“There is no problem other than the thought.” –Lama Norlha Rinpoche
When I was running a household and raising my daughter, I eventually learned to streamline the more mundane aspects of my life, such as housework and meal preparation, with the help of an online housekeeping maven who emphasized the importance of having household routines—things you do automatically on a daily, weekly, or monthly basis without thinking about them.
Turning a necessary task into a routine takes the pain out of it. If you make it a rule that you will always make your bed as soon as you get out of it in the morning, then you don’t stop to think about it, you just do it, and after awhile it becomes effortless. It’s the thinking about it that introduces the question of whether you feel like doing it right now, the possibility of procrastinating, the dread of knowing you have to do it sooner or later, and the sense of guilt that may descend if you don’t get it done.
As I was discussing with a Dharma Path student last week, this also works with dharma practice. We generally begin a practice with enthusiasm and a sense of adventure, a fresh appreciation for the benefit the practice will bring to us and hopefully to others. But it can be hard to squeeze another activity into our day, and pretty soon the momentum wears off and it can become just another task we don’t really feel like doing right now.
From his early days in the U.S., Lama Norlha Rinpoche talked about the importance of building up a habit of dharma practice. Habits are what we do by default, the grooves cut into the pattern of our thoughts and actions through repetition. They can be positive or negative, helpful or harmful—a habit of exercising every morning or a habit of watching too much TV and staying up late. Routines are a category of positive habits we purposely cultivate to accomplish things that are important to us.
Rinpoche assured us that while it takes effort to create a new habit, it will pay off if we persevere (the fourth paramita). “The more practice you do,” he said, “the more you will want to do it.” That’s how habits work. At first it’s like pulling the sled up the hill, but once we get there, it’s like sliding down. And it doesn’t necessarily take that long, if we can apply effort and consistency at the outset. How to maintain our motivation to make that effort? Again, Rinpoche has given advice on this in the past: “Think about how it will benefit you.”
In the West, we typically make resolutions at the New Year. It is a time to refresh our momentum, to begin again with a clean slate. Unfortunately, for many of us, through the force of previously accumulated habit the momentum soon dissipates and we find ourselves back at square one.
But wait—those of us who celebrate more than one New Year have a built-in backup plan! While there is no specific custom of making resolutions at the Tibetan New Year, it is considered a time when the obstacles of the previous year are swept away and the merit of our positive activity is greatly magnified. In short, another opportunity to get ourselves back on track.
The Tibetan New Year is coming up this week—Thursday, February 19, followed by two weeks of progressively magnified merit, culminating at the full moon. Why not use this as a time to renew our commitment to practice—to make sure we have a space set up where we can sit down at a moment’s notice, and a designated time when we know we are going to do our practice no matter what thoughts or distractions may beckon. With these supports in place, how can we fail to progress toward the unfailing results of genuine dharma practice: increasing compassion and wisdom, and ultimately full realization of our innate Buddha nature.
Happy New Year!
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