Three Keys to a Daily Practice
The following is an excerpt from Lama Tsomo’s book, Why is the Dalai Lama Always Smiling?
First Key to a Daily Practice: Working It Into Your Schedule
This is a key to success in your practice, so let’s spend some time on this one. It’s best, but not essential, to do your sessions just as you wake up in the morning. Most Tibetan practitioners do theirs at this time because the border between sleeping and waking is an especially good opportunity to catch the mind at the beginning of the day, before it’s fallen into its old ruts and gained momentum. We step into the day with a bit more mindfulness, and all the thousands of decisions that you make that day can be made from that state of mind. Then too, early morning is usually a much quieter time, with a calm, clear feeling to it—none of the bustle of the rest of the day. The waters of the mind tend to be more settled, clear, and fresh.
When I had small children at home, they were early risers, so I had trouble getting a good session in before they woke up. Tibetans often get up at incredibly early hours, to make time for their sessions. Being a lazy American who needs something like a full night’s sleep, I did the next best thing and meditated at night after the kids were asleep, and hopefully before I was (when I was on the other border between sleeping and waking).
Whatever time you’ve decided on, a key to success is keeping to your sessions in the same part of your daily schedule. I think that’s why we succeed in brushing our teeth so regularly: the momentum of routine and habit is unbelievably strong. We’ve talked about how negative momentum can work against us, but we can use positive momentum to work in our favor, once the good habit is established. If your bedtime varies, that’s less than optimal but still workable. Just as you can brush your teeth a bit later because you’re going to bed a bit later, you can meditate a bit later too. If you can’t do your session at exactly the same time each day, just keep it in the same part of your routine.
Second Key to a Daily Practice: Place
As with other regular routines, we can really be supported by having a regular place to practice, with conditions that work in our favor.
So you’ll need a place that’s conducive to practice. As with practicing the piano, you don’t go out and perform before you’ve practiced at home, with no pressure or distractions. So it is with this kind of practice. The practices are designed to help you eventually apply your developing capacities in daily life, but we can hardly expect ourselves to do that right away. I wouldn’t suggest performing a concert after your first piano lesson either.
Being isolated from outside demands will clearly help. I knew one practitioner who answered his phone while in “session”! His progress was disappointing, of course. So don’t just turn your cell phone off—turn it off and put it in another room. The whole point is to give ourselves the chance not to respond to stimuli and distractions from the outside for a bit. Then we can turn the lens inward.
Another support I’ve already mentioned is a statue or picture of an enlightened being. Tibetans like to have statues and paintings of enlightened deities and great masters where they practice. They also keep relics there. Scientists have now confirmed that states of mind can be infectious. Tibetans already knew this, as well as the power of archetypal images. We might as well have that knowledge work for us.
If you create a special place or shrine that’s just for meditation, that can really work well for you. Our brains work by association, and if we associate a specific place with meditation, we’ll have even more momentum working for us. Time and again, students have reported their practice improving by leaps and bounds as soon as they set up a meditation spot for themselves.
Third Key to a Daily Practice: Frame of Mind
If I gave you one piece of advice, from one Western practitioner to another, it would be this: Practice compassion for your own mind as you train it. As I’ve said, if you start to train a puppy and immediately expect it to do tricks, do a “down-stay” for an hour, or some other such demand, you’re going to have a neurotic puppy that absolutely hates training sessions. It will be a fighting match all the way. Given the power of the human unconscious mind, I guarantee that if you take such a stringent approach to practice, you’ll make no progress and you’ll eventually give up practice altogether.
Remember, it’s taken you lifetimes to get to this opportunity. Moving forward five minutes at a time now is still more progress than you’ve made in, literally, ages.
The good news is that, if you don’t push yourself unrealistically, practice sessions can feel good. Really good.