When we step through the Dharma Gate of meditation, it’s helpful to have practices to prepare us. It’s unreasonable to think that we can shed the momentum of our busy lives and instantly find peace on the cushion. Without preparatory practices, our thoughts, plans, regrets, and distractions prevent us from touching meditation’s transformative nature.
I suggest starting each meditation session with three brief practices: settling the body; taking refuge; and setting intention.
Settling The Body
Begin by bowing to your cushion or chair. This seat of awakening, taken by many wise beings across space and time, is worthy of honor. After sitting down, connect your body to the earth’s generous solidity by feeling the way She supports your bottom, legs, or feet. Rock slightly side to side until you find a balance point that is upright, relaxed, and expressive of your human dignity. Repeat this by rocking forward and back. Then settle your head on top of the spine, leveling it from side to side, and front to back.
You may want to recite a gatha to help you become mindful of your rooted, balanced body: Sitting here is like sitting under the Bodhi Tree, my body is mindfulness itself, calm and at ease, free from distraction.
Once your body is settled, invite your mind to join you by taking refuge in the Three Jewels - the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha. A busy, distracted mind will often resist taking refuge in anything other than itself, so I suggest feeing your own bodily experience of refuge rather than thinking about abstractions like ’the Buddha’ or ’the Dharma.’
The practice of refuge is this: Take a breath and silently recite ‘I take refuge in awakening.’ Feel the awakening already in your body and find safety there. When you’re ready, take a breath and recite, ‘I take refuge in the path of awakening.’ Feel the sensations of knowing you’re on a good path. After a few more breaths, recite ‘I take refuge in the community of awakening.’ Feel the joy of knowing that many people, near and far, are supporting your aspiration to wake up.
Ours is an engaged practice. We don’t settle for feeling settled; we aspire to awaken for the benefit of all. Thay reminds us that 'Seeing and action go together. Otherwise, what is the point in seeing?’ So the final preparation for meditation is to set an intention for our actions by reciting a simplified version of the Five Precepts.
You may want to practice in this way: Breathing in, silently recite ‘I vow not to kill.’ Take another breath and let that intention arrive home in your body. Repeat this process with the other intentions: ‘I vow not to steal.’ ‘I vow not to misuse sexuality.’ ‘I vow not to lie.’ ‘I vow to consume wisely.’
Done together, the practices of settling the body, taking refuge, and setting intention should only take a couple of minutes. They are designed to prepare you for meditation by reducing your momentum, so when you’re slow, let them go! Please don’t let them become another burden.