What animal trainers can teach you about establishing a daily meditation practice

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Animal trainer and sea lion

Yesterday someone posted a comment about their “failure” regarding a 100 Day Challenge:
I’ve stuck to my challenge only once — ONCE! — in the past 12 days. MASSIVE failure.

So for this person this wasn’t just a “failure.” It was a “MASSIVE failure.” Yikes!

My immediate thought was that this labeling is very, very counter-productive. If you aim to do something like meditate every day, and only manage to do it one day out of 12, why not regard that as a small success, rather than as a massive failure? After all, you made some progress toward your goal!

Here’s the thing: how does it make us feel when we look back and scream “failure!” at ourselves? It makes me feel bad. It probably makes most people feel bad.

And then how motivated do you feel by this kind of self-talk? Perhaps some people do feel motivated by making themselves feel bad, but frankly I find that I just want to put the entire activity behind me. If I was saying there had been a “massive failure” because I’d failed to get a 100% grade, I’d probably give up. Why try, when anything other than complete success is going to result in name calling and suffering?

What’s it like, on the other hand, to look at a track record like the one above and to call it a small success? I’d feel a small amount of happiness!

And what if I was trying to develop a meditation habit, after each meditation I did I gave myself a massive “yay!” What if I rewarded myself by evoking pleasant feelings after a sit? I’d probably feel inclined to do it again. I like doing things when there are rewards.

What if you have a goal of meditating daily, and on one particular day you only had time to sit for five minutes? A lot of people will give themselves a hard time. They’d compare the five minutes to the 40 minutes (or whatever) that they’d ideally like to do, and regard the short sit as being a failure. I saw someone doing this just the other day. But hold on a minute! You kept up a daily meditation practice! You had a tough day, either because of demanding external conditions or because you didn’t feel good that day, and you meditated anyway! That’s fantastic! That’s an excuse for giving yourself an inner party — “yay, you!”

Yeah, but what about the animal trainers? You promised me animal trainers!

You know who uses this technique all the time, very successfully? Animal trainers. Let’s leave aside the ethical considerations of, for example, capturing or breeding wild animals and keeping them in unnatural habitats for entertainment purposes.

All successful animal trainers use rewards, and avoid punishments. Punishments are demotivating, while rewards are encouraging.

And animal trainers don’t just reward huge advances in behavior — they reward small steps. A journalist who studied animal training (and how to apply the principles of animal training in her marriage!) said “The central lesson I learned from exotic animal trainers is that I should reward behavior I like and ignore behavior I don’t. After all, you don’t get a sea lion to balance a ball on the end of its nose by nagging.” And you start off by rewarding the sea lion even for just touching the ball with its nose! You reward a step as small as that! A sea lion learning to balance a ball on its nose comes from hundreds of small steps, each one of which is rewarded. There are also, of course, even more “massive failures,” but those are ignored. Why demotivate your (inner) sea lion?

So every time you sit, reward yourself. I don’t suggest rewarding yourself with raw fish (although, À chacun son goût) but with positive self talk — rejoicing. “Yay, me!”

Now in some cultures, including my native Britain, self-rejoicing is culturally taboo. We might, when we’ve done something exceptional, grudgingly give ourselves a “not bad, I suppose” before going on to criticize something aspect of our performance that was less than perfect. But even British people cheer their football teams when they score a goal, so this isn’t a general aversion to celebrating! So when you’ve made any kind of progress in your meditation practice, dear British people (and anyone else who finds rejoicing in one’s own good to be “cheesy” or otherwise improper) just pretend that you’re cheering on your favorite team.

So how do you talk to yourself about progress? Is anything short of complete success a “failure”? Or are you able to recognize small successes and rejoice in them? Give it a go. You might end up experiencing the benefits of meditating every day — or even be able to balance a ball on our nose.

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