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Non-meditators, beginners, and long-time Buddhist practitioners alike tend to believe meditation is all about stopping our thoughts. This is a serious misunderstanding, and, sadly, keeps many people from embracing the practice of meditation. It’s very important to understand the true purpose and function of meditation, because the vast majority of us find it impossible to stop our thoughts, at least through willful effort. Thank goodness the benefits of meditation don’t depend on us doing so! Even the rare person who has the mental control to suppress thoughts for periods of time finds this is not really the point of meditation.

In this episode, I talk about why we long to be thought-free. Then I discuss how meditation is not about stopping thought, but instead is a practice of diligently and repeatedly turning our attention to something beyond thought, thereby realigning our whole being. Meditation requires diligence and determination, but also patience, humility, and faith.



Quicklinks to Content:
Our Longing to be Free from Thought
The Thought-Free State of Samadhi
Meditation Is Not a Matter of Thinking (or Not Thinking)
Accepting Our Busy-Mind Karma
Meditation Is a Practice, Not a Result
Meditation Does Not Mean to Become as If Dead

Our Longing to be Free from Thought

When people hear I’m a Zen Buddhist, they often respond by saying something like, “I tried meditation but I’m no good at it, I can’t stop thinking.” If I inquire further, it usually becomes clear that when people experience lots of thoughts in meditation, they either conclude the exercise is a waste of time, or they find the experience of sitting with their thoughts unpleasant, if not unbearable.

Meditation and thoughtsFacing the state of your mind in meditation can be uncomfortable for a number of reasons. First, there may be things in your life you really don’t want to look at or accept. Second, the content of your thoughts may be negative, painful, or repetitive – think endless self-criticism, obsession, remorse, anxious worries about the future, perseverating on past events, etc. Third, the content of your mind may be fairly innocuous or even pleasant, but the ceaseless and meandering train of thoughts becomes exhausting and pointless. Even worse, some of us with busy minds feel like the first few years of meditation are like sitting down to stare into a blender; the sheer quantity of thoughts, whirling around more or less randomly, is dizzying and distressing.

Lending additional discomfort to all of these face-your-mind scenarios is the sense that “you” have almost no control over what’s going on in your mind. You bring your mind back to your breath or the present moment… and in a split second it’s off again. This process happens over and over and over, and for many of us, with diligent effort in meditation, that split second lengthens gradually over the years to a whole second, or maybe two. Prolonged periods free from thought continue to elude us, except maybe for a brief time in the middle of an intensive week of meditation at a silent retreat.

It can really feel like gaining even a few minutes of freedom from thought is a nearly insurmountable, exhausting task, like moving all the sand off a beach using a teaspoon. Faced with this task, many people give up meditation entirely. Those of us who don’t give up find ourselves making countless trips carefully balancing a teaspoon full of sand, and no matter how carefully we walk, we watch the grains slide down the sides of the pile, over the edge of the spoon, and fall to the ground. We may frequently doubt whether the effort is worth it, and harbor fantasies about some other kind of spiritual practice where they give you a shovel instead of a spoon, or don’t even ask you to move the sand off a god-forsaken beach.

Why do we long for a thoughtless state, anyway? What keeps us acting like crazy people, moving sand off a beach with a teaspoon? (That is, meditating.) I think it’s because we’ve all tasted moments of inner silence, and they’re wonderful. The din and clamor of our usual train (or blender) of thought quiets down. We come out of our thought-centered trance and look around, suddenly aware of so much more: The miracle of our breathing, the nearness of a loved one, the steadfast posture of a tree. For a time, we exist in a place untouched and undefiled by our usual thoughts of inadequacy, arrogance, or resentment. In the stillness of our more or less thoughtless moments – which may or may not have happened during meditation – then next moment seems full of possibilities instead of constrained by the momentum of our karmic habits.

The Thought-Free State of Samadhi

Moments free from thought are brief tastes of what Buddhism calls “samadhi.” Samadhi is typically translated as “concentration,” “meditative absorption,” or “one-pointedness.” If you want to learn more about samadhi, I discuss it at length in Episode 83 – Two Paths to Meditative Concentration: Directed Effort Versus Letting Go. Suffice it to say, here, samadhi is a calm, clear state of mind where all dualistic thinking has ceased (or become very, very quiet and intermittent) and therefore there is no sense of separation from your experience. As pleasant as samadhi can be, it’s not an end in itself in Buddhism. When we strengthen our samadhi and are able to abide in it for at least short periods of time, we’re able to investigate and perceive aspects of self and reality we’re usually oblivious to: Emptiness, boundlessness, suchness, etc. If samadhi doesn’t function by leading us to greater wisdom, it’s just a temporary state that won’t do the rest of our lives much good at all. If we’re attached to that temporary state, we feel great when we manage to achieve some samadhi, but then it passes and we probably feel even more miserable because we’ve lost the rarified, elusive state where we feel okay.

