I once watched a spoof interview with a football manager who was talking somewhat over-earnestly about the ‘three M’s’, which were: motivation, motivation and motivation. It wasn’t terribly funny actually but somehow it has stayed with me. And I think this is because it resonates so much with what usually becomes quite a theme for both teachers and students in mindfulness classes. Participants often ask ‘how do I get myself to actually do the meditation practices regularly?’ which is echoed by the teachers’ ‘how do we actually get the students to actually do the practices regularly?’, as well as our own ‘I know it helps when I do it but still I so often find something better to do when the time comes’.
Some students have even suggested that we set up some sort of a surveillance system – checking they are doing their meditation practice every day. Mmmm – Big Brother comes to mind a bit too readily here. A fellow teacher (only half-jokingly) suggested an electronic tag system. But the reason both of these will fail ultimately – even if they were ethical – is that we have to find motivation from within us – it must be part of our own free choosing. If we can find this, then we will start to be in it for the long term. But how do we do this?
Towards the end of an 8 week course we address the issue of motivation from an unexpected direction. Participants are asked to consider something they deeply value or long for in life. It is a contemplative exercise intended to help people to become aware of and then deeply connect with their own deepest values. We could probably spend longer on this exercise as it can take time for us each to become aware of what is really true for us rather than the things perhaps we feel we are expected to say. But importantly it helps each person to begin to come close to what is going to be their particular motivation. The implication being, if you can link your meditation practice with something you already deeply value, then you may carry on practising for this reason – not because you ‘should’ or have been told to, but because you personally want to. Examples might be, it is important for me: to avoid the suffering of depression/anxiety/stress; to be a better partner/parent; to be more creative; that life is not just a series of tasks to get done; to live this one life more fully.
Interestingly the deep longings which are being expressed here fall into two categories. One is the avoidance of suffering. The other is the cultivation of a more positive experience of life. In my experience, on the whole, the ones who are aware of their own suffering often seem to be the most motivated to practice. Once you have experienced a relief from suffering that is a very powerful motivator. It is not quite as simple as that as, for some, one of the of the symptoms of their suffering is the inability to organise their lives to any sort of routine. But generally it is a very strong motivator.
On the other hand, for people looking to cultivate the positive from an ‘OK’ base, I sometimes think that a different approach to motivation is necessary. I.e. carrot rather than stick. We need to focus on inviting people more into an adventure of living – playing on our curiosity and the lure of possibility. More ‘what have you got to lose through having a go’ and ‘what if meditation practice was a door to a whole new way of experiencing life which you will never know unless you give it a go!’
My own motivation comes from both of these. I know my suffering has reduced through practising: my periods of depression have been shorter and lighter and the way I manage stress has been totally transformed. But I also feel my whole life has opened up in extraordinary new ways – the gradual emergence of a deeper awareness in life makes me look back and feel as though I was just half asleep for so many years in the past.
So, in one sense we will all need to find our own motivation. And these are strong motivators for me but the other difficulty is that they are long term benefits which come through persevering with practice over a long period of time. So, here’s the rub: what is going to motivate me to practice today – this time – this morning when I could so easily skip ‘just this once’. Because, although there will be good reasons for easing off sometimes, the trouble with the ‘just this once’ is that that can become ‘just this once’ tomorrow as well, and the next day and gradually I am out of the habit.
Which brings us really onto the role of habit forming because, let’s be honest, I may know the science, I may genuinely want to avoid further suffering, I may very much want to be a better parent, and I may truly want to live life more fully but some days none of these things impinge on my motivation at all. I just don’t want to practice and that is that.
I may write about the things that actively demotivate us in another blog sometime but here I just want to refer to the simple process of forming a habit which will tide us over when there seems to be no other motivation around.
We sometimes refer in classes to bringing a ‘just do it’ attitude to practice. And this is what we mean. Don’t worry or get caught up with all the motivational stuff – just do it for the sake of building a habit. And recognise that all habits are hard to form. But when they are formed somehow they can have an energy and flow of their own. Somehow we start to feel carried by the habit itself. So, sometimes it just needs us to tell ourselves, I am working on building a good habit which will support my health and well-being and just like all habits (going down to the gym, practising my musical instrument, mental maths) it is going to be hard work at times. But this is just simply what I am going to do – every day – for six months. And then I am going to allow myself to peek at whether it is supporting my declared deepest values. I can always stop later if it hasn’t. But I will never know unless I try!