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The Myth & Pitfalls of Meditation “Progress”

January 25, 2013

buddhalightA good friend surprised me with a little trinket the other day that really made me smile at a particularly stressful time. It’s a little key fob Buddha with a button on his back that you can push to turn on an LED flashlight to find the keyhole to your home, that lost lipstick in the bottom of your purse, or the last jujubee you just dropped on the floor of the movie theater (best to practice “letting go” of that last one. Really.)

I had a little fun with my gift by sharing it on Facebook with the photo of it (on the right). Here’s what I wrote:

“Thank you Michelle for my new Buddha LED Light Key Fob! Apparently when you become enlightened then some of that light shines out of your butt. The problem is that as soon as you get up off the meditation cushion to see if it’s shining, you aren’t enlightened any more and the light is off. Kind of the reverse of the whole “does the light in the refrigerator really go off when you close the door?” dilemma. Ahh, enlightenment is soooo complicated and paradoxical.”

A friend responded with the inquiry “Does this mean you have to be on the cushion to be enlightened?” A reasonable question, but in general I find myself so unable to address any issues around enlightenment that my eyes glaze over and the best I can do is an enigmatic smile and a deep wish that the conversation would shift to subjects I can handle like “Will the Oakland Raiders EVER Return to Glory?” (Feel free to post a response to this blog on that question if the whole meditation thing doesn’t pique your interest. I could use a little hope in that regard!)

What I was referring to in my Facebook post was that inevitable pull we feel to check to see how we are doing, whether it is relative to how we USED to be doing, or how OTHER PEOPLE are doing, or (even more problematic) how WE THINK WE SHOULD be doing. But in the end we are just doing. Or more accurately, just being. No comparisons necessary. Contrary to almost everything else these days, meditation is not a competition, you can’t do it better, faster, bigger or more fuel-efficiently than anyone else. As Jon Kabat-Zinn says in a chapter called “This Is It” from Wherever You Go, There You Are:

People usually don’t get this right away. They want to meditate in order to relax, to experience a special state, to become a better person, to reduce some stress or pain, to break out of old habits and patterns, to become free or enlightened. All valid reasons to take up meditation practice, but all equally fraught with problems if you expect those things to happen just because now you are meditating. You’ll get caught up in wanting to have a “special experience” or in looking for signs of progress, and if you don’t feel something special pretty quickly, you may start to doubt the path you have chosen, or to wonder whether you are “doing it right.” 

Trust me on this one. I have the true test to see if you are doing it right. Ready?

Question #1: Are you meditating (aka “doing it?)  ____Yes    ____No

If your answer was yes, you are doing it right.

So consider this: “What would it be like to let go of needing to see any signs of progress and only practice for its own sake?” Would that be possible? I would invite you to see what that might be like.

And quit peeking to check to see if you’re enlightened yet. You’ll probably just tumble off the cushion and hit your head on the floor anyway. Hardly very enlightening, but then again, sometimes a good (figurative) whack upside the head is what we need to remember to just sit 🙂 As Jon Kabat-Zinn says, “This is it.”

24 Comments leave one →
  1. Rosie permalink
    January 25, 2013 9:05 am

    Thanks Steve. I needed that “whack upside the head” today. 🙂 Doing it right is a tough one to let go of.

    • January 27, 2013 9:10 am

      Hi Rosie. Glad the post came in handy. Here’s hoping it was a self-compassionate and encouraging “whack”. The other kind tends to foster more of the same sort of problematic meditation behavior 🙂

  2. January 25, 2013 12:33 pm

    Guilty as charged. Just this morning it occurred to me that I probably used up 95% of my meditation thinking about things. Afterwards I was frustrated and once again began questioning the value of meditating. However, after reading your post today I realize that my “expectations” about what meditation should look, smell, and taste like are running contrary to simply meditating. Thanks for that.

    • January 27, 2013 9:12 am

      Hey Geese! The important thing was that you NOTICED all that thinking! The frustration came not from the fact that you were thinking, but that you didn’t WANT to be thinking. I tend to think that curiosity is the key. It killed the cat (they say), but it feeds the practice! Thanks for sharing your experience.

