Is the goal of meditation to turn off thinking and achieve an inner silence or no-mind state? Some teachers would answer yes, and some would answer definitely not. Very confusing to the beginning student of meditation!

Compounding the confusion is fear. Does meditation make one into a mindless zombie, subject to others' control, perhaps even vulnerable to demonic influence? Some ill-informed religious teachers go so far as to discourage meditation, forgetting what the Bible itself says: "Be still and know that I am the Lord."

The issue is not so much the presence or absence of thought activity during meditation; rather, it is the degree to which one's thought activity is driven, unconscious, and fixated.

Do the Thoughts Ever Stop?

A Buddhist monk says yes and explains how slowing the internal chatter can bring genuine peace. By Bhante Henepola Gunaratana

Most of us are literally addicted to thinking. Even the most addicted substance abuser can go a few hours between "fixes," but most human beings cannot abide even a few seconds without some sort of "thought fix." If there's nothing significant to think about, we fill the void with fantasy and trivia.

Simply stated, meditation breaks the addiction to thinking. One is then in a highly desirable situation. When you want to have a complete experience of hearing and feeling (for example, as you listen to music), you can do so without being pulled compulsively into thoughts that are not relevant to the music. When you want to have a complete experience of tasting and feeling, as when enjoying a bite of food, you can do that too.

On the other hand, when it is appropriate to think, you find that your thinking abilities are vastly improved. Breaking the compulsion to think simply means that the thinking process is no longer scattered by distracting forces. So when you turn your mind to some topic, you can penetrate that topic with great clarity and vigor. When thinking is no longer at the mercy of scattering forces, it becomes like a penetrating beam of coherent laser light. I'm quite convinced that this aspect of meditation makes a person a better student and problem solver and may actually raise one's IQ.

To illustrate a second, more subtle way that meditation improves thinking abilities, another metaphor may be helpful. When a person works through a compulsive eating problem, they certainly don't stop eating. In fact, they are able to taste and appreciate their food in an entirely new way. Similarly, when a person works through the compulsive need to have answers, the answers begin to come in an entirely new way. The thinking process becomes spontaneous and intuitive. Personal and spiritual insights well up effortlessly.

Breaking the compulsion to think simply means that the thinking process is no longer scattered by distracting forces.

At this point, there is no need to stop the thought process in order to be in a state of meditation because the thought process itself has returned to being part of the effortless flow of nature. Because this mode of thinking is so dramatically different from ordinary thought, each of the major spiritual traditions has a technical term for it. In Christianity it is called sophia; in Judaism, chochma; and in Buddhism, prajña.

Meditation offers two basic strategies for breaking our addiction to thought. The first is to let go constantly of distracting thoughts and return to one's focus--for example, the breath or a mantra. The second is to allow the thought to "do its thing" but to carefully observe it with detachment.

In order to better understand the thought process and how it relates to meditation, try this experiment. Sit down and take a minute to let your body settle. After you settle in, pay close attention to your thinking process. Your thoughts will tend to come either as internal talking, internal imaging, or both at the same time. The talking may take the form of words, phrases, or whole sentences. You may hear your own voice or the voice of other people.

The images may be quite clear and vision-like or just vague impressions of objects, faces, and situations. Take a hands-off approach to this sequence of internal dialogues and mind's-eye imagery. Give it permission to come and go, to start and stop, to speed up and slow down as it wishes. But be very alert! Every few seconds, there will be new words or sentences. Every few seconds, the pictures will change, perhaps slightly, perhaps totally. You may have mostly internal talking, mostly internal imaging, or some mixture of both.

In order to help you be precise and matter-of-fact about this process, try the following. Each time you begin to think in words or sentences, say out loud, "talking." Each time you get new pictures, say out loud, "imaging." If you get both at the same time say, "both." The words and the images may continue as you note them, or they may immediately die away. Either case is OK. The only goal is to be very clear at any given moment about whether you're thinking in words, images, or both.

During this experiment, there may be periods of time when you aren't thinking, and the mind is quiet and peaceful. When we take a hands-off attitude toward thought--not trying to suppress it, just observing it--the mind sometimes spontaneously stops of its own for a period of time.

Usually, but by no means inevitably, when you first begins to meditate, you are acutely aware of the surface conscious thoughts--that is, the ones that occur in clear images and words, especially words. As the thinking process becomes less driven, one also becomes aware of intervals of quiet and "subtle" processing. The mind is "fractal" in nature, like vegetation. After the big trees have been cut down, one becomes aware of both clear patches and the finer underbrush.

At any given moment, your mind will either be still or you will be thinking. If you're thinking, the thoughts will either be conscious or not. If they are conscious, they will either be in clear words or images or both. If you are thinking, but not in conscious words or images, then you are experiencing subtle processing.

You find that states of alert calm happen more frequently and last longer, simply because you have cleared out what gets in the way of this natural state.

From time to time, most of us become overwhelmed by negative thoughts--judgments about ourselves or others, worries and obsessions. If we can break down the negative thought as it is happening into the elements of clear talking, subtle talking, clear imaging and subtle imaging, we may find that we can observe these individual elements without getting caught in them. The negative thoughts then lose much of their gripping power. They are experienced more as releases from the deep mind and less as the sufferings of the surface mind. This is catharsis in the true sense of the original Greek, which literally means "cleaning out."

As this catharsis gains momentum, the forces that cause thought to be driven, unconscious, and fixated get worked through. You find that states of alert calm happen more frequently and last longer, simply because you have cleared out what gets in the way of this natural state. You are beginning to experience what the Bible refers to as "the peace that passeth understanding."

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