Building a resilient practice that meets your changing needs
Meditation practice can seem confusing or daunting at first. Which technique should I use? Is it OK to do several at once? How much time do I need to spend on it? If I miss a day, will my eyeballs fall out? And so on.
(An easy way to get answers to these questions is to join my upcoming beginners' course, starting Thursday 28th January, 10.30-11.20am GMT! See the event page on the OrangeYoga website for more details.)
In this article we'll take a look at some key aspects of your meditative journey: getting started, avoiding potholes and roadblocks, and how to make sure you're actually going where you want to go.
Establishing your practice: building habits, motivating yourself
The first step is to start practising. The next step is to keep going! If you can nail both of these, you're in a good place.
In many ways the second step is the hard one. If you want to start meditating - start! Pick any of the guided meditations on my Audio page, download Insight Timer, Headspace or Calm, or search YouTube for 'guided meditation', find something that sounds interesting, set yourself up in a comfortable sitting posture in a quiet place, and just go for it.
(If you want more suggestions on the mechanics of sitting posture etc., take a look at the first chapter of my free book for beginners, Pathways of Meditation.)
After you've taken that all-important first step into trying meditation for the first time, the next task is to establish the habit of practising regularly. Meditation is a skill, like playing a musical instrument or driving a car - especially when you're first getting into it, you'll find that you make progress much faster if you practise regularly, rather than once in a blue moon.
So how much should you practise, and how often?
One approach - which is the one favoured by my Zen teacher, Daizan - is to commit to a daily practice for a decent period of time, like six or eight weeks. Daizan's mindfulness courses ask students to practise for thirty minutes daily for eight weeks. This is a significant time commitment, and typically students will need to think carefully about how to fit this into their day. The great benefit of this approach is that by the end of the eight weeks you'll have done a big chunk of practice, and you will very likely have seen positive changes in your life over that period. When you know for yourself, unquestionably, that the practice is beneficial, it's much easier to motivate yourself to keep going. Some habit-forming research has also suggested that it takes about ten weeks on average to cement a new habit, and so daily practice for eight weeks gets you most of the way there. The downside is that it's hard! Many people struggle to do that much practice straight off the bat, and can feel like they're failing, which is demotivating rather than motivating.
Another approach is based on a different school of thought in terms of habit-formation, and is based around the feeling of success. Rather than run the risk of failing to meet an arbitrarily high standard for practice, it might work better to deliberately set your sights lower. If you think you can meditate for half an hour a day every day, aim to do twenty minutes five days a week. If you think you can do twenty minutes five days a week, aim to do ten minutes three days a week. And so on. Ultimately, the best meditation practice is the practice that you actually do - so the five minutes of practice that you can easily fit into your schedule is much better than the fifteen minutes of practice that you never quite find the time for. The great advantage of this approach is that it's much more flexible and accommodating of your circumstances. The drawback is that it might take longer to notice the effects the practice is having.
Bending with the breeze
So let's suppose you've got your meditation practice up and running, and it's all going well. Then your circumstances change - perhaps there's a new demand on your time, and suddenly the practice has become a bit of a struggle. What should you do?
One approach - which was a favourite of mine in my younger, more bull-headed days - is to keep going, come what may. Dig deep! Don't take any crap from life! Plough your own furrow! You committed to thirty minutes daily, and you're damn well going to do it!
I mean, don't let me stop you. There's a certain kind of value in that approach, actually. Zen training can often be quite deliberately harsh, aiming to train a kind of deep resilience into the practitioner. There's a saying in Japan, 'seven times down, eight times up', which means that no matter how many times life knocks you down, you get right back up again.
However, this approach isn't going to work for everyone, especially if you came to meditation practice in the first place for stress relief - beating yourself up and forcing yourself to do something you don't have the time or energy to do can be really counterproductive in those situations.
The appeal of this kind of inflexibility is that it gives you something solid to cling to. There have been times in my life when it's been a great comfort to know that, without fail, no matter what else is going on, I'll sit for half an hour every day. The major drawback, however, is that if you aren't willing to bend at all, then sooner or later you'll break. And if you have a binary view of 'success' and 'failure' in meditation practice, you may one day find yourself failing rather than succeeding.
These days I would advocate cultivating sensitivity instead - to yourself, to your circumstances. I'm not suggesting that you should be lazy or never challenge yourself, but rather to have a sense of when to challenge yourself and when to take it easy. If you find yourself in a pretty relaxed, stable situation, maybe now is a good time to boost your meditation time, add a second sit at another time of day, or even go on a retreat. If life is totally crazy and you're struggling to catch your breath, consider reducing your practice to something which is more supportive and integrates better with your circumstances. Bear in mind that you aren't doing 'better' when you increase your time and 'worse' when you decrease it - you're actually demonstrating wisdom by adapting your practice to your condition, no matter which direction the practice goes.
