How to Quiet the Mind

William Miller

I often parrot the words of the old Zen masters: “In meditation, we let thoughts come and go, but we don’t serve them tea.” The Zen tradition is full of killer proverbs. This follows its general ethos of simplicity and wit over complexity and seriousness. Letting thoughts come and go is easy in theory but often quite difficult in practice. Many of the thoughts that hold us back most are like old friends that we’ve been waiting to see.

Buddhism’s venerated Four Noble Truths tell us that suffering is caused by attachment. They don’t elaborate on the fact that, especially in modern times, most people find deep comfort in day-to-day suffering. We find more ease in suffering than we do in the overcoming of it. The more comfortable people are, the more they prefer the familiar to the unfamiliar. Familiar suffering and mediocrity thus become prioritized over unfamiliar peace and honesty! This is why people are filled with fear, guilt and shame.

When we first start sitting, we try letting our thoughts come and go, but we often let the worst hooligans stick around because they’re most familiar. “Ah, hello, drinking too much, it’s great to see you. Why don’t you stay for a while? Good day, violent anger, I was just thinking about you! Oh and look— another friend, self-loathing, how I missed having you around!”

Most people who start meditating do so after years of letting layers of delusion and nonsense pile up all around them. Escaping your conditioning is no easy task, especially since it’s painted on pretty thick these days. People think they can assume a new personality just by putting on new clothes or talking a different way. We live in extremely materialistic times; people falsely believe that appearances accurately reflect reality. As a result, most people cannot distinguish between their genuine motivations and those that have been pounded into them from constant engagement with culture online, in media and in social situations also informed by these inputs.

Here’s where it’s easy to get overwhelmed. Starting a daily meditation practice seems daunting because, at first, it’s not always that comfortable. It’s the opposite of materialism— instead of faking and having a bunch of appearances to show for it, we do the real work and have nothing to show for it, because that’s the point.

On top of this, psychological stuff appears that you’d rather not deal with. The very impulse that makes materialism so easy for us makes the spiritual peace of meditation feel like a lot of work. Imagine a person sitting in front of you and calmly telling you everything that is inconsistent and delusional in your thinking, as well as everything beautiful and wonderful. Your mind does this to itself during meditation. It doesn’t castigate or loathe itself; it just puts all of its cards on the table. There’s no way to figure this out other than cutting out all the noise and reflecting. It’s why meditation “changes people’s lives”; it simply returns them to who they naturally are!

As such, we shouldn’t approach meditation as a bridge between us and a “better self”. You’re never becoming better; you are who you are. Get used to it. You can either reflect and settle into who you are (ie. make the most of it) or resist who you are and continue experiencing suffering, strange neuroses, and difficult relationships with others. Meditation is the most self-honest activity because, over time, we stop making judgments. We simply sit to sit. The true self emerges over time; it is the self that does not see itself as “becoming”. It is just “being”. It simply exists. In this mere existence, all of life’s concerns are resolved in the present moment.

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