It’s not about clearing your mind

In Zen Buddhism, teachers sometimes use short stories or questions called koans to open students’ minds. They’re illogical as a sort of trick. Here’s one of my favorites:

Two monks were watching a flag flapping in the wind. One said to the other, “The flag is moving.”
The other replied, “The wind is moving.”
Another, more senior monk overheard this, and said, “Not the flag, not the wind; mind is moving.”

Isn’t that powerful? The punchline empties the mind. Flag or wind? Neither. Out of habit, the mind searches for an answer, some solid, permanent footing. But like in life, there is none. Koans produce in an instant what meditation cultivates through sitting practice: an empty but alert mind. “The koan mind does not dwell; instead it is alive — and empty — like a dust mote in a ray of the sun,” writes Zen writing teacher Natalie Goldberg.

But many assume just the opposite about meditation, that it’s about not thinking and “blissing out,” and that this is what enlightenment is. Meditation doesn’t stop thoughts — by establishing an anchor, such as the breath, parts of the body, or sound, it creates the space to practice watching them come and go.

This appears to the non-meditator as counterintuitive, absurd even. Thoughts are necessary. We couldn’t get out of bed without thinking. But try to watch your thoughts right now — they jump from one to the next and wrap around themselves leading to nowhere. Should I do the laundry? I’m tired. I should work really hard tomorrow though. Why do people commute far to jobs they don’t like? This rhythm we could call discursive thinking. The Latin discursus means “a running about,” and running about from thought to thought seems to be my mind’s default setting. I worry, fantasize, replay, and judge myself — it’s exhausting. In meditation we sit with a comfortable but alert posture and watch our breath or feel our body or listen to sounds, and over time we begin to watch our discursive thoughts come and then go. The mind is emptied, but so it can be filled with our attention on one of the anchors (breath, body, sound.) We relax. They’re just thoughts, not our mother dying, or losing our job, or getting our heart broken.

Sometimes on the cushion I can’t help laughing as I watch myself worry and plan or replay a tough conversation I’ve just had; and I get attached to these thoughts as if they were solid and real; and my body takes its cue from these thoughts and tenses. But if I’m grounded I remember that discursive thoughts are fickle and unpredictable like waves on the ocean’s surface. They’re just thoughts, not real or necessarily true, and not always connected with the deeper tidal rhythms that make up my life. I come back to my breath. Ah, another thought. Breath in, breath out. This is the ideal state that meditation practice cultivates, and it’s rare, but ultimately worth trying for.

Here’s Thich Nhat Hanh:

“If you make a lot of effort when you sit, you become tense and that creates pain all over your body. Sitting should be pleasant. When you turn on the television in your living room, you can sit for hours without suffering. Yet when you sit for meditation, you suffer. Why? Because you struggle. You want to succeed in your meditation, and so you fight. When you are watching television you don’t fight. You have to learn how to sit without fighting. If you know how to sit like that, sitting is very pleasant.”

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