Are we too obsessed with progress?


As I mentioned several times over the last few blog posts, meditation is quite a difficult activity. Sitting still in a room and focusing only on the breath or another object of concentration requires significant mental energy, which seems odd considering to an outside observer, all you’re doing is being still.

The difficulty of meditation makes me more invested in the outcome of my practice. Every day I am constantly looking for clues or signs that I’m benefiting or improving in some way as a result of my mediation, I’m looking for signs of progress.

Because I noticed myself searching for signs of progress even in meditation, which is designed to help you be present (and eventually, develop penetrating insight), I realized just how obsessed I am with progress.

Modern personal development advice usually tells you to set some sort of goal for yourself. If you’re a high school student, perhaps it is to get into an elite college. As a college student, it’s to get a prestigious and fulfilling job. As a 20-something with a job, it may be to achieve some significant adult milestone (getting married, buying a house, etc.).

Once we set these goals, our happiness is determined by how close we are to achieving them. Our progress, or lack thereof, determines our mental state.

Am I getting closer to achieving my dream job? Yes? Ok I’m happy. No? I’m depressed.

But what if this progress centered approach to life is wrong?

On the surface, it looks like Buddhism offers a path to enlightenment for which your progress on which can easily be assessed.

Am I more enlightened today than yesterday? Yes? Great! No? Keep meditating. Do I have the body I want? No? Read countless fitness bikini body training books until we are red in the face?

However, the Eightfold Path (which is the prescription to achieve enlightenment), is generally displayed on a wheel, the Wheel of Dharma.

It seems paradoxical that a path is laid out on a wheel.  If you take modern goal-setting theory and apply it to the Eightfold Path, how exactly will you measure progress? You could only use subjective assessments of the results you are achieving by practicing right mindfulness, right livelihood, etc.

This can only lead to frustration, which is why I suspect that using the progress-centered approach to goals might be wrong.

I’m not sure what the correct way to approach goals is, and I imagine that certain goals lend itself to the progress-centered approach (e.g. weight loss). But deeper, more significant goals like becoming more mindful or joyful require an alternative method.

Perhaps instead of monitoring external progress, we should monitor how we conduct the activities that will help us flourish as human beings.

There is a parable about the Buddha asking a monk about his former life as a musician:

“The Buddha asked the monk Sona, ‘Is it true that before you became a monk you were a musician?’ Sona replied that it was so. The Buddha asked, ‘What happens if the string of your instrument is too loose?’ 

‘When you pluck it, there will be no sound,’ Sona replied.

‘What happens when the string is too taut?’

‘It will break.’

‘The practice of the Way is the same,’ the Buddha said.

‘Maintain your health. Be joyful. Do not force yourself to do things you cannot do.’

Assuming we choose good activities to practice (not a trivial task), we should spend more time monitoring how we perform the activity rather than obsessing how far along we are. Only then can we remove ourselves from the incredible pressure to always be making progress, and take time to appreciate our activities as we perform them.

  • Less_Antman

    Another very interesting post. I don’t think I’ve made any real progress in my spiritual life for a quarter of a century and I’m happy as can be. I sometimes describe myself as a Taoist, which I define as a Buddhist who is too lazy to meditate. I will sometimes meditate just because I feel like it at the moment (I mainly use a simple mantra), but even setting the goal of enlightenment seems to me to add pressure and unhappiness and to be a form of grasping. I was quite impressed by the writings of Alan Watts when he suggested that Zen Buddhism involves driving you nuts trying to achieve the goal of enlightenment until you get so frustrated that you give up completely and, in that moment, achieve it, because the ultimate enlightenment is accepting that there was never a problem in the first place and the world simply goes on and on with no purpose and no need for one.

    I like a sports metaphor (possible not even a metaphor). I am a baseball fan, spent all year counting my team’s wins (progress toward the goal of the best record in baseball in 2014) and just attended two playoff games in which our team lost in extra innings and appears about to be swept out of the post-season. I was mock-miserable at the losses because I have a lot of emotional energy invested in rooting for my team to win and advance to the next round, but in the back of my mind I always know it is a game and that their victory or loss is not important. Still, we should play the game of goal setting and achievement (or failure) because eternity could get really boring if all you do is sit there contemplating emptiness forever. Even the Dalai Lama has the goal of a Free Tibet toward which he hopes to make progress.

