Secular Meditation: Flexible Discipline, Or, On Creating a Regular Practice in an Irregular Life

So I’m working on creating a regular meditation routine. I’m running into an interesting conundrum with it. And the conundrum, like so many I run into with meditation, is bringing me some compelling insights into how I live my life… in this case, into what it means to have discipline, and what stability and security might mean in a constantly changing life.

At the end of my eight-week meditation course, the teacher emphasized the importance of creating a regular routine with it. He said that if we wanted to keep up the practice and not let it fall through the cracks of a busy life, it was important to create a routine: pick a particular form of meditation that works for us (a sitting/ breath meditation, a body scan, a walking meditation, a yoga or other body-motion meditation, etc.), and do it at the same time every day. He didn’t use the word “discipline” — his language is generally more gentle than that — but the word would certainly be appropriate.

I can see the value of this. I’m not arguing with it. But here’s the problem: My life just doesn’t look like that.

dali clock
Some days I stay up writing until four a.m. and sleep until noon. Some days I get up at five a.m. to get on a plane. Some days I get up at seven a.m. to make it to the conference by nine, and I’m at the conference all day, and I get back to my hotel room, exhilarated but exhausted, at nine p.m. or later. Some days I have a meeting or an interview or a conference call at nine in the morning, or at noon, or at three in the afternoon, or at seven at night, or any combination of the above. Some weeks I have three deadlines; some weeks I’m in a different city every day; some weeks I have no immediate demands and can work on more or less whatever I want. Some days I get eight hours of sleep, or even more on occasion; some days I get six hours of sleep, or four… sometimes for several days on end.

I’m not complaining. I am way beyond lucky to be living the life I’m living, and I’m intensely aware of that. But it does present its challenges. And this is one of them: If I tried to set up a routine in which I meditated at the same time every day, it’d fail within a week. The only way I could really meditate at roughly the same time every day would be to do it right before I go to bed… but for me, that would be an almost complete missing of the point. I meditate to get my mind in a good state for dealing with my life and my work. I don’t particularly need to get my mind in a good state for dealing with being asleep. (Also, when I meditate right before I fall asleep, I tend to, you know, fall asleep.)

So for me, staying disciplined about this isn’t going to look like, “meditate every day at seven in the morning.”

For me, staying disciplined is going to look like, “meditate every day… regardless of what your day is like.”

For me, staying disciplined is going to look like, “No matter what your schedule is, find a slot in it for meditation. If you have time, do an open-ended body scan first thing when you wake up. If you don’t, then do a twenty-minute sitting meditation in the middle of the day before lunch, or in the late afternoon before you go to the gym, or during one of the conference sessions you’re okay with skipping, or do a body scan on the plane. If you really and truly don’t have twenty minutes today, do ten. And if you absolutely can’t find any other time to do it, do it at the end of the day before you fall asleep: it’s not ideal, but it’s better than not doing it at all.”

Discipline is a weird thing. It can mean regimentation, creating a schedule and sticking to it: going to the gym after work on Mondays and Wednesdays and Fridays; playing chess every Tuesday and reading the Sunday Times every Sunday; writing every evening from eight until midnight. And for a lot of people, for a lot of lives and a lot of personalities, this works. I’m not dissing it. I’m actually kind of envious: an irregular life creates its own stresses, and it’s hard to feel stable or centered when your days and weeks never feel the same.

river with rocks
But a regular life is just not an option for me. Not at this point in my career. I need another kind of discipline: flexible discipline, adaptive discipline, discipline that flows around the rocks in the stream and still keeps moving, still stays itself.

And meditation isn’t just one of the things that I’m trying to fit into this irregular life. It’s one of the ways I’m making it feel regular. It’s one of the ways I’m giving it cohesion. It’s not just another part of my life that I’m trying to be disciplined about: it’s a tool that’s helping me create discipline, that’s helping me stay focused while the ground underneath me keeps shifting. And it’s a tool that’s bringing me some measure of peace.

One of the more unexpected things I’m beginning to get from this practice, and one that I hope to keep getting, is a sense of stability and centeredness that I can take with me wherever I am. An irregular life, a life that keeps throwing different things at you every day, can make you feel unsteady, off-center, vulnerable and defensive all at the same time. But whether I’m slamming on three deadlines at once, or staying in a different hotel in a different city every day, or freaking out about the Internet firestorm of the week, I can find twenty minutes, and sit quietly, and pay attention to my breath, and simply be myself.

Other pieces in this series:
On Starting a Secular Meditation Practice
Meditation and Breakfast
Meditation, and the Difference Between Theory and Practice
Some Thoughts on Secular Meditation and Depression/Anxiety
Secular Meditation, and Doing One Thing at a Time
Secular Meditation: “Energy,” and Attention/ Awareness
Secular Meditation: How Down Time is Changing
Secular Meditation: “This is my job”
Secular Meditation: I Am Who I Am
Secular Meditation: “That’s not for me”

Secular Meditation: Flexible Discipline, Or, On Creating a Regular Practice in an Irregular Life

6 thoughts on “Secular Meditation: Flexible Discipline, Or, On Creating a Regular Practice in an Irregular Life

  1. 1

    I can see where you’re coming from. A schedule like that would force me to plan out blocks of time down to the minute.
    Good thing there’s an app for that.

  2. 2

    This is where I am. I don’t do those sorts of routines very well, and if I force myself into it, it defeats the point of my meditation- I’m supposed to let myself be, not force myself. At the moment, I tend to meditate when I have a spare moment (on the bus, waiting in a queue, that sort of thing), if I notice myself feeling a bit scattered, and right before bed. (I’ve had longstanding insomnia problems, and accepting things as they are really helps me sleep) I need to carve out some meditation time for “when I’m feeling good”, to give myself more space for that (that’s partly because of my own circumstances), but at the moment I’m quite happy with my “at least once a day and as needed” practice. I’ve also found that my practice (I was first introduced to the concept in April or May last year) has bled over into my every day experience- I’m more inclined to live my life in a more mindful fashion. It’s not mindfulness per se, but I don’t find myself being carried away by irresistible currents of emotion anymore. I see it, let it happen, and then I deal with it as needed. It’s much more healthy.

  3. raj

    I envy you, assuming you actual pull it off. Now, if I can just have half of your discipline and actually do the yoga which I enjoy and need, instead of always finding more work which needs to be done during lunch…

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