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The “gaining idea” in meditation

stones and malaOK, if you’ve been working methodically through this practice you know the score by now. Try doing all three stages for a few days. Practice them every day, if possible, and get to know them well.

Watch out for any tendency to want to skip over one stage (maybe because you don’t like it as much as the others). Each stage has its own special function, so remember to do them in the correct order.

You might want to make your meditation a little longer now, perhaps five minutes per stage, making fifteen minutes.

Shunryu Suzuki, the famous Zen teacher who founded the San Francisco Zen Center and who was a major influence on Western Buddhism, talked about “the gaining idea.” This rather awkward but incredibly useful phrase points to the problem that arises in our practice when we’re hungering for results. We want be enlightened right here and right now. Or we simply want to rush on to learn the whole practice so that we can check that off our list of things to do. The gaining idea is a major hindrance to developing skill in meditation.

As Suzuki Roshi said, “When a gaining idea arises in our practice, it is a sign that our practice is in trouble.” The reason for this is that we’ve actually incorporated our restless, grasping mind into our meditation practice. Our practice has been taken over by the mind that craves, yearns, and tries to appropriate results without following the path that leads to those results.

These attitudes of grasping, craving, and greedy hunger are the very things that cause us suffering in the first place. Because we suffer we want to meditate, because meditation is the antidote to craving and suffering. And then what happens? Our craving takes control of the meditation! It’s as if the antidote to the poison itself accidentally becomes contaminated with poison!

It’s useful if you learn to recognize this gaining idea, this notion that somehow your best interests will be served if you rush through the practice. That notion is false. Meditation is about letting go of grasping so that we can experience freedom. So start doing that now by deciding that you’ll pause where you are right now, and that you’ll explore the stages of the meditation practice and really get to know them before you move on to the next stage.

As part of that exploration come back to this section and read a bit more about the issues that can arise in this stage of the practice.



Comment from Rose
Time: November 25, 2008, 6:40 am

Yes¡¡¡I’ve recognized this gaining idea in my practice, because I’ve suffered so much, that I wanted results inmediately, I had a vague idea that this craving wasn’t good, and now I confirm that. Thanks.¡¡


Comment from Krista
Time: July 5, 2010, 10:58 am

maybe you’d like to correct the typo ‘letting got’ to ‘letting go’. It wouldn’t matter usually but letting go is kind of key.


Comment from Bodhipaksa
Time: July 5, 2010, 11:46 am

Duly noted and corrected. Thanks.


Comment from vrajesh
Time: December 28, 2012, 5:57 am

How do i know if i have the “gaining idea” mentality.

well i know i need realizations and clarity so i meditate a lot although i really try not to have any expectations when i meditate but even trying not to expect something is an expectation in itself…right? or is that too philosophical..

I am currently on winter break from college and i really want to learn how to meditate as fast as i can because i want to go to college fresh, calm and focused. Therefore, i actually meditate as much as i can per sitting and then sit down again when i feel like sitting again which is quite often…. usually my meditations last 20 minutes or so?
Do you suggest that its too much meditation and should be balanced with other activities?

During meditation i had this thought which i disregarded then that just like how to much medication is not good, too much meditation cannot be good..the saying too much of anything is never good..does that apply here?


Comment from Bodhipaksa
Time: December 28, 2012, 11:26 am

You may recognize you have a “gaining idea” in meditation when you find you’re disappointed in your progress, or experience doubts about your abilities as a meditator, or when you find yourself being irritable when you can’t do what you want to do, or when you find yourself to be physically tense, or there’s a lack of pleasure and happiness in your experience when you meditate — to give a few examples.

“Trying” not to expect something is probably not a good way to think about what we’re aiming to do. Expecting something is a kind of grasping, akin to grasping something in your hand. Letting go of expectations is a form of, well, letting go, akin to relaxing your hand and thus releasing your grip. You don’t “try” to relax your hand. You just stop grasping.

The saying “too much of anything is never good” is rather tautological! Can we ever say that too much of something is good? The question is, how much meditation can you usefully do? At what point does your meditation practice start to have diminishing returns (which it always does, at some point)? And at what point does forcing yourself to meditate actually become counter-productive if you’re forcing yourself to do something that’s no longer benefiting you? Then again, on intensive retreats the crisis brought on by sitting to the point where meditation has become counterproductive (for example the mind is screaming at us to stop meditating) can actually push us to go deeper, by letting go of expectations that we never even knew existed.


Comment from vrajesh
Time: December 29, 2012, 3:26 am


so basically you mean just sit and meditate and the more effort you apply to meditation the deeper one can go.



Comment from Bodhipaksa
Time: December 29, 2012, 12:39 pm

Hi, Vrajesh.

That’s not at all what I said, and it’s not something I think is at all true. I think you may be seeing in my words what you want to see there, which suggests again that you have a “gaining idea.”

All the best,


Comment from vrajesh
Time: February 6, 2013, 7:02 pm


ok so i can kind of understand what you mean now. The reason why i felt to meditate so much even when its not pleasurable is because of impatience, wanting to have ‘blissful’ states, wanting to raise awareness very quickly without understanding that it takes time and patience.

i have been reading ‘mindfulness in plain english’ and he says that sitting through times you feel restless and frustrated are more beneficial and stepping stones or something to that sort.

Another reason why i want to meditate more is to “Just concentrate on developing more and more awareness” often i end up feeling i am not meditating enough or not doing it right and feel frustrated and discontent.

it sounds like a gaining idea to me, i think.

what do you think and suggest?

thank you.


Comment from Bodhipaksa
Time: February 6, 2013, 9:22 pm

Ah, good.

The thing is that blissful states come from a very deep letting go of grasping, so the harder you try, the more elusive true bliss becomes. You can sometimes generate a kind of excitement that may fool you into thinking it’s bliss, but it’s not the real thing.

Really it’s best not to be too concerned about whether your meditations are “good” of “bad.” I say that any sit you do is a good sit. Just patiently and persistently coming back to the practice is the main thing. Keep doing that, and everything gradually starts falling into place.

And Bhante G. is right — working patiently and kindly with difficult experiences can be very beneficial.

I’d suggest that you balance any mindfulness practice you’re doing with lovingkindness practice. This will help you be a bit gentler with yourself.

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