commitment

Any meditation you can walk away from is a good meditation

chuck-yeager

Meditation’s not necessarily going to be easy or pleasant. You may find that you’re sitting with a chaotic mind, or that you’re falling asleep, or that you have physical discomfort. And there can be a tendency to label those times as “bad” meditations.

If that happens to you, I have two sayings that you might find useful:

  1. “Any meditation you can walk away from is a good meditation.”
  2. “The only bad meditation is the one you didn’t do.”

It’s the doing of the practice that’s the main thing; whether or not there was pleasure present isn’t that important.

Ironically, though, the less you worry about whether your meditation is pleasant or not and the more you just get on with doing it, the more likely it is that your meditation will be pleasurable. Life’s funny that way.

Just do it. It may not be easy, but it changes you in ways that make your life more meaningful, rich, connected, and (at times at least) joyful.

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Day 20 of Wildmind’s 100 Day Meditation Challenge

100 day meditation challenge 020The other day when I was meditating, I was really beset with thinking for 35 minutes, because of being tired and being overwhelmed at work, and probably also because it was late in the evening. I don’t freak out about that kind of thing, but it did feel like a struggle.

And then for the last five minutes, something really interesting happened. I just gave up — in a very positive way. Out of the blue, I found I just wanted to let the mind rest. And I was able to just sit there, in what seemed like a slightly low energy but calm and content state. It felt absolutely right.

Sometimes these creative impulses just come up, completely unexpectedly.

The tension between freedom and discipline, effort and rest, is an interesting one, and some people experience this in relation to whether to sit. A writer I know recently wrote to me saying that it was a real struggle sometimes to stay on the cushion. She’d keep looking at the clock and having a desire to move. After one turbulent sit, she too had an out-of-the blue revelation:

When the bell sounded, I decided to sit for a few minutes longer. I wasn’t forcing myself to meditate; I was meditating because I was choosing to, and I could stop whenever I wanted to. I was struck by the difference in the quality of this “free,” rather than compulsory, meditation. It felt less pressured, more open, more relaxed. Now I’m wondering how to bring that feeling of freedom into my daily practice, given the fact that I *know* I need the structure of a time goal each day.

If you have trouble getting on the cushion, I think the thing to do is to choose to take the freedom out of the situation completely. It’s when we’re not quite committed to sitting that we end up in a will-I-won’t-I struggle with ourselves. I was stuck like that for the longest time (to be a bit more specific, most of the past 30 years!) until a few months ago when I decided that what I need to do was redefine my sense of self. And that led to this post which was a complete game-changer. In the last 100 days I’ve missed one day, and having seen how that missed day came about, I’m absolutely sure I won’t miss one in the next 100 days.

Once you’ve decided that meditating is just what you doit’s part of who you are then you have a different kind of freedom. You have the freedom of not having to make a choice. You just do it. And “doing it” is a self-chosen minimum commitment, like five minutes per day. Five minutes is your fall-back position for those DEFCON 1, one-step-away-from-the-loony-asylum types of days, but hopefully you’ll average more than that.

And then there’s how to deal with the thoughts — although hopefully by now they’ll no longer be thoughts so much about whether you’re going to stay on the cushion or not. Suzuki Roshi said that if you want to tame a wild horse (or maybe it was a bull) give him a big field to stand in. Try to confine him and you have a fight on your hands. But in a big field, he just stands there quietly. So you can create a big field of awareness by really noticing the space around you. Really notice the light, and space, and sound in front, behind, and to the left and right. Feel, if you can, like your mind is filling that space. Feel a slight stretch as your attention goes in many different directions at the same time. And keeping that sense of spaciousness, start to notice the breathing. The mind has freedom, and you’re sitting in a committed way.

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Meditating daily … no matter what

Even after practicing and teaching meditation for more than 35 years now, I truly understand that sustaining a regular practice can be challenging. During the twelve years I lived in an ashram, for instance, I had others to practice with each day. With that kind of support, creating the time for daily meditation became a given in my life. It wasn’t as easy after I left. Within a year I gave birth to my son, Narayan, and found myself with a new infant and an increasingly erratic schedule.

One morning, I woke up feeling particularly ornery, and, after I snapped at Narayan’s father for forgetting something at the supermarket, he recommended that I take some time to meditate. I handed the baby over, plunked down in front of my little altar, and immediately dissolved into tears.

I missed the rhythm of my practice. I missed making regular visits to myself! In those moments, with the sun flooding through the windows, and the background sounds of my husband chatting away to Narayan, I made a vow. No matter what, I’d create time each day to come into stillness and pay attention to my experience. But there was a “back door”: How long I sat didn’t matter.

