Dharma Points: How do I measure up?

Many meditators find it hard chart their progress and get discouraged as a result. A new book promises to get us back on track.

By Nelle Oosterom

Several weeks ago I attended a session at Yoga North and took home a meditation map that Donna Youngdahl — who was facilitating that morning — had created and distributed to those in attendance (see below). The map was based on the journey described in The Mind Illuminated: A Complete Meditation Guide Integrating Buddhist Wisdom and Brain Science for Greater Mindfulness by John Yates (Culadasa) and Jeremy Graves. The 2017 book includes step by step instructions for following ten stages in meditation, from novice to adept. Donna’s talk prompted some stimulating discussion. 

I haven’t read The Mind Illuminated yet, but Donna’s talk got me thinking. Can progress in meditation be measured with that kind of precision? Looking at the one-to-ten map, I found it difficult to place myself. Sometimes I’m a one, sometimes I’m a ten. This is not unusual. As Donna said in her talk, the spiritual journey can seem like the board game Snakes and Ladders — three steps forward, two steps back.

“Culadassa also stresses that people may find themselves having insights and experiences all over the ‘map,’” says Donna. “‘Beginners can have advanced experiences, and long time meditators can benefit from these instructions by recognizing skills they might have skipped over.”

Most of us would like to know that we are making steady, measurable progress towards our goal. Of course, it helps to first identify our goal: Calm? Reduced anxiety? Loving relationships? Happiness? Peace of mind? A favourable rebirth? The goal might evolve as our understanding deepens but most people start with the basic desire to suffer less.

“Stage one [according to Culadasa] is all about setting goals and intentions, knowing why one meditates, and cultivating the motivation and drive to stick to it while having enjoyment,” says Donna. “Ultimately the goal of this method is awakening, and something unique about this book, I think, is the very clear and emphatic assertion that by applying the method awakening is possible — full liberation from repetitive negative emotional states.  I found that encouraging!”

Culadasa is trained in the Theravadin and the Tibetan Karma Kagyu traditions and holds a PhD in neuroscience. He also trains teachers in his method. His book seems to be filling a big need in the western meditation community, where students often find themselves plateauing after reaching a certain measure of progress. One complaint among practitioners of insight meditation and mindfulness is that there is little sense of advancement — or advanced instruction, for that matter.

There are many reviews of The Mind Illuminated and most are overwhelmingly positive, like this one on Goodreads: “After years of mindlessly wandering the meditative landscape among teachers giving vague directions or saying ‘Don't worry, just drive, you'll eventually get there’ when the road I'm on goes up a mountain road to a dead end rather than into town where I'm trying to get, I finally feel like I've been given a freaking map that just tells me where to go and what to look out for.”

Culdasa’s map in The Mind Illuminated is based on a traditional teaching from Tibet that compares training the mind to taming an elephant. Each chapter shows a change in the relationship between the herder, the elephant, the monkey, and the rabbit, all with in-depth explanations. Zen has a similar teaching known as the ox herding pictures.

If you google “How to measure progress in meditation” most of the markers are not that measurable. They are things like increased awareness, better relationships, broadened meditation skills, and mindfulness becoming a habit. 

Some mindfulness teachers recommend keeping a notebook to track how often you practice, what insights or questions come up, and your level of focus and sense of well-being. 

One small but objective marker for concentrated attention that I like to use during a timed sitting session is whether or not my mind is still focused on the intended object (such as the breath) when the timer goes off. This measurement is precise and unequivocal in that the answer is either yes or no.  

Another less-precise marker is my annual week-long meditation retreat. After more than twenty years of attending such retreats, I notice the ease and energy of my sitting and walking practice is light years greater than it was in the beginning. But I couldn’t tell you how many light years exactly…I just know that I’m generally happier.

What about you? How do you measure your progress? Where do you place yourself on the meditation map?

A chart illustrating ten steps on the meditative journey.  Credit: Donna Youngdahl.

A chart illustrating ten steps on the meditative journey. Credit: Donna Youngdahl.

Tibetan elephant training pictures.  Credit: HimalayanArt.org

Tibetan elephant training pictures. Credit: HimalayanArt.org