You know how it is. You go on that 10-day meditation retreat and it completely changes your life.
You learn how to bring your awareness back to your breath and your body. You tame the wild stallion that is your mind.
You feel — for the first time in your entire life — what it’s like to have a peaceful mind.
You become aware, truly aware — for the first time in your entire life — of your body.
You discover an inner world you had no idea existed.
You couldn’t be more grateful for having discovered this practice if you tried.
You actually cry when you get home.
You call your friends.
You post about it on Facebook.
You tell everyone in your life to go and see for themselves. It’s THAT powerful for you.
You’re insanely motivated to keep up this practice. You know it’s going to continue making your life better. So so much better.
First thing the next morning, you clear space in your apartment for your new meditation practice.
It’s nirvana… for a few days.
And then what happens?
You go back to work.
You spend time with your family.
You re-embed in old routines.
You have a hard time keeping up your meditation practice. That one hour sit in the morning becomes 45 minutes.
You seek out all the apps.
You substitute guided meditations for “pure practice.” That 45 minutes becomes 30 minutes.
You tell yourself you’re just finding your level.
You start to notice that your emotional buffer capacity— that newfound ability to respond rather than react to life — is declining.
You’re quicker to anger again. It’s harder to tolerate that annoying coworker than it once was.
You were getting so good at cultivating compassion for other drivers (they must have an emergency or something), and, boom, your road rage returns in full force.
Your 30 minutes of morning meditation becomes 20 minutes.
You’re desperate to keep this good thing going.
What to do?
You don’t have any more vacation time.
You burned it all on your gift to yourself.
You schedule a one-day sit.
20 minutes becomes 10 minutes.
You do the one-day sit and your slide subsides… for about a week.
10 minutes becomes 5 minutes.
You know meditation is good for you. You know you need to boost your buffer capacity, but you can’t do another 10-day retreat.
You feel stuck. There’s no way you want to go back to the way you used to be before.
You rack your brain.
You ask yourself:
How can I keep moving forward?
If you’re like me… you move into a Zen Buddhist Temple.
Now, I know that moving into a Buddhist temple isn’t a realistic option for most people. It certainly wasn’t a permanent solution for me. But it did teach me a lot about meditation and mindfulness.
It taught me that the reason that it’s so hard to bring meditation into everyday life is because meditation is best practiced in the company of others.
Meditation is fundamentally a social technology.
Yes, you meditate alone. But for it to be fully effective, you need to meditate in the company of others. It’s a technology that works best when practiced alone, together.
Allow me to explain.
So far as we know, mindfulness meditation was invented by the Buddha 2,600 years ago, and while he’s said to have reached enlightenment alone under a tree, the fact is that he taught his technique to groups of monks and nuns who practiced together.
Every year when the monsoons made the unpaved roads of northeast India impassable, they would meet for “rains retreats.”
They’d sit together in parks for a few months before heading out on the dusty roads in the dry season to spread the word.
Fast forward a few thousand years.
Buddhist temples and meditation retreat centers are modeled after these early rains retreats. They employ numerous design patterns that support meditation practice.
For instance, temples and retreat centers:
- Cultivate a close connection to nature (most temples are located in the mountains, away from the lowlands, with their villages, markets, cities, palaces, and wineshops, which are thought of as the place of greed, lust, competition, commerce, and intoxication – the ‘dusty world,’ according to Zen master Gary Snyder)
- Use dedicated spaces for sitting meditation
- Use rituals to sacralize that space
- Practice together in the early mornings
- Encourage social harmony through the use precepts that discourage taking what is not freely offered or speaking ill of others (or speaking at all, in the case of a meditation retreat)
- Eat vegetarian diets (in Korea, they don’t even serve garlic at Buddhist temples because it’s thought to bring too much “heat” into the mind)
- Employ intermittent fasting (in the Vipassana tradition “old students” are don’t eat after noon) to loosen the grip of the ego.
In short, temples and retreat centers are amazingly sophisticated social settings. Social settings that are skillfully designed to support the central practice: meditation.
Among the residents of the Ann Arbor Zen Buddhist temple it was a common observation that doing morning practice alone was no fun at all. It was so much easier if there was a second person there to share in the experience.
The ideal situation was six.
With I had five other skilled practitioners sitting with me, I could easily go deep into a meditative state.
Once I left the temple, however, meditation got much harder.
After numerous trials and failures, I concluded that attempting to practice meditation outside its highly evolved home is akin to an oyster attempting to grow a pearl without a shell. It doesn’t really work.
And it seems I’m not the only one who has a hard time integrating meditation into my everyday life.
According to meditation teacher and mindfulness guru, Jack Kornfield, the most frequently asked question of meditation students is: How can I bring this practice into my daily life?
The answer, for all practical purposes, is: you can’t.
At least not in its traditional form.
(Sure, there are a few heroic people who are able to maintain a daily mediation practice. I’m not one of them. Are you?)