  3. January 26, 2013 3:20 am

    Thank you for sharing, being honest, insightful – and witty about it all 🙂

    • January 27, 2013 9:14 am

      The good news is that I don’t know any other way to be. Well, I know how to be selfish, dishonest and clueless, but it’s not really very fun and people tend to avoid me when I do it. Witty is in the eye of the amused I guess, and I’m glad you are amused 🙂

  4. January 26, 2013 3:00 pm

    As always, I love your joyful and irreverant blog posts on the nature of ongoing mindfulness practice. I find Kabat Zinn’s comment about ‘if you’re breathing, there’s more right with you than wrong with you’ to be endlessly useful when taken with the urge to evaluate and measure.

    • January 27, 2013 9:16 am

      This is the seed of a future blog post, but a wise woman once told me “Breathe In, Breathe Out, and Don’t F___ With the Sequence!” Wise words indeed. Glad you liked the post.

  5. January 30, 2013 2:17 pm

    Hey Steve,

    I have been practicing meditation for about a year, but really started taking it seriously these last couple months as I have been learning vipassana meditation.

    Just like you are saying, meditation’s loftier goals are not the deep concentration, altered states of mind, and whatnot. Rather it is about being aware of the true nature of our minds as it is right now.

    In vipassana, we learn to acknowlege thoughts when they arise, respect that minds will always have thoughts, and then go back to the breath.

    A good meditation is any meditation. Over time the mind will become more disciplined, but clinging to that goal is missing the point. When we learn to accept ourselves as we are now, the change will happen spontaneously.

    Thanks for the post, I’m glad to have found your site.

  6. February 5, 2013 5:32 pm

    Wonderful blog. Thanks for sharing this. I also do meditation and it gives me a certain calmness and relaxation.

  7. Nathan permalink
    March 10, 2013 12:11 pm

    Hi Steve,

    I also enjoyed your post but had a few thoughts of a slightly different orientation…hope thats ok.

    The first is that while I agree that an obsession with wondering if one is meditating “correctly” or making “progress” can often times be detrimental, I do think a clear understanding of one’s intention in undertaking meditation practice is also important, even if it is probably most skillful to hold it lightly. Perhaps not as vital when one is just beginning to explore or establish a practice, but eventually it seems logical that we should try to evaluate (or have a teacher or trusted friend evaluate) if the time and energy we are investing in practice is, in fact, helping to address what it is that led us to practice in the first place. Now “progress” might not look like what we think it should (especially if we imagine a linear trajectory), which is why consulting someone else with more practice experience might be a good way to go, but I do think that we could use some balance in the contemporary western meditation context in terms of acknowledging that many of the religious/spiritual traditions from which these meditation practices came were actually pretty explicit and specific about signs of “progress” and goals–especially many Theravadan traditions from which vipassana and mindfulness-based interventions were adapted from.

    Do you think it is possible to “practice for its own sake” while still being clear as to one’s goals for practicing meditation and acknowledging that (at some point) evaluating progress within the framework of that goal is as reasonable as if we were learning to play an instrument and wanted to know if our practice was leading to mastery? Or even practicing for its own sake while lightly holding the working hypothesis that “enlightenment” or some kind of dramatic shift in one’s baseline sense of identity (that alleviates some degree or suffering) may be possible even before the Raiders return to Glory? 😉

    Thanks, Nathan

    • March 11, 2013 8:37 am

      Interesting ideas, Nathan. And I appreciate the time and consideration you put into your comment. (As well as your hopes for the Silver and Black!)

      I agree that checking in on our intentions periodically is both necessary and inevitable. I’m no scholar on the history of the traditions of Buddhist meditation, but I know I have come across discussions of “progress” and “stages of meditation” and had a hard time delving into those. Not because they aren’t relevant and interesting, but because for me, they invoked a kind of comparison process (either comparing me to my “ideal” me, or myself relative to others) that didn’t help.

