A couple of weeks ago, I shared some of the ways students approach me about this work – and their experience with it. How they judge their practice and get in their own way – by wanting something external and separate, instead of creating the experience internally by becoming it.
There’s another side to this conversation, though; an important distinction. And that’s the fine line between judging your practice – and examining your practice.
Here are some other ways students sometimes approach me about the work:
“Dr Joe, do I have to do the breath?”
“Can I skip the part about opening my awareness and focusing on nothing – and just go to the next part of the meditation?”
“Can I do the meditations lying down? It’s uncomfortable sitting up the whole time.”
“Do I have to meditate every day?”
Can you see the difference between someone who is showing up, in earnest, day after day, and struggling with their own impatience with themselves … versus someone who isn’t being honest with themselves about the integrity of their practice?
I always encourage my students to be kind to themselves in this work; to understand it takes time, patience, and practice to master it. But I also make it clear: mastery is what we’re working toward. And anytime you want to learn – or improve, or master – anything you’re working on, some amount of healthy self-examination and self-evaluation is required. That’s the only way you can improve – and deepen your experience.
Let’s say you want to learn how to golf. When you’re learning anything new, the first step is to get your mind involved. You study as much as you can – before you start playing the game. The more you learn about how to play golf, the better chance you have of performing your best.
Then comes the technique. You have to immerse yourself in knowing what you should do and why you should do it – so you can align your actions with your thoughts when you start to play. Finally, getting your body involved takes you to the experience of actually playing.
Let’s say you’ve been going to the driving range a few times a week to hit a bucket of balls and work on your swing. But after weeks of this, you’re still not hitting the ball squarely. You’re swinging the same old way, and it’s sailing too far to the left or the right more than you’re making good contact. Your experience of playing golf is not what you thought.
And here’s the difference between self-judgement and self-inquiry. The question to ask in this moment isn’t, “What am I doing wrong?” It’s, “What am I not doing that I should be doing?” Or better yet, “Where can I improve?” You must go back to the knowledge and information you initially learned. And then, you do what all great golfers do: you review and self-reflect to see if you’re applying what you’ve learned.
If it’s your golf swing, you might notice: I keep opening up my hips too soon. Or: Oh yeah. I keep forgetting to straighten my arm. Or: I’ve got this club in a death grip. I’ve got to loosen up.
You realize: I know the fundamentals; I’m just not doing them. I went unconscious – and let myself forget them. So now, let me remember. Let me become more conscious – and add to what I’m doing to improve my performance.
When it comes to your practice in this work, you might ask yourself: “Am I being present – truly present? Or am I sitting here, eyes closed, thinking about that meeting at work – or what I’m going to have for dinner?” Or maybe: “Am I catching myself when I start to go into memories of the past? Or predictions of a known future?” Or: “Am I showing up for meditation with enthusiasm and intent? Or am I just routinely clocking in, so I can say I did my meditation today – but really, I’m just waiting for it to be over, so I can have my first cup of coffee?”
Ask yourself: “Have I forgotten why I’m doing certain things? Can I see how I’m doing them without the right understanding?”
Think of this examination as a reality check; a healthy self-reflection. Not as a way to be hard on yourself – which is usually coupled with emotions like frustration or discouragement – but a way to be honest with yourself … so you can be sincere in this work.
When we talk about you being the scientist, and your life being the experiment, this self-examination must be part of that process of self-discovery.
As part of your experiment, revisit various aspects of your practice. Review what you’d previously learned by re-reading a chapter in a book – or watching an online course again. Evaluate fundamentals of the work – and your grasp of them. Do you understand the breath? Do you break it down and practice it, step by step? Do you commit to making it part of all meditations where it’s included – and not take shortcuts by skipping it?
Are you getting up from your meditations feeling different than when you sat down? If not, can you understand why?
What about form and structure? Do you follow the instructions of each meditation – sitting, standing, walking, or lying down? Do you practice convergent and divergent focus – or skip the parts that are challenging or confusing? Do you work on articulating clear intentions and sustaining elevated emotions – and practice maintaining that state of being? Or do you fall right back into unconscious, automatic behaviors – your old self – the rest of the day?
Finally, think about your intent. Do you come to your meditation with a sense of meaning and purpose? Or are you just doing it to get it done? Do you view it as something to check off the list, or do you come to it each day with a sense of the how and the why?
Why does it matter? If you can't assign meaning to this work, you won’t turn on your prefrontal cortex– and that is the game-changer. That's where you gain value and give meaning to the importance of your actions. That’s where you reap the benefits – of taking action with conscious awareness. That’s the name of the game. That’s what the frontal lobe does. It’s the seat of intention.
So if you make your meditation just another routine, and you’re just doing it to do it, without any sense of meaning … if you’re just sitting there thinking about all the things you have to do, then maybe you didn’t truly want to get beyond the familiar thoughts and feelings of your old self. In that case, you might as well open your eyes, get up, and get on with your day. And you can expect a day with very little surprises in store – because you weren’t present. And being present is being in the unknown. And that’s where we create from.
As you examine your practice, and experiment further, you can change the conversation. Instead of saying, “It’s not happening for me,” ask yourself: “Why is it not happening for me?” Instead of saying, “What am I doing wrong?” Ask yourself: “Where can I improve?”
And with that question – asked not with judgement or resignation, but with curiosity and willingness – you begin to evolve. You evolve your practice; you evolve your experience; you evolve your personality. That’s when your personal reality evolves, too.
Anyone who has ever mastered anything will tell you it was a never-ending process of self-reflection and application. A great golfer never said: “I can’t do it” – not even when they were just starting out. They already knew it was possible; they just had to self-correct until they made it possible.
So be curious. Be open. And be willing to challenge yourself to know more – about yourself.