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Meditation in Action: Practice Off The Cushion

by Paul Griffin

My partner Erin and I had a baby girl six months ago, and largely because of little Iris’s existence I’ve had more trouble getting to the cushion recently than in all my seven or so years of meditation practice.  Yet, paradoxically, I feel I have had to access my better meditative self more than ever over this past half year.  Meaning, I find myself resorting more and more often to mindfulness in the moment, to meditation in action.  With the intense demands of child-rearing that my little angel has brought into my life, I find I need my meditative instinct more than ever. 

We talk about meditation in action, but what does that really mean?  Well, as I was rocking my baby to sleep for her midday nap today, I found myself brainstorming the top ten times I resort to meditation in the moment.  So, for fun, I thought I’d offer these meditative moments today in this blog post.  I hope you feel inspired to add your own personal meditation in action momentsto the list!


1.  Rocking My Baby To Sleep
I have learned from experience that when I am rocking my baby to sleep I often have to release the tension in my own body, I have to practice some body breathing, before my baby will fall off to sleep.  It’s an amazing phenomenon.  The more relaxed I am, the quicker she falls asleep.

2.  Subway Posture
When I sit down on the subway, I am constantly checking my posture.  After I sit, nice and upright, I often do a kind of ten-points practice, meaning, I check in with ten parts of my body (two feet, two halves of the backside, tailbone, spine, two hands, chin, and the top of my head) to assure that I am assuming good posture.


3.  Tutoring
As a private tutor, I am forever sitting down with students in the study.  After I give a student a few problems to work through on her own, I almost always decide to take a few moments while I wait to check in with my breath and settle more deeply into my surroundings.

4.  Writing
Writing is a big one.  When I sit down at the writing desk, I always meditate first.  I more or less can no longer write without at least a few moments of shamatha.  I once read that before writing Salinger would lie down supine on the floor, and that he often spent entire days down there, never actually managing to write a single word.

5.  Conversation
Conversation is another huge opportunity for me.  I have a bad habit of tending to dominate a conversation, of tending to want to steer it in my own chosen direction.  When I find myself doing this, I stop and I listen.  Also, if the conversation is particularly intense, say with someone who is in serious pain, tonglen is key.


6.  Elevators
Elevators are so, so strange.  So I meditate in them, probably just adding to the strangeness.

7.  Interviews/Important Moments
The other day the company I tutor for was featured on NBC News, so I was filmed while tutoring a student.  As I approached the door to my office, I first did a round of lungta breathing, a kind of focused breathwork designed to lift one’s windhorse, one’s positive energy and confidence.  This is the kind of natural meditation that people do all the time (whether they call it meditation or not).

8.  Feeding/Dressing/Playing With Iris
Pretty much everything I do with Iris ultimately becomes a practice in patience, in mindfulness, in sinking into the moment.  The moments I am most present with Iris and her emotions are the most joyful moments I’ve ever known.


9.  Drinking
At dathun last winter, I received drinking practice instruction from my teacher.  Now, every time I pick up a beer or a glass of Jameson, I practice.  I smell it first, letting the aroma linger in my nose.  Then I sip, really tasting the complex flavors.  Then I drink mindfully, and I always try to keep my mindfulness as the evening wears on!

10.  Sleeping
Really, the more I think about it, the more I see how my meditation practice seeps into every waking moment: walking home from the subway (not too quickly), doing the dishes (with care and attention to detail), eating dinner (not in a single mouthful), etc.  But it is with sleeping that I practice most consistently.  Every night, I do a body scan, I sink into the earth, I follow my breath.  (But I don’t do dream yoga anymore because remembering my dreams was freaking me out.)  I suppose since I don’t have anyone to rock me to sleep, I meditate.  

Anyhow, it’s not like I bless every single slab of concrete on the sidewalk before I walk on it, but I do try to always maintain a sacred sense of the world.  That’s what meditation in action means to me.  What does meditation in action mean to you?

Comments read comments(11)
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Mahala Mazerov

posted December 1, 2009 at 10:58 pm

Great article and wonderful discoveries. I write a lot about what I call “Meditation Beyond the Cushion.” If we can’t take our practice into daily life it’s going to be hard to genuinely be of benefit to others.
Wishing you, Erin and Iris every happiness!

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posted December 2, 2009 at 11:55 am

love this post!
A great description of meditation in action. It is good to talk about the practice that can be done by “householders,” since few of us get the opportunity to live in single-sex monastic settings. And when I was in college, I sure wasn’t meditating – LOL.
And as far as the elevators, and work, and conversation, and subway posture go — I do a lot of the same stuff.
thank you!

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posted December 2, 2009 at 12:18 pm

I love this posting too… I love the concrete, meditation off the cushion. I meditate daily and truly feel regardless of how ‘good’ my meditation is that day, it makes writing, working, conversing flow easier…thanks I will add the drinking (well not ‘add drinking’ but rather i will add mindfulness to it) and elevator meditations too.

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posted December 2, 2009 at 12:37 pm

lovely and inspiring. sometimes, at my most scatter-brained, i wonder if just 30 or even 60 minutes on the cushion can make a difference in my life. thank you for the reminder of the many opportunities to “stretch” that out.

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My Name

posted December 3, 2009 at 11:23 am

Once in a while, I catch myself meditating while I am tutoring. Mindfulness and breathing really help during moments of stress, when the student just will not get what I am explaining. I notice that the more I breathe, the calmer I get, the slower my speech goes, and the more articulate my use of language is — and THAT’s when the students finally ‘gets’ it. Quite a rewarding moment.

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Your Name

posted December 3, 2009 at 9:20 pm

Paul, I have 2 active children and a demanding job. I’m sure that, if I lay down on the floor before getting to work, I’d be there the rest of the day too….. :) Now, back to mindful merlot….
Thanks for the column.

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Anan E. Maus

posted December 3, 2009 at 11:55 pm

While it is certainly wonderful to find meditative moments and consciousness in daily life…it is an absolutely essential part of the path to sit in meditation, formally, at least once a day.
The mind will come up with a million infinitely clever rationalizations to avoid doing so…but they all are, in their entirety, an evasion of a necessary discipline.
First we give up formal practice, then we give up interest and pretty soon we are back to where we started, at square one.
This is the teaching that has been passed down by every major path that exists.
Yes, moderation is important. Yes, having balance with the outer life is important, but we must not surrender the discipline of the meditative practice.
This is not some arbitrary authoritarian dictum. It is an expression of the actual spiritual reality of the world. The world’s nature is to pull us down. If we don’t do conscious work against this tide, we simply fall. There is no steady place to rest….we are either rising or falling…even if it does not seem to be the case. Sure there are things outside of meditation itself which are spiritual acts. Acts of charity are spiritual acts that make us rise and grow. However, meditation is the seed of all.
When we read that great masters gave up meditation…that is just a semantics. What actually happened is that their entire waking consciousness gets transformed into a constant meditation. So, it is not that they don’t sit…it is that they never return to any ordinary consciousness. That is not giving up meditation, that is the perfection of it. For the rest of us, we must sit and do the daily spiritual work…no matter how hard it is.
And never surrender to the temptation to stop. That is just the first step down the slippery slope to compromise, mediocrity and then a real fall into the death of any real spirituality.

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