Are thinking and meditation incompatible?

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“It’s a very deep misconception that meditation is about making your mind blank, that it involves shutting off or pushing away things so that you can achieve some kind of deeper, more desirable state of clarity and calmness. It’s not that those deeper, more desirable states of clarity and calmness do not exist and cannot be cultivated—they can. But it is a kind of learning that in some ways is akin to falling asleep—although meditation is really about ‘falling awake.’ If you try too hard to sleep, chances are you are not going to fall asleep at all. … I like to describe the mind as being like the surface of the ocean—it’s just in the nature of water to wave. And it is part of the nature of our minds to wave as well. The mind waves virtually all the time. If you try to shut off the waves, it’s a bit like trying to put a glass plate over the ocean to stop it from being as it is. It’s not going to work very well.” ~ Jon Kabat-Zinn, The Power of Meditation and Prayer

I think I know exactly what Dr. Kabat-Zinn is talking about, from my own experience and from what I have heard from others who have experience both failure and success with meditation. Sometimes my meditation can leave me kind of agitated, rather than calm, if I try to fight the thoughts that arise, to stuff them down or block them out. You know, the moment you determine not to think about something, that’s all you can think about. Likewise, the moment you decide not to think at all, thoughts come streaming in from every direction! Only by accepting that thoughts arise and treating them—and myself—with compassion can I fully benefit from my meditation practice.

Pema Chodron suggests that when you notice your mind thinking thoughts, just say quietly, “Thinking,” and let the thought go. Don’t scold yourself for doing what comes naturally to your mind. I do this sometimes, and when I do I always hear the word “Thinking” in Pema’s voice, which never fails to make me smile. And smiling is the perfect medium for letting thoughts slide away easily and without labeling them as something “bad” or antithetical to proper meditation.

If a thought is persistent, then maybe I ought to pay attention to it. If I am routinely feeling a pain in my tooth, shouldn’t I go to the dentist and have it looked at? The pain may be a signal that there is a physical ailment that requires attention. If a thought keeps popping up during meditation—even when I treat it kindly, imagine Pema saying “Thinking,” and let it go—then perhaps it is something that requires attention. Why not let the thought run its course naturally and see where it leads? Following the thought to its resolution may be the only way to keep it from coming back.

As with most things, expectations play a role in meditation. If we expect to achieve an out-of-body experience, we are likely to be disappointed. If we enter meditation, though, with the expectation that thoughts will arise, with acceptance that thoughts arising is totally normal, then we can more fully benefit from our meditation practice. In my opinion, the goal of meditation is not to experience balance and peace during meditation, but rather to experience balance and peace in our lives away from the cushion. Accept that your mind may be noisy sometimes during meditation and you are more likely to reap the benefits of meditation—a life that is more mindful, peaceful and, yes, less noisy.

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3 responses »

  1. Thank you. I needed that perspective. It seems to me I read that the Dalai Lama said he sometimes uses meditation to focus on a particular topic and get clarity about it. Though I can’t imagine he would be studying it in a scholastic manner. Any thoughts?

    • Thank you so much for reading and responding to my post, Mark. His Holiness has talked about meditation for serenity, on the one hand, and meditation in which one actively pursues and ponders thoughts, on the other hand. Both are beneficial, they just have different purposes. The Dalai Lama is definitely a very scholarly person, extremely learned – part of what makes him special is his ability to convey his vast knowledge to the masses in an accessible manner. I think that is because he has not just studied the teachings of Buddhism, he has LIVED them.

  2. Thank you so much for reading and responding to my post, Mark. His Holiness has talked about meditation for serenity, on the one hand, and meditation in which one actively pursues and ponders thoughts, on the other hand. Both are beneficial, they just have different purposes. The Dalai Lama is definitely a very scholarly person, extremely learned – part of what makes him special is his ability to convey his vast knowledge to the masses in an accessible manner. I think that is because he has not just studied the teachings of Buddhism, he has LIVED them.

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