Getting Results from Meditation

The Truth About How We Improve Our Practice

Photo by Anastasia Taioglou on Unsplash

“After you have practiced for awhile, you will realize that it is not possible to make rapid extraordinary progress. Even though you may try very hard, the progress you make is always little by little.” — Shunryu Suzuki

The most frustrating aspect of meditation for most people is the apparent lack of progress even after weeks or months of diligent practice.

There are a myriad of ways we can be deterred from meditation, but the thought that we might be spinning our wheels and getting nowhere is one of the most common and most detrimental.

We may start a meditation practice with ambition in our eyes and spring in our step. We may wake up each morning and meditate for 20–30 minutes day in and day out. We may even carry on with enthusiasm and dedication for weeks or even months before becoming frustrated with a lack of noticeable benefits. Soon we may see no reason to keep our practice going.

Maybe it just doesn’t work. Maybe it just doesn’t work for us. Regardless, we may ultimately call it quits.

When the rewards of meditation are not immediate and noticeable, we have a tendency to conclude it isn’t working and thus isn’t worth pursuing any longer.

It’s not just meditation. Almost everything is like this.

If we start a weight loss program and fail to lose more than a pound or two per week, we may become discouraged and revert to our old eating habits. Even though we may be making progress — as small as that may be — it’s often not enough to sustain us and motivate us to keep going.

A weight loss program that allowed us to easily lose five pounds per week with minimal effort would be a different story. Odds are we would stick with it until we achieved our ideal weight.

But the real world doesn’t work like this. Not for meditation. Not for losing weight. Not for anything really.

The paradoxical thing is that we may actually be getting significant benefits when we find ourselves the most disheartened with our meditation practice.

When it seems like nothing is happening, there is actually much happening beneath the surface.

Change — in meditation and almost every other aspect of life — happens slowly and imperceptibly. Seldom dramatic or earth shattering.

We can look at meditation as analogous with several other familiar areas of life to see how change and progress really works.

The stock market provides a useful example of how progress occurs consistently over time but almost never in a linear fashion.

You may invest in a company by buying their stock for $10 per share. You hope that one day that share will be worth multiples of what it is valued at currently. Perhaps in ten years time it will quadruple in value and be worth $50 per share.

It’s highly unlikely that a stock will go from $10 to $50 per share overnight, though. It’s not impossible but highly unlikely.

An investor will usually be happy with long term returns of 8–10%. Over a few weeks or months, 8–10% is not something to get excited about. Over the course of years, however, this is progress that can be considered substantial.

Meditation is a lot like investing in the stock market. There may not be much to get excited about over the course of a few days or weeks, but if we have the patience to forge ahead, the returns can be massive.

There is another aspect of making slow but consistent progress that is worth addressing.

Some of the progress we make in meditation is such that we may never even see it in ourselves.

To return to the analogy of weight loss programs, remember that weight is usually lost at a very slow rate. Being able to lose one pound per week is good.

If we are losing weight at no more than a pound per week then we are not going to be able to see much in the way of visible results in the mirror.

The number on the scale goes down by a pound each week, but when we look in the mirror, we often see the same body we saw the day before, and the day before that.

After a couple of months and 6–8 pounds of fat loss — and us still feeling like we look no slimmer when we look in the mirror — we then run into a friend we haven’t seen for while.

“Wow, you’ve really lost a lot of weight!” they tell us.

Since we see our reflections in the mirror multiple times each day, there’s no way we can detect the minute changes that occur.

But someone who doesn’t see you day in and day out can easily see how you’ve changed.

Something very similar can also occur with meditation.

When I first began meditation years ago, I struggled to maintain my motivation. I couldn’t see where I was making progress in any aspect of my life. I continued to meditate for twenty minutes every day, even though I wasn’t sure why I continued since it seemed like a waste of time.

A few months later an acquaintance I had not seen in some time commented that I seemed more laid back and calm than I used to be. He even said that my face did not look as tense as it once did.

Like with losing weight, we are the last to be able to look at ourselves and say “wow, I really have lost weight!” Instead we only come to the realization that we have been successful once it is brought to our attention by other people who don’t see us all the time.

I saw no progress in my meditation practice. But others did.

The key takeaway here is that we are making progress all the time whether we recognize it or not. It’s just that the progress is so gradual that it’s easy to not see.

Our baseline is changing in ways imperceptible to us. We may not realize how much progress we are making until someone tells us that we seem different in a good way.

So stick to your meditation practice no matter what.

Realize that along the way you will sometimes have periods when nothing seems to be happening. Other times you may have quantum leaps. When it’s all averaged out, however, you will understand that this is a journey that has ups and downs.

Just like everything else in life.

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