Diana Winston on commitment to the practice of sitting, why we should sit regularly, and advice on how to keep yourself on schedule.
Your unforgiving alarm rings for all it’s worth. It’s 7AM. You crash out of bed, slamming your toe on your bedside table. You fumble for your zafu in the dark. “It’s over here somewhere,” you mumble. Hearing you awaken from the dead, your cat runs screeching. You are about to plant your still-zombiefied-self on the cushion when nature calls. Three minutes later your mother calls too, and you know you really shouldn’t answer it but she does have that crucial bit of information about the results of American Idol, and… that’s it, the day has started. You’re late for work, the shower’s running cold again, your toothbrush bristles are thoroughly chewed through, the cat is ripping apart your sofa, blackmailing you for food, and of course, as always, despite hundreds of clothes in your closet, you have nothing to wear. You leave the house agitated, jangled, caught in another shouting match with yourself: “You lazy… you didn’t meditate! Again. You’ll never change!”
Sound familiar? Sure it does. Despite all those resolutions, post retreat, New Year’s, and otherwise, another day has gone by without sitting. You know it’s good for you, you know it’s probably the best thing you’ve ever done in your life and ever could do, but it’s really hard to do it.
Why is it so hard to sit regularly?
Forget this culture that’s devoted to busyness. Forget the fact that Americans report having 16.5 hours of leisure time weekly, once work and household obligations are taken care of, and the time is rapidly shrinking. Forget that many of us have to work two jobs with outrageous hours to make ends meet. We are up to our ears in work. Forget the fact that we’re taught as a culture that busyness is a virtue and God forbid, we should ever take a second for ourselves.
Oh, and while we’re at it, forget that Americans are swimming in massive TMI (too much information), with barely a second to digest this tidal wave. Forget that many of us are bombarded on a daily basis with infotainment from television, radio, billboards, internet ads, email, blackberries, IMs, … etc. Ok, have you forgotten all of that? Because even putting it all aside, there are still several other reasons it’s hard to meditate every day:
- It’s hard because meditation is the opposite of how we’ve been culturally conditioned.
- It’s hard because it’s not necessarily yet a habit. Habits come easily, we just do them. New habits take work.
- It’s hard because sometimes meditation can feel excruciatingly boring. Our lives are far more entertaining than knowing if a breath is long or short.
- It’s hard because there are seemingly far more interesting and necessary things to do. We could watch TV, work out, write poetry, balance our checkbook, scrub the grout from our showers…
- It’s hard because our brains are wired to be stimulated and it takes a tremendous effort to overcome our addiction to stimulation.
- It’s hard because sometimes, we are going through intense emotions that we don’t want to feel, and nothing short of restraints are going to make us sit there and feel that grief. No, nothing! Sometimes the thought of meditating makes us gag. Especially when we’re having a difficult time in life. Yet paradoxically, that’s the best time to meditate. It’s when we need it the most.
If you don’t meditate regularly, you have good excuses. You’re like most people. It makes you wonder if you should even bother. But you should bother, you definitely should bother, and here’s why:
- In light of the busyness and other cultural factors I’ve mentioned, meditation is the ideal antidote. We should all be meditating in order to give ourselves a break from the incessant speed of our culture. In fact, it’s a revolutionary act to sit.
- It’s good for you. Study after study demonstrates scientifically (and if science says so it must be true) that meditation reduces stress, lowers blood pressure, boosts the immune system, and creates a general sense of well-being.
- Meditation can be quite interesting. We can gain insight into our mind, hearts, and bodies, the way habits and patterns work, what motivates us, and what we care about.
- It can teach us new skills, like my two personal favorites: equanimity and compassion. As we meditate, sitting through all aspects of experience, the good, bad, and ugly, and we sit there with great calm, letting things come and go, we develop a balanced and non-reactive mind. This skill transfers out into our lives. We also develop a quality of loving acceptance and compassion, as we notice again and again how poignant this human we call ourselves is.
