PEOPLE SURE HAVE IDEAS ABOUT MEDITATION. Lots of people think it’s easy, it’s blissful, it’s an essential part of every Buddhist’s every day. Well, it can be all of those things. It also can not. It can be difficult, and aggravating. And when they feel like being straight-up, a whole lot of Buddhists cop to the fact that they often spend more time thinking that they should be meditating than actually doing it.
Andrea McQuillin, assistant editor of Shambhala Sun magazine, copped to it and did something about it. A couple months back, she gently threw down the gauntlet to friends and colleagues in an email announcing a new experiment. Were people willing to put their butts on the line? Andrea sat down herself to answer The Worst Horse’s questions about “The 30-day Practice Challenge.”
TWH: So, tell us about the “30-day Practice Challenge.”
AM: The 30-day practice challenge is a group of self-selected practitioners from disparate places who like the idea of practicing regularly and have committed to sitting every day for 30-days.
What do you mean by “practice” here?
I think that I would say any kind of contemplative physical discipline, but especially sitting meditation, such as mindfulness of breathing. We have formed, I think, a loose de facto virtual sangha.
For those who don’t know, what’s a sangha?
A sangha is made up of individual practitioners who each acknowledge that they are, as individuals, committed to waking up. What makes them a group is that in making the commitment to themselves, they acknowledge the presence of others who have made the same commitment. Their mere existence encourages one another, and they can actively encourage one another in a sane and ultimately kind way, if they really dig it.
The group is connected by 1, a commitment to practice daily, and 2, some kind of electronic communication, either email or an electronic message board.
How did the idea come to you?
The 30-day practice challenge was an idea that my friend Jessica, a fellow-practitioner, and I thought of. We were lamenting that our regular practice was waning. When we were in the same city, Jessica and I used to arrange to practice together quite a lot. But when she and her partner Aaron moved to Montreal a year and a half ago–though we kept in touch by email and phone–we lost the ability to practice “together.” So we decided that we would make regular “dates” to practice together, across the miles. And then that turned into a challenge to each other to sit every day for 30 days. Just as a lark, really. We thought that some of our friends and coworkers might enjoy the same thing. So just for my own amusement, I made a “contract” that people could read and sign. [An excerpt follows:]
“Join millions (well, now I think we’re about 8) people from coast to coast as we attempt to practice every day for thirty days!
“You don’t have to be an expert meditator in a cave to accept this challenge. All you need is a quiet place to sit and 10 to 60 minutes a day. Who can’t spare that? Instead of watching TV for 30 minutes, watch your mind.
“What You’ll Get:
* Email support from your cross-country pals, who will also be meditating daily
* Daily dharma quotes by e-mail that will inspire you
* The ineffable benefits of meditation”
…I figured it would make the commitment more palpable, at least initially. The daily inspirational dharma quote [served] to remind people about their pledge, and to not get discouraged.
We often hear of meditation teachers imploring students to find others to practice with. Does it make a difference if they’re not actually there, sitting in a room with me?
Personally, I think there is still merit in having other physical bodies there in the room with you occasionally — it sharpens your practice. But I also think it’s important just to practice, and to not just think about doing it, or to talk about doing it.
Why is it important?
I think it’s important for me to practice, but I try not to judge others on whether they practice or not.
There are just so many ways that we can trick ourselves out of practicing. This is a way to trick us into practicing.
I’ve found that once you’ve been sitting for awhile, you can become a bit complacent. It’s easier to rest on past insights, and let the discipline slide. So then it’s more important than ever to do the daily practice, day-in, day-out. Just like you’re diligent about brushing your teeth. It’s a chance to state your intention and follow through, developing some sort of discipline in your everyday life. You just do it. But really, the only person you have to be honest with is yourself. No one knows if you’re doing the practice anyhow.
But there’s a way to “confess” if you’ve missed a day, right?
We created an opportunity for “confession,” which most people haven’t availed themselves of. Once a week, people could report in on how well they managed to practice every day. Clearly some people liked to do that, and others didn’t (because they never did).
I’m not really sure what function the “confession” serves, except to provide some sort of reset mechanism for people. It might be some sort of lurking catholicism in our approach…I don’t think it’s harmed anything (except to make a few people irritated).
Maybe the fact that they have to report in motivates some people. It’s like being checked on your homework. If someone cares enough to inquire about whether you did your homework or not, maybe just that sense of someone being interested in your practice is enough to get you on the cushion.
It’s not like we know when anyone is really practicing anyhow, even when they are actually ON the cushion. They could be working on their grocery list, or planning their next vacation, or rehashing the last one. I think the invitation, the sense that it’s possible to practice, is the main thing.
So, what’s the value of sitting with a “virtual” sangha, as opposed to with a real one?
The “virtual sangha” experience is a bonus. Some people feel very isolated in their practice — either they can’t find practice-minded people around, or they are physically separated from their group of practice-minded people. It’s possible that some sort of virtual sangha thing really fits some people’s lifestyles. But it’s also true that with this kind of set up, you can still hide out if you want: you just put on your electronic game face and fake your way through. But hopefully the basic commitment and regular reminders create some sort of unbearable friction in that case.
From what you could knew of the first crop of “challengees,” did they have much in common? What kinds of things?
From what I know, they all have a sincere interest in practice, and a certain kind of loneliness due to the circumstances of their lives. Maybe they are so busy they don’t often have time to practice or study. Maybe they feel disconnected from their local community. Maybe they don’t care for face-to-face interaction. Maybe they just want to practice alone.
What if I sign up and I miss a day, or ten? What happens?
Nothing happens. And you work with that. It really doesn’t matter how much people practice, in the end, at least in my view. I think that if you are committed to practice then that doesn’t have any end-point particularly. So the 30-day thing is just an artificial incentive. It’s kind of nice to break it up, practically speaking, into some sort of periods, but the idea is for it to permeate your life.
Have you cheated?
No, I haven’t cheated. There are days when I haven’t practiced.
How do those days differ?
I actually miss practice. I don’t think that I ever thought that I would say that. But I definitely miss that opportunity to see what’s going on. If I don’t practice, I mainly feel like I spend the day running scared from my thoughts.
Did the others keep up with it? Would you do it again?
I do think that the thing had more energy at the beginning. I want to do it again and put more maintenance energy into it throughout. Need to think about it a bit, about how that would work. On the other hand, I don’t want to be a cruise director, particularly.
My feeling is that the 30-day Practice Challenge should just go on and on. I’m not really sure how to make that happen for the rest of this group. Myself, I’ve just been extending it over and over. I’ve found that in just orienting myself in this way toward practice, and knowing that there are other people who are trying to practice every day….that has changed the way I think of my day, and where practice fits in it.
Maybe we should make it a “Lifetime Practice Challenge.” I actually like that idea. Now that would be a GREAT challenge.
So: the first thirty days have gone by. What have you learned?
I’ve learned that I want to practice every day for the rest of my life. I’m not sure whether anyone is in this same boat, but that’s how I feel.
I’d like to know if the little experiment has worked for others. Maybe we should collect some data.
So… will the Challenge be renewed?