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Progress in meditation

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There are many different types of meditation and even many variations of the same types. Thus people often ask, ‘Which is the best meditation technique?’ and ‘How do I know whether or not I am doing it correctly?’ There are four criteria that can be used to assess what the Buddha called ‘progress, growth and furtherance’ (vuḍḍhaṃ, virūḷhim, vepullaṃ) in meditation.

  1. If you are generally happier than before you started meditating
  2. If you notice an increase in positive and a decrease in negative qualities within yourself
  3. If you are more relaxed and open
  4. If you are able to be more objective about yourself, these are good indicators that your meditation is going the way it should

Some approaches to meditation and certain attitudes some people bring to meditation, can cause practitioners to become tense, glum and overly serious. King Pasenadi noticed a marked difference between the followers of other sects and the Buddha’s disciples. The former were so gaunt and miserable-looking ‘that you would not want to see them again’ while the latter were ‘smiling, cheerful, exultant and joyful, with radiant complexions, relaxed, without anxiety, content with what they receive and with minds like a forest deer’ (M.II,121). Time and again the Buddha linked balanced mature meditation and happiness. ‘The mind that is happy becomes concentrated’ (sukhino cittaṃ samādhiyati), ‘The mindful person becomes happier’ (satimā sukhaṃ edhati), ‘Now you might think, “Perhaps these defiling mental states might disappear…and one might still be unhappy.” But this is not how it should be regarded. If defiling states disappear…only delight and joy, serenity, mindfulness and clarity remain, and that is a happy state’ (D.I,73; S.I,208; D.I,196).

Rather than trying to see themselves as they actually are, some meditators have an image of how they ‘should’ be and then use suppression and contrivance to make themselves fit into that image. The result is often bodily rigidity; a strained unsmiling expression, constrained movements and a stiff body. Other meditators develop a form of psychological rigidity, becoming puritanical and unbending in their attitude to even the most minor rules and dogmatic about interpretations of Dhamma and meditation techniques. One frequently hears such people comment that the way they are meditating is ‘absolutely correct’ and that other ways, even those only slightly different, are ‘absolutely wrong.’ Such physical and psychological rigidity is a very bad sign. By contrast, the successful meditator has the confidence to ‘relax and let their hair down’ (appossukka, pannaloma) without becoming slack, and the ability to see Dhammic concepts and meditation techniques as useful stepping stones rather than absolutes that must be clung too.

Successful meditation should gradually diminish the ego so that one’s self-image becomes less important and detachment increases, including detachment towards one’s negativities. Consequently, meditators should be able to have an increasingly realistic and insightful self-assessment and be frank and honest about their inner life. They should become more amenable to advice from spiritual friends and teachers, more ready to acknowledge mistakes, more able to accept praise without blushing and criticism without getting defensive. The mature meditator will, the Buddha said, be willing ‘to reveal his defilements to the Teacher or to an experienced monk as they really are’ (A.IV,189-90).

To the question ‘Which is the best meditation technique?’ the answer should be, ‘If the qualities mentioned above become more apparent as a result of the meditation you are practising then that is the most suitable technique for you.’

See also


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