In the Zen tradition, there are four pillars of practice. The first is what I call daily-ish home practice. What this means is, you find someplace in your home where you can keep a pillow or chair on which to meditate. It's good if it's a place free from too much intrusion or distraction. Maybe you can even have a little altar with figures that are important to you, and a candle. Then, you sit there every day. Regularity is more important than duration of time. If you can meditate almost every day for five or ten minutes, that's a great start. As you start to notice the impact of this practice on your life, you may find you naturally want to extend it.
The second pillar of Zen practice is sangha, or community. When we sit with a group of like-minded people, we express our commitment to supporting our own and each others' practices. Many people find that practice in a group is much different from sitting alone, and offers tremendous amount of power and growth. Sangha can also mean working with a teacher to support and deepen our practice. When we meditate with others, we find out what it means to make relationships and community a core focus of our practice, instead of feeling spiritual life to be set apart from the relational world.
The third pillar of practice is everyday life. At first, meditation can seem like some special state that is different from what's happening when we are doing the dishes or tending to a sick child or writing a letter to our Senator. But as our commitment to the Way grows, we find that it is everywhere, and that every moment of life is an opportunity to practice. We are always fine-tuning and expanding that, and koan practice is a way to bring the practice of inquiry into everyday living.
The fourth pillar of practice is retreat practice, ranging from half-day to week-long and even longer periods of intensive meditation practice. In Zen we call these retreats sesshin, which translates to touch the heart-mind. In retreat, we have a chance to let everyday cares fall away, to settle deeply into practice, to be in community with others, and to work closely with a teacher who can support and sometimes challenge our understanding. Many practitioners find that doing a retreat or two per year is immensely rewarding.
In my next post, I'll describe what we actually do in our meditation practice, and how to develop a palette of practices to be used skillfully at points of different needs.