Should your mind be completely empty, blank, and silent when meditating, utterly devoid of all thoughts? This is one of the most common questions people ask about the practice of meditation, and the answer varies depending on who you ask. But the simple, honest answer is: No. Thoughts are as natural as breathing, and almost as difficult to completely stop.
Freedom from Thought?
When great mystics implore us to be free from thought, to transcend the endless chattering of what Buddhists call the “monkey mind,” they don’t necessarily mean that we need to stop the stream of thought altogether. In fact, trying to bring the rushing thought-stream to a halt is a lot like trying to stop any other rushing stream with an incredibly strong momentum behind it. It isn’t easy. And when it comes to actively stopping the flow of your own mind, the attempt generally backfires, leading to aggravation, internal tension, and even more thinking.
It’s true that some advanced mystics, like Power of Now author Eckhart Tolle, say they experience states of completely thought-free bliss sometimes lasting up to three or four hours at a time. But unless you’re living in a Himalayan cave (or, like Tolle, spending years sitting quietly on a park bench), the movement of your mind probably isn’t going to come to a full and complete stop anytime soon.
So what’s a poor meditator to do?
Ignoring the Monkey Mind
Well, luckily for us we don’t have to stop the monkey mind to experience freedom from it. We just have to learn how to ignore it.
One of the best places to start is by learning how to meditate by focusing on your breathing. When you are doing nothing but sitting still and counting each breath you take, you will develop the capacity, over time, to exclude other thoughts from your mind so you don’t get distracted. That means you have to ignore other thoughts that aren’t related to counting each breath.
Eventually, your ability to focus and pay attention will become so refined that you’ll be able to maintain an awareness of your breathing even when your thoughts seem to be rolling over the plains of your mind like a tornado. And sooner or later, you’ll come to realize that no matter how active and noisy your mind is, there’s a part of you that is forever untouched by it–a silent Witness that is inherently still, awake, effortless, blissful, and free.