Cultivating a Sustainable Practice

Retreat ZafuAt Midwest Alliance for Mindfulness, we offer a number of 8 -week courses in mindfulness and this is a helpful way to provide some structure, motivation and accountability within which a fledgling practice might take flight. New practitioners often feel grateful for and full of wonder at what they discover – even if its just a few precious moments of peace each day, the benefits of which ripple out into their daily lives. At the end of these courses, participants invariably express some fear they will be unable to sustain their newfound practice. Here are some of the tips I give them to help them ensure their practice will continue on long after the course ends.

Make it Meaningful
I remember Jon Kabat-Zinn saying in one of his interviews or writings that he would no more skip his daily practice than he would skip brushing his teeth. Why do most of us brush our teeth every day without any goading or prompting? Because the rewards, though not always immediate or visible, are quite profound to us. We would like to keep our teeth functional and pain free as long as possible – life with healthy teeth seems immeasurably easier and preferable to the alternative. The intention behind brushing is to be able to enjoy our teeth for years to come. What are your intentions behind your personal practice?

Most of us who have stumbled across mindfulness have done so because we have come up against a pervasive sense dissatisfaction or distress that seems to permeate worldly existence – either through witnessing the suffering of others or through experiencing our own struggles. It is helpful to remember why we started our practice in the first place and how it impacts our wellbeing as well as our relationship to the external world. The benefits might not always be immediately visible, but they are profound. Coming back to our intentions for practice again and again can help keep us motivated.

Make it Routine
When we approach something haphazardly or rely on our overtaxed memory for reminders, things often go by the wayside. We say we’ll do it later, but something more pressing inevitably sidetracks us – later never comes. However, there are some things we never seem to forget or pass up. These are the necessary and not optional things that are a reliable part of our daily routine. Try tethering your practice to one of these things that are almost guaranteed to happen every day. Some examples might include waking up in the morning, taking your lunch break at work, or your starting your bedtime routine. This keeps practice top of mind and less likely to be overlooked.

Make it Enjoyable
Think of all the things you’ve committed to at some point because you think you should, but you don’t really enjoy. How many gym memberships have you purchased and let languish? Is there a piano, guitar or some other instrument gathering dust in a corner? Maybe there is a juicer or dehydrator tucked away in a cupboard. Do you feel a sense of dread as you pull on your running shoes or tap your Headspace app? Many of us will sacrifice heroically for some short-term goal, only to burn out completely once we’ve met it (or not) and then return to baseline or sink even deeper…

Ashtanga yoga practitioner and teacher David Williams has sustained a daily practice since 1971. What he says about yoga is probably also true for meditation and other practices: “From over 40 years of observing thousands of people practicing Yoga, I realize that those who continue are the ones who are able to figure out how to make it enjoyable. They look forward to their daily practice and nothing can keep them from finding the time to do it. It becomes one of the most pleasant parts of their day. The others, consciously, subconsciously, or unconsciously, quit practicing.” Making your practice enjoyable doesn’t mean it will feel absolutely awesome everyday, but in the bigger picture, it will help you anticipate it joyfully and earnestly protect the time you’ve carved out for it.

Make it Social
Surround yourself with others who make mindfulness a part of their daily lives. In this way, practice becomes the norm. Your friends make room for it in their lives and they honor the space you need for it in yours. It comes up in conversation and its something around which you can bond. Their mindful behavior inspires and influences you and vice versa. You will start to feel accountable to your mindful friends to keep up with your practice and to live a life that is congruent with common values. Practicing with a group of like-minded people from time to time can help you develop these types of relationships and feel more supported in your journey. You may even begin to look forward to the time you spend practicing together.

The practice of mindfulness begins in the small, remote cave of your unconscious mind and blossoms with the sunlight of your conscious life, reaching far beyond the people and places you can see. – Earon Davis

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