With new students, I often do a little experiment. I begin class with a brief silent meditation. We all sit cross-legged in a circle on Japanese meditation cushions, and in a soft, meditation teacher voice, I say, “Let’s meditate,” and I close my eyes. Everyone closes their eyes and sits there in silence for a few minutes. Then I gently end the meditation, and ask people what they did. Most students tell me that they sat there getting frustrated because their minds were not calm. They say, “I tried to meditate, but I kept getting lost in thought.” Other people aren’t so frustrated – they just sit there quietly thinking the whole time. A few people do some sort of visualization practice, or indulge in a fantasy. Occasionally, a person will say that they felt their mind get very quiet and peaceful, and that they enjoyed a deepening calm. The ordinary noisy-minded students are often impressed and sometimes a little bit jealous or skeptical of the rare ones whose minds easily become calm and quiet.
The experiment reveals that most of us think of meditation as being a way to calm one’s mind, and yet paradoxically most of us experience sitting in silence as agitating, as we cannot control our active, thinking minds.
Left to our own devices, we will often sit there playing what I call “Whack-A-Mole.” Whack-A-Mole is an old amusement park game. The game is shaped like a big wide pinball machine, only instead of a ball and all the bumpers, it just has nine softball-sized holes on it’s playing surface. The player stands there with a soft club in hand, and whenever a plastic mole pops up out of one of the holes, the player whacks the mole on the head. If you hit the mole before it hides in it’s hole again, you get points. The moles pop up more and more quickly as the game progresses, making it more and more difficult to hit them. The Whack-A-Mole meditation technique is very similar, except instead of moles popping up, we play with thoughts. Every time a thought arises, if we notice it, we whack it.
More often than not when we’re playing Whack-A-Mole with our thoughts, we don’t reward ourselves with “points” for every thought that we whack, but instead internally penalize ourselves for every thought that arises. Every time a thought pops up, we hit ourselves with a moment of self-criticism. That’s a very self-defeating way to go about it. One thing I’ve learned from my own years of meditation practice, and from helping so many other people learn how to meditate, is that in most cases, the moles keep popping up no matter what you do. In the Buddhist tradition that serves as the foundation of my education, non-thought as a stable state is considered to be a form of useless mental dullness, and is to be passed by in favor of more productive practices.
If we’re not playing Whack-A-Mole, and we’re not just sitting there freely thinking, some of us will invariably practice some sort of visualization, mantra, positive affirmation, or fantasy as our go-to form of meditation. These structured thinking practices can be very useful. They pull the mind away from unstructured, random thinking and give us something to do while we sit there. Many of us have the strong tendency to sit and think very negative, worried, stressed-out thoughts. Visualizations, mantras and fantasies can be healthy antidotes to the downward spiral of mental anxiety. Through repeated practice, positive reframing of our attention can ultimately re-habituate our mental tendencies, away from the negative, toward the positive.
On the flip-side, positive reframing can also become suppression, denial, or delusion, particularly if the goal of the meditation practice is to pay attention to reality. Just as with any kind of thinking, if we devote the majority of our attention to contrived visualization, then most of our attention is consumed by the fantasy, while less of our attention is apprehending reality. If the goal of our meditation practice is to spend some time with the truth of the way things are, it doesn’t help to always be making things up. Oftentimes, openly feeling worry, anxiety and emotional pain is more productive than avoiding it or transforming it. I’ve noticed that students who are habitual visualizers tend to have some initial difficulty when we practice merely being with whatever arises – since their tendency is to avoid self-intimacy – but the moment that they allow themselves to experience what they’re really feeling and thinking is the moment that they begin to relax and trust the present.
I think the reason that non-thought has become the accidental goal of silent meditation practice is that sometimes we lose track of the essence of basic mindfulness, which is the foundation of many meditation practices. Basic mindfulness practice is to be present with what is happening, without changing it in any way. Confusion arises when we sit down to practice mindfulness, and then discover that we are not being mindful at all, but rather just lost in mindless trains of thought. In the moment that we recognize how our incessant thinking pulls us away from being mindful, we instinctively enter into a battle with our thinking minds – whacking moles, visualizing channels of energy, and throwing spears of self-criticism at those tricky thoughts and their incorrigible allure.
The activities of vigilantly guarding our minds against invasive thinking or creatively transforming our negative thoughts into pleasant thoughts are often expressions of the very stress-based, goal-oriented, ambitious kind of habit patterns that are the cause of our hurry and worry in the first place. In other words, neither attacking nor transforming our thoughts are part of the mindfulness practice, yet often that’s just what we end up doing.