Almost everyone who practices meditation has similar concerns, no matter how long they’ve been doing it—whether three weeks, three years, or three decades. When students confront me with the progress question, I just try to redirect their attention. I’ve found that the best thing is for them to just keep practicing.
We call meditation “practice” for a reason. Any form of practice consists of doing something over and over again and failing at it over and over again. Through this process, we gradually build the capacities that make it possible to do what we are practicing. There is nothing special about meditation: like anything else, it’s a collection of skills.
Much of the confusion about meditation results from the fact that the different processes involved tend to get lumped together without clear differentiation. It’s as if in learning how to play the flute, we didn’t distinguish between blowing a long, sustained tone and a full round one, or between the skills of tonguing and fingering.
When it comes to meditation, some people are able to sit still without tension in their bodies; others are able to track the coming and going of the breath; yet others are able to open to everything they experience; and still others excel in clear and sharp focus, in visualization, and so on. There are many ways to practice meditation, but all of them involve a number of separate skills.
As with athletic or artistic endeavors, if we are serious about meditation, we spend a lot of time training in these basic skills. We don’t train in all the necessary skills at the same time; we train one, then another. It’s repetitious and not particularly exciting. But as we acquire competency and proficiency in each, we become capable of combining them in increasingly complex ways. Then things start to get interesting.
But even then, we can’t expect success in every attempt. We are training, and because we know we are training, we need to be willing to learn from our failures. Every failure reveals what we lack in precision, strength, flexibility, resiliency, stamina, or dexterity.
We learn where our weaknesses are and how to compensate for or remedy them. And we also come to appreciate where our strengths are and how to build on them.
If we’re learning to play a piece of music, we practice and practice and gradually it comes together. We become capable of holding sustained notes with good tone so that we can play the slower passages. Our fingers develop the flexibility and dexterity to handle the faster, more complex sections.
I may play lyrical pieces beautifully, but I may never be good at the kind of pyrotechnics needed for solo performances. And you may be able to bring out the passion and power in Beethoven, but miss the nuance in Satie’s subtle duets with silence. And that’s just how it is.
The apps, neuro-feedback devices, and other instruments to track various bodily and neurological states that have entered the spiritual marketplace may be helpful in developing and refining certain abilities. But it makes about as much sense to reduce meditation progress to such measurements as it does to reduce music to how long we can hold a sustained note or how quickly we can play a certain scale.
When it comes to meditation, we have to look at the different skills involved and figure out how to train in each of them.
Take mindfulness, for instance. It has attracted a lot of attention recently, but in terms of meditation skills, it’s just one of many. If we regard the mind as a musical instrument, then mindfulness involves simply learning how to play in tune. That’s very important—if we can’t play in tune, nothing we play sounds good and other people probably won’t want to play music with us—but even after mastering playing in tune, we still have to learn how to play actual melodies, to make real music. Mindfulness may be great for baroque, but when we discover the blues we find a whole new set of skills to learn. The same holds for meditation.
Then comes the question of commitment. Again, the similarities with music are striking. If we practice half an hour a day on a musical instrument, we will slowly learn how to play it. If we practice an hour or several hours a day, our skills will develop more quickly. On the other hand, if we practice too much, we may burn out and be unable to learn at all. Thus, as with many other aspects of life, balance is important.
But why practice at all?
While there are well-documented benefits to meditation, approaching meditation for its particular benefits is very much like exercising to stay fit. It becomes a task, another thing to do. This is not the best approach. Frequently, it results in a not-so-subtle form of resentment that undermines the equanimity and ease necessary for effective practice.
Although meditation is now most frequently presented as something “good for us,” it is closer to an art form. Difficult and challenging, it requires a complex set of skills. And it takes time and effort to learn, let alone master.
Again, the parallels with music are interesting: we may sometimes resent the many hours we’ve had to put into practice, but the enjoyment we experience in playing music brings pleasure to us and to others throughout our lives.
If we take up meditation as we would any other artistic pursuit, it is unlikely we will have any regrets. Quite the contrary, the practice’s significance will grow and unfold throughout our lives.
[This story was first published in 2015.]
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