One 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.”