How do you know you're getting better at meditating
March 10, 2015 6:39 PM   Subscribe

I have been meditating off and on for the last several years and I'm not sure that I'm getting any better at doing this. I typically listen to Mindfulness Meditation by Jon Kabat Zinn but I still find my mind gets stuck on worries and concerns while I'm doing this.

For those of you out there that do practice meditating, how do you know whether you're getting any better at doing it? Is there some sort of benchmark for figuring out whether you are benefitting from meditating on a regular basis? What sort of things should I be noticing that tells me that I'm getting better at meditating? What sort of things should I be noticing when I'm meditating? Also, does listening to a guided recording by someone inhibit getting better at doing this? I would greatly appreciate any recommendations and also any good guided meditations that people might recommend.
posted by nidora to Health & Fitness (15 answers total) 36 users marked this as a favorite
I haven't ever gotten much out of guided meditations - I find listening to someone else requires too much of my attention. I've done zen-style (count your breaths) meditation a fair bit, and what I find when I do it consistently is that I come away from it both feeling more centered and feeling more aware of what I've been reacting to emotionally. I also find that I can sit longer without twitching straight out of my skin.
posted by restless_nomad at 7:04 PM on March 10, 2015 [2 favorites]

Something I've heard various Buddhist teachers express (from memory: Cheri Huber, Jack Kornfield, Pema Chodron, Brad Warner) is that there is no such thing as "good" meditation or "bad" meditation, there's just meditation. Sometimes the mind will be quiet and there's a feeling of tranquility. Sometimes the mind will be more active, jumping from thought to thought. If you get stuck on considering one of those as desirable and one as undesirable, bam! you're deep in duality. In that paradoxical trying-without-trying thing, see if you can just notice the thoughts and let them go, without placing value on whether they're present or absent.

I think it's in Getting Unstuck that Pema Chodron discusses this. I'm not sure exactly where I read or heard the others say it.
posted by Lexica at 7:06 PM on March 10, 2015 [13 favorites]

I used to teach a Buddhist meditation class. The simple answer is that your meditation is working if your mind is more calm and more positive outside of meditation. You can catch yourself in mid thoughts and correct it if necessary. You can access the kind and patient side of yourself more easily. You are no longer surprised by how you got to this train of thought, but you can direct your thoughts and chose your thoughts rather than them choosing you. You're aware of how you are thinking & feeling during the day. In short, you are more aware of the contents of your mind.

What would you notice during meditation? It depends. Since you are doing mindfulness (and I'd need more detail on which of Kabat-Zinn's meditations you are doing) you should notice your experience. That's it! He talks about being "in the river" while noticing the river. By this he means, you are not carried away by the train of thought but instead observe the thoughts show up and notice them: "hey! That's a thought!" instead of being taken over by them and starting to think them wholesale.

Based on your question it sounds like you are prone to mental wandering during meditation and this is reducing the effectiveness of your meditations. You can combat this several ways:

- decide to meditate for a purpose, and remind yourself of that purpose if your mind wanders (eg, meditating to improve your patience so your relationship with your kid will be better; each time you find your mind wandering think: "I'm doing this for my kid." It helps renew your effort).

-You can also mentally place your worry on a shelf, and when it comes up think: I am attached to this worry. It keeps coming to mind because of my attachment. I am deciding to place this worry aside on a shelf and I will think about it after meditation.

- Another easy way is a meditation timer that chimes every 5min to remind you to stay concentrated.

You may want to consider a live meditation class rather than a pre-recorded session. Sometimes a live class with other people helps you stay concentrated :P myself I prefer live or solo meditation over recorded guided meditations as personally I find them distracting. Especially when they have soundtrack music! Once you learn the bones of the meditation from the recording feel free to practice it at your own pace.

Lastly, mindfulness meditation can be challenging for new meditators especially those prone to anxious wandering thoughts. In my classes sometimes I would suggest simply meditating on the breath in order to develop basic mental control before moving on to mindfulness. In this case you focus on the physical sensation of the breath at the nostrils as you inhale and exhale and anytime you think about something other than the breath, simply being your focus back to the breath. It's a simple but very powerful meditation! People often jump to mindfulness because it is popular and powerful (and it IS powerful) but my opinion is that mindfulness is an intermediate level meditation and a few months of breathing or other simple Buddhist meditation may be a better place to start. Learn to control the mind before using it to be mindful, so to speak.

