You may be an experienced meditator. Even so I wouldn’t be surprised if many of you go through periods of a few days, weeks, or months, when for one reason or another you don’t get up in time to have a formal sitting. This is not unusual. And, you are not alone if you still struggle from time to time with your mind about the necessity of dragging yourself out of bed before dawn possibly to deal with pins and needles or even worse, nodding out from time to time. Then there is the endless barrage of other obstacles to your practice that the mind invents and you must confront.
If this sounds familiar, you might find solace in the fact that this same situation is being experienced by most of us right here at Yogaville and elsewhere in the extended family of Yoga practitioners. Despite the obstacles, many of us are doing very well on this path and are presently engaged in what is known as a regular meditation practice—a daily practice which has been going on for many years and without any break.
You may recognize these words from Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, which states “Practice becomes firmly grounded when well attended to for a long time, without break, and in all earnestness.” Up until a few years ago, my own meditation practice of over 25 years was very erratic—a year of meditating regularly, a few weeks or months of inconsistency, then back on track for a while, and so it continued. I had certainly been meditating for a long time, but not without break and not with all earnestness!
Then, several years ago, circumstances in my life led me to a heartfelt conviction that the only thing that made sense in my life was the task of getting directly in touch with the part of myself that was beyond the mental modifications, or thoughts. In one moment I knew that the most important thing in my life was to develop a deep and continuous practice of meditation. And so that evening I set the alarm for 4:30 AM and my daily meditation practice began. Like an ever-ready battery it’s been going, and going, and going ever since.
I’d often wondered about the ingredients for success of other Yogaville sangha members who had been able to keep up a consistent meditation practice. After interviewing several Ashram and community members about their practice, I found some common threads. There seem to be five necessary ingredients in the process of developing a daily practice that continues for many years, and without break. They are:
- Having a personal conviction
- Knowing how to discipline the mind
- Love for what you are doing
- A strong desire to succeed
You need a strong unshakeable conviction that meditation should be an essential aspect of your life. You need to feel on a very deep level that what you are trying to do is crucial to your success in the realization of your inner peace. Such a conviction may come quickly from one very personal and moving life experience, or it may develop more slowly from years of accumulated experiences.
All of the long time meditators I interviewed so far have stated that the major motivating factor in their regular practice was the fact that they were absolutely convinced that this practice was beneficial to and important in their life.
You may not think that you have a personal conviction. Perhaps there is no single dramatic experience that comes to mind, which is responsible for your certainty that this practice is important for you. However, if you have a keen interest in developing a daily meditation practice, the chances are that you also have a personal conviction about it.
Close your eyes for a few moments and put yourself into a relaxed state of mind. Think back to how your life was before you began practicing Yoga. Recall the incidents leading up to your interest in Yoga and the reasons why you began your practice. Then take some time to reflect upon your life right now. Also take a few minutes and consider how you would like your life to be in the future.
Somewhere in the beginning, middle, or end of this review, you are likely to find a personal conviction that meditation is an essential aspect of your daily life. This belief, and the experiences that led you to this belief will help to carry you through the probable maze of obstacles that the mind will invent to undermine your efforts to develop a daily practice that continues for many years, without interruption. In times of dryness in your practice, and in times of doubt or other weakness, you can draw upon your conviction as you remind yourself why it is important not to give in to the minds attempts to undermine your daily efforts.
Discipline is needed when controlling the mind. Discipline is the understanding, training, and reshaping of the thought patterns. You have to learn to recognize which thoughts are helpful and which are not. Then you have to know how to encourage the helpful thoughts and discourage everything else. In developing a consistent meditation practice, the need for discipline will make itself known very early on.
To begin with, when the alarm goes off in the morning, you have to decide which thoughts or voices to listen to and which to ignore. Consider yourself especially blessed or lucky if you go to sleep thinking about how great it will be to wake up the next morning at 4:40 AM or at whatever time you have decided will be the appointed hour. And, know that you are doubly blessed if, when you awake, you are able to jump out of bed without a thought. I know, because the first six months or so of my practice was exactly like that.
