Is meditation about making your mind go blank?

dandelionOne of the most common misconceptions about meditation is that it’s about making your mind go blank. I don’t know where this “meme” originated (a “meme” is a virus-like idea which inhabits or even “infects” our minds) but it’s pervasive and long-lasting. I think it may take at least another generation or two of spiritual practice before that notion goes to the scrapheap of ideas that it deserves to rest in.

This mistaken idea is even found in some meditation sites that rank highly in Google, which is a little worrying.

Certainly, we want in meditation to reduce the amount of thinking that goes on. Most of us are plagued with thoughts that arise seemingly without cause. It’s rare to experience more than a few moments without some thought arising. And although this is “normal” (i.e. very common) it’s not healthy. Many of the thoughts that arise in the mind are supportive of emotions of anxiety, ill will, neurotic craving, and self-doubt. So that’s why we want to reduce the amount of thinking we do — to have a rest from this near-relentless onslaught of thoughts.

We can even experience times in meditation when no thoughts arise at all.

Hey, you may be thinking, hasn’t he just contradicted himself? Well, no. Let me explain.

If you think that not thinking is the same as having a blank mind, then you’re making the error of equating “the mind” with “thinking” and specifically with verbal thinking, or inner self-talk. There’s much more to the mind than inner self-talk! There are perceptions of physical sensations, and there are perceptions of feelings and emotions, and of internally-generated images.

When meditation brings us to the point where self-talk ceases, the mind is anything but blank. Instead it’s full — full of an awareness of those sensations, feelings, emotions, and images. I like to think of this as one of the meanings of mindfulness – “mind-full-ness,” or the mind being so full that there’s no need for, and no room for, inner self-talk.

Our inner self-talk, as well as generating or reinforcing unhelpful emotions, also has the effect of keeping us at a relatively superficial level of our experience. We get so wrapped up in what we’re saying to ourselves inside our heads that we often don’t really notice what’s going on in the heart, the body, or even in the outside world.

As we start to pay more attention to the breath, and therefore the body, we find that our thinking naturally starts to quiet down. And this creates an even greater opportunity to notice the body, feelings and emotions, etc.

What happens as the mind starts to quiet down?

And we find that interesting things start to happen. Because we’re no longer reinforcing unhelpful emotions, we feel happier. And we’re free to notice that happiness more because we’re less obsessed with our thinking. So we really notice how happy we are becoming.

Interesting things start to happen in the body as well. Because we’re no longer reinforcing unhelpful emotions, the body starts to relax. As it relaxes it feels more enjoyable to have a body and energy starts to be released. And that energy is very pleasurable, and because we’re less obsessed with thinking we’re free to really notice those sensations as well.

And sometimes vivid and symbolic imagery wells up into the mind, and of course we’re free to really pay attention to that. We don’t necessarily think about the imagery, but we allow it to sit within us like a wise presence.

So all this is going on in the mind, and the mind is therefore anything but “blank.” Normal experience seems “blank” in comparison to the fullness of experience that we can develop in meditation. I’m reminded of times I’ve been reading outdoors and have emerged from the lines of text on the page to realize that there’s a world full or life and beauty around me that seems incomparably richer and more beautiful than the book. And I say this as someone who has always loved reading!

Sometimes we decide it is appropriate to think in meditation. And we call this reflection. This kind of thinking is more focused and powerful than normal thought. We don’t have a constant stream of thoughts running through the mind, but instead we take a thought and allow it to be there, not going anywhere but simply sitting in the mind, surrounded by awareness, and we notice what responses it calls forth. It’s like the difference between watching MTV, with its constant jumping from one image to another, and standing in an art museum, spending time in front of one picture and drinking it in. (Although I’ve noticed that people generally spend most of their time reading the labels of the pictures than they spend actually looking at the pictures themselves — a sign, I assume, that they are addicted to inner self-talk and uncomfortable with actual experience.

So, no, it’s not contradictory to say that meditation isn’t about making your mind go blank, but that it can help us to reduce, or even eliminate, inner self-talk for periods of time. Meditation is about developing mindfulness, or “mind-full-ness.”