In any case, whether samadhi is merely enjoyed or used for cultivating insight, doesn’t all of this mean samadhi is the goal of our meditation? Doesn’t this mean, by extension, the ultimate goal of meditation is stopping our thoughts? The answers to both of these questions – you probably won’t be surprised – is “yes” and “no.” Yes, complete fulfillment of the Buddhist path entails the cultivation of samadhi and the achievement of insight, although even insight isn’t a goal in and of itself, but is only sought insofar as it liberates self and other from suffering. Yes, we are encouraged to deepen and strengthen our meditation in order to experience samadhi more often and for longer periods of time. Yes, we dedicate ourselves to our chosen form of meditation, hoping for more and more moments spent awakened from our habitual thought-centered trance.

But no, samadhi is not the goal of our meditation because it is not something that can be achieved as a goal in the ordinary sense. As soon as we set up a goal, we are separated from it. In our minds, we create an “I” who is striving on the meditation seat to achieve some state we do not currently have. Naturally, such an approach will drive samadhi – a state of non-dual awareness – far away. Therefore, no, the practice of meditation is not about stopping our thoughts, because that involves setting up samadhi as a goal and striving for it. What we do in meditation is patiently create the right conditions for samadhi, and then sometimes we’re blessed with the experience. It’s like creating a lap for a shy cat; you can’t reach out for the cat, grab it, or try to hold it. If you want it to come curl up on your lap, it’s probably best to sit really still and pretend you don’t even care if the cat comes over.

Besides, stopping our thoughts is impossible anyway, and what kind of path would Buddhism be if its primary practice was impossible? Plus, as I will discuss shortly, there are benefits to meditation that have nothing to do with achieving identifiable moments of “samadhi.”

Meditation Is Not a Matter of Thinking (or Not Thinking)

So, what is meditation about if it’s not about stopping our thoughts? Surely, it’s not about just sitting there in our habitual, thought-centered trance!

This is tricky, so bear with me. Even if, ultimately, we hope for some freedom from our thoughts, we can’t aim for that aspiration directly. That is, we can’t stop the activity of the mind with more activity of the mind. Instead, we have to do something clever to bypass the mind entirely, like directing our attention to a meditative object, or surrendering to a letting go practice like shikantaza, whenever we wake up from our thought-centered trance. And when we apply our meditative practice, we have to do so very gently, without the hint of an agenda, or the mind will get wise to our effort and infiltrate the whole operation.

There’s a classic Zen word describing the state of mind we’re aiming for in zazen, or Zen meditation: hishiryo, usually translated as “non-thinking.” “Shiryo” means “thinking,” and “hi” is a prefix of negation or opposition, according to Rev. Tairyu Tsunoda of Kamazawa University, author of a short essay titled “Hishiryo.”[i] (A pdf of the essay can be found on the website of the Japanese Soto School, https://global.sotozen-net.or.jp/eng/library/key_terms/pdf/key_terms08.pdf). The word hishiryo is used in a number of places in Zen literature, including koans, and in Zen master Dogen’s essay, “Fukanzazengi,” or “Universally Recommended Instructions for Zazen.” Here’s a famous passage from Fukanzazengi:

“Once you have adjusted your posture, take a breath and exhale fully, rock your body right and left, and settle into steady, immovable sitting. Think of not thinking. Not thinking—what kind of thinking is that?  Nonthinking. [hishiryo] This is the essential art of zazen.”[ii]

At first glance it may seem like hishiryo just means not thinking, or the absence of thoughts. However, Tsunoda says this is not what hishiryo is, and offers an additional translation I like: “not the matter of thinking.” Although Dogen says that in zazen you should, “Give up the operations of mind, intellect, and consciousness; [and] stop measuring with thoughts, ideas, and views,” Tsunoda explains:

“To stop ‘the operation of mind, intellect, and consciousness’ and to stop ‘measuring with thoughts, ideas, and views’ does not mean to totally stop all mental activities. To stop ‘operation’ and ‘measuring’ means stopping arbitrary thought and calculations, rather than maintaining a state of having no thoughts during zazen. The idea of having no thoughts is itself an arbitrary thought.”[iii]

