Three Teachers Weigh In: How do I know if my meditation practice is working (especially when nothing seems to be happening)?

By Paul Bloom, Miranda Chapman and Anne Dutton

Paul Bloom: Exactly! Every meditation practioner has confronted this question.

In the Zen tradition there is a kung-an (koan) that unwraps the conundrum:

A monk approached the Master.
Master, I have been practicing hard for many years but can’t see the results of my practice. Please help me.
Master: Have you had your breakfast?
Monk: Yes.
Master: Then wash your bowls.
At this the monk had an awakening.

This teaching presents a clear direction: perceive the ordinary activities of your life and so discover your true self, nothing fancier. Like practicing the piano — chords, scales, Beethoven. When we unwrap the clutter of cognitive thinking compassion appears by itself. Zen calls this Don’t Know Mind.

Shakyamuni Buddha looked up to see the morning star and had a great awakening.

This approach to meditation requires faith — faith that we are not fools to pursue the great question, “What am I?”

But pursuing this question is the most important thing we can do. Awakened mind is our birthright. When we practice with this attitude then the practical possibilities of lessening the violence and suffering of this world appear by themselves.

So when the clouds of doubt about practice fill your mind, you must trust yourself 100 percent! Some days are cloudy, some bright. This is as it should be. When we have the courage to trust our daily practice through both clouds and sun, then one clear day and the morning star appears.

Miranda Chapman: I often like to think of my meditation practice as the cultivation of a deep, intimate, long-haul friendship. Sometimes, when I engage with that friendship, I see the fruits of it and feel so nourished; sometimes it’s just incredibly quiet, no exciting discovery or transformation.

For me, all of that is part of trusting in any great friendship — being open to the rich and textured spaces of insight and resonance, and the subtler spaces of silent abiding. In the quiet times, if I am not careful, I can extrapolate disconnection or stagnation but, if I am willing to look more closely, things are always moving, shifting, coming together and falling apart.

So, if trust in my practice is present, I don’t need the grand gestures of revolution, instead there is a profound knowing that something is always happening; it’s my work not to force the scale. And, when I am able to settle into that patience, a natural sense of restfulness arrives so I am ready when the great sea changes do come.

Anne Dutton: One approach to this question is to inquire into what we think “should” be happening.

In the eight-week MBSR course, we talk about the “attitudinal foundations” of mindfulness practice in class one. These include taking an attitude of acceptance toward what we notice, as best we can, from moment to moment, and letting go of striving, goals, and outcomes.

Why is letting go of goals so critical? Because meditation is the practice of bringing our attention to the present moment as it is. It is the profoundly radical and courageous practice of easing up on our resistance to a reality that is rarely completely satisfactory — and often downright painful. We deeply investigate the moment instead, cultivating our capacity to become intimate with it.

As counterintuitive as it may seem, the most direct path to deriving benefit from meditation is to let go of the demand, or even the idea, that your meditation result in an outcome.

Paul Bloom was authorized as a senior dharma teacher in the Kwan Um School of Zen in 1991 and has taught at the New Haven Zen Center for more than two decades. He will be offering the afternoon workshop, Introduction to Zen Practice, on September 23, 2017.

Miranda Chapman regularly teaches mindfulness and movement programs at Copper Beech Institute and leads the weekly Candlelight Meditation sitting group. Learn more about her upcoming programs.

Anne Dutton is an MBSR instructor, psychotherapist, yoga teacher, published Buddhist scholar, public speaker and translator. She will be teaching the eight-week MBSR program at Copper Beech Institute beginning September 24, 2017.

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