By Brent R. Oliver
I just spent 32 days being the most bad ass meditator in my area code.
For a whisker over one month, I sat every day, sometimes twice a day. My concentration muscles started to bulge under my skull. My clarity was as sharp as a young bald eagle’s. My equanimity spread and deepened like sweet water behind a goddamn dam. I was a superstar of sitting, a perfectly sane madman of meditation, an institution of insight.
Then I quit for a couple of days. Here’s how it all went down.
Meditation has never become a habit for me. Nothing healthy has ever become a habit for me. My body and mind gravitate toward apathy and giddy self-destruction. I have no idea if that’s my inherent nature or if it developed through some weird nurture, but that’s how I work. Maybe it’s just inertia. It seems easier to build up momentum for bad habits like drinking, junk food, and general fucking-off than it is good ones like exercising and eating well.
Bad habits are also probably more addicting because they’re effortless and mostly enjoyable. It isn’t difficult to nestle down in the couch, smoke a bowl, and eyeball 14 episodes of Parks and Rec. As a matter of fact, it’s downright pleasant. And the inertia builds. It’s true that a kale and strawberry smoothie, 45-minute workout, and finishing a trenchant article for The Tattooed Buddha are more rewarding, but they’re harder and less fun.
My physique belies this fact, but I have been to the gym before. I once lifted weights and did cardio for two-and-a-half weeks. In a row, mind you. After the first week of pain and horror, the second week was easier. I even enjoyed the nascent feeling of getting into shape, the optimistic hope of losing weight and being healthier.
But I still quit halfway through the third week. I had a couple decades’ momentum going with all my lousy yet satisfying habits. They were easy and comfortable and reassuring. A couple weeks wasn’t nearly enough time to generate momentum for something salubrious like the gym.
I’ve tried the same thing with yoga, cycling, diet, meditation and more. Every time I end up falling back into what’s easy because I can’t create enough energy to keep doing what’s hard.
Recently I decided to do an experiment. Actually, that’s putting it too elegantly. What I really did was stare grimly at my meditation cushion, and then say “Hold my beer” to my wife. I cracked my knuckles and vowed to sit every day for a month. I was going to see what it took for me to build a healthy habit. Not to mention 30 days of meditation would be beneficial for my never-ending, lackadaisical pursuit of enlightenment.
I’d been working with a meditation teacher via Skype for about six months and really seeing some progress. We were using Shinzen Young’s system and I was sitting more frequently, studying harder, and truly enjoying the approach. It seemed like the perfect time to commit to 30 days in row to see what would happen.
Surprisingly, I made it, and it wasn’t even that hard. I also discovered a couple of interesting things which have made my life easier and my path clearer.
First off, this vow turned out to be a double commitment for me. I don’t really lack motivation when it comes to positive change. What I’m short on is the willingness to drop something unhealthy in favor of something advantageous. I’ve always tried to keep my bad habits while I add better ones to the routine.
For example, when I was 22, I realized I was turning into a pathetic little puff pastry. I was round and out of shape. It’s not a coincidence that was about the same time I joined the service industry and realized everyone partied like rock stars. My alcohol and drug consumption shot up and my activity level plummeted. Most of my exercise was trudging from one table of miserable, sweet tea-swilling troglodytes to another. For an extra calorie burn, I’d speed-walk to the kitchen so I could tell the cooks all about the customers’ consummate douchebaggery. Those tales always involved some energetic gesticulating which no doubt kept my heart rate up.
At several points in my early service career, I decided to lose some weight—not get healthy; just trim the flab. I wanted to be sexy for the ladies but not lose any of the sophisticated refinement that came with smoking, drug use, and professional-level drinking.
I took up jogging but puffed a cigarette after. I bought frozen veggie burgers because they were easy, low-fat, and only tasted slightly like Play-Doh. However, I still pounded ten dark, heavy beers every night. I sipped a Slim-Fast on my way to work but also snorted cocaine. You know…for energy.
I did lose some weight but would occasionally puke up Guinness and get nosebleeds. And, when the healthy habit conflicted with the shitty ones, the good stuff always lost out. If I needed to get in my nightly run but there was a really bonkers party raging somewhere (anywhere), it was off to defile myself, sorry jogging.
When I decided to sit every day for a month, I realized other stuff would have to go this time (maybe cut out the tequila shots after work). It’s sort of hard to meditate with Don Julio fogging your blood and loosening your senses. Dial back the Netflix a bit. Watch one episode of something then go meditate rather than watching all the episodes till 2 a.m. Read fewer novels and more books on meditation and the dharma. Stop lying in bed like a stoned sloth until it’s 45 minutes before work and now you have to rush to slap on deodorant and sanitize your swampy mouth hole.
I managed some of those things. The bad stuff got pruned back if not entirely uprooted and burned. The main thing was I learned to free up time for serious meditation by putting down a lot of deleterious, mindless activities. Even though I broke the streak at 32 days, I’ve acquired a new skill that’s going to be very useful.
And why did I break the streak, you ask? Because I found out that I’m a dirty, dirty cheater.
Even though I pushed away a few bad habits, they sometimes crept back like a stubborn rash. I’d have a beer after a particularly rough shift to soothe my sizzling nerves and suddenly I was on my fourth beer. My nerves were considerably cooled but my head was a bit fuzzy for meditation. I’d do it anyway, though, because of the streak. Soon it was all about that. Even though the benefits of sustained mediation were becoming ever more apparent in my daily life, my main motivation became the streak.
I have a timer app on my phone that tracks how many days in row I’ve sat and for how long each day. I became infatuated with seeing the number of consecutive days go up, even as the duration each day started to go down. I’d sneak in a 15-minute session because it was almost midnight and I’d been lounging contentedly with my wife. A couple of times I did groggy 10-minute sits because it was all my slightly drink-addled brain could handle. There were also several occasions where I was just totally fucking exhausted from being an adult and plopped down on the cushion having already given up. I’d deceitfully set the timer for 40 minutes fully realizing that wasn’t going to happen. After following my breath for about 12 minutes, I was getting up. I knew it. Even the cat knew it, from his judgmental perch atop the bookcase.
I was a cheater. Instead of being solely concerned with maintaining a solid, continuous contemplative practice, I was too attached to that number on my phone. I was still progressing but I was defrauding myself. My practice was truly better than ever before but I was still being a sneaky little bastard and cutting corners.
So I quit.
At 32 days, I could no longer live with myself and my stupid focus on that number. I snapped the streak and, with it, my obsession. Now I don’t feel so bad if I miss a day here and there. I’ve built the bedrock of a lifelong practice and quantity has taken second place to quality.
I’d like to see that number rise again when I can handle it. When I’m so embedded in meditation as a lifestyle that everything revolves around it. Not just because it’s healthy, not just because rotten habits have fallen away, not just because I’ve gritted my teeth and kept going.
But because it’s simply unthinkable not to do it.
Editor: Dana Gornall
Brent is a coach in Shinzen Young’s Unified Mindfulness system because it’s just such an approach. He works with individuals interested in everything from alleviating stress to pursuing classical enlightenment. He also coaches groups, and offers presentations to companies, schools, and organizations curious about the benefits of mindfulness. In addition to being a columnist at The Tattooed Buddha, Brent’s writing has also appeared in Tricycle: The Buddhist Review, and Morpheus. He lives in Lexington, KY with his wife, two cats, and a crippling addiction to horror. Swing by his website brentpurpleoliver.com for more information.