  • On a few pages on this site, the comments are getting very numerous, and I’m going to draw a line under the current content by switching commenting off. If you really have something new to say, then you can pass that on to me via the comment form. I’d be willing to switch the comments back on if, for example, you’re a researcher looking into experiences of non-thinking.

  • Hey guys i have a question … i was born with this Mushin state of mind . I mean i have toughts only when i want to … In rest i don’t have at all … i act with instinct … the question is what this means ??

  • Hi again everyone I have been thinking about things more recently and I think I have been looking at this all wrong. I no longer experience negative feelings or emotions this is freedom at least freedom of the mind, I no longer have those barriers in my mind preventing me from being myself, no self consciousness or doubts. Alright I still have doubts at times but the differences is those negetive thoughts no longer phase me or affect my state.

    I have very recently just let go and feel like I’m being my true self as the self consciouness and negative energy that used to control me is gone. Things are going good at the moment people are starting up conversations with me everywhere I go, People respect me at work and even the customers and I seem to be attracting the attention of women more now. I guess having a clear mind without the negative energy behind thuoghts is a true advantage, maybe a dift and I realize now the only thing that ever stopped me from really connecting with others was in my mind. Now I have no more excuses because those barriers are down. It’s actually hard now not feel self confident when nothnig can affect my mental but I no I said before I couldn’t experience emotions well the other day (I had a few to drink) I did cry a bit (a few tears) I no it’s not manly to admit that and I hardly ever cry at all but it prove I still feel emotions at least at times.

    To this day I still don’t really know what happened nearly 2 years ago or so I believe it is some tyoe of Enlightenment

    Anyway thanks everyone for your advice over the past year or so this will probably be my last post on here.


  • Calm,

    Shinzen Young has an excellent video on YouTube discussing something similar that might be helpful:

    It might be possible to change by looking for whatever fleeting thoughts and feelings you do have and considering them to be real again.


  • Hi Bodhipaksa perhaps you’re right I’m not Enlightened and from what I’ve read Enlightened people have increased emotions where as I barely feel anything I know something is wrong What’s worse is it’s hard to connect with others socially like at work and I don’t feel butterflies or attaction mentally when I see women it’s like I’m a walking zombie and I’m sure people are picking up there’s something wrong with me. I mean how can we connect with others or the opposite sex when we are absent of emotions? I wonder if reading all this Spiritual material over the years messed me up psychologically epecially all the talk on “ego death” and “you are not you’re thoughts or feelings” a lot of guru’s talk about. I know subconciously I’m not content because I remember having feelings and now I can’t feel them?

    Does anyone have any suggestions on what to? Maybe I’ve just really detached myself mentally to the point I THINK I can’t feel emotions? I no longer feel human it sounds terrible but my grandparents died over the last few years and I felt absolutely nothing it was hard to show any emotion, when I listen to music I feel nothing as well so I’ve stopped listening to it. I hope I can find my feelings and enthisiam for life again what’s the point of living If we can’t feel?


    • Sangharakshita talks about “alienated awareness,” which is something he used to see in the 1960s, when some people were misapplying insight meditation techniques and disconnecting from their experience in an unhealthy way. They ended up being “robotic” and emotionally detached. When I heard him talking about that I didn’t recognize it in the lives of people I knew at all, so it seemed like a rather remote danger, and in any event the kind of meditation I was doing, which included lovingkindness meditation, didn’t include techniques that involved commenting on experience (and that seemed to be a component with some of these people — they “noted” but stopped really experiencing the phenomena they were noting.

      Antidotes to this? Mindfulness, properly applied, starts with a full awareness of the body and its sensations. This leads to a greater experience of emotions. So I’d suggest not “noting” under any circumstances, and instead getting into the body through walking meditation, exercise, yoga, massage, etc. I think that could offer a path to being a more fully feeling being.

  • This doesn’t sound like enlightenment as it’s classically described. Enlightenment is a state of freedom from negative emotions, but it’s also a state of emotional positivity. Someone who is enlightened is permanently in a state of jhana, which is to say, a state of joy. Enlightenment is also a state of lovingkindness and compassion.

