Charles Tart & Shinzen Young: Progress in Meditation?

Dr. Charles T. TartShinzen YoungEarlier this week one of my former professors, Charles Tart (affectionately known as Charley), shared a fascinating exchange on his blog between himself and meditation teacher Shinzen Young. Charley presented Shinzen with an issue that’s coming up in his meditation practice:

“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…”

I can totally relate to this, having spent the past fifteen years or so practicing meditation intermittently, whenever the spirit moves me, so to speak (which could mean every day, or a couple of times a week, or a few times a month). While I know there might be benefits to doing some sort of formal sitting practice everyday, when it comes down to it I’m just not motivated to take more time away from the many other things that bring me joy and satisfaction. As Charley puts it:

“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.”

Shinzen’s response was really interesting, and is worth quoting in full:

“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.”

The idea that progress can often be both hypothetical and a measure of absence is something that’s occurred to me lately in the context of my physical exercise routine. I was just telling my wife how I’m somewhat disappointed in how little I’ve seemed to gain from this past month or so of really disciplined exercising. Based on how my body responded to exercise when I was younger, I figured that by now I’d be seeing some difference in the way I look with my shirt off, at the very least. But that middle-aged-looking flab that’s crept into my midsection is still hanging on, and perhaps even making gains. My wife reminded me that, had I not been exercising so much lately, perhaps I’d be even more flabby! For some reason this “hypothetical, measure of absence” type of progress is not very inspiring! At least it’s not as motivating as the kind of good ol’ positive results you can see in the mirror.

As Charley brings up, meditation is a little tricker, because there’s this “promise” that if you keep up a disciplined practice for long enough, you just might get rewarded with the ultimate prize of spiritual enlightenment. Of course, you also might not get enlightened no matter how much you practice, or you might be meditating in a less-than-ideal way for years before catching yourself, or you might get suddenly enlightened without having to practice much at all. It’s almost as if too many secrets have been let out of the bag when it comes to spiritual practices. For instance, how can one earnestly pursue a Zen koan when one already knows, from reading Alan Watts or whatever, that one only really “gets” the answer after giving up trying? Knowing the punch line in advance robs you of the genuine belly laugh. It’s like knowing for certain that you’ve just taken a placebo. It’s probably not going to work its magic.

Then again, maybe it’s good to drop all expectations when it comes to meditation. After all, it’s really about dropping into the present moment and learning to hang out there with attentiveness and curiosity. In that state of mind, one can allow whatever happens to happen, without resisting or grasping, and that’s its own reward.

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