Why am I not progressing?

I was recently contacted by a friend, who I met on retreat some years ago, looking for some thoughts on his practice. He’s suggested I reply in the form of a blogpost and also to paraphrase his message, which in short form is: why am I not progressing in my practice?

He writes (again, paraphrased slightly):

I want to start insight practice again. I’ve tried numerous times, including going on retreat, but I don’t ever seem to get anywhere apart from feeling a bit better. I don’t experience recognisable stages of insight, though I’ve had a few peak experiences (as well as low ones). I’m fully expecting the advice ‘read the instructions, practice more, with better resolve’, but I’ve tried that.

I’ve been dipping into Moshe Feldenkrais’ work, which is a movement form. The principles are be playful and curious, go slow and notice more, don’t work with an endpoint in mind, and enjoy the journey. Can these principles be similarly used in vipassana? My practice before was really working towards a goal, fighting through pain, and being very busy on the cushion trying not to miss anything.

I don’t mean to be disrespectful to those who did vipassana as prescribed, but what I want is an effective practice which takes me to the goal and doesn’t half kill me on the way. Does this really have to be a warrior quest? Because I’m not one.

I feel there are several parts to my answer as there are multiple topics to be addressed. As with anything in life, there is no simple causation to his ‘failure to progress’. In fact, a multi-modal approach that looks at view, effort, intention, mindfulness and others is required: all of these aspects of the Eightfold Path taught by the Buddha. This is how practice can be both grounded in more conventional issues, such as ‘Am I doing the right practice?’, at the same time as honouring the Unconditional end, which begs such questions as ‘how will I know when I’m awakening?’

It is worth making explicit the ideas related here that are not necessarily true:

  1. Progress can be measured by peak experiences
  2. The goal of my practice is a classic ‘stream entry’ experience
  3. Progress requires me to ‘fight’
  4. I am not making any progress

In Pragmatic Dharma, stream entry is seen as really making the grade. This is the progression through a full cycle of insight as described in the Theravada Buddhist commentaries, culminating in the ‘blip’ out of consciousness that is called fruition. This is seen as correlating with the first of four stages of enlightenment. However, there are many (tedious) arguments whether having this fruition non-experience is worthy of being described as entering the stream of dharma. I’ve also discussed the possibility with more advanced practitioners than I, that fruition is the poor cousin of the kind of non-dual experiences I am more familiar with. My bias will be clear when I say I am not sure I have ‘experienced’ fruition – maybe, coming in the middle of a retreat that led to a big change in my practice – but not definitely. This ‘tried’ is the ‘tried’ of trying to hit the big win, but fruition is not necessarily even the correct benchmark for a practitioner who expects to be learning for the rest of their life.

Which brings me to the main point: unusual experience is not the measure of insight. Contemplative insight should not be reified as an event: it is a shift, with the way that you see the world literally changed by it. Ergo, having fireworks in your meditation is not the shift itself, but more of a symptom. It is not even a necessary one: many people, my teacher reassured me towards the beginning of my work with her, never even have unusual experiences; quietly and diligently sitting on the cushion every morning, trying to be kind and focusing their lives on worthwhile things, they one day wake up. Multiple teachers disregard all experiences in meditation as distractions, or even talk about the disappointment in their own lives that they never had a big explosive epiphany. For myself, despite the weird and wonderful things that have happened to me on the cushion, I don’t see them as doorways to the next level, but more as expressions of the stage I was at. Jack Kornfield and others call all meditation experiences ‘side effects’ to really underline the need to let go of the desire for fireworks in practice. I wouldn’t go that far, as some of my experiences have been very significant for me and explained very directly aspects of the spiritual that I could not have simply had described to me. It is also definitely the case that some people have ‘loud’ practices, and as I have written before on this blog, I suspect that this may even be linked to immaturity and stubbornness. If you require miracles and explosions to get your notice, intense pleasure and deep pain to motivate you, then your practice is not very subtle. But then again, maybe it is just Grace, and some people get what God wills.

Next, to be a little more conventional (and sorry to psychologise, but I mean it with the best of intentions): you can see the fight between dogma and intuition going on. Pragmatic Dharma promised dazzling insights and massive shifts in practice if only one blasted away at vipassana, ‘getting the dose high enough’, and it didn’t work. This implies either the dosage required would be huge to overcome the forces of delusion, or the hardcore noting approach just isn’t what is required in this situation. When I was doing a lot of noting, it was in deep envy at the stories of practitioners who were some mixture of natural and very hard working, having shocking opening insights and then following up with inspiring spiritual quests that led to their entering the stream in ways that shifted their perceptions quickly and radically. Once again, I have had big changes in my perceptions, but they have not been as radical as these described by really amazing practitioners. Much of the time it has been a drip feed, though this has also been encouraging as I have seen myself go from a rather self-absorbed young man to a person who genuinely feels unconditional love and the desire to give it too (over a period of a couple of decades). My expectations of practice have become somewhat more gentle as I experience very fantastic things, but of a more subtle form. Sometimes the dropping of the desire to be a heroic meditator has been the most relieving experience of all. It is easy for the spiritually inclined to transfer their attachments from Prada clothing and jetskis to the aspiration to be a Zen Master- or what the ego would like that to be like.

