How Do You Know If You’re Succeeding or Failing At Mindfulness Practice?


Meditation as a “mental fast”

“Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.” – Samuel Beckett

In some ways those are encouraging words. But on second thought, when it comes to finding motivation to persist at a meditation practice, maybe not so much.

Thinking in terms of success versus failure might not be helpful. An analogy that is often drawn is that Mindfulness exercises are like gym sessions for your brain. I suppose the fact that you need to carve out time and do something that you don’t feel naturally inclined to do and that feels strenuous, is similar to time spent lifting weights or grinding away on a cardio machine. But the laws that govern physical fitness, of gaining aerobic and muscular strength, aren’t the same as those covering the management of mental states or the growth and maintenance of neural networks.

For many, what makes the pursuit of physical fitness satisfying is the sense of linear progress. Most of the time, with consistent practice, one really is getting stronger and faster, with greater staying power. On a tough day of training, when one is tired or hasn’t eaten properly, it’s still possible to push through a tough session with a “force of will” and make it a successful one.

Some researchers postulate that the meditating brain grows in size and strength at the microscopic level – creating new connections and increasing the insulating covers of the nerve fibers (i.e., there is a progressive thickening of the myelin sheaths). That may indeed be happening. But crucially for the impatient or frustrated meditator, very often it doesn’t feel like anything is happening. It’s not just a case of two steps forward, one step back. Sometimes it feels like one step back, then another step back, then standing in place, then one step back again.

If an inability to stay fully focused on one’s breath and hold distracting thoughts completely at bay counts as “failure,” then failure – or at least, not succeeding – comes with the territory of meditation. It’s helpful to reframe the challenge in more neutral terms. A fruitful Mindfulness session is one where you repeatedly notice mental wandering, and you come back to your breath, again and again and again. Yes, it’s a Sisyphean task, but inevitably so. A lot of life is like that.

In these frustrating moments it might be helpful not to think in terms of whether the session was “successful” nor whether one is “succeeding” at a Mindfulness practice. The positive results might be very subtle or not even discernible at all from one moment to the next. But usually the benefits are lurking somewhere. For example, a friend of mine says she sees positive effects “seeping” into her life in unexpected ways over time. Being able to stay calm and courteous during a frustrating encounter with an incompetent customer service person on the telephone is one example.

It may be more helpful to see one’s practice as similar as one’s “eating practice” — one’s daily diet. This is because there are so many external factors affecting whether a session feels like progress. For instance, how calm the emotional environment is around the practitioner, the atmosphere at home, the state of the extended family, and what’s happening professionally?

Consistency with one’s meditative practice is as important as it is with one’s diet. It does little good to eat one super healthy meal and then binge on junk food for several days after that. The key is sustainable steadiness.

Perhaps even more useful than the eating analogy is a *non* eating analogy, i.e. fasting. In many cultures and religious traditions a period of abstaining from food is considered purifying and restorative. Shorter “intermittent” periods of fasting have recently been shown by research to enable people to lose weight, boost their immunity to illnesses and to increase their energy levels.

In this way, time spent *not* thinking, emoting, evaluating, criticizing, blaming, feeling like a victim etc. is like *not* eating unhealthy foods. It gives the system a rest; it provides welcome relief and enables natural processes of recuperation. But for many people, fasting isn’t fun. Sometimes it’s painful. A person in a fasted state might feel agitated or irritable. But that doesn’t mean they are failing; often it’s quite the contrary.

So maybe see a meditation session as a “mental fast.” When it doesn’t seem to have gone “well” or when we don’t seem to be making “progress,” it’s often helpful to be gentle and non-judgmental. Try saying something like: “I’ve done what I needed to do today. There’s a lot going on around me. I am caring for myself. I trust this is having a positive effect over the long-term.” Keeping score with wins and losses, successes and failures might be counter-productive.

Key terms: Mindfulness practice, meditation; what constitutes succeeding or failing, brain fitness versus physical fitness, meditation and diet analogy, mental fasting