Monday, November 9, 2009

Making Your Mind a Blank

A comment that I often hear from new meditation students is something like, "I can't stop my mind from thinking." There are many misconceptions about this thing we call "meditation." So much so that I have been avoiding the word lately because of the stories it conjures up about performing some kind of mental gymnastics in order to end up with an empty mind. In fact, I was in a yoga class not long ago, and during a brief meditation at the end of the session the teacher instructed us to "let your mind go blank."

As I say to students who express this kind of preference toward not thinking, "lots of luck." If you try to stop your thoughts, you will probably, a) create more thoughts, b) give yourself a headache from frustration, or c) both. The mind is constantly thinking, and it is out of our control most, if not all, of the time. Trying to stop the mind from thinking would be, as Alan Watts put it,"like trying to stop the waves on the ocean with a flatiron."

And besides, if you were actually able to stop thinking, how would you know? If you think, "Oh, look! I'm not thinking!" then you've blown it. You're thinking again.

Why would we want to stop thinking, anyway? Probably because our thoughts are so annoying and won't let us be. Instead of trying to stop or control the thinking mind, try disengaging from it for a few moments by turning the attention toward a present-moment sensory reality. Fully experience the feeling of a few breaths, or the taste in your mouth right now. For a few moments, the mind will bring its attention toward the sensory object and let go of the thought. The thought will not stop, however, but will simply continue in the background unnoticed.

In formal vipassana practice, we learn how to disengage from the thinking mind over and over by returning to the breath whenever the mind wanders. We just let the thoughts continue in the background, like a radio playing in another room. Sometimes, something interesting comes on the radio, and our attention is pulled toward some thought or other. Then we again disengage from the thought and come back to the breath.

All of this is in service of shutting off the automatic pilot setting that we operate on most of the time, and choosing instead to live with more mindful awareness. Then, instead of reacting automatically from our thoughts, we can respond consciously to them, even seeing them as simply events that happen, almost like a reflex reaction out of our control.

From Lama Gendun Rinpoche:
Whatever momentarily arises
in the body-mind
has no real importance at all,
has little reality whatsoever.
Why identify with
and become attached to it,
passing judgment upon it and ourselves?
Far better to simply let the entire game happen on its own
springing up and falling back like waves,
without changing or manipulating anything,
and notice how everything
vanishes and reappears, magically,
again and again, time without end.

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