motivation

The self-compassionate way to get things done

A parent shaming us by comparing us unflatteringly with a sibling; a boss humiliating us in front of colleagues when a task isn’t up to their expectations; a partner repeatedly complaining about some household task we haven’t done yet: these are all attempts to “light a fire under our ass” in order to get us to achieve more. Most of us have had this ploy used against us so many times over the course of our lives that we’ve internalized this motivational strategy.

Our inner critic punishes us verbally when it thinks we’ve under-performed. It castigates us for being lazy when we haven’t gotten around to starting some task. Yet despite all this internal criticism, most of us still have a hard time motivating ourselves to do things. When self-criticism fails, the answer is usually more self-criticism. “How,” we might wonder, “would I get anything done if I didn’t give myself a hard time?”

Self-Compassion = Less Procrastination

Yet many studies have shown self-compassionate individuals to be more effective than people who are self-critical. They are also less prone to procrastination. Psychologists at St. Edward’s University in Austin, Texas, compared college students who preferred to begin their assignments early to those who tended to leave them to the last minute. By now you may not be surprised to learn that those with high levels of self-compassion had much less of a tendency to procrastinate.

Procrastination is, in fact, not really a problem of time management but a problem of emotional management. Think about what it’s like just to contemplate a challenging task. Often we’ll find that feelings of anxiety, restlessness, or dread arise. When we’re unable to handle those feelings we try to avoid them by avoiding the task itself. Learning to support and encourage ourselves in the face of discomfort allows us to face challenging tasks rather than avoid them.

Developing Self-Compassion for Your Future Self

One fascinating way that self-compassion helps us to be more motivated is when we develop compassion for our future self, treating it as a friend. I stumbled across this practice while trying to motivate myself to deal with household tasks. Often I would be about to head to bed when I would realize that there were still dirty dishes on the kitchen counter. I was simply too tired to deal with them, so I’d shrug and leave them until the morning. But it was very unpleasant to wake up to the mess I’d left myself.

Faced with my resistance to do late-night cleaning, I started thinking about how Morning Bodhi (I gave him a name to make him more real to me) would feel about waking up to this messy kitchen. From past experience I knew he’d find the mess dispiriting. I also knew that Morning Bodhi would feel happy and grateful waking up to a clean kitchen. So I would wash the dishes, feeling good knowing I was helping Morning Bodhi. Morning Bodhi, of course, was grateful to Evening Bodhi. Having empathy for our future self makes self-discipline easier, turning it into an act of self-care.

No Self-Empathy, No Self-Control

This compassionate approach to self-control is supported by neuroscience. When Alexander Soutschek of the University of Zurich in Switzerland used magnetic fields to shut down a part of the brain long known to be involved in empathy—the rear part of the right temporoparietal junction—he found that he’d also disrupted his subjects’ ability to exert self-control. Impulsiveness, or lack of self-discipline, arises when we’re unable to relate compassionately to our future self.

Self-Compassion Looks At What Benefits You Long-Term

Self-compassion involves considering whether or not your actions will contribute to your long-term happiness and well-being.

Short-term thinking leads to us letting ourselves off the hook and giving up easily; this feels unpleasant now, so I’ll stop doing it. Self-compassion, on the other hand, is about what will benefit you in the long term: this feels unpleasant now, but how will I feel later?

It’s a myth that self-compassion reduces our motivation. In fact the opposite is the case. Self-compassion is one of the most effective ways to motivate ourselves.

Wildmind is a community-supported meditation initiative. Hundreds of meditators chip in monthly to cover our running costs, and in return receive access to amazing resources that support their sitting practice. Click here to find out more.

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Overcoming resistance to meditation (a self-compassionate guide)

There can be lots of reasons for why we avoid meditating. We might not want to experience particular feelings. We might have built up a sense of failure around our meditation practice. We might worry that doing something for ourselves is selfish. We might be concerned that if we meditate we won’t get things done. Or we might be afraid of change.

And so we find excuses not to meditate. We know it’s good for us. We’ve read news article about it. We know that we’re happier when we meditate. We intend to meditate. But we find that we avoid it. We get busy. We just can’t bring ourselves to go sit on that meditation cushion.

I used to think it would help to understand why I resisted meditation. But that rarely achieved anything.

