How to Keep Up Your Meditation Habit
One of the most common questions I get from students is how to maintain a meditation practice.
Doing so is especially hard when you’re starting out. Once you begin to see the benefits of meditation, it’s easier to stay with it, because you’ve experienced the benefits yourself. You’ve seen directly how the simple practice of noticing and sensing what is happening in a non-judgmental way makes a big difference in how you respond to the whole of life. And you’ve seen this in miniature every time you meditate: how it’s possible to create a gap between stimulus and response, how we can get out of ‘fight or flight’ into something bigger and better than always self-protecting.
As you’re just beginning to build the habit, though, it’s harder to appreciate the positive aspects of meditation, and there’s a tendency to accentuate the negative.
For example, there was a time in my life when sitting for meditation became painful. As I struggled with posture and pain, I could hear my grandmother shouting, “hold those shoulders back!” No wonder the story of “something is wrong with me” comes up when I struggle to sit up straight in meditation practice.
But here’s the thing. We get to rewrite the stories of our lives with mindfulness practice, precisely by accepting the difficult parts of our experience.
For example, when your inner critic yells at you for not sitting “correctly,” or missing a day, or whatever fault it finds with your meditation practice, you can incline the mind to know and sense whatever is happening, without the need to react. That, itself, is an act of love and acceptance. It’s ironic, really – the inner critic is yelling at us to be more mindful, but mindfulness quiets down the inner critic.
Another example is that inner two-year-old who – like my actual two-year-old – does not want to sit still, who throws tantrums, who seems determined to throw us off balance. And who, of course, cannot be yelled-at into obedience. If this happens to you, know that you’re not alone in this!
Mindfulness invites us to accept and even love all of these parts of ourselves. So when your inner two-year-old arises, consider how you wanted to be loved as a kid. What does that look and feel like? How would you raise you? Or, for that matter, how do you take care of a plant?
This is how we want to take care of ourselves as we’re cultivating mindfulness. We want to settle in, in a way that invites presence.
Here's a third example: you may be able to sit still, but you may not want to meditate. Well, of course! How often are you asked to really feel your feelings? To get curious about your thinking process? To sense into your joys and pains, the aches, the tensions, to really fall in love with breathing? So of course, resistance arises. See if, once again, you can just know and sense what is happening, and meet it with love and acceptance.
Mindfulness invites acceptance and love of all of these parts: the part that won’t sit still, the part that won’t meditate, the part that yells at the other parts, and many other parts who I’m sure you’ve met along the way.
You don’t have to be this patient all the time – that’s too much to ask at first. So, set a clear container for your meditation practice. If it’s five minutes a day, just that commitment will support you. (Maybe even let yourself take a weekly average of five minutes per day. That’s fine too.) During that time, commit to mindfully noting, accepting, and loving whatever arises. If you’re noticing the breath, great. If you’re noticing a cacophony of inner voices, also great. The point is to notice all of these things with clarity, acceptance, non-judgment, and love. That is how you build and maintain a meditation practice.
Eventually, the boundaries will grow, and your whole life will become the container, because mindfulness is an orientation toward all of life. It’s a vision of a life worth living, in which you can be fully present for all of it. Eventually.
Emily Horn is on the core team of Buddhist Geeks, which integrates technology, culture and meditation. She is a teacher at Spirit Rock Meditation Center, Insight Meditation Society, and InsightLA, and has been called a "power player of the mindfulness movement" by Wired Magazine.