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…..it’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
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,
www.BasicMindfulness.org (Phone-based retreats and classes)
www.Shinzen.org (Articles, CDs, onsite retreats)
www.YouTube.com/user/expandcontract (Video talks)
www.YouTube.com/user/ShinzenInterviews (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? 😉