Figuring out what to do in meditation practice

Several commenters asked very good questions that I'm going to try to address: how do I tell where I am in my practice, and what do I do if I don't seem to be going anywhere?   These may seem like different questions, but they're actually closely related.

Meditation practice has the nice quality that even before you have become an adept meditator, you still get a lot of benefit.   Because of this, it's actually quite easy to get stuck.   If you're getting what you want out of your practice, that's perfectly fine—there's no need to do anything at all.  But if you have aspirations for your practice that are not being realized, then you need a way to get unstuck.

One thing not to do as a meditation practitioner is to have one person you rely on for all answers to all questions.  What you want is to have lots of friends who are also trying to practice.   In Buddhism we call this a "sangha".  In other traditions you might hear words like "synagogue" or "congregation."  Ideally all of these are referring to the same thing: people who have decided to make some inner journey in each others' company.

Why do I mention this?  One of the great things your sangha can do is to poke you when you are stuck.  I got a bit stuck composing the answer to the questions I mentioned earlier and wound up going back and reading my favorite meditation reference, The Mind Illuminated.  In doing this I realized that I stuck on a deeper level.

And that brings me to the next bit, which is the process of realizing that you are stuck, and what to do about it.

Realizing you are stuck is really a variant on knowing where you are, and knowing where you hope to go.  If you know where you are, and you haven't gotten any closer to where you want to go, that's a sign that you are stuck.  How do you know where you are?   The method I use is one I've mentioned before: the ten stages.   Generally speaking, you're at one of these stages.  Sometimes more than one.

Each stage is characterized by the sorts of obstacles you tend to encounter when you meditate, and each stage has a set of practices that you do when you encounter these obstacles.  So the way you figure out where you are is to notice the obstacles that you are experiencing.

This is really tricky, because all kinds of things happen in meditation, and the obstacles are only one of those things.   And doing a good job of diagnosis isn't easy, because it's so easy to notice what's going well in the practice instead of noticing what obstacles are coming up.   If you sit for an hour, chances are that by the end of the hour you'll either be sunken into dullness, or your mind will have quieted down quite a bit merely by virtue of the fact that you've been sitting that long.

So judging where you are by what's happening at the end of the meditation isn't a good plan.  But I realized yesterday that I'd been doing that for quite some time, and as a result I'd completely misdiagnosed the stage I'm experiencing in meditation.

If I notice that's happening in the middle of my meditation, what's happening is that I'm experiencing a phenomenon called strong distraction.   This happens when you are kind of meditating, but a lot of other thoughts are swirling around, and those thoughts are dominant.  So you feel like you're meditating, but all this other stuff is going on.

There's a practice to do when you're in this stage, but I haven't been doing it, because I thought I was in a different stage.   So I'd been doing practices suited to that stage.   And I wasn't making any progress.   This can happen whether the practices are for an earlier stage or a later stage.

The point I'm getting to here is that it should be the case when you are meditating either that you are an adept meditator already, and you are just exploring, and there is nothing you need to "work on."   Or else there's something you're working on.  What you're working on should be fairly clear.   If it isn't clear, and you just keep doing that, you probably won't see any progress.  So if you are experiencing that sense of stuckness, the thing to do is to get help: either get help from your community, or get help from whatever book you are using, or find a community, or find a book that tells you something actionable.