It's also worth understanding that meditation has different types of benefits, and these benefits respond differently to changing the amount you're practising.
Meditation can bring about changes in state - for example, making you feel more relaxed, or peaceful, or loving, or focused. Generally speaking, you do a practice which is intended to bring about a certain effect (e.g. you might do a samadhi practice, with the intention of cultivating calmness), and that effect will last for a while, and then wear off. The more you practise (both in terms of duration and frequency), the more pronounced the effect will tend to be, but ultimately any and all state changes are temporary.
Meditation can also bring about changes in trait - for example, changing habits and behaviours, attitudes and beliefs, or even your perceptions of the world. By approaching our lives with greater mindfulness, we see more clearly what's going on, and many of these insights can't be un-seen once we've recognised them. Once you've had the experience called kensho in Zen ('seeing your true nature'), you can't go back to the way things were, and you wouldn't want to anyway. These kinds of changes don't require further practice to maintain them - once you've got it, you've got it, in the same way that you don't need to recite the Santa Claus mantra every day to remind yourself that the big jolly guy in the red suit doesn't really exist outside of mythology.
So another important question to ask when deciding how to practise meditation is what you actually want to get out of the practice. The clearer you are about that, the easier it will be to tailor your practice in a way that's supportive.
What do you want from your practice?
Daizan often says that people tend to get whatever they want from their practice. The unfortunate flip-side to that is that if you don't know what you want from your practice, you might not get anything! It can be quite a sad experience to meet someone who has been practising aimlessly for decades and doesn't seem to have much to show for all those hours spent sitting on the cushion.
When I teach beginners, I tend to start by throwing open the toybox of meditation - offering up a wide range of possibilities, both techniques (the 'how' of meditation) and motivations (the 'why'). Often a single technique can serve many different purposes, despite the instructions sounding almost exactly the same in each case - and often students following a guided meditation will end up practising something quite different from what the teacher is suggesting because their motivations aren't in alignment. (Most commonly, the student has learnt a similar-sounding technique in a different context, or simply has a different idea about what meditation is supposed to be, and the teacher either hasn't explained the context for the technique being offered or did it in a way that didn't reach the student.)
Let's take breath meditation as an example. The basic instructions are to pay attention to the physical sensations of the breath, and to bring the attention back to the breath whenever you notice your mind has wandered. So far so good, but why would you want to do this? Here are some possibilities:
So - why are you practising? Perhaps you're interested in one of the above outcomes. Perhaps you know someone who meditates, and they seem to handle certain situations in life with an ease and grace that looks pretty appealing, and you'd like to get a bit of that yourself. Perhaps you have a more general sense that meditation is supposed to be 'good for you' in some way, so you thought you'd give it a try, but you're not really sure what it's supposed to do. (This last reason is actually why I first started meditating, but for me this turned out not to be a strong enough motivation to keep going. It wasn't until I found clearer, more personally relevant reasons that I was able to establish a regular practice.)
One way to answer this question is simply to sit and think about it, or to write your thoughts down in a journal. Another approach is to work with the question more like a koan - asking yourself 'What do I want?' or 'Why am I practising?' (If you aren't familiar with koan meditation, head over to the Audio page and try out the 'Who am I?' practice.)
A final point to consider is that your 'why' might actually change over time. In just the same way that the amount of practice you do may change over time, it's quite common to find that, after some time has passed, whatever drew you into meditation practice no longer has the same draw for you. Perhaps something else has come to the fore - in which case it makes sense to change course, rather than continue doing what you've always done just because that's what you've always done. You might one day even reach a point where you feel that your practice has now served its purpose, and is no longer enriching your life. In that case, stop! But when you do, see how things change over the next few weeks and months. We tend to grow accustomed to things very easily, and it's sometimes only in their absence that we can see their true value.
The basic rule of thumb here is that your practice is for you, and should be something that serves your needs and interests, rather than fitting into someone else's idea of what 'good' looks like. So, from time to time, take a moment to reflect on your practice and see if it's still meeting your needs, or if it's simply being carried along by inertia.
Want to take the next step?
If you'd like to explore some different approaches to practice in more detail, I'll be starting a new beginners' course on Thursday mornings, 10.30-11.30 (UK time) on Zoom. Click here for details!
Matt has been practising meditation for over ten years and hopes to share these powerful techniques for the benefit of all.