I’ve been writing in notebooks since I was seven. More than a few times, I was seduced into buying a gorgeous hand-sewn notebook. Or one whose page edges were gilt in gold. Or a journal made from processed animal dung. In these unique notebooks, I gingerly wrote positive thoughts during beautiful days in my neatest cursive. One day when I was going through old journals, I noticed it. Of all my particularly special-looking notebooks, not a single one was filled. The writing in all simply stopped. The cheap, ordinary notebooks, however, were filled to the brim with everything from mundane lists to fervently scribbled poetry. From then on, I actively only bought the most nondescript and plain notebooks and I packed them with stories, ideas, concert wristbands, and the doodles of people I befriended at bars. All of it arose, and belonged.
When I began my meditation practice, I realized that my brain was like a stuffed notebook, filled with memories, opinions and desires, all influenced by who and what surrounded me. And because I wanted my meditation practice to be as consistent as my relationship with my notebook, I decided to treat them the same way. In our efforts to maintain a consistent meditation practice, we often make three common mistakes: we treat the practice like an extraordinary process, and we rely on initial passion and potential benefits to sustain us. What if we were to do the opposite?
MAKE IT ORDINARY
Nothing could be more ordinary than choosing to sit and stay sitting. And yet, like writing only happiness in a premium notebook, there is the danger of exalting one’s meditation practice to such an extent that one only practices when conditions are perfect and inspiring. Of course it is important to give significance to one’s sitting practice, and while positive potentialities may spur one to begin to sit daily, it often only turns into a habit if it becomes a common-place part of life. Meditation is an extraordinary practice easily maintained when practiced very ordinarily.
This is illustrated in a quote from Chapter two of the Tao Te Ching:
He accomplishes his task, but does not dwell upon it.
And yet it is just because he does not dwell on it,
That nobody can ever take it away from him.
This concept has proven itself a staple of modern theory surrounding the establishment of a habit. In his book The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business, Charles Duhigg states, “Champions don’t do extraordinary things. They do ordinary things, but they do them without thinking…They follow the habits they’ve learned.”
A meditation teacher once asked me, “Do you brush your teeth before you leave your house in the morning? Is not your meditation practice as important?” Like most of us, it’s easy for me to brush my teeth everyday. I don’t need to actively think about the benefits, I don’t post pictures of myself on social media brushing. In fact I don’t think about brushing at all, beyond knowing that if I do it everyday, my teeth will stay healthy.
A great way to make your meditation as important a habit as brushing your teeth is to treat it like a very ordinary thing to do. It requires neither hoopla, preparation, or perfect conditions. Make it so ordinary that you don’t have to talk yourself out of it. Luckily for you, there is nothing to stop you from meditating right now, even if all the time you have is the time it takes to floss.
PERSISTENCE OVER PASSION
Sooner or later, we all learn that the initial passion at the beginning of a romance is not what cultivates and sustains a deeper connection over time. The same can also be said for any creative pursuit. The brilliant science fiction writer Octavia Butler understood this deeply when she said, “First forget inspiration. Habit is more dependable. Habit will sustain you whether you’re inspired or not. Habit is persistence in practice.”
Sticking with something, whether we are feeling inspired or not, is what leads to a successfully established practice. Surely we understand this at a deep level, as we are often as individuals and as a society inspired by tales of those who refuse to quit. It makes sense that the unintended feminist rally cry “Nevertheless, she persisted” ignited the fervor of so many. Passion and inspiration are not actions. Persistence is.
RELEASE THE OUTCOME
You have a right to your actions, but never to your actions’ fruits.
Act for the action’s sake.
- Chapter 2, Bhagavad Gita
We are understandably motivated by potential positive outcomes. We live in a goal-oriented society, where value is placed on achievement, the perennially dangling carrot. And yet everyone from Aerosmith to ancient yogis would agree: “life’s a journey, not a destination.” This means we are responsible for the process but not the outcome. It is the practice of meditation rather than meditation itself that is our job. To sit and stay sitting. Meditation therefore may be defined as an emergent property: a complex property that results from the interaction of simple behaviors. In other words, the ordinary gives rise to the extraordinary.
It makes sense that the usual rules for achievement as defined by Western capitalistic culture does not always align with an ancient practice like meditation. So much of meditation involves undoing old habits and learning to observe rather than react to one’s particular brand of craving and aversion. It is an inner process that reveals itself to us if we simply and diligently continue to show up and, as the poet Rilke recommends, “Begin again.”
If you have a box of beautiful but blank journals, or a history of hot starts and cold finishes, consider making room for the miraculous by building your bedrock on the mundane. Practice in a persistent, ordinary way, unconcerned with results. This attitude alone may have been the secret behind the Buddha’s contented smile, or a meditator’s lifelong habit.
Simple as brushing your teeth.