Why do people find it so difficult to establish a daily meditation practice?
Bert van Baar
It was one of those moments. Jon Kabat-Zinn, the founder of the 8-week Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction training, gave a talk in Amsterdam for more than a thousand people. At a certain point, he asked the audience who would like to meditate but didn’t get to it. To my shock at least 700 people enthusiastically raised their hands. This was very revealing to me. As a Buddhist who also teaches meditation in a secular setting I come across many people who have done mindfulness training and really liked it, but didn’t manage to establish a daily practice habit. They come to my workshops to recharge and find renewed inspiration to practice or connect with themselves. In my view, it should be easier for Buddhists to establish a daily practice, but many of them seem to be struggling too. I’ve asked myself many times over the years:
‘Why do people find it so difficult to establish a daily practice
even though they know it benefits them?’
I’ve come up with many reasons and here are some of the most important ones:
- Lack of motivation
- No sense of a path
- No teaching with a view
- No connection to a teacher
- No friends to practice with
What people give as reasons themselves
The reasons that people come up with themselves are that they lack discipline, they’re too busy, they’re not that kind of person, it’s too difficult, or even meditation comes from a different culture. Basically, they need to work, have children, a relationship and are in desperate need of a holiday. Meditating becomes another thing to do. One to which they can’t get to in a day, because they’re such responsible citizens. Yet, something is missing. They’re getting overwhelmed, out of touch with who they really are, and have so many thoughts in their heads, simply too many. Can anybody help?
Of course, first you need to have some discipline to create a new habit. You need to take a firm decision and say to yourself: ‘Everyday I’m going to sit for half an hour’. Don’t make it too demanding and put your goal too high though. Say to yourself that you should do it for at least five days a week, 5 minutes a day as a minimum. Everyone has 5 minutes in a day, right? For one month this might work, but how do you keep your new habit from falling apart?
Forgetting the benefits
One reason people don’t practice is because they forget. They forget the benefit of what meditation brings to them. For this reason, I think it’s important to write down for yourself why you would meditate. What’s the point of it? What does it bring you? If you’ve forgotten you can remind yourself. A good way to remind yourself is to have a special notebook in which you write your insights and discoveries related to meditation and working with your mind. However, if you’ve forgotten the benefits you might also forget to look at your insight book. So, although this is helpful it isn’t enough.
Lack of motivation
You need to have a very clear and strong motivation to establish a daily practice that withstands all the pressure of daily life. There is work and family situation, laziness, bad habits, and the idea that you don’t really need it, or at least that you shouldn’t need it. After all, an average normal person doesn’t meditate, do they? So, why would you? If only you could be just successful and happy without it and anyway, most of the time things are not going too bad. And yet, something keeps on gnawing inside.
In Mahayana Buddhism, it is taught that you shouldn’t just practice for yourself alone but also for others. Your motivation isn’t just to attain enlightenment for yourself but also to free others from suffering and help them realise their own potential. Now this is a whole other ball game. In the secular context, the goal of enlightenment is often translated as reaching a state of enduring happiness. This is problematic for at least two reasons. One is that enlightenment goes beyond happiness and suffering, and secondly, lazy would-be-practitioners like to think that they’re already happy enough, or at least, that meditation might not add the amount of value that weighs against the effort it requires. Basically, a calculation is made that meditation is maybe good for you, but that you don’t experience enough of an effect to turn it into a daily habit.
Practising for others
Now this could all be overcome through the conviction that one doesn’t just practice for oneself but that one practices also for others. For most people this is a bit of a jump. Often people come to my meditation weekends because they’re in need of a bit of ‘me-time’. ‘I give this as a present to myself’, they say. It’s true, it is a present to themselves, and probably the best present they could give. Furthermore, there is the crucial point that learning to work with your own mind and your habits and emotions benefits others as well as it benefits you. You can inspire yourself with the knowledge that if you work on your peace of mind, on reducing your negative emotions, and develop clarity, loving kindness and compassion, you become a much more pleasant person to be around. Isn’t that a good reason to start practising every day? Or don’t you believe that this is true?
