Container Principle

August 22, 2012   |   14 Comments  |   FavoriteLoadingAdd to favorites

When it comes to meditation practice, no matter how ambitious or committed we may feel, it is not easy to keep our practice going. Things get in the way. We have too many emails to answer. The kids need to get to school. We have an important meeting at 8a and there is still much to do to prepare. And of course in addition to too busy, there is always: too tired, too hungry, too uninspired.

At such points, it is very tempting to do one of two things: abandon ship or begin to beat ourselves up for being lazy, disorganized, hopeless and so on. I can tell you right now that neither of those approaches is useful. (In case you had any doubt.)

There is another choice. In my Shambhala lineage, we talk about something called “container principle.” This is the notion that the environment in which you take action can actually guide that action to completion, or at least support it to do so.

Our last post was about the 5 steps you can take to rouse confidence—clean up your space, eat good food, wear nice clothes, spend time with people who uplift you, and spend time in the natural world—and these steps all have to do with container principle, with the space we create for ourselves.

You already know exactly what is meant by container principle. Practicing meditation in a Buddhist temple feels different than practicing in an airplane or outdoors. When you eat over the sink, the food may actually taste and go down in a different way than when you eat at a dining table with good linens and soft music. If you watch a movie in a theater, it has different impact than when you watch it on your iPhone. The practice, food, and film have not changed—the container has.

Here are my suggestions for ways you can create a strong container for your practice. They are just a starting point. Feel free to add, subtract, embellish, ignore.

1. Practice at a set time. For most people, the best time to practice is the morning, but this isn’t true for everyone. Experiment a little until you find the time that is best for you. (A schedule is a wonderful example of a container.)

2. Develop a sense of ritual. If you were at a Buddhist meditation retreat, you would probably take your seat a certain time, offer an opening invocation, request the blessings of your lineage, do your practice, and then end that practice when the gong sounds. You can develop your own ritual and it does not have to be complex. It can be as simple as starting at the appointed time, saying to yourself, “now is the time for practice and I will commit myself to it wholeheartedly,” and then using an App to sound gongs to begin and end the practice. (I use this one.) Other suggestions are to read a page from an inspiring book before you practice, bring to mind everyone who loves you and feel their support, or even simply this: ritualistically turn off your computer, smartphone, television, iPad, and so on. I turn off my WiFi and somehow this signals to me: time to practice.

3. Select a set place for your practice. Whether you have an entire room in your mansion devoted to contemplative practices or simply a chair in a sunny corner of your studio, choose a particular spot for your practice. As best you can, reserve that spot for your inner practices: meditation, reading, journaling, and just thinking things over.

4. Aim for a consistent practice schedule rather than a lengthy one. In other words, 10 minutes a day, 5 days a week is better than 50 minutes once a week. In this way, the habit begins to weave a stronger container.

I hope this is useful! Do let us all hear of ways you have managed to create a container for yourself, or stumbling blocks you may encounter. The OHP community has amazing collective wisdom and maybe we can help. xo S

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  • Posted by:  Melissa

    I shut off everything, even my a/c, open my living room windows (if they are’t already open) and I sit on two soft cushions in front of my windows and in between my large lovely spider plants.

    Other days I like to sit outside in my big backyard (rain or shine) facing the tall tree where my owl friend lives and meditate there. When I meditate in my yard I practice Balinese meditation in which one simple “sits and smiles.” You smile until your whole being is radiating joy. It’s quite lovely.

    Currently, I’m trying to get into the woods during a rainstorm to meditate…

    • Posted by:  susan

      sounds awesome!!

  • Posted by:  Branáin

    Great suggestions. I like the container analogy.

    I wake up between four and five each morning so I can do my yoga and meditation practice. This is the best time for me, because my “container” is free of children buzzing around the house. Also, I find that if I put off my practice until later in the day, life tends to jump in the way, and my practice never happens.

    I agree that setting a space for your practice is important, but we should be careful not to put more effort into preparing for meditation than actually doing it. This problem is similar to writers always needing the perfect pen and notebook before sitting down to write. Sometimes the preparation become avoidance.

    You can certainly set your space ahead of time so it’s always ready. But if you are on the road or at a friend’s house, don’t put off your practice because you don’t have your meditation cushion or yoga mat.

    • Posted by:  susan

      Really good advice!

  • Posted by:  Brendan

    My container is portable, as I’m generally managing three or four creative timelines at once. I run for 30mins, then meditate 20mins at my bare desk, seated, headphones on, listening to Susan. I follow with a couple of minutes of light free weights and shave/shower—all (easily) in 60mins. I call it my ‘hour of power’—and if I don’t have this container in my day (I’m also managing severe ADD), I pine for it…surely a blessing! thanks Susan.

    • Posted by:  susan

      This sounds so wonderful!! Good on you.

    • Posted by:  Kelly

      Brendan, what a great example of a ritual/container for your practice and mind-body health maintenance. I can relate to the use of these rituals to manage a mental health issue. I am looking for ways become more consistent in my own rituals as a part of managing my recovery from alcoholism and tendency towards clinical depression. I often think of these practices as my medicine so that I don’t relapse or have to take prescription SSRIs. This container principle is such a great key for consistency. I’m inspired – this sounds like a great foundation. Thanks, Susan.

  • Posted by:  Herman

    Thank you Susan. Very helpful. To me esp the idea of ritual. All the best.

    • Posted by:  susan

      So glad, Herman!

  • Posted by:  caroline moassessi

    Just found your site from a friend. Great work! I am inspired!!!

    • Posted by:  susan

      Happy to hear this!

  • Posted by:  Alison

    You can’t hear me when I thank your image on the screen at the end of each practice, but each time I thank you for your instruction and guidance, and would like you to know that as I really appreciate your presence.

    Your talk on the environment that contains what you are doing being as important as the act was reassuring, as I just walked out of working on a great job as I found the environment we were working in deeply unsupportive and almost toxic. I think it’s pretty hard for anything to really blossom if the environment doesn’t support the action.

    • Posted by:  susan

      This is lovely to hear, Allison!

      And congratulations on respecting and owning you reaction to your environment–

      Glad we’re practicing together! Susan

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