The other day in my sangha, we had a new student who asked, “How do I know if I’m doing it right?” I didn’t answer right away as I wanted to think about this. How does one evaluate changes and progress in one’s meditation practice?

Now, I’m no authority on zen as I’ve only been meditating on and off for two years. But for what it’s worth, this is more or less how I would answer.

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You’re doing it right if you are generally becoming less of an asshole.

I stress this first because in my observation, people tend to focus on meditative experiences rather than outcomes. I’m not saying that it’s not immensely beneficial to be able to situate yourself on this well worn path of zen practice and to map your experiences onto those that have been experienced by so many others before you. However, as much as spiritual experiences, especially “peak” experiences, can help facilitate and catalyze one’s spiritual growth, they will not intrinsically make you wise and ethical.

You know you are on the right track if you find yourself becoming more receptive to the world and to others. It’s not a straight path, and the ego may throw up resistance, but generally you should find that your insight and compassion will come more and more effortlessly and organically.

You’re doing it right if you are moving out of your comfort zone.

I always laugh when people compare things like mentally checking out while doing the dishes to meditation. Or when they tell you how relaxing it must be to meditate. And it can be, but it often isn’t. When you relax your mind-body enough, that’s when it starts to let go of shit it’s been hanging onto and when it’s dilated enough to let things in that you’ve been filtering out. These things can be wonderful and delightful, but they can also be taxing and unpleasant. And it’s your responsibility to actually integrate this all in a meaningful way.

Zen meditation is not some “me” time sealed off from the rest of the world where you get to avoid all your problems and chillax. You are doing things like dissolving your false sense of self, becoming more keenly aware of suffering in the world, confronting your ignorance; does any of that sound relaxing to you? Meditation can be incredible blissful, yes – but that is hardly comparable to executing a repetitive act mindlessly. For even the pleasant experiences can be challenging to handle because they can be too intense or because they force you to relinquish structures and patterns you don’t wish to let go of.

You are being called to rise to the occasion in your life. You are pushing your boundaries, no, you are obliterating them. This means that sometimes you are living life on a knife edge where you realize that things are simply not what you thought they were – not only when you are formally meditating, but in every moment of your life. Pressing forward into the unknown is neither good nor bad, but it’s never comfortable.

You’re doing it right if you are actively submitting yourself.

The most dangerous part of meditation in my view, is when you actually come into power. I remember reading some comment on an article about sexual misconduct in yoga that was something to the effect of “trust in the yoga.” And from one angle, this is completely true, but from a different stand point, it really the hell isn’t. Sure, you can trust the yoga, but can you trust yourself to handle it?

As much as peak spiritual experiences can catalyze transformation that leads to insight, more than anything, they give you a hit of power. The catch is, they do not, in and of themselves, teach you how to process, manage or direct that power. Power is neutral. And when one is weak, power corrupts.

A perfect example of this? I cannot think of any spiritual tradition that is not littered with the erotic violation of others and wholly unethical behaviour by the tradition’s most venerated leaders. Wouldn’t it be so easy if we could totally discredit such leaders with being total hacks, if they did not provide any real insights to anyone in their teachings, if we did not have evidence that they had actually tapped into something genuine? The kind of power that is granted through spiritual practice, especially erotic power, is qualitatively different than power derived from other sources because it is so intimate, so profound. And as such, the potential for harm, violation and betrayal exacted by spiritual power is qualitatively different as well.

The only way I know to not be totally pwned by power is to submit to it actively. If you think you don’t have to do this, if you believe yourself to be the master of the house, you are already utterly fucked. But if you think you can lie down like a doormat and simply give in to that power, you are equally fucked. Actually, what you will find with most cases of ethical misconduct in spiritual traditions is a combination of both attitudes: some classic Jungian inflation coupled with a total abdication of one’s personal responsibilities. You can see this twinning of attitudes in the current yoga debates online about teachers who feel free to have sex with their consenting adult students.

So what does active submission look like? I don’t even know if “active submission” is the best way to describe it, but I will say that you know you are doing that right when you shift from behaving morally to being ethical. When you do not meet challenging circumstances with the mind whirring into action but find the self naturally coaelscing into stillness. You do not succumb to the gravity of compulsion or fear; in fact, even in the most trying of situations, there is an absence of strong emotional valence that comes from ego attachment and gratification, but rather, a potent and holistic sense of connectedness and security that can only result from submission. This is where I’m going when I say that ethics is the heart speaking. But now we’re getting to a place where I feel like I struggle personally and where I lack the language to communicate effectively so I’ll cut things off there.

So these are my personal guideposts to doing meditation “right” if such a thing can be said. If what I have written doesn’t make sense, I figure it’s hard to go wrong with “less of an asshole.”