If that’s the case you need to do some deep reflection or what’s called analytical meditation. See for yourself what the benefits are of a peaceful mind, of greater clarity, of less destructive emotions, of more loving kindness and compassion, of more understanding of what it is like to be in someone else’s shoes. Maybe you should ask your husband or wife if any of these qualities in you would appeal to them? After all, who doesn’t want to have a mindful lover who takes care of their needs too? You see, you can simply use anything to inspire yourself to practice.
Here’s the secret: Fostering the motivation to practice for others will inspire you to practice even when you don’t feel like it. Practising when you don’t feel like it might go against your libertarian nature as a freedom fighter, but it will have the strongest possible effect on your mind. That way, meditation practice can truly become a mirror of awareness to develop insight in how your mind works. The discipline of the practice will be freed from your moods. As a consequence, your moods will stop having a hold on you, and in turn you will be inspired to practice more, because you experience directly what a powerful impact a stable practice has on your emotional life.
Also, very important, practising for others not only will make them happier, it will make you happier in the process too. That’s a win-win situation.
No notion of a path is lack of understanding of the ‘process’.
If someone has a true path, he or she will be alright, whatever happens. But what is a true path? In our society, we only seem to know what a career is. We even talk about a career path, but a spiritual path based on and grounded in the practice of meditation is a bit of an enigma. If you would know what a path was, and what your path is, you would practice every day. You do this because you consider it to be the most important thing of your life, the ground of your being. Your path is that which gives your life meaning, not only in life but also in death. It doesn’t end when you’re sixty-five or lose your job. This is the real work, intimate and fulfilling!
Meditation is not just a method to experience less stress or be a bit more peaceful. You need to develop tremendous courage and stamina to be able to sit through and transform all those neurotic patterns in your mind. All the things you don’t really want to see, you don’t really want to feel, and the things that don’t fit the picture you have of yourself. Your habits, your weak points, your nasty bits, they will all come up, next to your talents, your sweetness, your good heart, your love and amazing potential. Who can find his way through all this? How will you navigate through this forest of concepts, insecurity, wrong views, delusion and confusion? Will you be able to peel away all these layers that cover up the naked truth of being present in the here and now?
Being on the path can be hard work. At times, it is discouraging and at times it is beautiful and that is all part of the adventure. Having a path means that whatever will happen to you, you have the means to work with the situation.
To protect oneself from drifting, in Buddhism people take refuge. The Refuge is the protector from harm and getting lost on the way. Taking refuge in the Buddha as the guide, the Dharma as the truth or wisdom teaching and the Sangha as the fellow travellers on the path will help you on your way to liberation. I wonder how this works on the secular path of meditation? In fact, it does help to have a teacher, a clear teaching, and a bunch of mates to help you get through all those sticky places.
Most important of all, to make progress on the path you need to study and practice. To study you do need a teaching. Without studying the teachings your practice will fall apart when difficulties arise, and sooner or later, difficulties always arise. However, if you have the right view acquired through study and analysis, difficulties might even enhance your meditation practice. How do you find the right view?
Necessity of teachings
Buddhist teachings of dharma need to have two qualities: they need to reduce destructive emotions and they need to liberate the mind, otherwise they can’t be called dharma. You could translate this in a more general sense on the secular path of meditation that a true teaching has both wisdom and compassion. You can’t just practise simply meditation and expect to be liberated. Next to meditation you need the wisdom of the teachings, you need a view, a conviction, and then also some advice for conduct on integration into everyday life.
