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Saturday, October 25, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 63.0° F  Fair
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How to create a meditation space in your home
A place of peace
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Credit:Jennifer Downey

As much as I love my weekly meditation class, I still struggle sticking to a daily home practice. When I meditate regularly, I feel balanced and everything in my life appears to run more smoothly, though the truth is probably that I'm reacting to life's events with greater equanimity. I'm told there is no substitute for intention, as far as applying one's butt to the cushion (or chair, or whatever meditation prop works best). On the other hand, having a space dedicated to meditation at home can be a useful tool for helping to turn that intention into real practice.

Google "home meditation spaces" and you get a lot of dreamy images of candlelit rooms hung with diaphanous curtains, or spare cushions laid on the floor of a bamboo-lined room reminiscent of bathrooms in high-end spas. The spaces are lovely and certainly fit our received ideas about what meditation rooms ought to look like. Yet it's hard to imagine many homes and fewer apartments that could offer the kind of space or handle the styling necessary to achieve those looks. All of which made me wonder how "real people" dedicated to daily practice are creating the spaces they use to meditate.

Sense of boundary

Linda Mundt, feng shui consultant, yoga teacher and a meditator for 40 years, lives near Vilas Zoo in a house that was built in 1924. A small upstairs bedroom serves as her meditation and yoga room. On a pleasant summer morning, sun pours in from a large east window, highlighting the pale hardwood floors. The walls are painted a light shade of green that feels homey. In fact, the overall impression is of a room well thought out but not fancy. When I tell her this, she laughs.

"I wonder about people who build those fabulous meditation rooms," she says. "I mean, do they ever leave? You can meditate anywhere. I used to meditate on the subway in New York."

In Mundt's room, a stuffed cotton mat called a zabuton -- hers is deep purple -- sits on the floor opposite the door. The spot is central and also happens to take good advantage of the east sun on winter mornings. Mundt has created a sort of boundary around the mat, liking the idea of being gently contained. Her mat is surrounded on one side by a basket of books, while a vase of flowers, fresh from the garden, sits on the other.

"The flowers are alive, but also a reminder of impermanence," Mundt says. "I like the idea of having something that needs care, and flowers need to be tended." In the winter months, she regularly brings home fresh flowers from the market.

To complete the sense of boundary, Mundt places a small bench or stool in front of the mat to support any readings or chant books she might use during meditation.

Because this is also a yoga room, there is a corner shelf with brightly colored mats and lots of yoga tools. Shelving in the opposite corner holds a small sandalwood carving from the Hindu tradition that Mundt brought back from Bali, and photographs of Tibetan monks Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche and Tsoknyi Rinpoche.

"I like the feeling that the teachers are looking over my shoulder," she says.

Three drawings of mothers and babies -- the work of a friend -- hang on one wall, and there are family photographs hanging in the hallway within view of the mat.

Sight lines are important to Mundt, and she has chosen images that have happy associations and personal meaning. "Ultimately, all I need is my butt and a landing pad," she says. "But it is certainly nice to have good places to rest the eyes."

Keeping it simple

That sentiment is echoed by Michael Slater, a senior research scientist at Promega Corp., who also teaches yoga to his colleagues there. Promega's mind and body fitness culture -- recently featured in a Huffington Post piece on "Why Companies Are Turning to Meditation and Yoga to Boost the Bottom Line" -- encourages employees to take yoga and meditation classes on company time.

While Slater helped to create the rather classically designed Mind and Body Studio on Promega's grounds (wood floors, open space, Buddhist and Hindu statuary), at home he simply pulls a zafu -- a small, round meditation cushion -- out from under a living room chair and sits on the carpeted floor, facing the glass patio doors of his condominium.

Slater shrugs at the irony, admitting it helps that the view is leafy and fairly private, which is all he really needs to practice finding the "clear, still place" in his mind.

The present moment

Yoga teacher Jill Sanderson Lundberg also uses a bedroom in her Fitchburg home for meditation practice. In her case, she says, it was a process to get to this particular spot in the house. At first she tried the floor of the master bedroom, and later, when a large bathroom was remodeled, she had hoped to take a part of that space for her practice room. For reasons she cannot fully articulate, neither space felt right.

The bedroom she now uses also functions as a guest room. No altar or any icons in sight. She places her mat on the floor facing a small window, between the foot of the bed and a dresser. The window is low enough that from her mat, Lundberg can see trees and watch the sky through all the seasons and changes in weather. One day, two birds came to sit on the windowsill.

"Coming back to this same spot and noticing differences from day to day are what help to reinforce my practice," she says. "I think it's resilience we're teaching our bodies and minds."

One exceptional feature of Lundberg's space would be the small paintings that line the wall. Actually, Lundberg, whose husband is Peter Lundberg of Janus Galleries, lives in a house full of artwork. Every available wall space is taken up by paintings, many of them, particularly in the bedroom Lundberg has chosen for meditation, landscapes that evoke a particular mood of quiet and stillness.

"Artists are working very much in the present moment," Lundberg says. "The paintings do ask us to slow down and see things."

Peace is every step

Like Michael Slater, Susan O'Leary, a member of Thich Nhat Hanh's sangha for 25 years, does not have a particular meditation space set aside in her older, near-west-side home.

As part of her practice, based in Zen Buddhism, students memorize and recite small sayings called gathas, used throughout the day as a way of bringing attention back to the present moment, as well as spending time in sitting meditation.

"Our practice 'off the cushion' can be just as important," says O'Leary, in whose kitchen hangs a calligraphy drawing by Thich Nhat Hanh himself that says "drink your tea." Another of his calligraphy works hangs on the landing so that it can be seen when you come downstairs: "peace is every step."

O'Leary herself studies calligraphy with the Japanese artist Kazuaki Tanahashi, and his paintings hang in the house both as reminders to return to the present and for their simple beauty. Particularly striking are two paintings of the Zen ens?, or circle -- a symbol of enlightenment or the expression of the moment.

"Beauty and stillness are not that far apart," O'Leary says. She often meditates in the bedroom she calls her calligraphy room. Doing calligraphy is itself a form of meditation, she says, though it is common for her to pull a cushion out for a sitting meditation in that room as well.

O'Leary's husband, she says, like to meditate on the floor of the living room, which is furnished sparsely in a way that makes the most of an Oriental rug in shades of red, gold and teal that invite the eye as much as any of the artworks on the walls.

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