Better Humaning

Falling Off the Daily Meditation Path

(and how to get back on)

Falling Off the Daily Meditation Path

I haven’t meditated in over a week.

I’ve become increasingly aware of this every day that passes. It’s become so big in my day, that, right now, Not Meditating feels like all I’ve accomplished.

And yet, here I am writing this instead of doing the damn thing. What is wrong with me?

I know that I’ll appreciate my time sitting — both while it’s happening (even if I know it’ll be more fitful than usual) and after. It’ll give my day more focus, give me a breath between the world and my reactions to it, and I’ll feel happier, healthier, calmer, and whole-er.

The benefits of meditating, when I haven’t been, are always more obvious to me in the negative: the list of things I’ve been doing, thinking, eating, etc. that were not mindful, but were instead short-sighted comforts that led to longer-term pains. The things I wouldn’t be doing if I had been meditating.

And my recent memory is full of such things. My body and mind are weighed down with their aftermath.

Yet here I am, still Not Meditating. 

I know that all that’s standing between me getting back on that path or me continuing to flounder is a few minutes on the cushion. I’ve known that every day.

And yet I didn’t. I still haven’t.

So what’s getting in my way? If you’ve ever experienced this — or currently are — what’s getting in our way?

Setting the Bar too High

When I first started meditating, any moment of mindfulness was a win. A single mindful breath. A moment of mindful chewing. A glimpse. That’s it. That was the bar. And every time I jumped over it, I celebrated.

And I kept raising it.

Soon, the bar became sitting for 10 minutes, not just a breath.

Then it was sitting first thing in the morning, before my email or or other morning habits. That’s a high bar for me, already. But I kept raising it more.

The bar became meditating for 100 days in a row. It became practicing more time practicing every day (30 minutes, then 60, then 90), and more sessions (from one morning sit, to an afternoon practice as well).

None of this, mind you, was done in the spirit of competitiveness. I wasn’t motivated by the numbers. And it wasn’t difficult. It didn’t feel like raising the bar. It was effortless, and I appreciated each addition to my practice as it happened — and when I’m in the habit of practicing, that routine is welcome. 

But the problem comes in when I fall off the wagon. As soon as I break my habit, all that was once welcoming becomes daunting.

Because for me to transform today from a Not Meditating Day into a Meditating Day, I now feel the pressure to…

  1. Meditate first thing;
  2. Sit for at least one session for 10 minutes, but really 30, and ideally 90 in two or three practice sessions throughout the day; and
  3. Have it complement yesterday’s practice, which complemented the day’s before it, repeat times 100.

As soon as 10am hits, I’ve failed #1. If it’s not 10am, and I’m looking at my day, and feel overwhelmed or unable to sit for 90, or 30, or 10 minutes, I fail #2. And if I’m not feeling overwhelmed looking ahead at my day, and it’s not yet 10am, I already failed #3 before the day started.

When I fail to clear the bar, I feel defeated, and today becomes a[nother] Not Meditating Day. And, generally, I tell myself, “No problem. Tomorrow I’ll get back on the wagon.”

Rediscovering the Path

I’ve done this so many times throughout my life that I’ve lost count. It’s in the dozens, at least. I’ve been doing it since I was a teen. I should be an expert by now.

“Hi, I’m Sam, and I’m an expert rediscovering-the-daily-meditation-path-er.”

But I’m not.

In fact, it feels like I keep getting worse at this over time, instead of better.

Every time it happens it feels like a brand new mountain to climb. And then, as soon as I get to the top, I remember that I’ve been there before. I’ve walked that path. I’ve seen the view. It’s all so familiar. How did I forget the way?

I’ve never written about this, because it all feels so silly. That’s part of it, too. The shame is mud. It slows my steps, swallows my shoes, leaves me marked. You’re supposed to be above this. Beyond this. You’ve been here. Why are you back?

And it actively hurts me, not meditating, which makes this all the more ridiculous. It’s so obvious to me. I think about it constantly. You would take your hand out of the fire as soon as it got too hot. This is that. Just do the damned thing.

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So, I’m writing now, from the mud, with my hand still in the flame, from this vantage point. I’m at the bottom of the mountain, looking for the path. Trying to remember:

First, there is no bar.

“Okay, Neo,” I snark to myself.

“How Zen of you,” you probably mock. No, that’s not what you’re thinking? Oh, you’re nice. Oops — I guess that was me again.

I know, I know. I know. It’s so theoretical, so high-minded, so unhelpful. But it’s necessary. I need to have that thought, because it brings to my mind the next one.

Actually, that’s not the point.

It’s not about the bar. And the bar was never the point, nor is being all “there is no bar.” Neither of those were the point.

The point of a mindfulness practice isn’t how many minutes a day I sit. It’s not about the sessions per day, or the number of days in a row I rack up. It’s not about sitting at all, truly. All that just points me toward something else. Somewhere else.

Toward noticing. I’m noticing right now. That’s where I am. I’m swimming in noticing right now. Is this it?

The point is noticing.

Oh. Yeah. That’s it. Or, rather, this is. This is it. This is the why. This is the point.

It’s not about the streak. Or the times sitting per day. Or the time I spend sitting. It’s not about the past at all.

It’s not about tomorrow. Whether I’ll practice or not, and how that reflects my ability to practice today.

It’s not about other people’s expectations, or looking bad for not practicing (or good for practicing).

Those are all ego, attachments to the past and present. They’re not the practice, but they so easily become its imposter. They aren’t real. They’re not the “now,” the moment, the present.

But as I get better at noticing, as I hone my practice, and spend less time lost in thought, I find myself caught up noticing them all the more. Noticing those ego thoughts. Noticing those pressures. Recognizing my bent toward a quantified self, toward progress. And I let them derail my practice.

Oh shit — that’s it.

Noticing This is the Practice.

I haven’t lost the path.

That’s why I can never remember the path. I’ve never walked it — I’m walking it. The feeling of the past tense, the yearning for it as a marker for being out of this funk, that’s what keeps me in it.

I’ve never reached the summit, but I have repeatedly reached the realization that there isn’t a summit to reach. I’ve found my way back to the moment, to the raw noticing of myself as a witness of my experience.

I’m noticing my fingers on the keys. The moisture in the air. The shallowness of my breath.

It’s hard not to feel like I’ve wasted so many days by not sitting to practice. It’s harder still not to feel the stickiness of guilt, the weight of shame, about how I’ve been treating myself and others in my life because of it. It’s hard not to conjure images of wiping a slate clean, or to not sense the futility of starting over, or the excitement of beginning anew.

I’m noticing those feelings.

I’ll notice when they pass.