Sydney Insight Meditators 2018 New Year’s retreat
Making positive changes
The New Year is traditionally a time to try to make positive changes for the year ahead. And yet most of us have had the experience of starting out with a rush of good intentions, only to find ourselves collapsing back into old habits very quickly.
Having recently finished teaching a seven-day retreat over the New Year, the same pattern can be seen after a period of intensive practice. Many people experience a wave of inspiration, and have the intention, post-retreat, to renew their commitment to meditating on a daily basis.
Yet again, these intentions often don’t last very long. The momentum of daily life re-asserts its hold on us, and we’re soon back where we started. When one retreat participant was recently asked on their retreat registration form to describe their daily practice, they wrote that it mostly consisted of “looking at their meditation cushion and feeling guilty!”
Establishing and/or maintaining a daily meditation practice
Most of us can probably relate to that description, at least at times. So this month, I’d like to focus on some strategies for establishing or maintaining a daily meditation practice.
One of the challenges in trying to change any kind of habit, is that we seem to be very binary creatures: All, or nothing. So the tendency is to set unrealistic goals, then when these aren’t sustainable, give up completely.
There’s been some recent neuroscience research though, that says making small, incremental changes over time is far more effective than trying to make drastic changes all at once. So it’s usually works better to start small, and be realistic about your initial commitment to establishing (or maintaining) a daily meditation practice.
Try beginning with just 15 minutes twice a day of sitting or walking meditation, and make a firm commitment to do that for just one week. At the end of the week, assess how it went, and if necessary, adjust the amount of time and the frequency up or down. Then, make a commitment to do this for two weeks, and again, at the end of two weeks, see how it went.
Most people find it easier to start with a commitment for just one or two weeks, rather than thinking “This is what I’ve got to do for the whole rest of my life!” because then it immediately becomes daunting, and turns into a chore.
Notice what you appreciate about each sitting
To help counteract that sense of duty or chore, it can be useful to pay attention to the benefits of regular meditation. At the end of each session, take a moment to pause, and reflect on what you appreciated about that sitting. It could be something quite small: perhaps just the fact that you stayed there for the whole fifteen minutes. Or perhaps there were even a few moments of ease, or some other aspect of sitting quietly that you enjoyed. Really acknowledge any benefits you can find and let them in, so that they set up a positive feedback loop for next time.
Keep a practice journal
As a support for this, it can be helpful to keep a practice journal. This doesn’t have to be a big project, but just a notebook where you write two or three sentences about what you noticed in each meditation. Then over time, you can look back and see the progress that’s being made.
In the same way, it can be helpful on the days that you didn’t get to sit, to write a sentence about what got in the way. Then again, over time, you might start to recognise some of the obstacles to practising daily, and see if there are any life changes you can make to support the habit of sitting or walking regularly.
Don’t compare your meditation on retreat to your meditation in daily life
Many people make the mistake of trying to re-create at home, the same depth of calm, clarity, and concentration that they experienced on retreat. But this is a total set-up for disappointment, because the conditions we have on retreat are very specialised. Without them, most people are NOT going to experience deep sati and samadhi, mindfulness and stability of mind. So instead of assessing your practice in terms of calm, clarity, and concentration, it can be more useful to notice what other qualities are being strengthened in your daily meditation.
Look at the ten parami instead
In this regard, the list of the ten parami can be very helpful, because these are qualities that can be cultivated in daily life. In fact, many of them even need the challenges of everyday life in order for them to develop and strengthen.
I’ve written about these parami previously, in relation to Ajahn Sucitto’s book on the topic, here:
As a quick run-through, the ten parami are: generosity, ethical conduct, renunciation, wisdom, energy, patience, truthfulness, resolve, kindness, and equanimity
Re-framing a so-called “bad” meditation
As an example, imagine what we might ordinarily call a “bad” sitting, one where we spent most of the time resisting the urge to check the text message that just came in, or thinking about what we need to get from the supermarket on the way home, or trying to remember whose turn it is to pick up the kids, or wondering whether that twinge of tooth ache is something we should just ignore or go to the dentist about … At the end of that sitting, it would be easy to think it was a waste of time, and we would have been better off just getting up and getting on with the day.
But if we think of that same sitting in terms of which parami are being developed, we might see that to varying degrees, all ten of them were coming into play and getting strengthened.
It was an act of generosity to at least try to give yourself a bit of space from the business. In terms of ethical conduct, in the time that you were sitting there, you weren’t killing or stealing or misusing your sexuality or lying or taking intoxicants! It was an act of renunciation to not jump straight into checking your emails or getting lost in social media. It took patience and resolve to sit down, and to stay there. And it’s likely some equanimity got strengthened in that willingness to stay with whatever experiences showed up. So in that very simple example, we can see how many good qualities were cultivated, apart from calm and concentration.
Plan for regular periods of more intensive practice
Establishing and maintaining a daily sitting practice provides what we can think of as a “maintenance level” of practice. If we want the practice to continue deepening though, we’ll need to build in regular periods of more intensive practice. Perhaps once a month, we might take a technology-free day, and spend a day or half-day doing a mini-retreat – either on our own, or with a friend or two. Then a couple of times a year, go on a longer retreat of at least a week
Depending on where you are in your practice, you might also start planning towards doing a longer retreat of a month or two, or three. This usually takes quite a bit of planning, especially as most of these longer retreats book out a long way in advance. So it’s worth being on the mailing list of any retreat centres you’re interested in, so you receive the schedules when they’re released and can register immediately.
Write your own curriculum
What I’m suggesting here is to plan a kind of curriculum for yourself. Many people don’t take a very strategic approach to their practice, tending to just drift along – until there’s some kind of mini-crisis, then they start looking for a retreat to do.
But if we wait until that point, there’s no guarantee that a retreat will even be available, let alone one that’s with a suitable teacher. So it’s worth taking a longer-term view of the practice, and set goals to work towards, to help maintain interest and momentum. Perhaps even create a two or five or ten-year plan, and explore the possibility of doing some longer retreats during that time.
You can find more information about some recommended retreat centres here:
If you’d like to talk about ways to support your practice and different retreat options, feel free to contact me through the Contact page of this website.
May 2018 bring you ever closer to realising your deepest aspirations …