habit

You do not need to be ashamed of being imperfect

Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash
We’re all subject to conditioning that affects our ability to be happy and sometimes makes us miserable. This conditioning actually starts before birth. Research has shown that your grandparents being exposed to stressful circumstances can change the way that your genes are expressed, so that genes that leave you feeling more anxious might be more active, while those that can made you more mellow remain switched off. We don’t choose to have such things happen to us. It’s not our fault.

We also don’t choose our early childhood conditioning. How much our parents hold us, how they communicate with us, whether they are loving or not, whether they are cruel, whether they are consistent in their affections — all these things change the very structure of our brains in a way that can leave lifelong scars.

Growing up in a household where affection was not expressed freely and where criticism was common, I have been left with certain insecurities. These include anxieties about whether I’m valued, loved, or liked. I can be hyper-sensitive at times to signs that I’m not appreciated, and this can cause me to react in ways that make me less likable — a classic self-fulfilling prophecy. This make me suffer, and it makes others suffer as well. Your early experiences may well have been different from mine, but we all have conditioning that makes us suffer, and we didn’t choose it. These things are not our fault. And so we don’t have to feel bad about being flawed. Our conditioning is not us, but is something that has been done to us. To recognize this liberates this from self-blame.

None of this means that we have permission to act badly. As adults we have to take responsibility for how we act. No one else can do that for us. If we want to be happy in the long-term, we need to become more aware of our early conditioning and understand how it affects our behavior, especially where it impacts others.

Recently I saw a social media post where a young woman wrote,

Me, dating at 21: ‘So, what do you like to do for fun?’

Me, dating at 27: ‘How aware are you of your past traumas and how actively are you working to heal them so that you don’t project that shit onto me?’

When I read that I wished that at the age of 27 I could have been so aware of the importance of past conditioning. But, I reflected, my conditioning was such that in my twenties I was in denial about such things. There’s no point blaming myself even for that.

There’s also no point me blaming my parents for not being more affectionate and for being overly critical. They too were simply living out their conditioning, in a time and culture in which most people didn’t even think about how the way they acted affected their own and others’ wellbeing.

You do not need to be ashamed of being imperfect. We were all made that way. You do not have to be ashamed that it’s so hard to work with your imperfections: the very tools you have for doing this are imperfect. We are all truly doing a difficult thing in being human.

Recognizing the many ways that we’ve been set up to suffer — by our brain structure, by our genetic and epigenetic inheritance, and by our childhood conditioning — is an important aspect of self-empathy, and thus of self-compassion. We’re all flawed. We’re all suffering. We’re all doing this difficult thing of being human. Understanding these things allows us to give ourselves a break. You’d do this for a person you loved. Why not do it for yourself?

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Seven tips on making meditation a daily habit

You can know all about the benefits of meditation. You can know that it’s good for your mental health, offers protection against depression and anxiety, makes you happier, boosts your intelligence, slows aging in the brain, and even makes you physically healthier. You can know all this, and still find it hard to set up a daily meditation practice. You might find that you meditate for a few days, but then miss a day or two, or even find that weeks have gone by and you’ve hardly meditated at all.

Not meditating is a habit. It’s your default. It’s a habit you’ve had for most of your life. And it’s a powerful habit. Meditating regularly is a new habit, and it’s competing with the older and more established one. This means that for most people, setting up a daily meditation practice is hard. But there are things we can do that make it easier. So here are seven tips for setting up a rock-solid daily meditation habit. (If you’re interested, these tips come from my online course, “Get Your Sit Together,” which will help you become a daily meditator.)

1. Lower the Bar

One of the most common mistakes people make in trying to set up a daily meditation habit is to aim too high. They think that a “proper” meditation should be something like 20, or 30, or 40 minutes in length. And while it’s wonderful to have aspirations to sit for that length of time, it’s almost inevitable when there will be days when that won’t happen because you’re just too damned busy. By all means, aim to sit for as long as you want, but if you don’t want to end up skipping days (and then slipping back into the easy and established habit of not meditating at all), then accept that it’s OK to meditate for as little as five minutes a day.

You can even forget about sitting for 20 or 40 minutes, and just make that your aim: you’ll sit every day, even if it’s just five minutes. Five minutes is not hard to manage. And once you’ve set up your daily habit, it’s not hard to extend the length of time you meditate for.

2. Don’t use calendar days

When you think about meditating daily, you probably think in terms of meditating within each 24-hour period that runs from midnight to midnight. But it’s much more helpful to think in terms of your days starting when you wake up and ending when you go to sleep again. That way, when you have a crazy day of running around, and you don’t even get home until midnight, you can have a quick sit and you’ve still meditated that day.