There are a few people who from day one have absolutely loved to arise before dawn and have never had to face the obstacles I’ll be talking about. I sincerely wish that you are one of those people. If so, reading on may increase your gratefulness, if nothing else! It is more common that most of us who have been meditating regularly for years, found that at some point our enthusiasm waned, and we were confronted with a number of early morning voices that made it difficult just to get out of bed.
These voices exist only to sabotage the willpower. The crucial point is that the voices you hear are nothing but echoes of a mind that is used to doing what it wants. It is testing you. Accept the fact that you may hear them when you awake and learn not to be influenced by them. And, be sure to create planned responses that can deflate the influence they could have on you. Below are a few of the voices people spoke about during our interviews and some or their responses:
I’m so tired. Even though I went to bed early, I didn’t fall asleep until late and then I woke up every few hours. I’ll just go back to sleep for another hour and tomorrow I’ll get up on time.
- I’ve just decided to have a daily practice, without break and in full earnestness. If I don’t get up and meditate now I probably won’t do it tomorrow. For “x” number of years I have periodically succumbed to your voice. I am not going to spend the next 25 in the same way.
- When I am 60 or 70 years old and I have to decide once again for the umpteenth time to have a daily meditation practice, I will still have to face this very same voice speaking to me now saying “I’m too tired, Start tomorrow.” This thought is too unbearable to live with.
- I have awoken each day of my life for the last “x” number of years to start a new day. This is just a little bit earlier.
Much of our life drifts away from us because we allow ourselves to be deluded by the mind. For example: “I’ll start my diet tomorrow. I’ll sign up for that Yoga class next week. I’ll spend more time with my family as soon as I get a better job.” We allow the mind to trick us into believing that what we are unable to do in this moment will miraculously be very easy for us in a day, a week or a month.
This meditation stuff is getting me nowhere. Look at the rest of the world. There are plenty of happy people who are leading productive and creative lives. They don’t torture themselves with this nonsense. Go back to sleep. You can meditate later if you really want to.
- It may be true that other people are happy without meditation. But the fact is, that for whatever reasons, I have never found the kind of happiness and peace that I am seeking in going about my life without some serious discipline.
- I know that meditation is an important part of my life and I’m going to stick with it no matter what excuses you make up. Besides, once I get dressed and am in a sitting position, I really enjoy meditating.
- If I go back to sleep as you have suggested, I won’t have time to meditate because I have to get to work, or the kids will be up and they’ll need me, or . . .
Sitting meditation isn’t really that important. You can meditate all day by keeping your mantra going in the back of your mind while going about your tasks.
- This is a blatant lie! Of course meditation is important. You know you have heard Swami Satchidananda talk about this year after year.
- An important purpose of sitting meditation is to prepare me to be able to experience my inner bliss, love, joy, and wisdom, every waking moment of my day. Now get up and get to it!
All the above voices are very difficult to ignore, but we can analyze them and see them for what they are: attempts of an untamed mind to undermine the good intentions we have. These intentions come from the part of the mind that is struggling against all odds to help us connect to the spirit within. They come from the part of the mind that is at odds with the willpower. The willpower, still in its infancy, needs the support of our determination and conviction. We need a determination to forge ahead and not listen to the illusions that the mind presents us with. These illusions trick us into believing that we can find happiness in life simply by following the dictates, whims, and desires of the mind.
We each must recognize and confront our own individual brand of morning voices that want to undermine our practice. Once you become immune to their influence, you have won a major victory. You are that much closer to your goal of developing a daily meditation practice
Vigilance is watchfulness or alertness. It is the unwavering attention to the minds’ various impulses and activities. And through that attentiveness, it is the effort made to decide what kinds of thoughts are to be allowed and what is not permitted. It is by watching what the mind tells us and deciding whether to let the idea pass or not, that we can be successful in our practice. If you do not develop this skill, you may find yourself embroiled in some unwanted habits that interfere with your ability to meditate. My own lack of watchfulness began at a point when I thought I was not getting enough sleep. When I awoke, my body and mind cried out for more rest. If I really needed more sleep, I could have found a better, more effective solution than what follows.
