Progress in Meditation?

I am fortunate to have Shinzen Young as both friend and meditation “coach,” as I think he’s one of the best meditation teachers around, as well as a great guy. You can get info on the way he’s adapted traditional meditation teachings to work better for us moderns at his websites and numerous teaching videos (search for “shinzen young”). We have a lot of stimulating conversations that are of general interest, not just advice to me on my meditation technique, so I’m sharing this one, with Shinzen’s permission, and hope to share others in the future.

Progress in Meditation?

Dear Shinzen,                              Date Composed: August 22, 2010

Some thoughts on the Path that are running around in my brain lately….Let me set the background and then describe the problem.

A basic premise of spiritual systems, to put it in a very general form, is that ordinary life involves a lot of suffering that does not have to be, and that there is a hugely more satisfying mode of existence that is possible – call it “enlightenment.”  Further, methods exist for reaching enlightenment.  But for most of us, reaching enlightenment or even getting close involves a lot of work, and the motivation to engage in that work while giving up other life things that could be relatively satisfying.

Buddhism, e.g., calls for work on three lines.  Ordinary morality and decent living.  Learning concentration skills.  Insight, using those concentration skills to investigate the nature of the ordinary mind, which can (not must, can) bring about a breakthrough, perhaps just occasional glimpses at first but getting more and more frequent, that breakthrough being enlightenment.

I have no inherent problem with the first line, morality training, I’m a decent person to begin with and want to live a life of increasing kindness, sensitivity, honesty, effectiveness, etc.  There’s been noticeable progression along this line in my life.

Concentration skill.  I’m spite of having a very active intellectual mind that constantly generates ideas under ordinary conditions (generally good ideas, I have little complaint there), my ability to focus reasonably well on one thing has certainly increased with meditation and self-remembering practice.  By “reasonably well” I mean if asked to focus on X, I will not have awareness of nothing but X for minutes at a time or more, but I can keep some varying awareness of X, with only small total losses, even while other thoughts and images come and go, i.e., I can keep X reasonably well in the foreground even if the background continues manifesting.  This is enormously better than, say, 20 years ago, where I would be lucky if I thought of X for 3 seconds and then my mind would go off completely for seconds to minutes at a time before I remembered that I intended to focus on X.

Insight.  To some degree I can, for short periods, experience flow, an occasional gone, mildly restful states in imagery or talk, and body relaxation.  I can not automatically identify with the varying content that flows on, i.e. “I” am aware of content flowing through without being exactly the same as that content…this is difficult to express…’s not a strong sense of a Watcher watching, but I don’t know how else to describe it….  It’s not a Big Deal experience, but certainly gives me the intellectual conviction that whatever “I” am, it’s not the content, which changes all the time, but a more basic ability to experience per se….

The problem.  A feeling of having reached a plateau, where my meditation and mindfulness practice is OK, I’m glad I can be more mindful and will continue to practice it intermittently, but it’s not a Big Deal, it doesn’t directly motivate me to want to put in a lot of time on it – half an hour a day seems plenty – so I can reach enlightenment or whatever.

I sit for designated vipassana practice, e.g.  My time then varies between, at best, feeling calmly present and aware, and, at worst, simply dozing through most of the session*.  In between there’s daydreaming, thinking about things, berating myself for not doing better, etc., all the stuff I imagine you hear about all the time.  At the end of a session I’m usually glad I did it, it’s mildly satisfying – but so is a good cup of coffee, a nice walk, writing a paper, etc.  That is, I’m not getting direct feelings that there’s some special satisfaction from meditating, so I’m not motivated to meditate much more.

I feel like the Buddhist deal offered is that I can see some slow progress in my technique of meditating, nice but not a Big Deal, and then there’s the promise that if I keep this up long enough (months?  years?  the rest of my life, but still not getting there?) the Big Deal of enlightenment might (or might not) happen.

You used to compare learning meditation to learning to play the piano, and the analogy may be very direct and accurate for some people.  Nothing but boring scales at first, then simple tunes, more complex tunes, eventually you’re enjoying the music you play, maybe you get good enough that people ask you to play, maybe Carnegie Hall….  In learning to play the piano you get tangible rewards as you see your skill increasing, it’s not like once you can play basic tunes you plateau and then nothing happens by way of improvement or satisfaction year after year, but maybe, for some people but not others, suddenly they are concert pianists.

So maybe it’s just me, and/or maybe I’m a fairly common type of person, but it’s hard to keep up or increase the motivation to practice more when I seem to have plateaued, and maybe I’d be better off putting my time into something else because the meditation isn’t going to go anywhere for me?

This is certainly reflected in my practical decisions over the years.  Like since I’ve been officially retired from UC, I could spend hours every day meditating, go to a zillion retreats, etc., but my expectation of getting somewhere if I do that is pretty low.  Whereas I know I’m doing something useful for other people in my writing and teaching, so I choose to put most of my time into that…. and get rewarded for that when people tell me my writings and lectures help them understand things better.

