It’s not uncommon to expect something to “happen” during our spiritual journey. Sooner or later we come to this question in our practice: Where’s my reward? We have practiced so diligently and now we expect to feel good, to feel “happy,” and we’re disappointed when we don’t.
A student in the weekly meditation class I teach recently said, “I’ve let go of all of my ego wants as best I possibly can, and I’m doing what I’m able in the way of service. So why am I not happier?”
Another admitted, “I’ve been very diligent in my practice, but I still struggle with being a happy person. I thought after practicing the dharma I would start to really feel happy a lot of the time, but I don’t. Nothing’s changed.”
And a third person acknowledged, “I am struggling with illness, and I’m really getting lost in it. I’m feeling sorry for myself, I’m angry that I’m ill, I’m envious of people my age who are not ill, and I’ve practiced all of these years. Why am I feeling this?”
So if we practice, why aren’t we happier?
Just because we are doing well in our spiritual practice doesn’t mean that we are going to notice a measurable change in our “happiness.” It is possible to find happiness through renunciation, surrender, and acceptance but, in fact, some people are by nature happier than others.
Another thing to keep in mind is that through our practice, we are purifying our karma. Our reward is the purification our heart and mind. We’re breaking old, embedded habits that have been passed down for generations.
There is also another explanation: Sometimes we have an insight, but it’s quite awhile before we recognize the fruit of that insight. For instance, someone who had in the past been unskillful in their speech, had, over a couple of years, made real progress practicing right speech, said to me, “Why don’t I feel great now that I observe right speech? Maybe I don’t get anything out of it.” I said, “Yes, you do. You’re not creating new pain — you’re just not noticing it.”
“Where’s my reward for practice?” is a legitimate, yet difficult question. Take a moment to reflect where else in your life you’ve asked, “Where’s my reward?” Maybe it’s for being a good person, being unselfish and sharing, or taking care of your family.
So often we get caught in our hidden demands that events, or our life in general, turn out in certain ways. Basing satisfaction on “getting a reward” is a natural human response, but ultimately not very rewarding. The true reward is in being present in this moment through living our heart’s deepest values.
The idea of immediate reward is really wrong thinking. We’re giving up this gain and loss, pain and pleasure, reward system as our primary way of being. We practice because it’s our value to practice. We value the Eightfold Path and being on that Path. We don’t get to choose what we get from being on the Path, other than the very satisfaction of getting to practice—and that’s a lot.
So, really, the practice itself is the reward. It’s a rare thing in life when we get to live our values, and when we’re privileged enough to be a part of a community that supports us. To have the opportunity to choose right speech, right action, right livelihood, and to be mindful is in and of itself a reward.
For your reflection:
- Watch yourself and notice when you are living with this question: Where is my reward? Be compassionate with yourself when this is true.
- Be interested in exploring all the places that you might be holding this question.
- Is it possible you have yet to recognize how your practice has benefited you—or others?
Listen to Phillip’s dharma talk:
Where’s My Reward?
Tweet: Students often ask, “Where’s my reward for spiritual practice? I’ve practiced diligently, so why aren’t I happier?” The reward is in being present in this moment.