Meditation periodization

Sakari, modified 9 Years ago at 1/21/14 1:09 PM
Created 9 Years ago at 1/21/14 11:19 AM

Meditation periodization

Posts: 38 Join Date: 12/28/13 Recent Posts
Hi everyone,

Being new here, first I'd like to say that the DhO has been a great source of inspiration and information in my efforts to reach the big E happiness ever less dependent of conditions. So thank you all who have contributed to this forum with depth and compassion.

Now for the topic: As a beginner in meditation, I struggle to find the balance between open-mindedness and consistency, to learn to know when to hold 'em and when to fold 'em, in other words when and how to employ, modify and reject this or that method of meditation. For example, is a bhakti/metta type of approach working well for me because it frequently moves me and at least temporarily makes me feel more at peace, or would it be better to return to noting practice, which makes me feel sharper but also restless? Is my growing distaste with one method just a way in which delusion perpetuates, or is it a genuine indication that change would be beneficial? Does one approach, which may seem better at first, provide less in the long term? What length of time and intensity (hours per day, for example) should the trial period be for this or that method? Such questions I ponder as I continue to meditate daily but have no reliable idea of how I'm doing. I also don't find the maps useful in this regard, inspiring though they are. I am aware of the common advice of "stick to a system, get a teacher/sangha, go on retreats", and I appreciate that, but in this thread I'd like to discuss the following dimension of this game:

As one of my hobbies is strength training, I have often wondered if the idea of sports periodization, or more generally the cyclical variety of training, could be more consciously and fruitfully applied to meditation than I have so far seen it being applied. In the training of professional athletes, periodization is widely considered essential. For example, let's say you want to increase the amount of weight that you can deadlift, which is a basic way of lifting weight off the floor. You could, for example, just deadlift everyday, always the same weight or always at the same level of subjective effort. Or you could train entirely by feel, lifting heavier on days that you feel energetic, and lifting less or not at all on other days. These approaches, popular among amateurs in probably any sport I've heard of, tend to produce gains for the beginner, as I gather does nearly any approach, but slow to nonexistent progress after a few months or years. Among the reasons for failure are monotony, injury and loss of motivation. For training by feel, a big problem is knowing what feelings are to be listened to. An elite athlete may know himself well enough to place much trust in training by feel, but for the less experienced, such an approach seems far too often to lead to either doing too little or to burnout. I know I've gone to both extremes.

In sports, a far more successful approach seems to be to take into consideration many long-, medium-, as well as short-term biological rhythms, and for each to introduce the right amount and kind of variety. For example, lifting a different amount reps or sets each day, or at a different level of subjective effort, lets say a cycle of medium-easy-hard. And varying the movement slightly, for example with different stances, grips, ranges of movement, lifting surfaces or implements, in cycles of mainly predetermined lengths. One could also cycle the focus on which athletic attribute is being most developed, lets say strength for three months, agility for a month, and endurance for two, taking into consideration how the recovery rates and other properties differ for each attribute. Plus regular measures of progress for each attribute or type of lift, with training logs to help determine what types of training worked best and what to discard, so that learning is accelerated. And then there are the various methods of supplemental training and active recovery, such as joint mobility work, stretching, massages, dietary changes. There is in most cases also the need for an off-season, for the athlete to do something partially or even completely different, for weeks even, so that he may return to his chosen sport both rested and excited. These and many more factors are commonly considered in the training of elite athletes, but even for amateurs the introduction of some basic cyclical variety usually produces far better results than do the less thoughtful approaches, with no computer or other fancy equipment being needed to figure out what is to be done each day. Interestingly, particularly for those athletes who tend to train too hard, the off-season often comes in the form of burnout or injury, and after weeks or even months of not practicing his sport, he not-so-rarely finds his results actually improved when he returns, maybe because the subconscious part of him knew better when he needed to rest than did the conscious.

In the world of meditation, I've gotten the impression that most if not all schools also incorporate at least some cyclical variety, for example alternating an hour of sitting meditation with an hour of walking meditation, or alternating meditation with physical labor and teacher interviews, or seasonally, with more intensive meditation in monasteries during the rainy season. And of course there must be far more and deeper forms of periodization in the traditions of meditation, forms which I'm simply ignorant of. Heck, even the rhythm of day and night, and its effects on the human body, results in an unintentional form of periodization. Still, I can't shake the feeling that there must be far more rhythms of the mind/brain than have thus far been taken into consideration, and far more that could be accomplished in the world of meditation by discussing those rhythms more explicitly, even discounting further studies of the brain, simply with an awareness of some of the progress that has already been made in sports science. Even in the several wonderful pragmatic dharma sites that I've run into, whose authors continue experimenting and improving their methods of meditation and not restricting themselves to particular schools of Buddhism, I get the impression of more of a collection of methods than an integrated, deeply periodized system.

So, then, my question is primarily to experienced and successful meditators who share my goal (regardless of what name you like to call that goal): What kinds of (cyclical) variety in your meditation practice have you found to be useful, such that you could recommend to beginning meditators and laypersons such as myself? For example: Cycle methods or categories of method x, y and z, and in A amount of months you should get results B and C and if not, modify/substitute method y for w or shorten/lengthen z or the whole cycle, and if still not getting the results then next best thing is to do D or E, and so on. Or: The meditator's starting conditions (type, duration and frequency of some phenomena, inclinations of the meditator or what have you) indicate a probably effective combination of x % of this practice and y % of that practice, including reversing the proportions every A amount of weeks/months, followed by an ”off-season” of B amount of days/weeks where something completely different or even no meditation at all is done.

Your advice need of course not be so complex as my examples above. Even the more basic advice of, for example and iirc, Fitter in another thread urging a forum member to, among other things, try a method for 10 weeks before deciding whether to move on to another method, seems to me very useful. I realize that everybody is different to a degree, that results in meditation are less reliably determined than results in athletics, that the methods are vast in number, and of other standard disclaimers. I'm of course looking for general, practical guidelines here, not necessarily hard science. Still, perhaps generating discussion about more consciously applying periodization could also begin to reveal at least some of the mechanics behind the guidelines, so that the guidelines could be further developed.