Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Delayed Gratification

Every wisdom tradition points to meditation as a practice that, over time, can bring dramatic and transformative personal change. Yet I don't know many people who meditate regularly, even those who are on a contemplative path.

We're not very good at doing things now that are good for us later. There is a lot of research that shows that people have a hard time, for example, not eating the chocolate cake that is in front of them when they are trying to lose weight, or going to the gym when another temptation (even sleep) presents itself.

Unfortunately, meditation falls into this camp, too. While there is no doubt that meditation can create changes in the brain that are related to attention, decision making, stress reduction, and compassion, these changes take awhile to manifest. And while that is happening, meditation can be boring, messy, even unpleasant. It can be easy to find that things are getting in the way of meditation--sleep, work, friends--even when we have the best of intentions.

So how do we encourage ourselves to go against our own programming? Here are a couple of suggestions--feel free to let me know what has worked for you.

Start slow. We may think that meditation is something that we should be able to do for twenty or thirty minutes the first time, but that can feel like an eternity when you haven't done it before. Just like you work up to running a 10K a little bit at a time, so it goes with meditation. Five minutes done regularly is a great start.

Work with a partner. If you can commit to meditate with a friend, it is a lot harder to blow it off. Even if you don't live near someone who wants to meditate, you can do this. I have found it can be incredibly powerful to sit in silence together on the phone.

Lower your expectations. While we all want to get something out of meditation, it tends to be best not to expect anything out of meditation, at least not at first. If we get some good feelings, if we feel a little bit calmer, that is great. But there may be times when we feel incredibly uncomfortable, when it can be difficult just to continue to sit. And that doesn't mean we are bad at it. Those sessions can be a good sign that there is some major rewiring that is beginning to happen. In fact, it is best to enter meditation with no expectations (a practice that is beneficial in the rest of life, too.)

Don't worry about technique. The most important thing at first is just to sit quietly. There are plenty of things to read about different practices, but reading, and the idea that there is a right way and a wrong way to meditate, can get in the way of actually sitting down and doing it.

Reward yourself. Give yourself a treat if you meditate every day for a week. Buy a book you have been wanting. Have lunch with your meditation partner. Anything that can create a short term benefit while you are waiting for the habit to establish itself can be incredibly powerful.


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