One evening several years back, I joined a group of long-term meditators at the Birmingham Buddhist Centre. I remember very little from this evening now, but one moment still stands out.
At some point during the night, we were all asked to share one thing that we wish we had known at the start of our meditation journeys. During this discussion, I recall one woman – warm-hearted and mild-mannered like so many of the centre’s visitors – expressing the following regret:
“I wish I had known that you don’t have to feel good to meditate.”
How often do we tell ourselves that we’re not in “the right mood” to practice? That we need to be in a different state of mind – a less busy, less worried, less anxious one – before we sit on the cushion?
“I’ll meditate this evening, when I’ve got that work out of the way.” “I’ll meditate later, when I’ve got less on my mind.” “I’ll meditate tomorrow, when I’m less tired”.
And yet, so often the right mood doesn’t come along. The excuses rack up, and day after day passes in the same habits as ever.
One thing I have heard many times when listening to the stories and talks of those who are deeply transformed by meditation is that the power of the practice comes from making it regular.
It was when these people recognised that there is no perfect time, no perfect place, and no perfect mood in which to meditate, that deep change was made possible. It was when they noticed the above excuses and determined to meditate anyway, that real change began to occur.
So here are a few tips to help you make your practice a habit. Don’t try them all at once; pick one a week, for the next few weeks, and see what this does to you.
1. Decide that your meditation is not about you
If you meditate because you want to make yourself feel good, you’re bound to give up as soon as you encounter difficulty. This is not to say that you shouldn’t want to feel good through meditating – of course you do! – but don’t make feeling good your primary and conscious motive. Tell yourself that you’re going to meditate because it makes you a kinder, more compassionate, more “humane” human-being. You’re going to meditate because it helps you act authentically and take proper care of the people who mean a lot to you, rather than snapping at them for the slightest ill-chosen word.
The root motivation of meditation should be one that does not simply bloat our own egos – our image of ourselves – but one that points outside of that self. Remember this – practice for others – and you will find that that practice becomes much more sustainable. (And has the added side-effect of making you feel good anyway!)
2. Expect a hump at the start
If you sit down to meditate when there’s a lot going on for you, you will find that the mind takes a while to settle. This is entirely, completely, wholly predictable. It is part of the practice. Knowing this, you don’t give up if your mind is still unsettled after three, four, five, minutes. You don’t let the ego’s rebellion win you over when it tells you “this isn’t working”. You keep going. You expect and you ride this hump in the practice, knowing that the energies of the ego gradually burn themselves out.
In the Zen tradition, meditation is compared to taming a wild ox. First you go out of your way to seek the ox out – difficult enough. Then you fasten a rope around the ox’s neck – also tricky. You put effort into struggling against the ox’s strong will, making it follow you to where you need to go. You tie the ox to a post, but still it keeps struggling, it keeps getting up and chasing after things, straining against the rope. Slowly though, the ox becomes bored. With time, it sees that its struggle is fruitless. Now, you play it calming music on a flute, and the ox lays down happily in its field, struggling no more.
The thinking mind is like this too. If we take the time to set up the conditions for meditation – to find a space, a time, a posture and a firm intention (half of the battle), we can trust that the tension we feel as the mind pulls against its rope will gradually lessen. As we keep bringing the mind back to the breath and the body, keeping it tethered to the post of present moment experience, rather than releasing it into the wild once more, it too will calm down and settle in the field of calm awareness.
3. Shorten your practice – If you’re exhausted after an even longer day’s turmoil at work than usual, you’re likely not going to feel little sitting down and meditating for 45 minutes. Indeed, the thought of it might terrify you. This doesn’t mean you let yourself off the practice. You do it anyway!
And yet, the ego might need some breadcrumbs throwing its way. It might need some cunning games to keep it in check – tricks played upon itself. So, try shortening your practice.
