Meditation Is Not About Quieting the Mind

Duncan Riach, Ph.D.
Jun 6 · 4 min read

I frequently interact with people on the topic of meditation. It seems that I’ve become perceived as somewhat of an expert on this subject. This might partly be because I’ve done a ton of it myself, but it might also be because I have a very different perspective on meditation than most people who talk and write about it.

Much of what I end up doing when I discuss meditation is dispelling myths about what meditation is. Recently, by email, someone lamented that he was having trouble quieting his mind. I felt compelled to tell him that meditation is not about quieting the mind. Why would you want to quiet the mind? If the mind is not quiet, whatever that means, then that’s what’s happening. There’s no need to quiet it; it’s exactly how it’s supposed to be. But also, the desire and apparent attempts to quiet the mind are also what is happening.

If anything, meditation is about noticing what’s happening: the struggling, the attempt to control, the thoughts, the feelings, the resistance. Meditation is not about searching for or finding some kind of peace. Meditation is about discovering the truth of what’s actually happening.

Meditation is also not about distracting yourself. Someone told me that she had discovered a great book that she could get lost in, so it was not necessary to meditate anymore as a way to escape. Meditation is the opposite of escape. Meditation is about being with what is happening, noticing it, and not running away from it.

One of my close family members suffers from high blood pressure, and I wish she would learn to meditate since there is overwhelming evidence that meditation reduces stress and lowers blood pressure. In fact, on it’s own it’s as effective as changes to diet and exercise and almost as effective as medication (but without all the side effects). Amongst many other benefits, meditation can help your body produce nitric oxide, a vasodilator, and in some cases can be used to treat medication-resistant hypertension.

When I asked this family member if she ever meditated, she told me that, “I like to sit down and think about things from time to time.” Meditation is not about thinking about things. Thinking might happen, but it’s not about thinking. Meditation is simply about noticing what is happening, starting with the sensations inside the body.

The instructions for meditation are actually very simple: set a timer, sit still, and notice what happens. Notice the sensations in the body, the breathing, the thoughts, the wanting to stop, the self-judgement, the fear, the irritation, and the anxiety. Notice all of it; just practice being with it. Notice the attempts to control the thoughts, the feelings, the sensations, the breath. As you do this, you will begin to discover some key aspects of reality, one of the most critical of which is that you’re not in control.

Nobody is in control. Thoughts happen, feelings happen, sensations happen, resistance happens, breathing happens. All of this happens effortlessly, with nobody actually doing it. The reduction in stress is caused by a loosening of the idea that there is someone in control. The discovery can arise, even for a few moments, that nobody is in control. Yet, even with no one in control, life goes on exactly as it always has.

The ultimate discovery is that there is nobody here at all and that there never has been. There is only the perfect freedom of what seems to be happening. That recognition can come and go, but it may become more pronounced when you’re sitting still with your eyes closed. I have to keep reminding people that this is not “dissolving of the ego.” This is the recognition that there never was an ego.

But before you go there, I can preemptively let you know that meditation is also not about recognizing no-self. If an illusion of self seems to be happening, then that’s what can be noticed. Meditation is really ultimately about equanimity: being aware of what is happening and not reacting to it, not pushing it away or grasping for it, and not fighting with it. However, if there is pulling or pushing or fighting then that can also be noticed. There’s no way of stopping or controlling any of that. There’s no control anywhere.

Meditation can lead to an increased recognition of the ever-present harmony of life. It can lead to reduced stress and lower blood pressure. Meditation can increase focus and creativity. But meditation is ineffective when it is made into a goal-oriented activity with an agenda. Not that there is anyone who could do that anyway.

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Duncan Riach, Ph.D.

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An engineer-psychologist focused on machine intelligence. I write from my own experience to support others in living more fulfilling lives | duncanriach.com

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