Am I alone in struggling with enthusiasm for my Buddhist practice? Why did I lose my enthusiasm for meditation? How can I find time to practice in our stressful modern world? These are questions that frequently stall Buddhist practice. When this happens, do we lose our refuge? Have we broken our vows? What happens now?
Refuge isn’t just a vow — it’s a support network
When we take Buddhist Refuge, we take Refuge in Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha. We should never feel alone, when we face obstacles in Buddhism. Refuge vows aren’t to make us feel guilty when we go “astray” and forget to practice, or lose our enthusiasm. They’re there to remind us we have a centuries-old support network of loving Dharma friends.
In Mahayana, Refuge revolves around Bodhicitta. Regardless of the state of our practice, our vows, our work schedule, or our stress factors — we never lose Bodhichitta, just as we never lose our attitude of loving-kindness and compassion.
As long as we have Bodhichitta, we have our practice
As Garchen Rinpoche said, “If you receive empowerment, it’s about bodhicitta. If you receive teachings, it’s about bodhicitta. If you practice teachings, it’s about bodhicitta. Everything comes down to bodhicitta. The essence of practice is about bodhicitta. When you sit down to do your practice, what you practice is bodhicitta.”
How do we do this? As always, when we turn to Dharma and the recorded teachings of Buddha, there are answers. There are many methods for developing uncontrived Bodhicitta in Mahāyāna teachings.
For example, to arouse Bodhicitta, the main focus is on the Four Immeasurables (Brahmavihara) as contemplation and practice:
- Immeasurable Loving-Kindness (Maitrī),
- Immeasurable Compassion (Karunā),
- Immeasurable Joy in the Good Fortune of Others (Muditā),
- Immeasurable Equanimity (Upekṣā)
It can help, for example, to simply chant the Four immeasurables, sometimes to beautiful music. Here’s a lovely visualization and chant of the Refuge in the Three Jewels together with the Four Immeasurables by the amazing Yoko Dharma:
Modern life and the obstacles of stress
Modern life, stress, and the struggle to survive all take their toll. It’s not that we don’t want to “practice” — we just never find the time. We’re too tired? We feel blocked. We don’t understand — and, instead of plunging through, we give up.
Sound familiar? Buddhist practitioners often face a blocked or stalled practice. The key to overcoming the practice blocks — the secret to a “practice reboot — is to remember we have friends on the path — Buddha, Dharma and Sangha. The Buddha never left us. The Dharma is our constant companion. And, the Sangha, our friends in the Dharma — who might be as busy, stressed and tired as we are — still find time to help. Even if we are cut-off by location, travel restrictions or just don’t have time to visit our friends — we can always turn to our online Sangha. Today, more than ever — in the wake of Covid-19 — there are many Sanghas practicing online.
The bottom line, to our reboot, is not to try to go it it alone. We have friends in the Dharma. Even if we don’t have enthusiasm for practice — a very real obstacle in todays stressed-out world — our friends can bring us back to the joy of practice. If we’ve lost touch with our Sanhga, there’s a simple solution. Just “reconnect.” If we have lost our joy of the Dharma teachings, return to the basics of the teaching. If we think we’ve “lost our vows” — simply renew them. Nothing is ever lost. Renewal is a part of samsaric life.
Our friends in the Dharma are always there for us.
There are many ways to find and connect with your Sangha online. Comment here, and on Buddha Weekly’s social meda: Facebook, Youtube and Twitter. Look for a local meditation or practice group that shares your interests. Once you’ve found a Sangha, participate as often as you can. Don’t be shy — post comments, ask questions and share your own experiences. In short, engage with the group. The more you do, the more you’ll get out of it — and, the deeper your connection will become.
Modern life takes its toll on Buddhist practice, especially the higher practices that might have come with daily practice commitments. Once the momentum is lost, its easy to self-justify just letting practice go “for now.” All the teachers, however, agree that it’s important to get right back into your practice — even if you feel no motivation.
