Learn to Sit Still

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image by Huan Tran

People who are new to Zen practice have all kinds of weird ideas about the state of nonthinking. Some people envision it as a trippy, spaced-out sort of thing. I’ve even heard the term mushiryo (not thinking) consciousness thrown around as if it were some way-cool, mysterious altered state. Some people are even scared by the idea.

It isn’t like that, folks. Not only does it feel real nice to stop thinking, it’s not nearly as difficult as people want to make it.

You just think not thinking.

It’s like this: If you start really paying attention to your own thought process, you’ll notice that the thoughts themselves don’t go on continuously. There are little spaces between them. Most of us habitually fill these spaces with more thoughts as fast as we can. Even the best of us can’t fill them all, though, so there are always little gaps.

There are two basic kinds of thought. There are thoughts that pop up unannounced and uninvited into our brains for no discernable reason. These are the result of previous thoughts and experiences that have left traces in our brains’ neural pathways. You can’t do much to stop them–nor should you try. The other kind of thought is when we grab on to one of these streams of energy and start playing with it the way your mom always told you not to do with your wee-wee in front of the neighbors. We dig deep into those thoughts and roll around in them like a pig rolling in its own doo-doo, feeling all that delicious coolness and drinking deep of their lovely stink.

To practice thinking not thinking, all you need to do is ignore the first kind of thought and learn how not to instigate the second. This is easier said than done, of course. But get into the habit and it begins to come naturally.

You’ll notice that your thoughts never appear all at once, fully verbalized. They start out more nebulous, and you shape them into stuff you can tell your friends or write down in a book or whatever. If you don’t understand what I’m talking about, put this magazine down for a second, get out a pencil and paper, and try to write whatever it is you’re thinking about right now.

Did you even try it? Even if you were thinking “The guy who wrote this doesn’t know what the hell he’s talking about,” it’s pretty interesting how difficult it can be to turn your nebulous thoughts into something solid like that.

Now try to look at the natural spaces between your thoughts. Learn what it feels like to stop generating more and more stuff for your brain to chew on. Now see if you can do that for longer and longer periods. A couple of seconds is fine. Voilà. Thinking not thinking!

One thing about thinking that few of us ever really, uh, think about is the fact that it actually takes effort. We often hear the word ruminate used in reference to going over things in our heads. The word ruminate, though, literally refers to what cows do when they barf up partially chewed food and chew it up some more before swallowing it again. That’s an apt analogy for what we do in our heads. Only with cows, this activity performs a useful function in digestion. In human beings its usefulness is a little more doubtful.

The trick to not thinking is not adding energy to the equation in an effort to forcibly stop thinking. It’s more a matter of subtracting energy from the equation in order not to barf up the thoughts and start chewing them all over again.

If you find you can’t do this on certain days, no problem. Everyone has days like that. Everyone. Me, you, the Dalai Lama, all of us. Effort is more important than so-called success because effort is a real thing. What we call “success” is just the manifestation of our mind’s ability to categorize things. This is “success.” That is “failure.” Who says? You says. That’s all. Reality is what it is, beyond all concepts of success and failure.

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