In my experience, Buddhism draws a lot of people who are interested in discipline. Perhaps it’s the image we have of monastic practice, of renunciants in robes waking up in the early hours of the morning and focusing single-mindedly on the dharma until night. Maybe it’s a more personal vision of meditating for long stretches every day, putting aside all distractions in service of the pursuit of total awakening. However you might frame it for yourself, there’s a sense in Buddhism that we, as individuals, need to really step up to the plate and make this happen. So when people come to me to talk about practice, often they start with a confession: “I don’t have enough self-discipline.”
We get stuck, I think, on a superhuman ideal of having total control over our own actions and impulses, perfect adherence to a self-invented schedule, an unrelenting stoicism toward matters of practice. If you can do all that, then that’s great—I guess. But the cost, for most people, is that in trying to go deeper into meditation (or whatever their practice might be), they fall into believing that they themselves are failures because they can’t quite rise to their own perfect vision of who they should be.
Self-discipline is overrated. Of the people I know who look like they have that kind of self-discipline—musicians, writers, athletes, scholars, and yes, monastics—very few actually do, and probably fewer would say they do. What they have is the humility to understand what kind of support they need to accomplish their goals, and then the good sense to accept it.
For most of us, in a practice context, this means sangha. Practicing with others, whether in person or online, takes the burden off of you. You don’t have to be an iron-willed meditator; you just need to show up. Sangha creates the rhythms of practice that are so hard for us to create on our own. At home, we know that sitting thirty minutes is arbitrary—why not stop a couple minutes early, just this once? With a group, you just wait for the bell (and believe me, it is much, much easier to wait for that bell than it is to agonize over those two minutes).
Monastic practice—and retreat, to a certain extent—is just a turbocharged version of the same thing. Waking up at 3am to meditate, for most of us, just feels way over the top, but in the monastery I did it every day, no problem. Seeing the people on either side of you struggling to sit up when they hear that bell was all I needed to be able to do it myself. And it just continued like that, through meditation and ceremonies and work, until bedtime, day after day. It was wonderful.
There’s another side of this, one that’s perhaps more powerful: when you practice in a group, you come to see that not only are you receiving the encouragement of those around you, but you are the encouragement for them. You are their support, their scaffolding. There’s a joy in that knowledge; it makes the whole practice lighter to know you’re easing someone else’s burden just by being present.
With so many online practice opportunities these days, sangha is more available than ever, and for many, it may just be enough. Still, most of us are practicing solo, at least part of the time, so we have to get creative. Where will I find support if not in a person or group?
The answer, I think, is in ritual. In the same way that you don’t want to have to dig your exercise bike out of the garage every time you decide to work out, you want practice to be ready, packaged for immediate use. You need scaffolding in a more concrete sense.
Begin with your space. If you can, create a little corner with an altar, a cushion, whatever feels like it fits. Keep that area clean. Don’t use it for other things; don’t let it become a laundry pile. This will help. Of course, for many people this is impossible—small living spaces, kids, the chaos of life don’t permit private real estate just for meditation. In that case, keep it simple, and portable, and all in one place, the same way you might keep a gym bag or yoga mat at the ready. Know where that little bundle is so you can turn to practice without making a big production of looking for all your stuff, clearing a space, etc. Again, simple.
Another helpful hint: have a uniform. Depending on your tradition, this may mean robes or particular vestments. But it doesn’t have to. It might mean that in that little practice bundle, you keep a shawl that’s just for this, or a favorite comfy sweater. This isn’t about dressing up; no one will see you. It’s about the body memory of putting on that same thing every time, the ritual of pulling the sweater over your head and slipping, as you do, into a slightly different mindset. It doesn’t have to be fancy. Just comfortable. Incense can do the same thing—if you only use it at certain times, the smell can transport you, ground you, bring you back to right here.
All of this is about the simple task of noticing what makes it easier, then doing that. What’s the hard part, right now? Whatever it may be, it doesn’t mean something is wrong with you, or that you aren’t up to the challenge. It just means you need some help. Go ahead, take it.
Author: Koun Franz
Koun Franz is a Montana-born Soto Zen priest who trained, taught, and translated in traditional monasteries in Japan. He is the guiding teacher of Thousand Harbours Zen in Halifax, Nova Scotia; his talks can be found on the their podcast.