3. Keep a visual reminder

Eventually a daily habit becomes something you just do. You don’t need to put “brush teeth” in your planner. You just do it. That’s the eventual aim with your meditation practice. But at the start of establishing a new habit you need reminders. Those reminders have to be prominent, so that you actually see them. A simple calendar—preferably a paper rather than an electronic one—makes an ideal reminder, especially when it’s in a high traffic area in your house, like the refrigerator door. Why paper? It’s just there, in plain view. You don’t have to make any effort to see it. You don’t have to pick up a phone or open a computer. You don’t have to remember to open an app. Those things are barriers, and you don’t want barriers. There are enough of those things in our lives. With a paper calendar on the fridge door, you’ll see the reminder just by living in your house.

A calendar is also a way of reinforcing that you’re making progress. Put a large check-mark on each day you meditate. Check-marks are visually more positive than X’s. If you have a green marker pen then that’s even better. Green is the color of success! As you complete days of meditation, you’ll start forming a chain of check marks, which is very encouraging. You won’t want to break the chain!

4. Use a mantra

No, I’m not talking about chanting “Om.” If we have a history of falling away from our meditation practice, one of the things that can happen is that we develop a self-image along the lines of “someone who can’t meditate regularly.” That happened to me. I saw other people who were able to meditate daily, apparently with no difficulties. But no matter how I tried, I’d miss a day here or there, or sometimes not meditate for days at a time.

So I developed the mantra, “I meditate every day. It’s just what I do. It’s part of who I am.” I would say this to myself even during my meditation practice. I’d repeat it in the shower, while walking, while driving my car, before going to sleep and on waking in the morning. Of course you actually have to meditate as well! But the mantra starts changing your self-view. And in time you simply don’t want to miss a day, because you see yourself as someone who meditates every day, and you’ll make every effort to get your butt on your cushion.

5. Use guided meditations

If it helps, use guided meditations. Setting up a new habit of meditating daily involves a fair amount of work, so let someone else do the work of guiding you. Even for experienced meditators, listening to a good guided meditation can help you develop new skills, and embrace new perspectives. For beginning meditators, guided meditations can make the difference between having a sit you feel happy about versus one where you spend almost all your time in distraction.

6. Don’t worry about the quality

A sit is a sit. We’d all like to have every meditation be calm and blissful, but realistically you’re going to be distracted a lot of the time. The thing is, though, that even the distracted meditations are helpful. So just do it. Any sit you do is a good sit, and the only bad sits are the ones you don’t do.

7. Congratulate yourself!

In developing a habit, there has to be a reward. You have to feel better about doing the thing than doing some alternative. Even in brushing your your teeth in the morning you get the reward of having a nice minty flavor in your mouth and you get rid of any night-time odors. That feels good. You’d feel worse if you didn’t do it.

Meditation can be inherently rewarding, but it can also be a struggle. And there are plenty of other things you could do instead that give instant rewards, like checking Facebook or reading an interesting article on the web. In the face of that kind of competition it becomes almost essential to consciously reward yourself, and probably the best way of doing that is to congratulate yourself. So at the end of your meditation, give yourself a clear, verbal message of congratulations: “Yay me!” Try standing up and raising your arms in salute, like a running crossing the finish line. This brings about pleasant physiological and psychological effects: in other words it makes you feel good!

Then, check off your calendar. Feel good about putting a big, bold check mark on today’s box. And feel good at watching the chain getting longer! The more you associate pleasant feelings with your meditation practice, the more you’ll feel you want to do it. Rewards are motivating.

So, those are just seven things you can do to help support you as you set up a daily meditation habit that can improve your life in all the ways I mentioned in the opening paragraph.

There are many more tips on offer in my 28-day online course, “Get Your Sit Together,” which is available to Wildmind’s supporters. Click here to learn more about how you could benefit from Wildmind’s Meditation Initiative.!

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Who needs willpower anyway?

I confess that I have a bit of an addictive personality — not in the sense of being an alcoholic or a drug addict, but more in terms of getting hooked on stimulation. A minor example is that I had a tin of mints in the car recently, and I would often find that as soon as one mint was gone, I’d reach for another. The mints are sugar-free and this form of addiction isn’t a big deal, but boy can I get through a tin of mints quickly!

Similarly I can overeat, particularly on unhealthy foods like potato chips or popcorn. Again, as soon as (or even before) one morsel has been swallowed my hand is delivering another to my waiting lips. This is a bit more serious because I’m maybe 12 to 15 pounds (roughly 5 to 7 Kg) overweight, and although I run and generally try to eat healthily my occasional binges make it hard for me to lose that excess.

