A little while back, I was struck by something a teacher said during a meditation retreat:
“Your commitment to your practice is measured by the quality of investment of yourself as you are practicing, not by the length of time.”
Up until that point, I had most often “measured” my commitment level by the length of time I was practicing each day. My intention was to sit for one hour, either 60 minutes in the morning or 30 minute bookends, morning and evening. If I got there, GREAT (insert sparkly unicorn sticker). If not, I offered myself some compassion, reflected on what got in the way, and began again the next morning. When I heard the words “quality of investment” it really helped shift my emphasis to how I’m showing up to practice – is this another check box on my massive to-do list, or is it a precious and rich opportunity to nourish myself?
A metaphor that comes to mind is the difference between eating nutrient dense foods versus empty calories. The activity of consuming these two types of food, on the surface, looks pretty similar, but one is deeply nourishing and the other is a hollow endeavor. This same notion to our practice. In meditation, if we sit down, set the timer, and eagerly anticipate the liberating *ding* at the end (“Booyah! *check*….next!”) there’s a good chance that our mind will totally check out, and we’ll miss out on the real fruits of our practice.
That said, there are two things I want to clarify here:
1. Getting your butt on the cushion is alone worthy of celebrating, regardless of the “nutrient” absorption. Sometimes this can be the hardest part, so if that’s as far as you’re getting, keep it up. It’s also healthy to feel joy (and perhaps a sigh of relief) when you hear the ending “ding.” Sometimes it even makes me smile. The invitation here is to pay more attention to the quality of investment with which you show up. It matters, and you may find as I do, that when I approach my practice with a sincere investment – an honoring of myself – I notice it directly impact the quality of my presence. Right away, I tell myself it’s worth it to be here, in these next however many minutes. My monkey mind may still be swinging about the trees, but I feel myself more grounded in my seat and the space of my practice.
2. It's important to differentiate between “quality of investment” and “striving”. Often, we think fully investing ourselves in something means giving 110%. In meditation, we are learning to fully engage and invest in our practice, without the "striving" or forcing quality that is habitual for so many of us. We're also learning to bring a certain quality of attention, so our minds aren't just floating like flotsam. This is a fine line to walk, and often raises lots of questions – am I trying too hard to meditate? Am I not trying hard enough? Help, I’m confused!! In many ways, finding this balance is an enigma, and this goofy clip from Forgetting Sarah Marshall sums it up quite well:
For me, learning how to turn up my investment dial without accelerating into striving has been an ongoing investigation. In my practice thus far, there are four specific qualities that I've found highly useful in guiding this balance:
1. A sense of faith. Believing that the practice will actually help me goes a long way. Faith is a complicated term for a lot of people – in this context, I think of it as simply and sincerely trusting that there is nothing more important or worth my time than giving myself permission to slow down and tune in.
2. Remembering my personal WHY. At the start of every practice, even a short one, I ask myself, “Why am I doing this?” “Why am I really doing this?” I get under the “I should" or "It’s good for me” layer and connect with my deeper motivation, which in turn helps me feel much more committed and present for the practice.
3. Relaxing into presence. At the beginning of each sit, I often silently repeat the word “non-striving” several times to remind myself that there is no mountain to summit or competition to be won here (even with myself). Rather, there is a wholehearted opportunity to rest in natural presence and just let everything unfold, exactly as it is. Similar to a boat floating down a calm river, I let the oars rest idle and use my intention as a rudder, gently steering myself to stay present and focused. When I find myself completely adrift in thoughts, I reset my intention to be present and relax back into the immediacy of my experience.
4. Kindness. Bringing a sense of warmth and camaraderie towards myself – especially in difficult times – has become an essential life salve. It makes everything more manageable, from raging frustration to boredom to grief. On days where my motivation to meditate is a minus 10 (at best), I plop onto the cushion and offer myself a bit of kindness. Often that’s the friendly nudge I need to show up fully, or at least partially, for myself.
I encourage you to investigate folding these qualities into your own practice. Most importantly, perhaps you'll begin to notice if you're sitting down with the intention to get your practice over with, or to wholeheartedly participate in your life and take better care of yourself.
So many activities that we engage in are a means to an end – completing a checklist, driving to and fro, grocery shopping, getting somewhere or something. In the process, we lose touch with our ability to stay connected to our life as it's unfolding and to inhabit the little moments, which are, quite literally, all we ever have.
About the Author
Rena is co-founder of Pause, inspiring individuals and business leaders to live more present, compassionate and fulfilling lives. She brings 11 years of personal practice, a degree in business, and professional mindfulness training through the UMASS Medical School to her work as a mindfulness coach.
Rena currently teaches weekly classes and workshops at the Pause studio, works as a Mindset Instructor at Nike, and facilitates trainings for organizations across the US. She is humbled to be a part of the modern mindfulness movement and finds great hope in sharing this journey with others.