No Choice, No Excuses: How to Stick With a Daily Meditation Practice

One of the most seemingly simple, common questions I’m asked by students is how to establish a daily meditation practice. Easy to ask, but hard to do, even for long term meditators. New meditation students usually want the nuts and bolts of getting a daily practice going. Often, however, I’m asked this question by people who have been meditating sporadically for years, even decades. They already know the drill, but perhaps they secretly hope there’s some trick they’re overlooking that will make the practice fall into place. The simplest, most straightforward answer I can give is always the same: “no choice, no excuses.” That’s it. If you approach a daily practice with this attitude, you will be successful. There are many good books on how to meditate, so my focus here will remain on establishing the discipline and commitment to sit daily.

Meditation has to be a priority equal to sleeping, eating, showering and brushing your teeth. We do these things every day, no questions asked. Its just part of caring for our lives. We find time for these activities. But when it comes to meditation, all too often the time disappears. Is maintenance for our bodies truly more important than maintenance for our minds? As Chogyam Trungpa put it, “It’s as if you think you’re a victim of your life and not of your laziness.” This may seem harsh, and I’ll leave it up to you to discern if there’s truth here for you. We can easily occupy our minds with  social media, internet, television, etc., but not with meditation. How can that be true?

It helps if you’re a naturally disciplined person. When I started my mediation practice, I had a tendency toward discipline in most parts of my life. I could apply that disciple to my practice. But I was also very motivated. I saw meditation as something so vital to my life that I wasn’t going to give myself a choice. My monkey mind often had different ideas, though. Excuses would arise, sometimes every morning, especially if I had overslept or had a full day ahead. I learned to acknowledge those voices but go about my meditation anyway. The more I practiced, the more I knew I didn’t have to believe my thoughts, including my reasons for not meditating. Those thoughts represented a familiar pattern of resistance, the mind that didn’t want to look at itself closely and intimately without distractions. Sometimes it was scary, seeing and experiencing myself so clearly. And that’s what we get on the cushion: an intimate view of ourselves, through the myriad ways we manifest our humanity day after day. Sometimes pretty, sometimes unpleasant. A good dose of compassion will go a long way toward opening ourselves to this spectrum. As the mind stills, we begin to experience this moment as it is, with “suchness.” We encounter our true nature as we lose the separation of myself and the other, the observer and the observed. Equanimity arises.

If you’re young, everyday patterns usually aren’t as ingrained so you have a good chance of sticking with a practice if you’re motivated. As we get older, our routines become more established, so we may find more resistance when we begin to uproot our patterns. But with enough commitment, anyone can begin and stick with a daily practice. Don’t look for results, just keep meditating daily and forget about the outcome. You’re planting seeds that will sprout when they’re ready. If you miss a few days, avoid self-blame and just get back on the cushion to start anew. At some point, you won’t even have to think about it any more.

Many students tell me the most difficult part of daily meditation is facing restlessness and anxiety on the cushion. Some days our minds are very active with planning, ideas, work issues, problem solving, etc. On these days it may be hard to stay still for the allotted time. When this happens, remember to bring your attention back to your body. This will balance the energy that you’ve been investing in mental activities. When the mind is restless, you’ll gradually discern feelings of anxiety and other sensations in the body. Stay with it to the extent you are able and remember kindness. Once you learn to steadily rest your attention at the body, your agitated thoughts will begin to dissipate and soon you’ll be present again, even in the midst of anxious feelings. When you experience them directly they’re no longer an obstacle.

I’m often asked, “is a daily meditation practice really worth it?” There are plenty of solid studies and books that can answer this question. I can say meditation has been transformational for me, and many others through the centuries. If you spend considerable energy grappling with this question rather than sitting, maybe you need to find something else to do with your time for a while. In any case you’ll have to find this answer for yourself. You’ll never know unless you give it a chance. If you do, the odds are high that you will say “yes.”

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