Things Take as Long as They Take

My friend Darryl has been a meditation teacher for about ten years (besides being a medical doctor), and he told me a lovely story recently. A version of this story follows, which I have copied from here:

A Buddhist monk approached his teacher and asked the Zen Master, “If I meditate very diligently, how long will it take for me to become enlightened?”

The Master thought for a moment, and then replied, “Ten years.”

The student then said, “But what if I work very, very hard and really apply myself to learn fast. How long then?”

The Master replied, “Well, then it will take twenty years.”

“But if I really, really work at it. How long then?” persisted the student.

“Thirty years,” said the Master.

“But I don’t understand,” said the disappointed student. “Each time I say I will work harder, you say it will take me longer. Why do you say that?”

The Master replied, “When you have one eye on the goal, you can only have one eye on the path.”

The difference between a karate dojo, for example, and a typical university is striking. In a typical university program, one takes courses that are strictly limited in time, and one learns what one can in the limited time. The karate dojo is geared towards mastery, and a students works diligently until he or she is ready to demonstrate the competence necessary to move on to the next level.

Some students are primarily interested in obtaining a credential, in which case the current university structure probably serves just fine. But wouldn’t society be better served by a university system structured differently; one that supports a large proportion of its students achieving mastery in something?

For those interested in achieving some level of mastery, it’s important to adopt a step-by-step approach, making sure not to skip steps. And, as the story illustrates, it’s very important to just focus on the process, and not worry about the end result, or when the end result will be achieved.

For those involved in education policy, this provides food for thought; for example, if you had to start a new education system from scratch, what would you do? Which features of our current system would you retain and which would you modify or discard?

Or if the end result will be achieved! How often do we stop ourselves from taking action on an important goal of ours because we doubt whether we will be successful? This is another manifestation of the problem of keeping one eye on the finish line instead of attending only to the process.

Allowing fears to keep us paralyzed is a related trap. It is healthy to gradually engage with your fears and work through them, but it is so much easier to just avoid them, because we are afraid of what will happen if we really confront our fears. Again, the process is the important thing, so we should keep at it!

Don’t misconstrue the title of this post to be an endorsement of lazing around. It’s not. Nothing will be achieved if we don’t work at it, ideally consistently on a daily basis. The title of this post is advice to focus on the process, not on the outcome. The outcome will come in its own time. As the Buddhist slogan says, “Do your work, then step back: The only path to serenity.” Therefore don’t fret about not reaching your goal fast enough, don’t fret about your ability to reach your goal, don’t fret about your worthiness to be on this path, etc., etc. Just do the work. Daily. With enthusiasm. And that is all. Don’t worry about the outcome, which will come in its own time.

George Leonard, in his book Mastery, discusses the concept of “being on the plateau.” One example he gives is that of a tennis player who improves a skill, after a period of hard work, and sees improved results in his matches. Then he continues to work on other skills, but nothing really happens for a long time; although he keeps working on his game diligently, his results don’t change much. This is the “plateau.” It is only after a long period when he might then experience another jump in results. Knowing that this is the typical situation in learning many different complex skills, if one gets too excited by the improvement jumps, then one risks getting frustrated by the plateaus, which might lead one to drop the practice entirely. A different approach is to just keep both eyes on the path, to enjoy the process, and not get too hung up on results — to love the plateau.

(Tournament chess players are notorious for being obsessed by their ratings, which is another case in point that is close to home!)

In my daily meditation practice I have recently gone through a long period where I didn’t feel that I was making any “progress,” after a period of what I perceived as weekly progress. It was important for me to have my friend Darryl’s reminder quoted at the beginning of this post. I’m now just keeping both eyes on the path and doing my daily work, without any expectations, enjoying the process, doing my best to love the plateau.