A while ago, I wrote briefly on the two types of meditation, namely, concentrative and contemplative (more here). An important exercise in contemplative meditation is to reflect on the nature of a thought, and one of the most defining moments in a meditator’s life is realization of the understanding that thoughts have no essence of their own.
Thoughts are not good or bad, right or wrong, moral or immoral, they are just thoughts. They take one or the other form based on how we pursue and deploy them. Let’s say you are passing through the woods and you come across a dry and thin branch of a tree lying on the ground. You can use it as a walking stick, or as firewood, or to protect yourself, or, hopefully not, even to beat up some poor animal.
What you do with the stick determines whether it is good or bad. On its own, the stick has little meaning. Similarly, the wise don’t feel guilty for having unwelcome thoughts. They know they don’t have to act on it. And by action, I’m not just referring to physical action but mental too (here). When we cling to a thought or follow its track, we are performing a mental karma, and, that, in turn, is the seed of all physical actions.
Good meditators, or even mindful people, transcend their thoughts by simply watching them. Most thoughts are random and fickle; they are not worth pursuing. Upon close examination, you will discover that thoughts are highly ephemeral and if you don’t hold on to them, they disappear exactly like bubbles in water. Whenever you are bothered by any lingering thought, simply ask yourself three questions and watch it become feeble in no time.
- From where has this thought originated?
- Where is it traveling?
- Where has it disappeared?
As you ponder on these, you will begin to understand the anatomy of a thought; basically, it is emptiness. They are empty. Thoughts have no definitive point of origin, no set course of travel, and no specific site of disappearance. When you see an object in a mirror, you can classify the sight as beautiful or ugly, desirable or otherwise but what happens when the mirror faces another mirror, when it looks at its own reflection, what will it see? The reflection will keep bouncing off each other infinitely. Similarly, when mind examines itself, it starts to disappear in its own vast existence.
Just like two pieces of wood can be rubbed together to produce fire and the same fire later consumes them both, intellect and concentration support the contemplative meditation but when the fire of insight arises, it consumes both giving way to pristine awareness. This is the ultimate state for a meditator — not only understanding the nature of thoughts and rising above them, but living in complete awareness.
Allow me to share beautiful verses from the Mahamudra instruction of Tilopa (a Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche translation).
Mists rise from the earth and vanish into space.
They go nowhere, nor do they stay.
Likewise, though thoughts arise,
Whenever you see your mind, the clouds of thinking clear.
Space is beyond color or shape.
It doesn’t take on color, black or white: it doesn’t change.
Likewise, your mind, in essence, is beyond color or shape.
It does not change because you do good or evil.
The darkness of a thousand eons cannot dim
The brilliant radiance that is the essence of the sun.
Likewise, eons of samsara cannot dim
The sheer clarity that is the essence of your mind.
Although you say space is empty,
You can’t say that space is “like this”.
Likewise, although mind is said to be sheer clarity,
There is nothing there: you can’t say “it’s like this”.
Thus, the nature of mind is inherently like space:
It includes everything you experience.
Stop all physical activity: sit naturally at ease.
Do not talk or speak: let sound be empty, like an echo.
Do not think about anything: look at experience beyond thought.
Your body has no core, hollow like bamboo.
Your mind goes beyond thought, open like space.
Let go of control and rest right there.
Like waves in the ocean disappear in the same sea they had originated from, thoughts emerge from and merge back into the same mind. Some start to surf these waves, but no matter how giant or exhilarating a wave, how beautiful the swell, how tidal the sea, how expert the surfer, the waves will toss him eventually. And this brings me to the moral of the story: there are no calming thoughts really, just like there are no stable waves.
A thought that’s appeasing today could well be disturbing tomorrow. For example, you love someone today and their thought brings you joy, tomorrow you may fall out and the same thought will give you grief. A good meditator knows that thoughts, at their best, can only calm the mind temporarily and intermittently. That the real solution lies in going beyond thoughts because like waves are waves and thoughts are thoughts. Some may be less displacing than others but ultimately they are destabilizing.
In the ocean of your mind, when it comes to the waves of thoughts, you have three choices , a, surf and accept the highs and lows, b, watch the waves and put up with the constant sound of the sea, c, move away from the ocean altogether. No one should tell you what to choose, you choose or alternate between these choices based on your own constitution.
Controlling the mind is not taming but curbing it; it’s a futile exercise, a vain path. Instead, an aware mind is the most tamed state any mind can have. A mind free of thoughts is the most calm state of a mind. The third best is an absorbed mind. When you await eagerly with the surfboard of your desires to ride the thought waves, be prepared for anything, for surprises, not all of which may be desirable.
Most beautiful music gushes forth naturally from a silent mind like waterfalls do from the Himalayan mountains. You’ve to see one to hear one, or, you have to hear one to see the other.