I love talking about this stuff (just did a mediation retreat this past weekend) so feel free to drop me a line if you need more back & forth on it. Good luck!
posted by St. Peepsburg at 7:11 PM on March 10, 2015 [21 favorites]

I'm trying to figure out how to answer this without being over the top woo. But hey, it's a meditation question, so I'll just go for it.

First off, I'm not an expert, so this is just personal experience. I've meditated off and on for a few years, and in a structured environment for a few months. Just very recently, I had a shift in meditation such that instead of spending my time worrying or planning or wondering how many minutes were left, I just...felt really good. For the first time, meditation didn't feel like something I "should" do, but something that I enjoyed doing. Here's what was different: the previous day I'd been to a class on Koshas that emphasized the distance between temporal annoyances and your true nature (sorry, that's the woo, and poorly paraphrased, at that), then I finished an active yoga class with the meditation prompt of remembering that bliss isn't wild happiness, but contentment. And instead of doing mindfulness meditation, or metta meditation, or breath work, or some other strategy that I'd tried in the past, I just...sat there and felt happy. And blissfully non-anxious. And reassured that (ugh, so woo, sorry) things were exactly as they ought to be, even the things that otherwise felt "bad."

So I don't know if that means I'm "better" at it, but it was at least an enjoyable respite from my previous meditation experiences. And afterward, I did not feel permanently enlightened or anything, but I have felt just a little bit closer to contentment and a little farther from anxiety since then. It feels like a muscle memory for meditation, and like practice (and perhaps serendipity) have set me up so that it will be a little easier and more enjoyable more often.

I have totally cross posted with everyone, but what St. Peepsburg says is exactly the experience that I just had: "The simple answer is that your meditation is working if your mind is more calm and more positive outside of meditation. You can catch yourself in mid thoughts and correct it if necessary. You can access the kind and patient side of yourself more easily. You are no longer surprised by how you got to this train of thought, but you can direct your thoughts and chose your thoughts rather than them choosing you. You're aware of how you are thinking & feeling during the day. In short, you are more aware of the contents of your mind." To be honest, I think I just got lucky-- kind of like throwing a basketball at a hoop 100 times and missing, then getting it in once and saying, "oh, so THAT'S what it feels like," and then being able to do it again-- not every time, but more often, and (hopefully) finding that space more easily with practice.
posted by instamatic at 7:27 PM on March 10, 2015 [2 favorites]

Specifically the piece of "more aware of the contents of your own mind" that has been most awesome is being able to say, "X bad thing just happened, and I feel really, really, really bad about it. It sucks rotten eggs. But I know that in an hour it will feel less intense, and by tomorrow I'll mostly be ok, and in a year it'll probably be a funny story. So it's not so scary to feel rotten right now, because I know X is a problem that can be fixed by money/time/effort/apologies, and it will be ok again eventually." Pro tip: $200 later, everything was mostly fine, and I do feel mostly ok, and there was even a silver lining.

Oh, and the "One Simple Trick to Make Meditation Work" [clickbait] was to actively work to let go of all of my "shoulds" and replace them with something else, like "what if?" Instead of "Ugh! I should keep my mind from wandering! I shouldn't have eaten so much before class! I really feel gross now, and I bet I gained two pounds this week..." (Surely I'm not the only one who does that?) now I think "I'm kind of uncomfortable after eating so much, but I guess my body or emotions really needed it. What if next time I have a lighter meal and see how I feel?" And then move on.

And if all else fails, I meditate on Van Gogh, and how he felt like a failure. So no matter how much I might feel like a failure, I should withhold judgment until I am dead and my life's work is being sold for millions and millions. Right? Right. (Don't burst my bubble, it works, and that's good enough for me.)
posted by instamatic at 7:56 PM on March 10, 2015 [1 favorite]

The Zen answer is that it isn't possible to do it better, because the distinction between good meditation and bad meditation is a false one. Just sit - don't make good or bad. The skill you are practicing when sitting is putting all that stuff down and letting go of your judgment and the self checking that wonders whether you're doing something right or not. And part of that means letting go of the idea that having judgmental thoughts is bad, so its ok for those thoughts to come up. You just sit, and your head might be running like a train or it might be peaceful like some placid mountain lake and all of that is fine too. You don't need to combat a wandering mind and try to force a calm one -- thoughts rise and fall and all of that is just fine. Your leg hurts, you have an itch, you remember yesterday, you sit on the cushion and breathe and all of that is just fine.

