Meditation’s Five Percenters

Dr. Charles T. Tart, Mindfulness, Institute of Transpersonal Psychology,

Lecture 4, Part 10 of 19 parts. To start class from beginning, click here.

CTT: The mindfulness traditions claim they’ll take you all the way to enlightenment. And we certainly have historical examples of people who are considered Buddhas or saints or something like that, who supposedly went all the way and became remarkable human beings. What we don’t have, from a Western perspective, is sort of a percent of graduates who succeed figure.

We hear about the outstanding successes, but what percentage of people who follow those paths actually get somewhere significant? 90 percent? 10 percent? We don’t know.

Student: Why don’t they have some kind of way of tracking it?

CTT: That’s a very good question. I was having a variation of this conversation with Shinzen Young, my meditation teacher friend, some years ago, about how well does this meditation work for people. He shocked me because he said, “When I teach people meditation, just about everybody will say this is good and I’m going to make it part of my life”. You know, if they’ve had a weekend, a retreat, or a class or something like that, they really feel like they’ve picked up an important psychological tool.

If he comes back a year later and 5 percent of them are still actually doing meditation, he feels he’s been very successful. I was shocked, because my comparison was from a Western educational point of view. If I ran a graduate school and I had a 95 percent flunk out rate after the first year…. I mean, come on. You know? A few percent, you can understand. Some people came and they really shouldn’t have been here and all that, but 95 percent?

I’d feel like there was something badly wrong with the educational system.

And I thought, this is really odd, because I think Shinzen is a really good meditation teacher. He told me no, this is not 5 percent for him, this is 5 percent for all meditation teachers he knows, including the traditional, lineage-holder meditation teachers in Eastern settings. About 5 percent.

And not only that, it’s not worried about in the East at any rate.

The view there is that it’s karma. If it’s your karma to come around for instruction, you’ll come around. If it’s your karma to stay, you’ll stick around, but if it’s not your karma to stay, you won’t stick around. Maybe 10 lifetimes down the road you’ll come around again. Well maybe it is indeed karma, but I found this a very convenient excuse to not look into the efficiency of your teaching.

This is my bias as a Westerner? If 95% of my students fail, there’s something very badly wrong with the way I’m teaching. The moral I take from that is not that various meditation teachers are “bad,” but that we don’t understand how to effectively teach meditation very well, and/or that lots of people get attracted to meditation who really aren’t suitable for it. But I’m more interested in how do you teach more effectively.

You were next.

Student: Yeah. I think one of the problems with those systems is that they don’t have any… When you come here, to ITP, you know in five or six years, you’ll have a Ph.D.; whereas if you go and you learn some meditation practice, you don’t know how long it’s going to take. There are no guarantees and there’s no time line and there’s no sort of measurement of how far you’ve come. I think if there was a way of saying it’s going to take you three years – If you do this, it will be three years – then people would do it and you’d have a lot of graduates.


CTT: And if they graduated, they wouldn’t be paying tuition anymore….

Student: I’m sure Shinzen Young is not motivated by getting more tuition, right? He would prefer to have a lot of his students really progress with meditation, become enlightened or something?

CTT: That’s right. And he has devoted enormous effort to try to figure out ways to make the whole teaching process more effective. When we look at these spiritual systems, we have these romantic pictures of the guru, right? It’s a he, usually. He’s got a white beard. He sits on a little throne or wears a turban or something, and he looks so saintly because it’s very important that gurus fit our pictures of what saints look like.

And the devotees surround the guru and that just lets you know that, “Wow, man, this is really something to have all these devotees.” It’s such a privilege to serve him tea. If somebody really is a fantastic teacher, teaching you spiritual things that you need to know, serving him or her tea nicely is a tiny price to pay for that.

But I think we also have to look at the larger social situation in which it’s embedded. For some people, being a guru is making a living. And when you start making a living, you usually might like to make a nice living. Well, if your students graduate too fast and are not necessarily replaced, that’s not so good. So sometimes I feel as if there’s a deliberate attempt to hold the student back.

Now I should reveal my personal experience bias here. A few years ago I started taking a Tai Chi course, my wife and I did, because I felt it was time for me to learn some Tai Chi. The instructor was very good at his verbal explanation as to what to do, as well as personally correcting moves. But he went kind of fast.

