Any obsession with getting someplace in meditation is unhelpful. It actually gets in the way of making progress with your meditation practice.
Of course not all concern with making progress is obsession. We can just be curious about whether this thing we’re doing is worthwhile. And if you’re new to meditation you might need some gentle reassurance that you’re on the right path.
Often it’s hard to tell whether you are making progress or not. I note elsewhere that one of the things that will help you to stick with your meditation practice is the ability to notice and appreciate small changes. So here are some of the changes that you might want to watch out for. Most of them are small.
- Other people noticing that you are changing. Sometimes it’s hard to have a sense of perspective on ourselves. We can easily concentrate on supposed failures to the extent that we completely miss positive changes. Often, my meditation students report that other people notice that they are changing; becoming more relaxed, less reactive, and more friendly, even if they haven’t noticed any change themselves.
- Things that bothered you before and would have got you annoyed no longer get to you. At least sometimes.
- Spontaneously noticing your breathing outside of meditation. You might find that you have mini-meditations that are just a few breaths long, and realize that this has the ability to bring a little more calmness.
- The breathing becomes interesting. Before you started meditating, and maybe for some time after, you thought that the breathing was pretty boring. But then you realize it’s actually quite fascinating.
- Discovering new sensations in the body. Even after 40 years of meditation I’m still discovering new sensations. Every time I realize that those sensations have always been there, but I’ve somehow ignored them.
- Finding that you start to get pleasure from simple actions, like loading the dishwasher, or walking.
- Finding that you can concentrate better. You can use counting your breaths to give you a sense of whether you are developing more concentration. Being able to count to ten even once may be a step forward. If you make it to there, then you might want to aim to count to ten three times in a row. You might notice that you have the ability to count continuously and also have a lot of thoughts arising. That’s great! Pay more attention to the fact that you have developed more continuity of awareness than you do to the fact that there are still a lot of stray thoughts.
- Spontaneous changes in your body and posture. Sometimes you’ll notice parts of your body relaxing spontaneously. Sometimes a particular problem you had with your posture might suddenly disappear.
- Paying more attention to the outside world. It’s a very good sign when you start to slow down and notice the beauty in the world. Colors can seem more vivid. Shapes can be more sharply defined.
- Noticing your posture more outside of meditation. You may become more aware of your body during the course of the day, and you may notice how awareness of your body grounds you. You may even come to a deeper understanding of how your posture influences your emotions and mind.
- Spontaneous feelings of joy and appreciation.
- Noticing you have choices. You may start to notice that you’re having certain thoughts that aren’t helpful, and you realize you don’t have to continue thinking those thoughts, but can come back to being mindfully aware of the body.
- Becoming more aware of your actions. Often, before we get to the stage of being aware of our actions before we do them, we start to notice them after we’ve done them. It’s tempting to feel frustration to realize that you’ve lost your temper once again, but actually it’s a good sign that you’re noticing this at all. With practice you’ll be able to catch those responses earlier and earlier, until you’re able to choose to respond more creatively.
- Feelings of calmness. You may have spells of greater than usual calmness in your meditation or after meditation. You may even experience some reluctance to end a period of meditation.
- Interesting and vivid dreams. When your meditation begins to “bite”, it often leads to more vivid and meaningful dreams. Pay attention to these and see what you can learn from them.
- Becoming more dissatisfied. Paradoxically, one side-effect of becoming more self-aware is that you realize that there are things about yourself that you’d like to change. This realization is uncomfortable but also useful. If you don’t become aware of things in your behavior that you want to change you’ll never do anything about them.
- Time passing quickly. When you’re really enjoying something, time passes more quickly. It’s common to notice that time passes faster in certain meditations.
- Having feelings of warmth, softness, or openness around the heart. This especially happens if you’re practicing lovingkindness meditation.
- Having interesting experiences in meditation. You may begin to notice unusual things – like a delightful sense of rhythm in your breathing, or the way in which your body subtly moves in response to your heartbeat. These are signs that you are developing more concentration and awareness in meditation, and you would be wise to pay attention to such experiences. Some of the things you might experience might seem a little odd. A common example is seeing patterns of moving lights. This is a good sign, in that you are moving into a deeper state of concentration. But it’s best not to pay much attention to those lights or they will turn into a distraction and slow your progress. (If you’re here because you’re having odd experiences in meditation, like swirling lights or your body feeling odd, I’d suggest the post I wrote on “Odd experiences in meditation.”)
One of the main signs of progress in meditation, though, is not being so bothered about making progress. Our meditation practice never changes in a constant, linear way. There are always ups and downs. One day you’re sitting there and you unexpectedly find that you’re blissfully happy and almost totally without distraction. The next day your mind is all over the place. This is normal, and it’s good to relax, and not be obsessed about “getting somewhere.”
Yes, it’s good to have the aspiration to move in the direction of greater calm and happiness, but the expectation that this is going to happen will bring us nothing but pain. Bearing in mind the aspiration to move in the direction of greater calm and happiness, we simply work with whatever arises, not worrying about whether it’s a “good” meditation or a “bad” meditation.
Over the years I’ve come up with two expressions about good meditations:
- Any meditation you can walk away from is a good meditation. Crawling also counts.
- The only bad meditation is the one you didn’t do.
Also, not all changes are noticeable in the short term. Progress can be slow and incremental. The Buddha compared it to how even a piece of metal wears away imperceptibly when you look at it day by day. But over the course of years the change is more obvious.
It’s now known that when you meditate, you rewire your brain in helpful ways. Can you tell whether or not new neurons have been generated, or whether new connections between neurons have been built? Of course not. But it’s happening anyway. It might take months for those changes to manifest in anything perceptible, but the change is happening anyway.
So in the meantime, just relax and get on with the practice.