Filed in Zen (Chan)

The Myth of the Experienced Meditator

After thirty years of practice, one meditator finds it's gotten him nowhere. That's just fine with him.

Barry Evans

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I tell Kyodo Roshi I want to take my practice to a deeper level. "Deeper level?" He laughs again. "What do you mean, 'deeper'? Zen practice only one level. No deep, understand?"

—Lawrence Shainberg, Ambivalent Zen


I AM, UNFORTUNATELY, an experienced meditator. From the time I stumbled into an introduction to Transcendental Meditation in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, in 1970, through multiple eras (including my present fifteen-year-old Soto Zen practice), I've sat and stared at many walls (and mandalas and candles, and the inside of my eyelids) reveled in sundry bells-and-whistles mental experiences, gotten bored, decided I was going crazy, become enlightened (no, really!), and now I'm ready to share everything I've learned. It won't take long. In fact I can sum it up in one word: nothing.

Not that "nothing" is to be sniffed at. For years—decades!—I thought there was something to learn, and that all those thousands of hours on the mat were cumulative, that the more I sat, the more aware and compassionate and wonderful I would become. In a world where the attainment of goals is seen as a virtue, thirty-eight years of realizing nothing didn't come easily or lightly.

By definition (mine), if I did think I knew something about meditation, that wouldn't be meditation. Sort of like God—if you can describe God to me, that ain't God. If, as I believe, meditation is simply awareness, then any past knowledge I have about it is not only useless, but slops over into my immediate experience. Knowing is antithetical to openness, and it's the adventure of not knowing that's the genius of meditation. Not for nothing (so to speak) are two of the most popular contemporary books on Buddhism called Beginner's Mind (Shunryu Suzuki) and Only Don't Know (Seung Sahn). I have this fantasy that next time I open my copies of these books, I'll find only blank pages.

So what is meditation about? I've heard many claims for the practice over the years, that it's about: gratitude; emptiness; deepened, (or if you prefer) heightened, awareness; compassion; spaciousness; the discovery/realization/dissolving of one's true self (your choice); attaining liberation; self-realization; being present in the moment; opening to the wonder of it all; finding inner peace; encountering one's Buddha nature; becoming one with everything; cutting through delusion; fill in the blank.

It seems to me, though, that meditation isn't about anything: meditation is meditation. Any attempt to define it in terms of something else simply confuses the issue, making it vulnerable to being treated like any other self-improvement system. Lord knows, these days we are offered enough ways to be better people, get closer to God, find ourselves, and enhance our circumstances. We're swamped with therapies, self-help books, and techniques—what musician and activist Bob Geldof called "the thriving economy of psychotherapists, designer religions, and spiritual boutiques"—which treat our lives as projects to be tweaked and fixed. Isn't meditation (if it's anything at all) a relief from all this? Isn't it the opposite of repairing and adjusting and striving and perpetually wanting things to be different?

For me, meditation is a haven away from the ubiquitous world of self-improvement. It's not just that there's no such thing as "bad" meditation, but there's no such thing as "good" meditation either. It is what it is. So when I hear words like "effort" and "discipline" and phrases like "deepening one's practice" and "advancing along the spiritual path" spoken in the same breath as the word "meditation," I wince. Just sitting (shikantaza)—doing and wanting nothing, breath coming and going unbidden, eyes seeing, ears hearing—in this effortless state, thoughts flurry like falling leaves.

So can a so-called experienced meditator offer anything to someone new to the practice? Probably not. If what we're really talking about is awareness, how can we help someone notice what's going on? This is what's going on: no more, no less. Unlike a subject like, say, carpentry, where we learn from the experience of those who have gone before us, meditation is defined by spontaneity, by not knowing. As the Roshi says, "practice only one level." Perhaps the best we can do is to reassure newcomers that each of us starts over with every sitting and every breath.

Trust me. I'm an experienced meditator.


Barry Evans is a member of the Arcata (California) Zen Group and also sits with Akira Kasai, in Guanajuato, Mexico. He isn't quite sure why he meditates, but he does anyway.

Image: © R. Taylor L.M.P.A.

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wzerocmf's picture

Just a simple reminder from someone who began meditating in 1960. The Buddha did realize something. He realized Enlightenment, saw the nature of reality, and gave his next 45 years to teaching others.( All word games aside (nothing, gained, etc.). I began vipassana practice because I was and am in severe pain from a crippling disease. My practice taught me not to identify with the pain and has allowed me to live with others and also with this body in a gentle affirming way. Every time I sit I wake up to the exquisite beauty of life and in the last five years I wake up to this joy increasingly in my daily life. Are these goals? No. They are fruits of our practice. Would that we all learn to practice with open hearts and the deep gratitude that the Dharma deserves.

Julie Miller's picture

Thank you for taking the time to share your life experience with vispassana practice. Your words have inspired & encouraged me this morning.

lindy.warrell's picture

I thought this piece was self-congratulatory. Clever, clever, clever. It does not offer what the Buddha did and that was a path - a recipe or prescription if you like - to help people discover by practice what 'nothing' means. When people take their habits of thought and mind to be real, they need a path, not clever talk.