- The latest rage in neuroscience these days is neuroplasticity. It has been assumed that you can’t teach an old dog new tricks, but that turns out to be nonsense (although you’ve never met my mother’s dog). The brain, in any age human, can create new neural patterns. Brain development isn’t just for kids anymore. The findings are striking—if we practice something, it will rewire our brains, creating a new neural pathway. Forget the old refrain that we’ll never change. We can change, absolutely! Therefore, we’ve got to meditate, preferably on a daily basis in order to cultivate the wholesome states of mind that come through meditation—calm, concentration, wisdom, equanimity, and joy—that eventually become who we are.
- What we practice will grow. If we want to cultivate a busy, anxious mind, practice busy-anxiousness. If we want to cultivate a calm, centered mind, we need to practice it, simple as that. Sure, we can try to practice these virtues throughout the day, but our daily sitting practice is a greenhouse of sorts. It’s our daily intensive to focus in on, mold, and remind our mind of states that will benefit it.
As an aside: Everything takes practice. And through practice something can be mastered. Studies show a harmonica takes 50 hours to achieve decent ability. Piano takes 450 hours of practice. The violin takes 1200 hours. Math (K-12th grade) takes only 2300 hours, compared to competitive swimming, which takes 6000-8000 hours. Kung fu takes a mere 600 hours. Now before you pull out your rusty old harmonica, let’s imagine how many hours mindfulness takes to achieve some success… 500, 1000, 2000? More?
Who do you want to be? A busy, anxious, obsessed, neurotic, resentful, unhappy cog? Or a relaxed, peaceful, loving, compassionate, wise, happy human?
You can choose.
Have I convinced you yet?
Ok, OK, you’re saying. She’s right. I really should be sitting more regularly. But it still isn’t easy. Help. Help.
Ten Suggestions for Having a Regular Daily Practice Even if You Would Rather Be Thrown into a Shark-Infested Ocean:
- Be gentle on yourself. If you think you’re a failure and berate yourself for missing a day or a week, meditation then becomes another excuse for self-hatred. Look, meditation training is like swimming upstream, doable, but takes some effort. Be forgiving, yet keep at it.
- Allow it to become a habit. Try to do it at the same time in the same place everyday. The way to cultivate a habit is to actually do it. The more consistent you can be, the easier it is for the new grooves to be worn into your brain.
- Review your day and pick a time to do it that makes sense. If you are not a morning person, in fact can’t even look at yourself in the mirror until after you’ve had your coffee, wait till later in the day. If you come home exhausted every night, try the mornings.
- Be willing to be flexible. If you miss your morning session, be creative. Take a mindful, silent walk at work; sit before you fall asleep. Don’t throw in the towel just because your daily routine got upended.
- Prioritize. You need to somehow insert into your brain that meditation is just as important as brushing your teeth, showering, eating, Friends reruns, whatever it is. I think it’s amazing how much time we find to answer email but how strikingly little time there is to sit daily. Hmmmm.
- Set your intention. Ask yourself as you sit down, why am I meditating today? See what emerges. Then ask yourself, what are my deepest reasons for practice? Return to these motivations when the going gets tough. A liberated mind takes work and reminders.
- Pick a doable amount of time. Don’t strive for an hour unless it seems easy to you. Twenty minutes to a half hour can work fine. Up it, if that seems easy and fits in with your schedule. Even five minutes will activate those neural pathways, keep it going. And get a new groove forming.
- If all else fails, get your sweet self on your cushion and take three breaths.
- Sometimes sitting truly feels impossible. Then use your designated time for some kind of spiritually supportive practice: read a dharma book, listen to a tape, write in your journal.
- When you screw up, be gentle on yourself. I already said this, but I’ll say it again, it’s key for developing a regular practice.
Tuesday morning 5AM, the sound of a bell. Bell, alarm, meditation… yes, you jump out of bed, entirely refreshed, ready to start the day. You prance over to your cushion, but wait, first fifty sit ups, gotta keep those abs strong for your two hour marathon sitting session. The cat curls up sweetly in your lap, refuses all offers of food. You sit, eyes closed, enter Samadhi instantly. Deep deep silence. Two hours of complete bliss later you are startled by a ringing bell. One eye squints open, oh no, it’s 7AM, roll over, flail your arms wildly and hit the snooze button. “I will meditate today, I will,” you vow, as you float gently back to sleep.