Why the Cultivation of Daylong Recollection Is So Difficult and What to Do About It

The almost universal complaint of lay contemplatives in our modern era is about the difficulty in developing moment-to-moment mindfulness over the course of our days. This is significant, since most of our day is not spent in formal practice, and those mind-states that we cultivate by means of either habit or intention over the major part of our conscious time will have the greatest influence in conditioning our minds. Although some students become quite good at deep dives into meditation when doing formal practice outside of retreat, if these immersions do not make possible alternatives to our ordinary daylong experience, then what we are left with is a variety of mental gymnastics that give comfort and relief, but that do not allow for deep transformation. Of course, the gift of daily deep dives is itself significant, worthy of our aspirations and should not be denigrated, however, for those who truly want to tread the path of spiritual regeneration, these will not suffice.

The mind, by its nature, returns to states that are either habitually conditioned or that are more pleasant than the ones that are usually experienced within our daylong efforts. Clearly, continuous recollection of our meditation subject is not the habitual condition of the ordinary mind. Involving as it does the development of various wholesome mental factors such as the Five Controlling Faculties and the Jhana Factors, much training over long periods is needed for these states to become habitual.

There is however another important reason as to why it is so difficult to alter our habitual mental sates. If the habitual state of your consciousness is more comfortable than the state you are trying to develop with meditation, the mind will not want to come to rest in the newer states you are developing. Put differently, until the pleasant aspects of your practice and overall meditation development offers you a refuge from what is less comfortable in your “ordinary” mind states, the mind will not want to make the jump into new habitual states, but will resist and continue to stray back into the old ones.

Additionally, the developmental experiences offered up by daylong practices of recollection are not necessarily more pleasant. This lack of comforting experience in our daylong practice is due to three primary reasons: the degree of effort that needs to be sustained, often long patterns of failure and incremental growth that must be traversed, and finally, the nature of suffering in the mind revealed by the practice. Practices such as bare insight are difficult to develop in lay life precisely because they offer little comfort outside of intensive retreat environments where their development can lead to the comfort of the Jhana Factors.

These difficulties need to be acknowledged in the light of our modern work and life styles so full of thought and distraction. Here follow a few conditions that will help in the daylong developmental processes for any contemplative discipline of the attention. Obviously, a radical change in our life styles will be necessary to provide good conditions for successful cultivation.

  • No success can be reasonably expected where a discipline of daily practice of at least 45 minutes is not the norm. This is for the talented. For the rest of us, an hour or more will be necessary, perhaps twice a day.
  • The abandoning of various media and other unnecessary distractions, along with the embracing of silence is necessary. The point here is not merely the absence of distractions but learning to find ease and wellbeing in silence and stillness.
  • Part of this is a willingness to abandon habitual emotional patterns or beliefs and strip ourselves down so to speak. This can be disconcerting as the old is abandoned but the new has not yet come, we can feel lost, as if in an empty wasteland. But this “fasting of the heart” is also good and part of our development. The caterpillar must give up munching on leaves before it can sip nectar as a butterfly. Do we think that saintly souls experience the same mental nutrients as do those stranded in the mundane?
  • Patience over time and attending retreats will lead to the refinement of our consciousness so as to better appreciate states of recollection and calm. Memory can help to motivate us here as we remember those refined states of awareness that were a refuge for us during deep practice, and towards which we work to incline the mind now.
  • There is a useful question that every contemplative musk as themselves: What is the most effective way for you to counter hindrances and gain a positively reinforcing sense of relief? Experimentation as to what works for you is very valuable.
  • Practices in daily life that emphasize concentration are also very helpful. Concentration gives power and inertia to whatever the mind engages in. In this way it can help your work of daylong mindfulness, but be careful, it can also go off the tracks. So vigilance will be necessary.
  • If the practice you are doing is that of classical Theravada mindfulness over the course of your day, then the inclusion of sampajañña, clear comprehension of your experience will more deeply engage the mind and develop wisdom. The development of clear comprehension is strongly associated with mental notation.
  • The specific problem of intellectual labor will remain a challenge. Those of us who use our intellects heavily for our livelihoods must acquire a very specific talent of mindfulness that allows us to recollect and return to our practice as soon as our intention is free, be it for longer periods, or only brief ones such as a bathroom break or a trip to the water fountain.
  • Examine your sincerity. What is your motivation? Without the ardor that consecration to the Sacred will yield, you tread a path of discouragement for you know not what. Of course, you have to really believe it. Hence the questions “what do you really believe? What is your honest motivation?”
  • Most importantly, in the opinion of this teacher, is an attitude of self-sacrifice to this process of purification, and of offering that is an act of humble self-giving, both to Sacred Truth, however you conceive of it, as well as to your fellow man and creatures. This inner posture of the being is the most essential of all the changes that are necessary in serious spiritual life. It attracts the blessing of the Unseen; it softens the heart allowing Holy Love to break through the crust of our selfishness; it makes the heart and mind tractable to deep change; it awakens ardor in our spiritual disciplines that sustains us and keeps us moving forward even in the most discouraging moments.