A student asks: I’m committed to establishing a regular practice. But I’m so busy I can meditate only once a week.

empty meditation cushion

Students who take Wildmind’s online courses have the opportunity to talk about their practice and get personal feedback from the teacher. The following is a recent exchange from one of our meditation courses.

A student asks: I feel strongly committed to establishing a regular meditation practice. My goal is to sit for an hour every day — which I can do IF I get to my cushion. But I have such a busy life — including a demanding job and a family, too. So I end up meditating only once or twice a week. I am so frustrated with myself that I can’t do it more often!

Sunada replies: I do understand about busyness, and how challenging it is to keep up a practice in the face of all that we have going on in our lives. This is, of course, the #1 issue I hear from everybody. You’re not alone.

One suggestion I have is to change the way you frame the picture. When you’re starting out with meditation, as with anything else, it occupies the same place as other items on your to-do list: aside from your job, there’s exercise, eating well, household chores, laundry, etc. It does require a conscientious effort to set aside time for something new like meditation. I’m not denying or knocking how challenging that can be.

But it sounds to me like the situation you’ve put yourself in is something of a no-win situation. You’ve got too much on your plate and so you’re going to perpetually disappoint yourself in not living up to what you’d ideally like to accomplish. Frustration and disappointment with oneself are not healthy emotions to carry around when taking up meditation (or any time, for that matter!)

First of all, I’d say it’s better to sit every day, even for just 5 or 10 minutes, than to do a marathon session once a week. Meditation is about training ourselves to take on new habits, so practicing in small amounts daily is going to be more effective than long sits done less often. But I also hear you say that there are days you can’t find time to sit at all.

So then how about resetting your expectations? On the days that you’re unable to do a formal sit, how about taking small “mind breaks” in the middle of your work day, and intersperse 5 or 10 minutes of mindfulness (nothing formal, just bringing your attention to your present activity, whatever you happen to be doing.) Or you can do a walking meditation outdoors around your place of work, if that’s a reasonably pleasant atmosphere. When you eat your meals, do the dishes, or sit at your computer at work, you can stop for a bit, bring your attention to the present, and be purposefully mindful for a few minutes.

My point behind these suggestions is that mindfulness isn’t something that you do that’s separate from the rest of your life. Because sitting meditation seems to take you away from your daily activities, one can fall into thinking that it’s something you do outside of the context of life – as if mindfulness is something you practice separately from everything else, and competes for time with them. That’s a fallacy! A formal meditation practice is really more like a rehearsal for being mindful in the rest of one’s life, and the “real thing” happens off the cushion!

But also, it’s not helpful to establish a meditation practice in the context of striving, effortful-ness, self-blame, and unmet expectations. These are all antithetical to the principles behind meditation – acceptance, patience, being easy with things as they are, etc.

I don’t mean to imply that meditation is about being passive and accepting of situations that you aren’t satisfied with. I realize you’d really LIKE to be at a point where you meditate for an hour daily. That’s really admirable! But can you hold that aspiration more lightly – more like looking ahead at a beautiful mountain peak as the goal of a hike. It’s certainly something to look forward to, but at the same time, the hike is also important. If you’re constantly beating yourself up for not being at the goal yet, well, you’ve just missed the whole point of going on the hike. Meditation isn’t about grasping for goals. It’s about being fully present on the journey.

If you apply your strong commitment toward being purposefully mindful in small bits throughout your day, and take on more of a gentle, accepting attitude toward your practice, I’m guessing your mental landscape will start to change on its own. You’ll start to see things differently. For example, you might start to feel like some of the things you spend so much time on are no longer so important. Or you find ways to do things differently. Slowly, the larger patterns of your life will start to change. Priorities shift, and new possibilities open up. But it will happen slowly and gently, in an atmosphere of kindness and acceptance.

Editor’s note: The student with whom this exchange took place has granted permission to publish this journal entry, and will remain anonymous. Wildmind treats all student journals as strictly private, and never allows outside parties to read them without explicit permission from the student.

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