To travel any spiritual path you need a view, meditation and action. The teaching on the view should consist of an analysis and reflection on how things really are. It should point out for example how everything is impermanent, and therefore interdependent, and not existing in and by itself. There should also be a conviction that the practice of meditation is based on the notion that all beings are basically good, no matter how they behave. Because we’re all basically good, we can have confidence to let go in the meditation. You don’t need to acquire anything new that you don’t have, your nature is already good. There is no need to grasp at anything. The only thing to do is to let go of the blindness, delusion and conditioning. The instructions on the practice tell us how to do this. It’s important to be clear about this kind of view and studying teachings on that view will help to clarify misconceptions. The application of ethical guidelines for conduct that enhance the view and continue the meditation in daily life make sure that our practice will yield results.
The advances in the brain research on meditation and compassion in relation to happiness and well-being are for many people a great encouragement to start to take meditation seriously. They might try it out for themselves. However, for the new habit of practice to endure I think that more is needed than some positive results from scientific research. You need to also develop an interest in the specific experience based points of view of meditation practitioners. Studying the subtle pointers of the masters will make all the difference in your practice and can give you the feeling your practice is progressing by leaps and bounds into a new perspective on mind and how to view the world with your life in it. This can inspire a view that will make you want to continue to practice every day, because it fills your life with meaning and new insight.
Connection to a teacher
What will help one to understand, implement and realise the teaching is the presence of a teacher who has more experience on the path, and who can help you navigate the pitfalls because he has been there himself. A good teacher will point out that the ultimate teacher is your own wisdom mind and the whole point for the teachings is for you be able to access this wisdom mind in yourself and find that sane voice of the teacher and the teaching in yourself. To have a teacher or meditation coach can be very beneficial to help you recognise the pitfalls and take the hurdles on the path. Without a teacher, you’ll still need to access a source of learning. Even though the deepest source of learning is hidden within yourself, an outside reference point and example can inspire you to go further than you thought you would be able to go. So, if you can’t clearly identify someone as your teacher it will help you to feel close in mind to beings, historic or alive, whose lives, words and acts inspire you on the path. That can give a sense of connection to something that is bigger than yourself which in turn will help you to overcome obstacles.
Having friends on the path
The hours on the cushion looking at your mind can at times be lonely and even a bit boring. To feel connected to others is therefore crucial. There’s a lot to work out here and what really helps is to have some friends on the path who are inspired by the same thing as you are and who are trying out and investigating the same practices, a peer group with whom you can share your experiences and clarify the view. They will give you courage when you lose it at times and be a living reminder of what it was all about and why you were doing it. They might even help you to keep a sense of humour and laugh at your own sense of self-importance. Best medicine on the path!
Here, I’ve tried to identify some basic points needed to make your meditation practice a success, in the sense that it lasts and is fulfilling. Whether you’re a Buddhist or not, it so often happens that we are inspired to practice just after a weekend workshop or a retreat, but then quickly lose it again in the hustle and bustle of everyday life. The same problem of not being able to sustain a daily practice can apply to people from different traditions or to those individualists who go their own way. In conclusion, if you want to establish a more solid daily meditation practice, consider these points:
1. You need to develop a conviction that meditation is good for you. You need to know why you do it and you keep on reminding yourself of that so that you have a solid and strong motivation to practice every day. A sense that practising not only helps you but also others is a great incentive to build up a joyful discipline.
2. You familiarise yourself with the how and why of the practice you do, and you plan where and when you practice in a day. This way you’re in charge of your practice and you’re actively on the path of meditation.
3. You know how to keep on inspiring yourself through reading the right kind of books, going on retreats, and watching for example inspirational teachings online. You know how to deepen and enhance the view that is the basis of your practice. You make sure your practice is cosy and create a warm, loving atmosphere.
4. It will be good to have some personal contact with a teacher or a coach you trust with whom you can check in from time to time. If you don’t have one, you identify a source of learning, that inspires you to go deeper and further.
5. It’s great to find a peer group to practice with and share your experiences on the path. Have some comrades to keep your path light when the going is tough.
With some of these things in place you don’t need to put your hand up any more when someone asks you if you would like to practice more, but can’t get to it. You’re doing it already, and you know very well why you’re doing it and you’re reaping the benefits of it all the time. Good luck!