The Deep Well of Motivation

Your Well of Being

Imagine yourself standing in a field of green grass next to a well. In your hand, you’re holding a pebble that represents your intentions for practicing mindfulness. This is how participants begin class #1 of the mPEAK course.  As the guided visualization continues, participants release the pebble into the well and as it hits the surface of the water, they become aware of what they want or hope to get out of the course. Typically this first layer reveals something they want to change or improve: overcome stage fright, control their temper at work, stop procrastinating on writing their book or work with an injury that’s been holding them back. As they watch the pebble continue to sink deeper, another layer of intentions are revealed. These are often performance related goals such as shaving time off their race, improving their golf putt or leading their company in a new direction. But as the pebble sinks even deeper into the well of their being, all the way to the sandy bottom, everything becomes very still and their hearts deepest intentions start to become clear. “What is it you really, really want?” The answers that arise from these depths are often unexpected and even surprise some of the participants, “I originally thought what I wanted was to learn to focus better but I guess what I really want is to take better care of myself.” Others say they want to speak authentically and connect more deeply with the people in their lives.  They want to be happy and feel peace in their lives.

Motivation for Practice

Nobody chooses to sit down and close their eyes for thirty minutes in the middle of their busy life for no reason. Whether you’re able to articulate it or not, if you’re interested in mindfulness practice, chances are it’s because you have an intention to feel better in some way. This intention is actually the key to long term, sustainable practice.

Your intention is your desire- it’s what you hope to get out of committing to a mindfulness practice. Going hand in hand with intention is your motivation, which is the deeper reason of why you want to get what you want. We could say that intention is the compass and motivation is the fuel. Those with strong intentions and motivation consistently bring focus and zest to their practice. But without a clearly articulated intention, it’s easy to lose site of the purpose of practice. Motivation inevitably wanes and sitting for any extended periods of silence becomes a dull and meaningless chore.

The science of motivation is an interesting field and goes far beyond studying the difference between those who have it and those who don’t. According to Self Determination Theory, the most prominent theory of human motivation, not all motivations are created equally and the type of motivation one has impacts not only how they perform but also how they experience their life. The two main types of motivation can be divided into extrinsic and intrinsic motivation. To better understand, lets look at how the body uses various types of fuel for movement compared to how we use different depths of motivation to fuel our intentions.

The Fuel for Growth & Change

In the body, there are three different physiological mechanisms to metabolize fuel for physical activity. The Phospholitic System is the simplest system that uses creatine for short bursts of high intensity sprints lasting about 10 seconds or less. Then there is the Glycolitic Anaerobic system that burns carbohydrates in the form of glycogen for high intensity work lasting a few minutes.  Finally there is the most complex system of Oxidative Aerobic metabolism. It is slower to act and burns fats for moderate intensity, long duration events. This is the mechanism that fuels the body to go the distance.

Metaphorically this corresponds to the three different kinds of fuel that motivate both performance and mindfulness practice. The extrinsic motivators can be divided into fear based and reward based, while intrinsic motivation comes from the inherent desire to seek out new things and new challenges, to analyze one's capacity, to observe and to gain knowledge. It is driven by an interest or enjoyment in the task itself, and exists within the individual rather than relying on external pressures or a desire for reward.

Like the Phospholitic system, fear based motivation will give you a short term burst of energy to get out of pain, avoid punishment and to overcome feelings of shame or deficiency. However, once you’ve gotten far enough away from the fear, motivation dries up. Extrinsic reward based motivations, like the Glycolytic system will take you a bit further than fear, but not the full distance. Competing in a race, looking fit for a wedding or making more money can definitely be motivating. However, once the reward is no longer available- meaning the competition, event or goal has ended… so is the motivation. And even if you were successful, according to the theory of hedonic adaptation, your desires and expectations will rise in tandem with what you’ve accomplished, offering a zero sum when it comes to personal fulfillment.

To extend the warning just a bit further, Deci & Ryan, the developers of Self Determination Theory, discovered that if any of the 3 external ambitions —fame, money, or beauty—was exceptionally high for an individual relative to the 3 inner ambitions—personal growth, community contribution, and meaningful relationships—the person was more likely to display poorer, less stable mental health. For example, having an unusually strong desire for material success was associated with depression, anxiety, narcissism, and poorer social functioning. By contrast, strong aspirations for any of the intrinsic motivations—were positively associated with well-being. And, those that strongly cared to contribute to their community had higher self-esteem and greater vitality.

