Is the purpose of meditation to stop thinking?

If you have begun meditation practice and find yourself frustrated because you just can’t stop thinking while meditating, relax. Buddhist meditation is not about stopping thoughts or emotions.

Humans can’t deliberately stop thinking any more than they can will themselves to stop digesting. But this doesn’t have to be a problem. Thinking is simply what minds do; the only problem is when we get caught up in the thoughts and react to them automatically, without consideration. Accepting that is easier said than done, of course. Usually one of the first things we notice when we begin to meditate is how busy our heads are. We discover the “monkey mind” and how hard it is to maintain focus even for a few seconds, as thoughts swing about uncontrollably in our heads like wild monkeys. Even though we can’t stop thoughts, however, we can strengthen our focus and stabilize the mind so we don’t indulge every thought that arises.

In all contemplative schools of Buddhism, beginners are advised to watch thoughts as they arise and pass away. In the early scriptures, the Buddha advised his disciples to be especially vigilant about thoughts that gave rise to the three poisons of greed, hatred, and delusion. Recognize such thoughts as unskillful and don’t dwell on them, he said. In time, such thoughts lose their grip and fade away. Conversely, the Buddha advised disciples to cultivate skillful thoughts that give rise to generosity, compassion, wisdom, and the like when they arise.

Zen and Tibetan Buddhist teachers have compared the mind to a mirror. Just as reflections leave no trace on a mirror, our thoughts and emotions are reflections leaving no permanent trace on the mind. Another metaphor compares the mind to the vast, open sky, and thoughts and emotions to the clouds that pass by. What’s important is to let thoughts and emotions arise and fade without identifying them as “self.” In time, we experience thoughts as passing sensations, just as we might feel the warmth of the sun or a cool breeze.


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