Many of us begin a spiritual path with gusto and determination—be it out of necessity, inspiration, or curiosity. We hold steady for weeks, months, or more. Inevitably, something changes, and we lose steam. The meditation practice to which we were once so devoted begins to feel like a chore as life gets busy, and we find we can’t bring ourselves to practice.
Making any time to sit is better than nothing, but the practice offers the greatest benefits when we meditate consistently. When we regularly take time to be still and listen carefully, we strengthen innumerable wholesome qualities in the heart and mind, lay a foundation for living wisely, and cultivate powerful seeds of insight and compassion.
Many of us are aware of this and still find it difficult to regularly get to the cushion. Even after an intensive seven- or ten-day retreat, we may return home with renewed commitment and energy, only to find the momentum dwindles, our energy fades, and we fall back into our old habit of sitting only when it suits us in the moment.
Why does this happen? There are a lot of reasons. Many conditions can affect our meditation habits, and each calls for a different response. The first step is to investigate what’s happening.
Wisely Reflect on Your Life
Sometimes a change in outer circumstances shifts our ability to meditate formally on a daily basis. Take a step back from the various threads of your life and consider what’s happening with the kind eye of a friend. Have you just ended a relationship, started a new job, or moved? Are you under a lot of pressure at work or dealing with the illness of a loved one? When in the midst of such turmoil we can overlook the immense challenge we are facing, with its concomitant demands on our time and energy.
Simply recognizing the impact of such a change can create more internal space, compassion, and relief. With a clearer view of what’s happening, we can reevaluate what support we might need and how formal meditation practice could be a part of that.
More often, though, it’s something within that is keeping our body away from the cushion or mat, like the opposing force between two magnets. Careful, patient investigation can help to reveal what’s moving under the surface and give us important clues about how to respond.
One of the most common reasons I find my own daily practice waning is if I lose my keel in the busyness of life. The to-do lists are endless and everything takes at least twice as long as we anticipate. When I allow the crazed, harried pace of modern society to replace the clarity of my intentions about how I want to live, everything suffers, including my daily practice. If we spend the day relentlessly jumping from one task to another, driving ourselves to get as much done in as little time as possible, what do we expect the quality of our minds to be when we sit down to meditate (if we even get there)? Instead, bringing as much patience and intention as we can to our daily activities has endless benefits, including finding it easier and generally more pleasant to meditate
Check Your Assumptions
One of the most common reasons practitioners lose steam is when our meditative experience doesn’t match our expectations. We come seeking peace, clarity, and ease, but we find the opposite: agitation, petty grudges, confusion, and utter nonsense.
Peace and clarity arrive through understanding these patterns and the underlying nature of our minds, rather than through stopping our thoughts, achieving some special state, or having a particular experience. When we remember and trust this, letting go of our expectations and ideas, we can find more space to refocus and recommit to our daily practice.
There also can be core beliefs operating at a deeper level that prevent us from realizing our aspirations. What are you telling yourself about your meditation? Is there a belief that if you really try you will fail—or that you are not good enough, smart enough, patient enough, or deficient in some other way? When unseen, these ideas have tremendous power: not only do they keep us from meditating but also can direct the course of our lives. Uncovering these beliefs can be hard work. Doing so generally takes time and can be facilitated with the support of skilled counselor or wise friend. (In the Pali Canon, the Buddha refers to such spiritual friends [kaliyana mitta] as “the whole of the spiritual life.”) Yet when we put forth the effort to identify and transform our self-limiting beliefs, we find enormous energy and potential
Turn Towards What’s Difficult
Intimately connected with our unmet expectations and beliefs is our distaste for unpleasant experiences. Why sit still for 30 minutes with unpleasant thoughts, sensations, and emotions when one can get some easy respite from the insanity of life by disappearing into a screen or a bag of chips? While there is a time and place for conscious, skillful distraction, there is much to be learned (and healing to be had) from voluntarily engaging with the range of dark, sticky, sharp, frantic, dull, or generally disagreeable corners of our minds.
Much of this rocky terrain is comprised of what are known as the five hindrances in the Buddhist tradition. These are deeply embedded mental energies that the Buddha noticed obscure the clarity of the mind and hinder our development along a spiritual path. Whether you identify as a Buddhist or not, after committing to a regular meditation practice you’ll become familiar with these visitors: craving, aversion, sleepiness or apathy, restless agitation or worry, and doubt.
Learning to recognize these forces when they arise and having a range of skillful means to set them aside is indispensable for any meditation practice. If your daily practice is waning, there’s a good chance that the unpleasant nature of one (or more) of these hindrances may be what’s driving you away. Call to mind the list of these five “foes” and have a look if any of them are taking over your meditations and making it less appealing to practice.
