Earlier this year, a good friend of mine headed off to Hawaii for a month-long vacation. Maintaining his meditation practice had become a challenge through the winter months and he just couldn’t wait to hit a certain secluded beach populated by nothing but birds, seals and other wildlife. Not a person around. No interruptions possible. He found his way to that beach to enjoy a long, quiet body scan meditation. Everything was perfect.
Two minutes of calm, two minutes of focus. And then, thump-thump. thump-thump. thump-trump. An incredible noise swept overhead. The beating of a helicopter’s blades, seemingly out of place. My friend opened his eyes to discover a coast guard rescue helicopter hovering just feet above the ocean. Eventually, it flew off. But his peace disrupted, he began to wonder, “what was the helicopter looking for? Was someone missing?” And on and on. The story, the narrative swept him out of his present-moment experience into the worrying, planning, analyzing that we all know too well. As Jon Kabat-Zinn writes, “wherever you go, there you are.”
Vacations can present a curious challenge to our meditation practice. At various times, it may seem like vacation is conducive, at other times disruptive. I’ve found vacations often disrupt my morning meditation routine because I awake to a room with other family members and in many cases, there isn’t an appropriate chair. Other times, I find my expectations rising that I should have no worries which of course turns on the “worrying mind”. Vacations are ready made for the notion, “I’ll do it later.” Sometimes later never comes.
Likewise, illnesses can present challenges by disrupting sleep routines or impacting your ability to use the breath or body as an anchor. You might physically be unable to sit as usual and perhaps other priorities must come first.
Finally, we are all very busy. You may have heard the story of the great teacher who, in response to a visitor declared, “You should sit in meditation for twenty minutes every day — unless you’re too busy. Then you should sit for an hour.” In reality, making time, any time, offers you care and compassion for your internal experience that we’d often prefer to ignore. In my work, I often talk with clients that seek to compartmentalize the realms of their life, attempting to firewall a stressful job or a challenging relationships, from the other realms. And it just doesn’t seem to work.
The good news is that the practice of meditation can be flexible to occasional periods of difficulty. The research suggests that consistent practice can literally rewire the brain through the process of neuroplasticity. This practice doesn’t have to take long. Much like an athlete training for a big event, it comes not from perfection but persistence. Just ten minutes a day has shown to have an impact.
It is also helpful to consider the value of mindfulness and meditation to “be there when you need it.” So practice, no matter how imperfect, supports your ability to respond mindfully instead of react habitually over time. At a recent workshop, a participant was reflecting on a somewhat sloppy mindfulness practice that she had almost given up on. “Then,” she declared, “something terrible happened. And it was there for me.” This story of the Rabbi from Jack Kornfield describes this dynamic nicely.
I have found that my meditation practice supports calm and focus. This process was gradual and iterative. I might find myself responding more thoughtfully to a particularly charged situation one day and totally lose it the next. That has to be ok, it is part of the practice. So its not about immediate results. Just like exercising, maintaining a healthy diet and getting the right amount of sleep pay off over time, so does your practice. You may find yourself slowly becoming less reactive in inappropriate situations or more relaxed.
Mindfulness takes place in the “real world.” So while it might not be as ideal as sitting for a half hour in a quiet, dark room, a moment of mindfulness practiced anytime in your day can be meaningful. The reality is, you can’t cram for the test of life through austere sitting practices. I see that as good news. All we have to do is a little something every day.
So what to do to maintain a practice through the challenges of vacations, illness and busyness? Below, I explore four ideas and include some tips for practice:
- Lower your standards – Meditation teacher Sharon Salzburg likes to say, “just put your body there” and “assume the position.” Could that be it? Sure. Being able to say “this is what I can do today and I’m doing it” can often create an opening for sustained practice. Letting go of the perfectionist in you and allowing yourself to be flawed shows great self-compassion. My standard 20 minutes morning sit often becomes 5 minutes when I’m busy but its better than nothing.
- Connect your practice to a routine – Are there any routines that find you waiting for a few minutes? Perhaps you brew tea or coffee in the morning. Take that time while you are waiting to sit quietly and observe your breath. No need to have a goal or expectation. Just allow yourself to be present in your environment. How about when you pump gas? Take that time to do a quick standing meditation instead of reaching for the cell phone.
- Give yourself reminders – These days, we walk around with supercomputers in our pockets. Download the mindfulness bell app to remind you to stop, breathe and be throughout your day. You can even go old school by placing dots in prominent places to remind you to take a breath or even use post-it notes.
- Do one thing & do it early – The comedian Mike Birbiglia says, “I like to write before I’m afraid of the world.” I’ve found that if I delay my practice until later in the day, fear often keeps me from sitting. Fear of missing out, fear of what might come up, etc. Try rubbing your legs, arms, shoulders and heads vigorously as you get out of bed in the morning and find your way to a short sitting meditation and see what happens.
And there’s certainly nothing wrong with a Body Scan even as you are preparing to head off to sleep.
Even briefer is the practice of Metta or Lovingkindness which can be practiced at the train station, grocery store or anywhere you’ll encounter people. As you see each person, silently offer them the following words, “May you be happy, May you be healthy, May you be safe.”
As always, please check out www.center4selfcare.com for more resources or email me at marc (at) center4selfcare.com.
Originally published August 26, 2016