Thursday, August 20, 2020

Four Pillars of Practice Progress


I wind up giving this answer in quite a few contexts so I thought I'd do a brief write-up.

This framework for making progress in your meditation practice comes from Shinzen Young, and is motivated by his claim that in his decades of teaching experience he has never seen someone get these four things in line and not make dramatic progress in fairly short order. However, Shinzen has mostly talked about these in talks and podcasts, so there's no easy way to refer people to them. I'll just name them and speak briefly about each one. Additional questions about any of them are also welcome. Note that the elaborations on each of them is based on my personal experience and thoughts.

The four pillars are:
1. Community: teachers, texts, noble friends
2. Formal daily practice time
3. Micro practices spread throughout the day
4. Retreat time


Sitting there, Venerable Ananda said to the Blessed One, "This is half of the holy life, lord: admirable friendship, admirable companionship, admirable camaraderie."
"Don't say that, Ananda. Don't say that. Admirable friendship, admirable companionship, admirable camaraderie is actually the whole of the holy life. When a monk has admirable people as friends, companions, & comrades, he can be expected to develop & pursue the noble eightfold path." -
Upaddha Sutta (SN 45.2)

Entirely self directed scholarship and practice is difficult in any field. We are social mammals and much of our brain space is devoted to tracking what is going on in relationship with others. We can give ourselves a significant boost by choosing to engage (and not just lurk) with friends or in communities, local or online, that discuss and encourage practice. A significant part of this is teachers and texts since you need some outside source of navigation to compare to your own intuition and ideas, but just as significant are friends who are around the same level as you whom you can regularly discuss things with. And I can't emphasize enough how big a difference this can make, even when you've already been established in practice for a long time. I hadn't been taking advantage of this for a period of time at the beginning of the pandemic when a friend (hi, Andrey!) asked to be accountability buddies for daily practice. He pointed out that in a group it's easy to tell yourself that the others will still carry on without you, whereas with one on one if you don't show up the things doesn't happen. It's easy to underestimate the difference between having abstract notions of progress that you personally track, and the feeling that someone actively cares about how your practice is going. In Pali, such people are referred to as kalyāṇa-mitta, or noble-friends. Such people can also be a tailwind for engagement with teachers and texts since having someone to discuss a dharma talk or dharma book with is also motivating. The full impact of this likely can't really be grasped until you've gone significant periods with and without them for direct comparison.

Formal Daily Practice

This is the most straightforward one, though often there is ambiguity about creating and maintaining the container here. People often feel like they are doing something wrong when their attempt at formal practice winds up feeling quite chaotic. I think one of the big misconceptions here by newer people is not knowing that even quite advanced practitioners have significant periods where monkey mind is bouncing off the walls, and may still face significant ambiguity about when it is skillful to stick with vs switch practices. This is an ongoing tuning process. Culadasa separates establishing a practice as a whole phase of practice in itself, and I think it's helpful when in this phase to treat any time you spend making formal practice more likely as counting as a legitimate part of practice. Often there is a sense that what we are encountering are obstacles to our practice rather than those obstacles being the very material of our practice. Is the practice of setting intentions, creating containers, and reviewing our results in this domain really going to serve us nowhere else? Also, on the object level I will just reiterate a couple things here 1. much practice is momentum based, so a daily crappy practice is better than a sporadic but highly structured practice. 2. push your edge a bit, see if you can practice a bit more than is comfortable and sit with that discomfort. If you never over-effort then you aren't really exploring your bounds. 3. try things on the time resolution of about two weeks. That is to say, if you follow the instructions as well as you can for two weeks and nothing seems to be happening, give something else a try.

Micro practice

The phenomenon of the benefits of formal practice not actually accruing to or integrating with day to day life is such an issue that Jack Kornfield wrote an entire book about it called After the Ecstasy, the Laundry. While the topic of such integration is wide ranging, the simplest approach is intentionally bringing some aspect of practices off the cushion. At first, people generally think of this as of fairly minor import. The difference between having a few such moments during the day and not just doesn't seem very big. But in much the same way that the suffering reduction from formal practice isn't very obvious until one gets quite sick, the benefits here become obvious the first time you have people yelling at you or some other more extreme scenario and notice that you automatically deployed a technique from habit and that it really did make a big difference. Choice of micro practice here will shift with your formal practice. If your formal practice is currently anapana, then your micropractice will probably be a few mindful breaths whenever you remember. Noting, and the micro practice would be noting for a few moments. Mini body scan, stack tracing, noticing emotions in the body and making a few moments to process them etc. Whatever your formal practice there is likely some minimal version you can do. Over time these tend to increase in frequency and eventually there are qualitative shifts.

Retreat time

If you have a daily practice and are frustrated by the lack of big-feeling shifts and have never been on retreat, then you should know that for many (probably most) practitioners retreats tend to be where the big breakthroughs happen. Making space for retreat time is a significant cost, both absolute and in terms of the emotional activation energy to plan. A weekend retreat can be a great way to get started, and right now there are a lot of teachers running online retreats of varying lengths of time. My advice would be to not get caught up in decision paralysis and just sign up for the first one that you can make work. I went on multiple vipassana retreats despite having significant differences of opinion with their construal of Buddhism and it was perfectly fine. More broadly, every retreat I've been on has been an awesome experience, and they seemingly keep getting better. Another great piece of advice I've heard is to sign up for your next retreat while you're still in the pleasant afterglow of the retreat you just left, since otherwise you might let forgetting and apathy take over again.


Getting these four areas going takes time and effort but have been extremely worthwhile compared to alternative uses of my time. I've made rapid progress as far as I can tell compared to most practitioners and I lay a very substantial fraction of that at the feet of this framework keeping me on track. And that's despite the fact that my efforts have by no means been a perfect or even especially disciplined implementation. But this framework has always been there to catch me and give me traction on rebuilding progress when I get lost.