Beliefnet

Q: I really want to meditate regularly, but I can't seem to find time. How do I maintain a spiritual discipline when I'm always so busy?



A: "Busyness" is what we all face in our fast-paced, over-committed lifestyle. Yet, some of the busiest people I know are also the ones who get the most accomplished. What's their secret? Actually, there are several, and they can help you fulfill the desire to establish a regular meditation, prayer, or other kind of spiritual practice.

The first thing in developing a new habit is to build in success with some basic guidelines. Forget about anything big. Yes, meditating for an hour morning and evening is wonderful, but you're more likely to develop confidence by starting small. At the beginning, commit to praying, meditating, or chanting for only five to 10 minutes. With 24 hours at your disposal, surely you can set aside only a few minutes.

Meditation teachers advise that it is best to sit at the same place and same time daily. Just as you have your favorite reading chair, you can have your special meditation seat or floor cushion. Such rules are useful for creating a structure that helps us remember what we need to do. Your body becomes accustomed to being in that spot for a specific activity. However, if, for some reason, you skip the assigned time and place, don't let that be an excuse for not fulfilling your commitment later, even somewhere else. Breaking a rule doesn't mean that we tear down the whole structure. And don't beat yourself up over it, just begin again. Cultivating spiritual discipline includes acceptance and gentleness.

Notice how you feel before and after the brief period of meditation, prayer, chanting, etc. Were you antsy to get up and go? Did you wish you could sit longer? Are you a tiny bit calmer and more focused? Whatever the result, stick to your 10 minutes. Don't look for anything special. Initially, all you have to do is keep your promise to be there for that short time. Soon enough, something else will kick in to help you do that.

Once you've managed to show up daily for a month--how long depends on your response, but generally behavior modification takes at least 30 days--see if you want to extend the time. If you've been meditating for five minutes, are you ready to notch up to 10? If you've been praying for 10 minutes, could you add another five? Then follow that new rule. Keep adding these small increments. Before you know it, you no longer have a small practice, but a big one.

Be careful not to jump too far too soon and get discouraged. That's what happens when we embark on a new exercise regimen and go for a five-mile run the first day. Worn out and sore because we're not yet in shape, we feel defeated at the outset and give up, thinking we can't exercise after all. Planning for success rather than failure means we begin with one mile and work up to five.

Part of what happens in the gradual process is physiological. The muscles and nervous system in particular receive a kind of imprinting. It's how we form habits, whether beneficial or harmful. Different aspects of the body get accustomed to the whole ritual neuromuscularly and biochemically. For example, as you pay attention to the in-and-out breath, your body learns how to settle down more easily. The nervous system becomes more balanced. Instead of revving on adrenaline, it may trigger the release of neurotransmitters or endogenous opiates that have a restful and rejuvenating effect.

Before you realize it, you're enjoying the experience that you had to force yourself to do in the beginning. You find that your body/mind wants to pray rather than watch the morning or evening news. The success that comes from starting small and gradually imprinting a new habit will engender the confidence to develop your practice further. And don't be surprised if you piggyback on this success and branch out to attain goals in other areas of your life.

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