I often hear from people who are worried because their meditation practice doesn’t seem to be going anywhere. I think it’s good to be aware of the different ways that change happens when we meditate since your practice hitting a plateau may not be a problem, but just part of a natural process.
Sometimes change happens rapidly. This may happen early on, or at any point in your practice. One striking example was told to me by a friend who owns a health club. One of his employees was very prickly and hard to work with, but my friend realize that this woman had really mellowed out, almost overnight. She was now relaxed and friendly. The prickliness and aggression had just gone. He asked one of his other employees if the woman was on medication, and was told, “No, it’s meditation!” This woman had only been meditating for a couple of weeks. Sometimes that’s how it goes.
This isn’t just a phenomenon that affects beginners, though. Sometimes you’ll have a breakthrough in your practice and change happens rapidly. At those times there can be a sense of excitement about getting on the cushion.
But people are equally likely to find that change comes slowly, or appears not to be happening at all. The meditation itself may be OK, but there’s no sense of it going anywhere. And that can be boring, or downright worrying.
So here’s what I think’s going on during those phases of fast and slow change.
First, we often have untapped resources in the mind. For example there may be pathways that allow us to regulate our emotions, but we’re not aware that they’re there, or that we can use them, or we simply forget to use them. Perhaps quite suddenly, we realize that we have choices about how we think, act, and feel. Perhaps a word that we can drop into the mind, or the sensations in a particular part of the body remind us to come back to this mindful state of awareness in which we are able to regular ourselves and in which we feel more relaxed, spacious, calmer, kinder — whatever it is that’s changing.But after this period of rapid change, things settle down. They might settle down in a good place, but there isn’t the excitement of rapid change.
Second, there’s the slow, gradual change of developing a habit, in which new pathways are being established in the brain, old pathways and habits are being unlearned. Some parts of the brain are developing new neurons, while other parts of the brain, because they’re being misused, are shrinking away. This is the result of regular practice — working at developing mindfulness and lovingkindness, for example. Day by day, habits becoming, on the whole, stronger.
Some people are fine with slow, gradual progress. The Buddha described this as being like a tool wearing away over time. In any given day you don’t see much change, but over a longer timescale you see transformation taking place. But some people feel frustrated, and think that there’s something wrong with them or with their practice.
So you can accept that change is sometimes slow. If you’re putting any effort at all into your meditation practice then it’s working. Change is happening, but on a slow scale. If you glance at the hour hand of a watch you don’t see it change, do you? It looks like it’s just sitting there, unmoving. You need to look away and them look back a while later if you want to see any change. So you can learn to trust the practice; trust that effort plus time equals progress.
If you think that meditation should be exciting, you’re just setting yourself up for disappointment. Nothing in life is always exciting.
Slow change and fast change are not unrelated. Sometimes the slow change of laying down new pathways in the brain takes you eventually to a “tipping point.” Possibly what happens is that you realize that you’ve developed new abilities, or you have a new-found clarity about what you’re working on in your practice — and so we’re back to the fast change of realizing that we can act and feel differently. Then that’s exciting for a while, but then inevitably things settle down again, and you’re back to the slow construction project of daily meditation.
But you need to make sure that you are, in fact, making an effort. You need to make sure you are clear about what you’re doing in meditation. You need to have a purpose, or goal. And you need to be making some effort to realize that purpose or goal. Without that, you may not even be on a plateau; you might just be coasting downhill.
So the takeaway message is this: practice will have its ups and downs. It’ll also have flat, boring stretches. Don’t thing there’s something wrong because you’ve hit a boring patch, but do make sure you have a clear purpose and are actually engaging with your practice rather than just coasting. Things will change.