Cycles in daily practice

With time and experience I've come to realise that there are a few recognisable stages I go through with my daily practice.  The first stage is when things are exciting but I'm incompetent – the practice is new, and interesting, but I'm not terribly good at it.  I won't have memorised it, I won't be completely confident about what I'm doing, it will be a little shaky here and there.  My motivation will tend to depend on just how well it's going – if I feel that I'm getting there, that I'll master it with a bit more practice I tend to be highly motivated.  If the practice is making me feel stupid I'll probably sulk and give up.

The second stage tends to be competent with progress.  I've got to the point where I can effectively do the practice and I feel like I'm getting somewhere.  I can see I'm learning more, understanding more, getting more the time I'm putting in.  My motivation tends to be high, and I'll likely bore anyone in my vicinity with how great my practice is and that they should do it too.

In the third stage progress slows.  I can do the practice right, but I'm not really noticing the effects any more.  They are still there in the background, but there are no new fireworks, no new revelations.  I've settled into the long haul.  It's harder to stay motivated at this stage, because it's less obvious what I'm getting out of it… I tend to have to think in terms of 'just round this next corner, there'll be something great!'.  I wrote about the problem of keeping on keeping on earlier.

It's at this point I seem to enter a cycle.  I will often start feeling down, feeling that "I'm not getting anywhere" and this feeling will last for some time.  Then I will have a mini-breakthrough with the practice, realise a different way of thinking about it or a different principle to use and I'll suddenly feel like I'm moving forward again, and I'll feel all excited.  But then progress slows, and I start to feel that I'm stuck once more, that I'll 'never get there'.  Then there's another little breakthrough and I'm off again.  My motivation cycles up and down, my sense of achievement likewise.

What I'm finding interesting in my current practice is that these cycles used to take a couple of weeks – two weeks feeling fed up and pessimistic, two weeks feeling like I was really getting somewhere.  But the cycles seem to be speeding up – I can now feel both positive and empowered and pessimistic and hopeless within the space of a week.  This is… causing a certain amount of strain.  To me, in that I'm psychologically a bit all over the place, but also to my nearest and dearest who must be finding it hard to keep up with my bloody moods.  Sometimes the feelings of progress or stuck-ness relate to my practice, and practice only – so they won't get dumped on you unless you take the time to ask about my magickal activities.  But too often they are leaking out – my mind is doing that great thing of generalising.  This isn't going well, so look – everything in my life isn't going well either!  I'll never succeed in my practice – nor will I ever succeed in life!

You could plot it on a graph at the moment – Thursday, pessimistic and grumpy.  Sunday, optimistic, and energised.  Tuesday – grumpy git.  Today – hurrar, it's all going to be fine.

Well, at least I'm inconsistent.

There are many ways of looking at why this is happening, but the main one I choose to focus on is that it probably means that the practice is working.  Stuff is shifting.  My ego structures are coming under pressure.  Things are intensifying.  And that means I have to hang on to the ride, have to keep pushing forward – push it through a crisis if need be, but keep going until I reach level ground once again – but on the far side of this particular initiation.

2 Responses to "Cycles in daily practice"

  1. RW says:

    (sorry this comes a little after your post…)

    Reminds me of some of Daniel Ingram's points about the natural cycles in Insight practice.

    eg.

    http://www.dharmaoverground.org/web/guest/dharma-wiki/-/wiki/Main/MCTB%20The%20Progress%20of%20Insight;jsessionid=28F758B0B74FE54082DDC534E78A9F79?p_r_p_185834411_title=MCTB%20The%20Progress%20of%20Insight

    That pessimistic down-point is a necessary part of the process.

    Incidentally, I think the sort of stuff in this blog post examining the process and the cycles of your practice is exactly what's required for Re-observation to kick you on through it.

    see eg. "We must perceive the true nature of the sensations that make up all of our ideas of perfection, all of the ideals we cling to, all images of how the world should be and shouldn’t be, all desire for anything to be other than the way that it is as well as all desire for enlightenment that is anything other than this. " – http://www.dharmaoverground.org/web/guest/dharma-wiki/-/wiki/Main/MCTB%2010.%20Re-observation;jsessionid=28F758B0B74FE54082DDC534E78A9F79?p_r_p_185834411_title=MCTB%2010.%20Re-observation

    Seeing the true nature of the motivation (and hence also any feeling of demotivation) could be a way of breaking through from the demotivation more quickly. The cycle's going to happen, but unless you have a compelling reason you want to get through these things quickly.

    • warlock says:

      Indeed. As I think you know I'm a huge fan of Ingram and the way he expresses his experiences of insight practice and the cycles that they generate. (I still believe "Mastering the Core Teachings…" is one of the most important spiritual books around) Knowing there's some kind of structure, that there's an alternative explanation for the negative emotions we're experiencing, beyond "but life just *sucks*" really helps to keep you on an even keel while you try to push through it.

      The trouble is, those negative emotions are so damn convincing – it's so easy to believe, for me at least, that I feel bad because things are bad, I feel pessimistic because there's obvious evidence that nothing is going to get better, that I feel hurt because life has hurt me.

      The ego seems to want to grab hold of any of these emotions and go "Yes, this is real, and fully justifiable." When I work with people suffering from depression it's exactly the same issue: "I know you have complete confidence that the way you feel is a reasonable reaction to the way world really is, but let's explore the possibility that that isn't completely true". Having the moment of awareness that although your feelings are real they may not be valid, that perhaps the part of you creating emotions may have been influenced by negative chemicals in your system, or hunger, or sleep deprivation, or meditation practice, or any number of other things… extremely valuable, but oddly hard to hang on to. Most people instinctively trust what they feel – often above all else. We understand that our vision might be impaired, that our hearing may let us down, that are reflexes get worse when we are drunk… but our feelings? They're just… *us*.

      Stepping back and thinking 'this emotion is something I am experiencing' is hard, but knowing there are reasons why it might happen, that other people have experienced the same, is very helpful. It was a little like realising I become hypoglycaemic for the first time – the opportunity to go "actually, maybe the world isn't *really* like this, maybe I'm under the influence of something else." It takes practice to recognise the symptoms, but as you learn to recognise it in retrospect it becomes easier to catch it as it happens.

      Oh, and thanks for taking the time to comment!

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