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The Plateau Effect

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  • The Plateau Effect

    Please pardon the personal narrative, but in relating my own experiences it is my hope that members of this community who have experienced and overcome similar circumstances may offer some advice to struggling practitioner.

    Upon first encountering the dharma, I experienced, in quick succession, a series of radical and life-changing insights. These personal revelations caused me to embrace the Buddha’s path with extreme, almost embarrassing, fervor. My dedication paid off, however, and I quickly shed several compulsive, neurotic, and ultimately destructive patterns of thought and behavior.

    As time has gone on, however, I have found that I have settled into my new circumstances. It’s like I gave up one hopelessly entrenched world-view for another. The intellectual curiosity which spurred such rapid progress in the early days is now waning and the process of waking up somehow seems more daunting and less enjoyable than it did. These days, my meditation osculates between mediocre and lousy, and I find myself struggling to stay in the present moment.

    I never expected the path to be easy or immediate, but a year ago the prospect of spiritual regression would have seemed impossible. I had the distinct impression that I had rounded a corner in my journey and that, although it was winding, the path was leading me invariably towards liberation. It is as though my childlike wonder has dried up and now, slogging through hefty volumes of increasingly obscure texts, it’s like grad school all over again – a lot of work, and not a lot of insight. Maybe this is the law of diminishing returns in action. Is this a typical experience? Any tips on rekindling the perfections of energy (viriya) and determination (adhitthana)?

  • #2
    Ajahn describes the process:

    "Inspiration, Aspiration, Desperation, Expiration"

    Hehe, well that is the way a lot of people go.

    It's great when you first come to the Buddha's teaching. You recognise it intuitively as the path you want to travel. You might feel that you have been a Buddhist in past lives, or assume so due to the sudden impact it has on your life. You are inspired!

    It seems you have fallen back somewhat, but don't be daunted. It may be that you expect too much too soon. Access to a good teacher will help. I'm no great sage myself, but the Buddhist Society is very supportive, and you will likely find a lot of support on the new forums. It can take quite some time to develop meditation, and Anapanasati specifically. What might help is taking an inspiring meditation object. Perhaps the Buddha, Dhamma or Sangha, and their inspiring qualities, or simply sit at the end of the day, calm the mind and contemplate the good you have done today. The recollection of generosity is a good one, one that I use daily. Another thing to contemplate is your own virtue - by keeping the 5 precepts you are developing harmlessness.

    If you have trouble with these meditation subjects, you might find you need to polish your sila - moral conduct. Reflect on and work with the precepts to make the mind happy and free from remorse. Keep on giving, even when there is little.

    On reflection it seems to me that rather than being on a plateau, you are in a trough. Remember that following each trough is a crest, and after each crest a trough. However, if you stay on the path, the tide will rise and your troughs will be better than the crests of old. This contemplation of anicca (impermanence) can be very helpful. I remember my first retreat with Ajahn Catamalo. He said that the best time to contemplate anicca is when things are going well. It doesn't work so well when you're in a trough.

    As for slogging through obscure texts, it might help to put the books down and just listen to some talks or guided meditation. Talk about your practice with our community here and maybe someone else can relate to what you're going through.

    Ok, Hope This Helps,



    • #3
      This is a really good topic for discussion. I've experienced something largely similar, so it's something I've reflected about quite a lot, making an effort to understand.

      Part of it of course, is just about motivation. Really dreadful suffering is a great motivator. As the saying goes "Necessity is the mother of invention", people can do amazing things when they are in sufficiently difficult situations. So the curious thing is, when your Dhamma practice goes well, your suffering is reduced, you have less incentive to practice, and put less energy into practice. This is complacency, and complacency can make a very persuasive argument for it's existence.

      Not knowing where you are in your practice, I'm not sure what advise I can offer. But what did work for me in my lay-buddhist life (under similar circumstances of frustration), was to have a "suffering day". That is, I would get up, and say to myself "Today I'm going to suffer as much as I can". So one time I had a bad stomach ache from some bad beans the night before, and I was pissed off with someone, and was just generally in a black mood. So I decided a suffering day would be perfect. So I went to a desolate patch of coastline and started walking... through tough prickly scrubs in places! It was overcast, dismal, the wind was howling, and I just let everything be as bad as it wanted to be. (Please note: Walking far away from civilization before really letting go of my anger was quite deliberate!). I walked for a few hours, with my mood getting blacker and blacker, I screamed into the wind.
      I then turned around and walked back, and my mood lifted somewhat, and the stomach ache went away (yes, I walked for hours on a bad stomach ache!).

      Another time, when I was feeling complacent, I decided to have another suffering day, and so I biked all day long (I left before sunrise, and got home after). That was physically grueling (even after 4 hours!), and again I went into very isolated and desolate territory. But of course, at the end of the day, I felt good. And I also came home a vegan (before that day I was vegetarian), because I emphasized more with the suffering in the world.

      I would also from time to time, just do crazy things to really challenge my fears and aversions. I don't mean crazy as in unsafe, just crazy as in it really went against my fears and aversions. For example, I would walk in the cold rain. I remember that once, I was walking through the suburbs in the cold, driving, rain. People in their cars and SUVS were huddled over their steering wheelings, cursing the weather. I had a big smile on my face.

      I would get out in nature in the rain, at night, and all the times people usually hid inside their houses.

      I think this was all very beneficial for me. It was powerful for developing insight. It's one thing to not suffer much when you're very comfortable. But when you have every reason to suffer, yet are brilliantly happy, that tells you a lot about life and dhamma.


      • #4
        Thank You!


        Thank you so much for your guidance and support -you are absolutely right, of course! In the past week (since posting), I have switched from Vipassana and Samatha to breath medication and Metta, and I have been focusing more on helping other in my daily activities (the snow storms we are having in the States have afforded me ample opportunities to lend a supporting shovel). I have put my sutra studies on hold and gone back to the Dhammapada and the popular texts which got me interested in Buddhism in the early days, and it is as if someone opened a window in my head allowing a fresh breeze to blow out all of the dust cobwebs.

        Your simile of the trough is very helpful - it has really helped me shift my perspective. It is like Ajahn Brahm’s simile of the hand – I was just too close to see, but switching to a macro-lens is helping.

        Just as the river Ganges is inclined towards the east, though it turns and waves, the noble eightfold Path is inclined towards Nibbana ... But it my nature that I have to be reminded time and time again that, given time, the path will always lead me to higher ground. But each time I come back up, I gain more confidence in the Buddha, Dhamma, and Sangha.

        I agree that access to a good teacher may ultimately be what I need (though they are not easy to come by in Nebraska). My self guided journey has sometimes run into thickets, which is why I am so grateful that there are organizations like the BSWA, the community, and people like you to help cut me out and get me going again!
        Thank you again. Your words have been most helpful and inspiring.



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