Non-thinking

February 23, 2017 § Leave a comment

evolution-of-thought-non-thinking

When Priest Yaoshan was sitting in meditation a monk asked, ”What do you think about, sitting in steadfast composure?”

 

Yaoshan said, “I think not thinking.”

 

The monk said, “How do you think not thinking?”

 

Yaoshan said, “Non-thinking.”

 

This brief Zen story may seem abstruse but when ‘thinking not thinking’ is interpreted as not following thought, it falls into place with meditation as the practice of continuous waking from distraction to the present moment.

We come to realize the extent of our distraction only after some attempts to practice being in the present moment. We find that our days have been spent watching thought play out on an inner screen. The stories we’ve projected about life, what people say about us, and what we think about ourselves, we’ve taken to be real. And we come to see that we’ve been interacting with these stories more than we have to the actual world.

To stop this we must first create an intention not to follow thought or, as Yaoshan said, ‘think not thinking.’ One way of doing this is described in the yoga aphorisms of Patanjali. He described thoughts as waves that have a certain force that must be countered by opposing waves of thought. Hateful thoughts, for example, are to be countered with thoughts of loving-kindness. By continually creating opposing waves of thought, the mind is eventually stilled.

In other practice thoughts are simply labeled as ‘thinking, thinking, thinking’. Emotions are identified as ‘fear, fear, fear’ or ‘boredom, boredom, boredom’, etc. The same is done with other distractions such as noises or physical discomfort. All distractions are labeled and the attention is returned to the present moment. In this way the mind uses thought to not follow thought.

Labeling thought has its place with simple distractions but there are more complex aggregates of thought and emotion that are not so easily named. These are the thoughts that are identified as self, and they naturally arise with thoughts that stand in opposition to the self. In psychology these opposing forces have many descriptors like the id and superego, the inner child and internalized parent or the underdog and the top dog. However they’re called, the conflict they produce may often make it impossible to simply sit and be in the present moment.

Holding these opposing forces up for thoughtful examination often helps to clarify and resolve conflicts. The aim is not so much psychoanalysis but a genuine attempt to realize these forces as merely thoughts that do not need to be followed or obeyed. When, for example, an inner parent has you feeling like a child again, by continually comparing your inner situation to the outer, i.e., the present moment, you come to realize that the parent exists only in your mind. Seeing this clearly means there is no need to follow the parent’s dictates, if they are not appropriate to the situation. It may have been in part related to these conflicts that Zen Master Dogen said, “Sometimes you study the way by casting off the mind. Sometimes you study the way by taking up the mind. Either way, study the way with thinking, and study the way with non-thinking.”

In the beginning of practice it is necessary to use thought to stop following thought. But when the intention not to think has become so established that it is carried out without thinking, as in a habit, thoughts are dropped automatically. Awareness of the present moment then arises naturally. That moment may still contain thoughts but they remain off to the side, so to speak. This alert awareness is non-thinking.

Non-thinking is not some far off goal. Whenever we are alert and momentarily not following thought; that is non-thinking. Whenever awareness is centered in the present, this is non-thinking. These may not be states that occur often in our practice but they are something we can experience today. And that is our practice, to take our isolated moments of non-thinking and turn them into a continuous string of never ending pearls.

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