Accelerating your Progress

Running Time: 9:30

One of the questions that people often have about the practice and development of mindfulness, is how long will it take to see results? How fast can they expect to progress?

And the answer, not surprisingly, is “it depends”.

It depends on how consistently you practice every day, it depends on how long your meditation sessions are, it depends on how often you bring mindfulness to the activities of daily life, and it depends on your goals and aspirations.

Obviously, some patience with the practice is required. You’re learning a bunch of new skills, some of which are quite challenging, so it’s not something you can pull off overnight.

But, that being said, it’s not bad or wrong to progress quickly! There’s no moral high ground in taking a lifetime to develop a level of skill that can be achieved with a month of diligent, effective practice.

So, here’s some suggestions for how to accelerate your progress in meditation and the development of mindfulness.

The first thing I recommend you do is meditate every day, no matter what. I’ve said this before, but it bears repeating. Without a consistent, daily practice, it’s really hard to make progress.

The next thing to focus on is to set appropriate goals for your meditation sessions, as I talked about in Week 1. And when you do this, set yourself high, but achievable standards.

For example, if your goal is to notice, with equal clarity, the sensations associated with the inhale, exhale and the gap in between them, then don’t settle for less.

Keep working with your intentions to skillfully guide your practice until you really do notice them with equal clarity. And don’t consider the job done until you have.

And once you really can notice the sensations of the inhale, exhale and gap in between with equal clarity, then that’s your new bar. — That’s the minimal requirement you set for your practice. That’s your new standard for alertness. Once you can achieve this level of alertness with some consistency, then you set a new, higher goal, such as noticing, with equal clarity, the beginning and end of each sensation associated with the inhale, exhale and gap. And now you work on that.

Another excellent way to hold yourself to a high standard is to carefully examine the characteristics of the spontaneous moments of mindfulness I described in Week 1. Get to know these characteristics really, really well. And then use them as a standard for your meditation practice. In other words, you’ll consider yourself to be alert when your perceptual clarity is the same or higher than what you experience during a spontaneous moment of mindfulness.

Using high, but achievable standards and raising the bar, when appropriate, will prevent your practice from getting stale and plateauing and help keep things interesting. It’s also the road to really understanding and eventually mastering the meditation instructions.

Because, often, we don’t really understand the instructions until we break through to a new level in our practice and then realize, “oh, now I get it, THIS is what it means to be alert, or receptive, or equanimous.” And when you experience that, that’s where you set the new bar. Now you’ve got clear criteria to evaluate how well you’re following the instructions. And when you make your next breakthrough, raise the bar again. And again. If you practice like this, you’ll be amazed at the results!

However, when you practice in this way, you need to keep a few things in mind.

First, don’t get ahead of yourself. Reaching a high standard once or twice doesn’t constitute mastery. You want to be able to achieve your goal within a few minutes of starting your meditation session at least 80% of the time before you consider it done and start upping the ante.

Second, keep context into account. If you were up partying all night, or have the flu, or there’s a family crisis going on, then take that into account. It makes no sense to pretend that these things won’t affect your practice. In fact, it’s very instructive to carefully examine just how much external conditions can affect your mental activity and your ability to remain mindful. Don’t let your ambition cause you to miss out on the opportunity to notice these things and learn from them.

And third, start each meditation session exactly where you are. In fact, this is the little secret to ensuring that you progress as quickly as possible in your practice, regardless of what’s going on in your life.

Because, each meditation session is different. Each is the result of it’s own set of causes and conditions, many of which are completely outside your control. When you begin your session, take a moment to check-in and see what the quality of your attention and awareness is. As you meditate, how well are you able to perform the basic tasks of paying attention to your object, maintaining a peripheral awareness, and avoiding getting lost in thought?

For example, if you’re used to a high level of perceptual clarity of the meditation object and only rare, brief instances of getting lost in thought, but your meditation session right now feels really different: you’re very distracted and your object isn’t very clear, and you’re feeling kind of dull and drowsy, then you need to recognize that and work with it. Rather than getting frustrated and denying what’s happening, just accept it. Be receptive to how things are right now and downshift your goals for your meditation session, at least temporarily.

So, for example, instead of intending to clearly notice the beginning, middle and end of each physical sensation, while simultaneously being aware of your mental state, you downshift to noticing only the start of each physical sensation associated with your meditation object, while monitoring the quality of your attention so you notice when you’re about to get lost in thought. And you watch for signs of drowsiness and apply the appropriate short-term countermeasures. Basically, you shift to a lower level of practice, because right now, that’s exactly what you need and can productively do.

By meeting the current needs of your practice, whatever it happens to be in that moment, rather than forcing yourself to do something you’re temporarily unable to do, you’ll often fairly quickly work through whatever is making your meditation session more difficult and — often you’ll be able to ratchet up your goal for your session part way through.

In fact, I find that I can sometimes reach a new level in my practice during these kinds of difficult meditation sessions, by patiently working with the demands of the moment, and raising the bar bit by bit as the session proceeds. But this only works if you focus on the mechanics of skill development and leave aside any wanting to get somewhere or wishing that things were different than they are.

And finally, if you want to progress more quickly, simply practice more! I know, it sounds really obvious, but there it is. Make your meditation sessions longer, or more frequent, or both, assuming of course that you can do so while maintaining a high quality of practice.

If you can make time for it, going on retreat with a good teacher is a great way to really give your practice a boost.

But don’t forget Increasing your frequency of bringing mindfulness to daily life activities. This one is a no-brainer but is often overlooked by people because they have the mistaken notion that sitting practice trumps informal, daily life practice. That informal practice is somehow second-rate.

I used to feel that way, until I saw the amazing progress my wife, Andrea, was making in her practice, even though I meditated a lot more than she did. It turned out that she was doing some pretty hard-core daily life mindfulness, and as a result, was clocking way more hours of practice than I was.

Remember, formal sitting practice and informal daily life practice go hand in hand and work synergistically with each other. Increasing the time devoted to one will improve your effectiveness and abilities in the other. Increase both and, well, you’d better put on your seatbelt!

Now, I’m going to end this video by bringing thing back down to earth a bit. I don’t want all this talk about setting goals, raising the bar and going for it to give you the wrong idea about this practice.

At the end of the day, this is a journey, and there’s many twists and turns in the road. Sometime, the road travels straight, and you can step on the gas and fly, and other times, you slow to a crawl because you get to a tricky section and you need to take your time.

Ultimately, as the driver, you need to decide what level of effort and intensity is right for you at different stages of your journey. What I’ve given you in this video are some suggestions for how to speed things up when that’s the right thing for you to do.