Monday, November 30, 2009

Being consistent, day after day

Take sports again. If you train for a day and then slack off for a week, you won’t make much progress. In fact, you may end up straining a muscle or hurting your back because you haven’t conditioned your body gradually, as most fitness gurus recommend.
When you practice meditation, you’re developing certain mental and emotional muscles like 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!
As one old Chinese Zen master used to say, “Sun-faced Buddha, moon-faced Buddha” — by which he meant, happy or sad, energetic or tired, just sit as the being you happen to be.
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, I’m talking about meditation for beginners here — and besides, the best way to become “good enough” to meditate is to just do it!

Making a commitment to yourself — and keeping it

When you commit to marriage or some other monogamous relationship, you make an agreement with yourself and your partner to stay together through thick and thin, no matter what life brings. Without this commitment, you may be tempted to leave when your partner becomes angry or does something you can’t stand — or when you find yourself withdrawing or “falling out of love.” Of course, you can always decide to end the relationship, but as long as you’re committed, you’re going to do all you can to maintain it. The same holds true for meditation. 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, would rather do something else, or run up against some of the roadblocks. And 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 30 minutes 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.

The Meaning of Discipline

If you’re like most folks, the word discipline may be a bit of a turnoff. Perhaps it reminds you of some bossy teacher who made you stay after school or childhood punishments that were intended to “set you straight.” Or maybe you associate discipline with soldiers marching single-file or with prisoners forced to obey their keepers. But the discipline I’m talking about here is quite different. When I say discipline, I mean the kind of self-discipline that prompts top athletes like Tiger Woods or Venus Williams to get up every morning and run several miles and then practice their moves or their shots over and over, long after they’ve gotten them right. It’s the kind of self-discipline that motivates great writers to sit at their computers each day, no matter how they feel, and pound out their copy.
The truth is, you already have self-discipline, though you may not be aware of it. You need self-discipline to get to your job on time or to orchestrate a schedule filled with business commitments, personal interests, and family responsibilities. You need self-discipline to pay your bills or keep up a garden or take care of your kids. You merely need to apply the same self-discipline to the practice of meditation.
Again, self-discipline is nothing more than the capacity to do something again and again. But I find it helpful to break self-discipline down a little further into three parts: commitment, consistency, and self-restraint.