Tapping Into Intrinsic Motivation

Tapping into the deepest part of your well will reveal your intrinsic motivation, which is the key to a committed mindfulness practice in support of your evolving performance in life, work or sport. To better understand these deep-driving forces, lets take a look at the motivations of some of the traditional “high performing elite” of mindfulness training. For thousands of years the intention of mindfulness practitioners has been to attain liberation or enlightenment and the motivation behind it­ --to end suffering for all sentient beings. This radical expression of motivation may be a bit lofty for most mPEAK participants but is absolutely required to follow the rigors of the monastic path or even complete an extended silent retreat for that matter.  This deep motivation to be of service to others has the power to fuel the monastic lifestyle of daily study, practice and renunciation that most of us couldn’t even imagine. Fortunately for the casual meditator, we don’t have to begin with this level of motivation to see benefits from our mindfulness practice… but we do need something! Along the wide spectrum of motivation, liberation or self-actualization are on one end and fame, money and beauty are the far other.  Most participants of mPEAK find themselves somewhere in the middle, which is a perfect place to start.

According to Deci and Ryan, there are three psychological needs that intrinsically motivate us to initiate any behavior. These needs are said to be universal, innate and psychological and include: the need for competence, autonomy, and psychological relatedness.


The first factor of intrinsic motivation is Autonomy- the energy that comes from making a commitment to taking full responsibility for directing ones own life according to personal beliefs & values.  When stressed, most people shift to an unconscious reactive mode and lose their sense of self-directed, autonomy over their life. Deeply held values go out the window, replaced by basic survival mechanisms. This feeling of being “out of control” is followed by irrational thinking, impulsive actions and unintended behavior.  Rather than take responsibility, the tendency is to blame others and sink into a state of helplessness. Through mindfulness practice, we can experience a new level of autonomy and personal responsibility by becoming aware of our conditioned stress patterns and fully owning our choice in the way we respond to these challenging life events. Over time a practitioner can more easily align his or her actions with deeply held values, even under difficult circumstances.


Competence is the second quality of intrinsic motivation and is the positive reinforcement that comes from experiencing your own skillfulness while engaged in a challenging activity.  There is an inherent energy available in the process of progressing towards mastery over something that truly matters to you.  This is the kind of motivation displayed by Forest Gump who “just felt like running”. It comes from the love of the journey, not the destination. As mindfulness practice deepens, merging with your favorite performance activity into a state of flow becomes more accessible.  Even noticing the progress in meditation practice over an 8 week period can provide mPEAK participants an upward spiral of motivation fueled by an increasing sense of competence.  Being able to sit for longer periods, getting distracted less and gaining insight into the workings of the mind are all inherently enjoyable and make it more likely to continue practicing.


Finally the last factor for intrinsic motivation is Relatedness, which is the connection to others and a feeling of belongingness to a larger community.  Again, this desire to be of service to others driven by the realization of interconnectedness and unity is the traditional motivation that’s fueled monastic practice for centuries. The intention to communicate better with your spouse, be more patient with your children, work better with your team or to serve your community are all examples of deep intrinsic motivation that will ensure continued progress along your path.

Home Practice

  1. To leverage your own personal motivations, try reflecting on your deepest intentions for practice. Once your settled into your meditation posture, close your eyes, take a few breaths and contemplate the following questions: What is it that I value deeply? What, in the depth of my heart, do I wish for myself, for my loved ones, and for the world?" Stay on these questions for a while with curiosity around what answers naturally bubble up without trying to figure it out with your mind. If no specific answers surface, don't worry, simply stay with the open questions. This may be awkward at first, since when we ask questions we usually expect to know the answers right away. Trust that the questions themselves are working even—or especially—when we don't have immediate answers. If and when answers do come up, acknowledge them as they arise and stay with whatever thoughts and feelings they may bring. After a few minutes, you can let go of the intention setting and continue with your regular practice.
  2. At the end of your formal meditation practice, take a few minutes again to recall whatever motivations came up in the beginning of the practice. Then offer what is traditionally referred to as a “Dedication of Merit”. If your main motivation is to decrease work related stress, you may say to yourself, “May this practice bring ease into my workday. May this practice help me pause before I speak to challenging co-workers”. If your primary drive to practice is to improve your relationship you may choose to a dedication of: “May this practice open my heart and allow me to see the perspective of my loved one.” Try it out and see what comes up for you…