My meditation practice has taken a bit of a turn lately. Specifically, the moments immediately after finishing a session.
To begin with, if you were to watch me, everything would appear normal enough. You’d see me open my eyes, re-centre myself in the room, take a few slow deep breaths, nothing out of the ordinary, but from there, it would quickly become obvious that something wasn’t right.
The first sign would be the wincing. The way I tentatively use my arms to shift my weight over to one side, the fact that I can’t help but grit my teeth as wave after wave of pain begins to radiate up from my legs. You’d see me take a minute or so to struggle to all-fours and watch me begin the slow, unpleasant process of freeing my ankles from the awkward, twisted position they were stuck in.
For those of you haven’t meditated before, I feel the need to point out that this isn’t typical. The reason why I’m in this sorry state is that I’m ludicrously inflexible, and I want to see how much flexibility I can regain if I sit cross-legged every day during my daily meditation.
You see, for years I’ve tried to stretch regularly enough that I could regain this fairly unspectacular range of motion, but my lack of consistency has meant that I haven’t made much progress. So around a week ago I decided that if I incorporated it into my daily practice I’d be more likely to stick at it. This has turned out to be true, but it has also been much bumpier than I imagined.
First of all, and I really can’t overstate how much of an issue this is, sitting like this hurts. A lot. It would be enormously unpleasant if I was doing this for a minute a day, and I’m doing it for twenty. In addition, my legs are protesting before I even begin, due to the fact that they’ve barely recovered from the efforts of the previous days. This is what the inside of my mind sounds like during the first few moments of sitting:
- How the hell am I supposed to still my mind when I’m in this much pain?
- I wonder if it’s possible to be so inflexible that your legs just snap.
- Oh God, did my knee just pop?
- This probably isn’t the optimal way of improving flexibility.
- Maybe I should just stop this and do a frog stretch.
- And so on…
As awful as going through this on a daily basis is, the reason I don’t stop is that original idea; I want to see how much of an improvement I can make by sitting cross-legged every day for a month. And with each day that passes, the thought of sacrificing the pain that has gone before feels less and less like an option.
Plus, I am seeing some progress. The pain that was previously so all-consuming that (and I hope you will excuse my extreme honesty here), I thought I might literally wet myself, is now merely most-consuming. Once I’ve endured the first few minutes and through meditating, managed to observe it instead of being helplessly caught up in it, the pain is quite manageable until it comes time to begin the process of decompressing my legs.
But it was yesterday when, whether due to pain-induced delirium, meditative insight, or a desperate need to justify this insanity, it struck me that the real reason I’m managing to stick with this torturous daily routine, is because my focus has shifted from a discrete goal (the ability to sit with my legs crossed) to a continuous goal (to spend thirty consecutive days sitting cross-legged for twenty minutes).
I’d never have stuck to this if I just had the goal of sitting cross-legged. The pain is too great and the outcome too uncertain to get me What gets me through those awful few minutes at the beginning of each session is the desire to add one more day to my streak, to get one day closer to those thirty days. If I succumb to the temptation to stop, all of those previous days of effort will have been for nothing. I do t get to find out what happens after thirty days unless I do thirty days.
The goal should be the process. Not a separate thing waiting at the end, but an intrinsic part of each day’s effort. If I honour the effort made yesterday, by not giving up today, and do that for thirty days in a row, I’ll achieve my goal. It doesn’t matter if I’m in a full lotus position, or my knees are still up around my ears, I’ll still have succeeded. Anything else that comes is a bonus.
Contrast this with a goal-oriented approach. If my focus is on the goal and not the process, I might carry out each step of the plan perfectly, and still be disappointed. The end goal is the least controllable part of any process, and yet with this way of thinking, all of my efforts will be for nothing unless this least controllable part works out the way I want it to.
When you think about it like that, doesn’t it make more sense to focus on the controllable part? The process itself? If you design a process which is beneficial in and of itself, then even if the goal fails to materialise for some unforeseen reason, the process still achieved something.
This process-centric approach has the added benefit that it keeps you focused on the present, and makes the cost of not sticking to the process more immediate. Daily goals are vital. Don’t leave any room for the “I’ll do it tomorrow”’s that can sneak in if you only aim for 3x per week. Every day should count, even if the amount required each day is small.
So if your goal is to write a book, commit to seeing writing something related to that topic every day for thirty days gives you enough material for the first draft of a chapter. If your goal is to lose weight, commit to seeing how much weight you lose if you go for a thirty-minute walk or jog every day. Me? All I have to do every day is spend 20 minutes, a mere 1% of my day, in agonising pain. I’ll let you know how I get on…