Ultimately, I found that the most important thing was not to analyze my resistance or to get into a debate with it, but to turn toward and embrace it. This is an important practice in mindful self-compassion.

See also:

So when resistance to meditation arises, try becoming mindful of the feelings that accompany this experience. Where are they situated in the body? What shape do they form? What “texture” do they have? What kinds of thoughts do they give rise to? Notice those things, and just be with the resistance. Let the resistance be an object of mindfulness. Resistance is a state of conflict, and may also include fear. These are forms of pain. Notice this pain and regard it kindly. Offer it some reassuring words: “It’s OK. You’re going to be OK. I’ll take good care of you.”

Now here’s the thing: as soon as you become mindful of your resistance, you’re already meditating. Your resistance is no longer a hindrance to developing mindfulness but an opportunity to do so. And so, wherever you are, you can just let your eyes close. Breathing in, experience the resistance. Breathing out, experience the resistance. Now you’re doing mindful breathing meditation!

Continue to talk to the fearful part of you, perhaps saying things like: “Hi there. I accept you as part of my experience. I care about you and I want you to be at ease. You’re free to stay for as long as you like, and you’re welcome to meditate with me.” Do this for as long as necessary, until you feel settled in your practice.

In this approach the specific content of your resistance isn’t important, because you’re not meeting your rationalizations on their own level. And that’s a good thing, because your resistance is sly.

Ninety-nine times out of a hundred, your doubt can run circles around you, and arguing with it makes things worse. Your doubt knows exactly what you’re going to say and knows how to make you feel small and incapable. It’s had lots of practice doing this. The one thing your doubt doesn’t understand is how to resist being seen and accepted.

So instead of arguing with your resistance, outsmart it. Surround it with mindful awareness and with kindness.

If you find that the resistance goes on day after day, then set yourself a low bar for what counts as “a day in which you meditate.” Five minutes is fine. That may not sound like much, but regularity is ultimately far more important than the number of minutes you do each day. If you sit for just five minutes a day, you’re meditating regularly. You’ve outwitted your resistance.

One more tip: The only “bad meditation” is the one you don’t do. All the others are fine. So don’t worry about the quality. Just do the practice.

Wildmind is a community-supported meditation initiative. Hundreds of people chip in monthly to cover our running costs, and in return receive access to amazing resources. Click here to find out more.

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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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How to improve your attention span through meditation

girl dressed as superheroYour ability to stick with something varies from activity to activity. For example, when playing Scrabble or a computer game, or watching a movie, you no doubt have thoughts about unrelated things, but you keep coming back to the activity. But in other things, like meditation, you find it more difficult to stay focused, and may even give up.

This all suggests that “attention span” is a question of how you relate to distraction, rather than some intrinsic quality of the mind.

The difference is often to do with rewards: in Scrabble, you naturally get a reward when you’ve completed a word and score points. That gives you a little dopamine hit—not just when you score points, but even when you see the possibility of doing so. You see the promise of getting to a new level in a computer game, and once again there’s a dopamine hit. The movie has quiet parts, where you’re less engaged and the mind wanders, but then the story evolves and you get to see some action, or a shift in the plot and want to know what happens next. Another dopamine hit.

Dopamine is the brain’s “promise of a reward” chemical. It keeps you motivated. Dopamine is in effect saying to your brain, “Keep going! Something good is just around the corner!”

Movies and games have built-in mechanisms for delivering dopamine-based rewards. That’s why we like them. Meditation, less so.

Sometimes meditation is naturally rewarding. We might notice that the mind is becoming a little calmer, and feel good about that. And those kinds of experiences keep you motivated. But when people meditate, especially early on, they mostly notice how distracted they are! This is less encouraging, which is probably why most people give up meditating after the first few days or weeks.

We all have trouble paying attention, and have distracted thoughts popping into our heads that take us away from the task we’re trying to focus on, such as noticing the breathing. There’s a tendency at first to assume that there’s something wrong when this happens, and to think that we can’t meditate. And that sense of “failure” produces very unpleasant feelings that we want to escape from by ceasing to continue the exercise. But in fact it’s normal to get distracted, and if we accept that we can just keep returning to the meditation practice over and over again.

