Recent comments on a recent post got me thinking... I know that daily sitting practice is an attainable goal. I also know that losing 30 pounds is an attainable goal though it doesn't always feel like it. How does one get there? Do we get there through the decision to be disciplined and intentional now and forever, or is it a process?
Thinking about this, I picked up one of my teacher's books, Stumbling Toward Enlightenment. On page 19, P'arang talks about how difficult it was to commit to the deep river that is a retreat:
...Deeper and deeper we sink into the practice. The final day feels like we are floating in an emptiness which I can only describe as a soft joy.
I would walk a thousand miles to do it again.
It wasn't always so. It took years to dip my toe into this deep river that is retreat, and even then I found excuses not to stay at one for the whole time... [some content snipped] Finally, the simple momentum of my practice got me in the door and gave me the wherewithal to stay the heck put. Looking back, the decision to commit to a spiritual path came in tiny increments, starting with a whispered promise to myself, years ago, to just sit for five minutes and see what it was like.
Like all transformations, I have learned that stumbling toward enlightenment happens in fits and starts. And we all need to start at the beginning. It's like sailing. First you have to row a little boat.
I've always looked at the road from no meditation to daily meditation as a process of behavioral change, similar to Prochaska and DiClemente's Stages of Change model. While this model emerged from a 1982 study of people who were trying to stop smoking and has been traditionally discussed with respect to people who were trying to change behaviors that could be classified as unhealthy or troubling, I think we also move through stages of change when trying to adopt healthy, positive, behaviors. With respect to sitting practice, the stages may look something like this:
- Precontemplation: The practitioner does not intend to practice daily for the next six months. The individual with no meditation practice may not believe that a daily sitting practice would be of benefit. The individual that has tried to sit again and again without successs may have given up... believing the goal to be unattainable.
- Contemplation: The practitioner intends to start a daily practice within the next 6 months. During this stage, the practitioner begins to assess barriers (e.g., time, hassle, fear, "I know I need to, Sunim, but ...") as well as the benefits of daily practice.
- Preparation: The practitioner intends to take action within the next 30 days and has taken some behavioral steps in this direction. Perhaps a space for practice has been cleared/prepared in the home. Perhaps the practitioner has taken to reading about practice, or listening to talks/instructions on practice. Perhaps the practitioner is participating in a sitting group or attending a weekly service or retreat. The benefits of daily practice are clear, and the practitioner wants to learn to establish the discipline. The desire for practice is strong. The practitioner makes small changes as the determination to practice daily increases.
- Action: The practitioner sits daily for any period less than six months.
- Maintenance: The practitioner begins to learn how to incorporate the new behavior "over the long haul." The practitioner has been sitting daily for a period longer than six months.
- Relapse/Recycle: Discouragement over occasional "slips" may halt the process and result in the practitioner giving up. However, most practitioners find themselves "recycling" through the stages of change several times before the goal of daily practice becomes truly established.
- Termination: The practitioner has complete confidence daily practice will continue without fear of relapse
- [... my practice-centered take on comments and research about the Stages of Change model by Scott McIntosh, Ph.D. and Kelli McCormack Brown]
I don't know... maybe I'm wrong about this. Maybe we all just need to say, "From this day forth, I practice daily," and mean it, and do it. Personally, I've found my attempts to make instant changes an approach too drastic to sustain.