Venerable Zasep Rinpoche gave the most concise, practical advice in a previous interview with Buddha Weekly:
“Just pick up where you left off.”
Lama Zopa Rinpoche had similar advice: “Anyway, continue to do the practice again, start from now.” Of course, he and the other teachers had much more to say on this important topic.
It is very common to find oneself suddenly drifting without enthusiasm for practice, swept away by the daily grind, stress and family obligations until there’s no energy for training or even meditation. Or, perhaps a death in the family, a long-term illness, or some other dire situation that abruptly shifted your priorities from practice to survival-mode. Even though we know practice and meditation is actually the cure for this stress, we have trouble fighting our way through this maelstrom of emotions.
It is mainly a problem with lay practitioners, who have employment, family and social commitments. One of the reasons Vajrayana and Mahayana Buddhism is so “ritualized” (meditations written out) is to help fascilitate the repeatable discipline needed to progress. Even when exhausted, angry, stressed, depressed, it’s easy to follow the pattern of a formulaic sadhana (ritual). Sadhanas can also be done “anywhere.”
[For a video teaching on “Motivating your Daily Practice” see embedded video with H.E. Zasep Rinpoche below.]
In general terms, Buddha and Dharma point to three main meditations to improve our motivation to practice, regardless of how we feel:
- Meditation on death and impermanence: the core and base meditation in Buddhism, where we analyze and try to understand suffering and its causes, including Dependent Arising — it is this motivation that led Buddha to the Eightfold Path
- Meditation on the preciousness of human life: or, in traditional texts, “precious human rebirth.” Only life as a human gives us the capability and opportunity to pursue Dharma in our lives
- Meditation on the infallability of cause and effect and karma: a key meditation that helps us understand that every action and every thought — and every missed practice — has a consequence.
The Four Reminders
In most Tibetan Buddhist Schools — Nyigma, Kagyu, Gelugpa — we would refine these sutra meditations as “The Four Reminders”. These are elaborations on the Sutra remedies:
- Develop the strong desire to escape Samsara by meditating on suffering.
- Develop the enthusiasm to learn and study by understanding how precious an opportunity this very lifetime is for us — here and now.
- Develop an urgency to practice by understanding we could die at any moment — our own death is unknown, but certain.
- Develop right conduct by really understanding Karmic cause and efffect.
A Video Teaching on “Motivating Your Practice” with H.E. Zasep Tulku Rinpoche:
Buddhist Teacher Advice Video 7: What advice would you give to a student for keeping motivated and excited about daily practice?
The five main remedies
Traditionally, in the teachings, when your practice stalls, there are five pieces of advice for re-establishing your practice:
- Repeat foundation practices (to rebuild your base) even if you previously completed the main foundations — for example study Lamrim and return to purification practices, offer water bowls, Vajrasattva mantras, and prostration.
- Attend a teaching with your teacher or lama (to rebuild your enthusiasm).
- Take a major initiation with your teacher to re-establish your commitments.
- Attend a major 2 or 3 week retreat to help get you back on track.
- Or, you simply schedule your meditation, regardless of how you feel (rebuilding discipline) and “just pick up where you left off.”
But, what do the Buddhist teachers have to say when this happens? We especially wanted to research the issue from the point of view of broken commitments — which tend to go hand-in-hand with a sudden loss of pratice enthusiasm or discipline. If your own stress or sickness — or that of another you are caregiving — interrupts your practice, for example, chances are good you’ll miss practice commitments.
“Just pick up where you left off”: H.E. Zasep Rinpoche
Venerable Zasep Tulku Rinpoche advises students not to dwell on the issue, but simply to return to the practice, even if the practice commitment has been broken:
“Do not think your practice is no longer worth the effort just because you have broken your commitments; do not abandon your commitments and daily practice; just pick up where you left off. My kind teacher, the most holy Tara Tulku Rinpoche said, “If you forget to eat breakfast, you don’t give up there and then. The next day, you go ahead and eat breakfast. Simple.”
