And, just as I needed my practice the most, it started to fall apart on me. In my depressed state between jobs, I would let meditation go for days at a time. Then the time demands of my new position took away the half hour each morning I used for sitting. The longer this went on, the more I could feel myself trapped in a negative view of myself and my situation, and the anxiety and rumination that led me to meditation a decade ago began to arrive again in full force. Who knows what my experience would have been if I’d kept my practice up, but I certainly wasn’t getting any benefit from practice I wasn’t doing.
In recent weeks, I’ve been slowly putting things back together. I know I’m not the only person in this situation, so I thought I’d share some of the strategies that have started to get me back on track.
Start Slowly. One of the things I learned about myself was how proud I had been of my practice. At least a half hour first thing every morning, often followed up with some tai chi or qi gong practice. When I could no longer get in my morning half hour, I promised myself to make it up later in the day; sometimes I did, but that began to happen less and less. And without my daily half hour, I lost motivation to do anything at all.
I had to give myself permission to start over. I intentionally restricted myself to ten minute sits. I could easily fit ten minutes in in the morning or over my lunch break. This helped me let go of my unrealistic expectations and actually get back in the habit of meditating every day. Ten minutes actually practicing is, after all, very much better than a half hour not practicing.
I may not get into deep states of concentration and absorption every day. But the most important insight of meditative practice is that we are not our thoughts, we don’t have to get carried off by our emotions, and that our lived experience is a lot bigger and less isolated than we often believe. Those were the insights I badly needed, and ten minutes is plenty to get there.
Put Away the Timer. I have been a devoted fan of Insight Timer, and loved to rack up the milestones and see my data charts grow. But once I couldn’t sit as long and regularly as I had, IT was now nothing but a reminder, and a silent reproach, for the meditation I wasn’t doing. So I let that go too. I still use it sometimes but I am beginning to realize that what was important was not impressing myself but taking care of myself, and anything that prevented that was not an aid.
Work on Loving Kindness. Repetitive emotions like depression and stress build up a self-reinforcing brain chemistry that keeps negative feelings around like a free-floating fog. Loving kindness, compassion, and similar states are the perfect antidote. I found that, on my worst days, 10 minutes of loving kindness practice would wipe the bad mood away and make me feel lighter and more centered.
I’m not going to pretend that these methods have made everything great. As Gotama is said to have taught, however, our biggest problem is that we think we shouldn’t have problems. My meditation practice may have frayed, but the dharma was still working in me. The hardest thing to do when life gets difficult is to remember the tremendous resources of peace and love that each of us can access. But it’s the most important thing to do, too.
When Practice Circle meets again this Sunday, 5ept. 10, 2017 at 8 pm Central time, we’ll share each others challenges keeping our practice together, and the ways we use to meet those challenges. To join our video conference group, simply follow this link: https://zoom.us/j/968569855.