The Problem With Process

September 4, 2016


So many of us are always in what my friend Will McGreal likes to call "process."1  We are always "working on ourselves" in some way, correcting some habit or tendency, or seeking and striving for that next breakthrough on our spiritual path. There's always a sense of being close to "arriving" at that place where we can finally say, "we've made it."  


The problem is that "process" is always a sign that your mind believes that you are not already there. To be in "process" means, inevitably, that you have somewhere to go to or something to obtain, that in some key way, you need to be different from who you are right now. What the mind is saying is that to be happy or peaceful or whatever it is you seek, you have to do certain things and take certain steps, and if you do those steps as the mind tells you, you'll get there.  


Almost always, however, "process" itself is designed never to get you there; it is always designed to keep you in "process." What does this mean for spiritual seekers who meditate, pray, read spiritual books, make gratitude lists, etc.? When the mind says, we're going to do those things, and we're going to have a breakthrough, the mind is in process. It is trying to lead you somewhere.  


Unfortunately, this is never really going to solve the issue. For the real issue is the mind's relationship to whatever issue you want to have a breakthrough in, and that the mind can't really solve that issue; it may not even really want to.  Say you want to be more peaceful because you have a lot of anxiety. Your mind says, we have to get rid of this anxiety.  We're going to sit and meditate a lot, and we'll become more centered. There's nothing wrong with this at all, but the mind is actually distracting you from the real issue, which is the mind's relationship to the anxiety. Your mind perceives this emotional energy as anxiety; it resists that energy and wants to get rid of it. The mind is actually distracting you from a deeper, core concern: what does this anxiety mean for you? What does it tell you about you? You are experiencing anxiety, because there's another question or concern tugging at you. There is almost always a deeper, underlying concern that never gets addressed when we remain in "process" because the mind's desire for process is always designed to avoid tackling that deeper issue, which scares the mind too much. 


So how do we avoid "process"? We don't! That would be another version of process. Rather, we continue to do all of the same practices and at the same time we work with our mind's desire for process, for making progress, for getting somewhere. Because when you do have a spiritual breakthrough, when something shifts in you and a certain issue that "bothered" you no longer bothers you, you will realize that process did not get there. Suddenly, it's as if you've stepped through a doorway into a room that you were always in but never realized it. You were always this "new" breakthrough, but your mind's relationship to this "issue" changed. Process didn't get you there; somehow, the mind's own desire to "process" this "issue" got bypassed, and it stopped being an issue.


So as you work towards being a more enlightened or spiritual being, recognize that the very impulse to do the work means that you are in process and that your mind is telling you, "you're not there yet." Accept that our minds will always try to distract us, and make this a focal point in your own mindfulness and meditation practices.  If you're anxious, go ahead and meditate. But don't think that the mind's impulse to meditate because you need to get rid of anxiety or be someone who is not anxious is going to get you where the mind tells you you need to get.  


Instead, begin to watch the mind's own machinations, its own efforts to tell you, we're a mess, we need to do this work. Do the work; but what you're really working on is not the anxiety, but your mind's perception that it is anxious at all. Watch the mind's claim that you're anxious, that you need to meditate, that you're still anxious. Watch the mind try to solve this problem, and recognize that your mind can't fix it. In fact, your mind actually doesn't want to. It wants to keep you in this process of being in a certain emotional state and trying to figure out how it, the mind, can solve it. When you take that as your point of departure for meditation and mindfulness, your relationship to that anxiety may change over time, and then suddenly, you'll find yourself on the other side of anxiety, in a newfound state of peace. When you do, just remember that "process" didn't get you there.


1.  The ideas in this post come out of conversations with Will McGreal, and therefore all credit for anything good or interesting in this blog post I share fully with him. Anything bad or confusing is on me.


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