Saturday, February 27, 2010

Sustaining a Mindfulness practice

(Reposted from Huffington Post: )

Just One Breath a Day

As an instructor, I found it fairly easy to get people started on Mindfulness practice. I just need to show them the brain science, explain the benefits, introduce a short sitting, and viola, people get it. That's the good news.

The bad news is after the first few days, many people find it hard to sustain the practice. Many of us start the first few days with great enthusiasm, committing ourselves to 10 or 20 minutes a day of this wonderful practice, but after that initial enthusiasm, it starts to feel like a chore. You sit there bored and restless, wondering why time goes by so slowly, and then after a while, you decide you have more important and/or interesting things to do, such as "getting stuff done" or watching cats flush toilets on YouTube. And before you know it, you've lost your daily practice.

How can we sustain a Mindfulness practice?

Happily, the difficulty of sustaining a Mindfulness practice often lasts only a few months. It is like starting an exercise regime. The first few months are usually really hard, you probably have to discipline yourself into exercising regularly, but after a few months, you find your quality of life changing dramatically. You have more energy, you suffer fewer sick days, you can get more stuff done, and you look better in the mirror. You feel great about yourself. Once you reach that point, you just cannot not do it anymore. The upgrade in quality of life is just too compelling. From that point on, your exercise regime becomes self-sustaining. Yes, you probably still have to cajole yourself into the gym every now and then, but it becomes fairly easy.

It is the same with sustaining a Mindfulness practice. You probably need some discipline in the beginning, but after a few months, you notice dramatic changes in quality of life. You become happier, calmer, more emotionally resilient, more energetic, and people like you more because your positivity reflects on them. You feel great about yourself. And again, once you reach that point, it's so compelling you just cannot not practice anymore. Yes, even a seasoned mediator needs to cajole herself onto the cushion every now and then, but it becomes fairly easy and habitual.

So how do you sustain your practice up to the point it becomes so compelling it is self-sustaining? I have 3 suggestions:

1. Have a Buddy

I learned this from my dear friend and mentor, Norman Fischer, whom we jokingly call the "Zen Abbot of Google". Once again, we use the gym analogy. Going to the gym alone is hard, but if you have a "gym buddy" whom you commit to going with, you're much more likely to go regularly. Partly because you have company, and partly because this arrangement helps you encourage each other and hold each other accountable (what I jokingly call "mutual harassment").

We suggest finding a "Mindfulness buddy" and committing to a 15-minute conversation every week, covering at least these 2 topics:

a. How am I doing with my commitment to my practice?
b. What has arisen in my life that relates to my practice?

We also suggest ending the conversation with the question, "How did this conversation go?"

We instituted this in our Mindfulness-Based Emotional Intelligence program (named "Search Inside Yourself") and found it very effective.

2. Do Less Than You Can

I learned this from Mingyur Rinpoche, whose book, "The Joy of Living", I most highly recommend. The idea is to do less formal practice than you are capable of. For example, if you can sit in Mindfulness for 5 minutes before it feels like a chore, then don't sit for 5 minutes, just do 3 or 4 minutes, perhaps a few times a day. The reason is to keep the practice from becoming a burden. If Mindfulness practice feels like a chore, it's not sustainable.

My friend, Yvonne Ginsberg, likes to say, "Meditation is an indulgence". I think her insight beautifully captures the core of Rinpoche's idea. Don't sit for so long that it becomes burdensome. Sit often, for short periods, and your Mindfulness practice may soon feel like an indulgence.

3. Take One Breath a Day

I may be the laziest Mindfulness instructor in the world because I tell my students all they need to commit to is one mindful breath a day. Just one. Breathe in and breathe out mindfully, and your commitment for the day is fulfilled, everything else is a bonus.

There are two reasons why one breath is important. The first is momentum. If you commit to one breath a day, you can easily fulfill this commitment and can then preserve the momentum of your practice, and later, when you feel ready for more, you can pick it back up easily. The second reason is having the intention to meditate is itself a meditation. This practice encourages you to arise an intention to do something kind and beneficial to yourself daily, and over time, that self-directly kindness becomes a valuable mental habit. When self-directly kindness is strong, Mindfulness becomes easier.

Remember, one breath a day for the rest of your life. That's all I ask.


  1. Thanks. I'm at this point in my meditation practice where I am getting into the habit of sitting. I want to sit everyday, but was coming up with every excuse why I couldn't....the kids, sleep, work, hubby, volunteering, blah, blah, blah. I spoke with my M.I. 2 weeks ago and she used the exact analogy of the gym. I went through that experience of building a regular work-out regimen. These past 2 weeks have been interesting....I skipped 3 days. What gets me back to the cushion? I'm much more calm and more present with my children. That's reason enough, for now.

  2. i like how you propose to "start light". it's true for anything, where it's the gym or starting a big programming project. the big results come if you are happy with the small results :-)