How To Develop And Maintain A Meditation Practice
Learning to maintain a meditation practice takes dedication. I remember the moment when the process clicked. I was rushing out the door to go teach an early morning yoga class, feeling frazzled and late. It was mid-winter in Paris and I had overslept. I was about to walk out the door without doing any practice whatsoever--I did my yoga practice in the afternoons--and I stopped myself.
"What are you doing?" I said to self. "You are a teacher of contemplative practice, so go sit down and follow your breath before you teach a class. Do it now."
And I did. I sat for 1 minute and watched my breath settle down just a bit. I walked out the door in a new state of mind, confident that I had access to the state of mind I was about to go teach. That was nearly 20 years ago and I have almost never missed a day since. Even if I am rushing to an early morning flight, I at least follow my breath in the taxi on the way to the airport. The thought of missing my morning meditation is like forgetting to brush my teeth--I would feel gross and vaguely anti-social for the rest of the day.
But it hasn't always been easy to become a daily meditator. At times, we all need a bit of support.
Support: Group Meditation Practice
It is enormously helpful to have a practice community of fellow practitioners, called sangha.
The beauty of meditating with a community is that the group energy serves as motivation to get on your cushion. This can be a weekly--or daily--group practice at a local community center. It could be a retreat where you go totally off-grid for a week or 12. Or it could be a program with a meditation teacher, weaving in sessions of meditation with teachings about the view of practice. (If you'd like to join me on a 5-day practice retreat in the Canadian Rockies this fall, click here for more information.)
Group practice is incredibly powerful to help you get--or re-establish--your balance. It's a great way to develop and maintain a meditation practice at the beginning. I think it's important to schedule sitting with a group on a regular basis, just to make sure we are keeping it real.
Freedom: Individual Meditation Practice
When you are meditating by yourself, you get direct access without any distractions. It can be incredibly empowering to develop the personal discipline to keep your mind focused without anyone telling you how to do it. You get to discover your own mind. You are the only one who will ever really know your own mind.
It may be messy at times and you may wonder if you are doing it right. You may struggle at times to actually do the practice. But in my experience, the only way to gain true confidence in your meditation practice is to muddle through it using your own GPS system. This is what will strengthen your dedication and help you maintain a daily meditation practice. For this you have to allow for the possibility that--at times--you might get it "wrong". You might spend a full hour fantasizing about lunch. You may misunderstand the instructions you received and treat thoughts like they are the enemy. It's OK. This is why it's called practice. We practice being present with ourselves, fully and authentically.
I think the sign of a truly dedicated practitioner is that self-guided practice is as strong (or possibly stronger) than practice done with the support of a group. Tibetan yogis head off to their caves for decades at a time to experience this isolation. Perhaps there is something to be gained by learning how to develop and maintain a meditation practice on your own.
Whether you want the support of group practice, or feel ready to establish your own self-directed home practice, it helps to have some guidance. If you are just starting to meditate, click here for an introduction to the practice.
Here are a few tricks I've learned to develop and maintain a meditation practice:
1. Schedule it.
Something written on a schedule takes on a bit more importance and the mind tends to remember to do it. Even if you miss a session, or a day, if it is noted as a regular feature of your daily schedule, chances are you'll pay more attention to it.
2. Identify Support.
It's so helpful to have someone to talk to about meditation practice. It's even more helpful to have someone to do it with. If possible, find a "practice buddy" and sit together on a regular basis. Or if you live far apart, commit to a certain schedule and check in with each other to hold each other accountable. Talk with a guide who can steer you right when you go off course, or better yet, find a teacher you can study with.
3. Keep Learning.
Read books, attend programs with authentic teachers, participate in retreats. Developing a meditation practice is never-ending. Unless you are Shakyamuni Buddha, there is always another layer of subtlety to discover. Maintaining a meditation practice means doing the practice, whether or not you see signs of progress. Practice evolves despite our egoic commentary about that evolution. Just keep going. Study helps you refine your technique and your awareness. Practice and study are equally important.
4. Forgive Lapses.
Things happen. Sometimes you can't make it to the cushion, and well, as they say in Bhutan, "What to do?" The only way to move beyond a situation is to accept where you are. If you fight, you'll only prolong your misery, and the whole point of the meditation practice is to develop a sane and friendly relationship with your mind in order to transcend suffering. Let go and allow the process to unfold.
Learning to develop and maintain a meditation practice is a life-long journey.
From this perspective, there is no end-goal. Ego doesn't like that situation very much. Ego wants progress and signs of success. But if you train the mind to be present at all stages of the journey, your whole life becomes a pilgrimage. The way to start integrating this awareness into your life is to simply get on your cushion each day and watch what arises, without judgment. That's called the path of meditation.