You might say that I lack willpower. A lot of us would say that about ourselves. But what I’m finding successful in reducing these little addictions has nothing to do with willpower. Instead, I’ve been practicing being mindful of cessation — specifically of the way that flavors fade away in my mouth.

The flavor beginning to fade away is the trigger for my habit. My normal, unmindful, habit is to reflexly seek a new “hit” of flavor as soon as the previous one has started to fade. So the phenomenon of a flavor fading away is what I’m choosing to observe.

This is a really interesting practice! Watching a flavor decay, curving slowly down to non-existence, gives me an opportunity to practice equanimity and non-reactivity. As the flavor fades, I feel no desire to reach for another hit. Watching the old flavor disappear is actually way more satisfying, just as watching the fading away of a sunset is satisfying. And I’ve discovered that I can observe the fading away of a flavor for a long time. I’ve found that the flavor of a mint is still detectable in my mouth an hour and a half after eating it.

So far this is working very well.

Now, I can also get addicted to mental stimulation as well, and this often manifests as a restless desire to consume social media. If I get a bit bored I reach for my phone or open up a new tab in my browser so that I can check twitter.

I’ve been writing this article as I wait to renew my driver’s license at the local Department of Motor Vehicles. Having written the previous paragraph I picked up my phone and my finger moved toward the Twitter icon. But before it got there I checked in with the feeling tone of my restlessness. And I just watched it as it faded away. The feeling itself is hard to describe. Fortunately I don’t need to describe it, but just observe it passing. Again I found that it was enjoyable to observe it passing away, and when it was gone I had no desire to read Twitter. Instead I just let myself connect compassionately with the other people waiting with me. That was enjoyable too.

I’ve found that the concept of willpower is overrated. We either strongly desire to do the “right” thing or we don’t, and the difference is often to do with strategies. If not eating a mint or not opening Twitter can be made enjoyable (making it enjoyable is a strategy), then that’s what we’ll do.

I’ve been finding that observing the process of cessation of an experience is fun. Maybe that’ll be true for you as well. Maybe not. I’m just suggesting this as an experiment that you might want to try.

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This simple tweak to your self-view can get you meditating daily

Woman standing on reflective shallow water, leaning to one side, making a star-shape with her body. https://unsplash.com/@randomlies

Meditation is a powerful practice, making us healthier, happier, and more compassionate. But even if you know this — even if you’ve experienced this — it can be hard to meditate regularly.

If you’ve had trouble establishing a daily meditation practice this may have seriously affected your self view. You may have come to believe that you are not the kind of person who can meditate daily. And that belief discourages you from meditating, becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy.

So let’s do something about that.

I’m going to share the tool that finally helped me to establish a rock-solid daily meditation practice!

Despite all the benefits of meditation that I’d learned about from science studies (it keeps you healthier, reduces stress, promotes happiness, slows the aging in your brain, reduces pain) and from my personal experience (life is much easier when I meditate regularly) I used to find it very hard to get myself onto the cushion every single day. I’d miss a day, or two, or three — and then find it was harder and harder to get back into the habit.

Then I discovered a technique that worked for me. And it seems to work for other people as well. It’s very simple: Just keep repeating to yourself the following mantra: “I meditate every day; It’s just what I do; It’s part of who I am.”

What repeating this mantra does is to reprogram your sense of who you are. You start to overwrite the belief that you can’t meditate daily (unlike other, “better,” meditators). In time, the belief that you meditate daily starts to take root and grow.

Now a few things about this:

You may be thinking, “It’s not true. I don’t meditate every day.” And you might not want to repeat something that’s not true. But regard this mantra as a statement of intention. You’re talking about your life from this point onwards, not about the past.

So it’s true now. As a statement about today, or however many consecutive days you’ve meditated, it’s completely factual! So choose not to believe those “Yes, but…” thoughts. Acknowledge them, but say to them “I hear you, but I’m choosing not to believe you.”

You need to repeat the phrases a lot. Say them to yourself when you first wake up in the morning. Say them in the shower. Say them while you’re driving or sitting on public transport. Say them while you’re washing the dishes; in the gym; while walking; while you’re lying in bed waiting to fall asleep. Say them while you’re meditating!

It’s not enough just to repeat the mantra and hope that it’s going to do all the work for you. The mantra will make meditating easier, but you still have to make an effort to sit daily. So commit to meditating for a minimum of five minutes sometime every day between waking up in the morning and going to sleep again.

In time you will realize that the mantra describes you. You do meditate every day. It is just what you do. Your daily practice is part of who you are. You don’t even think about it, or have to make a decision to do it, any more than you have to make a decision to brush your teeth every day. You just do it.

