One of the hardest parts of the meditative journey can be simply bringing ourselves back to the practice day after day. As we experience the fruits of our practice this becomes easier, but for beginning and intermediate practitioners building consistency can feel like an insurmountable challenge. Here are some ideas that might be useful. Consider approaching practice as an experiment; how do these suggestions serve you? Which ones make a difference to your practice?
An inquiry into your personal motivation can be a great place to start. What do you discover when you explore the question, “Why do I meditate?” I’ve identified a few categories of motivations, and most of us have a mix of these from day to day:
– Aspirational: these are outcomes you seek because of trust, logic, intuition, or extrapolation from your existing experience. They include states, capacities, or insights that haven’t yet occurred, but that you have reason to believe meditation will make possible. They might include unification of mind, transformative insight into the nature of mind and reality, bliss states, or awakening.
– Experiential: feeling the countless impacts of meditation upon our lives and our mind-body systems can be a powerful motivator for future practice. Eventually these effects become quite pronounced, but even before that point it can be helpful to look for them intentionally. Do we find a bit more space between a familiar provocation and a patterned response? Might we feel a bit more ease in our bodies after we sit? Even small changes can be a useful spur to further effort. Does the continuity of practice deepen the impact? At one point in my meditative journey I found that meditating each day built noticeable “momentum” for my progress, and missing a day made a big difference. At another point sitting twice a day helped me through some difficult territory.
– Exploratory: adventuring through the terrain of our consciousness can be endlessly rewarding and fascinating. Sometimes curiosity about what lies around the corner brings us “back to the cushion.”
– Self-Pressure: our inner critic is a powerful and pernicious force in our lives. It’s important to be aware of this structure, and it generally plays some role in most of the problems we encounter in meditation. It’s also pretty common to find the critic contributing elements of guilt or obligation as we establish a meditative practice, and this can lead to us abandoning the whole project unless we can unravel this a bit. As an example: we might join an online or in-person meditation community of motivated peers. Initially we may find ourselves practicing in order to “measure up” or out of a hope that we might impress others. This might lead to competitiveness, striving, and frustration. By bringing clarity and awareness to this situation, however, we can practice more gently, and perhaps see the self-pressure ripen into a more selfless and wholesome engagement with the community.
Note that motivation changes constantly. Upasaka Culadasa recommends bringing your motivation to mind at the start of every sit, and I’d add to make sure you’re being clear and honest with your motivation, in that specific moment, even if it’s something as unglamorous as “I just want to get this out of the way so I can get on with my day.”
Meditation is really all about setting appropriate intentions, and allowing our minds to start running “new programs” based on those intentions. Becoming more consciously intentional about our entire practice can create a strong foundation for this transformation. Consider the act of simply taking your seat on the cushion (or the chair, bench, whatever) to be a sacred movement, with intimacy and commitment.
The “6-point preparation” from The Mind Illuminated is a valuable way to start each sit, for many reasons. While each point is useful, I’ve found that the chance to review our motivations (#1), the reminder to be diligent (#4), and the posture review (#6) directly support intention. Also, starting a sit with a formal “settling in” technique like the 6-point prep can help with the transition from daily life to practice time.
Just as exploring why we practice is useful, shining a light onto the reasons we don’t practice can be invaluable. What stands in the way of establishing a consistent practice? Possibilities include:
– We can’t seem to find time, or we procrastinate. Can we look more deeply at that mechanism, ideally while it’s happening? Do we fear that meditation will be boring or otherwise uncomfortable? Are we accustomed to striving, so our sits are tense and exhausting? Maybe we’re afraid to see ourselves fall short of some ideal, and that inner critic is getting involved?
– Resistance on the cushion. Can we counter that with inspiration, reminding ourselves of our motivation, or employ other skillful means to work with what’s arising?
– Doubt in our capacities (“I can’t really do this”). Options here might include noting progress we’ve made previously, trust in a teacher or path, or perhaps the encouragement of peers or a teacher.
The following ideas might serve as a reservoir from which to draw, as you experiment and find helpful supports:
– Take an aim to practice a certain amount each day, at a specific time, for some limited duration; perhaps 2-4 weeks. Tell a friend or teacher you’re doing this and check in with them on how it’s proceeding.
– Find other meditators to practice with, or to offer encouragement, either in-person or in an online community.
– Find what inspires you to sit – maybe certain books, audio programs, YouTube videos. Just make sure this doesn’t replace meditating!
– Look for pleasure. I believe this is one of the most important messages from the first few stages of The Mind Illuminated. It’s integral to efficiently training the mind, but it also makes practice much more appealing.
– Schedule your practice in advance and do whatever you need to do to keep that time free. As Culadasa points out, nobody effectively establishes a meditation practice “in their spare time”.
– Have a space that you dedicate to practice. As a way of combining this tip and the previous one, a meditator I know likes to spend a minute or two setting up her space before going to bed, so it’s ready for her to practice as soon as she wakes up.
– Be sure to spend a few moments after each sit reflecting back on it. Appreciate your diligence and also anything pleasurable you experienced, as a form of positive reinforcement. Note any obstacles that arose. Over time ask yourself if this helps clarify your motivation in future sessions.
As this structure is such an obstacle to starting any new routine, it merits some additional attention here. If practice feels frustrating to us, questions such as the following ones might be useful to ask ourselves:
– Is it okay to be right where we are in our practice? Or do we feel we should be farther along and we need to “fix” our meditations?
– Who are we taking ourselves to be? Is there a self-image of being clumsy, lazy, stupid, or something like that?
– Do we think we’re bad at this and might not ever get better?
– Do we feel like we’re regressing, or going backwards? Our mind is constantly impacted by circumstances, and it’s perfectly normal to have scattered or dull sits, even after long periods of practicing at a high stage. That’s not always okay with us, though!
Working with the inner critic is challenging but valuable work. Simply identifying these messages and beliefs can be a powerful first step.
I would add, however, that I feel it is reasonable to expect progress from our meditative skills over a period of time. This is a training process, and should lead to increased capacities. When progress isn’t forthcoming, the response should be skillful means; things like setting the proper intention, finding expert guidance and support; but not aggression, forcing, or criticism.
Culadasa describes the process of establishing a practice as the most difficult stage to master, and that’s what I’ve seen with practitioners I’ve coached. Just as with the later stages, however, there are skillful approaches that support that mastery, and it doesn’t need to take a long time. May the ideas expressed above support your practice!