Incremental, Immeasurable Meditation Progression

“Don’t try to get anywhere in [your] practice. The very desire to be free or to be enlightened will be the desire that prevents your freedom.” — Thai Meditation Master Ajahn Chah.

By Peter Schroedter

Many of us, because of our conditioning, search for some sign that we are somehow advancing in our meditation practice.  I struggle with this dilemma which if not acknowledged becomes the reason for our meditation distress.  

The reason it is a “dilemma” is because in wanting and searching for progress we are preventing the very thing we crave. This is not an insight on my part but a clear warning from the masters of meditation going back generations. 

 For some time in my practice I kept looking for some sign that I was meditating correctly. I wanted to see some tangible reward for all my efforts. That’s the deal in our society — we put out effort and in return we get rewarded. At least that’s the story, and I wasn’t seeing any results. 

The advice on this matter given by meditation masters like Ajahn Chah and Ajahn Sumhedo is to resist all wanting, resist all grasping and simply persist in the practice. 

On my own and before I read the advice given by the masters, I concluded that I would just muddle through until I found the “right” technique which would catapult me to a state of endless bliss with intermittent periods of rapture. 

No such luck so far on the bliss and rapture front. As I continue reading opinions published by the venerable teachers on this important topic I have come to a personal decision: “My meditation will develop as it will, not by trying harder or wanting more. I’ll simply continue to practice.”

I still have to be very careful not to get lost in wanting (grasping) things from my practice and learn to rest comfortably in being with my practice as it is — going back to it habitually, simply knowing that it is this way now and it will be this way until it changes.

At one point, a couple years into in my practice, I was looking back and seeing the results of the serious efforts I made to seemingly no avail. I became discouraged. I made up my mind to try even harder and after trying harder and harder, as well as setting goals and making no discernible progress, I quit. But by that time I was in the habit of meditating and missed the quiet moments in my normally over-stimulated mind scape. 

 A couple days later I began again and haven’t stopped since with the exception of a day here or there because of what I’ll call technical difficulties. I might have been sick, too tired or distracted because of the people in my life. These technical difficulties have become fewer as time goes on because I now practice even when conditions aren’t ideal.  

I’ve even allowed myself to meditate for ten minutes or less if I can’t grab twenty or thirty minutes of time out of a day when I’m travelling or otherwise engaged.   

 Even if I can’t measure progression there is something happening. Changes in meditation occur imperceptibly — the way plants grow. 

We are not the first people to want some reward for our meditation efforts. We are conditioned to look for progress and expect a reward for effort because of the society that conditioned us. 

In 1970 Ajahn Chah, a master of the Thai Forest Tradition and founder of Wat Ba Pong Monastery, was asked for advice on meditation by one of his students. 

The student said, “I am trying very hard in my practice but I do not seem to be getting anywhere.”

The master answered, “Don’t try to get anywhere in [your] practice. The very desire to be free or to be enlightened will be the desire that prevents your freedom. You can try as hard as you wish, practice ardently night and day but if you still have the desire to achieve you will never find peace.

“The energy from this desire will cause doubt and restlessness. No matter how long or how hard you practice, wisdom will not arise from desire. Simply let go. Watch the mind and body mindfully but don’t try to achieve anything. 

“Otherwise when you practice meditation and you heart starts to quiet down you will immediately think ‘Oh am I near the first stage yet? How much further do I have to go?’ In that instant you will lose everything. It is best just to observe how practice naturally develops,“ he concluded.

The key is to practice skillfully and the practitioner should be mentally and physically open to changes with awareness, sensitive to the subtle changes occurring without our conscious involvement. This is sometimes called skillful awareness — by observing the body and watching how the mind is operating you’ll begin to notice subtle or perhaps not-so-subtle changes.

Ajahn Chah warns us not to get caught in the trap of making quiet concentration our goal. When I first read this I thought there must be some mistake here because isn’t this the reason we meditate? Isn’t this the real goal — quiet concentration and tranquility?

Ajahn Chah goes on to explain that quiet concentration is a tool. But you have to be careful not to be stuck in tranquility. If you are sitting just to get concentrated so you can feel happy and pleasant you’re wasting your time. This blew me away because this is exactly why I was sitting.

The practice, he explained, is to sit and let your heart become still and concentrated and then to use that concentration to examine the nature of the mind and body. Otherwise, if you simply make the heart and mind quiet it will be peaceful and free of defilement only for as long as you sit 

This is like using a stone to cover a garbage pit. When you take away the stone the pit is still full of garbage.   

He continues, “You must use your concentration not to temporarily get lost in bliss but to deeply examine the nature of the mind and body – this is what actually frees you.” 

He observed that people get so excited about attaining this or that level of meditation or developing special powers that they completely skip the point of the Buddha’s teachings. He continues at length on this subject and for those who want to read the full discourse it can be found in the publication A Still Forest Pool which is online and free. 

In his book The Mind and the Way, Ajahn Sumedho, an American-born teacher who studied under Ajahn Chah, also address this subject. “The problem humans have with meditation is their worldly mind. The worldly mind is always looking for something. Even if one meditates for years there is still a great desire in the mind to find out ‘Who am I, What am I, What is the purpose of life?’ 

“But the Buddha was not trying to tell us the purpose of life. Instead he was trying to give us guidance to full realizations.”   

For me, meditation is not a goal but a journey. Meditation is the process by which I hope to make the Dharma the foundation of my daily life. This happens incrementally, in immeasurable ways.  

This post is from a talk offered by Peter Schroedter on June 18, 2019. Peter began meditating in the Buddhist Theravada tradition four years ago while he was reading The Wise Heart by Jack Kornfield: “This opened my mind to the possibility that meditation might help make my life better. Meditation did improve that and continues to improve my life.”