It really works. Try it.

Wildmind is a Community-Supported  Meditation Initiative. Bodhipaksa is supported by numerous sponsors who generously donate each month to help him explore and teach meditation. Wildmind’s sponsors get access to an online community and to a large number of  meditation courses Bodhipaksa has developed over the years. Click here to check out the Meditation Initiative.

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Get your sit together in 2017

Meditating regularly has immense benefits. Meditating makes you happier, is good for your health, protects your brain from aging, boosts your intelligence, and helps reduce pain, stress, and depression. It improves your relationships with others, helps you be more effective, and gives you more of a sense of meaning and purpose in your life.

So you might have read that and thought, “Great, but I don’t have the time to meditate.” Or you may have already learned to meditate, perhaps years ago, but have never been able to keep up a regular practice.

For many years I struggled with sustaining the habit of meditating daily. I knew the benefits of meditation, not just from studies that had been done, but from personal experience. When I meditated, I’d feel calmer and happier. When I came back from meditation retreats I’d feel tranquil and blissful. But even knowing all that both intellectually and experientially, I found it really hard to sit every day. I’d do well for a while, but then miss a day. Then I’d miss a few days. Sometimes a week would go by and I’d hardly have meditated. I knew other people who just meditated every day, and I felt a real sense of failure about my inability to do likewise. I just didn’t understand what was going on.

Now I meditate pretty much every day without fail. Every few months I might miss a day, but I no longer have a sense of failure and shame when that happens. The next day I just get back to my habit of meditating regularly.

I’m going to be sharing the lessons I’ve learned about setting up a daily meditation practice in a new online course called Get Your Sit Together, starting January 1 (when better to start a new habit!).

The aim of the course is to get you to the point of being a rock-solid daily meditator. Plan A is that you’ll sit for every day of the 28-day course. Sometimes that doesn’t happen, but if you miss a day or two that isn’t a problem. That’s not “failure” — it’s just you learning what can get in the way of developing a good habit. So Plan B is that by the end of the 28 days you’ll be sitting daily. And that’s fine, because it doesn’t matter if it takes a little time to develop a good habit, as long as we do it.

So what will Get Your Sit Together help you with? There are a number of things you’ll learn to do:

1. Recalibrate your sense of what a “real” meditation is

When I first went to meditation classes, the meditations were usually 20 to 30 minutes in length, although often they’d be longer — 40 or 50 minutes. We never did any sits of five or ten minutes. So, not unnaturally, I picked up the idea that a “real” meditation was a long meditation, and that a short meditation isn’t worth doing. And the problem was that it was difficult, if not impossible, to fit those “real” (i.e. long) meditations into my day. And so I ended up not doing short meditations because I didn’t have time to do long meditations! Crazy! So you’ll learn that even short meditations count, and on the course there will be guided meditations of five minutes, three minutes, and even one minute in length. Short sits like these make meditation doable. It’s suddenly possible to fit meditation into the inevitable spaces in your day. You may not have 40 minutes lying around, waiting to be filled by a new activity, but you almost certainly have several gaps of just a few minutes long. And if you don’t, they’re not that difficult to create.

2. Change your sense of self

For me this was the most important thing. I wanted to meditate regularly, but didn’t, and so I saw myself as someone who couldn’t meditate regularly. I saw this as a lack of willpower, but willpower had little to do with it. What I had was a false view of myself that I was trapped in: I thought I just wasn’t the kind of person who could meditate daily. So I’ll help you change your self-view so that you see yourself as someone who meditates every day, as someone who doesn’t miss days. Meditating daily will very quickly become just what you do. (You may not believe that right now, but you can quite quickly and easily learn to have confidence in your ability to sit daily.)

3. Develop accountability and tap into support

In developing a new habit, it helps to be accountable to ourselves and others. This can be as simple as putting a big red X every day on a calendar, and making sure we don’t “break the chain” of X’s. Or we can share with others how we’re doing, and the problems we’re facing. We have an online community set up for the class to help provide that accountability. “Accountability” can be a big and scary word, but we’re all working with the same difficulties, and so our community is a judgement-free zone. In fact it’s a zone of support, encouragement, and celebration. If you feel shame about missing a day, we can help you see that it’s not a big deal, it’s not failure, it’s just a small stumble on the way to developing a good habit.

4. Anticipate obstacles

It’s so easy to say, “Yeah, I’m going to meditate every day! Nailed it!” But then you forget the practicalities, and suddenly it’s 11:30 PM and you’re brain-dead and need to crawl into bed, and maybe you don’t even remember until then that you haven’t meditated yet. So we need to sit down and develop a plan: Here’s my opportunity to meditate for ten minutes tomorrow. Here’s another. It’s not just the busy days you have to anticipate; sometimes the open and spacious days are a challenge too, because we think it’ll be easy.

