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I just can't manage to maintain a regular practice, not even a short one. From a buddhist point of view, what can be done?

I went on retreats, I sat a few days in a row at home doing meditation, I tried to do small meditations, but I just can't sustain a practice.

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    I edited the question title to better reflect its nature. Please roll-back if not suitable. Maybe you could also explain a bit about what especially you find difficult, regarding continuity and persistence in the practice. – Lanka Oct 24 '15 at 14:22
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This happens when you have a mistaken idea that practice is something separate from your normal life. But meditation is only 1/3rd of the practice, the top of the wedding cake (shila-prajna-samadhi). Most of the practice happens during the day, in what some of us Buddhists semi-jokingly call "post-meditation".

I think meditation looks important to Westerners because it seems to follow familiar functional pattern: do something and get the result. "Leave the rest of your Buddhist B.S. superstitions to the uneducated ancients. I will focus on THE practice." But Buddhism does not work this way. Without right context meditation is useless.

What is the context in Buddhism? The context is removing obstacles to enlightenment, from coarse obstacles, to middling obstacles, to subtle obstacles. You can't remove subtle obstacles until you remove middling obstacles. You can't remove middling obstacles until you remove coarse obstacles. Meditation is a tool that is used for working with subtle obstacles.

What are coarse obstacles? They are coarse biases, coarse illusions, coarse preconceptions, coarse hangups. How can you identify them? By their effects -- production of strong emotions during the day.

Every time you feel strong emotion (e.g. longing, irritation, frustration, resentment, contempt, insult, disgust, anxiety, aversion, strong timidity) - or about to feel strong emotion - therein is attachment (=bias, illusion, preconception, hangup). That's the moment when you should switch your context from whatever it is that you are grasping at, and pause and look at your attachment. At such moments it is right there, like an elephant in the room. What's interesting about attachment, subjectively it always looks legit, it always seems right, appropriate, justified. But that's the way it tricks the rational mind. It may even be attachment to humbleness, attachment to open-mindedness, attachment to kindness, attachment to fairness - any of the good things. But when it becomes all-important it turns into a demon and starts generating judgement, aversion, conflicts, blinding emotions, and bad karma. So as soon as you see the emotion arising - you should step back and identify the attachment / preconception. Then you should let it go while focusing on your recommended anchor:

  • if you are very mental, focus on your body - esp. lower abdomen and feet. Do you feel any tightness or burning or blockage? Do you feel other parts of your body or are they numb?,
  • if you are very emotional, focus on your breathing - is it fluid or jerky or blocked?,
  • if you take real-life situations very seriously, imagine the time of your death,
  • if you are an earthly person, remember that you exist in the infinite Universe with its worlds, which existed for billions of years and will exist for billions of years into the future,
  • if you often feel helpless or frustrated getting your point across, remember behavior of Buddha or your teacher.
  • in any case, let go of your attachment and change your point of view to either very low level (physiology of your psychosomatic expressions and the mechanics of the imprint-based associative cycle) or very high level (the perspective of "God").

When you practice like this you can't forget to practice, there is no problem "establishing" practice - every time there is an obstacle in your life it comes as a reminder to practice!

In the same vein, when you notice yourself getting too happy, too self-righteous, enjoying yourself too much, being too puffed up, doing too well - you should pause and check if there is an attachment at play. When you're doing this right, there should be a feeling of balance, some feeling of ambiguity or open-endedness. But with this I am getting into advanced territory... Anyway.

This is what the practice should be on initial stages, this was my main practice for many years - this and the overcoming of spiritual materialism - before I was even introduced to Buddhist philosophy of anatta and shunyata - and only after I mastered those two conceptually, was I introduced to (shikantaza) meditation.

So yeah like I said, to any Westerner jumping straight into meditation I recommend at least five years of preliminary "shila" practice working with attachments (coarse obstacles), then five years of "prajna" practice studying -- and applying! -- anatta and shunyata to remove middling obstacles, and only then the practice of "samadhi" aka meditation.

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I think the answer to your straggle has very much to do with your personality. I will try to give you some general directions and hopefully you will find them beneficial.