      I find that when the thought arises to evaluate my progress I try to make it an opportunity to recall my intention and try to ask the more helpful question: “What am I experiencing in practice, relative to my intention?” or something like that (I haven’t put it into words before, so this may be a bit clumsy.) From my point of view, it is about being curious about what is unfolding (making it a “what” question rather than a “how” question helps!). Looking for signs of “progress” just seems such a slippery slope to me. As you point out, holding our intentions lightly is crucial to all of this. People often come to my MBSR courses with an intention to “get control of this pain” for example, and what they ultimately learn is that this was not a reasonable goal, but in the process they discovered that they COULD control their relationship with it, which turns out to be a HUGE shift toward balance and equanimity.

      Interesting ideas. I wonder what others think?

  8. April 3, 2013 12:42 pm

    Really good post. Thanks for this, I needed it;-) Just recently discovered this blog

  9. Chrissy permalink
    April 23, 2013 9:03 am

    Great for stress relief! Click Here!

  10. June 19, 2013 4:53 am

    This is such a great resource that you are providing and you give it away for free. I love seeing websites that understand the value of providing a quality resource for free.

    Thank you very much and looking forward for more informative articles in the future. Bookmarked!

    http://www.meditationdirectories.com

  11. June 20, 2013 2:15 pm

    Yes, it is a great site. Though I am sometimes disturbed (in a less humorous way than Steve, I’m afraid) by the romantic talk about being in the present moment, especially when that present moment is not supposed to include my spontaneous thoughts about past, present and future – or occasional bouts of sleep, as also happens in my meditation.

  12. harsha permalink
    September 2, 2013 12:29 pm

    Spot on about how the answer to “Are you meditating? Yes/No” is the single determinant of whether you are doing it right.

  13. October 23, 2013 9:58 am

    Our Silent Meditation Retreats for the Awakening of the Spiritual Heart are a unique opportunity to bring more Happiness, Peace, Joy and Love into your life and get a deeper understanding of your real nature.

  14. November 12, 2013 9:54 am

    What’s that saying? If you don’t have time in your day to meditate for at least thirty minutes then you should be meditating for an hour? I find that to be pretty accurate.

  15. November 18, 2013 7:28 am

    Hey has anyone read about the connection between sports and meditation?

    http://voices.yahoo.com/the-link-between-sports-meditation-12074274.html?cat=72

  16. November 22, 2013 7:05 am

    thanks for great insights on how to improve your meditation. It would be interesting to know what you think about the concept described in this short video:
    Best Meditation is No Meditation

  17. May 6, 2014 2:24 am

    Jane Kuei-Chen Chou has changed her life completely, to the extent that she got a new heart, as she says she has now a heart without knots. I can understand that since the heart of a meditator works spontanouously without any hesitations or, actually the need of the knots, love goes through the heart, through our feelings to others, directly, no need to any mean or any one to support it. If you can be able to love without any conditions and demands, or any expectation, then you are loving really from your heart. If you can love the person who once hearted you and might still want to heart you, then this love is the extreme love, which comes from the heart and ends and goes back to the heart.

  18. May 9, 2014 8:48 pm

    Good read..I like that reply..don’t f… with the sequence..lol..peace

  19. May 22, 2015 6:31 am

    Hi there! I’m quite sure that I have something that I can connect and interject, my book is about relevant lessons from my journey towards self-realization. Tried and tested by my activism during my grassroots movement to uphold democracy, I realized that the vigor of my convictions and capacity to uphold freedom was driven by my belief in my inner being. My strong sense of my personal responsibility to protect individual freedom led me to explore and test my inner capacity to sustain the spirit of freedom. I daresay, I launched a democracy movement in order to test my inner capacity to realize my ability to protect what is owed and natural to me in my body, mind, spirit and soul. The desire to be free is a soul searching self-realization.

    Our advocacy is to promote change for the better through self-realization we express the natural genius and open our minds to feel the flow of life energy as it courses through us. By experiencing the life form in its true creative genius we connect to our body, mind and spirit as it was meant to be. The learning from our inner experience in meditation allows us to know who we are. In meditation, we reevaluate life and are inspire ourselves to experience more fully our best selves.
    Help us, visit our website at http://www.iamthechangeiseek.org and also http://www.goodreads.com/kathleensuneja

    Thank you and have a great day!

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