Finding our Way Back to the Cushion (part 2)

In my last post, I discussed some common things that can keep us from meditating every day. In this post, I’ll share a three-step approach I've found useful for getting back on track: reconnect, recommit, and reevaluate.
 

Reconnect

If our energy for spiritual practice is waning, reconnecting with our motivation can provide renewed energy to keep going. It's important to learn how to contact your sincere, heartfelt motivation for meditation. What drew you to your spiritual practice initially? Ask yourself, “What is my aspiration?”

One of the most powerful gifts I’ve received is the question posed to me by my teachers, “What do you want?” In Buddhism, we hear a lot about desire as the cause of suffering. This is often misunderstood to mean that we should let go of all desireRather, it is specifically the energies of craving and grasping that are problematic: the often unconscious, sometimes obsessive reflex to want something to fill us up or satisfy us, to cling and hold fast to an experience, a thing, a relationship (even an idea or viewpoint) as a means to security and stability in a world of change.  

Yet the Buddha also spoke about something called Dhamma chanda, zeal and enthusiasm for the truth. This is the wholesome impulse in the heart towards the higher potentials of human existence. It is the healthy longing we feel for things like peace, goodness, clarity, wisdom, and care.

So, what is our life really about? We each live a certain number of years, with joy and happiness alongside inevitable loss and pain. Is there a deeper purpose or meaning to our life beyond this? Do we not long for a sense of being at home in our bodies and belonging on this planet? To contribute in a meaningful way? To cultivate the heart and mind towards realizing their full potential?

Another tack is to reflect on any benefits of practice you’ve experienced. Perhaps you aren’t a paragon of wisdom, radiating light wherever you go, but are you a little more patient? More careful with your actions and words? Seeing the fruits of our meditation can bring energy for practice. If none of the above suggestions spark this connection, get creative. Journal; pick up a good Dharma book (here’s a list of suggestions); listen to a talk by a favorite teachers.
 

Recommit

Once you’ve reconnected with why you practice, take stock and see what concrete steps will support you to stay connected with it on a daily basis. Commit to put forth time and energy to move in that direction. I recommend setting aside at least a few minutes each morning to remember your aspiration in a heartfelt way, recalling the deeper values and motivations by which you choose to live. Using a short “gatha”, or verse, can be helpful for this. Here is one from Thich Nhat Hanh that I used every morning when I began practicing:

 
 

"Waking up this morning, I smile. Today is a new day, with 24 brand
new hours before me. I vow to live each moment fully, 

And to look at all beings with eyes of compassion."
-- Thich Naht Hanh

You can write your own, something that feels authentic and gives voice to what is most true for you. This isn’t exactly prayer (although it shares certain features and may serve similar ends); it is a practice of realigning our hearts and minds with our deepest intentions for living. If we do nothing else, taking a few quiet moments at the beginning of each day can have a powerful orienting effect on our lives.

Next, set some ‘minimums.’ What specific actions can you commit to doing on a daily basis to live your intentions? Consider what is reasonable given your current life circumstances. If you work a full time job and are raising a family, meditating for two hours every day may be a stretch! Be ruthlessly honest, yet don't be afraid to challenge yourself a little too. 

Remember: with spiritual development, consistency, quality, and continuity are more important than quantity: 10-20 minutes of sincere practice every day for a week will probably serve you better than an hour on Saturday when you can fit it in. So set a time each day for formal meditation and make a firm determination to stick with it for one week. Having a regular time will support (re)creating the rhythm of daily practice.

 

Consistency, quality, and continuity
are more important than quantity.

