This is why you do not progress in your meditation and what you can do about it

Published by Olivier Devroede on

When you do a little research on what advice people give to someone asking ‘Why don’t I see progress in my meditation’, you will almost always find a number of people saying: ‘meditation is not about progress, do not track your progress, it is about being, not striving’.

This is very, very bad advice! Really, very bad! 😀

And at that, it is advice that is in direct contradiction with the original teachings by many of the great meditators of the past. There is even a whole system of meditation that is geared towards getting you through the end result of attaining an enormous calm called shamatha in 9 distinct stages. This is also the topic of my all-time favorite meditation instruction book, ‘The Mind Illuminated‘ by Culadasa.

But why are people giving this advice then? And what can you do instead to progress in your meditation? Read to get all the details you never dared asking.

Any endeavor should yield some progress. Like rowing. There is no real difference with meditation. Photo courtesy of Tom Mrazek

What is progress in meditation?

The first thing we need to realise is that not all meditations have the same end goal in mind. There is a reason why there are so many meditation styles.

Generally speaking, there are two main qualities that are cultivated while doing meditation. The first is concentration, the second is insight.

Concentration is not exactly what we understand it to be in the west. Here it is used as a relaxed presence with the object of concentration, without ever losing track of the object, nor without losing track of the fact that you are meditating. In this sense, it is very different from what is called flow, where you are totally absorbed in whatever you are doing.

Insight, sometimes also referred to as wisdom, also means something very specific. It is insight into our own human condition. Wisdom means that we are able to recognise in our own lives what brings us happiness and what brings us disappointment. And then to cultivate the causes that bring us happiness and abandon the causes of our unhappiness.

You can see immediately that progress in one or the other would be quite different.

In the case of concentration meditation, you can say you see improvement if you lose the object of meditation less. Or, if you follow the 9 stages model, when you can advance to the next level.

In insight meditation, progress is when you obtain some knowledge about yourself.

And, broadly speaking, one could say to have advanced when there is a greater sense of well-being in your life.

The reasons why you are not making a lot of progress in meditation and how to remedy

Before starting, let me say that it is ok if you happen to be blocked in your progress by either one of the reasons I advance. People want different things in life and this is normal. So, the solutions I offer might not be what you hoped for. You then need to consider the tradeoff. Maybe what you are doing is just right for you in your life and you need to make peace with that.

So, let’s go over the most common things keeping you from progressing.

People always have such high expectations of everything. We tend to forget that everything in life takes time and that not all view are as breathtakingly beautiful as this mountain top photo by Vern

Your expectations are too high

Let’s start with the most common one.

Too many people are placing the bar far too high. And yes, some people report dramatic results after one single meditation of only 20 minutes.

But you have to understand that this is the exception. Most people will need to work at it. Everybody is different and at the moment, there is no other explanation of why some people succeed fast and others not, is simply that people differ in their abilities.

Accepting this fact is an important aspect of meditation.

Personally, I like the take of Dan Harris in his book, ‘10% Happier‘ where he does not advocate mindfulness as a miracle cure for just about anything but brings it back to its real proportions: a tool to be able to cope better with life’s challenges.

In this regard, the research on depression is exemplary: mindfulness works as well as meditation, provided that you have relapsed twice.

That is why mindfulness is used as an add-on treatment.

So, whatever you are trying to achieve in your life through meditation, you need to supplement it with other strategies. Especially if you have depression or an anxiety disorder.

My position on this is that most of the conventional treatments (or self-help strategies) lack the essential component of being able to implement it in your daily life.

And here is where meditation can help as it will hopefully allow you to do just this.

Solution: The solution is to look at your progress in a more gradual way. I highly recommend to keep a journal. People often do not notice when a bad thing has gotten out of their lives. Your journal will show you the progress you have made. Furthermore, journalling can be an integral meditation exercise in itself. It will help you to discover the things that always go wrong in your life and meditation and you will be able to address them. Remember that you need to see the problem before you can fix it.

Related reading: How Long Does it Take to See the Benefits of Meditation?

Wrong Turn
Sometimes we take a wrong turn. Course correcting is the only option. But it is always available to us. Image courtesy of Andy Cull

You are doing the wrong kind of meditation

Another aspect of expectation is that you need the correct tool to meet it.

Broadly speaking, concentration meditation will bring you towards pleasant states, whereas insight will also confront you with unpleasant ones.

The drawback of only going for pleasant states is that you do not deal with the unpleasant ones. However, having too much difficult emotions in meditation can make you flee away from the practice.

Although, traditionally, there is no preferred order in which you cultivate concentration and insight, it is generally agreed that you need both.

If you do only insight meditation, it might be that your mind is not stable enough to just be with whatever arises. The inverse is also possible: doing too much concentration might make you miss some easy pointers of how to improve your life.

What can also happen is that you grew bored with your meditation and so are only doing half-heartedly.

Don’t get me wrong. All meditations do work. All have their effects. But sometimes this particular meditation is not doing it anymore for us. Stubbornly continuing to do will not get you anything.

Solution: personally, I never stick to one style of meditation. So I encourage you to learn a second one and maybe even a third one.
For this, look at the 2 main categories and choose one from either. For concentration meditation, you could do breath following and for insight, you could go to the modern mindfulness tradition.
There is, however, a third one that I like to add to the mix for best results: loving-kindness meditation. It is not only a feel-good meditation (which is very important), but it will also strengthen your concentration and insight. I used to underestimate this practice, but I have now discovered its potential, so I use it regularly.

