A big part of meditation — at least the kind of Buddhist meditation that I practice and have written about here — involves simplicity, letting go, and even asceticism on some level, so it might seem counterintuitive to talk about needing gear to practice.
While it is certainly possible to meditate without any special equipment, there are a few things every meditation practitioner should have. A good cushion and a nice timer can really make a big difference in both how quickly you’ll be able to get comfortable, how long you can sit for, and how much you’ll look forward to your next sitting. These little things are really important, especially when you’re trying to establish a new daily practice.
You don’t need to go looking for discomfort
Here’s a little story:
Early on in his practice, one of my meditation teachers once asked his teacher for advice about dealing with the pain he was experiencing while trying to sit in full-lotus position (this is tough for most westerners).
His teacher replied, “If it’s painful for you, don’t do it. You don’t need to go looking for difficulty, meditation is hard enough as it is.”
The goal here is to reduce obstacles. The fewer distractions and difficulties you face, the easier it will be to establish and deepen your practice.
The first thing most people realize when they start to meditate is that it’s much, much tougher than they ever thought it would be, usually because of physical discomfort.
Most people, especially those of us in the west, aren’t used to independent sitting, meaning sitting on the ground without the use of a “normal” chair. This is quite often an uncomfortable and sometimes painful experience for adults.
When I re-started my practice as an adult, I started by sitting on a throw-pillow I borrowed from a nearby sofa. After only five minutes, my back and legs were killing me, and I was already dreading my next sitting. Not a great way to start out!
A nice, inexpensive meditation cushion called a zafu made all the difference in the world, and probably saved my practice.
A zafu is a round cushion, about 14-inches in diameter and about 8-inches tall, designed to raise the hips and make most if not all of the cross-legged sitting-meditation positions more stable and comfortable.
The best zafu’s I’ve found are hand-made by the good people at Carolina Morning in North Carolina. They use environmentally friendly materials, and fill the cushions with either buckwheat husks or kapok, a stuffing used in Japan for centuries as a filling for sitting and sleeping mats.
Dharma Crafts also sells nice quality zafus.
I like the buckwheat husk-filled style because it’s easier to shape, but I think the kapok style is a bit more popular.
In most cases, you can put the zafu right on the ground, and you’ll be just fine. But if you’re going to be placing the zafu on a hard surface like a floor (rather than a carpet), or if you have any issues with you knees, you may want to also consider a zabuton.
A zabuton is is a Japanese kapok-filled cushion for use when sitting on the floor. It makes the perfect compliment to a zafu, acting as an additional cushion for your knees and legs. California Morning also makes excellent zabutons as well.
You can also get zabutons from Dharma Crafts.
They are often sold with a zafu as a set.
If sitting on a cushion on the floor won’t work for you, you might want to consider a meditation bench, also called a seiza bench or yoga seat, like the Peace Bench, the Pi Meditation Bench, or the Omni Bench. These options may work better for people with knee or back issues.
A timer is an indispensable part of a regular meditation practice. You need to keep track how long you’ve been sitting, and knowing that a bell will sound gently when time is up will save you from yet another mental distraction.
The least expensive way to time your meditation would be to use a mp3 file, like the ones provided here on the Audio Dharma website. The audio files consist of various lengths of silence. A bell is rung once at the start, and three times at the end of each file, perfect for using as a meditation timer.
My favorite timer, and the one I use currently at home, is the Zen Timepiece by Now & Zen. It has a removable 6-inch brass bowl-gong which is struck by a little hammer for a warm, sustaining tone. There are several modes (progressive alarm, interval timer for meditation/yoga, chimes on the hour, etc.), and it also works well as an alarm clock.
iPhone users will love Meditate, an iPhone meditation app created by my friend Amber Star. This beautifully designed app has a ton of handy features, like periodical interval timing, smart restart, a preparation timer (useful for hitting start and then getting into position), meditation history, and more. It’s a steal at $1.99 from the iTMS.
OK, enough talking. Go meditate.