What is the greatest obstacle to deep meditation? If you ask a thousand spiritual seekers that question, the vast majority of them will give you some version of the same answer. “It’s the mind. It’s my busy, relentless mind. I just have so many thoughts. And this seemingly endless stream of thoughts prevents me from really going deep in meditation.”
I don’t know exactly where this rumor got started. But somewhere along the way, nearly all of us learned that meditation is about having a “quiet mind,” or eliminating the stream of thoughts, or at least finding a way to focus our mind or make it more “spiritual.”
And as a result, nearly everyone meditating today is engaged in a misguided–and often exasperating–project of trying to find a way to do something about their active mind.
Some of us are trying to get our mind to be quiet. Others are trying to get it to produce more peaceful and spiritual thoughts. And others are trying to find somewhere to place our attention other than our mind–such as our body, or God or our higher self.
The idea that meditation is about having a “still” mind is possibly the most pervasive assumption about meditation. Countless people have become frustrated and given up on meditation because they were unable to quiet the mind.
But what if I told you the mind wasn’t an obstacle to meditation? What if the presence of thoughts had no impact on your ability to meditate at all?
I teach meditation in a spiritual context, which means that the ultimate goal of the practice is the discovery of our true nature. It is a practice designed to open us to enlightened consciousness.
So, the question is: what does a quiet mind have to do with enlightened consciousness?
To answer this question, imagine what it would be like to go through your entire life without any thoughts. Now, take it a step further and imagine a world in which nobody was thinking anything at all. Ever.
It’s not a very inspiring picture, is it? If you take it far enough, you end up with the entire human race on intravenous feeding tubes lying there in a vegetative state. Not very enlightened, to say the least.
Now imagine an enlightened world–a world in which all human beings are awake to their higher nature, living in awakened consciousness. Clearly it’s not a world without thoughts. So is it a world in which everyone only thinks enlightened thoughts? Not exactly. And this brings us back to meditation.
Meditation is not about quieting the mind. Nor is it about training the mind to only think good or spiritual thoughts. Meditation, properly understood, is about transforming your relationship to the mind. It’s about cultivating the ability to disengage from the mind, to no longer identify with the mind, so that you can discern and discriminate which thoughts are worth listening to and acting on, and which ones aren’t.
What if you could learn how to not identify with your mind, to not compulsively engage with your thoughts? What if you could learn how, even when there are thoughts present, to not be lost in thoughts, to not mechanically follow the thought stream wherever it goes?
Our minds give us trouble because they are deeply conditioned to react in habitual and predictable ways based on past experiences. We’re all embedded in countless habits of mind that dictate much of our behavior.
Meditation has the potential to liberate you from the mind, which means that no matter how much thought is present, you’re not lost in it, you’re not compulsively believing it, you’re not at the effect of it, you’re not afraid of it.
Freedom from the mind means freedom in the face of the mind. It doesn’t mean freedom from having a mind. It means you are no longer enslaved to your conditioned mind.
So, next time you sit down to meditate, instead of trying to find a way to quiet your mind, simply make the decision to not engage with your mind. That means that when thoughts arise, even if they are very interesting thoughts, we choose not to give them our attention.
One of the things that will happen as you meditate in this way is that you’ll start to discover that you are not your thoughts, and that you are not even the generator of most of the thoughts you experience. Thoughts just arise spontaneously and somewhat mechanically without any volition on your part. They just keep surfacing; they keep arising on their own.
From this vantage point, you begin to see that there is a choice you have, which is to get interested in the content of the thought, to get involved in the thought–or to leave it alone.
As you continue with this practice, you eventually come upon a startling discovery–that the content of your mind doesn’t need to change in order for you to be able to meditate. In fact, the content of your mind doesn’t need to change for you to be awakened.
That’s because the mind is not the problem. Even having a very active mind is not a problem. In many ways, the power of this practice reveals itself more fully when you have an active mind because it’s in those moments that you can begin to discover directly that your true nature is already free, even when your mind is in chaos.
One of the primary insights of enlightenment is that nothing is an obstacle to your liberation. It doesn’t matter if you are in the midst of difficult circumstances, or are experiencing painful emotions, or have a very busy, active mind. You’re already free no matter what happens. Consciousness is not at the effect of what arises within it. Who and what you truly are is not governed by the content of your mind from one moment to the next.
If you had to have a quiet mind and a peaceful emotional state to be enlightened, I think it’s safe to say that nobody would have ever been enlightened in the history of the world.
Why? Because we’re human animals with extremely complex brains and deep survival instincts, living active, engaged lives, swept up in a powerful cultural momentum. Our minds are active and reactive in ways that are beyond our control.
Spiritual liberation begins to dawn when you discover that your thoughts and feelings have no control over you, that you don’t have to believe or even listen to your mind. In that realization, an extraordinary experience of inner freedom begins to emerge out of seemingly nowhere and it changes everything.
This inner freedom brings with it numerous remarkable qualities, but it’s worth noting that one of the most noticeable transformations that occurs as we awaken is a profound shift in our way of knowing.
The birth of awakened consciousness gives us access to a different kind of knowing than we can access through mere thinking alone. As we continue our practice of being free from the mind, we find that we begin to gain access to a new, holistic “wisdom capacity” that seems to come from beyond what we normally think of as “our mind.” This wellspring of spontaneously arising wisdom flows naturally and freely, meeting the needs of each moment with surprising accuracy and clarity.
At first, it almost seems like a supernatural ability. But over time, we realize that it is not so much supernatural as it is natural, organic and integrative. It includes our learned knowledge as well as things we never learned. It includes intuition, somatic or bodily knowing as well as “field knowing” or collective wisdom which organically integrates the perspectives of others.
It’s an integrative, holistic wisdom faculty which doesn’t reject thought. It transcends and includes it in a mysterious wider form of knowing that again and again demonstrates its reliability as a profound source of wisdom that we can relax into and trust to guide us.
A still mind is something we may experience in moments of meditation, but it’s not the ultimate goal, and if we become attached to it, it can even prevent us from discovering meditation’s true potential to catalyze spiritual awakening.
What is ultimately much more enlightening is learning how to let go of your mind regardless of how active it might be. By doing that, you discover the possibility of being free of your mind no matter what it’s doing, which is ultimately much more liberating than merely “shutting it up.”