To me, Tsunoda’s words point to the fact we aren’t striving for a thoughtless state in meditation, but instead that meditation is about giving up our attachment to thinking. When we notice our discriminating mind, intellect, and self-consciousness are operating again, we give them up. When we notice we’re measuring with thoughts, ideas, and views – including, or especially, ideas about meditation – we let go of that effort. Contemporary Japanese Zen master Uchiyama Roshi called this “opening the hand of thought.”[iv]

In his essay on hishiryo, Rev. Tsunoda explains further how hishiryo isn’t about stopping all mental activities. He says there’s a second version of Dogen’s Fukanzazengi – one bearing his signature – where the passage about non-thinking is replaced by this one:

“When a thought arises, be aware of it. When you are aware of it, it will disappear. Continuously put aside everything outside and make yourself into one piece.”[v]

That’s all we have to do is be aware of thoughts when they arise! We don’t have to analyze them, push them away, reject them, or figure out a way to prevent new thoughts from arising. None of that is compatible with meditation, anyway. And then, every time we open the hand of thought and allow a thought to slip away, we direct our mind to our meditative object or practice. In the Zen practice of shikantaza, we return to the simple, physical act of just sitting, still and upright. In other forms of meditation, you return your attention to your breathing, or a koan, or some other object or practice. In all cases, the meditative practice is not a matter of thinking. It’s also not a matter of not thinking. Meditation is about circumventing the whole realm of thinking and not thinking, dedicating ourselves to an activity that does not depend on thought – even thoughts about how to stop thoughts.

Accepting Our Busy-Mind Karma

Still, even when we’ve repeatedly been instructed to patiently apply ourselves to our meditative practice and give up expectations of being free from thought, it’s difficult for most of us to accept the almost-nonstop chatter in our own heads. We still long for a still, silent, thoughtless state – or, at least the part of us that has chosen to meditate longs for it. (Obviously, other parts of us are perfectly happy to continue thinking.) We stubbornly cling to the idea that our meditation should involve much less thinking than it does. The continued presence of thoughts tells us there’s something wrong – either with the form of meditation we’re practicing, or with us as practitioners. Whatever’s supposed to happen in meditation, it can’t be this endless stream of painful, depressing, anxious, or pointless thoughts!

Unfortunately, most of us are going to have to endure that endless stream of thoughts if we’re going to experience the benefits of meditation. Does our meditation get quieter over time? All little bit. People vary, but generally speaking, many years of diligent meditation practice will result in your mind slowing down somewhat, and you’ll be rewarded with the occasional moment or two of a lovely, thoughtless taste of samadhi.

However, the pace and degree of change is usually very slow – so slow, talking about it may discourage new meditators! For example, I definitely had a blender-mind when I first started sitting. After 25 years, my typical mind state in meditation involves an endless train of thoughts, one thought linked to the next like train cars, but the whole train is moving at a fairly stately pace. I can see gaps between the cars. However, such a train still has an awful lot of momentum, and usually barrels right through my intentions to sit calmly in a thought-free zone. Occasionally the train grinds to a halt… but here’s where the metaphor falls apart because it accelerates again much quicker than a train can. I’ve done about 50 week-long meditation retreats, so I have gotten to the point where my mind gets quiet for extended periods on retreat… but it takes a lot of work, and thoughts still invade my samadhi with regularity. This probably doesn’t sound like much improvement after 25 years of meditating!

For some of us, maintaining a meditation practice over the years requires considerable determination, patience, humility, and faith. It’s really not fun to sit face-to-face with your own painful memories, worries, regrets, difficult emotions, and negative thought patterns. However, it’s better to face these things than ignore them, and over time you may find these things shifting and changing under the light of your awareness. It’s also not very pleasurable to sit face-to-face with your own, busy, relentless, stupid mind as it spews out more or less random or irrelevant thoughts throughout your whole meditation. And even if your thoughts are pleasurable or entertaining, it’s extremely humbling to sit down to meditation with every intention of giving up the operations of mind, intellect, and self-consciousness, only to find yourself repeatedly pulled into a thought-centered trance. Believe me, I know from long, personal experience.

Meditation Is a Practice, Not a Result

Fortunately, the essence of meditation is a realignment of our whole person, and that realignment doesn’t depend on achieving samadhi. As we sit, we spontaneously awaken over and over again from a trance-like state where we’re completely mesmerized by our own thoughts. We circumvent the whole realm of thinking and not thinking, dedicating ourselves to an activity that does not depend on thought. When we awaken, we then direct our attention to something beyond thought – our breath, physical sensations, a meditative object, or a practice like just sitting (shikantaza). We get caught up in the trance again soon enough, but that doesn’t really matter – the important thing is that we have recognized our thoughts aren’t everything.