Tell yourself that you will reduce your practice time from 10 to 5 minutes. From 20 to 15, or from 40 to 30. Going in with this intention, you’ll find it much easier to settle into the practice – to commit to it – and you may even find that, when the moment comes, you have the energy to continue on further. But be kind to yourself, pick a time you can be psychologically okaywith sitting for.
4. Find slogans for moments of weakness
Weakness of the will is something we should all expect and prepare for. All of us have times where we are confused – confused by our practice, confused about how to move forwards, and unwilling to take the steps we’d determined to take. In these moments, we need something to turn to – something that cuts through the confusion and sets us back on the right path. For this, we can use slogans – small, pithy teaching phrases used to motivate and inspire.
Recently, I have facilitated an 8-week course, where a group of us have worked through Norman Fischer’s Training in Compassion. This book is a commentary on an ancient Tibetan practice of training—known as Lojong—which asks students to work with 59 “slogans” to kindle compassion in their lives. The slogans are brief, memorable teaching phrases, which encapsulate the attitudes suitable for practice.
Students of Lojong reflect on their slogans. They think about them until they mean something to them. And then they take a chosen slogan with them into their life and their practice. By picking a slogan, and committing to work with it, they start to notice moments in life where it is relevant. And they employ their slogan in such moments to return their mind to an attitude that is wise and constructive.
The slogans we have worked with in our group include “practice when distracted”, “don’t be a phony”, “trust your own eyes” and “don’t figure others out”. Seek out such phrases for yourself. Create your own. And see if you can use them in moments of confusion or weakness in your life and in your practice. Watch how pithy little phrases can give you the motivation to begin, the conviction to let go of something you’re attached to, or simply the resilience to keep going in a meditation when times are tough.
5. Don’t look inside your practice, for its benefits
Our temptation is often to look “inside” of our meditation, to see if we are on the right track: Is this going well? Why don’t I feel better yet? Does this feeling mean I’m doing it wrong?
If we approach our meditation in this way, chopping and changing, getting concerned at every “negative” experience, we are setting ourselves up to lose our practice entirely. For if we approach meditation thinking that every bad experience is a sign that we’re not doing things right, then we’re after a short-term fix, which is not something that meditation can always provide.
Sometimes we’ll get these “fixes”. Sometimes our meditation will be wonderful. But meditation won’t give us a guaranteed experience of spiritual bliss each morning. And the fact that we have difficult meditations, the fact that we experience some negativity in a practice, doesn’t mean that the practice isn’t working.
When you’re feeling tired, worried or afraid in a practice, don’t be disheartened. Be honest about these feelings. Do not try to get rid of them. Do not make you meditation’s goal to remove them. If you want to make meditation part of your life, you have allow your practice to touch those moments when life isn’t going to plan – you have to expect themto emerge there.
But watch how those experiences soften as you stop telling yourself off for having them, and rush to stamp on them. Be patient. Be willing to accept hardship and recognise that the most beneficial practices are often those that don’t leave you feeling amazing, but leave you feeling just a little better than you did before. When your meditation is over, check in then. Maybe you don’t feel great. Maybe it wasn’t as good as last time. But maybe you feel a little lighter than you did when you began. As John Dewey cautions us: “don’t let the best be the enemy of the better.”
My teacher Suryacitta suggests that if you want to know if your practice is working, “don’t look at your practice; look at your life”. Are you a kinder, gentler person after meditation? Are you a little more composed, less urgent or less angry?
Consider, sometimes you don’t feel like brushing your teeth at the end of the day, and much of the time, it’s not enormous fun to do so. Yet in all likelihood, you still do it. You do this because you’ve internalised the fact that brushing your teeth is good for you. And you certainly notice if you fall out of this habit for a while! Yet, you don’t conceptualise these things to yourself. Brushing your teeth has become just something that you do.
Meditation must become like this – just something that you do. And this comes from not worrying about every detail, every disappointment, and every unexpected turn. You’re doing it routinely, persistently, unwaveringly, because you know that difficult experiences are to be expected, because you know that it takes time to rebuild habits, and that each second of practice builds new habits that will serve you much better going forwards.