Ever since, I have made the time. I usually meditate thirty to forty-five minutes in the morning, but there have been days, especially when Narayan was young, when it didn’t happen. Instead, I’d sit on the edge of my bed right before going to sleep, and would intentionally relax my body, opening to the sensations and feelings that were present. Then, after a few minutes, I would say a prayer and climb under the covers.

As my body has changed and long sittings have become more difficult, I’ll often do a standing meditation. Still, the commitment to daily practice “no matter what” has been one of the great supports of my life.

For some people I know, my approach is a setup for self-punishment. Something happens—a bad cold, falling asleep early, simply forgetting—and the promise has been broken. The bottom line is to enjoy, not stress over, a meditation practice. As Julia Child famously said, “If you drop the lamb, just pick it up. Who’s going to know?” If you miss practice for a day, a week, or a month, simply begin again. It’s okay.

So, how long should you practice? Between fifteen and forty-five minutes works for many people. If you are new to meditation, fifteen minutes may seem like an eternity, but that impression will change as your practice develops. If you meditate each day, you will experience noticeable benefits (less reactivity, more calm) and you’ll probably choose to increase your practice time. Whatever the length, it’s best to decide before beginning and have a clock or timer nearby. Then, rather than getting entangled in thoughts about when to stop, you can fully give yourself to the meditation.

Many contemplative traditions recommend setting a regular time of day to meditate—usually early in the morning, because the mind is calmer on waking than it is later in the day. However, the best time for you is the time you can realistically commit to on a regular basis. Some people choose to do two short mediations, one at the beginning of the day and one at the end.

If possible, dedicate a space exclusively to your daily meditation. Choose a relatively protected and quiet place where you can leave your cushion (or chair) so that it is always there to return to. You may want to create an altar with a candle, inspiring photos, statues, flowers, stones, shells—whatever arouses your sense of beauty, wonder, and the sacred. This is certainly not necessary, but it can help create a mood and remind you of what you love.

Unless you feel enriched by meditation, you will not continue. It’s hard to feel enriched if you get mechanical, if you practice out of guilt, if you judge yourself for not progressing, or if you lock into the grim sense that “I’m on my own.” One of the best ways to avoid these traps is to practice with others. You might look for an existing meditation class with a teacher, or find a few friends who are interested in sharing the experience together.

If you are able, attending a weekend or weeklong residential retreat will deepen your practice as well as your faith in your own capacity to become peaceful and mindful. This is a wonderful time to be practicing meditation! Meditators have a growing pool of resources—CDs, books, podcasts, teachers, and fellow meditators—to support and accompany them as they walk this path.

The most important thing to remember is your commitment to practice “no matter what,” even if it’s for just a few moments out of your day. As one of my students put it recently, “Just having those moments to be quiet is a gift to my soul.” It is a gift to the soul. Stepping out of the busyness, stopping our endless pursuit of getting somewhere else—even if it’s just one minute at a time—is perhaps the most beautiful offering we can make to our spirit.

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Finding our values

My New year’s resolution this year is not to make any New Year resolutions. In any case, I’ve usually forgotten about them February. The real changes I’ve made have come when I’ve been in touch with the motivations that underpin my life and seen clearly what I need to do next.

At the end of the MBSR course we ask the question, does mindfulness practice touch on your underlying values – things you really care about that can continue to motivate you over the years? It’s moving to hear what people say: “I’ve spent my life rushing, now I want to go deeper”; “I really love my children and I want to communicate with them better”; “my depression has meant that I feel I have missed out on years of my life, now I want to really live it.”

Often we’re driven instead by the need to manage arrangements, earn a living and respond to demands and that can get mixed with anxiety and worrying what other people think of us. So here’s a simple exercise to help connect with your core values.

  •  Take a sheet of paper and write on it: ‘Things I love’ then make a list of everything you can think of, keeping your hand moving for several minutes, not thinking or censoring too much
  • Then take another sheet of paper and write: ‘Times I’ve felt fulfilled and truly alive’, and do the same
  • Look at your lists see what patterns or issues emerge and write a list of the most important values or qualities that these lists express.
  • Next time you meditate, turn those words or phrases over in your mind. If you notice a particular resonance or impulse to act, then notice it. Also notice if there’s a judging voice telling you that you really ought to do something because you aren’t a good enough person, and let it go.

Real change comes when we find new ways of being more truly ourselves.

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