Mindfulness Matters

Mindfulness Matters

Obstacles to Practice: Agendas, Expectations, and Striving

Today I continue the series on obstacles to practice with a focus on affective factors that may keep us off the cushion. The other day, I talked about difficult experiences that may arise during practice--in a sense what comes to us unbidden. Today, I’ll focus on what we bring to the practice rather than what the practice brings to us.


Every moment we are alive is a moment tinged with agendas, expectations, and strivings. The agenda can be an obvious one–“I want to meditate.” Yet, there are always subtle agendas active–“I want to meditate and …” If agendas, expectations, and strivings are absent, then we are in nirvana. So, unless you’ve been hanging out in nirvana a lot lately, this post applies to you.

We are always adding something to every moment and the moments we are mediating are no exception. We don’t just want to meditate, we want to meditate well. I am always suspect when someone says, “I had a successful meditation.” This is a red flag for an active agenda. “How do you define success?” I might ask. Often, it is the quality of concentration or the degree of relaxation for that session.


The goal of mindfulness practice is NOT concentration and relaxation. Concentration is a natural by-product of practice and so is relaxation. When these are set as the expectations for practice they become obstacles. In any given practice session, you may or may not experience concentration and relaxation. When you dedicate yourself to practice over a long period of time, you can be assured that your ability to concentrate will improve–on average. However, in any given moment who knows what the mind will be like? I’ve been practicing vipassana for twenty-three years and there are sessions where my mind is not concentrated at all.

So, if concentration and relaxation are not the goals of practice, what are? The overarching goal of mindfulness practice it to become intimate with your mind. With this goal, whatever happens during practice is fine because you are becoming more intimate with your mind. It doesn’t matter if you are distracted–get to know the agitated mind. It doesn’t matter if you are edgy–dive into the tense body.


The more practical goal for mindfulness practice is to practice returning. The expectation that many students bring to practice is the idea that their mind should stay put. When it doesn’t, they feel disheartened with practice. If the goal is to keep returning, then the more distracted you are the more opportunities to return. This is the delightful paradox of practice.

Progress in practice is like an upward spiral. Imagine a graph with a line spiraling from the zero point up at a 45 degree angle. When you stand back, it’s easy to see that you are making progress. But in any given moment, you may be moving down and back. It is important not to place too much emphasis on any given practice session. Some are going to be dull, tense, and distracted; some are going to feel awful, like a waste of time. You are not wasting your time, however. Keep practicing.

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