If you sit a lot you might begin to feel like you are getting good at it. Maybe the physical aspect of it is easier to get through. Maybe you can calm your head fast and leave behind the rest of the day and get into some kind of "meditative state." But as soon as you start to think "I am getting good at this meditation thing" you've messed up again because now you are putting a big "I" in the picture that is good at something. And if you realize that mistake and start to feel like you are doing a bad job you've messed up again because there the "I" is in the middle again doing a bad job. Don't make good or bad. Just sit.
posted by cubby at 8:19 PM on March 10, 2015 [5 favorites]

You can't do meditation better or worse. You either do it or not.

One thing that helped me was when I read that distractions, far from being simply "okay" in meditation, can be considered to be the whole point of meditation. When you realize you've become distracted that moment in itself is a perfect awareness, an awakening, a gift. When you realize you are distracted, simply smile and return to whatever form of meditation you have been doing.

This practice of coming back from distractions into presence of mind builds a "muscle" that will affect your daily life over time. In fact, meditation is like a microcosm of life itself, which requires "coming back" from lots of distractions.
posted by cross_impact at 5:23 AM on March 11, 2015

These are terrific answers; I would just add one thing (from/in my experience) - if there is some one particular source of anxiety that triggers an avalanche of sadness, be extra respectful of, but cautious with, it. It may take a long time, and a lot of work, to get to where you can treat it like any other distraction, if it catapults you into a spell of depression.
posted by mmiddle at 6:57 AM on March 11, 2015

Wanted to pop back in to add the time factor. Someone above mentioned having 5 seconds of clarity. That's just about the target to aim for, believe it or not. I've often said to my class: if you can remain focused for 30 seconds, you're doing really well! If you can remain focused for 1-2min straight without distraction, you are ready to try other challenging meditations. The monks I've studied with say the first 1 minute is the hardest. Once you've trained your mind to stay focused for 1 minute without distraction, the 5 minute mark comes much more easily, and then 30minutes and 60 minutes and so on is a breeze. But training up to the first minute takes a lot of effort. I just wanted to give you those numbers so you don't feel so hard on yourself if your mind wanders, and so you'll have reasonable expectations. We are so accustomed to being distracted and humming along with the train of thought. It takes a while to train to control the mind.

If you are a time-based meditator ("I must meditate for 30 minutes every day!") you may want to consider the quality of your meditation. It is much more beneficial to mediate for 5 concentrated minutes than 30 wandering minutes. Slow & steady & consistent is best. Learn to identify the difference between being sort of concentrated and really concentrated. You will be able to judge the quality of your concentration the more you see it as degrees of concentration rather than simply being concentrated or not. And like others have said, each day is different. I have had the most mind-expanding meditations on retreat and then the next day... nada. As always, letting go of attachment to "successful" meditation increases the chances of actually being focused. These attitudinal foundations of mindfulness are a great place to start.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 7:55 AM on March 11, 2015

I'd second trying a class or group. As others have said, in theory there's no such thing as 'better' meditation, but I found doing an eight-week course helped me understand, explore and practice some of the concepts behind mindfulness meditation more thoroughly than I did while just practising on my own. The class teachers were good at kindly but insistently prompting us to examine our experiences of meditation ("How did that feel?" "Where did you feel it?" "What happened next?") in ways that helped people shift their understanding of the process and the nature of mindfulness in beneficial ways.
posted by penguin pie at 9:11 AM on March 11, 2015 [1 favorite]

You'll notice some very different approaches behind different meditative traditions. St. Peepsburg is offering more direct guidance than you might get from, say, a Zen teacher. Some traditions use guided meditation, others have mantras. You might count your breaths or recite a phrase in your head. One teacher a long time ago offered advice to the cooks in a monastery to help them turn meal preparation into meditative practice by paying obsessive attention to every detail (each grain of rice needed, the location of each piece of cookware).

All of these approaches have great merit (and I would argue that they all move toward a very similar goal) and it will be important for you to find one that resonates for you. As you progress with your practice, it will also be important to avoid getting so attached to the method itself that it gets in the way. If you learn to meditate by counting each time you breathe in through your nose, what happens when its time to sit and you have a cold and can only breathe through your mouth?
posted by cubby at 9:40 AM on March 11, 2015 [1 favorite]

There is no getting better at meditation.
posted by Ironmouth at 8:06 PM on March 11, 2015

If there was nothing qualitively different about good or bad meditation, there would be no point meditating, as there would be no difference between meditating and watching tv, either.