  • Hi Samson I haven’t posted here for a while but I do still keep an eye on this post now and then. I assure you I’m not not trying to mess anyone around since around 2 years or so I have been wondering what has changed in me and why. I still haven’t really found a proper answer the closest thing I can come up with is some sort of Enlightenment. What I do know is that since a few years ago I haven’t been the same since, all the emotions and intensity of feelings I once experienced I no longer do. It probably sounds like depression but trust me it isn’t I have been depressed before and this isn’t it it’s something else. Seriously most of the time I’m blank in terms of emotions or feelings, I still have thoughts but they don’t have any affects on my moods or emotions anymore. Of course this isn’t something I can prove to you or even myself but this is my reality everything now. The main reason I haven’t really been to doctors about this is I can fucntion fine, work and think normally. It really feels like more work now though when interacting with people because I don’t feel the emotions I used to feel and I think people are put off by my blank emotionless deamour which I try not to project but as I said as I experience virutally no emotions anymore it’s hard not to come across like this. I have kind of got used to this state though it seems odd that even my family when I asked them if I seemed different and less show less emotion they said no and they don’t notice the difference I do.


  • I have a feeling the majority of these people claiming to have this condition aren’t being honest. I’ve read several of “Calms” posts and his inconsistancy on his symptoms raises much suspesion. For your sakes, I hope you aren’t just wasting bodhis time, he seems genuwine in his concerns.

  • Hi,

    I’ve been absolutely fascinated reading this whole blog which has confirmed a lot of my thoughts about meditation making the mind go blank. I started Transcendental Meditation a few years ago and took it very seriously doing 20-30mins twice a day. At first I thought it was great but then some doubt started to enter my mind. However, I persevered because the teachers were so convincing that it was the best thing that anyone could be doing. I soon began to realise that my mind had in the same way as you other guys gone blank. I had to force thoughts to appear, I felt totally unemotional and didn’t have normal reactions to other people or situations which would previously have affected me. For a long time I tried to convince myself that this was a good thing and that it would be great if the lack of idle mental chatter would leave me free to think what I liked rather than being dominated by my mind. It wasn’t until I noticed that my new state of mind was really affecting my work that I began to suspect all was not well. I am an opera singer and an actress and I started to become aware that I could no longer grasp the emotions that I had to portray in the words I was singing. Everything felt fake and people commented that I looked uncomfortable and a bit dead behind the eyes. I used to be extremely natural on stage and never had a problem connecting with the drama but suddenly it became near impossible to do what I’d always been good at. I then had a break from meditating for a few months and I suddenly noticed a huge difference. I felt more tired, as meditation gave me a lot of energy, but I felt more like a human being again and found that I was able to act and grasp the emotions in the music I was singing once again. To test the theory I meditated before some performances and found that when I meditated I didn’t give a good performance and had to fake the emotions, and when I didn’t meditate the performance felt natural again. Though I generally feel more like my old self now (which has its pros and cons) I am not yet fully functioning and responding normally. I still find it difficult to react to and empathise with any kind of real life drama in the way that is expected. I strongly believe that meditation is the cause of this mind-numbing experience that we all seem to have suffered from and I wish that more research could be done to find out more about it. I hope that you guys get better eventually. Keep trying new things to stimulate your mind! Animals are good and maybe this lovingkindness meditation is better than the stuff we’ve tried.. I’m sure other meditations are definitely beneficial however I wouldn’t recommend TM to anyone. They charge a fortune as well which makes me suspicious too. Can I ask, did any of you who have suffered from this blank mind dis-ease have divorced parents? Just for my own curiosity.