Finding Our Way Back
So if you find yourself avoiding the cushion or mat, first have a look inside and out to see what’s going on. Once you uncover some of the conditions that are preventing you from practicing or creating the resistance, think creatively about what to do differently. At times, just this can be enough to muster up the courage and persistence to stick with our practice. At other times, we may need the input of a skilled guide, mentor, or spiritual friend to help us navigate the rough waters.
One approach that works for me is a three-step process I call reconnect, recommit, and reevaluate.
Reconnecting with our motivation can provide renewed energy to keep going. It’s important to learn how to contact your sincere, heartfelt motivation for meditation. What drew you to your spiritual practice initially?
One of the most powerful gifts I’ve received is the question posed to me by my teachers, “What do you want?” In Buddhism, we hear a lot about desire as the cause of suffering. This is often misunderstood to mean that we should let go of all desire. Rather, it is specifically the energies of craving and grasping that are problematic: the often unconscious, sometimes obsessive reflex to want something to fill us up or satisfy us.
The Buddha also spoke about something called dhamma chanda, zeal and enthusiasm for the truth. This is the wholesome impulse in the heart toward the higher potentials of human existence. It is the healthy longing we feel for things like peace, goodness, clarity, wisdom, and care. Reconnect with this aspiration. Remind yourself of life’s great mysteries; recollect your wish to cultivate the heart/mind to its full potential.
Another tack is to reflect on any benefits of practice you’ve experienced. Perhaps you aren’t a paragon of wisdom, radiating light wherever you go, but maybe you’re a little more patient or more careful with your actions and words. Seeing the fruits of our meditation can bring energy for practice.
If none of the above suggestions spark this connection, get creative: try journaling, pick up a good dharma book, or listen to a talk by a favorite teacher.
Once you’ve reconnected with why you practice, take stock and see what concrete steps will support you to stay connected with it on a daily basis. Commit to put forth time and energy to move in that direction. I recommend setting aside at least a few minutes each morning to remember your aspiration in a heartfelt way, recalling the deeper values and motivations by which you choose to live. Using a short gatha, or verse, can be helpful for this. Here is one from Thich Nhat Hanh that I used every morning when I first began practicing:
Waking up this morning, I smile. Today is a new day, with 24 brand
new hours before me. I vow to live each moment fully,
And to look at all beings with eyes of compassion.
—Thich Naht Hanh
You can write your own, something that feels authentic and gives voice to what is most true for you. This isn’t exactly prayer (although it shares certain features and may serve similar ends); it is a practice of realigning our hearts and minds with our deepest intentions for living. If we do nothing else, taking a few quiet moments at the beginning of each day can have a powerful orienting effect on our lives.
Next, set some minimums. What specific actions can you commit to doing on a daily basis to live your intentions? Consider what is reasonable given your current life circumstances. If you work a full time job and are raising a family, meditating for two hours every day may be a stretch. Be honest, but don’t be afraid to challenge yourself a little.
Consistency, quality, and continuity are more important than quantity: 10-20 minutes of sincere practice every day for a week will probably serve you better than an hour over the weekend. Setting a time each day for formal meditation will help create, or recreate, the rhythm of daily practice.
There’s no need, however, to limit your spiritual practice to formal periods of meditation. When people used to come to the renowned Thai Forest meditation master Ajahn Chah complaining that they did not have time to meditate, he is said to have responded, “Do you have time to breathe? Then you have time to meditate.” Start by picking an activity that you do every day, like brushing your teeth, washing the dishes, or commuting to work, and commit to doing this activity as mindfully as possible for one week. Make a continual and gentle effort to bring steady attention to such daily activities. As we do this over time, our formal practice and our daily life begin to support each other until there is less and less separation between the two.
This last step is crucial. After you’ve reconnected with your intentions, created a plan and committed to following it for a period, take some time to reevaluate. How did it go? What worked? If you lost the plot along the way, see if you can discern what diverted your intention. Was the goal you set not as doable as you expected? Did you hit an internal block you didn’t know how to work with? Perhaps you simply forgot until the reminder to “reevaluate” popped up in your calendar.
It is essential to do this kind of inquiry with an attitude of curiosity and love rather than one of self-judgment. Remember that our energies here are focused toward living a full and meaningful life that is connected with the beautiful, uplifting qualities of the human heart. Try to pick up that tone, so that you are coming from a place of kindness and loving support when you reevaluate. You might liken it to helping a good friend on a project or aiding a child with their homework. How would you relate to their difficulties?
Now comes the creative part: once you’ve reevaluated how it went, you get to tweak the recipe for the next week. If something got in the way, what can you do differently? If you got tripped up peeking at your email before meditating (and never made it to the cushion), set a firm determination to restrain the impulse to turn on the phone/computer until after your morning practice. If the goal was too ambitious, dial it back. If you more or less hit the mark, you might re-up for another week to strengthen your momentum before adding something new.
The benefits of having a regular meditation practice and integrating it into our lives are immense. I hope these reflections have been helpful, and that they support you in developing or deepening your daily practice to discover these benefits for yourself.
This article was originally published in 2019.