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.
When you start doing this, you’ll begin to notice that your thoughts never just appear all at once fully verbalized. They start out much more nebulous, and you sort of shape them into stuff you can tell your friends or write down in a book or whatever. If you don’t understand what I’m talking about here, just put this magazine down for a second, get out a pencil and paper, and try to write down whatever it is you’re thinking about right now.
Did you try it? Even if you were just thinking, “The guy who wrote this doesn’t know what the hell he’s talking about,” it’s pretty interesting how difficult it can be to just turn your nebulous thoughts into something solid like that.
Now try to look at the natural spaces between thoughts. Learn what it feels like to just stop generating more and more stuff for your brain to chew on. Now see if you can do that for longer and longer periods. A couple of seconds is fine. Voilà! Thinking not thinking!
One thing about thinking that few of us ever really, uh, think about is the fact that thinking actually takes a certain amount of effort. We often hear the word ruminate used in reference to going over stuff in our heads. The word ruminate, though, literally refers to what cows do when they barf up half-digested food and chew it some more before swallowing it again. That’s kind of an apt analogy for what we do in our heads. Only with cows, this activity performs a useful function in digestion. In human beings its usefulness is a little more doubtful. The trick to not thinking is not adding energy to the equation in an effort to forcibly stop thinking from happening. It’s more a matter of subtracting energy from the equation in order not to barf the thoughts up and start chewing them over again. This is easier said than done, of course, like most things worth doing. But work on it for a while, and eventually you’ll get the hang of it.
And if you find you just can’t do this on certain days, no problem. Everyone has days like that. Everyone. Me, you, Dogen, the Dalai Lama, all of us. Effort is more important than so-called success because effort is a real thing. What we call “success” is just the manifestation of our mind’s ability to categorize things. This is “success.” That is “failure.” Who says? You says. That’s all. Reality is what it is, beyond all concepts of success and failure.
From Sit Down and Shut Up, © 2007 by Brad Warner. Reprinted with permission of New World Library
Sign up for Tricycle’s newsletters
Thank you for subscribing to Tricycle! As a nonprofit, we depend on readers like you to keep Buddhist teachings and practices widely available.