Sometimes progress has not been apparent at all. Sometimes it is hard to compare to a month or a year ago, though the difference between myself now and a few years ago is clearly significant. This is because the internal landscape changes so much that it is hard to recall old ways of thinking; they seem so alien and memory drifts off quickly enough. I also know that my practitioner friend has done a lot of other practices that are nothing like vipassana; knowing him as a gentle and loving person as he is, I wonder whether he is giving himself enough credit- or perhaps he is ‘ahead’ in many ways already without realising it? I mentioned in the previous blog post that some people are shocked that others do not recognise the difference between their thoughts, feelings and behaviour- and yet many people go through life in this morass of reactivity. I reckon that there are many more people who are well along the spiritual path who assume everyone else has even more insights. My teacher has also mentioned to me, and I agree, that some people who have done non-vipassana practices will find that they have built up insight in other areas that is readily applicable to vipassana, if they get the approach right.

It is also true that I have never had a ‘thirty minutes on the cushion, every morning, without fail’ practice, but I have put a huge amount of time and effort into things that I would now describe as clearly contemplative. However, as I hope I have made clear before, a lot of this has been hugely ego-driven effort, more the need to finally exhaust my reserves of willpower and desire to win. Insight can only arise when it has been given space to do so; my space at that point was more a razed wasteland than a carefully weeded garden. I literally didn’t know how to submit, and I was too stubborn to do something gentle and patient, so it was my lot to push the door marked ‘pull’ until I had no more strength left, and it swung open of its own accord. This was to happen a number of times, weakening my stubbornness each time, until I finally got the hint. This is not to say that the huge amount of noting was not helpful at all, as it has clearly helped create habits of mindfulness; but I could have noted slowly, patiently, cultivating calm and awareness, when instead I was a ball of fear and need, and I am still un-learning that kind of hypervigilance that my friend mentions (‘being very busy on the cushion’).

It was very hard not to feel left out when I was a beginner and others were describing this amazing death of self and birth to an awakened life, but now I am much more interested in having a balanced view of awakening that takes in both unconditional love and conventional virtues as the cyclical precursor to, and fruit of, contemplative practice. I think it is true that awakening to emptiness can be the most healing of insights, but I also have found that there have been more conventional hurdles that I have had to get over in order to let that ‘deeper’ insight blossom. The way I look at it is this. All of my shitty behaviour is still part of the dance of life. God loves me anyway. It is habitual. Insight into emptiness removes that judgement of good and bad. But the behaviour that is poor on a conventional level remains, and this is where the ‘enlightened bastard’ comes in: someone whose insight has not permeated all levels of their life, and in my experience (yep, still a bastard) it hurts like buggery. Some of the worst hurt is hurting yourself: telling yourself you are not good enough, telling yourself you must work harder, telling yourself you compare unfavourably. Sometimes this creates blocks that insight can’t flow through. I never thought I’d consider integration so important, but increasing inclusion seems to be a good marker for my own progress (and it would be lying to say Grace hasn’t plonked some on me).

This is why I recommend supporting practices so much, rather than just ‘dry insight’. Insight and compassion, absolute and conventional, are two sides of the same coin, but both can be looked at unconditionally, which I feel is the ‘true’ insight practice, bringing a trust in the still small voice. In this particular case, to use the ‘war between dogma and intuition’ allegory again, the intuition is to take a completely different approach to the ‘spiritual warrior’. Instead the intuition is to use the body, be slow, enjoy, learn: all things I have recommended in this blog. Trusting one’s own path to the Unconditional is very important, I now feel, because there are no short cuts in the end, only different roads. For the sake of the world I think that the ones that cause the least drama and inculcate the most compassion are far more important than the ones that create shattering insight immediately, at the expense of Dark Night suffering. Macho meditators (I’m a recovering one I admit) have a lot to answer for and the cure for that is a lot of metta, service work, and the kind of conventional self-care that is sometimes left out of spiritual systems.

So, my advice to my friend would be: If you are drawn to a practice, do it. Trust your intuition. Be kinder to yourself, and I’m interested to see where the path takes you. There are enough warriors in the world.