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I have been meditating (samatha-vipassana within the Theravada tradition) for many years now, and I see myself always falling in the same pattern:

(1) I have periods of very high motivation, which can last 2-6 weeks, and in which I make lots of progress and develop good levels of insight and concentration (good access concentration, experiences of pity and sukha, more lucid insight on impermanence, etc.) I also read and watch lots of content on practice and get closer to people who share this "interest".

(2) When these phases wane, my sittings get increasingly filled with thoughts related to other life matters, especially things that demand high levels of engagement and to which I am somewhat attached (work projects, a new hobby, a new life development). I keep my regular practice (2hrs daily: 1hr in the morning, 1hr in the evening) but my concentration quickly decreases, and I struggle to stay with any object of meditation for long periods. Mindfulness in daily life also gradually disappears.

(3) This goes on until a reading, a conversation, a film or something apparently random brings me back into state (1).

Going through these phases, insight and understanding of practice is the only thing that very slowly accumulates, and gradually increases, but concentration and mindfulness really oscillate and always seem to get back to where I started, whenever I experience state (2).

I have observed this for many years, with many eyes and from many viewpoints inside myself, while sitting and while mindful in action. And what stands out to me is a certain quality of motivation (for lack of a better word) which manifests as a cluster of perceptions, emotions, physical patterns and thought processes. This motivation (like the so-called dopamine cycle, to which it is probably linked) seems to go through a growth phase to a peak, and then decrease.

I have tried to voluntarily trigger the growth of this motivation factor during the descending phase (2), by reading books and create commitments that relate to the practice, even though obviously part of me develops aversion or neutrality to the whole thing. This has rarely worked.

How do you deal with motivation swings on a scale such as this? What can I do to change this pattern and boost my progress? Observing all of this does not seem to have much of an impact, at least so far.

5 Answers 5

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So you notice cycles in your practice? Like you keep seeing the same pattern repeated over and over again? Dare I say, its almost like a spinning wheel rolling and rolling ever onward almost under its own power?

You're trapped in a karmic cycle, buddy. You keep falling for the same bait. That buzz that you get at those high times? They will invariable burn themselves out. They always do. And they will always be followed by those lulls where your motivation wanes and you can't muster the energy for practice. Stop falling into that trap!

Practice has its highs, but it's not the heady high of new love or a new interest. Real practice should be like a stroll. We can't let ourselves go stagnant. If we do, we'll never make any progress. But we can't sprint either. If we do, we lose our wind and find ourselves stopping long before our destination.

If I had any advice to give, it'd be to stop reading, stop trying to motivate yourself, and stop trying to create those periods of intensity. All they're doing is leaving you thirsty when they invariably dry up. Instead, make your practice completely ordinary - like brushing your teeth in the morning. Brushing your teeth isn't terribly exciting. I mean, no one goes through spurts where they get a buzz just thinking about fluoride and bristles. Assuming your teeth haven't already fallen out, it's probably just an ingrained pattern in your life. You probably don't give it much thought. Wake up, take a pee, brush your teeth. It's automatic because you've accumulated so many uneventful repetitions since the time you were old enough to reach the tube of toothpaste in your parents' bathroom. Let your practice be just another form of hygiene. Stop trying to make it special.