It can be a little shocking, and disappointing. This saps our motivation, making us want to give up.

In meditation, the reward often has to be consciously induced. We can do this by deliberately celebrating small signs of progress. For example, the mind is always going to go wandering, and become distracted. But it always returns to mindful awareness! In meditation, we can either curse ourselves for getting distracted again or celebrate regaining our mindfulness again. Which we choose makes a big difference to our perseverance.

If that seems artificial (which is to say that you’re choosing to believe the demotivating thought rather than the one that motivates you) then you might want to give yourself a little reassurance instead, by saying something like, “It’s OK. This happens to everyone. I’ve returned to mindful attention now, and that’s the important thing.”

Once you’re learned to be a bit less disappointed in distraction and begun to accept it as a normal part of the meditation process, then you start to more consciously celebrate your many, many returns to mindful awareness.

Doing this will help you to stick with the practice. However, you’ll find that your attention span improves not just in meditation, but in other areas of your life too, since you’ve learned an important principle of motivation: criticism deflates, rewards inspire!

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To motivate yourself to meditate, celebrate!

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.

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“The actions of men are the best interpreters of their thoughts.” John Locke

John Locke

One of the most radical and attractive things about Buddhist ethics is that the rightness or wrongness of an action is not to do with some arbitrary set of rules developed by a deity, but is based on the intention behind the action.

If an action is fueled by craving, hatred, or delusion, then it’s considered to be unskillful, and if it’s not based on those qualities, but instead is based on qualities such as “renunciation” (which would include contentment and generosity), kindness, compassion, and mindfulness, then it’s considered skillful.

For this reason, Buddhism is often said to have an “ethic of intention.” This, however, can be misleading. What determines the ethical status of unskillful mental states, after all, is the results they produce! For example, in an important teaching the Buddha described how, before his Awakening, he came to recognize that there were some mental states that were skillful and some that were unskillful:

As he observed his mind, he noticed:

Thinking imbued with craving [or ill will, or cruelty] has arisen in me, and that leads to my own affliction or to the affliction of others or to the affliction of both. It obstructs discernment, promotes vexation, and does not lead to Awakening.

It’s because unskillful states of mind cause suffering to ourselves, others, or both, that they are unskillful.

The idea that Buddhist ethics is an ethic of intention sometimes acts as a “get out of jail free card” for certain Buddhists. For example, they repeatedly say things that give offense to others, and say, “Well, I didn’t mean to give offense. It’s your fault if you get offended. That’s your choice. It’s not something I’m doing.”

But there’s another important teaching in which the Buddha undercuts this argument. In talking to his son, Rahula, who had been ordained as a monk, the Buddha made the important point that we need to look at our actions, words, and thoughts before they arise and see whether we think they are likely to cause suffering to ourselves, others, or both. Further, we’re to look at the effects of our actions, words, and thoughts in retrospect, and to see whether they caused suffering. If they did, then we’re to consider what we did as unskillful.

See also:

The point that’s implicitly being made is that often we aren’t clear about our intentions. We want to see ourselves as good, and to be seen as good by others. We may therefore believe, or want to believe, that we don’t mean to cause offense, but if offense repeatedly happens then it’s likely that we have an unacknowledged desire to do so.

Because we’re deluded, we often don’t understand our own motivations. Sometimes we don’t even want to understand them. The Buddha’s teaching to his son helps us escape from the apparent paradox of a deluded mind trying to become aware of its own delusions. How do we become aware of unconscious volitions? By observing their effects. The results of our actions reveal to us our hidden volitions—if we’re prepared to look.

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Three tips for developing the habit of daily meditation

https://www.dreamstime.com/stock-photos-two-little-monks-running-outdoors-image30569393

Sometimes I find it hard to set up a good habit. Other times it’s easy. I’ve been wondering if I could look at a habit I’ve found easy to set up, and then apply those principles in other areas. Now I already meditate daily, but perhaps this is something you’ve found difficult and could use some pointers with, or maybe, like me, you’re already a regular meditator but have other areas you need to be working on (and let’s face it, who couldn’t). So I thought I’d share my observations and reflections.