    My approach is to set goals, but in the spirit of a game, and show good sportsmanship whether winning or losing. I personally find life joyful when I treat all success and failure as temporary and, in the ultimate scheme of things, meaningless, and see the universe as an eternal mind (or energy) finding something to do to pass the time.

    I think progress is a dangerous goal, except in very small increments (so that success can be celebrated every day rather than deferred for years or, possible, for a lifetime). Process might be better. We might not even be competent to set those goals toward which we then measure progress. What I’m doing for a living today wasn’t even on my radar screen growing up, attending college, and early in my career, even though it seems today to be what I was “made for” to my clients and myself.

    A long way of saying that I believe you are absolutely right in questioning an obsession with progress.

    • You hit a lot of good points. I like your “game” approach. I sometimes get that feeling that everything is game, and it’s very liberating.

      I just came across this article today that parallels many of the points you made:

      • Less_Antman

        Thanks, I think that article does a very good job of summarizing Watts’ views,, although there is nothing quite like reading Watts directly and enjoying the spiritual entertainment for oneself.

        • Miguel

          Great article and great exchange of comments and links! Grateful for that my friends 🙂

          I’ve been experimenting with this notion for the past couple of months, trying to always focus on the intention of an action and not its goal. Like a piece of art, which is art for art’s sake. No matter the function, it matters the enjoyment of the aesthetic experience. I find it really hard to unlearn our western mindset of goals, goals, goals, and the tension we have while you aren’t still there, but it’s an interesting process to observe while we try to overcome it. That sports metaphor it’s quite catchy as well 🙂

          That comment about Allan Watts’s point of view reminded my the movie Holy Mountain, (okay, this is maybe a spoiler but it’s part of the discussion and for sure doesn’t spoil the enjoyment of the movie!), while a group of people is following a kind of guru (the movie director himself) through the path that leads to the holy mountain and the supreme enlightment, and in the end there is nothing there except reality, but a maya kind of reality, where the guru show them that this is all a movie! “Goodbye to the Holy Mountain. Real life awaits us…”

          Zoom back camera my friends 😀

          • Oh man I wish I had a cool accent so I could sound wise, like the director in the clip 😉

            I’ll have to watch the full movie.

  • Ashish Nair

    I happened to be reading this article looking at Sam Harris’s work talks about the paradox of progress and being present:

    To many things to write here, just check out the link if you’re interested.

    On my personal experience, I tend to stop my meditation practice, i.e. being present every moment, a lot of the time because life seems so… mundane, for lack of a better term. At the start its very refreshing, the silence and clarity, but it just becomes boring I guess. I try to find something else to do, or think about. Have you felt anything like that Dale?

    • Thanks for the article. Lots of good points. I especially like the points about the self being an illusion (something I will explore in Hinduism month).

      You know, the most profound “meditation” experiences I have had have come when I’m not deliberately meditating. There are moments, perhaps when the weather is nice and when you have nothing to do and you have a cup of coffee in hand are just sitting and observing, you can really feel the world as it is, and you feel content.

      In Buddhism, they may call that “mindfulness,” in Catholicism, they might call that “seeing God in all things.”

      Sometime the mundane can be quite liberating, but I haven’t figured out a way to always feel that way.

  • Kevin

    The last paragraph sounds a lot like the book The Practicing Mind. It was a good read – basically to fall in love with the practice and not be so committed to the result – very Stoic in my opinion.

    • I’ve been thinking about the results vs. process issue a lot and I think it’s probably best when we use results as a feedback mechanism to improve the process.

      For example, if you’re trying to publish a book, you write, try a few things, submit a proposal, and it’s rejected. You then take that feedback to try something different, without developing an obsession about getting a book published.

      • Kevin

        Have you read Scott Adams book on systems vs. goals? Yes, the Dilbert guy. It’s really really good. Called How to Fail and Almost Everything and Still Succeed, or something close to that.

        • Yup, I read it. It makes sense, sort of in a Taoist way.