August 29, 2019

How not to Burn Out on your Personal Meditation Practice.


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When it comes to meditation, consistency works well, yet consistency is elusive.

In fact, no matter what the endeavor may be, our minds are not easily given to the constraints of a disciplined schedule, even though that is what works.

In every field of activity, “gurus” have emerged to help us be consistent. The “life coach” is the modern guru, a kind of organizational handyman to help us compartmentalize our lives and be more effective.

Part of this organizational effort teaches us how to allot time in a way that gives us space between activities, rather than piggybacking one thing over the other to get more done in less time, which eventually leads to burnout and getting nothing done at all.

Whether it be studying, exercise, family time, hobbies, sleeping, eating, and so forth, a modest approach that is consistent and disciplined will accomplish more over a long period of time than a gung-ho approach that cannot be sustained.

The problem we all have as human beings is a disinclination to follow a schedule.

We don’t like to walk in the footsteps of the day before. The alternatives we choose to avoid doing so are often not any better, but they seem to be because they are new and we like change. But, this preference for newness and change often does not serve our best interest. This is especially true for meditation and yoga, two disciplines that benefit greatly from a daily schedule that stretches over a long period of time.

During my seven and half years as a monastic in charge of the meditation hall, I observed time and again that the reason many fail to maintain sustained meditation practice is not that they didn’t try hard enough, but rather that they tried too hard.

Counterintuitive though it may be, it was the enthusiastic meditator who failed rather than the timid uncertain meditator, and the reason was that the enthusiastic meditator aggressively challenged himself to sit beyond his comfort zone until after a few weeks he burned out and quit. It was the humbler and more timid meditator who kept his meditation sits short and sweet who lasted for the long haul and eventually developed real skill.

If we understand our own psychology and the inclination of our big ego to take on more than we can handle, it can go a long way toward making a humble beginning that keeps us in the game.

It is better to meditate 10 minutes morning and evening for a year than one hour morning and evening for two months. The reason is simple: we can easily sustain 20 minutes a day for many years, but the more aggressive two hours all but few can sustain.

I left the monastery many years ago and entered family life. My interest in meditation never waned, and I opened my home for weekly meditation and teaching sessions for like-minded people to gather. I deliberately avoided the “guru” role and focused instead on providing an opportunity and place for people to explore ideas and meditate in a harmonious atmosphere. Our meetings were the highlight of my week.

Over the 12-year period in one location, Santa Monica, California, before moving to Hawaii, about a dozen members attended weekly classes and maintained a daily practice at home. Others would come for a few sessions and never again, and some attended sporadically now and then throughout the time I had the class.

Not surprisingly, the consistent students took it easy, not pushing too hard or being too lax, while the aggressive students went in spurts, but couldn’t quite sustain their effort.

If you try to light a fire by rubbing sticks together, and just when the sticks start getting warm, get tired and rest, and then start up again rubbing until the sticks get warm, but again get tired and take a rest, and go on like this all day, you will never get a fire.

The sporadic meditators are like this. They never get the enthusiasm to meditate going of its own accord, but instead, get discouraged and lay off. This leads to a sporadic practice, never a daily meditation practice, and they never kindle the fire within themselves.

To get the sticks to burn, we don’t have to rub so hard, but we must sustain the effort without slacking off. Eventually, the sticks will light and we no longer have to apply effort.

It is the same with meditation. If we apply a modest sustained effort over a long period of time, an enthusiasm to meditate will arise within us and it will no longer be a “discipline” to sit in meditation. In fact, meditation will become like a magnet pulling us toward it. It will be impossible to stay away from it.

For those of us who find a daily meditation practice difficult, we should ask ourselves why.

The reason may very well be that we try too hard. We should select a time of day when we can devote single-minded attention to meditation, a very modest amount of time, five or ten minutes, and a place where we will not be disturbed. Any sessions that are missed because of unexpected responsibilities should be made up on a future date, without fail.

Making a commitment like this, modest though it may be, will have a profound effect on our entire life, not just meditation.

Developing a personal practice depends on a commitment to consistency and avoiding unsustainable heroic gestures. As Suzuki Roshi emphasized in his wonderful book, Zen Mind, Beginners Mind, keep a beginner’s mind as long as you can. When it comes time to advance further it will be something you cannot resist even if you tried.

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