Q: I have started a meditation practice several times but quit because it didn’t seem like I was getting anywhere. How long does it take for a meditation practice to bear fruit?
A: Soon after beginning to meditate, many people begin wondering how long they will have to practice before they see a result. When a discernible result is not immediately apparent, they feel anxious and begin to doubt the value of their practice. The modern system of education has done much to create this doubt and anxiety. We are accustomed to well-defined course curriculums, and we are assured that when we collect a certain number of credits we will be rewarded with a degree. The credits we receive are based on fulfilling specific requirements: a set number of contact hours, reading assignments, and a passing grade on an exam, for example. These requirements are tangible and their fulfillment is quantifiable.
There is a tendency to apply this familiar model when we are working with the mind and attempting to curtail its wandering habits. But we fail to remember that our education system is designed to enable us to explore the external world, whereas through the practice of yoga we are trying to explore our inner world.
Our inner world is made of our likes and dislikes, our beliefs, our prejudices, and our habit patterns. It took us a long time to create them and deposit them in our mind. Then we nurtured them in a sustained manner until they turned into samskaras—subtle mental impressions powerful enough to come forward and capture our attention whether we want them to or not. Our meditation practice aims at arresting these samskaras so they do not distract our mind from within. How long this will take depends to a significant degree on how firm and sustained we are in our practice.
Because these powerful habits are formed over a long period of time, the process of undoing them will also take a long time. From time immemorial we have been performing our actions and depositing these impressions in our mind without making any effort to visit the vast warehouse where these subtle impressions are stored. As a result they have claimed our mind as their private territory and have posted a “No Trespassing” sign. By undertaking a spiritual practice we are doing our best to nullify the vast store of subtle habit patterns. In doing so, we are removing that sign and reclaiming our mind.
But this will not bring instant transformation. It requires time and patience to generate new spiritually illuminating, constructive habit patterns with the strength to neutralize our negative habit patterns and initiate a long-lasting transformation from within. Only a firm practice can guarantee that we will conquer the mind’s roaming tendencies, and our practice becomes firm only when we sustain it for a long period of time without interruption.
Quite often we start our practice on the spur of the moment but continue with it only until other priorities come to the forefront of our mind. Suddenly, we find a justification for skipping it some days, making it shorter, or even dropping it altogether. When we realize what we have lost by dropping the practice, we try to go back and start it again. Dropping a practice and starting it again is very disheartening. In fact, this process itself creates its own samskaras in the mind, by planting the seeds of failure that have the potential to sprout the next time we start the practice. These samskaras manifest in the form of frustration, anxiety, and weakened willpower. To prevent this, we must get our priorities straight. We must continually remind ourselves how important it is to have a clear, calm, and tranquil mind, and to live peacefully. This will help us become firm in our determination to not allow anything to interrupt our practice.
We can also make our practice firm by cultivating trust in the outcome. When we do not see our practice bearing fruit as soon as we hope it will, we must remind ourselves that many people in the past have done their practice and been rewarded with delightful results. The same will be true for us. Doing the practice is in our hands, but the exact time it will yield its fruit—and the precise fruit it will yield—is not. With the exception of the actual process of doing the practice, none of these factors are under our control. With this understanding, we must cultivate the determination to do our practice until it comes to fruition—no matter how long it takes.