This is always a very interesting question when it comes to the practice of meditation and mindfulness. The truth is, it is very difficult to define progress, for a number of reasons.
First of all, we are faced with the simple challenge of perspective. In order to judge progress or change in anything, we need to be standing in the same place as before, otherwise the view will be different when we attempt to judge it. But of course, in the case of meditation, the mind itself has changed as a result of the meditation, so when we come to judge progress, it is not the same mind which experienced itself before, making any comparison extremely difficult, if not impossible.
We then have the added problem that the mind that is judging is the same mind which is being judged. This can feel like a bit of mind-bender at first, but when you consider that this is the case, it’s quite hard to imagine how objective we can be. Added to that, meditation leans toward a quality of mind which compares less and is fundamentally non-judgmental. So you can see that before we even begin, there are a number of challenges.
Next up is the very notion of progress in relation to meditation. Sure, there might be some specific symptoms or conditions we’re looking to target, but these are really side effects of meditation and it’s best if they are not the focal point of our practice, otherwise it all begins to feel very goal-orientated. If we come back to the original intention of meditation, the wide-lens if you will, it is fundamentally a training in awareness and compassion.
Awareness means to be present, conscious and, generally speaking, undistracted. Compassion means to experience empathy when we are confronted with the difficulties and challenges of others, but more than that, simply wanting others to be happy. Awareness and compassion tend to develop hand in hand when we practice meditation with good motivation.
So how do we know we are more aware? Well, do you find yourself being lost in thought a little less? Do you find yourself being more aware of your thoughts and feelings and of the world around you? Do you find that you tend to be a little less reactive to situations? Maybe a little less critical or judgmental of yourself and of others? If the answer to any of these things is yes, then you are almost certainly becoming more aware.
As for compassion, how do we judge progress there? Well, if we do feel the need to judge it, then we can start to notice if we are becoming more aware of those around us, how they are feeling and how our own behavior might impact them. We can start to observe if we are more attentive to others, perhaps becoming better listeners. We might notice we are more open, curious and interested in the opinions of others and less forceful in pushing our own agenda. And we may simply find ourselves just a little less impatient, irritable or frustrated with others.
If any of this sounds familiar, then it is quite reasonable to consider that progress. But as I say, I would lean away from trying to judge the meditation in any way at all. Come back to the idea of meditation itself, simply experiencing things as they are, in the moment, without judgement.
In fact, real progress could arguably be said to be found in the willingness to sit down, day after day, no matter how you are feeling, and to simply be present with the mind exactly as it is. To have the courage and dedication to do this, no matter whether you perceive the meditation to be good or bad, pleasurable or unpleasurable, beneficial or otherwise...to do this day after day, with sensitivity and kindness – that’s progress.