After a person has been meditating for some time, it’s important that he or she evaluate how the practice is developing. Is it working? Does it need adjustment? Is it the right practice to be doing? Can it be improved? Some of this evaluation can be done on one’s own, some with a teacher or with friends.
Taking a step back to assess our meditation shouldn’t be seen as a difficult task. We are evaluators by nature. We evaluate all the time, even if subconsciously. We decide what clothes to wear after considering a number of factors, not least of all the weather. An activity as simple as going for a walk requires a variety of considerations: How far will I walk? Does the walk require preparation? Do I need to pace myself if it is a long walk? What is the best route? Which are the best shoes?
In the same way, we can evaluate our practice. This should be done in a balanced way: not too little and not too much. Sometimes we don’t evaluate enough—maybe because of complacency, or excessive reliance on faith in the practice, or teachings that downplay the role of intelligent reflection. At other times, we might over-evaluate and tie ourselves up in knots. Over-evaluating can undermine our progress, like the farmer who pulls out a corn seedling to see if it’s growing yet. Imagine trying to learn to ride a bike while obsessing, “Am I doing this right? How do I look?” We may be looking for approval when we should be looking for balance, or expecting perfection when what is needed is lots of repeated practice.
Below is a useful list that can serve as a guide for evaluating your practice. While no two practitioners are exactly alike, these are general areas you can check that will give you a good idea where you are.
First, ask yourself what your motivation is. Why are you practicing? Meditation practice flourishes when it is supported by clear intention.
There are many answers to this question. Because no one should decide for you what your goals are, it is useful to spend some time reflecting on this. I regularly advise people to discover what their deepest intention is. What do they really want? What is the heart’s deepest wish? While some people have worthwhile intentions for their meditation, the practice can have greater value when it is clearly connected to what is most important to us.
At times our intention is well-articulated; at other times it may not be obvious. Chances are you’ve experienced both of these ways. Sometimes, early on, I intuitively knew I wanted to sit, but I didn’t know why. I just knew there was a strong pull towards practice. At other times, the reason was clear: I knew I suffered and that I wanted to be free of my suffering. Sometimes I was aware of conventional suffering; sometimes, although free of conventional suffering, I had a clear insight that there was a deep, inner dissatisfaction, that suffering was at the core of the way my mind worked. I wanted to somehow find it, touch it, and understand it. Meditation was the only route I knew to reach this core, and I was highly motivated to do so.
Our motivation can be to awaken and cultivate beautiful qualities of the heart and mind—love, peace, courage, compassion, insight, understanding, the pursuit of the truth and liberation. Developing these qualities does not need to be for oneself. Sometimes my primary motivation to practice has been not for my own sake but for other people. In fact, I believe that if you do it only for yourself, you are unlikely to sustain your motivation over many years. A significant way to fuel meditation practice is to do it with the wish that it will somehow benefit others as well as yourself.
There are long-term and short-term motivations. Experiences of realization may be worthy long-term goals, but in the short term it can be useful to have modest aims such as cultivating small but noticeable improvements in concentration, non-distraction, compassion, or patience, as well as small, immediate movements toward letting go and experiencing freedom. I have found there is a beautiful way in which practicing with immediate, realistic goals allows for a steady maturing into some of the more developed areas of meditation practice.
It’s also important to know if your aspiration is appropriate for yourself given your present life situation. If for reasons of time, opportunities, abilities, or disposition you are not suited for the goals you have set for yourself, the primary result will be frustration, a state that is counterproductive to a practice meant to increase freedom from suffering. While it can be important to allow for grand aspirations – there is no need to be afraid of our heart’s deepest wish – it is important to consider which steps are realistic. For example, if our body carries a lot of tension, it may be important first to focus meditation on deep physical relaxation. Or, if our minds are easily distracted, it might be helpful to cultivate mental discipline before hoping for enlightenment.
There’s always more room for motivation, but does your aspirationg match who you are? You can read a book feeling convinced that you should do A, B, and C, but it may not suit your life at this time. Or maybe what your teacher is telling you is not a fit. For instance, if we should be focusing on our personal ethics, it may not be appropriate to spend a lot of time with a teaching that emphasizes ultimate liberation.
Do you know how you learn best? Some people learn best by reading, others by listening, others by watching, and others by doing. Some people do best when there is discipline and structure. Others learn best through playfulness, self-direction, or intuitive experimentation. Some people find reading and studying helpful; others may not. Extroverts might find it helpful to discuss their meditation with friends; introverts may find they work best when they have quiet time for personal reflection. By knowing yourself in these ways, it may be possible to find an approach to meditation that suits you. Since it is important not to tailor a meditation practice around personal preferences and attachments, it can be useful to ask a meditation teacher or another meditation practitioner for feedback about your approach to the practice.
Understanding the Instructions
You may be strongly motivated but not know how to do the practice. I meet plenty of meditators who are vague about what they are actually doing in meditation beyond relaxing and trying to have some focus. Some people know the basic instruction but not much about how to practice with the difficulties that may occur while attempting to act on that instruction. Some people who do mindfulness meditation may know how to be mindful of their breath or their body sensations but have little understanding about how to be mindful of emotions or mental states. In insight meditation there are whole series of instructions for working with the breath, body, emotions, thoughts (quality of mind), and intentions, as well as for walking meditation and mindful speaking. It is useful to know them all.