    • Once again I’d offer caution about assuming that correlation equals causation. I can’t rule out the possibility that there may be side effects of meditation, although they must be exceedingly rare, given that so many people meditate, and given that so many studies have shown that meditation promotes mental health, making depressed people less prone to depression, stresses people less stressed, and in general promoting the experience of happiness, compassion, and wellbeing. I have heard, via Sangharakshita, that he observed some people taking up vipassana-style anapanasati in the 1960s and becoming “alienated”, which is his term for awareness divorced from emotional experience. As far as I’m aware, there was no absence of conscious thought in the cases he described. They seem to have been doing an extreme form of “noting” in which an inner commentary began to replace their actual experience of the body. But this alienating effect clearly isn’t an intrinsic part of insight meditation, which is the style of meditation used in most clinical trials, and which, as I noted above, is strongly correlated with the promotion of mental health. In fact they weren’t really doing insight meditation at all, but were doing something rather different.

      It could be that the people Sangharakshita observed suffered from a pre-existing disposition toward alienation. It’s obviously impossible to say for sure. But he has always stressed the need to balance mindfulness meditation with lovingkindness practice, in order to ensure that the emotions are engaged and developed.

      It occurs to me that I don’t think I’ve asked “Calm” and others what kind of meditation they did, how they did it, and how much of it they did.

      In terms of physical causes, I came across a reference in Wikipedia to Athymhormia and Athymhormic syndrome, which seem to share a large degree of overlap with the conditions some people have been describing here.

  • Hi, I just read some of your posts. I just want to say after meditating with a tape early this year…my mind, memory has not been the same since and has gradually gotten worse. I have similar issues of out of body, non emotional feelings. Terrible memory, no thoughts etc. This all started to happen after meditation. I had a great memory before this. If only I could turn back time. I am in the process if seeing a doctor, got a EEG done and MRI as well. I really do think meditation is very dangerous. That’s my opinion. I just hope I do improve in time. Good luck to the others that feel the same way I do.

    • I’d be very interested to hear what your doctor says. Back in the 1960’s, Sangharakshita observed that a few people were practicing vipassana in a way that was leading to alienation. I believe what they were doing was an extreme form of noting, in which an inner commentary on what they were doing (“lifting arm, lifting arm … drinking tea, drinking tea” began to replace their actual experience. So may be possible to practice meditation (or to think you’re practicing meditation at least) in a way that’s harmful. But that was the mis-application of a practice.

      It’s more likely, in my mind, that you’re confusing correlation with causation. If meditation was generally dangerous, you wouldn’t expect to see that people who meditated were more emotionally positive (they are), were less prone to dementia (they are), and had better health in a variety of ways (they do). Your anecdotal evidence is interesting, but it completely flies in the face of the data.

  • Hi again I haven’t posted here for a while but I have been reading a lot about “ego death” and Enlightenment and it seems I have gone through some sort of Spirtual Awakening since over 2 years now I know my posts seem like I was depressed before but I didn’t understand what I was going through. Things have settled more now I have got used to the peace and quiet of the mind but when this happens it feels like you loose emotions but it’s just really that after “awakening” you no longer/can longer hold onto emotions like before. However this is hard to explain to others who are still in the egoic mind and who’s thoughts and emotions control them. After reading through “numb”s posts again perhaps he/she is going through Enlightenment also.

    As for Raymond it sounds like he may have more of a medical problem especially the fact he says he has problems functioning.


  • Gosh, there seem to be so many people with this distressing condition. My guess would be that there’s damage to some part of the brain that processes an awareness of emotion, but I think someone really has to study this using fMRI and other neurological techniques. If there has been brain damage it’s worth bearing in mind that the brain can learn to adjust. For example when someone has a stroke and loses the ability to speak, they often regain the ability as other, non-damaged, parts of the brain pick up the slack. Since meditation has been shown to promote brain growth, it’s possible that meditating might be part of the solution.

  • Hello I am experiencing similarily the same distressing phenomenon as Calm. I have a blankmind which I feel started from blocking the thoughts I had. I remember alot of them were negative so I blocked them and ever since have been blank. I cant pass interviews, have a hard time working, forming relationships. I cant think or form thoughts it takes so much energy for me to form a thought I feel drained. I have had tests done that all came back normal I lift weights and eat healthy. Only thing I can think of is some sort of brain damage. I rememebr over using a muscle supplement I had and had prolonged sensations of dizziness and headache but my stupid self kept taking it until I realized I should stop but have never been the same since. I have been to doctors who just prescribe meds which dont really focus on this numb mind feeling. Has anyone of the commentors been to a doctor about this yet? After all the power of our mind our thoughts, and ability to think creatively is what seperates us from the animals and makes us human so this isnt normal and I want to be human again. Btw I am 22 years old.