By the third class, I was still trying to work out my mistakes on the first three steps and he was into teaching the fifteenth step. So I asked him, “Would you mind if I make a tape recording of you giving the instructions and then I’ll have that to practice with at home and I won’t be practicing my mistakes?” He wouldn’t allow me to do that. Well, it’s not like I was going to sell the tape or set myself up as a Tai Chi teacher or something like that. I wanted to learn and he was preventing me from effective learning. So I stopped taking the class, because there was no point learning my mistakes more and more thoroughly while I got more and more behind.

But sometimes I wonder about that dynamic, you know? You do have this whole social situation, and it’s complex, and there’s a real spiritual element in there most of the time, and then there are actual human being playing social games, making a living, etc.. Things to be aware of.

Yes. Remember your arms and legs. I lost mine for a minute there.


  1. Tibetan meditative tradition came out of a culture where your average adolescent male sent his sixteenth summer in a high mountain meadow watching Yaks graze. Here in the states the focus is on cars, beer, nooky, computers … and whatever “values” are conveyed by TV or pop culture. By the time we are adults only a tiny percent are not emotionally out of balance (more or less 5% ? ) even if from one of those “rare as a hens tooth” emotionally healthy families ….we are steeped in a culture that is emotionally out of balance. Dredging up emotional injuries from childhood to neutralize the way we react to life when those issues pull the strings on us from beneath the threshold of consciousness is downright taboo. Only a tiny number of therapist have done it themselves and you sure cannot guide someone else thru it until you have done it your self.

    The process of patching up emotional injuries is messy and “not to the taste” even of 97% of all psychotherapists I have met and known. Psychiatry? forget it. Those folks are trained to institutionalize mental emotional illness at the behest of the pharmaceutical industry. They are trained to give drugs. Period. … and other parts of treatment do not address emotions which in almost all cases are the driver of behavioral problems of those confined in hospitals and also the masses of us walking around “normal”. I’ve seen people go off the edge and become crazier by what they were subjected to in a psychiatric hospital while the well meaning staff was way way overwhelmed and not trained to do anything significant except prescribe very expensive drugs and other expensive drugs to combat side effects of of the first drug.

    ONe of my close friends’ father wrote three of the chapters in the standard pharmacology text used in USA medical schools, including the chapter of drugs for psychiatry. He put one of his kids on Haldol starting when the kid was age nine …. at a time the kid was acting out during a divorce that included violent behavior by the father. This guy was one of seven research fellows the federal government called on when they want advice from a psychiatrist about drugs for the mind. The feds thru the VA system published a book he wrote about how psychedelics make you psychotic.

    Culturally we are cut off from the potentials the Tibetans and other pre industrial cultures have developed to heal the mind of emotional issues by the fact our emotional issues tend to be so “high amplitude” we cannot even relax. stabilize and focus the mind for a few minutes.

  2. Firstly I must mention that as a long time fan of your books I am very pleased to come across your blog while searching for something entirely different :-).

    Secondly As a teacher both within western secondary education as well as a some times tai chi trainer I find your observations regarding drop out rates very interesting and will ponder them.

    Thirdly It is very interesting, the view especially the more traditionally inclined tai chi teachers take to using learning tools like video. I do understand this point of view to some extent. Amongst other reasons tai chi used to be a secret art, simply not taught, or that is of which one taught different parts to different people, while closely guarding the secret components. Also I frankly believe there IS value in the enormous amount of learning one does WHILE struggling with the mistakes. And finally, this is what amuses me the most, how one is MIRACULOUSLY able to do things in the presence of a living flesh teacher … and only in his presense. I guess it is called mirror neurons. It is fascinating nevertheless.

    All the best
    Thomas B

  3. Rocket, before you make gross generalizations regarding Tibetan vs. modern culture I suggest you educate yourself more on what old Tibet was really like. Our romanticized notions of life in a preindustrial society do not fit the reality, which was in some ways a more fertile environment for contemplative practice but in many ways was not. As for emotional issues, well – people are people wherever you go, and Tibetans had their share of problems that would be familiar to any modern therapist.

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