Following through on meditation plans – Why it’s difficult

On the first day of class, I noticed Cindy sitting in the back row. This was her third time taking the meditation course. I chatted with her on the way out after class.

“You’re back,” I said.

“Yup,” she said, “I thought maybe coming back to class would help motivate me to get meditating again. I feel so much better when I meditate, but for some reason, I just don’t do it very often.”

Cindy isn’t the first student to report this problem, and she certainly won’t be the last. It’s incredibly common for people to have trouble starting a habit, even when they’re highly motivated to do it. Other people manage to get started, but can’t sustain the practice.

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I, too, have experienced this problem, though not with meditation. I battled weight issues most of my life. I desperately wanted to eat better and lose weight, and I even knew exactly how to go about doing it in a healthy, effective way. Sometimes, I even managed to follow through on my plans, but the effort never lasted more than a few weeks. I know how incredibly frustrating it is to want something with all your heart, but not be able to take action.

How is it possible to be highly motivated to change, yet to fail to carry out that change? When you’re making plans, you’re focused on the future. You’re imaging all the incredibly positive outcomes you’ll reach once you’ve followed through on the plan. Motivation is strong, because everything looks wonderful. You’re not yet faced with all the hard work you’ll have to do.

When it comes time to act, however, that motivation seems to dissolve. The action happens in the present and in the present we tend to focus on what will bring us not just pleasure, but the most immediate pleasure. We’re driven to seek out immediate gratification.

Faced with something difficult or unpleasant, we will likely choose to run away from it in favor of turning toward something we perceive to be more pleasant or less difficult. So, there I am. For an entire week, I’ve eaten well, but everyone at the meeting is eating donuts. I don’t want to eat a donut. I want to be slim. But, the draw of that donut is so strong that it almost feels like the donut is actually grasping my hand and pulling me in. I resist for half an hour, but the next time someone offers me a donut, I give in. In that moment, the drive to get that sugar high is strong and the motivation to wait for the weight loss that will come weeks from now is weak.

The same thing can happen with your meditation plans. You know meditation is healthy. It’s helped you before and you want to do it, but sitting takes effort, and there’s a possibility that your meditation might be unsatisfying today. It might even make you aware of some aspects of yourself that you don’t like all that much. Before you know it, you might be pulled to do something else, something that has the potential to feel more pleasant, or at least less unpleasant.

You don’t need to be conscious of this whole struggle, either. You may simply decide that you don’t feel like meditating today, and choose to do something else, instead. Or, you might rationalize your decision by generating an excuse. “I’m too tired, today. I’ll just fall asleep,” or “I’ll do it later.”

Fortunately, there are things you can to do get past that need for immediate gratification. The next three parts of this series present practical strategies to help you follow through on your meditation plans:

But there is something you can do this week. Before even trying to make a change, it can be helpful to become aware of your own feelings about your practice.

When I tuned in to my feelings of resistance to my eating plan, I learned a lot about how my need for immediate pleasure was sabotaging me. I realized that it was just a drive, albeit a strong one, and it would pass if I was able to wait it out or distract myself from it. Now, when I feel that overwhelming drive to eat something sweet, I see it for what it is. I sometimes even talk back to it, “I know you think that chocolate bar would make you feel good right now, but it will cause pain later. Why don’t we do a little yoga to relax, instead. That will feel good, too.”

Here’s an exercise to help you get in touch with your feelings about meditation practice.

We’ll practice together now, so I can walk you through it, but I recommend you do this exercise for several days, right at the beginning of a scheduled meditation session. Do it even if, in the end, you skip the meditation.

This exercise can also be helpful if you don’t have trouble following through on meditation plans. If you want to understand how your mind works, it’s just as important to notice your positive reactions as it is to notice your negative reactions. You might feel motivated to meditate, but should you rely on that motivation? What if your enthusiasm for meditation fades? What if you have an unsatisfying meditation one day causing you to dread sitting the next? Exploring your positive reactions might show you how reliant you are on them.


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