You can expect your Buddhist practice to go through a cycle of ebb and flow in terms of energy, inspiration, and focus. At times, hopefully, you feel motivated and determined, and experience a period of learning and growth. Then there will inevitably be periods where your practice loses momentum. It may feel dull or aimless, or you may fall back into old, not-so-healthy habits. It’s important you don’t give up practice in times of low ebb, but instead recognize this as part of a natural cycle.
Ebb and Flow in Buddhist Practice
ebb and flow: a recurrent or rhythmical pattern of coming and going or decline and regrowth. (definition from Oxford Languages)
I’m guessing that many of us have experienced an ebb in our practice in recent memory, or are in one now, or are anticipating something of an ebb over the end-of-year holidays
Last year, with pandemic lockdown, political conflicts, renewed unrest around racial injustice, unprecedented natural disasters exacerbated by global heating…
For many of us, regular schedules, habits, structures we’ve set up to support our healthy habits, including Dharma practice, have been taken away or altered radically
You might be the rare person who can just decide to do something and then do it, but vast majority of us need more support for our behavior, especially when making a significant change or doing something that takes energy and effort
I’ve heard quite a number of people reflecting on their own practice in recent months describe it as more or less a failure when compared, at least, with their intentions.
When I hear this, I worry then that people will get discouraged, decide Dharma practice is not really for them after all (just a passing fascination), or they aren’t up to it, etc.
Plus – Sometimes people’s karma = get into a cycle involving a struggle with willpower, a sense of failure, beating themselves up, still not being able to summon the will… and recognizing this karmic pattern occurring with respect to practice, not knowing how else to engage practice, give up practice in frustration or disgust
No matter our karma, times of ebb can be discouraging, especially if there has been a time/times in our practice when we experienced something very profound, or managed to make significant positive changes in our lives.
Oh that time when… (reading, listening to podcasts, deeply inspired, mindful throughout the day, sitting a lot, regularly attending Sangha meetings, contemplating profound spiritual issues, working intensively with our karma… had an insight/shift of perspective we thought would permanently transform us…)
But now… lacking the motivation to do that stuff
Or we do it, more or less, but rather half-heartedly, but without feeling the rewards or satisfaction we’ve come to expect (or at least hope for)
A time of ebb may be a day, a week, month, year, or many years. Like tides, some times of ebb involve just a little less energy, inspiration, and focus than we’d like, and other times of ebb are really low, when we might more or less forget about Buddhist practice entirely!
In this age when many of us have so many options, other ways we can choose to spend our time and energy… I would guess few of my listeners are in the position of most of our ancestors, who had to keep up with a religious tradition, at least externally, because of family or societal obligations. Most of us have a choice about how and whether we engage a spiritual practice.
So in times of ebb it may be tempting, then, to make practice a lower priority in their lives or drift away from it entirely.
Recognizing Times of Ebb in Buddhist Practice
But I argue: If you have ever felt deeply inspired by the Dharma, if meditation or practice has ever brought about positive results in your life, then there’s something valuable in Buddhist practice for you! It’s worth keeping it up through the times of ebb because they won’t last forever.
Whatever in you responded positively to the Dharma is still there…
There are skillful ways to keep up our effort through these times of ebb, keep the ember of our practice burning (to mix metaphors!) so it won’t die out
The first step is to recognize a time of ebb for what it is – a cycle within our long-term Buddhist practice
Actually turn toward and pay attention to your dissatisfaction! Your sense of disappointment, frustration, etc. Fundamentally our Zen practice is about being real and facing the truth. Dissatisfaction is the first sign of an ebb in our practice.
