If it feels like you’re not making any progress in your spiritual practices—that is, if it feels like you’re stuck—you probably are! Time to try something different.
Work Your Edges
The most effective way to awaken is to work your edges. I say edges (rather than edge) because awakening is not monolithic; there are many aspects of awakening. This implies that you always have a choice of many edges to work on in your awakening process.
For instance, my current model of awakening includes five faculties: vitality, mindfulness, compassion, insight, and intuition. For each faculty, you have a separate edge for growth. Different spiritual practices exercise different faculties. (At a more fine-grained level, each faculty has sub-faculties, and different spiritual practices exercise different sub-faculties.)
Take a Balanced Approach to Practice
If you’re feeling stuck, one thing you can try is shifting your focus to a different faculty (or sub-faculty). The faculties of awakening are interrelated, and they mutually support each other. If your work on one faculty is stuck, it’s possible that a weakness in another faculty is holding you back; developing more strength in that faculty may help you break through your stuck point.
Which faculties should you work on at any given time? That’s up to you, but in general, I suggest you follow the energy—meaning, focus on the faculties that you are drawn toward. If you are drawn toward working on several faculties, that’s fine. The faculties you are drawn toward may shift over time, and that’s okay too—go where the energy is. That’s even true within a single session of formal practice; it’s fine to shift the faculties you are focusing on mid-session.
We each have natural strengths and talents. I tend to lead with my intellect, and that led me to be more drawn toward insight when I started my spiritual journey. However, I also found that the work I did to develop other faculties (like vitality, compassion, and mindfulness) was helpful (if not crucial) for making progress in insight. Taking a balanced approach doesn’t mean that you have to put the same amount of energy into developing each faculty all the time; it means finding the appropriate balance for you, given your unique situation. What that appropriate balance looks like may change over time.
Match Your Practices to Your State of Mind
Within each faculty, your degree of awakening fluctuates over time—which means that the location of each of your edges keeps shifting. Awakening is not a linear process like climbing straight to the top of a smooth-sided mountain; it’s more like wandering over a vast landscape with many ups and downs. You will have good days and bad days. Even a single formal practice session can include a number of ups and downs.
Just as different practices exercise different faculties, within a single faculty, different practices are appropriate for different states of mind. It’s up to you to monitor your state of mind (and your skill level) and choose practices that are appropriate. If you choose practices that are too advanced, they will seem too difficult and you won’t get anywhere. If you choose practices that are too basic, they will seem too easy and you won’t be working your edges. Either way, your experience is likely to be one of boredom. I believe effective spiritual practice is rarely, if ever, boring.
When you are doing the appropriate practices for your state of mind, your practices will seem challenging yet do-able. You will find your practices engaging, and you will periodically have the satisfaction of recognizing that you’ve made progress along your path of awakening.
Cultivate a Yearning for Awakening
Sometimes, when I’ve been stuck, it’s been because I’ve been complacent about awakening. Sometimes this was because my attention has gotten wrapped up in other aspects of living, and I’ve put my spiritual practices on autopilot. When this happens to you, one way to light a fire under your practice is to contemplate your impending death. We can all be fairly certain we’re going to die, and none of us knows exactly when this is going to happen. What happens after that is even more of a mystery than what’s happening now. There’s something about contemplating death that can really focus the mind on what’s most important in life. Awaken while you can!
Other times, my complacency has been due to a kind of spiritual arrogance in which I’d assumed I’d reached the summit of awakening and there was nowhere (of any significance) left to go—so I’d stopped exploring. Certainty that you’ve reached the ultimate summit of awakening is a symptom that you’re embedded in a particular frame of reference. This is truly a sad state of affairs, and a difficult spiritual dead end to escape from.
In my experience, the best antidote to this is insight practice, which can help you free yourself from all frames of reference. (A good teacher can be helpful, too.) Without an ultimate frame of reference, it becomes clear that there is no ultimate summit of awakening. I find this both humbling and exciting. As I see it, the journey of awakening has no endpoint. That means there’s always more to explore—and that’s something I can get excited about.
Seek Advice from Mentors and Teachers
When you haven’t been able to resolve a stuck point on your own, the most efficient thing to do is to seek advice from a trusted spiritual mentor or teacher—or, better yet, several mentors and teachers! Your mentors and teachers can also point out stuck points in your practice that you may not even be aware of.
What do you do when you get stuck? Leave a comment to let us know!