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  • Thanks, this is great advice and I very much appreciate it. I think there is much to be gained for me by taking a more "persistent" rather than "obsessed" approach. I have been given the tooth-brushing advice before, but I haven't been able to benefit from that analogy.. Because it's something that you can force yourself to do mechanically, and you benefit from doing it even without being present while you do it. [1/2] Feb 17 at 19:39
  • The teeth-brushing approach does not work very well for meditation in my experience. If I sit down to meditate 2hrs a day (and I do) regardless of whether I feel like it or not, this is not going to make my practice better. It hasn't so far, at least. Because if I sit and my mind is wild, I bring it back whenever I can, but there is an overriding force that despite my efforts, in certain periods, makes concentration and mindfulness really almost impossible. I sit and think. Please bear in mind that I do sit regardless - 2hrs a day. But I haven't seen my practice improve as a result. [2/2] Feb 17 at 19:40
  • But that's when you need to be practicing! To bring this back to the tooth brushing analogy, only practicing when you are clear, on point, and mindful is like saying the only good tooth brushing happens when your teeth are already clean. To use another analogy, it would saying the only time it makes sense to workout is when you are already in shape! I can't say too much about your practice as I don't have much in the way of detail, but I really think you are riding this too hard and maybe a little overly concerned about results. Sit like what you are doing is completely meaningless...
    – 000
    Feb 18 at 19:13
  • Sit like you'll never make any process. When I start getting willful and try forcing my practice, I sit like I'm back at college waiting for a bus that may or may not ever come. There is no good sitting, better sitting, or worse sitting. There is only sitting. Each one is determined by our contemporaneous karmic state. There is no good or bad. Each sit gives you exactly what you need. Just be open to the whole process. Welcome everything that comes.
    – 000
    Feb 18 at 19:21
  • Thanks for your contribution :) Feb 19 at 12:04
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"It’s good to remember that we’re not here just running 100-meter dashes. We’re running a marathon, which means you have to learn how to pace yourself. If you push yourself too hard, you won’t finish. If you don’t push yourself hard enough, you won’t finish.

[snip]

Even if you stumble, remember: This is a marathon, you can pick yourself up and keep going. If it were a 100-yard dash, if you stumbled that would be the end of it, you wouldn’t even try to finish. But in this case. you do pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and keep on running."

~ Thanissaro Bhikkhu "How to Push Yourself" https://www.dhammatalks.org/Archive/Writings/CrossIndexed/Published/Shorttalks/120403(short)_How_to_Push_Yourself.pdf

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When other life matters intrude, those intrusions can actually be taken as excellent opportunities for practice. In those moments of attachment, we can choose to be mindful of the Buddha's teachings. We can choose to let go of desire and aversion for the world.

DN34:1.5.8: A mendicant meditates by observing an aspect of the body—keen, aware, and mindful, rid of desire and aversion for the world.

So instead of hanging on to a hobby success or a work challenge, we can face these attachments squarely and resolutely, thinking, "now is the time to be rid of desire and aversion for the world." Wouldn't that be a practice of mindfulness?

Mindfulness requires appraisal.

DN34:2.3.81: And how does a mendicant have four supports?
DN34:2.3.82: After appraisal, a mendicant uses some things, endures some things, avoids some things, and gets rid of some things.

For example, if we notice that the roof is leaking at the time of meditation, perhaps it would be prudent to use a bucket and put it under the leak before meditation. And if a hobby thought intrudes, perhaps it is best to be rid of that thought before meditating.

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Refining right view, right resolve and with it virtue till right lifelihood, is ones right effort. Else comes based on given courses. As what motivates, what drives: Dukkha is cause of Sila, cause of Saddha. Saddha the begin of the supra-worldly path, good householder. This path isn't one for another gain then freedom from suffering.

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[OP:] How do you deal with motivation swings on a scale such as this? What can I do to change this pattern and boost my progress? Observing all of this does not seem to have much of an impact, at least so far.

Imho, there's no secret sauce or magic formula to quickly solve the above issue, which is common to most practitioners. Looking from the cosmic perspective of many many rebirths ago, it does seem to make sense afterall: our mind has been operating in such chaotic/swinging mode for so long such that the few recent rebirths where we do get the opportunity to practice in accordance with the Buddha's Teaching simply have not generated sufficient strength to override that ingrained chaotic mode. So, like other poster's note about the "sprint vs. marathon" analogy, there's no secret or shortcut, one just have to keep cultivating the good Path persistently and consistently. And hopefully with sufficient time and effort, the new wholesome training will gain enough strength and stability to take over, dominate, and eventually eradicate the unwholesome one.

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