  • Sorry for late reply. I think you could be right Bodhipaksa perhaps I haven’t gone through Enlightenment as such but this “no mind” state I am in mirrors it somewhat. Also those who are Enlightened like you say are full of joy and happiness where as I often experience a total void no real ups or downs in life anymore. When someone at work or a casual acquaintance asks me how I am in honestly I don’t really feel anything but of course I don’t actually say that to them. I think the most frustrating thing is I can’t find any real answer for what I am experiencing it seems like some sort of ego death and part of my mind has somehow shutdown or died in a way especially the emotional side of things. I clearly remember I used to have emotional/affective energy with my mind, thoughts and thinking patterns. My thoughts had meaning and emotional impact but since nearly 2 years ago it’s gone. In fact what “numb” describes is very similar to what i experience. I do believe I have gone through an ego death because it’s like I can tell myself over and over again how great I am or the opposite I’m a failure etc and I feel nothing towards these states it doesn’t affect my self esteem at all.

    Well I don’t know anymore I am just trying to accept this way of life because it seems to me ever since a few years ago I had some of sort “awakening” which permanently changed my mind somehow and like “Numb” said it could be that for reason we practiced meditation incorrectly. I suppose in truth I can function fine, work fine no one (like my family) suspects I something is off with me etc so I just hope I am not developing some kind of mental condition but to be honest I haven’t really found anything that can explain my situation.

    Anyway thanks Bodhipaksa and everyone else here for the advice and replies.

  • Hi, Calm.

    I don’t honestly know whether a continuously silent mind is an aspect of Buddhist enlightenment. I don’t think I’ve heard that explicitly stated in the Pali canon, although it may be the case. I’d certainly imagine that an Arahant’s mind is pretty quiet, since the agitating emotional drivers of most kinds of thinking have gone.

    In second jhana there’s no thinking, but this is a state of great emotional positivity. It’s said that one who is enlightened can enter this state (or any of the other jhanas or ayatanas) at will.

    Enlightenment is always conceived of as being the most pleasurable state that can be experienced. It’s also seen as being inherently imbued with powerful lovingkindness and compassion.

    What you’ve described has some resonances with certain aspects of what enlightenment seems to be like, but the overlap seems to be very partial, and crucial affective components of enlightenment seem to be absent. Also, enlightenment is inherently a state free from suffering, and you’ve described yourself as experiencing great suffering.

    From all that, I’d conclude that you’re not experiencing enlightenment, but something quite different. But, hey, I may be wrong. I can’t see inside your head, and I don’t even quite understand your descriptions of your experience.

    In a way we’re all “close to enlightenment” since it may strike at any time. One minute you’re thinking you’re as far from awakening as you’ve even been, and the next — bam! — insight arises.

  • I know before probably what I posted was a bit extreme but I am coming to accept this “Silent Mind” state. Through reading a lot about “Enlightenment” and Buddism I am gaining more understanding about this shift I’ve had. I think for while I have been confused and concerned about this change in me and my mental state. I guess in a way I am free from suffering through my mind anyway. No matter what happens my mind is always peaceful and silent perhaps I thought I felt emotionally dead because I know longer identify so much with my thoughts and thinking. I am working on just being in the moment and trying to be positive. I do feel I am close to “Enlightenment”. Surely an Silent Mind is part of this process?

  • Hi Calm.

    You’ve described yourself as “worried” and “scared” and have said that your situation “sucks” that you feel “dead inside” and that suicide would be preferable. None of this sounds in any way like enlightenment, which is a by definition a state free from suffering. I really think you’re experiencing something else.

  • Hello again thanks Bodhipaksa for the reply. Well I do think I have reached “Enlightenment” or close. From what I understand those who are “Enlightened” have a silent mind, they can have a thought or have no thought they can control their thinking. This has been my reality for a sometime now. My mind is constantly calm and still I don’t need to meditate to get into this state I am like it naturally. I realize I am not my thoughts as in my view of myself before. My self image was an illusion my mind build up over most of my life.