Rinpoche, of course, had more to say on the topic (see, for example, the embedded video in this feature). Saying it’s “Simple” did not mean the solution was simple. Only, that regardless of the reason we stopped practising, we should feel we can still pick up and carry on — for our benefit and the benefit of all sentient beings.
Rinpoche added: “We try to practise every day, but sometimes we feel that the practices have become routine recitations, an obligation and no more. This can happen especially when our lives are too busy and we are very tired. When this happens, we need to make time for a retreat to renew our commitments and refresh our practice. When we break our vows and commitments, we should do purification such as Vajrasattva mantras, prostrations, and reciting the Sutra of the Three Heaps by chanting the names of the thirty-five Buddhas.”
What if we don’t feel like it? H.E. Lama Zopa Rinpoche
Lama Zopa Rinpoche has practical advice:
“Anyway, continue to do the practice again, start from now. Each day you do the practice it leaves positive imprints on the mind. Even if you recite the words and your mind is totally distracted, it still leaves imprints on the mind, and sooner or later you will have attainments on the path.”
His answer was to a student who had let her practice stall. In Lama Zopa’s amazing “Advice Book” is full of great advice, some of it highly targeted. For example, for student who said she felt “blocked” and had no motivation:
All the problems are because of not having meditated well on impermanence and death. You should read Heart-Spoon by Pabongka Rinpoche and other things on impermanence and death.
Think, “Today children died in their mother’s womb, even after the consciousness took place on the fertilized egg; other children died just after being born. Many young, middle-aged and old people also died. Not only those with cancer died. Many people are dying every day from car accidents, from heart attacks. People suddenly die in so many ways. Therefore, I could be dead at any time. Any year, any month, any week, even today, I could die. After death there are only two ways: rebirth in the lower realms or in the higher realms. There’s no third option.”
Lama Zopa Rinpoche had this advice for a student experiencing obtacles:
“These are the five sutras that you need to recite (or have someone else recite):
1) Heart Sutra, the sutra of right view
2) Transcendental Wisdom Passing Away
3) The sutra of pure conduct, the meditation—the King of Prayers
4) The sutra of washing (Dorje Namjom)
5) One syllable Heart of the Sutra—AH. You just recite AH and meditate on the meaning of AH—that the “I,” action, and the object—no phenomena—have true existence. Meditate on emptiness—that is the meaning of AH. Recite AH then meditate on that meaning, looking at everything, all phenomena, the “I,” action, and the object, everything, as empty.”
One of the miracles of Yidam practice is that it is very self-motivating. Yidam means “heart-bond” deity (one translation). Because you have a very special bond — not just through your affection and original connection to the Yidam, but by virtue of initation and days and hours of practice — simply looking at an image of your Yidam and repeating the mantra will self-generate new momentum and enthusiasm.
In Yidam meditation, you generate yourself in an ideal way. Even if it feels artificial and flat at times, you can always return to your Yidam practice and “reboot” your motivation at any time. Especially, if you’ve completed a mantra retreat, you can try “self initation” to really kick yourself into gear. Or, an initiation with your teacher to renew your commitment. Or, as Zasep Rinpoche advised, “Just pick up where you left off.”
You are not alone
When we take Refuge, we take Refuge in Buddha, Dharma and Sangha. It is to these three we should turn when we feel stalled. And, especially, we should turn to our Sangha — especially, of course, our teacher, if possible. Finding inspiration and motivation from others is very important. Today, we can even think in terms of our “close Sangha” and our “virtual Sangha” since many of us have Dharma friends online. We can turn for inspiration to our online Dharma communities (including, even Facebook friends, if you have a supportive Dharma-oriented group).
Of course, if you are a member of a local temple, gompa or meditation group, this is always the first stop in recharging our motivation. Try volunteering for Dharma work — cleaning or repairing the Gompa, helping organize events. Attend events when you can.
Of course, the ultimate contradiction in “You are not alone” is renewing via “retreat.” Retreats are often group retreats today, but even though there might be a large group, mostly the retreat will be hard, motivating practice, not socializing. Retreat is one of the key remedies for a stalled practice.