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All too often, we confuse meditation with concentration. Specifically, we attempt to lock our attention into a fixed, non-thought position. While there are meditation techniques that include one-pointed concentration on an object – the breath, a candle, a visualization, etc. – these techniques are mental exercises and alone do not constitute a complete path. Due to the oversimplification and commoditization of meditation and mindfulness, the word meditation has become synonymous with non-thought and the struggle to achieve that imagined state of mental stasis. Because it is quite difficult to fix the attention on one point without wavering or thinking, many meditators struggle with the practice, and either give up in frustration, pretend to meditate while inwardly feeling a sense of failure, or dedicate an enormous amount of effort in an attempt to stop mind from producing thoughts. None of those approaches are useful. In particular, if we do in fact set aside time to meditate, and then we spend all that time trying to tame the wild monkey of the mind by exerting the illusory mental effort of inner constraint and antagonism toward our own thoughts, then we are squandering that precious time in a practice that is ultimately fruitless. Instead, when we use our meditation time to practice present, fresh wakefulness, the benefits to ourselves and others become immediately obvious.
When a living being stops moving, it is dead. When a person ceases all thoughts, stops moving, and stops speaking, but remains alive, they are in a coma and we call them a “vegetable.” Dynamism is the mark of life, of energy, of function. Nothing in the universe ever stops moving entirely, and temporary stasis is almost always a sign of imbalance. Mental stasis is not the ultimate goal of meditation! The practices associated with letting go of thinking are exercises that we use to identify, on a very basic level, that we have the ability to choose what we are doing with our attention at any given moment. Because most of us spend most of the time thinking haphazardly and with no clear direction or attention, calm-abiding and mindfulness practices serve to introduce us to our capacity to direct the mind rather than be directed by fear and greed-based fantasies. Once we recognize that we can use our attention on purpose, then it is essential that we direct that attention somewhere useful, and not just shut it down entirely.
The effort to shut down the thinking mind often involves a kind of internal, concentrated self-suppression. We close our eyes and attempt to fixate on one thing, to the exclusion of all else. When we are meditating this way, distractions are distracting. We may hear sounds outside the room where we are sitting, and become distracted by those sounds. A person may enter the room and speak to us, breaking our concentration and interrupting our practice. We may become distracted by our physical sensations, our aches and pains, our hunger or thirst. We may fight the urge to make ourselves more comfortable, thinking, “I am meditating. I must sit still.” And of course, we are easily distracted by our thoughts. They keep coming up, and we keep shutting them down. Meditation becomes a battle between self – armed with the idea that thoughts are bad – and thoughts which arise like fast-growing weeds in our Zen garden. If the world happening around us becomes a source of distraction, that is a sign that we are over-concentrating. In fact, distractibility of any kind is a sign of over-control and self-suppression.
Of particular interest here is the quality of that over-control – the contraction of that concentration, the weight of that self-suppression. When we apply ourselves with willful, heavy effort to the task of suppressing our thoughts, we are engaging in a form of grasping – the very thing that meditation is supposed to help relieve. Meditation, at its root, is a practice to support us in letting go of control, letting go of the effort to shape ourselves and the world into a static ideal, and instead reside in ourselves and the world as is. True mindfulness is open, un-distractable welcoming of all that occurs, inside and out. The world, our bodies, and our minds, are all in a constant state of dynamic transformation, so the effort to stop the mind and control the world is in essence an essential expression of the mistaken view that we can hold on to things we like, and fend off things we don’t. The effortful suppression of thinking is a tiresome waste of our precious time, and the effortless openness is the essence of present moment wakefulness.
Imagine if a meditation instructor gave you a movie that contained the timeless wisdom of the Buddha, and then told you to put that movie on pause, and watch it on pause for days, months, years, to the exclusion of all else. Aside from the small benefit that is gained from learning to do something with diligence and consistency, watching a movie on pause, especially a movie that contains the wisdom of the Buddha, seems like a silly thing to do. We should watch the movie! When we are watching a Netflix movie on the computer, and the movie stops mid-frame, we give it a while to buffer, and then if it still doesn’t play, we refresh the browser. When we meditate, if we find ourselves hunkered down, holding on to concentration, forcing mind to submit to mentally imposed stasis, we should refresh our browser. Look up, look out, look around. See the movie of life! It is everywhere, and in it there is the wisdom of the enlightened ones.