There’s a certain sort of guilt that comes from breaking a promise to yourself. A combination of disappointment, frustration and a sense of shame for failing to live up to your own expectations. I have had a couple of conversations with friends recently who are upset that their meditation practice has fallen away. Something that started out as such a great idea, has now been relegated to the guilty-basket.
Many people start a meditation practice with grand plans. When I first started trying it at home, back in 2008, meditation was finally going to be the new habit that got rid of my anxiety for good. Meditation was going to help me transform into a more relaxed, mellow, vibrant person. Meditation was supposed to lead me to a higher state of awareness - allowing me to transcend the mundane realities of daily life.
Of course, meditation did none of these things. But then, it was never really meant to.
How does our practice fall away? It usually starts out so well! A week, maybe two… It feels like progress, we’re getting somewhere. Only then something comes up, we skip a day. Eventually we skip another, only sit for three minutes the day after, maybe five minutes the day after that, before deciding to take a week off… Next thing you know it’s three months later and you find yourself telling someone that you use to meditate, but ‘there simply isn’t time now’, or that ‘it wasn’t really for you after all’.
This is such a common scenario. It was how my own practice played out time and time again for the first six years. Commit, sit, falter, give up.
Why does practice fizzle out like this?
I’ve given this some thought recently, and I think I have a possible answer. I think we ask too much of meditation and too much of ourselves.
Meditation isn’t a wonder drug
Sitting down to pay attention to our breath on a regular basis can help us change our brains and our minds over time. This doesn’t mean it will cure all of your life’s woes and supposed character flaws. Learning to be mindful can help us be present with this very moment as it is, but it can’t and won’t transport you into your vision for the ideal life.
Also, sorry to be a bore, but meditation actually isn’t supposed to be fun, or interesting, or blissful every time you try it - despite the common perception of mindful quiet as being something akin to a really good nap. There are no guarantees that practising mindfulness or concentration will be easy or even pleasant. In fact, it will probably be really hard! Especially at the beginning. There will be times when you won’t want to sit down to practice, times when observing how you feel is the very last thing you actually want to do, when going to sleep or drinking a big glass of wine seem like much better alternatives.
Despite all this, the practice is incredibly worth while. Not magic, not a miracle, but potentially life-changing in a subtle hard-to-put-into-words way. With persistence comes a greater sense of ease when you close your eyes and settle your mind. With dedication and commitment you can discover all sorts of things about yourself and the way your mind works that you simply cannot get to without quiet and presence.
You are only human
Sometimes the problem isn’t that we want meditation to cure us and make the world a shiny happy place to live. Sometimes we simply ask too much of ourselves.
It is absolutely human to discover that finding twenty extra minutes every single day is hard to do, at least at first. There will be days when it simply doesn’t seem possible at all. That is OK! Start small, keep it simple, shift the focus from long sessions to short but often. You will benefit more from the practice if you can sit down for five minutes each day, than half an hour on the weekend.
Also, as I mentioned above, this isn’t an easy practice. Most days my mind will spend at least two minutes planning what I will do as soon as the timer goes, another two running through the to-do list for the day and at least a full minute in total thinking ‘ah I’m still so bad at this’ or ‘nope, focus Emily, focus’. Over time though, the spaces between these distractions allow me to settle on the rise and fall of the breath, the feeling of the cushion beneath me and an awareness of the sounds inside and outside. Present with the breath… drift away… come back… drift off again… return once more. Coming back to the present moment is the skill we are trying to practice, so every time your mind wanders it is actually another opportunity for you to strengthen the ability to return.
Instead of asking for utter focus and super hero levels of concentration, how about approaching the practice with curiosity? How will your mind react today? What will come up for you? To frame it in this way, I find it really helpful to remember that I can journal about my experience afterwards. This helps me stay alert and intrigued by how I am feeling and what I am thinking, rather than pissed off that my mind still isn’t a sea of calm and contentment. In fact, when I was on retreat earlier this year I found myself watching my mind like a cat might watch their prey. Sounds weird, but it was as if I had my full attention on finding out what this mind would think next. I was aware of the breath, the surrounding sounds, the feeling of sitting but I was focused on the rising of thoughts and how they could fall away again if given enough time. So far I haven’t managed to get back to this space of excellent attention at home yet, but it was deeply inspiring to experience.
Keeping Your Promise
In 2015, I finally committed to meditating every single day and so far I haven’t looked back. The key difference between that decision and the myriad previous attempts to make the habit stick was the promise I made to myself to sit even if it got me nowhere. That sounds strange, but it worked. I set a timeline of 90 days of meditation to decide for myself if a regular mindfulness practice was something I really wanted in my life. No expectations that I would feel a certain way by the end, no set time to sit for each and every day, just a promise to give it a go. I stuck with it.
If you make a promise to yourself to start meditating regularly, try to remember to be kind and relax your expectations. Asking for instant clarity or an iron will is a rocky place to start. Instead, keep it simple, commit to curiosity, go gently and keep going.
Of course, I don’t have all the answers. In fact I wrote this post in part so I have something to refer back to in a few weeks time when I start to feel frustrated with myself and my practice again. I’m assuming that will happen, enthusiasm tends to ebb and flow. It simply occurred to me yesterday that putting pressure on myself to meditate perfectly, or putting pressure on my meditation to be the answer to all my anxious issues, probably isn’t the way to form a lasting habit. It is easier to stick with something that feels light, positive but not perfected, useful yet only one part of a healthy approach to life.
By easing off, we give ourselves permission to be imperfect, which is far more interesting than super shiny happy. By relaxing our grip we might allow our practice to start with curiosity rather than ambition, which could lead to a deeper understanding of all aspects of our minds - the boring and the blissful.