Until this moment of your life, what was the best way to get you to accomplish something your consider of some value? In general, one can have an intrinsic motivation for pursuing something ( that person sees the importance of that thing, or that person enjoys that thing, or sees the progress that he makes etc) or is motivated by an external factor to engage into something ( one goes to work for the paycheck at the end of the month etc). In you case, what is your motivation for pursuing a meditation practice? ( in my case, for almost three years, in every book on Buddhism there was always the theme of meditation and it just got me so curious... I've read how to do it, I've found out I was terrible at it and I wanted to get better, so I kept doing it; and I got to this point where I can't wait to get to the meditation cushion - but I'm sure this too shall pass ;)). From what I understand about you, you know how to do it, but do you know WHY you do it? The point is, try to identify and to work on your motivation. If, in general, you have an intrinsic motivation for your practice, then when you have doubts, revue your motivation, work on that. Like it has been said by others, you can also meditate on the doubts you have - that is still solid practice. But if you still can't get to meditate even if you see it purpose, that you need a good discipline - set a time daily for your meditation, and just do it.

Beside motivation, I recommend you look carefully to the expectations you have about your practice. For your, what constitutes a good meditation? Could it be that you expect to FEEL like meditating before you start to mediate? Can you ignore your disposition and just start your meditation? Can you meditate on your feelings about meditation?

If you have a teacher you can talk to about this things, would be fantastic. If you don't, just try to understand what's going on everyday with your practice. Maybe looking carefully onto your motivations and your expectations about your practice will bring you more insight. I hope it will.

May you find a relief for your straggle! May your practice flourish! Be well!

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Most people come to meditation with the understanding that sitting is a mind/body practice. I mean, I think it's fairly easy to see the role the body plays in sitting. We sit upright to keep our minds upright. A stable body makes for a stable mind. Stilling the body stills the mind of thought and allows the jumping off point for deep concentration. What I think a lot of people miss initially, however, is that while meditation is a mind/body practice, for quite some time it's going to be almost exclusively a bodily practice. It's going to have a lot more in common with going to the gym or staying on a diet than it will with Bodhidharma staring at a wall in deep absorbtion. I'd even say that it is only when you have addressed your bodily formation with earnestness that you can really start a direct approach on your mind. I think right now you are concentrating entirely too much on the latter at the expense of the former. Let me explain...

Buddhism is a sequential path. In suttas like the Samannaphala and in texts like the Visuddhimagga, the Buddha outlines a gradual training that passes through bodily/verbal discipline and virtue (sila), suspension of and abandoning of the mental hindrances (samadhi), and the use of a collected mind to penetrate and eradicate the defilements (panna). While it is true that each phase of the path informs the other, on a more practical level it is important to address these phases in the order they are laid down by the Buddha. You simply can't access a higher phase with any success until you've developed some skill at the one that preceded it.

Let's looking at this practically. Any recovering alcoholic will tell you that those first 24 hours are the hardest to remain sober for. They require summoning an enormous amount of will power. They are also the most important and pave the way for any further development. An alcoholic can't address the reasons for their addiction until they've suspended the symptoms. Likewise for Buddhism, I think anyone who's been at this for a while tell you that those first couple of years are also the hardest but are also instrumental in laying the foundation for further progresses in the Buddha way. The struggle of developing a consistent sitting practice teaches you so much more than how to watch the breath. The lessons you learn are invaluable and will be applicable all throughout your practice. These are not lessons that you can learn through rumination or reading the sutras. They can only be won through the sweat and tears of your body.

It's actually kind of funny that you write of not seeing any benefits. Believe it or not, the beginner's phase - that time when you are addressing the body and preparing it to work for your mind - is when benefits are the most obvious. Now is when you can actually quantify your successes. You can measure your sitting streaks. You can add a minute to your meditation timer here and there. If you are counting your breaths, you might begin to notice that you are getting to six and seven instead of just two or three.

Your work right now is getting your body onto the cushion and learning how to sit with consistency. Don't worry about anything else. Physical effort alone is transformative in ways that few people appreciate. While it might not look like it, I can assure you that your efforts to sit alone are causing deep changes in your mind. One day, and if you apply yourself to taming your body it will come sooner than you think, you will be ready to address your mind directly and access those states that have been eluding you.

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