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Okay, so I searched for an answer to this question and couldn't find one, but it must be common, so I apologize in advance if this is a duplicate.

I try to practice daily mindfulness by saying in my head, "walking" as I am walking, "reading" as I am reading, etc., but often I lose my focus, and three hours later I find myself thinking, "oh yeah, right, I was supposed to be practicing mindfulness.." This happens especially when something I perceive as really bad occurs- negative thoughts cloud my mind and take me over. And then I feel SO GUILTY! How do I overcome feelings of guilt about my practice? And how do I sustain mindfulness throughout the day? It seems almost impossible, and every time I realize I have failed at it, I curse myself and feel like a hopeless buddhist. Thx for reading! Ian

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tl;dr keep pushing yourself, but gently as Paul Sasik says. Also, keep an open mind because this stuff can be very counterintuitive.

Long answer

It sounds like you're practicing the Mahasi Sayadaw tradition, where one notes phenomena as they arise. In this case I can answer from my own experience in the tradition.

A few pointers:

  • Negative thoughts are just thoughts, so you have the opportunity to note "thinking".
  • Ditto for a clouded mind; you have there an opportunity to note "clouded mind".
  • Ditto again for guilt; if guilt is predominant then note "guilt".

The essence of this strategy is not to get enticed by what we perceive. Thoughts aren't intrinsically negative or positive; we mistakenly understand them to be as such. The same goes for feelings like guilt, and the realization that the mind is clouded. When we see them as they are, it's easier to remain in the here and now.

As for the wandering mind, I can say a few more things:

  • Try to abandon the desire for practice to go well—paradoxically this can hold you back.
  • Don't curse yourself. Cursing yourself is a form of identifying with your experiences.
  • Experiment a lot. Vary the quality of your practice—Does one note intensely, or note softly? What can be noted that was not noted before? What are the limits of what can reasonably be covered by noting? Do the limits change from one day to the next? Come up with ideas like these, and test them out during walking and sitting practice. At the same time, keep it simple. You don't want to get too obsessed with conceptual dead ends.

It can take a long time for practice to improve. But I can confidently say that my mind wanders much less than it did one year ago. In my 3 years of practice (one 6-day retreat, about 15 minutes per day on most days) I have found there are long stretches—perhaps days, weeks, even months—where no progress is made, followed by flashes of what seem to be insight, followed by the realization that they are just unusual experiences, and so on.

Lastly, as for maintaining mindfulness throughout the day: I find this one quite difficult. It improves with practice just like the wandering as I explained above. Personally my daily mindfulness is quite weak but at the same time much better than, for example one year ago. Another side of this is that the monastic lifestyle or a meditation course will give you the opportunity to develop these skills more quickly.

Be well.

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What you're experiencing happens to everyone, every - one. When you find yourself "off course" just bring yourself back gently. Be kind to yourself.

You seem to be expecting too much from yourself. When reading, for example, you should be taking in information, and IMHO, this is not time for mindfulness. Attempting to understand what you're reading and being mindful at the same time does not sound possible. Human beings just aren't made that way.

Another high bar you've set for yourself is the expectation of being in a constant state of mindfulness. This is a tall order indeed and also another example of something that is not necessarily possible for the average person.

Be gentle to yourself. Bring yourself back to the present gently and gracefully as you would a lost or grieving friend. Then celebrate that return. Embrace the imperfection and practice gentle, loving kindness to yourself over and over. Your enemy is not your naturally wandering mind. It is the guilt, cursing and impossible expectations that have been foisted upon you by your past experiences.

  • The Buddha says that one who is mindful remembers what was said long ago. Frequently mindfulness is defined by this phrase in the Suttas. Since in those ancient times writing was available for kings and ministers one had to rely very much on memory, and mindfulness helps memory. – user4878 May 9 '15 at 18:50
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What your key focus in the practice should be

What ever the tradition the object is to see the phenomena arising and passing knowing their characteristics of impermanence maintaining perfect equanimity.

If you get carried away with the reciting instead of using this as a tool to keep your focus and keep looking at the arising and passing of phenomena in an equanimous manner, then you may get stressed and may not get the results you are looking for.

Key is:

  • look at the phenomena as your primary focus and the recital as a tool to keep the focus
  • keep equanimity
  • understand the true nature of phenomena

Keeping up your practice

Also to keep you in track recall:

  • you can practice only as a human being
  • you may not live to take the next breath
  • For me the key to practice is remembering impermanence. Being a human is very precious and death can come at any time without any warning. So when i feel lazy or distracted I try to hold this thought and remember impermanence. – Chris Stefanidis May 10 '15 at 2:03
  • Recalling death can be very useful to keep up your practice. – Suminda Sirinath S. Dharmasena May 10 '15 at 2:42
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Dont be too hard on yourself. Give yourself a break sometimes and some pads on the shoulder for wanting to deal with these things. You could just push it aside and fill your life with noise but instead you contemplate this and you try to practice daily mindfulness. That is great and that is what the Buddha taught us to do. So keep that in mind everyday that you are making an effort here. Its valueable. Not only to you but also for everyone who comes in contact with you.

When feelings of guilt, inferiority or other negative feelings arise just note them and observe them. If you observe them from they arise until the point where they cease you will see that they are impermanent. What is impermanent is also suffering since one cannot rely on it. Also you will see that you have absolutely no control over the feelings. Its not like you can say: bad feeling, go away. That will not work. All the aggregates are subject to the 3 signs of existence, namely anicca, dukkha, anatta, meaning impermanence, unsatisfactoriness and not-self. They are uncontrollable and ungovernable.

When you guard yourself with mindfulness and thereby being able to see e.g. feelings and mental formations arise and cease you will see that they do so on their own accord. Because they are conditioned phenomena build upon other causes which again is build by other causes etc., they will exist as long as the causes sustaining them is present.

Lets take the example with guilt. When guilt arises, note it, observe it and watch it until it goes away. See that you have no control over it. When there arises an object to the sense door, there will be contact and when there is contact there arises feeling. That feeling can be pleasant, unpleasant and neutral. When guilt arises, there can arise aversion towards that feeling. If that happens then switch to the new object which is the aversion and note it as "disliking". You can stop the process at that point or before that point if you are mindful about it. If you are not mindful or loose mindfulness for some reason the next step can be a bodily reaction to the guilt-based aversion. It might be heat in the body, increased respiration or other unpleasant bodily reactions. If that happens then swith to that new object e.g. heat in the body and not it as "heat, heat or warm, warm".

The point is that feelings, mental formations and the other aggregates are not subject to our control. By seeing that in insight meditation one begins to gradually let go of the aggregates and when that happens its results in more freedom and equanimity. One sees that one does not have to react to e.g. feelings and thoughts. They arise and they cease and thats it. Dont interfere with them. They will go away again. If you interfere with them you will blow them up in size. Its like putting fuel on a fire.

If you dont react to them and just note them there will be no fuel for the fire and it will cease to exist.

Ven. Yuttadhammo has made a video on youtube which i unfortunately dont remember the name of now. I will post the link if i find the name. In the video Ven. Yuttadhammo makes a simile of feelings and talk about how they can be viewed as a piece of burning wood taking from a camp fire. When one takes the piece of burning wood and puts it on the ground away from the fire, then it will burn for a while and then go out. No problem there. But if one takes the piece of burning wood and holds it in ones hand one will get burned.

So if you "take" the feeling of guilt and interfere with it you will get burned. But if you dont interact with it and just note it then you will not get "harmed".

Hope this might be of some help to you.

Lanka

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