Reading a couple of postings by newcomers to Buddhism who were champing at the bit to make progress in their efforts reminded me today of the droll observation that was once part of life in the army: "Hurry up and wait!" Every place we went, we seemed to go at a trot, or double-time, and when we finally got there, there was always another line to wait in.
I guess there is no talking people out of the idea of progress. Progress seems to be woven into the DNA and if you try to disabuse anyone, it's offensive to their sense of life and how to live it. Spiritual life, professional life, marital life, psychological life ... everything seems to have a success-failure, forward-backward quotient and if you're not progressing, you're probably back-sliding. To imagine otherwise is just too lazy or too insulting or too insane to be considered. If things weren't like this in your life, you'd probably turn into a lump of lifeless pizza dough, right?
So, since no one can talk anyone else out of it, go ahead. Try to progress. Strive and struggle. Look back with satisfaction or despair. Look forward with hope and determination. Take two gold stars out of the petty cash box or sit in the corner wringing your hands. Go ahead, give it a whirl. Don't try to short-circuit what cannot, for the moment, be short-circuited.
Don't get me wrong -- I've done it all and more like it.
And yet when, for example, I look back on 40 years of Zen practice, I am honestly stymied when it comes to assessing what progress I might have made. Oh, I can do the intellectual and emotional schtick, but when I am honest -- when it's the middle of the night with less need for defense or preening -- I am stymied and pinned to the wall by the drum-beat saying, "Wherever you go, there you are" ... or I hear the whispered biblical observation, "Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they toil not, neither do they spin...." The words are easy to say and who knows how many pulpiteers have used such words as a foundation for hours of lyrical or 'profound' exposition?
Is there really a laundry list of explanations and descriptions long enough and credible enough to sum up this life, this effort? Is there really success and failure? Seriously ... no spiritual bullshit. Is there anything that can be named that brings a grounded peace to the heart?
The only query I can think of that might be worth considering when it comes to making progress or failing to do so is this:
Am I here yet?