Remaining true to my conviction that the act of getting up and going to meditation was more important than going back to sleep, and, not wanting to sabotage the previous couple of years of regularity, I dragged myself out of bed. But, one morning, I allowed my vigilance to take a nap by making the following compromise with myself. Since I was doing such a great thing by not going back to sleep, I would allow myself to doze off during practice, thus catching up on the rest I thought I needed. Little did I know how big of a mistake this was to become.
I found myself experiencing months of doing nothing but falling asleep during my practice. Once this became a habit, it was tremendously difficult for me to break out of. And it was very unpleasant to have to go through. It took just as many months to finally begin to pick up where I had left off in terms of my focus during meditation. If a similar situation should occur in the future, I plan to handle it differently. One possible solution could be to make certain that I went to sleep earlier. Another could be to drink some energizing ginger tea before beginning my morning practice.
Not all compromises are unhelpful. In fact, a healthy compromise may at times be the only lifeline you have to maintaining your daily practice. One successful comprise I made had to do with a change in my routine one day a week. Instead of attending group morning meditation seven days a week, on Sundays, I allowed myself to sleep late and meditate in my room later. This was what I call a healthy compromise. It was this agreement I made with myself that helped me go the other six days, without exception. For the last year or so I have reduced my attendance to Monday through Friday so that I can practice my sadhana at home with my husband on the weekends.
It is important not to become rigid or unhappy as a result of our disciplines. On one level, the whole purpose in developing any spiritual practice is that we become more peaceful, easeful, and useful individuals. If we find ourselves tense, and inflexible we will most assuredly be useless and perhaps even hurtful to ourselves as well as to others.
Out of all the meditators I have interviewed so far, one person thought to mention what is probably the most important ingredient of all: love. If we don’t love what we do, the effort is dry and likely not to succeed. We may not experience the feeling of love at every moment. But, at the heart of the practice, if there is nothing in our experience that we can say we love to do or love about it, our inner personal conviction, our discipline, and our vigilance may not be enough to enable us to achieve our goal of having a daily practice for many years, without break. My friend talked about how she needs this quiet time every morning so that she can put herself more in touch with her love for God. She also spoke of her love for the early morning walk to Guru Bhavan, the building where the ashram group meditation takes place.
You may be thinking that there is nothing you particularly love about the discipline of a regular practice. But, if you have a sincere interest, backed up by a conviction, you probably can find some love in there. It may be the peaceful feeling you sometimes experience while you are concentrating.
It may be the moment you wake up and feel or smell the fresh air coming in the window. Or, it may be the sounds of the birds in the early morning hours, or the moonlight or the quietness in the house or apartment. If you look, you will be able to find at least one or two things that you really love about what you are doing.
Desire to succeed
Like anything else, desire in and of itself is neither good nor bad. The desire to develop a daily and continuous meditation practice is the thread that weaves itself together with all the other threads to form a beautiful fabric. Without a desire to succeed, your conviction of how meditation benefits you may not be enough to carry you through all the challenges to maintaining a consistent practice. Without a desire to experience the inner peace that reveals itself through a focused mind, your vigilance could lose its grip. Without a desire for the mental and emotional satisfaction that comes to you through a deepened practice, your love for the practice could easily fade away for long periods of time.
Desire and personal conviction go hand in hand in this dance of using one part of the mind to discipline and control the other part of the mind. All of this occurs in and through the mind. The mind is not our enemy on this sublime journey to our higher Self, to our inner peace, or to the Divine within us. It is a mischievous friend that needs to know its limits so that we can enjoy each other’s company more fully.
