Passing Thoughts


By Sean Murphy  |  

When I was a child, the process of thinking fascinated me. I would choose a thought and trace back the chain of association that led, link by link, to its starting point, absorbed by its unpredictable twists and pivots, until at last I had come to the thought that began it all. And there I encountered a paradox that delighted me: The first thought in any chain of association always seemed to have floated up from nowhere, as though out of a great blank space, all by itself, without my having done anything to provoke it.

As I grew older, this fascination continued, leading me finally to the formal practice of meditation. Here, to my surprise, I encountered another seeming paradox: Although it had been the processes of philosophizing, pondering, and conjecturing that had led me here, none of these activities seemed to be of much use in the practice. If anything, they were an impediment.

I recently heard Wes Nisker, vipassana meditation teacher and coeditor of Inquiring Mind, describe how certain ancient cultures interpreted the voices in their heads that we call “thoughts” as the voices of the gods—something we would identify as a symptom of psychosis. But is it any less crazy to call these voices “ours”? In the view put forth by the Buddha, there are six senses that comprise human perception: The traditional five plus a sixth—thought.

From this perspective, the way that the mind perceives thought is no different from the way it perceives the information coming through the other senses. Thoughts simply arise in our awareness, as though of their own accord, out of the empty space of the mind, and the perceptions that arise in our “inside” world are no more “ours” than those of the “outside” world are. This apparent self that floats like a membrane between the worlds of inner and outer is like a partition in a single room. Our thoughts belong to us no more—nor less—than the sounds of a songbird. So what is it that makes thought so problematic in the practice of meditation? For one thing, conventional, linear thought is a surface phenomenon of the mind, which has much greater depths available—depths that will never be visible as long as its surface is stirred by the process of thinking. We must penetrate beyond the realm of thought if we are ever to discover the inherent limitlessness that lies beneath it.

Power of Thought

Most difficulties encountered in sitting practice can be traced back to thinking. Even hindrances such as pain, resistance, and boredom can become manageable once they no longer have the reinforcing power of thought behind them. Any moment of pain is ultimately bearable. What is unbearable is to project the pain into time, to add up how many minutes it has been going on, to wonder how much longer it will last or how much more we can take. To think about time in this way is in itself suffering.

My early experiences with formal practice were similar to anyone else’s: fraught with distraction, lethargy, and pain, as well as a mind that just wouldn’t quit. The basic instruction I received was simple, however far from easy. Take an object of focus-in the beginning this is generally the breath-and return the attention to it any time the mind may wander. When thought intervenes, notice this, acknowledge the thought, consciously release it, and return to the present moment. It is not a failure to find ourselves drawn away from the object of meditation; this is a natural aspect of training the mind. We do not need to strive toward some special state: If all we do for an entire sitting period is notice every time the mind drifts and then return it to the object, this is itself the practice of meditation.

I eventually realized that part of my problem was that I was letting my mind spin—in fact, encouraging it to do so—at the beginning of each meditation period. I figured that with a full half hour or more ahead of me, there was no harm in letting myself daydream for a few minutes before really getting down to it. But those few minutes became 10, then 20, and by then it was difficult, if not impossible, to rein my mind in for the balance of the period. I discovered that if I began to practice at the moment I sat down, my mind became much more cooperative and my sittings far deeper.

I continued to be taken in, however, by a number of seductive guises adopted by that ultimate trickster-thought. These included comparative/judgmental thinking: “All the other people here seem to be sitting so strongly; I’m just not cut out for this.” Or “So-and-so isn’t doing the practice correctly; he sits crooked, and she’s always nodding off. Why do they let them go on ruining it for the rest of us?”

Problem solving, it seems, also tends to be very important in the moment. But meditation is not self-improvement: Its purpose is to move us beyond the self, and if we get caught up in our own personal dramas, this will never take place. I am not talking about when a solution to a particularly knotty problem arises of its own accord, like a bubble rising to the top of a pond. When this happens or I get any thought that seems important, I imagine filing it away in a box in my mind, with the idea that it will be there when I’m finished meditating—and generally, it is.

