Recently, a question came in about how to assess one’s “progress” in meditation. The question captivated me because I’ve heard many ways of describing meditative progress.
In a recent talk, I took a first pass at answering the student’s question. And to start, I thought it would be helpful to mention that a conventional sense of “progress” tends to imply a linear movement from an initial position at point A to an anticipated destination at point B. The closer one gets to B, and the more one creates distance from A, one’s progress seems confirmed.
Unfortunately, this isn’t my sense of how progress in spirituality unfolds. If pressed to answer (to many, one way to confirm your lack of progress in spirituality is to start opining about what progress in spirituality looks like) I might say, progress is defined less by the content of one’s experience – whether the body feels good or not, whether the mind is quiet or not – and more by the depth of understanding and compassion for one’s experience; neither of which – wisdom or compassion – develop in a linear manner or even in parallel to each other.
In the talk, I thought referencing Yin Yang theory would be helpful. For starters, Yin Yang theory observes how seeming oppositions are better expressed as inseparable polarities. Or as Alan Watts put it, “The yin-yang symbol is not, therefore, what we call a dualism, but rather an explicit duality expressing an implicit unity.” (Watts, Tao, The Watercourse Way)
It would follow, then, that progress and non-progress co-arise; as do “getting somewhere” and “getting nowhere.”
In practice, I observe how my experience (and life) oscillates between attainments and losses, achievements and failures, improvements and regressions, calm states and anxious states. These and other inseparable polarities trundle on – sitting after sitting, year after year.
But what has deepened is my appreciation and faith in the ultimate of inseparable polarities: the polarity between the tune of my experience and the undefinable empty space that Knows the tune.
In chapter 11 of the Tao Te Jing, Lao Tzu captured it best:
Thirty spokes unite at the wheel’s hub;
It is the center hole that makes it useful.
Shape clay into a vessel;
It is the space within that makes it useful.
Cut out doors and windows for a room;
It is the holes which make it useful.
Therefore profit comes from what is there;
Usefulness from what is not there.
So, in one sense, “progress” is related to recognizing this empty space, to sensing the “center hole,” to remembering this openness of centrality in the middle of experience. But this realization isn’t achieved through control, or manipulation, or getting good at a technique; rather, one steps onto a “pathless” path; one passes through the “gateless” gate (as they say in Zen); and one returns to the place that was never departed.
This sort of “path” can addle the conventional mind that conceives of progress in terms of noticeable improvements and linear developments.
In a Question and Answer session with Ajahn Sumedho, someone asked him how to recognize the clear, empty, luminous nature of awareness. Sumedho answered, “Stop looking.” In other words, awareness can never make itself an object; awareness can only shed light upon what it is not. So we stop looking for awareness and rest as awareness. We stop seeking the clear, empty space of our Being and come to abide as clear, luminous, spacious Knowing.
On a recent woods walk, Lao Tzu’s verse cycled through me on repeat, at the end of which a bit of derivative doggerel (apology for the inexcusable alliteration) dripped out of my pen:
An ode to the doughnut hole of my “me”…
To the humble hub of emptiness,
That bears all fullness.
To Emerson’s “transparent eyeball,”
That embraces a manifest all.
When I remember thee,
Me holiest of all holes,
All shall be well, and all manner of thing
Shall be well, just as
But when mistaken and forgotten,
All manner of thing is suddenly rotten.
So let me not forget to remember my “me’s” holy hole.
And when forgetting returns, let me remember having won
That forgetting and remembering
We’re never not but one.
Inseparable polarities all the way up; inseparable polarities all the way down.