I think abilities that are/have improved include, focusing on a task, primarily by realising when you are distracted and returning to the task at hand. Increasing boredom tolerance. Being able to move past upsetting internal thoughts by neither ignoring them or obsessing over them, but acknowledging them, as upsetting, and then moving onto the other thoughts or sensations that also need to be agnowledged and moved through (I kind of think of this like I have an inner child presenting a boo boo or something for show and tell, and the child will probably happily run off again once something has been properly acknowledged, but proper quality attention is required first). That strong emotional states are often triggered entirely internally, not by any external reality (blah blah, attachment, etc), and are therefore, generally a choice I am making.

I'm pretty terrible at meditating though, so those are kind of the 'pain points' that I notice meditation working on (aka the stiff muscles of exercising with meditation), if I manage to not wander off into hallucinogenic like daydreams (No input/boredom obviously means I must be either falling asleep or dying, and my brain compensates with near hallucinogenic states to entertain itself pretty rapidly).

Like jogging, I have found some benefits from meditating (eg the above), without ever getting to the point of having a runners high, or enjoying meditation for it's own sake, because I really don't enjoy it. Maybe I will get there one day.
posted by Elysum at 1:06 PM on March 17, 2015

I've been sitting on this question for quite some time, and it pops into mind on occasion as I listen to this or that talk. I had written something out, but firefox ate it. I wrote out a few variations since, but how I felt about my answer kept shifting with too many competing ideas so I walked away. I struggle with this a lot because some days (weeks, months) I feel like it can be like an endless internal hamster wheel of anguish, or distraction, sitting on the cushion. I'm actually at a point where I think I'm mudding my practice with too many influences from too many traditions because I struggle with this so much. I've been thinking about settling on one tradition and crack open the Pali Canon.

This past week I'm listening to a podcast titled, "What am I doing wrong?" given by John Ankele and thought it might be helpful to you;
And the question comes up in relation to practice often because we think we're not making progress, or we think we're missing something. Some ingredient that perhaps other people are getting and we're not, or we think our practice should be working one way and it doesn't seem to be working in the way that we thought that it should be working. And often it is not a matter of doing the technique, of doing anything wrong in terms of the practice itself, but it's more often an expectation that we bring to it.
There's more and it runs about 45 minutes. It's a much better Tibetan version of Jon Kabat's Zinns point about not "striving and efforting." riddled through his guided meditations.

That talk was preceeded by this article, "What are you meditating for?" by Douglas Penick, that was recommended in one of my feeds.

I don't listen to guided meditations often other than to get the basics down because I wind up so focused on the speaker I miss the point of why I'm listening. Jon Kabat Zinns body scan meditation does that to me, in some parts he doesn't mention where we're supposed to focus. I'll become stressed having lost the thread and now not sure where I'm supposed to be. Also I can quote bits verbatim (like the blow hole of a whale) including any odd breathing coughing and shifting ... I wait expectantly for those noises. An exception is Daniel Seigel's version of a Metta Sutta that I can't keep to memory. I need that crutch, besides he has a pleasant voice ...

is that there is no such thing as "good" meditation or "bad" meditation, there's just meditation.

There is no good and bad in Buddhism, only skillful and unskillful, but you can bet your doughnuts that Buddhists have some strong ideas (best practices) of what you should be doing when you're on the cushion. For instance, Pema makes a point of noting a distinction between her tradition and Vipassana when it comes to keeping the eyes open or closed when meditating.
posted by redindiaink at 8:57 PM on May 1, 2015

I'm glad this post was bumped, because I recently read Ganga White's Yoga Beyond Belief, and some of the writing on meditation really spoke to me.
The vast unconscious, the unknown, the mystery of life, is not at our beck and call. We are not going to invite the infinite and control our destiny with tiny mantras, mechanical contrivances, or simple techniques of repetition. Repetitive practice and behavior quickly becomes automated and unconscious. Real meditation is more of a “happening,” similar to sleep, or even love, rather than just something we do. There is no formula for falling asleep. Although you can prepare and relax, the more effort you apply, the less likely sleep will come. Similarly, while it may be important to prepare for love by being more caring, more sensitive, and less aggressive and self-centered, love comes when it will. Love is bigger than we are. A great teacher once said, “Every effort at meditation is the abject denial of it.” We cannot program ourselves to love or to meditate. Meditation is more about deprogramming than programming. Meditation is not dull, mechanical, repetitive behavior chasing the magical, mystical, and spontaneous. Moving toward insight, wisdom, and clarity does not result from following systems, but from awakening. This awakened perception can act in all facets of life.
(emphasis mine)
Or more simply, "Sitting practice cannot be done incorrectly. Anything that happens is part of it. There are no disturbances."
posted by instamatic at 6:02 PM on May 3, 2015

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