 






Bring a steady attention to everything

Watch out for the mental trap of limiting your spiritual practice to formal periods of meditation. When people used to come to the renowned Thai Forest meditation master Ajahn Chah complaining that they did not have time to meditate, he is said to have responded, “Do you have time to breathe? Then you have time to meditate.” Start by picking an activity that you do every day, like brushing your teeth, washing the dishes, or commuting to work, and commit to doing this activity as mindfully as possible for one week. Do mettā (loving-kindness) practice when you drive or ride public transportation. Bringing your full, whole-hearted attention to walking provides a relaxing break from mental activity. Practicing with Wise Speech (a favorite of mine) can add hours to your daily practice.

“Do you have time to breathe?
Then you have time to meditate.”
-- Ajahn Chah

Make a continual and gentle effort to bring steady attention to such daily activities. As we do this over time, our formal practice and our daily life begin to support each other until there is less and less separation between the two. For myself, it’s a process of continually readjusting and aiming in the direction of presence, steadiness, and intentionality. 

With all of these suggestions, there are a few key points to bear in mind:

  1. Make it do-able: Don’t take on too much at once. Choose one or two things to start.

  2. To add, subtract: If  your life feels full, you may need to let go of one thing in order to add another like more formal meditation.

  3. Commit for a short, set period: We can get very inspired, proclaiming, “From now on I will…” only to find that within a few days we’ve drifted back to old habits. Choose a reasonable period of time and fully commit. It’s okay if you don’t hit the mark, but make your intention clear and your effort steady. I recommend one week at a time; for certain practices, one day may be the right measure!


Reevaluate

The last step is key. After you’ve reconnected with your intentions, created a plan and committed to following it for a period, take some time to reevaluate. How did it go? What worked? If you lost the plot along the way, see if you can discern what diverted your intention. Was the goal you set not as do-able as you expected? Did you hit an internal block you didn’t know how to work with? Perhaps you simply forgot until the reminder to “reevalute” popped up in your calendar!

It’s essential to do this kind of inquiry with an attitude of curiosity and love rather than one of self-judgment. Remember that our energies here are focused towards well-being, towards living a full and meaningful life that is connected with the beautiful, uplifting qualities of the human heart. Try to pick up that tone, so that you are coming from a place of kindness and loving support when you reevaluate. You might liken it to helping a good friend with a project they’ve got, or aiding a child with their homework. How would you relate to their difficulties?

Now comes the creative part: once you’ve reevaluated how it went, you get to tweak and play with recipe for the next week. If something got in the way, what can you do differently? If you got tripped up peeking at your email before meditating (and never making it to the cushion), set a firm determination to restrain the impulse to turn on the phone/computer until after your morning practice. If the goal was too ambitious, dial it back. If you more or less hit the mark, you might 're-up' for another week to strengthen your momentum before adding something new.
 

Other Ideas and strategies

To close, here’s a short list of other things you may find useful to re-energize your daily meditation or spiritual practice:

  1. Seek sangha: Meditating with others can be supportive and easier than doing it alone. Visit a local sitting group once or twice a week, or find a Dharma buddy.
     
  2. Journal: Keeping a journal about your meditation practice can add a concrete action to sitting that helps us regain momentum. It can also help to tracking trends in our experience over time.
     
  3. Devotion: Find a way to express your heart’s sincere intentions with a spirit of reverence, be it through chanting, bowing, offering incense, or service. If you're interested to learn more about devotion in lay Buddhist practice, you can listen to this talk.
     
  4. Find a teacher or mentor: Having an experienced guide to check in with regularly can help maintain inspiration, offer valuable guidance, and help to hold ourselves accountable to our practice.
     
  5. Take a conscious break: Sometimes taking a break from formal meditation can be helpful. While we can always practice being aware, if we are grieving or having great difficulty emotionally, spending more time with good friends or relaxing in nature may be what's needed. If we've been practicing sincerely, the insights and mechanisms of the Dhamma will continue to move within us, like a musician or artist who takes a break from their craft only to find renewed creativity upon their return.

The benefits of having a regular meditation practice and integrating into our lives are immense. I hope these reflections have been helpful, and that they support you in developing or deepening your daily practice to discover these benefits for yourself!

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