Related reading: What Type of Meditation is Best For Me: an Integral Guide

More Canyonlands (Pano)
More is not always better. But sometimes having a panorama view is just awesome. Photo by J Swanstrom

You are not meditating enough

As said above, people are different and some will see results with only 15 minutes of meditation a day, but

Let’s take the analogy of sports. If you walk for 15 minutes a day, but the rest of the day you are sitting in a chair and eating junk food, will you get fit?

Obviously not.

Meditation is also about honesty towards yourself. I do not say everybody needs to meditate for hours on end, but it does make a difference.

If you are doing concentration meditation, you will need to gradually work up to sessions of 45 to 60 minutes if you want to achieve the higher stages (stage 5 to 9).

But also insight meditation will need to sink in. And this takes time.

There is another thing to consider here: if you are investing for 15 minutes a day into your well-being, and then spend 15 hours in negative mental states, what do you think will have the most impact on you.

So you need to apply yourself to do small exercises during the day. If the meditation does not transpire into your daily life, there is indeed limited benefit. But for this to happen, you need to take it with you.

Solution: The solution here is multi-faceted.
First, gradually increase the time you meditate, until you get to 45 minutes to 1 hour. This does have to be in 1 sitting. The effects of even a short meditation always linger. So 3 times 15 minutes of meditation might be more efficient for you.
Second, intend at the end of the meditation to take some mindfulness with you into your day. Do this very consciously and intently.
Third, set a timer to ring once an hour. When the timer goes off, do a short informal meditation practice. Do not make it too long. One minute of focus on your breath is more than enough. Or just checking in with whatever is happening in your thoughts, emotions and body. And accepting whatever is present. That will take you a long way.

Related reading: How Long Should You Meditate to Get the Best Results?

You meditate in the wrong way

This is something that even happens to seasoned meditators like myself.

At some point in the meditation, you lose track of what you are supposed to do. And then it happens sooner and sooner in the meditation, up to the point where you are no longer following the instructions, but doing a totally different thing.

You still have the impression of doing the meditation, but really you are doing something different.

Actually, this is a downward spiral that can happen just because of the lack of progress. This lack makes you complacent and the mind thinks you already know how to meditate.

Knowing that there is more to get from your meditation, you will also treat it more seriously and apply yourself in a natural way.

Solution: You need to regularly check that you are still following the instructions. Better yet, at the beginning of each meditation, review what you want to do during your meditation and mentally review the steps. At the end of the meditation, shortly review how it went and make a resolve to further work on the issues you discovered. But do not forget to give yourself a pat on the back for all the things you did right.
I also found it helpful to occasionally do some guided meditation. Doing this at every sit is distracting in my opinion and will also hamper your progress, but once a week or once a month is a good idea.

Related reading: 7 Tips to Improve your Meditation

Hobby gardens, Noordendijk, Dordrecht
Sometimes treating something as a hobby is fine. And sometimes it is not. You are the only judge. Photo of hobby gardens by Paul van de Velde

You treat meditation as a hobby

Now, there is nothing wrong with treating meditation like a hobby. Hobbies are an important part of our lives nowadays.

But the commitment to your hobby only reaches that far.

Furthermore, most people also make progress in their hobbies, so it works like that also.

But if you want to see larger improvements in your life, you will need to treat meditation as a way of life rather than a hobby.

Solution: make meditation a larger part of your life. Reading something inspirational daily is a great help. This will keep you on track. Very often we do not progress because we have lost track of where we want to go and so we do not move ahead.
The internet is full of inspirational stories, so they are not hard to find.
I also highly recommend going on a retreat once in a while. Due to the intense practice, you will feel what is really possible when you do a lot of practice. The calm you experience after a week of meditation is far deeper than what you can achieve in 30 minutes a day.

Further reading: The Complete Plan to Make Your at Home Meditation Retreat a Success (Plus Templates)

When to look for progress in meditation and when not to do it.

I have talked a lot about why and how to make progress in your meditation, but I have not really explained why people are stuck in this mantra of ‘meditation is not about progress’

They say this because it is also true that one should not look for progress ‘in’ the meditation.

By this, I mean that when you are meditating, you should do the meditation as instructed.

I can assure you that there is no meditation instruction that says: ‘take a deep look at all the progress you have made in the last 10 seconds’. No, you focus on the breath. If you are taken away, gently come back.

The instructions are like this because you are training several skills at once; One of them is concentration, another is acceptance and yet another is letting go. All in this one simple instruction. If you start looking for improvement every 10th breath, you will never go deeper.

So, there is no place for looking at improvement during meditation. There is however after the meditation. This is one of the important things to do in order to improve the way you meditate and to experience the most benefit over time.

It’s also a good idea to review your practice monthly and yearly; Here, your journaling will help. You will see that you made a lot of progress. And if not, you now know how to correct it.

Happy meditation!

Further reading: What to do after you have finished your meditation?

Featured image courtesy of Fred Veenkamp

Categories: General

Olivier Devroede

Hi, I’m Olivier Devroede and I have been meditating seriously since 2009. Due to the great benefits I have seen in meditating, I decided to become an MBSR trainer myself and start a blog.