5. Recognize the voice of resistance

A lot of us believe whatever arises in our minds. So when we have thoughts like “I’m too busy/tired to meditate. I don’t have time,” we’ll learn to recognize this not as a voice we should listen to and be guided by, but the voice of resistance. We can say, “Hi, resistance. I hear that you don’t wanna meditate, but that’s what we’re gonna do, OK? But since you’re kind of tired, why don’t we start with just five minutes rather than our usual 10, and see how you feel then?” By establishing a dialog with our resistance, we stop ourselves from being hijacked by it.

6. Reward progress

One HUGE mistake people make is to forget to congratulate themselves on meditating. In fact they may punish themselves: “OK, I did it, but it was only 10 minutes and I should have done 20. I’m such a wimp. Loser!” If we punish ourselves for doing something, we’ll probably not repeat that action too much! So we’ll learn to celebrate, and to give ourselves a pat on the back. We’ll learn to feel good about meditating, so that our subconscious latches onto sitting as something it wants to do. Providing a reward is one of the most important things about successfully establishing a good habit.

While Get Your Sit Together is about learning to meditate daily, you’ll find that the principles involved — drawn from modern psychology and the Buddhist meditation tradition — are applicable to developing just about any good habit. But at the very least, as you follow the daily emails, listen to the guided meditations, and participate in the online community, you’ll find that you are able to sit daily. And that will give you the physical, psychological, and social benefits I outlined above. In short, you’ll become a happier person. You’ll experience a sense of thriving.

So why not join me! But don’t wait until January 1! Click here to head over to our Eventbrite page, enroll in Get Your Sit Together, and take the first step of a journey that will change your life.

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Attachment in intimate relationships

For as long as I’ve been practicing Buddhism, people have been talking about attachment in intimate relationships in a particular way; they’ve talked about the problem as being attachment to the other person.

To be sure, attachment to another person can be a source of pain. When you’re first in love with someone you may find that you make yourself miserable wanting to be with the other person. When they’re unavailable or you’re not sure they’re attracted to you, then this can be agonizing.

In an established relationship, when there’s insecurity along with your attachment you might be jealous of them spending time with others, or fearful that they don’t love you as much as you love them. Those things are painful as well.

Attachment to another person can be such that we fear them changing, because we sense that they’re turning into a different person, and that’s perceived as a threat to our relationship.

And you might just miss the other person when they’re away, although I think most couples healthily appreciate having some time apart.

Those forms of attachment to another person are talked about often, and for many years that limited the way I looked at attachment in intimate relationships. Recently, though, I’ve come to think that a far more important problem with attachment is that which we have to our own habits. Self-clinging is the principal problem we face.

For example, if you’re constantly criticizing a partner because they don’t do things the way you want them to be done, what’s really going on is that you’re attached to having certain things happen in a certain way — and you’re attached to criticism as a communication style. If that’s ongoing and outweighs the positive aspects of the relationship, then you’re going to cause suffering. So the question comes up, are you prepared to be flexible in your own habits? It’s not just a question of putting up with socks on the bedroom floor, or hairs in the shower drain, but of learning new ways of communicating about such things. Can you learn to be more playful, for example, or to use praise and affection as a way of encouraging your partner to change — or are you attached to using criticism?

Wanting to be right all the time is another form of attachment. When this happens we’re attached to a particular kind of “status” (being “the one who is right”), assuming that it’ll bring us happiness. The trouble is that if you’re attached to being right all the time, you’re going to be rigid and unempathetic, and be in an unhappy relationship. Humility and empathy are qualities that are much more likely to lead to a harmonious relationship. So can you let go of your attachment to winning arguments and being right? Can you embrace the need to admit your faults? Can you embrace vulnerability? Vulnerability is an open space in which growth can take place.

Avoiding conflict is another deadly problem in relationships that we can be attached to. We assume that if we ignore a problem it’ll go away. Well, any one particular problem might go away, but it’ll be replaced by a dozen more. Courage requires letting go of the habit of conflict-avoidance.

Grudges are another thing we can get attached to. We get attached to being the victim. This kind of attachment has been described as like grasping a red-hot coal with the intention of throwing it at the other person. Who gets hurt most in that scenario? Forgiveness is a form of letting go of this particular attachment.

These are just a few examples of how being attached to habits can cause suffering in relationships. But any relationship problem I can think of involves attachment of this nature: being attached to drama, being dishonest, ignoring your partner because you’re focused on work or recreation, letting your sexual desire (or the lack of it) conflict with your partner’s well-being—and thus the well-being of your relationship. These all involve self-clinging.

