We strive for consistency, but life itself is often inconsistent. The sun rises consistently, yet we have droughts where there is no rain for weeks. The tides are consistent, yet there is no regular schedule for hurricanes and tornadoes.
The only area of my life in which I’ve been truly consistent is breathing. Everything else—diet, exercise, practicing piano, writing, sex, yoga, green smoothies, and flossing—are more characterized by streaks. In an unpredictable world, I am an unpredictable human being.
And yet there are things I want to do regularly, such as meditation. Of course, there are periods of time when I become estranged from my practice and only glance at my cushions with a feeling of sadness. So I have a dilemma: I desire consistency, but I am inconsistent.
Japanese psychology, which is built on two specific approaches—Morita Therapy (rooted in Zen Buddhism) and Naikan Therapy (rooted in Shin Buddhism)—can offer us some ideas for maintaining healthy perspective and behaviors even when we fall out of the habit. The following are two strategies informed by Japanese psychology to help you commit to your practice.
Make Life Easy
Let’s say you decide that you would like to have a hot cup of green tea every day. Later that day, you stop at the tea shop about two miles from your house and buy just enough tea for one cup. The next morning, you wake up, and you make yourself a hot cup of this lovely tea. Life is delightful.
The next day you wake up but realize that you have no tea. So you get in your car and drive to the shop and buy enough tea for one cup. You get home and make your tea, and it is another delicious morning.
On the third morning, you wake up feeling unusually tired. You have an appointment that morning. You’re getting a cold. You have the thought, “I don’t really feel like going out to get the tea. Maybe I’ll just skip my tea this morning.” Then you feel guilty and think, “But I said I would drink a cup of hot tea every morning. If I don’t do it, I won’t be honoring my commitment.” Then the next thought: “But I really don’t feel like going out this morning.” Then it turns into a type of United Nations meeting up in your head where the whole question is debated and everybody has something to say. For some of us, this meeting takes longer than it would take just to drive over and get the tea.
Now you may be thinking that this is an easy problem to solve. Just buy a big bag of tea. It will last you a month, and you won’t have to go out each morning to get it. That’s a brilliant idea. And it’s even more brilliant when you realize you can apply it to areas of your life beyond tea-drinking.
Make the things you want to do easy, and the things you don’t want to do difficult. This is one of the principles we teach in Japanese psychology.
In regard to meditation, you might set up your cushions the night before, get your incense ready, and leave the matches right next to the candle. And you can station your timer right next to your cushion, too.
This also works if you’re dieting. You buy yourself a big bag of small carrots, and you don’t buy any cookies. I live in the country, and I have to travel four and a half miles to the nearest source of cookies. Or if you want to watch less television, unplug the TV and put the remote in the kitchen drawer.
This principle can be effective in helping you develop certain habits and relinquish others. But it’s not effective all the time, because our minds are chaotic, and life is chaotic—not a good platform for doing anything with 100% consistency. So sometimes we need to turn to the “fresh start” practice.
The Fresh Start
We usually think of getting a fresh start once a year—on New Year’s Day. The problem is that sometime during January, we lose the resolve to stick to our resolutions, and we mess up. But that’s when our real opportunity arises. What do we do right after we break our resolutions?
We can stay on the ground. We can find someone to blame. We can get angry at ourselves. We can pout. Most of us have tried one or more of these strategies.
But the fresh start practice simply recognizes that what happened, happened. And now it’s a fresh moment.
The key to fresh start practice is to just get back up and get back in the flow of life. Has your purpose changed? Has your intention changed? If not, then just get right back on the horse, or wagon, or cushion, or whatever you were on before you fell.
There’s a Japanese maxim: “Seven times down, eight times up.” The point is that falling is inevitable, so we need to be skillful in getting back up.
One measure of skill is how much time you spend on the ground. Some of us take three days, or three weeks, or nine months to get back up. That’s OK, but you’re dedicating a lot of your precious life to being grounded. One of my models of fresh start practice is the ice dancing team of Madison Chock and Evan Bates. They fell during the Olympic competition about two minutes into their four-minute routine. Everyone was shocked, and the fall knocked them out of the running for a medal. I replayed that routine seven times because I was awestruck by how quickly they were back on their feet. It was spectacular.
There’s one more element to a skillful fresh start, and this is really the sign of a master: no drama.
When we get back up, we often add something to the effort—a bit of drama. That drama usually takes the form of complaining and telling the story of our fall with great gusto. But if we leave out the drama, what do we have left? We fall. We get back up. We do the next thing.
This is why the fresh start practice is so hard. When we give up the drama, we give up our plea for sympathy and attention. We give up self-pity.
Remember, if you miss a day or two, your cushions will forgive you. They are ready to get back to work as soon as you get back on track.
One more thing. You may be quietly meditating—following your breath, working on a koan, or sending lovingkindness to others—and you suddenly become aware that your attention has wandered. You’re thinking about an upcoming meeting, lunch, or the argument you had with your partner last night. In that moment, what do you do? Well, if you use that awareness as a doorway to return to your practice . . . that’s a fresh start.
You’re already good at this. Just keep practicing.
Sign up for Tricycle’s newsletters
Thank you for subscribing to Tricycle! As a nonprofit, we depend on readers like you to keep Buddhist teachings and practices widely available.