Insight Retreat Center

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

This is the second of two articles on this topic of evaluating your practice.  The first article covered examining our motivations for practice, and understanding ourselves—these two might be said to constitute the context for our practice. This second article covers the practice itself—meditation instructions, aspects of balance, obstacles we come across in practice—and insight, the fruit of vipassana practice. The first article can be found here

Understanding Meditation Instructions
You may be strongly motivated to meditate but not know how to do the practice. I meet many meditators who are vague about what they are actually doing in meditation beyond relaxing and trying to develop some focus. Some people know the basic instruction but not much about how to practice with the difficulties that may occur while attempting to follow that instruction. Some people who practice mindfulness meditation may know how to be mindful of their breath or their body sensations but have little understanding about how to be mindful of emotions or mental states. In Insight meditation there are whole series of instructions for working with the breath, body, emotions, thoughts (quality of mind), and intentions, as well as for walking meditation and mindful speaking. It is useful to be familiar with all of them.

Do you have a sense of the relationship between meditation practice and your daily life? Hopefully, for Buddhists, one’s whole life is one’s practice. Do you know how to live your daily life so that it supports your meditation? And conversely, do you know how to meditate so that it benefits your daily life? The poet Gary Snyder wrote:

All of us are apprenticed to the same teacher that the religious institutions originally worked with: reality. Reality insight says, “Master the 24 hours, do it well, without self-pity.” It is as hard to get the children herded into the carpool and down the road to the bus as it is to chant sutras in the Buddha hall on a cold morning. One move is not better than the other; each can be quite boring, and they both have the virtuous quality of repetition. Repetition and ritual and their good results come in many forms: changing the oil filter, wiping noses, going to meetings, picking up around the house, washing dishes, checking the dipstick. Don’t let yourself think these are distracting you from your more serious pursuits. Such a round of chores is not a set of difficulties we hope to escape from so that we may do our practice, which will put us on the path. It is our path.

Another possibility is that you might understand the instructions but not be sensitive to the qualities of mind that you are bringing to practice. Perhaps you are following the sensations of breathing.  If you do that with striving, expectation, hesitation, or laziness, the meditation probably won’t unfold well. Or a meditator might not be sure what specific area to focus on when concentrating on the breath, jumping from the breath in the belly to the sensations at the nostrils, then feeling the breath in the whole body.  As a result, the mind never settles into concentration.

One’s attitude toward practice is very important. Is there adequate patience, equanimity, kindness, energy, and discipline? Are you able to find the balance between having a goal in practice and at the same time being present in a way that is not preoccupied with the goal?

Is your life balanced enough to support a regular and useful meditation practice? It can be counterproductive to add meditation to a life already packed with too many activities. Do you have a healthy balance between work and time off? Is there an appropriate balance between time with others and time alone? Do you get enough exercise so that a good sense of vitality supports your practice? Do you get enough sleep to stay awake during meditation? Some people need sleep more than meditation.

A number of factors need to come into balance during meditation itself. There is a balance between faith and wisdom, or confidence and understanding. There is a balance between energy and concentration. Teachings on the factors of awakening stress the importance of balancing the quieting forces of calm, concentration, and equanimity with the activating forces of investigation, effort, and joy.

The balance between the body and the mind is also important. Ideally, meditation practice engages both. One very useful thing to cultivate in meditation is a balanced meditation posture that allows for a dynamic interplay of physical relaxation with alertness or uprightness. It is possible to cultivate a body that is both soft and strong. It is much easier to work with the mind in meditation if the body has been included from the start.

What are your obstacles in meditation practice? Where are the attachments? Where do you get stuck? Are there any regular patterns to the challenges you have in meditation?
One of the important ways to sharpen your meditation practice is to understand the common difficulties you meet in meditation. Among many challenges meditators encounter are obsessive thinking, desires, aversions, sluggishness, restlessness, psychological or emotional issues, fear of altered states, boredom, complacency, and excessive striving.  Attachment to pleasure or resistance to discomfort may also interfere. Getting familiar with which obstacles are most common in your practice can help you become more skillful in working with them.

Unethical or unskillful behavior can also be a significant obstacle to deeper states of meditation. Here’s a story that points to this idea:

Some years ago, at an alcohol treatment center in the suburbs of Chicago, staff members reported an intriguing discovery. Many of the counselors lived at some distance from the facility, each day commuting via a toll road. Then one day the state of Illinois instituted an honor system in the toll collection booths in the area. No attendant, no barrier gate, just a basket into which motorists were expected to toss their coins. Staff at the treatment center made observations that soon added up to an axiom: counselors who don’t throw their money in, their patients don’t get well. As one counselor phrased it, “How can you instill honesty in a program if you’re not honest yourself? Honesty is indivisible.”

Another interesting thing to look at is how much self is involved when you practice. Engaging excessively in forms of self-concern like self-judgment, self-criticism, self-image, self-definition undermine meditation practice. All meditation practices require the relaxing of self-preoccupation.  Just like being too tense to ride a bike, the tensions around being too concerned with self can make it very difficult for the mind to be soft enough to settle into meditation.

Every meditator has challenges. Rather than viewing obstacles as problems or as unfortunate distractions, it’s more useful to patiently and contentedly learn the skills and insights that can transform them into stepping stones along the path of practice. Every meditation tradition has its own approach to working with meditation obstacles. Learn to recognize your own obstacles and then you might ask a meditation teacher what her or his approach is.

An important aspect of practice is appreciating the insights that arise. The development of insight is not just a matter of becoming calm, but also of understanding how your mind works, how your heart works, and what the causes and conditions of suffering and liberation are. As you look more deeply, can you see how you create a sense of self out of all this?

We often take the self for granted. But Buddhist practice shows us that much of what we think of as self is a construct, an activity shaped moment by moment. When you see this creative aspect, you can gain an insight that is freeing.

There’s also insight into beautiful states of mind: how compassion works and its value; lovingkindness and how to cultivate it. Insights into these states help to cultivate and strengthen them. One purpose in meeting with a teacher is not only to discuss your difficulties but to discuss your understandings and insights. “This is the understanding I’ve come to. What do you think of that?”

The most important insight is to understand how clinging works—the nature of grasping and clinging in all its gross and subtle forms. All of Buddhism will open up for you if you understand the nature of clinging, what you cling to, and how to let go.

Recognizing the Benefits of Practice
Sooner or later our practice brings benefits. Sometimes you have to be patient; sometimes, the benefits are immediate. Ideally, you see how even a single moment of meditation has immediate benefits. At the same time, I hope practitioners have some sense of how meditation can lead deeper, to the possibility of liberation.

Over time, meditation should bring clear benefits such as greater compassion, joy, ease, and self-understanding. Some people discover greater capacities for courage and resolve. Others feel increased appreciation and gratitude. And hopefully, one finds increased experiences of freedom. If after a of couple years of regular meditation practice you don’t experience any of these benefits, it is important to reevaluate what you are doing. Perhaps the criteria in this article could point to ways that the meditation can be improved. Or perhaps it is time to discuss your meditation practice with a good teacher. However, sooner or later I hope that all meditators can become their own teachers. Learning to evaluate one’s own practice wisely is an important step toward such independence.