When we sit down in a quiet room and don’t speak or listen to someone else speak, we usually begin thinking. It takes just a few seconds of quiet, and then we almost always begin to think. We think about different things. Oftentimes, we think about possible future scenarios – what we are going to say or do in the future. Other times, we reflect on the past, conjuring up images and fantasies about what happened or might have happened. Sometimes we think pleasant thoughts, and other times we think unpleasant thoughts. Sometimes we think in series of short, disconnected thoughts, and other times we think in long strings of interconnected ideas. In any case, when it’s quiet, we tend to think.
A lot of us think that good meditation is the practice of sitting in a quiet room not thinking. We think that when we think during meditation practice, we are not meditating, so we try not to think. I’m pretty sure that people the world over right now are sitting in quiet rooms, trying not to think. But whenever we sit and try not to think, we think, and then we think that we are not very good at meditating. We think that our meditation teacher is sitting there like a stone, or a mountain, or a still forest pool, not thinking, and that our own minds are wild, untamed, and very agitated. This all may be true. Our teacher may be good at not thinking, and we might be terrible at it, but even if that is the case, when we assume that not thinking is the main goal of meditation practice, we are missing something.
The word meditation is a very broad term that refers to many different activities. When we say, “I need to meditate on that for a while,” we mean that we need to think about it. In the case of the Buddhist and Indian traditions, there are thousands of meditation practices, each different from the next, and almost all of them involve thinking about something. A few involve not thinking about anything, but those are definitely in the minority. Concentrate is closely synonymous with meditate. Most meditation practices involve concentrating on something. Those that don’t involve concentrating on something are usually called non-meditation.
Saying, “I am going to meditate,” is like saying “I am going to eat fruit.” The question is, which fruit? There are so many to choose from. We need to be very specific about what form of meditation we are setting out to do. In order to be that specific, we need to receive instruction in specific forms. What I’ve noticed is that most of the time, we just assume that meditation is the practice of stopping thinking. If we want to get the most out of our meditation practice, we need to get past that assumption that it’s all about stopping thinking, and discover some other possibilities.
We also need to ask ourselves why we are meditating. What do we want to get out of it? I’ve noticed that a lot of us want to use meditation to calm our minds, or we assume that meditation is for calming one’s mind. With this as a goal or an assumption, when we sit down to meditate, one of the first things we notice is that we don’t usually have a calm mind. In fact, it’s usually quite the opposite. As soon as we get quiet, our minds get loud. Then, lacking a clear understanding of what meditation is, we begin the arduous process of forcibly quieting our minds.
If we want to be able to sit in a room and not think for a long time, we can practice that, and like any skill, we can get better at it slowly over time. But most of the time, if we ask a person why they want to meditate, they are not going to tell us that their ultimate goal is to be able to sit in a room and not think for a long time. No wise person ever told us, “The key to happiness is to stop thinking.”