February 13, 2013

Using “The Power of Habit” to Establish a Meditation Routine.

Developing my own meditation habit is a challenge.

Since I stopped living in a residential spiritual center, it has been hard for me to reestablish my meditation routine. Living with a group practice structure, I was accustomed to waking up early in the morning and sitting for one hour or more.

For the last few months, I’ve been striving to sit on my own every day and I have been doing so at random times. I missed days and I felt restless on my cushion. An unusual instruction from my Zen teacher, Roshi Eve Marko helped me solve this problem and Charles Duhigg’s new book The Power of Habit, explains why.


I told my Zen teacher that my intention every morning is to check my e-mail in under 30 minutes with coffee and then to sit immediately afterwards. The problem is that it often takes longer than 30 minutes and furthermore, “emergencies” would come up in my inbox that convinced me to skip meditation altogether.

I considered giving up my morning coffee, but that was a real challenge.

Meditating with Coffee

My teacher made a simple suggestion: “Do your meditation with coffee. Don’t drink coffee to make your meditation more productive. Just enjoy your coffee.”

In the honor of the Big Lebowski, I call this “Enjoyin’ My Coffee practice.”

(Roshi Eve edited a book which was just published on the Zen undertones of the Big Lebowski.)

Starting the next morning, I tried her advice and have been able to maintain the habit every morning since.  Since I haven’t started my day or checked e-mail yet, I find myself less restless on the cushion, feeling like I could keep going even after the ending bell rings.

Adjusting the Habit Loop

This experience confirms a basic theory on habits. As you can see in the video above, Duhigg argues that it is easier to change an existing habit than to create a new one and the way to change a habit is to identify the cue, routine and reward of an existing habit and than attempt to apply the same cue and reward to a new routine. In my case:

Cue: wake up
Old routine: sit down for e-mail
Reward: enjoyin’ my coffee

Cue: wake up
New routine: sit down for meditation
Reward: enjoyin’ my coffee

Eve also pointed out that meditation is an upaya, an “expedient means” to bring me to a goal. She helped me let go of my idea of what the upaya was supposed to look like, in order to make the means more expedient (though still just a means).

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Ed: Brianna Bemel

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