Anyway, that’s what I wanted to express.  If you feel like talking about it, give me a call when you get a chance – it will always be satisfying to talk with you anyway, my friend!  We’ll be here the rest of this week, then off camping for 10 days.


* Oh, the sleepiness when meditating I’ve complained about for years?  It turns out from sleep lab studies that I have both obstructive and central apnea, they will probably put me on breathing assist apparatus, maybe I’ve been sleep deprived for years without that being clear.  It will be interesting to see what happens if my night sleep gets deeper….


Date Filed: August 23, 2010

Hi Charley,

I think part of the problem is from Buddhism itself. Most Buddhist literature gives one the impression that the path is supposed to involve some big spiritual orgasm that happens suddenly and changes one forever. The reason that Buddhist teachers (including myself ) talk about the path in this way is that occasionally something like that does actually happen. When it does, it’s quite dramatic. However, it’s been my experience that for most people who practice meditation, it doesn’t happen that way. Rather the changes are gradual, so gradual that people acclimatize to them and don’t really realize how much they’ve changed.

The other problem is that the changes are not necessarily best measured by insights that occur, but rather in most cases best measured by the amount of suffering that a person would have gone through but didn’t go through because of the path. But since that measure is both hypothetical and a measure of absence, it’s difficult for most people to realize how HUGE it really is.

So I would say don’t worry if you’re not getting epiphanies. Your practice as you describe it is just fine.
All the best,

Shinzen Young (Phone-based retreats and classes) (Articles, CDs, onsite retreats) (Video talks) (Interviews with Shinzen)


Thanks, Shinzen.  Your understanding fits.  In many ways, I’ve had a lot of changes over the years of the “quietly dropping away” of negative stuff sort, often not even noticed for a long time.  My superego has high standards, though, so that isn’t good enough for it!

> The other problem is that the changes are not necessarily best measured by insights that occur, but rather in most cases best measured by the amount of suffering that a person would have gone through but didn’t go through because of the path. But since that measure is both hypothetical and a measure of absence, it’s difficult for most people to realize how HUGE it really is. <

Now there’s a challenge for the experimental psychologist in me!  How do I quantify what hasn’t happened?       😉


  1. Dr. Tart,

    Thanks SO much for sharing this! I’m having the same “problem” in my practice, although until reading your post, I was having a hard time articulating exactly what was bugging me. How convenient to have my own question asked and answered with such clarity and wisdom!

    Thanks again!

    1. @Bob D.: I have found in life that sometimes in life the “smartest” things are say happen when I articulate why I don’t understand something! Then it turns out that others were puzzling about the same thing but weren’t clear on how to ask about it.
      So, sometimes honest ignorance is my most important understanding….

  2. Hi Dr. Tart.
    I enjoyed this exchange with Shinzen. I thought you might be interested, if you are not already aware of it, in Kenneth Folk’s ideas vis-a-vis progress on the path. Are you familiar with the Progress of Insight as taught in the Mahasi Sayadaw tradition? Kenneth has a great description of this on his site (link below). His “Three-Gear Transmission” is a very interesting blend of traditional Theravadin samatha/vipassana techniques with more non-dual approaches, such as the Witness practice taught by Ramana Maharshi. In any case, he specializes in working with “stuck” yogis–i.e. practitioners who have crossed, in the parlance of the Progress of Insight, the crucial Arising & Passing Away of Phenomena (initial awakening) but have not yet attained Stream Entry. I find Kenneth’s open discussion of states and stages to be quite helpful, though I recognize that this is not for everybody.
    Best regards,

  3. So meditation is about avoiding difficulties? Actually in my case that does make sense. When I started meditating I was in really rough shape. When I look back at where I was when I started meditating, I’m not that person anymore. I still get scared sometimes if something happens that I can’t explain, but I’m more likely to take notes and try to understand those experiences than I used to be. I admit, I still cry sometimes, but then I get out my notebook and make observations too. Meditation made that possible.

    1. Meditatoin is about avoiding difficulties? Don’t get it. In the long run, yes, meditation is about spiritual growth and enlightenment which should allow a more fulfilling life, but that could mean having many difficulties – and dealing with them in a more enlightened way, rather than having nothing difficult happen in life….
      Indeed I’ve heard Sogyal Rinpoche say meditation may make more unpleasant things happen, because it’s speeding up the purification and growth process, but you can handle it if you stick with. The analogy is you’re dirty and take a shower. The first effect of the water is to make the dirt yukier, sliding around – but you don’t stop showering at that point. That’s insight meditation, really wanting to discover the basis of mind. Some meditation is indeed for creating calm, happy states, that’s fine too.
      Taking notes and trying to understand is excellent progress from my point of view!

