One of the things that people starting a meditation practice struggle with a lot is how they can know if they are doing it correctly. It is one of the main concerns of the people participating in my courses.
And this is what I always tell them:
It is sufficient to follow the meditation instructions to be meditating correctly. The process is so simple that if you do as instructed, you are doing it fine.
Doing a meditation right is thus as simple as following the basic instructions:
Chose an object of meditation, like the sensations of the breath, a candle flame to gaze at, or a phrase you want to repeat.
When the mind wanders and forgets the object, try to catch this moment. With curiosity, notice what has taken you from the meditation object and gently bring your attention back to your chosen object.
Repeat this until your meditation time is over.
But, you will object, I know the meditation instructions and I still see no progress.
I feel your pain. So, let me explain why applying the meditation instructions is sufficient to be meditating properly and how you can see for yourself that you are indeed making progress.
Knowing if you are doing it properly is more complicated in meditation
Now, the problem of being able to tell whether or not you are meditating properly is an age-old one, as you can imagine.
Even monks need to be able to assess whether or not they are on the right track.
So what exactly is the problem?
For most human endeavors, we turn to a teacher and show him or her what we are capable of in our skill we want to learn, and then, he or she corrects us on the key points that we need to address.
He can do this because he can assess our present state of the skill. He then compares it to when he was at this level (or his many students) and then gives advice on how to overcome our shortcomings. And this is how we make progress.
And this works for almost any skill. If you want to learn how to paint, or to sing or to do snowboarding, a skilled teacher sees, hears or feels the state of your skill and has the necessary knowledge to get you to the next stage.
Unfortunately, in the case of meditation, there is a slight complication.
In this case, the teacher cannot see whether you are doing it right or not. He has no means to assess your current level of meditation. Whether you are close to enlightenment or far from it, if you made enormous progress or are on a false track, he does not know.
He has no means of knowing, except through what you tell her.
So a key part of the task of the teacher, namely direct evaluation of how and what you are doing, is now transferred to the student.
This is of course a very difficult situation. We are trying to learn a skill, and at the same time, we need to monitor our state and our progress.
Now, this skill of monitoring ourselves and our progress is an integral part of learning to meditate, but still, it does not make it easier.
And what is the solution?
The solution that people have devised is to have really simple, foolproof, instructions.
This is what gets you going. As a beginner, this is actually all you need. If you follow the instructions, you will be fine.
This is actually one of the reasons why I recommend beginners to use guided meditations. We constantly need to be reminded of the basic instructions of meditation. That is the only thing that really matters.
So how do you move further beyond the beginner stage?
The 9 stages of concentration meditation
It is only normal that you do not want to stay stuck in the beginner phase all your life.
And, if you move beyond the beginner stage, how can you then know if you are still doing it right? And how will you know you are not a beginner anymore?
Luckily, here, meditation is not so different from other skills. The trick is to cut the whole path to excellence into manageable pieces.
Meditation masters have long know this and so they devised a number of ‘paths’ that lead to some desired outcome.
The one I use the most often is the one from Tibetan Buddhism and is called the 9 stages to Shamatha.
Shamatha means calm-abiding and this is a deep state of meditation. This state is seen as the true beginning of the path to enlightenment.
But, for us westerners, shamatha is rarely something we want to achieve. Usually, we just want to have less stress or anxiety.
So we will just use the path to orient us and to adapt our exercises to the stage we are in.
In the rest of this post, I will only focus on the first 3 stages as these are the ones most of us are in, even after meditating for several years. It takes a lot of meditation to reach stage 9!
But if you are interested in a more in-depth discussion of all the 9 stages, I highly recommend the books by Alan Wallace and Culadasa. The book from Alan Wallace is called ‘The attention revolution’ and the one by Culadasa is ‘The mind Illuminated’. These are Amazon affiliate links if you want to check them out.
What is correct meditation depending on the level you are at?
So, let us now turn to the three first levels and see how we can monitor our progress.
First meditation level
This level is all about getting the basics down. We first need to learn the instructions and establish a regular practice.
Actually, mastering this level means that you have familiarized yourself with the instructions and that you have established a regular practice.
Nothing more. So you know you are meditating correctly in this stage if you apply the instructions in your daily (or almost daily) meditation routine.
Second meditation level
What you will quickly realize, is that in the first meditation level your mind wanders a lot.
And that is perfectly normal.
It is so with every meditator that start out. Including myself.
But, little by little, you will start to have short periods of time where your mind is focused on your chosen object of meditation. This is a clear sign of progress.
You should be on the lookout for this. Not in a tight way, but once every so often, evaluate whether or not you can remain mindful a little bit longer.
If this happens, you know that you are definitely doing it the meditation right.
In this stage, improvement is just by applying the basic instructions. So reviewing them and making a strong commitment at the beginning of the meditation to apply them will help you go forward.
Third meditation level
Stage three are all about reducing the length of the distractions.
Here again, you know you are doing the meditation right if you are seeing your distractions diminish.
But before entering stage 3, you are almost 30% of the time concentrated on the meditation object. The end of stage three is when you almost never forget the object anymore.
At that moment, the way we do the meditation will have to change as we have now overcome our most gross level of distraction.
And we got here only by using the basic instructions.
But keep in mind reaching, even this stage, is rarely done if you use meditation for stress reduction. It is not even needed for this. You will be able to reap the many benefits even if you remain in stage 2.
Things you should not be looking for when assessing your meditation
I strongly disagree with what I see on some other blogs about this topic.
You will find things like: ‘you will feel calmer’, ‘effortless concentration’, ‘stillness’, ‘you will feel relaxed’, ‘you are a divine observer’, etc.
All of these are beside the point actually. They can indeed be the result of your meditation. And we are most certainly meditating to reap some of those benefits, but they are really poor indicators of you doing the meditation correctly.
There are two arguments against using these as a measure of progress.
Firstly, when you are starting out, you will not see any of these benefits. It takes quite some meditation to start to see its benefits.
If you do a classical MBSR course, you will spend 8 weeks before you start to look into benefits. At that moment, you might be seeing something happening. But not always.
So for a beginner, these statements have no value since you want to know if you are on track or not.
Second, meditations vary a lot from day to day. And some days you will get calm doing the meditation and on another, you will not even come close to calmness.
That does not mean that the first meditation was good and the other bad. or that you did something wrong in the second meditation.
No, it is just the nature of our mind to be unstable. Actually, if you followed the instructions, both were doing it right in both cases.
In essence, meditation is easy to be done correctly. There is not a lot you can do wrong.
The danger, however, is in not applying the method. This is actually a real danger. And many people waste a lot of time like this.
The simple solution is to have a clear ritual to start your meditation. In this ritual, you include a part where you remind yourself of how you will perform the meditation and you make a strong commitment to stick to this resolution.
If you want to know more, I have a post on how to optimize your meditation session.
Featured image by Tosaporn Boonyarangkul from FreeImages