How to make progress without ever aiming for progress

October 25, 2016 — Leave a comment

At least once in my life I want to experience complete silence. Nothingness.

I remember one of my teachers in primary school claiming he found himself in a situation of complete silence when stuck in a desert somewhere — I don’t know if that’s true or if it can even be done but the thought of it never left me.

This attraction to silence lead me to Zen Buddhism — a subject I will start to explore more in the coming months.

I first read about it in one of the lesser known books of Jack Kerouac, The Dharma Bums:

“The silence was an intense roar.”
Jack Kerouac, The Dharma Bums

Then through Bruce Lee’s works I went looking for a resource to get an introduction to Zen Buddhism.

It was on my reading list for three years or so but I finally started reading Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind by Shunryu Suzuki. Suzuki is the person who brought Zen to San Francisco in the 60’s. You’ve probably seen this quote of him pass around somewhere online:

In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few.

So I started reading the book and immediately realized that:

  1. I’m too goal-centered and that makes me nervous
  2. I should do less more often, without expecting something from it

Doing less, I will try to accomplish through sitting — Zazen.

Last year I took a class in meditation but never followed through so now I immediately put up this Habitforge-thing that sends me e-mails and asks me if I did my 5 minutes of meditation today.

The main thing I’m getting out of this book though is just to do — without constantly adding any additional results to it. I think this might be one big cause of unhappiness and stress in the Western world because I see it all around me and most of all in myself.

We’re always aiming for and keeping our eye on progress which makes us lose sight — and enjoyment — of the process.

As Robert Pirsig wrote in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance:

To live for some future goal is shallow. It’s the sides of the mountain that sustain life, not the top.

And that brings me to Shunryu Suzuki’s take on something we all want in some way — whether it’s in our careers, in sports, in social relationships,…- we crave progress.

Suzuki on finding progress frustrating because it’s slow:

After you have practiced for a while, you will realize that it is not possible to make rapid, extraordinary progress. Even though you try very hard, the progress you make is always little by little.

It is not like going out in a shower in which you know when you get wet.

Suzuki suggests you try this way of thinking and doing instead:

In a fog, you do not know you are getting wet, but as you keep walking you get wet little by little. If your mind has ideas of progress, you may say, “Oh, this pace is terrible!” But actually it is not.

When you get wet in a fog it is very difficult to dry yourself. So there is no need to worry about progress.

We can say either that we make progress little by little, or that we do not even expect to make progress. Just to be sincere and make our full effort in each moment is enough.

Therefore to continue should be more than enough. To continue should be your purpose.

Sincerely, with full effort.

When you practice, you should just practice.

If result comes, it comes.

Forget progress. Doing it should be your goal. That’s what you should attach to because that’s what you can control — true, god-honest, mindful action.

Forget progress.

Just practice.

And who knows — you might make some progress.

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