I’ll just get a cup of tea first. Maybe sip it slowly, look out the window. Oh, better check my email too. . .
Some mornings, the part of my mind that would rather meditate any time but now seems to wake up five minutes before the rest of me does. By the time my alarm rings and my eyes crack open, it is as if Not Now Mind were already sitting on the edge of the bed, drumming its fingertips, tapping its foot, and batting its eyelashes at me.
Not Now Mind typically takes the approach of inciting anxiety—bringing to mind the to do list of items left unfinished, the stack of emails left unanswered, and the calendar that looks like a losing game of Tetris. It makes the argument that I simply don’t have time to meditate, that I must launch immediately into my day in order not to waste a potentially productive second just sitting there.
Every now and again, maybe for variety, Not Now Mind simply coos me back to sleep, pointing out how tired I am, how hard I work, and how much more valuable an extra half hour of sleep would be than a half hour of meditation.
Whatever its tactic, if I take Not Now Mind’s bait—whipping the covers off and heading to the computer without so much as a glance at my cushion, dozing off till the last minute, or meandering through my morning, dancing around the meditation seat but somehow never getting on it—I miss my practice.
When we’re having trouble cultivating or sustaining a meditation practice, we often cite busyness or laziness as the main obstacles to our goal of regular sessions. So we make new rules, give ourselves ultimatums, and promise to keep our nose to the grindstone and really make it happen this time. We bribe ourselves by buying a new meditation bench, a new timer, a new book to inspire us and make the practice more attractive. But too often, it’s only a few days or weeks before we’re back to meditating. . . later. Tonight. Tomorrow. (We swear.)
The problem is that for many of us, Not Now Mind is not primarily an issue of logistics or time management. It’s an issue of attitude. And while it can masquerade as sloth or restlessness, my experience working with my own mind as well as others’ reveals perfectionism, driven by fear and doubt, to play a much larger role in resistance to sitting.
The world of Western Buddhism is rife with perfectionists. Who else would be drawn to a practice with a stated aim of complete emancipation from suffering? At work or at school, our perfectionism may have received a lifetime of validation. But when we come home to our practice, we often find that the qualities of impatience, overexerting, and dissatisfaction, which seem to give us superpowers in daily life, become major hindrances in meditation. Not being able to meditate perfectly, or unable to discern any immediate tangible gain, we’d rather not do it at all. Or put it off for. . . later.
Below are some reflections for calming the Not Now Mind, and the cycle of perfectionism and procrastination that feeds it. Rather than trying to whip our minds into shape, which only seems to make the stakes higher and the practice less approachable, cultivate attitudes that pacify. These are not exactly tips—more like reminders of what we already know deep down to be true.
1. Show up
We all know about setting manageable goals to set ourselves up for success. But when it comes to spiritual practice, we may be setting standards that no human could possibly maintain, then pointing to our failure to maintain them as evidence of our own inadequacy. This is just mean. Please don’t do it to yourself.
Create a routine that supports your life and which your life has a little space for right now, just as it is. Perhaps you can get up a little earlier for a morning practice to set your day off right or suspend cocktail hour to make room for an after work session, a speed bump to shift gears for the evening. Or maybe it’s before bedtime that you are able to carve out a few moments to pause and sit before easing into sleep. Decide how much time you’re able to set aside and put it in your calendar. Treat it as an appointment with a cherished friend: your own heart and mind.
Not Now Mind will likely tell you that your plan isn’t good enough, and suggest that you wait until you can meditate for a full hour, in full lotus, in complete silence, after an hour long yoga practice. Just remind it that the best time to meditate, the best place, the best length of practice is the one that you actually do. Showing up for the practice today, however long or short, is enough.
Meditation teachers often use the analogy of meditation as making friends with your mind, and for good reason. If our practice feels like hanging out with a hopeless case we are charged with fixing but fear we cannot, sitting is no fun at all. We will miss our appointment again and again.
From the perspective of Not Now Mind, meditation practice takes a huge amount of energy and skill, and it only “counts” if we do it perfectly. If we can’t do it right, why waste our time? Better to wait till we find a new teacher, learn a new meditation technique, or go on a ten-day silent retreat. Having perfected the practice or gained clandestine knowledge, we’ll finally be able to meditate the right way.
As it turns out, Not Now Mind has a bit of a point here. We can’t really do meditation totally “right”—there isn’t, after all, any outside authority that can go into our minds and assure us that we are on track. The good news, however, is that we can’t really do meditation wrong either. As long as we show up with the genuine intention to work compassionately with our minds and hearts, we can relax and know that in some sense we are already golden.
Sit in a way that is easy to maintain. Take the attitude that there is nothing in your experience that you need to control or fix, and you’ll be available to experience the perfection that is always there, the truth that everything you need to awaken is with you right now.
3. It’s not about you
Very few of us start meditating because we want to become championship mindfulness professionals. We start meditating because we want to show up for our lives in a more meaningful way, with less stress and more ease. We understand that in doing so, we are generating a great deal of courage, vulnerability, patience, determination, and love, and we have confidence that we are of benefit to this world when we help bring more of these qualities into it.
When Not Now Mind shows up, it’s easy to forget that our meditation practice was never intended to be a tool for judging our individual worth or for comparing ourselves to the person we think we should be. Meditation practice seems to work best when we make it less about evaluating our personal progress and more about revealing our inherent human capacity to connect with others in a meaningful way.
When we find that we are resisting sitting in meditation, it can be motivating to set an intention for practice that includes our desire to show up with care for ourselves and also our friends, family, and loved ones—even people we don’t know. We may choose to dedicate the fruits of our practice to a person or group of people in need of comfort and peace. If we work well with accountability, arranging to text with a friend before sitting or signing up for an online meditation community can help remind us that when we support others we often feel supported right back.
Even for experienced practitioners, Not Now Mind still comes up from time to time. When it does, if we have been mindful of the sensations or thoughts that signal its presence, then we can see it clearly for what it really is: a set of strategies our minds have devised to protect us from suffering, but that actually cause us to suffer more. As we gain confidence in our practice by sitting the best we can, one day at a time, the arguments of Not Now Mind will be less and less compelling. They may come and go, but they won’t keep us from sitting.
If you’ve found difficulty beginning your meditation routine, or difficulty beginning again, don’t worry. Getting distant from the practice is in some ways a part of it. Don’t let perfectionism drive you to procrastination. The best time to get close again is right now.
[This story was first published in 2015.]
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