Updated: Jan 24, 2021
We are often told that we shouldn't think while meditating. Other ways of explaining it are to bring the mind to a standstill, focus on the present moment, be in stillness, pause, or something similar. I was skeptical the first time I heard this and figured it was impossible. To me, it seemed that the only way one could stop thinking was by sleeping, dying, or being knocked unconscious (such as in a boxing match).
Thinking seems as natural to a person as breathing or walking. Didn't the philosopher Descartes tell us, "I think, therefore I am?" This seems to imply that thinking is an inescapable feature of human existence. I've only been meditating regularly for a little over a year, and I want to explain "stop thinking" in a way that is easier to understand for a person who is new to meditating and who hasn't spent a thousand hours practicing it.
I can see how people are often confused by this instruction. I'm sure my own understanding of it is different from some other people who are more experienced, but sometimes having something explained multiple different ways can help clarify the problem and hopefully provide a solution for those who struggle with the issue.
There are several definitions in the dictionary, but the best one is probably "to employ one's mind rationally and objectively in evaluating or dealing with a given situation" (source: dictionary.com). From this we conclude that reasoning is thought and thought is reasoning. However, if we look up the noun "thought", we are told that a synonym for "thought" is "meditation." Yes, really. Meditating has two definitions in English, and one of them is "to engage in thought." I thought we weren't allowed to think while meditating? Could this be any more confusing?
I don't suppose the dictionary is going to be much help here. Let's redefine thinking: In my opinion, for the purposes of meditation, what is meant by "thinking" is a specific type of mental pattern which could be described as "thinking using words." Not thinking doesn't mean a complete cessation of all mental activity. For example, you're not going to stop breathing. Moreover, the guided meditation often uses visualization, which requires imagination. Additionally, focusing on the senses is okay. So, it seems that the mind is allowed to be active in certain areas, but not in using words or performing any sort of reasoning.
Here are some examples of "thinking using words" that I try to avoid while meditating:
- Replaying conversations I've had, will have, or haven't had with other people.
- Planning for the future or recalling the past.
- Wondering how much time has passed or when the meditation session will end.
- Pondering why the person sitting next to me is breathing so loudly.
- Becoming annoyed by the sound of a jet airplane flying over.
What is the common theme in the list of the things to avoid? I believe it is "thinking in words" or performing calculations or judgements. It is this higher level abstract thinking that keeps us from being able to meditate. The monk says we're supposed to have both attention and relaxation in meditation. What I translate that to mean is that when I'm meditating, my mind is active, but silent.
Here are some mental activities that I personally do during meditation:
- Imagining a visual object such as a crystal ball at the center of the body.
- Picturing a peaceful nature scene.
- Focusing intently on internal sensations of a specific part of the body, aka "body scan."
- Paying close attention to sounds without analyzing them.
- Following the sensation of my breath entering and leaving my body.
We are also sometimes told to repeat a mantra. However, I don't consider the mantra to be "thinking in words" because, at least for me, it is more like listening to the sound of the words (focusing on the sound). It doesn't matter to me what the mantra actually means. I just feel the sound of the words when the monk says it and don't try to think about it.
The Purpose of Stopping Thought What is the goal of these activities, or anything else that the person guiding the meditation asks you to do? I believe the purpose is to give the mind something to focus on that is non-abstract, non-symbolic. I surmise we are shutting off one part of our mind, so that another part can become more alert. During my normal waking hours I'm constantly "thinking in words", which is to say that I reason about various things. However, while meditating I try to slow or stop that.
Since it is impossible for the mind to focus on nothing, the guided meditation provides some objects to focus on that help you slow your mind without activating higher level thinking. This allows other parts of the mind to take control. Another way of looking at it might be to imagine you have some kind of mind sense organ you're actually focusing on. To give some examples using our traditional five senses: If you wanted to hear the sound a sewing pin hitting the floor, you'd have to stop talking so the sound wouldn't be drowned out by your own voice.
Another example: if you were wearing a strong perfume, you'd be unable to detect a faint odor in the room. For sight: Visually, if you shined a flashlight in your eyes, you wouldn't be able to find your way out of a dark room. These are examples of our senses being overwhelmed by excess stimulation. In the same way, if our mind is overstimulated by too much mental chatter, it won't be able to meditate. In conclusion, I just want to add that there is more to meditation than just "not thinking." For me, that seems more like the first stage. Before entering the house, you have to open the door. Not thinking is like opening the door. When I've managed to slow or even stop my thoughts, that is the point when I feel like I've really started meditating.
Matt has attended the Meditation Center of Chicago since November 2019. His hobbies include walking in nature, woodworking, remodeling, and reading classic books, especially philosophy.