Do you understand what the relationship is between meditation practice and your daily life? Hopefully, for Buddhists, one’s whole life is one’s practice. Do you know how to live your daily life so that it supports your meditation? And do you know how to meditate so that it benefits your daily life? The poet Gary Snyder wrote:
All of us are apprenticed to the same teacher that the religious institutions originally worked with: reality. Reality insight says, “Master the 24 hours, do it well, without self-pity.” It is as hard to get the children herded into the carpool and down the road to the bus as it is to chant sutras in the Buddha hall on a cold morning. One move is not better than the other; each can be quite boring, and they both have the virtuous quality of repetition. Repetition and ritual and their good results come in many forms: changing the oil filter, wiping noses, going to meetings, picking up around the house, washing dishes, checking the dipstick. Don’t let yourself think these are distracting you from your more serious pursuits. Such a round of chores is not a set of difficulties we hope to escape from so that we may do our practice, which will put us on the path. It is our path.
You might understand the instructions but not know how to do the practice. For example, if your practice is to follow your breath, do you know how to do it? If it is done with striving, expectation, hesitation, or laziness, meditation probably won’t unfold well. One might not know what specifically to focus on when concentrating on the breath, so the mind never settles into concentration.
One’s attitude toward practice is very important. Is there adequate patience, equanimity, kindness, energy, and discipline? Do you understand the balance between having a goal in practice and at the same being present without being preoccupied with the goal?
Is your life balanced enough to support a regular and useful meditation practice? It can be counterproductive to add meditation to a life already packed with too many activities. Do you have a healthy balance between work and time off? Is there an appropriate balance between time with others and time alone? Do you get enough exercise so that a good sense of vitality supports your practice? Do you get enough sleep to stay awake during meditation? Some people need sleep more than meditation.
A number of factors need to come into balance during meditation itself. There is the balance between faith and wisdom or confidence and understanding. There is the balance between energy and concentration. Some classic teachings stress the importance of balancing the quieting forces of calm, concentration, and equanimity with the activating forces of investigation, effort, and joy.
The balance between the body and the mind are important. Ideally, meditation practice engages both. One of the very useful things to cultivate in meditation is a balanced meditation posture that allows for a dynamic interplay of physical relaxation with physical alertness or uprightness. It is possible to cultivate a body that is both soft and strong. It is lot easier to work with the mind in meditation if the body has been included from the start.
What are your obstacles in meditation practice? Where are the attachments? Where do you get stuck? Are there any regular patterns to the challenges you have in meditation?
One of the important ways to sharpen your meditation practice is to understand the difficulties in meditation. Among the many challenges are obsessive thinking, desires, aversions, sluggishness, restlessness, psychological or emotional issues, fear of altered states, boredom, complacency, and excessive striving. Attachment to pleasure or resistance to discomfort may also interfere.
Unethical or unskillful behavior can also be a significant obstacle to deeper states of meditation. Here’s a story that points to this idea:
A few years ago, at an alcohol treatment center in the suburbs of Chicago, staff members reported an intriguing discovery. Many of the counselors lived at some distance from the facility, each day commuting via a tollroad. Then one day the state of Illinois instituted an honor system in the toll collection booths in the area. No attendant, no barrier gate, just a basket into which motorists were expected to toss their coins. Staff at the treatment center made observations that soon added up to an axiom: counselors who don’t throw their money in, their patients don’t get well. As one counselor phrased it, “How can you instill honesty in a program if you’re not honest yourself? Honesty is indivisible.”
Another interesting thing to look at is how much self is involved when you practice. Self-judgment, self-criticism, self-image, self-definition are among the forms of self-concern that when used excessively undermine meditation practice. All meditation practices require that one relax self-preoccupation. Just like being too tense to ride a bike, when people are too concerned with themselves it can be very difficult for the mind to be soft enough to settle into meditation.
Every meditator has challenges. Rather then taking the obstacles as problems or as unfortunate distractions, a more useful attitude is to patiently and contentedly learn the skills and insights that can transform them into stepping stones along the path of practice. Every meditation tradition has its own approach to working with meditation obstacles. When one learns to recognize one’s own obstacles then one can ask a meditation teacher what her or his approach is.
An important part of practice is appreciating the insights that come with it. It’s not just a matter of becoming calm, but also understanding how your mind works, how your heart works, and what the causes and conditions of suffering and liberation are. As you look more deeply, can you see how you create a sense of self?
We often take the self for granted. But Buddhist practice shows us that much of what you think of as self is a construct, an activity shaped moment by moment. If you see this creative aspect, you’ll gain an insight that is freeing.
There’s also insight into beautiful states of mind: how compassion works and its value; lovingkindness and how to cultivate it. Insights into these states help to cultivate and strengthen them. One of the purposes in meeting with a teacher is not to discuss your difficulties but to discuss your understandings and insights. “This is the understanding I’ve come to. What do you think of that?”
The most important insight is to understand how clinging works—the nature of grasping and clinging in all its gross and subtle forms. All of Buddhism will open up for you if you understand the nature of clinging, what you cling to, and how to let go.
Understanding the Benefits of Practice
Sooner or later our practice brings benefits. Sometimes you have to be patient; sometimes, the benefits are immediate. Ideally, you see how even a single moment of meditation has immediate benefits. At the same time, I hope practitioners have some sense of how it can lead to deeper possibilities of liberation.
Over time, meditation should bring some clear benefits such as greater compassion, joy, ease, and self-understanding. Some people discover greater capacities for courage and resolve. Others feel increased appreciation and gratitude. And hopefully, one finds increased experiences of freedom. If after a of couple years of regular meditation practice one doesn’t experience any of these benefits, it is important to reevaluate what one is doing. Perhaps the criteria given above could help to discover some way that the meditation can be improved. Or perhaps it is time to discuss one’s meditation practice with a good teacher. However, sooner or later I hope that all meditators can become their own teachers. Learning to evaluate one’s own practice wisely is an important step toward such independence.