Bagdad's picture

No where to go.
Nothing to do.
Nothing to attain.

Not to imply that these words come from my wisdom, but ones I reflect on often during meditation to maintain beginner's mind. Thank you Barry for sharing your wisdom, and thank you to everyone here for the lively responses. Metta to all.

Barbra's picture

Nothingness is the non goal. Nothingness is at the end and the beginning. Entering and leaving in the no thing. Blessings to you in the empty spaciousness of . . .

MichaelC's picture

Thanks. I hear ya loud and clear, Barry.

ann.callaway11's picture


It seems to me that some people have missed the point here entirely...didn't the Buddha say something about having "no gaining thoughts"...? Just practice.

I appreciate the fresh quality of your article in that it attempts to get us out of our heads...not an easy task. Thank you.

ann callaway

william allred's picture

Yes, this too has been my experience; though not as deep!

sama710's picture

Awesome article! Loved this. Thank you, Barry, for writing it and sharing with us! I think people forget that different approaches work for different people. For me, this was a wonderful reminder.

celticpassage's picture

I agree.
In meditation and in life (same thing):
There is nowhere to go, nothing to achieve, no benefit to be had.
How can there be? Each moment is complete in itself.
There is no future into which to improve, no past to improve from, and no present in which to do it.

But don't give up on meditation, unfortunately, it's necessary.

Keith McLachlan's picture

"Intellectual laziness," indeed!

"Intellectual laziness" is meditation.

william allred's picture

I would meditate on that point but am intellectually lazy.'s picture

To meditate is to be which expands into nothingness where one is in an embrace with infinity. No boundary, no thought, no goal, no growing. I see your point. Thanks so much.

mralexander99's picture

The number zero is known as " The Nothing that is " so nothing is not meaningless and in "just sitting" if this type of experience is known there is the freedom of nothing to be tasted in our practice.

Life is without meaning. You bring the meaning to it. The meaning of life is whatever you ascribe it to be. Being alive is the meaning. --- Joseph Campbell

Brucio's picture

Hi Barry,

Thank you for your words. They've helped me deepen my awareness(!) I've been meditating for two years and I now feel different - quieter, more focused on the next person. I started out with goals - how about enlightenment as a juicy example? Then last summer I went on a one-week silent meditation retreat at the Insight Meditation Society ... and the "be a better person" conversation just faded away. And it's still gone. These days, I meditate as an expression of ... something. I'm just there. And pretty quiet.


mindfulnest's picture

Nothing!... what a relief!
Thank you for putting it so bluntly! Hopefully my mind will get it now... and get out of the way! :)

prosand's picture

nice blog by the way!

william allred's picture

 Barry reminds me: "There is nothing to be gained" and "There is nothing  to be gained" and "There is nothing to be gained"

  Satisfaction and gratification so often become our rationale, nothing there.

   Thanks Barry, for nothing.

Chris H.'s picture

Thank you, Barry. It certainly helps this newcomer to see something put forward in such a straightforward manner.

I smiled at all of the attempts at starting a row by others in this comment section, especially since what we all somewhat agree on is to turn away from the dualism of "what is good" and "what is bad". And, especially since everyone is trying to start a row about something (meditation) that we'd all agree leads to nothing (Nirvana, elightenment, what not)! Pretty funny arguement, yes? 


k's picture

I'm afraid this Experienced Meditator has not practised the right meditation technique, which has got him nowhere.  .

 A meditator must know that there are thousands of techniques in meditation and a technique which is effective for one person may n ot necessarily be good for another. Much depends on the temperament of the aspirant meditator.

In order to arrive somewhere, meditation should be practised under the guidance of a qualified Guru.  By 'qualified' I do not mean academic qualification,  but one who has achieved  Nirvikalpa Samadhi through meditation and who is willing to impart his experiences.

Where to find him? I was fortunate enough to practice under the guidance of an enlightened master for a number of years and though I have not achieved samadhi yet, I can firmly say that I am on the right path. If anyone is interested, he may be cast a glance at

qbrick's picture

Just speaking for myself, compassion, relaxation, stress relief - all these increased with just sitting (standing, walking lying). I even wouldn't want to argue whether such qualities are inherent to the mind or whether practice creates them. 

Thanks Barry.

vflam2's picture

just reading it created relief. a really lovely pointer. thank you, barry.

barryevans's picture

Good grief, I didn’t realize people would still be reading this piece! It was published in the Spring 2008 issue of Tricycle. Thank you, responders. I’m happy to have created some discussion.


Responding to a couple of comments:


“If you have gained nothing in 30 years, maybe it is time to look at another system.” The Heart Sutra says it best, I think: no path...nothing to attain. I’ve spent most of my life (I’m 67) wanting something else, thinking there was something to be gained. The relief of (mostly!) abandoning that idea of “gain” has been such a liberation after so many years of self-criticism, wanting things to be different.


