Ideas Presented in Chapter 5
Idea #21. Establishing a Practice Requires Mindful Attention
Establishing a meditation practice can be something like establishing a lawn from seed. Grass grows pretty much on its own, but to have a successful lawn, one needs to take care of it, and the same is true of the meditative function. There are two stages in establishing a healthy lawn—sprouting and cultivating. These stages also apply to establishing habits and disciplines and certainly apply to the formation of meditative practice.
SproutingThe stage-one sprouting of Natural Meditation requires attention at the daily level. You need to meditate at least once each day and you need to do it correctly (as defined in Chapter Four). Missing a day interrupts the momentum of learning. Missing several days of meditation in the first weeks seriously burdens the learning. It can give a chance for habits of striving to creep into the sittings. The simplest, most pragmatic way to keep meditation natural is not to skip sittings.
In addition to learning a new skill, stage one is also about establishing a routine. This takes creativity and resourcefulness as you come upon the various challenges that your particular schedule and lifestyle present. During the first weeks, greet each day as a chance to learn something new about how to handle these challenges. You will get through the bulk of them in a month. Psychologists have learned that it takes about three weeks to redirect oneself onto a new behavioral pathway or habit. This provides a useful rule of thumb for how long stage one lasts:
Consider yourself to be in stage one until you have meditated at least once every day for twenty-one days.
If it takes three months for you to accomplish an unbroken string of 21 days because you are missing a day here and there, that's fine. The longer you keep up the attentive care that is called for in stage one, the better. If you want to, keep it going for a whole year. That will be a very solid way of committing yourself to the meditative pathway.Cultivating The stage-two challenge comes in from the back door, usually quietly and unannounced. We must prepare for it if we are to succeed. The challenge comes with the gradual fading of newness-energy that supported stage one. In stage two the careful daily attention can relax, but it must be replaced by a weekly and monthly attention if the practice is to ride evenly through the vicissitudes of a year-full of seasons. It must pass through the seasons with their changing patterns of family life, work, play, health, and sickness. To do so, a practice cannot remain stable if it rides up and down on feelings, especially the feelings of enthusiasm. Stage two cannot ride on newness-energy. It must find another energy—or else a structure—to support it "in sickness and in health, in good times and in bad." It requires a long-term, somewhat managerial, outlook to keep on track month after month. Forgetting to water the lawn, here and there, is not the make-or-break matter that it was in stage one, but a long break often leads straight to the termination of practice. This is so common a condition in habit formation that we might as well call it "stage three." Stage three in lawns equals: getting discouraged with the brown patches and the weeds; beginning to believe that you are not a "green thumb"; telling people that you are not the lawn-care type; taking up some other new thing and letting the weather take care of the lawn.
Chances are, you have been through this kind of thing at least once and know what it will take for you to make a daily habit of meditation. You know what your track record is. Think about this. See it. Be smart about it.
In the next Ideas we will discuss matters that affect stage two. The quality, strength, usefulness, health, and beauty of lawns depend on their long-term care and feeding. The same is true of all forms of human mastery and certainly is true of the mastery of meditation.Previous Idea — Next Idea