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5 Zen Practices to Keep You Motivated

May 11, 2014

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Are there days when you feel like you’re nowhere closer to achieving your dreams than you were weeks or months or even years ago? When there seems to be a setback between every little bit of progress you make, and it gets harder and harder to keep your motivation? Before you give up, why not try the Zen approach?

This ancient Asian philosophy has a strong following because its teachings remain relevant even to this day. While the practice is often associated with relaxation, clarity, stress reduction, or conflict resolution, it can also be a powerful tool for keeping you motivated and bringing you closer to achieving your goals. Here are five practices to help you maintain motivation through the Zen approach:

1. Set your goals and make them enjoyable.

Buddha often stressed the importance of being in the present, but he also reminded one to strive for one’s spiritual goals. There is no contradiction here. To live a meaningful life is to follow a path that leads to the realization of your full potential. For each dream you have, you need to break it down into clearly defined goals that begin small and gradually build up to the ultimate endpoint. A classic Zen parable illustrates this: You cannot break a bundle of reeds in one go; you have to tackle each piece individually. Instead of deadlines, create a schedule that allows you adequate time to work on achieving those goals, each one tied to a concrete reward. For instance, as a non-runner who dreams of joining a marathon, you can start off with a modest target of jogging two blocks daily for a week. You don’t want to feel overwhelmed, which can make the entire endeavor seem like a punishment instead of what it should be—a source of joy. Why? Because you are on your way to becoming all you can be. When you know that where you are in the moment is where you should be, then you can truly savor the here and now.

2. Live in the moment.

Do you remember a time in your childhood when you were completely focused on doing something and the rest of the world didn’t matter? Maybe it was a piece of art you were attempting to make, or perhaps it was just a game, but you found great pleasure in it and whatever the outcome would be, it never held you back. That is what living in the moment is all about. It’s not multitasking, which drains precious energy as you mentally switch from one thing to another. It’s about keeping the visual and auditory noises from the Internet and gadgets we can’t seem to live without from becoming distractions. When you don’t screen them out, when you let your worries of the future keep you from experiencing the present, there’s less of yourself to devote to what really matters. In fact, this is how most dreams die: slowly, as time is squandered away by ultimately inconsequential matters. Remember, your energy—ergo, your motivation—is finite.

3. Create your own mantra.

It’s a simple but highly personal statement or two that encapsulates your goal. An example is, I am a powerful athlete. I will finish the triathlon. By chanting the mantra and visualizing yourself achieving the dream, you are conditioning your mind for success. Doing the meditation daily, preferably in the morning, will also help you stay the course, even on days when you want to throw in the towel.

4. Care for your body.

When you eat an organic, nutritious diet, sleep enough hours, get regular exercise, and avoid unhealthy habits, like smoking, you have more energy to do the things you want to do. Your body functions optimally. This is a basic universal truth that even Buddha recognized: “To keep the body in good health is a duty…otherwise we shall not be able to keep our mind strong and clear.”

5. Be kind to yourself.

There will be times when you stumble, fall behind on your schedule, or miss your goal entirely. When that happens, don’t let anger take root. It’s a futile, destructive emotion that corrodes your self-esteem and can often be masked by frustration, disappointment, and depression. Take a moment to quiet that internal noise by concentrating on your breathing: inhale deep, letting the air expand your diaphragm before slowly releasing it. Once you’ve found your calm center again, you can begin to reflect dispassionately on where it went wrong and what was holding you back, then continue on your journey as a wiser and stronger being. Introspection is a Zen way of life.

What techniques keep you motivated? Share them with us in the comments section below!