On Progress in Meditation

By Adam J. Pearson

Emile Graham: How do I know I am progressing in meditation?

Adam J. Pearson:  This is a good question, but it’s also a loaded one. It’s loaded for two main reasons. First, it implies that you are going to acquire something that you don’t already have, which is not the case. You will only come to be aware of what has always been here underneath the noise of constant and incessant thinking.

Second, it is loaded because it asks for an answer that will ironically hinder rather than help you; if I lay out a series of ‘states’ or ‘key realizations’ that would delineate a meditative progression, they will only obstruct your progress. You will fixate on the idea of the realizations and mistake the thought of the realization for the direct-seeing, direct-insight that they involve. Or, you will confuse the thought of the state with the state itself. I speak from experience here; this happens to everyone who begins meditation practice after having read about stages and expected realizations and states from books. Telling you about these things may satisfy your curiosity, but it won’t help your meditation practice.

Instead, I will simply suggest that you sit with the spine straight, the head aligned with the spine, and rest your attention on the breath. Note whatever sense impressions, thoughts, or feelings arise, but do not be distracted by them or let them sweep you away or carry your attention away. Sit with full awareness, heightened attention. Be so concentrated and alert that you are like a cat watching a mouse hole; the next thought or feeling or sense impression to arise is the ‘mouse.’ Because you don’t know what it will be or when it will arise, you must be intensely focused and aware as you watch the body-mind.


The swordsman knows that a single moment’s inattention will mean his immediate death; be as fully alert as the swordsman in battle when you sit in meditation.

Or be like a swordsman in the midst of battle; be so intensely concentrated that you are fully absorbed in the heightened awareness. The swordsman knows that a single moment’s inattention will mean his immediate death; be as fully alert when you sit in meditation. Be neither slack nor tense. Neither cling to whatever arises nor push anything away.  Just note it and let it be.

Sit in full awareness, total attention. Be centered in the incoming and outgoing breath. You could choose any single object as the focus your attention, but the breath is the most intimate, immediate and regular feature in our lives and is usually the one prescribed as the best starting place in Zen. Center yourself in the center of your very life – your awareness of the breath.

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