, or accepting it, or rejecting it, and return to observing. Don’t judge yourself harshly for “getting distracted.” This process of distraction and return is part of the process of meditation. Just let go of the thought or distraction, the memory or anticipation; just let go of whatever has pulled your attention away from your breath, and return to following your breath, observing without judgment your thoughts and feelings as they pass through.

Meditation is calisthenics for the mind
We’re training our minds to be a little more sane, a little more gracious, a little more open, a little more attentive. Meditation is a great teacher. Using it you are teaching yourself. You’re teaching yourself by noticing, by observing your thoughts and feelings.

For example, you’ll notice that over time, the habit of non-judgment begins naturally to arise in your life because you are practicing non-judgment of your own thoughts and feelings. You may notice that even strong feelings like anger, if you sit with them, begin to just dissipate and evaporate in about 90 seconds, as long as you don’t keep fueling them with narratives.

You’ll also observe, over time, that, as you notice the various “hooks” or “triggers” of reactivity around you, you become better able to pause in the midst of a tense situation so you don’t just react in defensiveness or anger or fear. This is a great source of freedom, realizing that we don’t have to be puppets on the strings of our own emotions manipulated by others.

Meditation teaches all sorts of things. Gradually. Over time.

Now, Let’s Practice
Now, what we are going to do is allow Jon Kabat-Zinn to lead us in a very short (10 minute) guided sitting meditation. This is from his Guided Meditation recordings, Series Two. You can download it. It’s very inexpensive. Jon is Emeritus Professor of Medicine at the University of Massachusetts Medical School and founder of their Stress Reduction Clinic and Mindfulness Meditation Center for Medicine and Health Care.

While this is a ten minute session, I’ve found you can do the same thing in two, three or five minutes. In fact, there are a number of meditation teachers who feel that you derive almost as much benefit from meditating for five minutes three times a day as you do from meditating for 15 minutes at a time. Remember you are training your mind, just like you train your body.

As Gautama Buddha has said, “Master your mind, or it will master you.”

A few really good basic resources for Meditation and Mindfulness:

Jon Kabat-Zinn, Mindfulness for Beginners (Boulder: Sounds True, 2016).

Jack Kornfield, A Lamp in the Darkness (Boulder: Sounds True, 2014). I also highly recommend Jack Kornfield’s “Heart Wisdom” podcast.

Leonard Schiff and SUSAN Edmiston, The Cow in the Parking Lot: A Zen Approach to Overcoming Anger (New York: Workman Publishing, 2010).

Mark Epstein, M.D., Going to Pieces Without Falling Apart: Lessons from Meditation and Psychotherapy (New York: Broadway Books, 1998).

Pema Chodron, Living Beautifully with Uncertainty and Change (Boulder: Shambhala, 2013).

Thich Nhat Hanh, You Are Here: Discovering the Magic of the Present Moment (Boston/London: Shambhala, 2010).

Zenkei Blanche Hartman, Seeds of a Boundless Life: Zen Teachings from the Heart (Boston/London: Shambhala, 2015).