      1. Thanks, Dr Tart. It is sometimes hard to know what to do with these experiences. Right now I’m feeling like everything is too much. If it weren’t for what I’ve been learning through meditation I’m sure I’d be in tears right this moment.

        I don’t think the calm, happy sort of meditation does the trick for me. I get overwhelmed by information. I don’t know if having an NDE did this to me, or if this is something that would have happened anyway. I find it helps to just pick out something to focus on when it all feels like too much. I can’t block out the information for long, I’ve tried that. So instead I try to be a good observer and that effort seems to take me out of panic mode.

        That’s what I’m doing right now. Trying to pick out one set of colors from a sea of colors. It really is hard to panic when you are being analytical. I know seeing colors around things is kind of flaky, but I don’t have to react in a flaky way. I’m actually feeling much better now. 🙂

  4. Hello Dr. Tart

    I had something of an epiphany a few days back and may have something of value to tell you. I am also a follower of Shinzen Young and admire what he is trying to accomplish. I’ve been meditating for about 7 years. For some time now I have had some concern about the way I am approaching my practice. My concern became somewhat greater after reading your book “Waking Up” as I could see how my life as well as my approach to meditation was rather robotic. I am the type of guy that is a very hard worker and am extremely competent and prepared for whatever endeavor I am involved. So my intention is to always succeed. So I work very hard to apply techniques and watch for whatever outcome seems to indicate I am progressing. Sound familiar?

    Paradoxically, I have always read that enlightenment is a “zero path” endeavor since as every enlightened person will tell you, you already have everything you need to know. You just can’t see it. Statements like that drive (drove) me crazy. Up until this week.

    From your statements it sounds like you may be approaching this from a self-defeating paradigm. If you are interested I will give you some questions to answer one at a time. The first one I am going to give you what may be an important first step:

    Question: In a single sentence, what do you hope to ultimately obtain from your spiritual practice?

    Answer(?): Enlightenment.

    Is that your answer? If so, you will probably never succeed. Why? First of all, because that answer is akin to the student that wants to graduate from college without being interested in the coursework. Here’s a similar answer with a different paradigm:

    Alternative Answer: I want to see the nature of reality. Because my way of seeing the world is incorrect, deluded and I want to know the truth, whatever effort that may take.

    Our (we unenlightened people) way of seeing the world is as if we are looking through dirty eyeglasses. Cleaning those glasses results in enlightenment. That approach creates a big paradigm shift as what was initially a desire to obtain something now becomes an important investigation, probably the most important investigation of your life.

    There is an interesting video on Shinzen’s site where he talks about the value of enlightenment. In it he says this: If you were to ask most enlightened individuals whether they would prefer to live an entire lifetime in their prior state or one day knowing what they know now, most of them would say they would choose to live that one day.

    That’s quite a claim.

    1. @Nakedzx: If you are confused about “enlightenment,” join the crowd!
      For most of my life I have liked the many paths, but only one top to the mountain analogy – and maybe it’s true. Lately though I’m beginning to think there may be several mountains, and attaining the top (or even climbing high) on any one is an amazing accomplishment and a wonderful result….but maybe the advice for getting to one of these peaks, mistakenly thought of as THE ANSWER, is not always helpful if you’re really climbing another one.
      It’s pretty human that when you’ve exerted yourself and gotten to some wonderful place to think this is the ultimate and to want to share it with everybody else. Can’t blame anyone, indeed we should thank them for trying to share what they can.
      Now I’m just expressing my best guess here that there may be many “enlightenments.” I’ve never experienced any of them, so what would I know? And if I had, I might be caught in whatever one that was and think it was the only one. And do my best to help others get there, since I like people, but maybe be no longer able to see that there are many mountains?
      I emphathize with you – I work hard and want to be rewarded and KNOW that I’ve done the right thing. I know myself enough to see that this attitude is a major obstacle for me, it closes me in a lot of ways, so, for me, relaxing and opening some is really important. Then, since I have a tough superego, I can worry about whether I’m slacking off, just rationalizing loafing, etc., guilt, guilt, guilt.
      Meanwhile as a practical person I try to notice am I a little wiser this year than I was last year? Am I being helpful to others? If so, I must be doing something right…..
      You might find a blog entry a month or so ago on ITP students and faculties’ ideas of what enlightenment is interesting.

      1. Dr Tart

        Thank you for your kind and thoughtful response. I agree with your notion that life (and probably enlightenment itself) is a continual and never-ending process. And Shinzen’s comments to you resonate very strongly. Without your lifelong pursuit of the truth I may have gone on struggling with this one central point indefinitely. I owe a debt of gratitude to you. You are one of a handful of my most favorite people in the world. Your original email to Shinzen seemed like something of a question to me. Simply phrased, what I saw in your question was “Is this quest for enlightenment worth my continued effort?” YES YES YES! In that vein I have something to give back to you. I’m hoping that emphasizing this simple truth may give you renewed energy. I know that sounds like a cliche but please read on.

