Making Meditation a Part of Your Life
Commitment is the foundation for your meditation practice. Without commitment, you won’t keep meditating when you’re tired, have a headache, don’t feel like it, or would rather do something else.
What prompts you to make the commitment to meditate in the first place? You have to be motivated, which means you have to know how you can benefit from what meditation has to offer, and you must have strong personal reasons for continuing. These reasons may include a desire to alleviate personal suffering or stress, an aspiration to achieve greater focus and clarity, and a concern for the welfare of others.
The commitment process usually involves five distinct steps — though it doesn’t necessarily have to be so formal:
- Becoming motivated: Ouch, life hurts! I need to find out how to deal with my pain.
- Setting your intention: I know, I’ll meditate for one-half hour every day!
- Making an agreement with yourself: From now until the end of the month, I agree to get up at 7 a.m. and count my breaths before I go to work.
- Following through: Whew! I didn’t realize how hard it would be to sit still for so long — but I refuse to break my agreement with myself!
- Gaining momentum: Wow! The more I meditate, the easier it gets. I’m really beginning to enjoy it.
Being consistent, day after day
When you practice meditation, you develop certain mental and emotional muscles, such as concentration, mindfulness (ongoing attention to whatever is arising, moment to moment), and receptive awareness. Here, too, consistency is the key — you need to keep it up and keep it regular, no matter how you’re feeling from day to day. In fact, your feelings provide the fodder for your meditation practice, as you expand your awareness from your breath to include the full range of your experience. There’s no special way you need to be — just show up and be yourself!
Be especially wary of two extremes: laziness or self-indulgence — “I’d rather be sleeping, resting, watching TV” — and perfectionism — “I’m not ready to meditate. I’m not smart or good or focused enough.” Remember, the best way to become “good” enough to meditate is to just do it!
Restraining yourself, both on and off the cushion
Broadly speaking, self-restraint is the quality of mind that keeps you from acting on every impulse or desire that flits through your brain and that helps you discriminate between behavior that’s useful and supportive and behavior that’s unsupportive or even harmful. If you’re an athlete, you need self-restraint to prevent you from eating junk food or staying out late when you’re training for a big competition. If you’re a meditator, self-restraint can function on several different levels:
- Before meditation: You may choose to eat well and in moderation or avoid mind-altering substances such as tobacco or caffeine because you want to keep your mind clear and fresh for your meditation.
- During meditation: You can use self-restraint to keep pulling your mind back from its habitual fantasies and preoccupations to the object of your meditation, be it your breath or a mantra or some other focus. Be careful, however, not to confuse self-restraint with repression, avoidance, or judgment. You don’t need to criticize yourself for wandering off, nor do you want to push certain “undesirable” thoughts or feelings out of your mind. Instead, just welcome whatever arises, while gently returning your focus to the object of your meditation.
- After meditation: As your practice deepens and strengthens, you build a certain power or energy of mind — in the East they call it samadhi. You can blow off this energy by daydreaming or planning or obsessing — or you can use self-restraint to channel your energy back into your practice of being mindful from moment to moment.
Like self-discipline, self-restraint has a bad rap in our culture. After all, aren’t you supposed to say what you think and do what feels right? But what feels right in the moment may not be the same as what feels right in the long run — and self-restraint is the faculty that helps you distinguish between the two. For example, it may feel great to spend your meditation indulging in fantasy — until you start wondering in a month or two why you still can’t count your breaths from one to ten. Above all, though, remember to be gentle with yourself!
Making the right kind of effort
If discipline is the capacity to keep doing something again and again, then effort is the quality of energy and exertion you bring to the activity itself. Although it may take discipline to show up at the gym every day, it takes effort to do those aerobics or lift those weights or shoot those hoops.
As with self-discipline, you may find it helpful to break effort into three convenient parts:
- Energy: There’s a secret “law of energy” that applies just as well to meditation as it does to sports — and to life in general: The more you expend, the more you get back in return. In meditation, the more wholeheartedly you practice, the more you tap into a seemingly limitless energy source. It’s as though the flame inside your heart begins channeling the fusion energy that runs the sun. But don’t confuse wholeheartedness with struggle; when you meditate, remember to relax and open while you focus your mind. It’s this unique balance of active and receptive —yin and yang — that characterizes the practice of meditation.
- Earnestness: Earnestness keeps bringing your mind back again and again to your focus. No matter what thoughts or feelings arise to seduce you away, you just keep plugging along — following your breaths or chanting your mantra or paying mindful attention in everyday life. Just as it takes consistency to return to your sitting day after day, it takes earnest application to return to the focus of your meditation moment after moment, without struggling or giving up. Earnestness isn’t sexy or exciting — it’s just essential!
- Effortless effort: Meditation is like surfing. If you push too hard and try to control your mind, you’ll just end up feeling rigid and tight, and you’ll keep wiping out as the result of your effort. But if you hang back and exert no effort at all, you won’t have the focus or concentration necessary to hold your position as the waves of thought and emotion wash over you.
- Eventually, your concentration will arise quite naturally and take only minimal effort to maintain, and you will be able to relax and open your awareness to whatever arises. Even the notions of yin and yang (awareness and concentration) will ultimately drop away, and you can just be, with effortless effort — which is the real point of meditation.