Insight Retreat Center

Skillful Evaluation of Your Meditation Practice, Part One by Gil Fronsdal

Winter/Spring 2020

This is the first of two articles describing skillful ways to evaluate your meditation practice. The second article will be published in the next edition of the newsletter, this coming summer. This first article will cover examining our motivation for practice and understanding oneself. These two you might consider evaluating the context for our practice. The second article will speak about understanding meditation instructions, aspects of balance, obstacles in practice, and insight, which are related more to the nuts and bolts activity of practice, and to its fruits.

After a person has been meditating for some time, it’s important to evaluate how the practice is developing. Does it need adjustment or improvement? Is it the right practice to be doing? Some evaluation can be done on one’s own, some with a teacher or with friends.

Taking a step back to assess our meditation needn’t be seen as a difficult task. We are evaluators by nature, evaluating all the time, even if subconsciously. We decide what clothes to wear after considering a number of factors, not least of all the weather. Simply going for a walk requires a variety of considerations: How far will I walk? Do I need to prepare? If it’s a long walk, do I need to pace myself? What is the best route, the best shoes?

In the same way, we can evaluate our practice. It’s best to do this in a balanced way: not too little and not too much. We might not evaluate enough because of complacency, or excessive reliance on faith in the practice, or teachings that downplay the role of intelligent reflection. At other times, we might over-evaluate and tie ourselves up in knots.

Over-evaluating can undermine our progress, like the farmer who pulls out a corn seedling to see if it’s growing yet. Imagine trying to learn to ride a bike while obsessing, “Am I doing this right? How do I look?” Sometimes we’re looking for approval when we should be looking for balance, or expecting perfection when what is needed is lots of repeated practice.

Below are two factors of a useful list that can serve as a guide for evaluating your practice. While no two practitioners are exactly alike, these are general areas to check that can give you a good idea of where you are.

First, ask yourself what your motivation is. Why are you practicing? Meditation practice flourishes when it is supported by clear intention. There are many answers to this question. Because no one elses should decide for you what your goals are, it is useful to spend some time reflecting on this. I regularly advise people to discover what their deepest intention is. What do they really want? What is the heart’s deepest wish? The practice can have greater value when it is clearly connected to what is most important to us.

At times our intention is well-articulated; at other times it may not be obvious. Chances are you’ve experienced both of these ways. Sometimes, early on, I intuitively knew I wanted to sit, but I didn’t know why. I just knew there was a strong pull towards practice. At other times, the reason was clear: I knew I suffered and that I wanted to be free of my suffering. Sometimes I was aware of conventional suffering; sometimes, although free of conventional suffering, I had a clear insight that there was a deep, inner dissatisfaction, that suffering was at the core of the way my mind worked. I wanted to somehow find it, touch it, and understand it. Meditation was the only route I knew to reach this core, and I was highly motivated to do so.

Our motivation can be to awaken and cultivate beautiful qualities of the heart and mind—love, peace, courage, compassion, insight, understanding, the pursuit of the truth and liberation. Developing these qualities does not need to be for oneself. Sometimes my primary motivation to practice has been not for my own sake but for other people. In fact, I believe that if you practice only for yourself, you are unlikely to sustain your motivation over many years. A significant way to fuel meditation practice is to do it with the wish that it will somehow benefit others as well as yourself.

We all have long-term and short-term motivations. Experiences of realization may be worthy long-term goals, but in the short term modest aims such as cultivating small but noticeable improvements in concentration, non-distraction, compassion, or patience can be useful.  We can also become aware of small, immediate movements toward letting go and experiencing freedom. I have found there is a beautiful way in which practicing with immediate, realistic goals allows for a steady maturing into some of the more developed areas of meditation practice.

It’s also important to discern whether your aspiration is appropriate for you given your present life situation. If because of time limitations, opportunities, abilities, or disposition the goals you have set for yourself are unrealistic, the primary result will be frustration, a state counterproductive to a practice meant to increase freedom from suffering. While grand aspirations can inspire us – there is no need to be afraid of our heart’s deepest wish – it is important to consider which steps are realistic at each step along the way. For example, if our body carries a lot of tension, it may be important first to focus meditation on deep physical relaxation. Or, if our minds are easily distracted, cultivating mental discipline might be needed before hoping for enlightenment.

Understand Yourself
While motivation is important, does your aspiration match who you are? You might read a book that convinces you that you should do A, B, and C, but those may not suit your life at this time. Or maybe what your teacher is telling you is not a fit. For instance, if we should be focusing on our personal ethics, it may not be appropriate to spend a lot of time with a teaching that emphasizes ultimate liberation.

Do you know how you learn best? Some people learn best by reading, others by listening, others by watching, and others by doing. Some do best when there is discipline and structure. Others learn best through playfulness, self-direction, or intuitive experimentation. Some people find reading and studying helpful; others may not. Extroverts might find it helpful to discuss their meditation with friends; introverts may find they work best when they have quiet time for personal reflection. Knowing yourself in these ways makes it more likely you’ll  find an approach to meditation that suits you. Since it is important not to tailor a meditation practice around personal preferences and attachments, it can be useful to ask a meditation teacher or another meditation practitioner for feedback about your approach to the practice.