Meditation ain’t easy. It’s arguable that it’s a whole lot harder than yoga asana practice. When you’re practicing asana, your mind has plenty of sensations to occupy itself. When you sit, sensations are more subtle. It’s hard work to zero in on what’s actually going on moment to moment when it at least appears that there’s not a whole lot happening.
People often tell me they can’t meditate because when they try, their minds spin off even more than they do in daily life. I tell them that’s not a sign of an inability to meditate; it’s actually a sign that they’re paying closer attention than usual to the normal state of their minds. Most of the time, most of us are, in fact, lost in thought. We just don’t notice it until we try to meditate.
Thinking is Not the Problem
Not that thinking is bad or wrong. If you think that the goal of meditation is to get rid of your thoughts, you are resigning yourself to a whole lot of frustration. The mind thinks. That’s what it does. Thoughts, in themselves, are not a problem. Getting attached to them, believing them and allowing them to run your life is where they can be a problem.
The art of working skillfully with thoughts is to be aware that thinking is happening and to allow the thoughts to come and go as they naturally do, without getting lost in them or trying to rid your mind of them. The latter two strategies just feed your mental monkey.
There have been times since I started practicing Insight Meditation—way back in 1986—when it’s been a real challenge for me to sit consistently. It’s easy to make excuses, and I’ve come up with some pretty creative ones over the years. But for the past 15 years or so, I’ve resolved to sit every day, and with a few exceptions, I’ve pretty much stuck to it.
How to Create a Consistent Meditation Practice
If you find yourself making excuses, feeling like it’s not working, feeling like it’s a waste of time, or [fill in the blank], despite the fact that you really want to develop a consistent practice, here are some tips that might help:
1. Set a Time
Forming new habits requires that we not only set a strong intention and resolve to follow through, but it also requires that we be specific about the how and when. Setting a specific time during your day really helps your meditation practice become a habit. While I’m not at all a morning person, I resolved years ago to get up an extra hour early so that I could sit first thing in the morning. Getting up earlier than your family members and before the phone starts ringing gives you a greater possibility of a quiet chunk of time. Also, I’ve found that if I tell myself I’ll do it later, it rarely happens.
2. Set a Space
I live in a very small house, so a dedicated yoga/meditation practice room isn’t an option. Instead, almost 30 years ago I set my meditation cushion and zabuton down in a corner of one room, and that has been my meditation space ever since. I don’t have to drag out my cushion and set it up every time I want to sit. If I did, that could easily become an excuse not to bother. Because my cushion is always in the same spot, the years of consistency have trained my mind to settle—at least a little—as soon as I sit on it.
3. Be Realistic
We all start meditation practice with good intentions, but all too often those intentions cause us to set goals that we can’t achieve, such as, “I’m going to meditate for an hour every day!” It’s much more beneficial to start small—say five minutes a day—and know that you can maintain it, than to commit to something that you won’t be able to keep up. One of my students started with one minute every day and increased it by one minute each week. Now she sits 30 minutes a day.
Even if you are able to work up to 20-30 minutes a day, there will be days when that’s just not possible. It’s really okay to do just what you can on those days, even if it’s only a few minutes, or even no minutes. Beating yourself up for missing meditation isn’t helpful. What is helpful is remembering that meditation is a lifelong practice. Those days you miss here and there are not all that significant in the context of a consistent practice.
4. Think of Your Meditation Practice as “Mind Maintenance”
For me, meditation practice is just as crucial to my well-being as eating breakfast, brushing my teeth and practicing yoga. It’s my way of checking in with the state of my mind, and tending to it the same way I tend to my body’s needs. Realizing this has probably been the most powerful motivator for me to be consistent.
What do you do to maintain a meditation practice?