The measure of how deep our self-clinging can be is how painful and how difficult it is to become aware of, never mind change, our habits. It’s painful to admit when we’re at fault, to communicate honestly and courageously, and to forgive. We can put a lot of energy into resisting doing these things, and when we do face up to our habits we can feel raw, exposed, and humiliated.

While attachment to our partners can be a very real thing, it’s attachment to ourselves and our habits that I see as the most destructive force in intimate relationships.

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Bringing accountability to your practice

An older girl helping a younger girl with her reading.

I’m just getting over a bad habit relating to meditation that’s plagued me for over thirty years.

It was reading a blog post on developing good writing habits that helped me. The idea came from Brett Cooper who, like me, found that he tended to write in fits and starts, with long periods of non-writing, followed by spurts of intense production.

Two ideas came to his rescue. The first was that he realized he needed to establish “a small, non-threatening daily writing habit,” and that a goal of 100 words a day was innocuous enough to be doable.

The second idea was the realization that he needed accountability. Left to our own devices, it can be all too easy to let ourselves off too easily. So he found a friend who agreed to be his “100 words accountability partner.” The partner doesn’t have to comment on the writing or even read it. She just has to give Brett a hard time if she doesn’t receive at least 100 words of writing each day.

As it happens I had my writers’ group meeting the day after reading Brett’s article, and so I proposed that I undertook the same two practices. So two of the people in my group agreed to be my accountability partner, and I theirs. Now each of us is emailing the other two at least 100 words a day.

It’s worked great. 100 words is such a non-intimidating target that I find it easy to sit down to write, and I inevitably end up writing well over 100 words. At this rate I’ll be adding a chapter to my novel every two weeks or so. And this is after several months of producing nothing. It’s a big turn-around.

Now, when it comes to meditation, I’ve been meditating daily for a long time. I’ve hardly missed a day in the last two years or so. But my sits have at times become very short — sometimes just five or ten sleepy minutes at the end of the day. And although it’s better to do five or ten sleepy minutes than to do nothing, that’s far from ideal. Five minutes was supposed to be an emergency provision for those days when I genuinely didn’t have time for a longer sit, but it threatened to become my default. It’s as if I hit 100 words and then stopped in mid-sentence.

The bit that was missing from my meditation practice was accountability. This is where my long-standing bad meditation habit comes in; I’ve always resisted accountability.

I’ve often resisted meditating with others, or following set schedules, or even using apps like the Insight Timer, which announces to other app users how much meditation you’ve done. I think the reason I’ve resisted these things is that I’ve wanted to be sure that my desire to meditate was coming from me, and not from a desire to fit in, or to gain acceptance from others, or to show off. And while it’s good to want to meditate because it’s what I really want to do, I think that habit has long outlived its usefulness. It’s led to what’s almost a kind of secretiveness about how much meditation I’m doing, and that’s not good. Bad habits flourish in the dark.

So I decided that as well as my commitment to daily meditation practice (with an emergency fall-back position of five minutes a day) I needed a commitment to sharing what I do, so that I hold myself accountable. So on Wildmind’s community on Google+, I’ve been sharing how long I’ve been sitting, and what I’ve been doing.

This has already made a difference. When I meditate in the evening, which is often the first opportunity I have to meditate, I’m sitting earlier rather than later, when I’m often tired. I’m sitting for longer. And I’m being more mindful of the effort I make in my practice.

And the great thing is that I still have the feeling that I’m doing all this for me, not to please other people, so that fear has gone. I’m glad to have left that old habit in the past, where it belongs.

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Overcoming resistance to meditation

Young man pushing a heavy cable spool

No matter how much experience we have of meditation being beneficial in our lives, and of not meditating making life harder for us, we can still end up experiencing resistance. And resistance to meditation can be very painful, especially when we get caught between that feeling that we “should” meditation and the feeling that we don’t want to.

Sometimes there’s a hidden agenda at work. We might on some level think that meditation is selfish. Or we might be worried about “not getting things done.” Or we might be afraid of change. If you can become aware of the underlying reason for your resistance you might be able to work at rediscovering your sense of motivation, but in some ways it doesn’t matter what the content of the resistance is.

One thing I’ve found very successful is to become mindful of the feeling of resistance. Where is it situated in the body? How large is it? What “texture” does it have? What kinds of thoughts does it give rise to? Notice those things, and just be with the resistance. Turn the resistance into an object of mindfulness. At that point you’re already meditating, so you might as well get on the cushion. Or you could just stay where you are, let your eyes close, and notice the breathing at that same time as you observe the resistance, or notice the resistance and send it your lovingkindness. In this kind of approach the specific content of your resistance isn’t important, because you’re not meeting your rationalizations on their own level. You’re not arguing with them; you’re outsmarting them by surrounding them with mindful awareness.

