I was on a Skype call with vipassana meditation teacher, Vincent Horn, several years ago and I was telling him about my inconsistency with practicing meditation. He said that our practice can often be like a cosine graph. It tends to ebb and flow in response to the content of our lives. Sometimes our practice is strong and sometimes it just stays unchecked on the to-do list. It was reassuring to hear this from a respected teacher, and made it easier to go easy on myself. We all "fall off the wagon" sometimes, and in this age of distraction, there never seems to be a shortage of reasons for doing so. In no particular order, here are 6 common excuses I've heard for not meditating and my advice on how to work with them.
1. I'M TOO BUSY
As meditation teacher, and former Buddhist monk, B. Alan Wallace says, We're all very busy...Get over it! Everyone's doing something for roughly 16 hours a day. So...How are you spending those 16 hours? You WILL - and DO - make time for the things you prioritize. Whether that is showering everyday, spending time with your kids, or smoking a joint. Many of us are fortunate enough to have options for how we spend our day. So next time you say to yourself, "I don't have time," reflect on how you are spending it. It could point to a shift in priority. If not, maybe this old Zen saying can help: If you don't have time to meditate for 20 minutes a day, then you should meditate for 40 minutes a day.
2. I TRIED IT, BUT IT DIDN'T WORK
One of my favorite analogies for meditation is physical exercise. If we want adequate results from physical exercise we have to put in the time. It would be strange to hear someone say, Yeah, I tried exercise, but it didn't work for me. Many say the same for meditation. It needs more than a day, a week, or months to notice significant changes. Unfortunately, meditation is not a prescription pill that we take when we want to feel better. Gradual awakening is (for almost everyone) the path. Yes, some feel immediate effects of calm and relaxation, but that is not a guarantee particularly in the beginning. Giving up on practice because it doesn't "work" can be remedied by instilling trust in mindfulness meditation and it's foundational attitudes. Also, keep in mind that positive effects of meditation are dose-related; the more we do it, the greater the results. This takes trust in the practice, patience with our minds, and kindness toward ourselves.
3. SIT STILL? YEAH RIGHT!
There are several reasons we might find it difficult to sit still. Some people are more inclined to being fidgety and/or restless. Sometimes our lack of comfort on the cushion has us wiggling every 30 seconds. For many, an aversion to sitting still is a perfect opportunity to examine the "internal weather" of our mind. Can you actually not sit still, or is that you just THINK you can't sit still? Also, one does not necessarily have to sit perfectly still for an entire session. If movement is required during a sitting meditation, this can also be done calmly and mindfully, and actually be part of the meditation. In a more practical sense, engaging in rigorous exercise or yoga prior to meditating might help. It's also helpful to know that formal meditation can be done in a number of different postures, including sitting on the floor, in a chair, standing up, or at the risk of falling asleep, lying down. Having issues with my joints, I typically alternate between sitting cross-legged on the floor, sitting in a chair, and lying down. Whatever approach you take to more stillness sitting, gentle effort is important.
4. I HAVE TOO MANY THOUGHTS
This is common. It might sound counterintuitive, but having a lot of thoughts is a good thing! Let me rephrase that...NOTICING you have a lot of thoughts is a good thing. Thoughts are not the problem. As my first MBSR teacher used to say, The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing...(ahem, mindfulness). Thoughts lose their power to control us if we maintain mindfulness of them. But we have to remember to do so. Part of a classical Buddhist definition of mindfulness is "to remember." The recognition of a thought is our reminder to come back to the present moment. This means that thoughts are necessary for presence and cognitive control. The more we remember to come back to right now, the quieter and less intrusive the thoughts become; and a waterfall of thoughts drys into a trickle.
5. I HAVE OTHER WAYS I MEDITATE
Whether it be playing music, running, gardening, or crocheting, such practices can support a contemplative practice like meditation. However, I don't feel they can replace the effectiveness of sitting meditation. When we sit, the awareness and mental stability we cultivate is intended to transfer naturally into ALL other areas of our life. Playing music in a band, for example, does cultivate attention and awareness, though this mental stability is generally restricted to the time between the opening number and the encore. After that, sure, some residual effect of focus may bleed into other parts of the day, but that's really left up to chance. In sitting meditation, we are practicing how to best be in relationship with the arising and passing of the content of our minds. This arising and passing of thoughts and emotions happens all day, everyday. Creating a sense of peace from adopting, say, drawing, as our main meditation practice provides us peace WHILE we are drawing, though it does not prepare us for the ups and downs of everyday life the way sitting meditation can.
6. PROCRASTINATION - I'M WAITING FOR THINGS TO SETTLE DOWN IN MY LIFE FIRST
This is probably the one I have fallen victim to the most. To me, this feels like a "chicken-and-egg" situation: Do I meditate to help me get my life in order? Or do I get my life in order first, and then meditate? And the answer is...YES! Well, both. In my experience, if I focused too heavily on one then the other was too-often neglected. If I meditated amidst a cluttered home, an overflowing email inbox, and a lack of sleep, meditation wouldn't necessarily give me the drive to remedy those perceived impediments. If I focused solely on all these aspects of my life, I would neglect meditation. So, a kind middle way approach is what I found most helpful. We can't always wait for the conditions to be "just right" for meditation to happen, and we can't expect meditation to be a panacea to fix all of life's blemishes and scars. I feel the most skillful approach is to take care of both without overexerting ourselves.
Any roadblocks we come across when trying to maintain a meditation practice is workable. Trust yourself to know how best to navigate these parts of the path. However those efforts manifest, it's important to reflect on how we prioritize our time. How important is mindfulness in my life? How willing am I to pause and shine a light on the long-ignored nooks and crannies of my mind? Again, mindfulness is not a panacea, nor is it meant to cure any disease. Mindfulness is an exploration of our lives. If this exploration leads you somewhere other than intentional self-discovery, you can trust it all the more because you were mindful in that search. OR...You're just making another excuse.