Friday, April 13, 2012

Stopping the Mind


"Have you ever tried living with yourself? If so, you will begin to see that yourself is not a static state, it is a fresh living thing. And to live with a living thing your mind must also be alive. And it cannot be alive if it is caught in opinions, judgments and values."
--Jiddu Krishnamurti, Freedom from the Known

Meditation provides an opportunity to notice what's really going on in your mind. Even while you're sitting still in a quiet room, your mind keeps thinking and feeling. Memories and plans pop up, the mind reacts with judgment, and then a whole storm of thought can happen spontaneously. This isn't necessarily bad. It can be an opportunity to explore and understand the structure of your mind. Understanding the inner workings of your opinions, judgments, and values is a step toward overcoming their limitations. In that sense, it can be beneficial for thoughts to arise during meditation.

I've heard some people say that they want to be able to stop their minds because all the thoughts interfere with their meditation. I've heard other people say that their inability to stop their minds must be a sign that they are not good at meditation. I've heard still other people say that they are trying meditation because they want to stop thinking.

Buddha did say that it was possible and beneficial to stop the "discriminating mind," which is the aspect of our mind that forms opinions, judgments, likes and dislikes. But he never said that the entire mind should be or could be stopped. Thoughts, feelings, and perceptions can be expected to persist as long as our bodies are healthy and awake. Stopping the brain from thinking would be like stopping the eyes from seeing. The eyes make images and the brain makes thoughts. That's just what they do. How we experience those images and thoughts, however, is a great mystery of existence that we are able to explore and learn from during meditation. There's absolutely no need to vilify it.

Believing that thoughts should stop is itself a judgment, so setting out to stop the mind with this motivation actually puts energy into judgmental thinking. That's maybe why Buddha didn't encourage people to stop thinking. Instead, he encouraged his students to let go of their attachments. He said that letting go of attachments would naturally lead to the cessation of judgmental thinking.

For example, consider emotional attachments. Maybe you have a secret crush on that cute girl in class, and you despair when she doesn't talk to you. Maybe you're in a relationship, and you get angry when your partner doesn't act the way you expect. Maybe there's a coworker you dislike, and you dread having to work with them. In each case, there is an attachment to a particular state of being that doesn't actually exist: dating the cute girl, controlling your partner, avoiding the coworker.

The ego churns out a lot of thoughts and schemes in order to take control of the situation, but the control never comes, and so the thoughts just keep cycling. You can struggle in vain to suppress the thousands of thoughts that come up, but they will persist as long as the root cause remains active. The only way to quiet these thoughts is to let go of the underlying attachment. Letting go of the attachment doesn't mean neglecting the other person; it means accepting the reality in which you meet them. When there is no scheming necessary, the mind can quiet down.

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