    However it does seem I am having trouble feeling more positive emotions and I know although I get on well with others I am not approachable for some reason actually I would say at times my energy and “nothingness” I project creeps some people out. How can I project more positive energy?

    Also I did have some tests done last year (blood tests, hormones etc) which all came back normal. However I haven’t had any scans done or anything like that.

  • Calm: Enlightenment has a strong component not just of equanimity, but of positive emotion as well. Additionally, there’s a cognitive leap in understanding, which we call insight. Unless those two things are present (and you’ve described the opposite in terms of the emotions present) your experience doesn’t match the classic signs of enlightenment.

    The mind likes to create stories and “explanations” in order to make life seem more predictable, and therefore more secure, and I suspect that’s what’s going on when you’re trying to connect hypnosis and meditation with your present experience.

    I think it would be really interesting for you to be studied with neuroimaging technology, to see what goes on when you’re presented with something that would normally provoke an emotional response. I suspect that this would reveal what’s going on (and perhaps even why). I don’t know how you would go about achieving this, exactly, unless it’s through referral from your doctor, and probably via a chain of neurologists leading to someone with the appropriate interest, equipment, and skills.

  • “Pingback” isn’t a username, it’s a kind of automatic notification:

  • Hi again I don’t know who posted what I wrote on another forum. The user name “Pingback” posted one of my forum posts . It seems a bit wierd to me what is the purpose of it?

    Anyway after all this time nothing has changed from before I wrote here Bodhipaksa as much I don’t want to feel I could have a mental disorder it could be possible I know what I am experiencing (over a year now) can’t be normal. I have tried various things since I was on the here, exercising, better diet, jogging, socializing more etc. This makes no difference and I continue to have a essentially “blank” no affective/reactive mind. I should make it clear though I do still have thoughts but it’s like I’m almost just watching them, I have no emotional attatchment to my mind or thinking. It’s really strange to describe. Looking back now I did try different Hyponosis techniques and meditation practices including breathing exercises perhaps this could of caused some damage. Like “numb” mentioned sometime ago before meditation I always had racing thoughts, thinking non stop my thoughts often affected my mental/emotiona state. Slowly though meditation my mind started to quiet, more and more and got to the point where I only experienced conscous thoughts. Basically my mind is constantly still, non reactive yet I do still think of course otherwise I doubt i’ll be able to work.

    I guess though the main thing I don’t like about being in this state is I have NO ups or downs anymore, I am indifferent most of the time to pretty much everything. The only time I seem to experience any sort of emotion is laughter like when I watch a good comedy or something.

    Maybe I did reach “Enlightenment” and from I understand it is longterm (permamant).

  • I imagine it’s reassuring to assume there is something called “the placebo effect” as well, and that we know what this is… ;)

  • While I’m agnostic on the subject of demonic possession, interestingly cultures that believe in such have a 10x higher recovery rate from psychosis than “enlightened” Western nations:

    “Why transient psychoses with full recovery are 10 times more common in premodern cultures. Premodern cultures are more likely to ease the effects of stress and trauma—which may be evoking spontaneous trances—by providing social support and acceptance, altering family dynamics, expecting brief duration and full recovery, diagnosing a “spirit possession” illness, and using traditional healing practices.”

    • I’d imagine it’s reassuring to be given the explanation that there’s nothing wrong fundamentally with you, but you are being affected by some outside entity that can be prevented from affecting you. The placebo effect is very powerful.

      • Incidentally, there’s a great RadioLab show on the placebo effect, that includes (and I think even starts with) a story about a westerner who was initiated into shamanic medicine. What he did was fake, and he knew it was fake, but it still cured people! Here’s a link to the show:

  • I deleted a comment by a “born-again” the other day that explained how the problem of having no thoughts or an absence of feelings is caused by demonic possession. I’d forgotten that kind of thinking still existed. I suspect some kind of neurological damage unrelated to meditation is a more likely explanation.