The value of “going through the motions”


For at least a couple of weeks now I’ve felt that I’ve been “going through the motions” with my meditation practice. I’m still a rock-solid daily meditator. I still remind myself “I meditate every day; it’s just what I do; it’s part of who I am.” But sometimes my sits have been shorter and squeezed in at the end of the day.

It has, though, been a tough few weeks. My wife was sick, both kids have been repeatedly ill — one with pneumonia. That’s interrupted my sleep, so that I’m more tired than usual. Work’s been challenging as well. These things take a toll.

Sometimes I’ve felt a sense of despair and overwhelm rise within me. I try to meet this with equanimity, giving it permission to be there. I also do what I can to dispel it, for example by making sure my body is in an open, upright posture. And I’m also striving to cut down on some of the overstimulation and to tackle, step by step, some of the tasks that I find most unpleasant to do.

100 day meditation challenge 090My meditation practice has sometimes been very enjoyable, or at least mixed. Last night, for example, I felt a sense of joy alongside a feeling of tiredness and distress. But on the whole my practice has felt rather flat. It’s a bit of a chore.

I’m sure some people would say that if you’re not enjoying your meditation, you shouldn’t do it. That you should be “authentic.” I have to say, though, that I don’t see why the desire to give up meditation is any more authentic than the desire to keep going. They’re both just desires. Neither of them is ultimately me, mine, or myself. But one of those desires is more likely to lead to my long-term happiness than the other.

Apropos of this, yesterday I came across this passage in the Pali canon, called the Nava Sutta:

Just as when a carpenter or carpenter’s apprentice sees the marks of his fingers or thumb on the handle of his adze but does not know, ‘Today my adze handle wore down this much, or yesterday it wore down that much, or the day before yesterday it wore down this much,’ still he knows it is worn through when it is worn through. In the same way, when a monk dwells devoting himself to development, he does not know, ‘Today my mental pollutants wore down this much, or yesterday they wore down that much, or the day before yesterday they wore down this much,’ still he knows they are worn through when they are worn through.

So yes, progress isn’t always visible. In fact sometimes progress doesn’t look like progress. Perhaps the resistance I’m experiencing at the moment is just sleep-deprivation. Perhaps it’s me approaching a breakthrough. Whichever it is, I just keep on going with my practice. Eventually something will “wear through.” I’m going through the motions, but they’re good motions to go through.

“I meditate every day; it’s just what I do; it’s part of who I am.”

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9 Comments. Leave new

  • I always tell my meditation students not to measure their practice (if measure they must and will) by how pleasurable their sits are, but by how much more effective their “ordinary” lives are with the practice than without. This is easily perceived when you miss a day here and there.

  • You gave me something with this post. Thank you. I will continue to honor the commitment to the thing, even when its devoid of the “hoorah”. Much appreciated, Bodhipaksa!

  • Patricia hughes
    April 5, 2013 12:19 pm

    That last line is great, it somehow helps me to avoid the self-criticism when I don’t manage to sit down. It’s like cleaning the teeth, it’s part of what I do.

    I’ve been meditating more or less regularly for some years now (some of those years with your help,Bodhipaksa, thank you). Sometimes I wonder when I’ll get to those blissful states that you and others talk about, but usually I am simply patient about it. And I am beginning to notice that the outer calmness that I display is becoming more an authentic part of me, and I put that down to the daily sit.

    How short is long enough for a meditation? I mean, is 5 minutes still worth sitting for. (Even as I ask the question, I have the feeling that the answer will be “yes”).

    Thank you for sharing your experience and feelings.

    • Five minutes is worth doing. There have been a few days that’s all I could realistically manage, and it’s better to meditate for five minutes than to not meditate because you’rd rather do 40 minutes.

  • That’s an interesting quote from the nava sutta. Thanks!

  • judith weymark
    April 5, 2013 6:39 pm

    I’ve been sitting through a bad cold with sinus infection this week and have just had to realize that a scattered foggy mind is the way it is for me just now. There is something very important in sitting when you are pretty sure there will not be the ‘payoff’ of bliss and peace. Your little mantra of “I’m a meditator, it’s just what I do.” has helped me crawl out of bed and just keep on going.
    I also feel encouraged to hear that even very experienced meditators such as yourself go through dry patches, not just goofy novices, so I thank you very much for sharing about your practice with such honesty.
    I’ve just coined a little mantra of my own – when the going gets tough, the tough just keep on meditating.
    I do hope everyone will recover very soon. Sending you all Metta and hope for a good night’s sleep.

  • Paul in Canada
    April 6, 2013 7:45 am

    Thanks for this great article. It’s so comforting to know that I’m not alone in these same feelings and experiences. Even my partner has commented about how all this meditation seems to do little in times of stress or conflict. I revert back to old patterns of ‘reacting’.

    I’ve pondered this quite a bit lately, even in my meditations. I’ve concluded that there are a number of reasons why we experience the ‘blahs’, even when dedicated to our mindfulness practices. Being well and whole means ensuring we also take care of our bodies – sleep deprivation is a pandemic in our society today – sometimes it’s important to remind myself that it’s important to just ‘be’ – and not always feel I need to move forward. Eating healthy and getting rest is so important to the healthy mind and body.

    It’s also not just about me – mindfulness is about compassion – for myself and others. Caring for others takes as much, if not more effort than taking care of myself. We have more in us than we give credit – committing and acting can be difficult, but it’s necessary.

    And finally, I’ve learned that gratitude is the basis of joy in life. If I’m feeling inwardly at peace, but am lacking a connectedness to others and a sense of joy – I need to focus more on gratitude for all that life was, is and will be.

    I’m not perfect – just a work in progress on this incredible journey called life as a human. Namaste

  • Hi,

    Thanks for the article. It really helped me to put my practice into perspective. I’ve been having trouble with my meditation too, I’m adjusting to taking care of a three year old. It leaves me feeling overwhelmed at times. And I feel very distracted and scattered durring my meditations. But I’m going to keep going through the motions.

  • I hope your wife and children are feeling better. My children have grown now, but I found that when they were not well, they inadvertently gave me a gift of deeper meditation that was far more powerful, and gentle, than ‘formal’ meditation.
    What can we do, but surrender, when our loved ones are suffering? What better opportunity to live in the moment and truly experience bodhicitta than when being placed in a situation of no control. Sitting with our loved ones and being open-heartedly present when they are not well. My best to you and your family, and sleep well. Thank you.


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