One of the hardest things for meditation practitioners, whether just starting out or quite experienced, is to have the discipline to meditate every day.
Yet it is precisely meditating every day that is crucial. By meditating every day you keep the fire burning and slowly but surely develop your mind.
Every time you skip one or more days you must first make an effort to reconnect to the practice as it were. You then remain stuck at the point where you are standing.
If you start to skip one day it becomes easier to skip another day, then a few days and before you know it a few weeks have passed.
If you’re genuinly shocked when this happens, because you thought you were motivated for meditation, sometimes you manage to get back to work a little more consistently, but often this proces slowly but surely leads to a complete stop.
Earlier we already gave 7 Practical Meditation Tips that you can use to strengthen your practice, and we wrote about mental qualities that are developed during meditation in Developing the Mind Through Samatha Meditation.
In this text we would like to take a closer look at different mental aspects that contribute to your ability to meditate every day.
Strengthening these mental aspects can give you tools to consolidate your own daily practice and thus contribute to your own meditation process.
The mental aspects the Buddha spoke about in this context and which we will further explain here are intention (cetanā), energy (viriya), determination (adhiṭṭhāna), thought (saṅkappa) and effort (vāyāma).
Let us look at these terms one by one.
Bhikkhu Bodhi wites in his ‘A Comprehensive Manual of Abhidhamma’:
“Cetanā… is the mental factor that is concerned with the actualization of a goal, that is, the conative or volitional aspect of cognition. Thus it is rendered volition. The Commentaries explain that cetanā organizes its associated mental factors in acting upon the object. Its characteristic is the state of willing, its function is to accumulate (kamma), and its manifestation is co-ordination. Its proximate cause is the associated states. Just as a chief pupil recites his own lesson and also makes the other pupils recite their lessons, so when volition starts to work on its object, it sets the associated states to do their own tasks as well. Volition is the most significant mental factor in generating kamma, since it is volition that determines the ethical quality of the action.”
The above makes it clear that intention is one of the most important topics in the Buddhist teaching.
The Buddha equates intention with karma. In the West, karma is often erroneously seen as the result when in reality it is the cause, the driving force that results from our intention.
Just as seeds sown have the potential to germinate and grow into a harvestable plant when there is light, water, and nutrients, karma is the potential energy generated by the mind from which results (vipāka) arise when the conditions are right. And just like a seed of an orange tree does not grow an apple tree but an orange tree, wholesome karma is a cause for wholesome results (i.e. leading towards liberation) and unwholesome karma causes unwholesome results (i.e. leading away from liberation).
This is the ethical quality determined by intention, wholesome or unwholesome.
It is therefore our intention which leads the way and gives direction to of our life, to the meditative process, to the degree of commitment we can show, to the goal we want and can reach.
So it is not strange that intention is of crucial importance when it comes to our capacity to sit down and meditate every day, to bring up the necessary discipline every day.
In order to give strength to your intention to meditate every day it is good to regularly repeat your intention mentally or aloud.
When daily meditation has become a natural fact, the intention can slowly but surely be directed towards higher goals.
In this way you slowly change the direction of your intention and thus to the results that will come sooner or later.
We end the explanation of cetanā with a quote from the powerful intention of the Buddha himself (AN 2:5):
“Gladly would I let the flesh & blood in my body dry up, leaving just the skin, tendons, & bones, but if I have not attained what can be reached through manly firmness, manly persistence, manly striving, there will be no relaxing my persistence.”
Ahba translates viriya in the context of meditation as ‘many many try’. In other words, continuously putting energy into the meditative process.
Whatever happens, whether nothing happens and it just seems boring, or whether the going is difficult or very pleasant, just keep practicing patiently every day, year after year.
This is the opposite of the ‘business-man approach’ in which the result of your effort has to be visible as you put your time into it. This approach does not apply when it comes to meditative effort on the Buddhist path. You cannot judge or value your own progress because you cannot see the whole path, let alone where you stand on it.
So viriya is the mental quality of trying again and again, and you can find it in many different places in the teaching of the Buddha, through which different aspects of it are highlighted.
It is the mental factor behind the four efforts (cattāro sammappadhānā), which we will reflect on later in this text in the form of sammā-vāyāma (Right Effort).
Linked to concentration (samādhi), viriya is one of the iddhi-pāda (ways to great strength). This mental strength is both the basis of the supernatural powers that you can acquire through meditative effort and the spiritual power with which you take steps on the path towards liberation.
As one of the spiritual faculties or controlling mental phenomena (indriya), viriya exercises control over the mind. It represents the sustained energy during meditation and must be balanced with concentration (samādhi) in order not to slip into enthusiastic agitation.
By developing the five indriya, of which viriya is thus one, these phenomena, which can still be shaken at the stage of indriya, slowly but surely become unshakable forces (bala) which, in complete harmony, only go in one direction, that of liberation.
The development of viriya is also one of those qualities that needs to be developed slowly but surely, from life to life, to the level of perfection (paramī) in order to achieve liberation.
Those who continue to develop viriya and balance it with samādhi (concentration) by practicing samatha meditation on buddho over and over again work on this paramī¸ until it ushers in the awakening to reality as a mature and fully balanced and harmonious factor of enlightenment (bojjhanga).
But it all starts with trying very patiently, every day, over and over again, slowly but surely. This is the only way to develop this important quality that is essential on the Buddhist meditative path.
The finest example of adhiṭṭhāna is the life of the Buddha himself. This can be seen in two ways.
First, in his previous lives as Bodhisattva (one who is destined to become a Buddha in a future life), during countless universes that came and went, the Buddha made an unceasing effort to develop his paramī (perfections).
