Although I’ve been meditating for over 30 years, I have to confess (and have done so often) that for most of that time my regularity was erratic. It’s only the last few years that I’ve been a rock-solid daily meditator. Unfortunately I don’t think any advice I was given (or gave, in classes I taught!) on meditating daily was of any use at all, and I had to figure out my motivation for myself.
Maybe that’s true for all of us, although it seems a lot of people have found my “I meditate every day” mantra useful.
A friend wrote to me and talked about a “good” meditation he’d had, and contrasted it with “bad” meditations. He himself put the words “good” and “bad” in scare quotes, which I think is great. It’s good not to take those labels seriously, and I think he was being appropriately skeptical about the validity of those terms.
But this prompted me to reflect (again) on how the whole vocabulary of “good” meditations is flawed. Don’t these labels largely come down to how we feel about what unfolded in our practice? Judgements like “good” and “bad” are largely just a reflection of what we feel.
My friend’s “good” meditation was one in which he experienced an unusual (for him) amount of continuity of awareness, without the mind zooming off into distractedness.
In terms of feelings, he was something like surprised, delighted, and excited because his meditation practice was unusually focused. I know that’s more verbose than saying it was a “good” meditation, but it’s accurate and descriptive. Saying the practice was “good” doesn’t strike me as a very useful adjective. What does it add? (I’m not criticizing my friend’s choice of vocabulary, incidentally. As I pointed how he was very clear that he was using “good” as a “quick and dirty” way of evaluating his practice).
By contrast, my own meditation this morning, because I was sleep-deprived, was mostly dreamy, with lots of distracted thinking. I may even have been asleep at times! But I felt pleased about my meditation, simply because I did it. Was that a “good” meditation? Not by most people’s evaluation, nor when weighed against my average experience. But does it matter? No. The meditation was what it was, and how I feel about it doesn’t make any difference to that fact.
However, that labels I apply to my meditation practice might make a difference to my future inclination to meditate. If I’d labelled it a “bad” meditation—which would mean, presumably, something like “I felt disappointed because my experience wasn’t what I wanted it to be”—then I’d be less inclined to continue meditating in the future.
Let’s say my friend had had exactly the same objective experience, with continuity of awareness for most of his meditation, but had felt neutral or even displeased by those events. It would be the same meditation, but he wouldn’t regard it as “good” and instead would see it as “so-so” or even “disappointing.” Seeing the practice in that way would away from the motivation to keep practicing in the future.
In a way I’ve chosen to be pleased at the very fact of having done my daily practice, and that encourages me to keep doing it daily. and in a way, having being pleased about my meditation as my default means that my daily meditation is always “good.” And so I want to keep doing it. What actually happens in my practice is secondary and doesn’t affect me being please by the fact of having done it. The length of time I’ve meditated is also secondary, and also doesn’t affect me feeling happy about having meditated.
When my mind becomes concentrated during a sit, or when joy or love arises, then I can be pleased by those occurrences as well. But they’re an added bonus, since I’ve already decided to feel pleased simply because I’ve meditated.
Keeping going is the most important thing, because meditation is practice. It’s the doing of it that’s important. You might not see any calmness or concentration or love manifesting in any given sit, but that doesn’t mean that you’re not benefitting.
Although I said that none of the advice I received about establishing a rock-solid daily meditation practice really helped, I hope the advice that we can choose to be pleased about the fact of meditating does help.
How how can we make the choice to be pleased about having meditated? To feel pleased about meditating, celebrate meditating.
- Simply choose to pat yourself on the back for having sat. No matter how short the sit was, or what actually happened during the meditation, tell yourself you’ve done a good job for having sat. Use congratulatory language: “Yay, me! Good job! Well done! It’s great that I sat today!” Smile! Or you can simply thank yourself: “Thank you for meditating. I really appreciate you doing that.”
- Although some of us have conditioning that makes us feel bad about self-congratulation, I think that nevertheless, even if our cultural conditioning makes us want to go, “Oh, really, it was nothing. I’ve had much better sits. I really should meditate for longer,” we do on some level also feel pleased when we hear deserved praise.
- If your meditation practice is unusually calm, or concentrated, or loving, or compassionate, or joyful, or anything else that’s affirming and delightful, then allow yourself to be pleased about that too. But don’t let that take the place of being pleased about the fact of having meditated.
- When we do something skillful we should allow ourselves to feel pleased by it, and we should choose to ignore the voices that downplay what we did.
In short: If you have pleasing experiences in meditation, then enjoy them. But choose to be pleased about the very fact of having meditated. This will help motivate you to keep on practicing.
When I finish, I check the charts on my Insight Timer app and look at how much I have meditated this week, during the last month etc. and it encourages me. Like you say, healthy attitude is key. Unfortunately, hitting 50 seems to have some bearing on my own new ability to really stick with things ( meditation, jiu-jitsu, singing ) and it might be the same for you.
I would love to give the gift of stick-to-it-iveness to a younger person and I do feel like a hypocrite when advising another person to maintain a strong daily practice knowing how I have personally struggled with it.
I realized after writing the article that the pleasure of having kept up a daily practice itself becomes in itself a source of pleasure about having meditated, regardless of the quality of the sits. You meditate for X days, and feel happy about your achievement. On day X+1 you get another little jolt of pleasure when you realize you’ve kept up your streak, and so on.
I don’t use the Insight Timer consistently enough for it to be a useful reflection of my practice, though. For example, I’m going to be meditating much more than usual this weekend, because I’ll be on retreat. But I won’t be using the timer. The app says I missed an entire week’s meditation in February, but I actually meditated every day. If you use it consistently then I can see how it would be affirming, though.
One thing I really enjoy about it is being able to send little “Thank you for sitting with me” messages to other people in the Wildmind community (on the timer) and to people who are meditating nearby. I spend two minutes doing that at the end of every sit.
I was reflecting a little further on this. In the last couple of years I have managed to establish a solid meditation practice with effective times on 6 days a week when I know I will absolutely be sitting ( Sunday I sit outside the church waiting for the wife ). I have also started Brazilian jiu jitsu and stuck with it to the tune of three or four sessions a week to the point where I am a bit of a bad-ass on the mats and I have been singing for about 18 months now to the point where I am becoming surprisingly skilled. It made me reflect on the kids who kind of get forced to learn piano when they are young and the potential benefit of being made to stick at something long enough to see it bear fruit and learn the meta-lesson of what continuous endeavour can bring. I have been meditating pretty steadily for about six years now and I suppose if I had been overly critical or had unrealistic expectations, I could easily have thrown in the towel during the first four years. The balance between passive acceptance of what is happening and efforts to “improve” one’s technique is tricky and I sometimes have wondered if I was being too lackadaisical once the meditation had started. On the whole, it’s probably better to err on the side of acceptance and not making the meditation some titanic struggle to concentrate and “do it right”. In jiu-jitsu there is talk about the frustration of hitting a plateau and I have to say that, most likely thanks to meditation, I just don’t feel that. Things go badly, things go well and I just keep going.