Jan 31, 2011
Getting your meditation practice back on track
You committed to yourself that you’ll meditate. And you do, for a few days or weeks. But then something happens. You miss one day. Then another. And before you know it, you’ve stopped entirely. Hmmmm…. What happened?
As a meditation teacher, I’ve been involved in many conversations on this subject. So I thought I’d look at what leads us to choose not to meditate, and how we might work with that choice more skillfully.
Less than ideal conditions
A very common scenario is putting off meditation on a day when we’re just not feeling up to it. Maybe we’re feeling lousy or distracted. Or the rest of the household is too noisy. Or we only have ten minutes – not enough time, we say. We find all kinds of reasons, big or small, why this is not a good time to meditate.
But let’s think a moment. What are the reasons you took up meditation in the first place? Wasn’t one of them that you wanted to be less a victim of your moods, whims, and circumstances? Sure, a perfect 20-minute sit where you can create a lovely inner oasis would be ideal. But isn’t avoiding meditation altogether when conditions aren’t so ideal a way of falling into your same old traps?
So how strong is your resolve to overcome your habitual tendencies? If we’re serious about changing, then here’s a perfect opportunity right in front of us. We can start by examining our own self-talk that convinces us to slink away from our commitments. And those distractions – are they really as insurmountable as we think they are? What happens when we try sitting anyway, just as we are, just as things are, and let go of our childish desire to have things be exactly the way we want?
Resistance to discipline
Does the thought of meditation bring out your rebellious side? Maybe your attempts at discipline bring up associations of growing up in strict family or school. Or feeling forced to attend religious services that had no meaning for you. Or maybe the idea of sitting still just makes you want to do the exact the opposite.
When we meet our own resistance, I think it’s a good idea to listen to it. I don’t mean to give in to it, but to hear out what it’s really saying deep down inside.
I think people with a rebellious nature tend to be questioners – those that want fully to understand something before accepting it. And the Buddha encouraged this kind of questioning as a necessary skill in our spiritual work. So why not take advantage of this valuable skill that you already seem to have in spades? Why not engage the questioning skeptic, and let her find her own way in?
For example, what if you dropped all the formal structures of meditation, and just let the rebellious side of you enjoy herself? What if you sat in your favorite comfortable chair and did nothing for a while? Don’t even think about getting into a meditation posture. Forget about counting breaths. Instead, you could let waves of relaxation flow through your body along with each exhale. Explore bodily sensations and indulge your curiosity like a child with a new toy. Try approaching meditation in the spirit of what it’s meant to be – an open inquiry into the nature of your experience – as opposed to forcing yourself to follow the form.
I’d suggest that you eventually go back to a formal practice, but there’s no hurry. You can wait until your rebellious side is happy and engaged enough to begin working with you rather than against you.
Frustration over lack of “results”
We all take up meditation with an expectation that it will change us for the better. On the other hand, getting frustrated that it’s not happening as we thought isn’t a good place to be. I often hear meditators say they’re not able to get to a calm and peaceful state. And that leads to a lot of discouragement, self-doubt, and reasons to skip out.
But rather than facing down our discouragement head-on, let’s look at why it comes up. What happens when we get caught up in our ideas of what we think meditation is supposed to be? We try to force our experience to match our ideas — like trying to be calm and peaceful when our mind is nothing like that. We end up sitting and thinking ABOUT meditation – what we want or don’t want – and fighting our experience rather than being with what actually IS. And that does nothing but get us more agitated.
Meditation is about being with whatever is going on, whether it’s distraction, discomfort, unhappiness, even frustration. Whatever it is, there’s nothing “wrong” with it. There’s no such thing as a “bad” meditation experience, as long as you’re mindfully present with it. Because it’s the mindful presence that’s important, not whatever else is going on. There’s a feeling of wholeness and integrity that comes with being with myself and my situation as it is. And paradoxically, it’s when we stop fighting with ourselves that the calm and peacefulness arise naturally, without having to strive for it.
Pushing boundaries more skillfully
There’s a common thread running through all these scenarios, and it’s this: to view our difficulties as the raw material of our practice. They aren’t problems that we need to get rid of. They’re great reasons to get us ON our cushion, not to avoid it. Because they are our path of practice. They’re there to help us learn how to stretch, to grow, to learn to push our boundaries. And isn’t that what we took up meditation for?
There are two key things I always keep in mind when I navigate my way through my practice. One is to be really honest with myself, and take responsibility for my choices. If I choose not to sit one day, that will have consequences. That doesn’t mean that I’m a bad girl, or that I’ve done something wrong. There’s no moral judgment here. I simply mean that not sitting sets in motion a habit of not meditating that will make things a little harder next time. The focus is on my actions and choices, not judgments of my goodness or badness.
At the same time, it’s really important to be compassionate to myself. There are some days when it really IS difficult to get to the cushion. And that’s OK. There’s no blame, no shame. While I stay mindful of the consequences of my choices, I let the whole thing go. Sometimes the best choice is to not meditate on a given day. And I accept that.
When we can see everything we encounter as part of our practice, that’s when our practice starts really to take hold.