Let’s talk about commitment…. Wait! Come back!

Human beings are strange creatures. We often find it easy to do things that harm us, but difficult to do what will benefit us. A solid commitment to practice Yoga and meditation will strengthen the body and mind, and performed with the right attitude, will allow us to see so much of beauty and mystery that reality has to offer. Chasing short term pleasures on the other hand, will generally result in a scattered mind and the complete absence of any lasting satisfaction. For some reason though, we generally choose the short-term pleasure-chasing.

In this world of relentless ambition, social media, fast food and aggressive advertising, it seems the opportunities for distraction are much more plentiful than those for spiritual development. We cannot just blame modern society; this problem is something fundamental to our nature. In fact, as far back as the 8th century, our tendency to do the “wrong” thing was summed up by the Buddhist saint Shantideva, who said:

We who are like senseless children shrink from suffering but love its causes.” Shantideva

So we wish to avoid suffering, but the things we do to avoid it cause us more suffering. Sometimes we forget what is good for us and what is bad, or sometimes we know but we still choose the bad option! Smoking is a good example of this, few smokers are happy with their habit, and most know the terrible health consequences. Addictions to dangerous substances are an obvious example of how we can harm ourselves, but there are many more subtle ways that we choose to engage in behaviours that increase our suffering.

Often when we feel an unpleasant sensation, we immediately turn to a distraction. This can become an almost instant reflex so we do not even realise we are doing it. If you visit a Yoga or meditation centre, or any place when you are away from the distractions of the daily world, you may notice that instead of blissful serenity you are faced an emotional roller-coaster as all of the things you normally bury in distraction will come to the surface. Actually, this is the only way to really develop so to experience this is a good thing. It may seem that the distractions are reducing the unpleasant feelings, but really, they just mask them and strengthen the tendency for future distraction. Basically, we are storing up more suffering for the future.

Even without any destructive habits, the way in which we live our daily lives can bring us future suffering if we only focus on external things. We can enjoy family life and friendships, find passion and meaning in our work and studies, and even acquire possessions – but we should not let these things define us since all of them will come to an end. Buddhism teaches a truth that can sometimes seem painful, that no permanent satisfaction can be found in this world where everything is subject to the law of change. Many spiritual traditions show a way out of this trap, but they cannot do it for us.

So the things we do to find happiness often have the opposite effect. As countless spiritual teachers have pointed out, the way out of this trap is to look inwards – to work on ourselves. You may find that the same problems seem to keep repeating in your life regardless of any changes you try to make. If this is the case it is time to start looking inwards so you can start to see your troublesome patterns and eventually change them. Practices like Yoga & meditation are great for this, but committing to them can be challenging.

Why Commitment is Difficult

Why the challenge? One reason is simply that we are creatures of habit, our desire to remain in our comfort zones makes old habits hard to drop and new ones hard to pick up. Imagine your morning routine was to wake up, worry about the day to come, read the news and drink coffee while frantically trying not to be late for work (a reality for many people). To replace this with 20 minutes of silent meditation would be quite a struggle at first, even though it would obviously result in a much better day.

Another challenge is the practices themselves. Awareness based practices like meditation require us to be intimate with our own minds. This can be challenging as there may be many aspects of ourselves, we have buried due to the tendency to self-distract. We have to practice being with these feelings instead of pushing them away, so it is no wonder you may find yourself making excuses to postpone your meditation sessions. Still, as you grow more confident in your practice you will find the fear decreases and you may even start to relish some of the challenges that the mind throws up, transforming the obstacles into lessons. Also, the mind will eventually start to prefer the quiet meditative state over the usual frantic ego-calculations.

Sometimes the idea of doing a lot of spiritual practices can seem boring, who wants to be a monk sitting in a cave when there is such a vibrant world to experience out there? Actually though, to turn inwards and work on the mind is the most exciting adventure we can possibly take. The Buddha was not boring, he was an immensely courageous rebel, prepared to go against the grain and “hack” existence itself. That’s another reason that commitment is difficult, there will be a lot of resistance. By practising spiritual work, in some sense, you are going against your animal nature that has evolved for millions of years – trying to transcend the survival-based ego and catch a glimpse of something else. Our default mood of being is concerned simply with keeping the body alive, this involves a lot of fear, most notably the fear of change. To the primitive, animal brain change equates with danger (i.e. leave the cave after dark and get eaten by a lion). To override this instinct takes enormous courage – it is the opposite of boring! 

How Can We Commit?

So how can we change our old habits, get out of the comfort zone and commit to a solid spiritual practice? One way is simply to remember why we are doing it, keeping in mind the usual way of doing things will only bring short-term satisfaction and often cause us harm. Of course, this is easier to intellectualise than to really know in our hearts. Meditation can help with this. When we meditate, we see many patterns and thoughts that trouble us, instead of trying to escape from them we sit with them – and from this vantage point, we learn much about ourselves. By cultivating awareness of the mind in meditation, we become more aware of it in daily life. This means we clearly see the habits that harm us and those which nourish us, making commitment less of an issue as we naturally gravitate towards the beneficial. There is a kind of beautiful cycle here: the more we meditate, the more we see the benefits of meditation, so the more we meditate, and so on…

In the Yogic tradition there is the concept of “Tapas” this is setting a passionate, burning intention to carry out a certain task, kind of like making a promise to yourself. It could be, say, to meditate for 15 minutes every morning for a week. As long as we pick something achievable, successfully completing your Tapas will develop your self-trust and ability to commit to even more. In Buddhism, there is the concept of refuge. Instead of taking refuge in the daily distractions of the world (like most of us do) Buddhists take refuge in the Three Jewels: “The Buddha”, “The Dharma”, and “The Sangha”. The Buddha is the one who successfully understood, then transcended the world of suffering and explained that anybody could do it, so he is a figure of inspiration. The Dharma is the teachings, which provide a blueprint for following in the Buddha’s footprint, and the Sangha is the spiritual community. Finding a community of like-minded individuals is essential, especially living in a society where most people are only committing to things that bring instant gratification. There may be times when the path seems too challenging, or the pull towards bad habits becomes too strong. When this happens, it is always possible to take refuge in the three jewels.

So commitment to spiritual practice can seem difficult, but once we realise that we are committing to something that actually helps us it becomes a lot easier! Sometimes the word “commitment” makes us think of forcing ourselves to do something we don’t want to do. It is true that there will be some resistance, but what we really want is true happiness and freedom – that’s what these practices can bring!

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