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.