Over time, we can become less and less identified with our thoughts, and more identified with our embodied awareness. Our awareness allows us to perceive sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and touch as well as thought. Our thoughts are only a part of our experience, and moreover they constantly change, conflict with one another, sometimes cause us suffering, and are largely beyond our control. We can pay attention to thoughts as potentially useful input as we navigate our lives, but they gradually become less entrancing, compelling, distracting, paralyzing, and painful. Meditation actually makes it possible for us to abide by the popular saying, “Don’t believe everything you think!”

The thing is, meditation is a practice, not a result. Meditation is what we do when we awaken from that thought-centered trance, over and over – namely, return our attention to our simple, meditative object or practice. The more patient, subtle, gentle, humble, nonjudgmental, and non-greedy we can be during that critical moment of return, the quieter our meditation will become. Much of the transformation brought about by meditation is physical and unconscious, beyond our ability to perceive, understand, or quantify. Even when the sweetness of samadhi seems far beyond our grasp, our meditation is worth it.

Meditation Does Not Mean to Become as If Dead

In his book Opening the Hand of Thought, Uchiyama Roshi uses a diagram of a person sitting in meditation to illustrate how this process of return is the essence of meditation itself. The reality of the person’s meditation is marked by a timeline, ZZ’ – Z is the beginning, Z’ is the end. Over the course of the meditation, moving from Z to Z’, the person mentally “departs” from the line, either by drifting upwards into thought, or by drifting downwards into dullness or sleepiness. One lively or sleepy thought draws us away from the reality of ZZ’, where we’re just quietly sitting in meditation, and then that thought leads to another and another, and soon we’re mentally far from ZZ’. Then we remember what we’re doing and return to ZZ’, over and over.

The point Uchiyama Roshi wanted to make with this diagram is that yes, our “goal” in meditation to keep to ZZ’, which is the reality of our life right now. However, he says:

“The reason I have taken it upon myself to try to explain with diagrams what is actually happening during zazen is this: people tend to think that doing zazen means to aim at the line ZZ’, to train and discipline their minds, and finally to hold unwaveringly to ZZ’ itself. I wish to make it clear that zazen as real life… is not like that.”[vi]

Uchiyama explains that to hold straight to ZZ’ would be to become dead, like a rock. We are pulled off ZZ’ by our desires and delusions, but the point is not to extinguish our desires and delusions, which ultimately will only be extinguished by death. Instead, through meditation, we learn to relate to everything as what Uchiyama Roshi calls “the scenery of our life.” “There is scenery only where there is life,” Uchiyama says, and everything – happiness, unhappiness, delusion, craving, thoughts, meditation – is part of our scenery. However, he says:

“Because we plunge into this scenery, become carried away by it, and end up running helter-skelter, we become frantic and we suffer. In zazen, even though various lifelike images appear to us, we are able to see this scenery of life for what it is by waking up to ZZ’… We aim at ZZ’ even though we have a tendency to diverge from it. The very attitude of returning to ZZ’ and waking up is most important for practicing zazen as the foundation of life.”[vii]

So, as much as possible, we diligently apply ourselves to our meditation without hoping to magically become free of our humanness. It’s the attitude we have when we return to ZZ’ that makes all the difference, so if we can patiently and lovingly accept – and endure – our busy minds, our meditation can only improve. And, if you think about, if meditation is primarily about the critical moment of awakening from the thought-centered trance and returning to reality, the busier your mind is, the more opportunities you’ll have to do that.



[i] “Hishiryo (non-thinking)” by Rev. Tairyu Tsunoda, Komazawa University. Translated by Rev. Issho Fujita, Assisted by Rev. Tonen O’Connor and Rev. Zuiko Redding. https://global.sotozen-net.or.jp/eng/library/key_terms/pdf/key_terms08.pdf
[ii] Translation from the Japanese Soto Shu (School) website: https://global.sotozen-net.or.jp/eng/practice/sutra/pdf/03/c01.pdf
[iii] “Hishiryo (non-thinking)” by Rev. Tairyu Tsunoda (see endnote #1)
[iv] Uchiyama, Kosho. Opening the Hand of Thought: Foundations of Zen Buddhist Practice. Tom Wright (Translator), Jisho Warner (Translator), Shohaku Okumura (Translator). Somerville, MA: Wisdom Publications, 2004.
[v] “Hishiryo (non-thinking)” by Rev. Tairyu Tsunoda (see endnote #1)
[vi] See endnote #4
[vii] See endnote #4


Facing Extinction 2: A Personal Journal (Nov 14-22)
123 – Engaging Our Climate Emergency as a Koan and Opportunity