Image © Photodisc Illustration/Getty Images
Image © Photodisc Illustration/Getty Images

People who are new to Zen practice have all kinds of weird ideas about the state of nonthinking. Some people envision it as some kind of trippy spaced-out sorta thing. I’ve even heard the term mushiryo (“not-thinking”) consciousness thrown around as if it was some way-cool and mysterious altered state. Some folks are even scared by the idea.

But it ain’t like that, folks. In fact, it feels real nice to stop thinking. And it’s not nearly as difficult as people want to make it seem.

You just kind of think not thinking.

It’s like this: If you start really paying attention to your own thought process—I’m talking here about the process itself and not just the contents of the individual thoughts that make it up—you’ll notice that thoughts don’t just go on and on continuously. There are little spaces between them. Most of us tend to habitually try and fill these spaces up with more thoughts as fast as we possibly can. But even the best of us can’t fill them all, so there are always little gaps. See, you might say that there are two basic kinds of thought. There are thoughts that pop up unannounced and uninvited in our brains for no reason we’re able to discern. These are just the results of previous thoughts and experiences that have left their traces in the neural pathways of our brains. You can’t do much to stop these, nor should you try. The other kind of thought is when we grab on to one of these streams of energy and start playing with it the way your mom always told you not to do with your wee-wee in front of the neighbors. We dig deep into these thoughts and roll around in them like a pig rolling in its own doo-doo, feeling all that delicious coolness and drinking deep of their lovely stink.

To practice “thinking not thinking,” all you need to do is ignore the first kind of thoughts and learn how not to instigate the second. This is easier said than done, of course. But get into the habit, and it begins to come naturally.

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