Most of us are good at starting things — exercise, projects, books, relationships. How many of us can stick to them through them after the novelty wears off, and once things get hard? What is it about the human mind that just tells us “Quit” when we run into obstacles? When the activity is no longer pleasurable?
Behavioral and evolutionary psychologists have some answers to why we stop our efforts when we encounter adversity. The basic problem is that if a behavior doesn’t result in pleasure, it tends to stop — all the more so if it results in pain! Pleasure and pain of course are related to survival mechanisms. Food, warmth, sex all obviously contribute to survival of an organism or passing on its genes to the next generation. So traits that support survival tend to get passed on, and ones that don’t tend to get selected out of the gene pool. And over millions of years of evolution, immediate rewards, like finding food or mating, were what was worth pursuing, survival-wise.
The trouble is that in the modern world, so many of our activities don’t necessarily produce immediate pleasure while we’re doing them. Avoidance of pain, though, is another powerful motivator. How many of us work, not because we like what we do so much, but because we do not want to run out of money? We have some capacity to stick to things if there’s a punishment looming in the background, threatening us if we were to stop the activity. To a lesser degree, we can find some motivation in a distant reward, like a luxurious retirement, or a successfully-raised family.
But there are so many activities in which this mechanism of anticipating distant reward seems to fail. Diet and exercise come to mind as projects that people more typically fail at than succeed. But for many people, other long-term rewards also fail to motivate behavior. Think of the deferral of gratification needed to build a career from scratch, or to work on a difficult relationship.
Mindfulness offers answers to the problem of persistence, of “stick-to-it-ive-ness”. When we practice mindfulness meditation, we return over and over to the sensations of breathing, for perhaps 20 or 30 minutes at a time, every day. Every day we learn to return again and again to our goal: keeping the attention on the breath, keeping the awareness in the body and in the present moment. It’s often very difficult, especially if we are upset or agitated, but we stick with the practice and do the best we can with it. This is basic training in persistence!
When we practice persistence in this stripped-down, pure form, we learn it on a deep level, on an automatic, neurological level. Its effects generalize, especially when we make the conscious effort to apply in our lives what we are learning in meditation. We learn to do “damage control,” to return to a project even when it seems to have gone sour, rather than giving up. We learn to respond to boredom with determination, rather than “letting it slide” in favor of something more exciting. We learn that discomfort passes: we watch itches and aches arise, last awhile, and disappear, and remain in our meditation posture throughout.
Mindfulness practice can cure us of our disease of impersistence, of wobbliness. When we practice it with devotion, we learn to be devoted to what is important to us, through thick and thin, pain and pleasure.
post by Joe