Fortunately, an ebb doesn’t mean we’re a failure, or that we actually don’t care that much about the Dharma, or that we chose the wrong spiritual practice and something else would probably work better for us, or that our past enthusiasm for Buddhism was just a passing infatuation
It doesn’t mean that, in order to practice, we have to get embroiled in a painful karmic entanglement involving self-discipline and guilt
A time of ebb is just what it is. Our choices may have contributed to it, and we may learn something from reflecting on those choices, but there’s no point in dwelling on blame. Here we are. Times of ebb are going to happen no matter how long we’ve been practicing, no matter how diligent and determined we are…
Recognizing an ebb as part of a cycle is encouraging… that means there will again be a time of flow! A time of inspiration, clarity, renewal, energy, greater intimacy, insight, and ease. A sense of growth and learning. A sense of progress – not in ordinary terms of better versus worse, but in terms of our life’s spiritual journey.
Keeping Our Practice Alive Even During Times of Ebb
Then, once we’ve recognized our practice is at a low ebb, the second step is to form the intention to keep it alive even though our sense of motivation and inspiration may be lacking.
This can be challenging, like making yourself exercise when you’ve fallen out of the habit
The practice we do needs to be as wholehearted as we can make it… we need to keep up the effort as best we can
Simply setting practice aside and counting on inspiration and motivation to arise again isn’t reliable approach. Our habits of body, mind, and heart are too strong.
This is one of the functions of vow – anywhere from an informal, private intention to a publicly stated vow – to keep us going on our intended journey even when we momentarily lose our sense of direction, purpose, or determination
My story: period of bleakness in middle of monastic training, didn’t know why I was doing what I was doing…
The good thing is – the longer you keep this up, the more cycles of ebb and flow you will experience, and the stronger your faith can become that a given period of dryness is an ebb and as long as you keep going there will be a time of flow
You get more familiar with the way you experience ebb and flow, and can sense when the tide it turning
My story from recently
Recommended Basics to Keep Our Practice Going
How do we keep our Buddhist practice alive? Keep that ember burning?
Set realistic expectations – what are you going to be able to easily keep up? Then push yourself just a little. Or not, if that’s going to make you feel averse to practice entirely
- Regular zazen – regularity more important than quantity
- Participation with Sangha
- Keeping the precepts
- Living deliberately (paying attention, keeping faith that choice is possible)
Ways to Re-Inspire Our Practice
Recognize time of ebb and need for inspiration
Refuse to fall into self-blame, discouragement, etc. That’s not inspiration!
Arthur Schopenhauer — ‘Man can do what he wills but he cannot will what he wills.’
I agree, we can’t will ourselves into wanting something, but Buddhism is all about things we can do to change our own minds, hearts, and bodies… through our actions, we can have influence over what we will
- Study (books, podcasts, etc. that inspire)
- Reminding ourselves of impermanence (if this works for you)
“Let me respectfully remind you, Life and death are of supreme importance. Time swiftly passes by and opportunity is lost. Each of us should strive to awaken. . . . . . awaken, Take heed. Do not squander your life.” – Ancient Zen gatha inscribed on han, chanted in monasteries
“Upajjhatthana Sutta: Subjects for Contemplation” (AN 5.57), translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Access to Insight (BCBS Edition), 30 November 2013, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/an/an05/an05.057.than.html:
“There are these five facts that one should reflect on often, whether one is a woman or a man, lay or ordained. Which five?
“‘I am subject to aging, have not gone beyond aging.’ This is the first fact that one should reflect on often, whether one is a woman or a man, lay or ordained.
“‘I am subject to illness, have not gone beyond illness.’ …
“‘I am subject to death, have not gone beyond death.’ …
“‘I will grow different, separate from all that is dear and appealing to me.’ …
“‘I am the owner of my actions, heir to my actions, born of my actions, related through my actions, and have my actions as my arbitrator. Whatever I do, for good or for evil, to that will I fall heir.’ …
- Asking ourselves what we truly want
- Whatever works!
Buddhist Practice Is a Lifelong Journey, Not a Sprint
In the meantime… keeping up the basics regardless of how it feels
Not getting self-identified with “success” in our practice
During times of ebb, Kshanti; during times of flow, gratitude