Why Can't I Get to the Cushion? (part 1)

This is a common question for meditators, and one that I have had to examine closely in myself at times. Some begin a spiritual path with gusto and determination – be it out of necessity, inspiration, or curiosity. We hold steady for weeks, months, or more. Yet inevitably, something changes and we lose steam. The meditation practice to which we once devoted ourselves so religiously begins to feel like a chore: life gets busy, other activities are more compelling, etc., etc. We may sit a seven or ten day retreat, return home with renewed commitment and energy, only to find the momentum dwindles, our energy fades, and we fall back into our old habit of sitting only when it suits us in the moment.

Yet the benefits of consistent, formal, daily meditation are paramount. When we regularly take time to be still and listen carefully, we strengthen innumerable wholesome qualities in the heart and mind, lay a foundation for living wisely, and cultivate powerful seeds of insight and compassion.

In this two-part series, I’d like to offer some reflections on how we lose our momentum, and how to skillfully find our way back. There are many different conditions that can lead to a change in our meditation habits and each calls for a different response. The first step then, is to investigate what’s happening.

Wisely reflect on your inner and outer life

Sometimes, it can be a change in outer circumstances that shifts our ability to meditate formally on a daily basis. Take a step back from the various threads of your life and consider what’s happening with the kindly eye of a good friend. Have you just ended a relationship, started a new job, or moved? Are you under a lot of pressure at work, or dealing with the illness of a loved one? When we are in the midst of such turmoil we can overlook the immense challenge we are facing, with its concomitant demands on our time and energy.

Simply recognizing the impact of such a change can create more internal space, compassion, and a sense of relief. With a clearer view of what’s happening, we can reevaluate what support we need around us and how our formal meditation practice can be a part of that.

More often, though, it is something within that is keeping our body away from the cushion (or mat...) like the opposing force between two magnets. This is where some careful and patient investigation can help to reveal what’s moving under the surface and give us important clues about how to respond.

Check your ideas, beliefs and expectations

One of the most common reasons practitioners lose steam is when our meditative experience ceases to match our expectations. We come seeking peace, clarity, ease. We often find the opposite: agitation, petty grudges, confusion, and utter non-sense! Yet peace and clarity arrive through understanding these patterns and the underlying nature of our minds, rather than through stopping our thoughts, achieving some special state, or having a particular experience. When we remember and trust this, letting go of our expectations and ideas, we can find more space to refocus and recommit to our daily practice.

There also can be core beliefs operating at a deeper level that prevent us from realizing our aspirations. What are you telling yourself about your meditation? Is there a belief that if you really try you’ll fail? Or that you’re not good enough, smart enough, patient enough … (fill in the blank)? When unseen, these ideas have tremendous power: not only do they keep us from meditating, but they can direct the very course of our lives. Revealing and releasing these beliefs can be hard work. It’s generally takes time, and can be facilitated with the support of a wise friend or skilled counselor. Yet when we put forth the effort to identify and transform our self-limiting beliefs, we can release enormous energy and potential.

Turn towards what’s difficult

Intimately connected with our unmet expectations and beliefs is our distaste for unpleasant experiences. Why sit still for 30 minutes with unpleasant thoughts, sensations and emotions when one can get some easy respite from the insanity of life by disappearing into a screen or a bag of chips? While there’s a time and place for conscious, skillful distraction (that’s another blog post), there is much to be learned and healed from voluntarily engaging with the range of dark, sticky, sharp, frantic, dull and generally disagreeable corners of our minds.

Much of this rocky terrain is comprised of what are known as the Five Hindrances in the Buddhist tradition. These are deeply embedded mental energies that the Buddha noticed obscure the clarity of the mind and hinder our development along a spiritual path. Whether you identify as a ‘Buddhist’ or not, if you have a regular meditation practice you’ll be familiar with these visitors: craving, aversion, sleepiness/apathy, restless agitation and worry, and doubt. Learning to recognize these forces when they arise, and having a range of skillful means to set them aside is indispensable for any meditation practice. If you’re daily practice is waning, there’s a good chance that the unpleasant nature of one (or more) of these hindrances may be what’s driving you away. Call to mind the list of these five “foes” and have a look if any of them are taking over your meditations and making it less appealing to practice. 

“When you want to meditate, meditate. 
When you don’t want to meditate, meditate.” 
– Ajahn Chah

Take a closer look

Sometimes though, the resistance to sit (stand, walk, or recline) can be more general, more subtle, or more pervasive. There are three areas in this regard that I’ve found useful to investigate. First, ask oneself very honestly, “How much of this is simply about not wanting to be with what’s unpleasant?” Sometimes, just that is enough to muster up the courage and persistence to stick our practice. Be creative in finding ways to bolster your perseverance and energy. At other times, we may need the input of a skilled guide, mentor, or spiritual friend to help us navigate the rough waters. 

Next, refine your attention a bit and listen inwardly with the question, “Is there something here I’m avoiding, that I don’t want to feel or see?” There may be a situation, emotion, or memory that is just under the surface of our consciousness that we’d rather not encounter. Ironically, it often takes more energy to avoid such psychic places than it does to meet them directly. When doing so, try to bring an attitude of patience, and hold the experience with gentle, spacious presence. Learning how to do this is a longer process, but if we can at least identify what’s going on we have more choice about how to proceed.

If we spend the day
relentlessly jumping from one task to another ...
what do we expect the quality of our minds to be
when we sit down to meditate?

Last, take an honest look and ask oneself, “How am I living?” One of the most common times I find my daily practice waning is when I lose my keel in the busyness of life. The to-do lists are endless, the music on hold is awful, and everything takes at least twice as long as it should. When I allow the crazed and haphazard pace of modern society to replace the internal, clear intentionality of my living, everything suffers – including my daily practice. If we spend the day relentlessly jumping from one task to another, driving ourselves to get as much done in as little time as possible, what do we expect the quality of our minds to be when we sit down to meditate (if we even get there)? Instead, bringing as much patience and intention as we can to our daily activities has endless benefits, including finding it easier and generally more pleasant to meditate!

So, if you find yourself avoiding the cushion or mat, have a look inside and out to see what’s going on. Once you uncover some of the conditions that are preventing you from practicing or creating the resistance, you can then begin to think creatively about what to do differently such that you can realize your intentions on your spiritual path. In my next post, I’ll explore some of the things I’ve found most helpful to do just that!

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