I don’t believe that the vast majority of us will be able to use meditation as a means to practice mindfulness in our everyday lives.
Nor do I believe building a better app will make much difference.
Meditation simply isn’t designed to be used by isolated urban individuals who lack the skillful support that temples and retreat centers provide.
I don’t have an data, but I suspect that the drop-off rate with meditation apps is quite high.
We need a new approach.
We need an approach to mindfulness that’s designed specifically to meet the needs of modernity.
We need an approach that takes into account that we live in cities, we live alone (or if we don’t live alone, we practice alone), and we — busy people with demanding jobs and families to take care of — have precious little uninterrupted time.
We need an easy and effective way to get 80% of the magical benefits of mindfulness as possible at 20% of the cost of time, money, and effort.
We need an approach to mindfulness that works with the small pockets of discretionary time we do have.
A few minutes here.
A few minutes there.
That approach, I believe, is going to be based in two things: reflection and writing.
Approach #1: Pause to Reflect
The first thing we need to do is to create strategic moments of mindfulness throughout the day.
We want to create mindfulness practices that slot into or next to things already on our schedule.
These are what James Clear calls atomic habits — small habits that are part of a larger system. As he writes in his book Atomic Habits, “Just as atoms are the building blocks of molecules, atomic habits are the building blocks of remarkable results.”
For example, the woman in the image above has decided to pause to reflect after she drops her kids off at school but before she starts to work on her Internet business.
Her implementation intention is:
“After I drop the kids off at school, I will fill my favorite mug with tea, sit on the window sill, and spend 3 minutes reflecting on what I’m most grateful for, before I get back to work on my Internet business.”
It’s only when we get explicit about where and when our mindfulness practice will fit into our day that we’ll start to see results.
This woman is not trying to change what she can’t change. She has to take the kids to school. That’s not optional.
But what’s optional is how she prepares herself for role-shifting.
By inserting a moment of mindfulness in between being “mom” and being “boss” she makes it more likely that she’s going to perform better at work.
And by choosing to cultivate gratitude, she increases the likelihood that she’s going to bring positive emotions and generative energy into her work.
If she repeats this ritual regularly, it’s very likely, according to the research, that she’s going to become a more confident and creative leader.
This is how we can start to gain the almost magical benefits of mindfulness without going to live in a monastery.
Approach #2: Write to Discover
The second thing we need to do to practice everyday mindfulness is to leverage the power of writing.
Not only is journaling cheap, it’s effective, even in small doses. In the words of The New York Times:
Once the domain of teenage girls and the literati, journaling has become a hallmark of the so-called self-care movement, right up there with meditation. And for good reason: Scientific studies have shown it to be essentially a panacea for modern life. There are the obvious benefits, like a boost in mindfulness, memory and communication skills. But studies have also found that writing in a journal can lead to better sleep, a stronger immune system, more self-confidence and a higher I.Q. Research out of New Zealand suggests that the practice may even help wounds heal faster.
The question then becomes:
What should we write about?
In The Mindful Life Journal, I make the case that we should be writing about our emotions, intentions, and energy.
To learn more about the approach I created, you can download the introduction of the journal for free by signing up below.
For now, let’s take energy.
The man in the image above has decided to incorporate a strategic moment of mindfulness into each work day by writing about three things that energized him before he leaves the office.
His implementation intention is:
“At 5:30pm, after I finish my last meeting at work, I will take out my notebook from my desk drawer, take 3 deep breaths, and write about 3 things that gave me energy today, before I go home to my family.”
What are the likely results of this kind of ritual?
Research shows that people who feel energized are curious, self-motivated, and full of life. Their enthusiasm is contagious.
Their passion gets more people on board with their projects. They actively seek out the resources they need and produce more creative and higher quality outcomes.
They’re also mentally and physically healthier, feel more meaning, more self-worth, are more empowered, and experience more personal growth.
If his goal is to be a better leader, he’s on the right track.
One thing I would suggest to this man is that he may also want to track what takes his energy away.
That way he can spend less of his time with the people, situations, activities, or places, that repeatedly drain him and more with those that enliven him.
Oh, and do you think that he’ll be in a better mood when he get home to his family?
So do I.
Despite its life-changing capabilities, meditation is best practiced in its natural habit — that is, in temples and meditation retreat centers that provide the proper social support system.
(Please don’t misunderstand me. I honestly think one of the greatest gifts you could possibly give yourself is to take time out of your life to do a 10-day Vipassana Meditation retreat. If that’s a luxury you can afford, please make space for it in your life. You won’t regret it. Go, see for yourself.)
However, for those of us who want to integrate mindfulness into our everyday lives, rather than struggling to maintain a daily meditation practice, we will be better served by bringing moments of reflection and writing into our strategic parts of our day.
It’s these kind of achievable habits that will make our lives better and more meaningful in a 1% kind of way each and every day.