See also:

If truly want to meditate daily, but find that the resistance goes on day after day, then set yourself a low bar for what constitutes a day in which you meditate: five minutes works fine. That may not sound like much, but regularity is ultimately more important than the number of minutes you do each day. Do feel free to do more, but don’t try to impress yourself with how much meditation you can do. It’ll just lead to more resistance.

You want to get, as quickly as possible, to the point where you don’t even have to decide to meditate every day. It shouldn’t be a decision. It should just be what you do. So I have a mantra: “I meditate every day; it’s just what I do; it’s part of who I am.” If you want to meditate absolutely every day, then keep reciting that mantra (and meditate for at least five minutes each day, although preferably more) until you start to believe the mantra on a deep level. If you miss days at first, that’s OK. Just keep repeating the mantra: “I meditate every day; it’s just what I do; it’s part of who I am.”

It works!

Wildmind is a Community-Supported  Meditation Initiative. Bodhipaksa is supported by numerous sponsors who generously donate each month to help him explore and teach meditation. Wildmind’s sponsors get access to an online community and to a large number of  meditation courses Bodhipaksa has developed over the years. Click here to check out the Meditation Initiative.

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Four ways to shake up your meditation practice

4 ways to shake up your meditation practiceLast month I wrote about how sometimes your meditation practice may seem to be going nowhere, and how that’s OK. It’s the “seems” that’s important, because sometimes you just can’t see the change that’s taking place, slowly and gradually, in your brain and mind. Connections can be growing, or strengthening in the brain, and you can be completely unaware of that until perhaps some tipping point is reached and you notice that you act differently, or feel differently, or see things differently.

But there are also times that you might want to shake things up. Here are four things you can do to stop your practice becoming stale.

Go deeper
You probably get habitual in your meditation. When you’re doing the mindfulness of breathing you probably pay attention to pretty much the same set of sensations every time, and call that “the breathing” or “the breath.” But we can shake that up and go deeper. Ask yourself, what is the breathing? Where do the sensations of “breathing” end and the sensations of “not-breathing” begin (that is, parts of the body that are not involved in breathing)? Elsewhere I’ve suggested ways to go deeper in that practice.

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Similarly in lovingkindness practice you probably get habitual. Maybe it works for you and you get a warm glow of kindness. But perhaps you need to look more closely at what you do, and what you allow into awareness and exclude from awareness. Perhaps there are parts of yourself you leave out (parts of your body you don’t pay attention to) or perhaps there are aspects of other people that you haven’t considered (it’s life-changing to realize that everyone is basically seeking happiness, and finding happiness elusive, for example). So you can look for parts of the body that you’ve ignored, and pay attention to the feelings that arise there. You can let a fuller awareness of others enter your mind by cultivating a sense of curiosity about them. Or maybe you’re busy doing the practice, but you don’t pay much attention to the feeling tone of how you do the practice. Can you soften? Become kinder? If you do, everything else will change.

Find your “cutting edge”
Right now I’m paying particular attention to the factors that give rise to jhāna, which is a deeply enjoyable and focused state of “flow” in meditation. I’m paying attention to cultivating the factors that lead to this flow state, and I’m paying attention to different transitions in my experience once the flow state is established. At other times I’ve really paid attention to the impermanence of each sensation, and really focused, moment by moment, on my constantly changing experience. I like to have a “cutting edge” in my practice, something I’m specifically working on.

What are you working on? Do you have any goals in meditation? Having goals doesn’t mean grasping after results, or rejecting your present experience. It simply means having a sense of the direction which you’re gently heading. For many people this is hard to understand, because they habitually grasp after attaining goals, but the apparent paradox of having goals yet being in the moment is worth exploring.

See the big picture
What’s your overall purpose in meditating? Is it to de-stress? Is it to be happier? Is it to be a better person so that you cause less suffering to others? Those are all excellent purposes, but they’re not enough. If you want to de-stress you’re trying to reduce suffering, and there is, according to the Buddhist tradition, an end-point where suffering is eliminated. If you want to be happier, there’s an ultimate state of peace that can be attained, which makes every other state of happiness look unsatisfactory in comparison. That state of peace, that end of suffering, is called bodhi, awakening, or enlightenment. If you want to cause less suffering to others … well, you get my point.

