Am I making spiritual progress?
I’m reminded of an old New Yorker cartoon. Two robed practitioners are seated in meditation. The younger one turns to the bearded man next to him and asks, “Now what happens?”
Many beginning meditators and other spiritual practitioners are obsessed with the question of whether or not they are advancing. Even those who aren’t obsessed are, naturally, interested and curious.
I offer three comments for beginning practitioners.
First, although it’s natural to think about how much spiritual progress you are either making or failing to make, whenever you notice that you are thinking about it, immediately let go of those thoughts and return to your practice.
What you are trying to do is liberate yourself from compulsive thinking. If you are thinking about how much spiritual progress you are making or not making, you are thinking. If you are thinking, you are automatically stopping yourself from making any spiritual progress!
If you are focusing hard enough on your breathing or your koan or on whatever other object is the focal point of your practice, other thoughts will drop away. It’s that one-pointed focus that is the key to making progress. When you notice that you are thinking, understand that you cannot be making spiritual progress.
What is spiritual progress? It’s a concept, a principle of classification. To use a concept is to conceptualize (think, judge, state, believe). Whether your thought is “I am making spiritual progress” or “I am not making it,” you are thinking. If you are seated in meditation and thinking, you are sitting there thinking — not practicing.
Second, although it’s natural to compare yourself to others, whenever you notice that you are comparing yourself to others, again, immediately let go of those thoughts and return to your practice.
You are unique. Your spiritual journey is not identical with anyone else’s. As thoughts, all comparisons (for example, “I am more spiritual developed than she is” or “He is way more advanced that I am spiritually”) are fatuous.
You are meditating to reduce stress or to awaken to your True Nature. Neither is a silly goal, so why waste time sitting there thinking silly thoughts?
In Zen training, there’s a prohibition against discussing anything said in dokusan outside of dokusan. Dokusan is a one-on-one interview between student and teacher. An obvious reason for the prohibition is that every student is different. The guidance a master gives to one student may be counter-productive for another student. Students are, with good reason, prohibited from comparing notes on what goes on in dokusan. Students who do anyway are doing damage by stimulating potentially misleading and irrelevant thoughts related to comparisons.
If you are fortunate enough to have a master guiding you, pay attention to whatever your master says about your practice. Unfortunately, it’s not easy to find a good master willing to guide you. [What are the 9 criteria that you should use when selecting a spiritual teacher? I give my answer in my coaching program; it’s too long for this post.]
Third, sages such as Ramana Maharshi and Eckhart Tolle recommend a simple guideline for assessing your own spiritual progress, namely, it is the degree to which you experience no-thought. In other words, the more spiritual progress you have made, the less you will be afflicted by compulsive thoughts; the less spiritual progress you have made, the more you will be afflicted by compulsive thoughts.
Unlike the rest of us, sages (spiritual masters, successful philosophers, those who are wise, those who are awake) are free to think or not to think. The more you need to think, the less spiritual progress you have made.
Unlike trying to compare yourself to others, using this criterion only involves remembering and assessing your own direct experience.
Unfortunately, it’s possible to experience no-thought and not remember it! So using this criterion can be misleading.
Are there times you have experienced no-thought? Almost certainly. In effect, the task of spiritual training is to amplify or extend such experiences.
For example, have you ever experienced a potentially terrifying natural spectacle that seemed as if it took your breath away? It may have been a tsunami, tornado, or avalanche. It may have been so temporarily overwhelming that it stopped your mind from thinking (without stopping consciousness of the event).
Another example might be suddenly perceiving great beauty.
Another example might be awakening in the morning and noticing your surroundings just before the mind started generating thoughts.
You may be able to recall other kinds of experiences in which you were fully conscious and alert but temporarily without thoughts.
You may fear that you’d be unable to function without incessant thinking. Actually, the opposite is almost always true. Thoughts tend to inhibit functioning.
You’ve probably noticed this any time you mastered a physical skill like walking or dancing or driving a car or riding a bicycle: at first you had to think hard about what you were doing but, with practice, you were eventually able to do it without thinking about it at all.
In fact, thinking too much in life-threatening emergencies can get you killed. If for no other reason than conceptualizing is very slow, you are almost always better off just responding automatically.
Thinking gets in the way of directly experiencing. If you are thinking about your efforts or about how your efforts compare to those of others or even about past experiences of no-thought, you are not living fully or well.
The cure? Notice that you are thinking and return to practicing.
As always, if you know someone who might benefit from reading this, please share it.
Recommended resources: the CD and DVD training programs of Eckhart Tolle.