To quote Lawrence Shainberg again, “...things will never be different from this moment. Nothing will change. The sound of my mind won't change, my ignorance, my pride, my confusion won't change, impermanence won't change, even the hope that all of this will change won't change.”


A lot of folks are looking for precisely that which Evans says they "shouldn't" look for: compassion, relaxation, stress relief.” Of course! I forget now, but I certainly had high expectations when I started out. I certainly didn’t (and don’t) say folks shouldn’t look for compassion, etc. What’s true is this: when I was giving meditation instruction, along with several others, we reckoned that fewer than 20% of newcomers came back to give it a second try. Now I think meditation is a great practice—the world would be a vastly better place if many more people practiced. But the fact that so many people are turned off by one session of it may say that we’re creating unrealistic expectations. (At the jail where I lead groups, and where most people there are first-timers to meditation, I simply say, “It’s an adventure. Give it a try, see what happens.” I’m very cautious about claiming benefits for the practice. The result is that many of them do return.)


“Preachy...” Oh dear, I thought the whole point of the piece was that I, nor anyone, had anything to offer! Sorry if I offended this writer.


Deep gassho to all.


josesiem's picture

Points well taken. However, the Buddha, according to the Pali Canon, did actually intend for certain states to be cultivated and others to be abandoned. He never used the word "meditation" but "bhavana" which means something like cultivation. There is actually a goal and progress. But again, this depends on one's frame of reference -- which tradition one is coming from.



katherinemasis's picture

This is the kind of talk that could scare away potential meditators. A lot of folks are looking for precisely that which Evans says they "shouldn't" look for: compassion, relaxation, stress relief. So what? Who is to say one should or shouldn't look for something (or nothing) in meditation? The goals and wishes that some folks start out with can change over time. This piece is too preachy and holier-than-thou for my taste.

jennpenn's picture


I loved your article! I especially liked the ending which was a beginning for me. "each of us starts over with every sitting and every breath" I am a newcomer and I feel that I always will be. I did not realize until reading your article that I WAS looking at meditation as a self-help mode. I wanted to learn compassion , how to relax, how to not feel fear, how to slow my life down, how not to be afraid of death,etc, Meditation does something but I cannot put it into words and it certainly did not do any of the above. But to say it does nothing is also not correct. It does do a lot of something. What that something is ,I have no idea but it does it. One gets terribly bogged down with words and definitions. Meditation is not cognitive. It is different that words, for me at least. Anyway, thank you so much for writing this article. Jennifer Jameson

alanho's picture

There is no excuse for this intellectual laziness.

The Buddha gave meditation instructions several times in the Pali Canon; they are available free online.

If you have gained nothing in 30 years, maybe it is time to look at another system.

RDBoucher's picture

I am sorry but this teaching has gone right over your head.

myers_lloyd's picture

Yasutani Roshi told his students-"If Bodhidharma had brought anything at all with him, it wouldn't have been worth a cent."

Or again: from a Zen master: " Nothing is better than something."

Nothing. Thank you,Barry, for nothing.

nimitta's picture

I have mixed feelings about this piece, whose clever, entertaining claims manage both to reassure and confuse.

Yes, meditation is no more resistant than any other activity to one's habitual neurotic need to make things and oneself better. There is enormous value in pointing out that the self or life situation one endeavors to improve is fabricated in nature.

But no, it is not at all true that an 'experienced meditator' has little or nothing to teach a newcomer. In fact, the article is instructive in precisely this way, because of the author's experience, just like his example of carpentry.

It is also naive to suggest that the meditator doesn't have to do anything. This is a common misunderstanding that arises due to the unique spectrum of developing the very spontaneity of which the author speaks. One has to train oneself to direct and steady attention until attention can 'abide'. So, effort can be the very thing that leads to no effort, and paradoxically the cultivation of effortlessness can lead to the possibility of seeing the subtle, previously unrecognized opportunity to do a little more in order to do even less. This is how a meditator arrives at and also transcends the domains of absorption, or jhana, for example.

Some traditions don't recognized how important this principle was to the Buddha, and just claim that things go one way (e.g., no effort required) - always a sign of superficiality, as in this article. In fact, it constitutes another, more subtle form of curricular thinking in and of itself.

Examining the teachings of the Buddha closely and testing them for oneself, one may very well come to understand that his careful instructions on bhavana (developing) are about how to open into the simple, direct knowing of what's happening spontaneously now. One comes to 'see' all that arises, including the nearly inexhaustible sensorimental appetite for reifying and identifying, and simply keeps 'seeing'.

Does this practice develop, as the Buddha relentlessly taught? Yes, of course! The fact that one always starts fresh doesn't contradict this in any way, though - how could it? May all who read this article enjoy the way this process unfolds - yes, it unfolds for me, and clearly has for Barry! - and not worry too much when they find themselves doing more than nothing. When you are, you may just be sitting like the Buddha.