The daily act of getting out of bed and onto the meditation cushion is a major step toward controlling the thought waves in the mind. And now that you have disciplined the mind enough to be getting up every morning, another kind of discipline is called for: the practice of concentration. After all, you didn’t get yourself out of a warm, cozy bed at an unbelievably early hour of the morning to sit while your mind proceeds to behave in the usual fashion. Left to its own devices, the mind will run rampant and you will be doing nothing more than day dreaming. This will produce little, if any, inner satisfaction and may later become another one of the mind’s morning voices, saying, “There is really no point in getting up early. All you do is sit and daydream anyway!”
Every last one of us who practices meditation has to learn how to keep the mind from wandering. The moment I notice that my mind has wandered from its given focus, I call the meditation hotline and they put me in touch with someone who can help. Some mornings I’m on the phone a lot! These are some of the helpful hotline regulars:
- The Witness
The witness simply sits within and watches each thought as it appears. The witness doesn’t say hello, doesn’t tell the thoughts to go away, and doesn’t whisper boo! It patiently watches and waits until the thought leaves on its own accord. After all, what would you do if you entered a room and there was no one there to talk with, no one to disturb, and absolutely nothing to do? Probably you would leave too. The power of the witness is in its ability to remain uninvolved in the mental movements.
- The Night Watch Person
This watch person prevents intrusions by fending off trespassers. The moment a trespasser enters the mind, the watch person requires that they leave. This is done by saying to the thoughts: “You don’t belong here. If you’d like to speak with the owner, come back after meditation and he or she will be happy to give you the full attention you would like.” The power of the watch person is in its resolve to keep the unwanted thoughts out of the area for the time being.
- The Pearl Diver
The pearl diver visualizes a treasure deep within the ocean. That treasure might be a light, a sound, or an inspiring image. The pearl diver thrusts its entire self into the darkness of the ocean. The power of the pearl diver is in its ability to never lose sight of its treasured goal.
- The Thunder
The thunder helps us mentally shout out the mantra as loudly as possible. It gives the mantra such a booming voice that nothing and nobody can stand to be in its presence. All thoughts scatter to the nether lands in fright. The power of the thunder is in its ability to make the mantra completely dominate the scene.
The responses we give to the obstacles that arise in the mind and the tactics we use to bring our minds back to center are tools to be used temporarily. After some time of consistent practice, the mind becomes somewhat tamed. We look forward to getting up early. No longer is it a struggle. Of course the time frame varies from one person to another, but with a daily routine for quite a while and without lapses, the mind does becomes quiet and calm more easily and more quickly. Then it is no longer necessary to use these tools on a regular basis.
Earlier, I quoted Patanjali’s sutra 14 in Book I that says, “Practice becomes firmly grounded when well attended to for a long time, without break and in all earnestness.” The word “practice” refers to a great deal more than our sitting meditation. It means nothing less than our entire Yoga practice— the practice that continues the other sixteen or so hours each day. And that practice is to learn how to live our lives so that every circumstance we find ourselves in becomes an opportunity to remain a peaceful, easeful, and useful individual.
To all our readers, whether just beginning a meditation practice or having been meditating for many years, we invite you to share your tips for success. If there is room in future issues, they may be included for the benefit of others.
Bharati Gardino has been practicing Integral Yoga since 1970. Before moving to Yogaville with her husband, Joe, in 1986, she served at the Integral Yoga Institute of New Britain (Connecticut) and later became a Special Education teacher. Joe and Bharati managed the Lotus View Organic Garden at the Virginia Ashram from 1987 to 1994. Bharati has served in the Yogaville Credit Union and in the Integral Yoga Teachers Association. Since retiring from public school teaching eight years ago, she serves as a community volunteer in the Satchidananda Ashram Prison Project, teaches Hatha Yoga classes at the ashram, and enjoys sewing robes for the monastics in the community. After first writing this article in 1996, she continues to have a regular meditation practice.