Imagine that, not a year of effort, not a life, but countless lives, an almost infinite number of lives. Driven by the determination to achieve the highest possible.
Secondly, during his last life, Siddharta Gautama made the almost superhuman effort to completely free his mind. There was no one to show him the way, only his determination to end the unsatisfatoriness of existence at all costs.
This determination, which can also become a powerful undercurrent on the path to liberation for us normal mortals, translates into four specific goals, namely, the determination to develop wisdom (paññā), truth or honesty (sacca), letting go (cāga) and calmness (upasama).
In other words, the determination to develop moral behavior (sīla) and concentration (samādhi).
It is through the practice of sīla and samādhi that the mind becomes pure, clear and calm, so that you can see reality and wisdom (paññā) can arise. It is through wisdom that you can let go of things (cāga), free yourself and reach complete stillness (upasama).
Therefore, be determined in your daily practice of sīla and samatha meditation on buddho, with the Buddha as the highest example, because no one but you can develop your mind and eventually free it.
Saṅkappa is so important that it is part of the Eightfold Path, the core of Buddhist practice in the form of sammā-saṅkappa (Right Thought, but also to be translated as Right Intention).
Although saṅkappa, like cetanā, can be translated with ‘intention’, saṅkappa emphasizes another aspect. The meaning of saṅkappa is especially close to vitakka (beginning focus on an object) In this way saṅkappa is used in the old Commentaries to define vitakka.
This is noteworthy because vitakka is an important term for anyone who meditates. In fact, vitakka is the constant bringing of your mind to your meditation object and is one of the jhāna factors, mental factors that are part of very high concentration. Saṅkappa in this sense also means ‘purposefulness’ and encloses the intention to do something (therefore it can also be translated with intention).
The Buddha says about Sammā-saṅkappa (DN 22):
“What is Right-thought (sammā-saṅkappa)? Thought free from desire (nekkhamma-saṅkappa), thought free from ill- will (abyāpāda-saṅkappa), thought free from cruelty (avihiṃsā-saṅkappa). This is Right-thought.”
Taking into account the earlier explanation of the translation of saṅkappa, the Buddha states that the right way to purposefully direct your thoughts is free from desire, ill-will and cruelty.
If you practice samatha meditation on buddho then you are constantly working on this during your meditation.
By practicing samatha meditation you develop vitakka, the power underlying thought, and slowly but surely you put a (temporary) end to the five mental hindrances (pañca nīvaraṇāni), thereby purifying your mind.
It is the pure mind that is capable of encompassing renunciation (nekkhamma) and loving-kindness (mettā) and thus being free from desire, ill-will and cruelty.
If you allow the mind to taste these wholesome thoughts during daily meditation, it slowly but surely becomes more natural to cherish them for the rest of the day.
As your mind becomes more and more free from desire, ill-will and cruelty, you will experience more contenment and happiness. The realization that this is a direct result of your meditative effort makes it easier to bring up the discipline to sit down daily.
If you find it difficult to meditate daily, it may help to reflect on the above and on the value of daily meditation for the rest of your day.
Vāyāma finds its place in the Eightfold Path as well, namely as sammā-vāyāma (Right Effort). Sammā-vāyāma is often equated with viriya (energy). Viriya is the underlying mental quality of which sammā-vāyāma is an expression. As sammā-vāyāma effort has four sides, the earlier mentioned cattāro sammappadhānā, as for example can be read in the Magga-Vibhaṅga Sutta (SN 45:8):
“And what, monks, is right effort? Here, monks, when a monk generates desire, strives, endeavors, perseveres and makes an effort for the non-emergence of evil, unwholesome qualities that have not yet arisen… for the abandonment of evil, unwholesome qualities that have arisen… for the emergence of wholesome qualities that have not yet arisen… (and) for the preservation, strengthening, plentitude, development and culmination of wholesome qualities that have arisen: This is proper effort.”
The difficulty of the effort described above is that your mind must be clear and attentive enough to recognize both the potencies and tendencies of the mind and its manifested qualities.
To keep such a sharp eye on your mind you need very powerful mindfulness (sati).
Sati, however, only becomes more powerful if you make an effort to do so. For example by practicing samatha meditation in which you develop sati.
Becasue of the experience you gain with sati in your meditation it becomes easier to maintain it during the day. The latter is essential because it strengthens the depth of your samādhi (concentration) during meditation.
This does not happen by itself. You have to work for it, every day.
Your mind is inclined by itself to let the processes flow into the known gullies and those gullies are naturally unwholesome for most of us, rooted in desire, hatred and ignorance.
It is not enough to do something about this once in a while, we humans are far too conditioned for that. If you want to change something, you have to go to work. Again and again, every day.
Where to Start
It is almost a paradoxical loop. You must make an effort to develop your mind in order to shapren the tools you need to further make the effort to develop your mind.
Fortunately, it is only ‘almost’ a loop and in reality an upward spiral. A spiral that asks for patience and kindness towards yourself.
By continuing to try, fully determined, over and over again, with purposeful intention, no matter what the result is, no matter how it goes, you develop your mind. Slowly but surely, step by step.
Not with the aim of having special experiences or developing wisdom as quickly as possible. But very patiently, full of love for yourself, knowing that you are on the right path and will eventually reach your goal.
With the Buddha as the great example, whether it is one more life, ten lives, a hundred lives, or much and much longer before you reach the great peace of Nibbāna (Sanskrit: Nirvana), it does not matter. It all starts with the daily practice, your daily meditation.