There’s no point grasping after awakening. If you grasp, you’ll just suffer more. But how about if you entered every meditation with the sense that you’re heading, ultimately, toward a radical shift in consciousness in which there is no grasping, no hatred — in which there’s deep peace, clarity, and compassion. And the attainment of this state may be, for all you know, just at the end of the next breath. Awakening has a habit of appearing unexpectedly. Often it’s come to people when they’ve been profoundly depressed, even suicidal. So see if you can have a sense that something mysterious and amazing is just a hair’s-breadth away. Let there be a sense of openness and wonder in your practice of meditation.

Do more
Sometimes you need to just do a lot more meditation. You need to get on retreat. This can be challenging, but that’s the point! If your meditation practice is a bit boring, you can probably handle that if you’re sitting for 30 minutes a day. But if you’re sitting for six hours? Or eight hours? You’ll probably get to the point fairly soon where you realize that you have to make a change. It’s either that or go crazy. If you’re lucky, you’ll have a breakthrough in your practice before you get to the stage of feeling like your head will explode (note: that has never actually happened to anyone in the entire 2,500 year history of Buddhist meditation), but sometimes you have to experience a crisis before you have that breakthrough. It’s tough to experience, but in the end it’s worth it.

Lastly, how do you know when you should just accept that your practice seems to be going nowhere, and when you should shake things up?

The things I’ve talked about above are things I think you’ve been doing all the time. I think if we all did these things — go for depth in our practice with an attitude of openness and curiosity; had a clear sense of something that we’re working on; keep in mind that enlightenment is what we’re working toward and that it may happen in any moment; and periodically do more intense periods of practice — then we wouldn’t have a sense of our meditation being stuck in a rut. Instead it would be a fresh and exciting thing to get on the cushion. So do these things first, and if you still feel stuck in a rut, then just be stuck. Accept your stuckness, and just keep doing the practice.

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Becoming a rock-solid regular meditator

Two carved stone Buddha statues, one standing, one lying down

I really admire those few people I know who can honestly say they’ve been meditating for 10 or 20 years, and that they’ve never missed a day. I’ve been meditating for 30 years, but I’ve never been able to attain that kind of regularity. Sure, I’ve had periods of months at a time when I’ve never missed a day, but eventually I get tripped up and start missing days here and there. It doesn’t help that I have two young kids and that my sleep is often interrupted.

In some ways this irregularity might not matter. I’ve made progress. I’m kinder than I used to be. I’ve experienced all kinds of meditative states, including the jhānas and (so-called) formless jhānas. Heck, I’ve even had some powerful insights. But in some ways it definitely does matter. When I go through a period of meditating every day without fail, I find that my meditation practice really takes off. When I miss days here and there the quality of my meditation practice deteriorates. I lose momentum, and meditation seems more like maintenance than construction. Worse, the quality of my life suffers.

See also:

I suspect that the difference between people who meditate without fail and those who don’t (or can’t) is that the former see meditating daily as part of who they are. It’s just what they do. They don’t have to think about it, because it’s part of their identity. Those who struggle with meditating daily see that kind of rock-solid daily practice as something they need to achieve. And there’s a sense of doubt about this: “Will I ever get there?” And this doubt becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy because doubting you’ll ever sit every day without fail makes it less likely that you will.

How long do you have to sit anyway, before you develop this rock-solid confidence? This sense that “yes, meditating daily is just what I do. It’s part of who I am”? I’ve gone for months without missing a day, and then I have a late night and an early start the next day, and I’m back to being a non-regular meditator.

Is this familiar to you?

Recently I’ve been using an affirmation to help me get past this stumbling-block of doubt. It’s been helping me, and it may help you, too.

So here it is. Try repeating to yourself: “I meditate every day. It’s just who I am. It’s what I do.”

It’s pretty simple. I’ve been dropping this thought into my mind throughout the day. I did it while walking to work today. I even did it during my meditation, because I think that thoughts deliberately introduced into a still (well, relatively still) mind have more effect. Say these words as you lie in bed, before you go to sleep. Write them down, or stick a note to your computer monitor or on your car dashboard to remind you to call them to mind.

I feel a sense of confidence as I say these words. I can feel my sense of who I am changing.

I’ve been finding that by repeating that affirmation I’m building in to my sense of self the expectation that I’ll meditate daily. It therefore isn’t an “extra” to be fitted in. It’s part of how I see myself.

It’s definitely helping. I’m not promising that this will work, but you can regard it as an experiment. Maybe it’ll help you, too.

Wildmind is a Community-Supported  Meditation Initiative. Bodhipaksa is supported by numerous sponsors who generously donate each month to help him explore and teach meditation. Wildmind’s sponsors get access to an online community and to a large number of  meditation courses Bodhipaksa has developed over the years. Click here to check out the Meditation Initiative.

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