One good habit I’ve been successful in setting up is going out running three times a week, with the aim of building up to running a 5k. I’ve been going out very regularly, and have been enjoying a sense of joy during every run and a glow of satisfaction afterward. I’m not even deterred by bad weather!

Now I’ve tried to get into running before, but I’ve never enjoyed it so consistently. What’s different this time?

Lesson 1

First, I have a running buddy. If he’s not available for some reason, I’ll still go running on my own, but I’m more motivated to go running with a friend because it’s much more fun when we’re together and we keep each other accountable.

What’s the lesson for meditating regularly?

You may not be able to meditate with others every day in the flesh, but you can use an app like the Insight Timer, which shows you how many other people are meditating at the same time as you. Or you can have a meditation buddy that you can text or email each other with a brief message confirming that you’ve meditated. If you haven’t heard from your partner you can send her a quick reminder. At times I’ve meditated with a friend on Skype. Of course we’re in silence, but there’s a real sense of being with another person.

Lesson 2

The second difference from my usual attempts at running is that this time I’m using an app. We have a “Couch to 5k” app that provides a structured nine-week program of running, gradually building up to a solid 30 minute run, which is easily enough time to cover 5 kilometers.

What’s the lesson for meditating regularly?

Set short but attainable targets for yourself. It’s OK to do a short meditation each day to begin with. There are lots of meditations of about eight minutes in length (I’ve made a CD of them myself) and that’s enough to make a subtle difference to our day.

And for most people, the equivalent of a meditation app is a timer or a guided meditation. Both will give you a sense of structure. A guided meditation not only gives your practice some structure, but is also like having a meditation buddy who walks you through the meditation.

Lesson 3

The third difference is that we congratulate ourselves and each other.

Our running app is structured: we’ll run, walk, run, walk, run for 25 minutes or so. At the end of each leg of running we’ll high five each other and give ourselves congratulations on our progress. The boost in mood that we get from doing this is very noticeable.

Remember it’s OK to congratulate yourself. You could get to the end of a meditation and say to yourself “Target achieved! Yay, me! That’s awesome!” and so on. Be your own cheerleader. Some of us have been brought up to be suspicious of self-congratulation, but remember that you’re not praising yourself in order to make yourself look good but so that you can associate a positive habit with feelings of pleasure, and look forward to your practice.

I think these three lessons from my running practice are something I can bring into other areas of my life — and perhaps you’ll find them useful too.

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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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Meditation: “It’s just what I do”

Impressionistic painting of the Buddha meditating, which he did every day

I received a lovely message today from someone who’s participating in Wildmind’s 28 Day Meditation Challenge. (It’s too late to join the current one, but we have others running later in the year.)

It’s a great example of how a simple phrase can change your whole attitude to meditation, and radically alter your sense of self and your life. (I’ve removed a few identifying details.)

I have been meditating in a more focused way for nearly a year, after 30 years of playing with the idea. I thought I would let you know that my ‘full turning point’ has happened as a result of this 28 day challenge.

Finding the time always seemed to be the challenge. Making the decision to turn this around using your Mantra “I meditate every day; it’s just what I do; it’s who I am” has put meditation right in the centre of my life. I sometimes only meditate for 5 minutes but have begun to feel like I used to feel when I was younger and needed to go for a run. My body and mind actually remind me that they feel like meditating each day now.

So to fit this in with my busy schedule I am now not only meditating at home on my mat and stool, but I do walking meditation to and from work, sometimes stop and sit on a park bench on the way home or a sand dune when out walking with friends, even if its for only 5 or 10 mins, rather than miss a day. My shyness over the last 30 years and reluctance to tell friends who I really am has evolved in to their complete comfortable acceptance of it. They see it as ‘who I am’ and all say that they see a real change in my demeanor and health too.

The most important thing is that I now see meditation as just ‘what I do … every day’ and am happy because of that.

Many thanks for your encouragement and support in this.

“I meditate every day; it’s just what I do; it’s part of who I am” is an affirmation that appeared in my mind when I was considering how to move from being an “almost daily” meditator to a rock-solid daily meditator. These phrases help us to change our view of ourselves so that we no longer have to make a choice to meditate every day. With enough repetition of these phrases, you no longer need willpower in order to keep your practice daily, any more than you need willpower to brush your teeth. It just becomes something you do.

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