I experienced a particularly anxious type of thinking early on in my practice, when I was away from my teacher for several months, working as a caretaker for a wilderness camp in the Maine woods. I began to experience in my sittings a sensation that began as a tightness of breath but developed to the point that whenever I sat down to meditate, I could scarcely get my breath at all. My heart would then begin to pound ferociously, until I thought, “Oh my god, I’m going to die.” I stopped sitting, and the problem ceased. But as soon as I returned to California, I shared my anxieties with Maezumi Roshi, Abbot of the Zen Center of Los Angeles, who was my teacher at that time. He just laughed. “Don’t worry,” he advised me. “That happens to everyone! Just go right through it.” And sure enough, in the next sitting period I did exactly that, and the symptoms vanished completely. It had been my thoughts and fears that had been holding them in place, and as soon as I released these, I was able to relax into the sensations, which disappeared, never to return again.

Luckily, there is hope for the thought-obsessed sitter. Although we cannot and should not try to stop our spinning minds through the power of will—techniques such as these can actually be dangerous—there are a number of approaches that can help a mind that just won’t stop.

Catch and Release

First of all, drop whatever method of meditation you are using and turn your attention to the thoughts themselves, as though looking for the exact spot from which the next one might arise, like a rabbit emerging from a hole. Thoughts sometimes become inordinately shy when the light of attention shines upon them. A variation on this idea is to try to “catch” each thought as it arises, holding it in the mind, seeing it clearly, and consciously releasing it. A useful adjunct to both practices, which I use in teaching writing, is to watch the mind for 10 minutes, writing down every thought that arises. While this indeed is not meditation, it is a useful way to become aware of these various movements of the mind and to release our identification with these movements.

The ultimate and perhaps most difficult approach for working with the mind is simply to be aware of our thoughts, while not getting caught in them. Maezumi Roshi gave me some pointers on this when clarifying Shikantaza, or “just sitting” practice. We should regard our thoughts, he said, as though they were clouds, watching them as they drift from one end of the mind to the other, but making no attempt to hold onto them-and when they pass over the horizon, as they inevitably will, making no attempt to grasp after them.

Eventually, as we continue with the practice, it becomes possible to simply watch the mind and not get caught up in its ever-changing array of distractions. We become less seduced by our thought processes, less identified with them, less liable to regard them as “me,” and more able to view them as just another part of the passing play of phenomena. The feeling of depth and openness that comes with moving beyond thoughts becomes more attractive than the endlessly confusing realm of chasing after them. Finally, we gain the ability to drop past the realm of thought and into pure awareness, until at last we sink even beyond the awareness itself to the state of complete absorption that Katagiri Roshi called “returning to silence.” My teacher, John Daido Loori, Abbot of Zen Mountain Monastery in upstate New York, puts it like this, “When the thoughts disappear, the thinker disappears as well.”

We must, however, continue to be rigorously honest with ourselves. Are we truly just watching our thoughts go by, or are we subtly feeding them, colluding with them? It is easy, as we develop in the practice, to drift into a neither-here-nor-there, half-thinking, half-practicing state. While relatively pleasant, such dreamlike states are not true meditation, and so we must abandon them if we are to come to real insight. As a sage once said, “Eternal vigilance is the price of freedom.”

Once during a weeklong retreat at Zen Mountain Monastery, on the third day of sesshin, when my resistances and tensions were at their peak, a thought rose to the surface of my mind with what I imagined at the time to be exquisite, bell-like clarity: I needed to leave the practice. It was too much like swimming upstream for my easy-going personality. I spent the afternoon elaborating on this notion, gathering my justifications and formulating explanations, until the time came for an interview with Shugen Sensei, Daido Roshi’s dharma heir, who was leading the retreat. I marched into the room with all the righteousness I could possibly muster, looked him straight in the eye, and announced, “I’m going to leave the practice.”

He looked at me. “Well, you can do that if you want,” he shrugged, “but what would you do then?”

I felt the wind go out of me like a punctured balloon. By accepting my self-justifications, by not opposing my ideas yet not being attached to them, he had punctured the whole thing, the entire inflated delusion I had gotten myself caught in. I returned to my cushion, gave up the web of thoughts I’d been spinning, and rededicated myself to the practice.

He was right. There was nothing else to do.