Meditation is not about emptying your mind
Think the goal of meditation is to be free of thought? Think again.
If you’ve read anything or asked anyone about why you should meditate, then you’ll know the point of doing it is to improve pretty much any skill, attribute, or health marker you can think of.
It can help you achieve laser focus and maximum productivity. It can help you become super chill and able to deal with any stressor life throws at you. It can help you cure cancer or attain dazzling smooth skin, or why not both.
The list is endless.
It can even, if you do it long enough, help you achieve everlasting peace, boundless self and universal love, and increase the impact of your military organization or fortune 50 company ten-fold.
Among all the goals and objectives meditation is being used for today, by far the main one people come to it for is to help clear their minds and essentially stop thinking so god damn much.
No matter if you’re a beginner who hasn’t meditated a second in their life or a Tibetan yogic master who’s been doing it ten hours a day for half a century, meditation is often seen as a means of eternally stopping the continual stream of mental dribble that’s often running in the background of much our daily lives.
The typical approaches to dealing with such aimless and often bizarre jibber-jabber are three-fold: to distract yourself from it, to try and change it, or to deny and suppress it. Meditation offers a fourth approach: to cultivate a level of concentration on an object, such as the breath, to the point of being so absorbed in it and you achieve a thoughtless state, otherwise known as samadhi.
However, far from the point of meditation, the state of samadhi is rather just a step on the path. Albeit a highly desirable one that is often mistaken for and chased after as the ultimate goal of meditation.
It’s no surprise: the periods of being so absorbed in something that the distinction between you and the thing disappears has long been considered in many traditions as the whole point of meditation.
But the thoughtless state of samadhi is not the goal of meditation. And when considered as such, it in the end only leads to reliance on the state, the suppression and denial of thoughts, and discord within your internal landscape that splits you off further from yourself.
This is good news for those who think they can’t meditate because their minds are too busy. The fact is, the mind is a busy place and attempting to change that so it never fires up again is not only counterintuitive to the meditative approach, but is also highly undesirable.
There is no point in doing Meditation
If the point of meditation isn’t to empty the mind, then what is the point in doing it?
The question is a paradox. When you meditate, you’re not trying to get to a certain destination or achieve any particular goal. But the thing is, you’re also not just letting your body flop onto the ground or mindlessly fantasizing about a rough-and-tumble with Jamie from Highlander instead.
Whether it be to empty your mind of all thought, to destress, to relax, to improve your golf game, to make more money, or to achieve liberation, there is no end goal or point of doing meditation outside of doing it.
In this way, meditation is not something you do. Meditation is about recognizing a different way of being with your experience.
In Soto Zen, meditation is often talked about as the act of moving toward “the goal of goallessness”.
The catch is, you can only get there, if there is even anywhere to get to, if you give up the desire to achieve every goal, including the goal for goallessness.
Meditation is goalless because when you willfully strive towards making something happen in meditation, all you do is just end up getting more and more in your own way.
Of course, there is an intention so that you do move towards some kind of outcome by sitting still and meditating. Unless, that is, you have an infinite amount of time in your day—maybe you do now as everyone’s staying home thanks to Covid—or you get turned on by sore knees.
And, let’s face it, one of the known outcomes of meditation is a day-to-day state of mind that is free from endless self-criticism, self-obsession, regret, anxious worries about the future, and constant rumination about the past.
But problems start arising when we get caught in the trap of desiring and wanting such things—I.e. pretty much the state of mind of anyone who sits down to meditate in the first place.
When we want and desire and even expect certain outcomes, we are trying implicitly to get away from or change some aspect of our experience. Something is wrong, bad, broken, or incomplete. And if we’re lucky, we may even be able to transcend the whole shit show that is the human condition completely.
However subtly, whenever there is a striving to get away from or change our experience, we split ourselves in two: there is something, typically labeled as bad or negative, that needs to be changed or removed or gotten away from, and there is the sense of an “I” that is doing the changing, removing, or running.
This is what the mind is best at—chopping experience up into neat little parts so we can get things done, understand and communicate complex ideas, and navigate the external world of time and space.
But in meditation, there is nowhere we’re trying to get to and nothing we’re trying to do. In fact, we sit to become more and more aware of the mind’s incessant need to “do”, and to open up to the possibility of instead just “being”.
As you’re being all the time, being is not something else you can do. There’s literally not one thing you can do to be any more than you already are. You can’t be more by pushing yourself harder to become more aware. You can’t be more by striving to relax and act more naturally. You can’t be more by denying thought and pretending that you’re completely in acceptance of the present moment.
Being is what emerges when you become aware of all the ways you’re trying to make things different, all the ideas that are limiting your experience, all the worrying about reaching some sort of transcendent insight, all the assumptions of not being [enter your attribute of choice here] enough, all the striving to get rid of thoughts or even to not get rid of thoughts, all the trying to banish unpleasant aspects of yourself, and all the judging of your imperfect experience, and instead, you just be with it all, including all of the above, exactly as it is.
When things are allowed to be just as they are, things start to happen. One of those things is the mind naturally starts to quiet down. That is, when you stop incessantly trying to use the activity of the mind to manipulate the activity of the mind, then you go beyond dualistic ideas about what is possible, what you can and can’t do, what you like and dislike, how things should and shouldn't be, and what you are and what you are not, and you open up to realize what you’ve been looking for is already here.
It’s a bit like creating the conditions for a shy cat to come and sit with you. You don’t reach out and grab the cat and forcefully hold it down. You simply take your seat, set the intention to be still and allow things to be however they are, and then, you gradually realize that miss snuggles has already settled down and is softly purring on your lap.
By not trying to grab the pussy or, in other words, forceful trying and achieving the goal of stopping thoughts, you cease to reject and dismiss parts of your experience and measure them as better or worst over other parts. You don’t pit yourself against yourself, but relate to your whole experience a different way: softening the heart, and embracing all of what’s here no matter if you think you like it or not.
It’s important to stress this isn’t about denying what you want. You don’t pretend you wouldn’t love to be free of self-limiting thoughts and things like worry and regret. That would be to overlook what is here and to deny parts of yourself in an attempt to get over there—to some higher, better goal. There is no goal in meditation outside of opening up to what’s already happening—and that includes your desire to be free of thought and to not desire things to be different—with the trust and patience of knowing you are much greater than the mere contents of your thoughts.
So, if you think you can’t meditate because your mind is too busy, you may want to give it a second thought. Or better yet, don’t think about it at all—but also don’t try and not think about it.
Just take your seat, set your intentions to help you be with what arises, and drop the need to always try and change your experience or strive toward some higher goal.
Oh, and don’t be too surprised if your pets decide to join you.
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