In writing, habit seems to be a much stronger force than either willpower or inspiration. — John Steinbeck
When you feel diligent and enthusiastic you meditate, and when you feel lazy you meditate. — Ajahn Chah
It’s week two of an eight-week mindfulness course. I’ve just led a lying-down body scan meditation and the atmosphere is calm and mellow as we gather back in a circle. A couple of people report feeling transported into a “numinous” kind of state, seeing colors and feeling the sound of the bell in the body! Soon after, however, the mood seems to change markedly when I suggest that they meet in groups of three to discuss the previous week’s home practice assignment. Shoulders stiffen among apologetic murmurings and nobody meets my eye. I am guessing that quite a few inner critics have joined us here in this hired kung fu studio in the south of Glasgow, Scotland, together with somewhat ashamed criticized inner children.
Shame thrives in secrecy and talking honestly helps to dispel it. People are becoming quite animated as we flip-chart a list of common obstacles to daily home practice:
• No time.
• Too hard to get out of the “doing” mindset—there is so much else that needs doing.
• Cultural conditioning: don’t be selfish.
• It’s too intense to stop and experience all that underlying tension.
• Feeling awkward and self-conscious.
• It’s hard to change habits.
• Resistance to doing “homework.”
The standard advice about learning a new skill is: give it the benefit of the doubt and persist through the teething troubles, which are only to be expected. Trust that the difficulties will work themselves out as practice becomes more established. What is required initially, it seems, is a leap of faith.
We are training ourselves in being aware of our experience as it happens, more and more frequently—in formal ways, when doing a body scan, mindful movement, or sitting meditation, and more informal ways, during conversations for example. This makes our experience more vivid, both the pleasurable and painful aspects. We enjoy the sunshine more and feel our sadness more directly. With regular practice, what soon becomes apparent is that sometimes mindfulness practice comes easy and feels natural, and sometimes it just doesn’t and we struggle in some way.
Often this is related to wanting a different experience from the one we are having. This is true even of experienced meditators. Repeated practice helps us gain perspective, to stay relaxed and nonjudgemental and not to expect too much of ourselves at any given time. It takes time for the brain to rewire itself so that awareness becomes a more constant companion in our lives. Then, gradually, we experience more freedom of choice in our responses and are less prone to reacting based on habitual, old-brain survival impulses.
Seeing these changes and sensing that we experience more of what motivated us in the first place is encouraging and naturally makes us want to practice more. It is heartening to feel even small improvements in inner calm, a more reliable sense of perspective on repetitive thinking, or more enjoyment of the small things. What do you think of Steinbeck’s quote, that it’s neither willpower nor inspiration, but habit that is the key to success? (Some recent research finds that, on average, it takes 66 days to form a new habit—about the length of an eight-week course! And regularity in the initial days seems to be a key factor.) I would add confidence near the top of that list; trusting ourselves as someone committed to this particular path of self-development. Showing up for practice, of course, feeds that confidence.
But yes, at the beginning we can feel awkward, slightly hyper-vigilant. The other day when walking beside a friend whose hearing is bad in one ear, I wheeled my bike on my left, rather than the familiar right side. It felt strange and precarious but interesting. I sensed muscles in my upper back and neck that I didn’t know I had, particularly when trying to turn my head toward my friend without running the bike into him. If I did this daily for a couple of months it would probably feel normal; it would have become one of the thousands of actions I perform daily on auto-pilot. Which would be a shame, in a way . . .
Newness of experience is refreshing, which is why most people like going on holiday. It’s a tradeoff: giving up the comfort of the familiar for the thrill of aliveness. Regular mindfulness practice is unique in that it becomes a soothing routine, like the first cup of tea in the morning, and we do it to wake up, to be present in this unrepeatable, precious moment.
One of the reservations voiced by a woman in my mindfulness group was the intensity of experience: she was afraid of being overwhelmed by emotions. Dr. Willoughby Britton has carried out some important research into possible adverse effect of mindfulness, and stresses that people have different “windows of tolerance.” The message “no pain, no gain” can be unhelpful. People with trauma history often find that focusing on the breath is not helpful—on the contrary, it can make them more anxious. So it is important to have a sense of choice. Maybe the feet or hands are better anchors for grounding experience in the present. And there should be no shame attached to taking care of oneself, choosing to sometimes distract ourselves from emotional pain and discomfort.
The obstacle of being seen as selfish is an interesting one. As a young woman I lived for several years at Taraloka, a Buddhist retreat center for women in Shropshire, England. A new group of retreatants would arrive on a Friday evening and sometimes question us team members about our lifestyle. “Seems like you live here in a bit of a bubble,” the more outspoken ones would say. “No worries about money, everything provided for you; plenty of time to sit around and do nothing—seems like a cushy option to me. What about the state of the world? Are you not simply escaping your responsibilities?”
After a week of meditation their views would often change dramatically and they would express admiration and gratitude for what we were doing. Honestly facing our experience is one of the most courageous and quietly revolutionary things we can do. Our capitalist economic system counts on us trying to escape our existential discomfort through food, drink, ceaseless entertainment, restless digital communication, and a stream of new acquisitions. At Taraloka we were not depriving ourselves of pleasure, but leading simple lives aimed at contentment, with few distractions. In Buddhism it is called the Middle Way between hedonism and asceticism. It is made possible through practicing mindfulness and kindness.
Even so, there is perhaps a danger that the inner contentment encouraged by mindfulness practice could lead to complacency and passivity with regard to the state of the world, which, according to countless specialist reports, is in severe danger of systemic collapse in many fields. For me, the answer does not lie in not meditating or not going on retreat, but in going deeper. With more penetrating insight, the felt sense of our interconnectedness with all life naturally leads to compassionate activity that is courageous and joyful even as it embraces suffering. The Work that Reconnects by Buddhist scholar Joanna Macy facilitates this kind of engaged mindfulness.
There is probably more to the “you are selfish” inner voice. We could ask of that resisting part of us about its positive intention for us: fitting in with the prevailing culture of “making yourself useful” so that you don’t stick out from the crowd? So you feel accepted and relaxed? Thank that part for looking out for you in that way. And notice how it feels receiving that acknowledgement of all its hard work. Maybe it will relax a little . . .
And finally, looking at the image at the top of this article, I leave you with this counter-intuitive yet perhaps most pertinent possibility: enjoy your obstacles!
Ratnadevi is a mindfulness teacher, trainer and retreat leader based in Scotland. She is a member of the Triratna Buddhist Order and wrote an arts-based PhD thesis looking at the place of ritual for Buddhists practising in the modern world. See more at Living Mindfulness.