        Don’t you think that truth is absolute? Not experience mind you but truth. The way I arrive at what I perceive may be the truth is a combination of introspection and the experiences stated by others that I believe have had similar experiences. If it is the truth it will resonate in a experiential way. That experience should correspond to the reactions of others that have arrived at the same conclusion.

        The formulation of this particular question came from something that has been nagging at me for a very long time. It is in the form “Doesn’t the intention we bring to our practice affect the result in very direct ways?” The answer is a resounding YES! Whether or not is has or will resonate in you will be whether you have detected this in your own experience. Everything I will tell you is probably old hat. It’s only a matter of emphasis. I’ll start with what is “known” then conclude with the nature of experience. Please let me know if I have made an incorrect assumption. Everything on the list is directly relevant:

        We are all already enlightened
        I cannot think of a teacher that does not agree with this. Our problem is that we cannot see it. Why not? This type of thing has driven me crazy… up to this point.

        The development of Equanimity is a very important aspect in our quest for enlightenment
        This one speaks for itself. Could one define equanimity as acceptance? Is not a lack of equanimity a resistance to “what is”?

        It is important not to compartmentalize our practice
        This one is yours (and others). Practice on the cushion alone will probably not get it done. Why not? (that’s a question to be answered later)

        Now the experiential stuff

        My (and most other people’s) daily existence is almost continuously occupied by a desire to change the world That desire is driven by a deep seated sense of dissatisfaction with the condition of the world as it is. I have good intentions! (most of the time) But some things just plain aggravate me. Isn’t changing the world central to education? Maybe, maybe not. It may just be a question of intent. Regardless, we probably spend much of our time thinking of ways to improve things. But I’ll try to bring equanimity into my day. Good luck. We have a bigger problem.

        The experience of the PASSAGE OF TIME is a delusion
        The experiential aspect of passage of time is created by a sense of dissatisfaction with the present moment. How? By our endless planning of the solution. The “solution” manifests itself as thoughts contemplating how we will get from HERE to THERE and the inseparable notion of how long it will take. What I’m telling you that with the proper emphasis “living in the moment” can go from being a task to a phenomenon.

        Most meditation is a delusion
        It’s not always the technique although it can be. The bigger problem is in the intention. We want to improve ourselves. We want to get from HERE to THERE. We riddle our practice with the notion of time in many many ways. Did I have that experience? Am I getting more concentration? Was this a good session? WE ARE TRYING TO IMPROVE OURSELVES REGARDLESS OF THE UNIVERSAL FACT THAT WE ARE ALREADY ENLIGHTENED. Why are we doing that? Maybe because we don’t believe it.

        The “Unenlightening Process” is going on continuously
        To think that we can find truth in thought is the greatest fallacy of all time. We have lacked equanimity most of our lives. We manifest it as an attempt to improve our plight and “change the world”. Now we have adopted a spiritual practice in an attempt to improve or understand our spirituality and improve ourselves. Just more of the same, piled higher and deeper. Trungpa called this phenomenon “Spiritual Materialism”. “Finding” enlightenment has been likened to running to find rest. We need to stop unenlightening ourselves. The problem is that we have been running all of our lives and paradoxically the mind is happier looking for solutions than it is acknowledging what is so simple. It seems that is is easier to keep the mind busy for a month than it is to give it rest for 30 seconds. Why? The incessant intoxicating drive to “improve”.


        We must adopt a practice, whether it is sitting or living, of the notion that “Everything is as it should be”. How could it be any different? Do you know what I mean? If this was a scientific experiment that analyzed all of the inputs into the system would not the result be what we are seeing? Yet we won’t accept that simple fact. Bring this notion in the form of a wish or prayer into your practice then abide in it. Focus out, focus in, whatever you like but drop your expectations. When you do time will stop or seem to become simply arbitrary. Stop trying to improve yourself and be careful with that meditation clock! It is not the measure of what can be known.

        Start asking the real questions
        Whatever those are to you. But look how your attempt at answering the question manifests itself during your meditation practice. Focusing these questions in thoughts will get you nowhere because the answer must be experiential. The energy brought to that question will determine the meaningfulness of the outcome. I used to thing that this “energy” was curiosity and that only certain people were sufficiently curious. I now suspect that we all have this energy, it is just that we are burning it off (in varying degrees) in other unrelated areas. In this analogy the greatest energy would resemble that level of focus found in a drowning man attempting to find air. I can give you several examples of people where that analogy was actually true.

        I hope there is an insight somewhere for you in all of that. Whether there is or not please keep up your very important work. And don’t give up this very important quest.

        kind regards

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