Given the chaos in most of our lives, we are constantly faced with choices to do something other than our practice. It’s hard to prioritize when you’re given little room to consider trade offs and you have more “should do” items than “could do” time. We are also constantly barraged by the “must do” tasks of others. As I’m writing this, my daughter asserted that I must play a game with her, now. Not to mention that it’s the middle of a long weekend and my job requires some thinking work by Tuesday.
What’s more, if your job is unstructured, creative or non-timeclock, you have the extra burden of having work tasks follow you around in your head. Everyone has work politics following them around so that’s unavoidable. Many I know, struggle with letting go of that plan we have to produce, the diagram we need to draw, or that presentation we need to give in a few days time on top of everything else work related.
Mr. Schwartz, in his excellent blog points out that we all only have “one reservoir of will and discipline.” Further, that making choices drains the reservoir. Mr. Schwartz points to research by Dr. Roy Baumeister, now of FSU, that concludes that making choices requires energy. Much like the successful athlete who begins to conserve energy before the reserve is depleted, so the ego begins to put less effort into and finally avoid choices once our energy levels are lowered. Mr. Schwartz’s conclusion is that by making things into non-choices, or habit, we can reserve our energy for getting non-routine things done.
This has great applicability to practice. Short of doubt, nothing slows or stops a practice like distraction. When your goal is sitting 30 or 45 minutes a day, it takes effort until it becomes habit to carve out that time. New practitioners know very well that you get busy, you miss a day, then a week and then you’re back in beginners meditation class again nine months later. Like the long-term runner that really misses a jog if they can’t work it in, you must make your meditation time so habitual that you begin to yearn for the time on the cushion.
Mental Noting is another technique that is very helpful for new practitioners when they can make it a habit. Narrating your inner life and naming feelings, thoughts, and sensations as they arise gives you the space to recognize your flow and to not follow it when it is unskillful. The silly side of it is that you become a radio baseball announcer. “And the ego is winding up. Ego is into his stretch, here comes the pitch and OOOHH a blistering curveball of fear strikes the batter OUT!” Making it a habit relieves you of the choice to follow the feeling or thought, which allows you to practice more fully. Once noting becomes habit, you will really notice when you stop doing it out of distraction.
Now I know these sound like attachment. And of course it is. But having that attachment is in some ways your safety line in the storm of your thinking and emotional life. Eventually when you overcome the storm, you will no longer need the attachment to the safety line. This is reminiscent of the old Spanish Proverb ”Habits are first cobwebs, then chains.” Many people take this to mean you will be shackled by habit if you’re not careful. And I can easily find wisdom in this for habits that are unskillful. We all know people who are “habitually” late, tired, angry, something. However when the habit is positive and helps sustain portions of your life you are improving, I choose to see the chains rather as an anchor than a prison.