True Meditation: A Quiet Mind Versus A Silent Mind
“To ask the mind to kill itself is like making the thief the policeman. He will go with you and pretend to catch the thief, but nothing will be gained. So you must turn inward and see where the mind rises from, and then it will cease to exist.”
~ Ramana Maharshi, ‘Who Am I?’
A Quiet Mind versus a Silent Mind is a key discernment with vast implications.
The following is based in actual experience, and derives from insights I had, not theory or concepts. They have since then been corroborated by various sage’s experiences.
While this article uses some of the concepts you may have heard or will hear in spiritual talks or literature, as well as quotes that confirm or resonate with it, the raw experience of “seeing” the truth of it, is what makes it integral and seamless, or real. Hopefully it will become real for you too.
This exploration is regarding a very important distinction between what we will call a “quiet mind” and a truly silent mind, the latter being the timeless, universal timeless “space” of presence, reality itself, difficult to put into words. A quieted mind, which is more common, and in a sense a “fake” silence, is often mistaken for the silent mind sages point to. A quiet mind is a state—a passing, phenomenal experience—whereas a silent mind is not. This is reflected in a meditator’s or seeker’s doubts about what is being revealed or mentioned by their practices—since it comes and goes, cannot be held onto in their life—and a lack of understanding of the reality of what we are as universal beings (having a localized experience).
What I realized very clearly is that war with the mind is a battle one can never win. It will go on forever.
I had no real ongoing formal meditation practice (such as sitting on a cushion at a certain hour of the morning), however for about 30 years I did a frequent informal practice, of what for practical purposes we can call “mindfulness”. This was integrated into daily living: from the very beginning, when I heard how meditators couldn’t maintain their calm once out of the meditation or the Zen center, when they got out in the world, I saw no point in sitting in a separate formal meditation. So why not start that way, where the rubber hits the road. So that’s what I did. I “meditated” by bringing the mind back to the here and now, while washing the dishes, driving, working, talking to a neighbor, walking … anytime, anywhere.
The structure of my practice started in part in Zen school in the late 80’s when I learned the Zen Buddhist practices from Joko Beck, called “zazen” (sitting meditation). In zazen, one attempts to bring the mind back into the present and quiet the mind by noticing and allowing whatever is present “internally” – the immediate data as it were. One brings awareness to anything that arises while sitting with eyes partially closed, in front of a wall, settling the mind so that subtler and unconscious thoughts and impressions can arise and be seen. It was kind of like tuning a radio, and indeed I noticed after zazen sessions that I was more attuned to what was going on in the present, such as being aware of subtleties of people’s behavior, and feeling signals previously hidden by a screen of thinking and feeling when one is distracted by internal “noise” and tension.
So training the attention has a usefulness. The temporary quiet is (potentially) fertile grounds for the deeper rooting of awareness. It is also good for improving one’s work, when there is less interference from unconscious thinking and feeling. Creativity and spontaneity can also be greatly enhanced.
However, all these effects are temporary and limited. One must continue the practice, and the effect wears off. In time you may also plateau and not be able to see any benefit. This is a clue that one is applying something external and secondary, when what is wanted is an absolute “solution”: one that is not in time, nor dependent on circumstances or practices. One that has no cause.
I also learned a technique of open-eye meditation from listening to Eckhart Tolle. In this practice, one notices distracting thinking about the past or future (which could be said to be all mental activity, as it is memory-based) and instead bringing attention to something in the present, like visual perceptions or bodily sensations, or some set of current perceptions, and thus the not-now thinking is seen – one wakes up to it, and let’s go of it. The goal is to get oneself out of the “mind stream” of thinking:
“Instead of ‘watching the thinker,’ you can also create a gap in the mind stream simply by directing the focus of your attention into the Now. Just become intensely conscious of the present moment. This is a deeply satisfying thing to do. In this way, you draw consciousness away from mind activity and create a gap of no-mind in which you are highly alert and aware but not thinking. This is the essence of meditation.”
― Eckhart Tolle, The Power of Now: A Guide to Spiritual Enlightenment
At the time, I didn’t fully understand what he meant by the “gap of no-mind”. I didn’t appreciate that it had any significance beyond a description of not-thinking, or not thinking of not-now such as getting lost in memories or daydreaming or worrying (or as much). Now I see it has tremendous significance, and in fact it’s what this whole article (and website, in a way) is pointing to!
Mindfulness Is A Mind Game
This pulling oneself back into present content of sensation and perception is useful at times, such as in avoiding accidents while driving, or cutting vegetables, or hearing what someone is saying. At a higher level, it can potentially be a segue into full silent Presence. But why does it so rarely do that? I now realize it is limited and limiting by nature: it’s a mind game.
One clue is the fact that in reality we are always in the present. There is no real not-now to bring ourselves back from. The past and future do not exist. The Now is truly all there is in the entire universe, inside and out. Whether you see reality as the whole of the physical cosmos, or as the whole of universal consciousness, or see those as the same (as I do, as I Am), the fact is it all had to be Now. The past and future exist only as mind-stuff: thinking, conceiving, remembering are what create time. So thinking too exists in the present, even if it’s about the past and future. The past is a memory and the future is memory-based thinking projected into a mind-based realm of “future”. (But we take it very seriously. Why? Because it’s about us. Us, as a body with it’s interests as an “ego”: separate self. However, this me-thinking, the “I-thought”, is also thinking. That’s OK, but it’s important to see it if you want to get beyond the merry-go-round of thinking thinking thinking that is not only distracting but stressful, and goes along with some degree of psychological suffering).
On Stopping or Controlling Thinking
So, obviously, as many people realize (including in psychology and coaching fields) the key would seem to be to somehow greatly reduce or ideally, stop thinking since it’s causing so many problems, so much suffering, and is at the core (or is creating) a dualistic outlook on life. Right? Makes sense.
All this mind-activity takes energy away from living as a being, and being present and alive to what’s happening now. The movement of mind waves creates what appears to be time and space, and the sense of a separate self. What is Now is is everything, including the experience of the qualities of Consciousness, such as beauty, truth and love.
And countless spiritual teachers , meditation coaches, sages and others have advised that it’s our thinking that’s the cause of trouble and problems, and is what negative feelings are really made from and caused by. Our thinking creates and forms our worldview: the picture of reality and our world projected out via that internal representation.
So, if we could stop thinking, we would realize reality, our true Self, and all would be well.
True, and certainly a gateway to profound investigation of what one truly is, but easier said than done.
The mind seems to have a mind of it’s own.
The Breakthrough: You Can’t Win a Fight With God
One day while driving up to a group I was doing dialogues and meditations with, the self-evident truth hit me, and I laughed: “I”, which is a thought, was trying to stop “the mind”, that which is thinking! They are the same thing but trying to stop or annihilate itself! It simply can’t be done. And, to top it off, the mind doesn’t really exist: it’s a concept.
It’s a great big joke (on the “me” which is a mind-phantom).
Ever since this insight, the mind (which doesn’t really exist) has quieted down and needs less effort to stay that way. “I” feel lighter, freer, happier and more loving, like a great burden was lifted from the shoulders. So many insights flowed from this one quiet little insight, that little comic cosmic seeing, that it was like the trunk of a tree that has many branches blossoming (and is yielding many new articles).
It was so simple yet so important, fundamental.
It is however subtle, so I feel a need to elaborate.
What hit me (so quietly – the proverbial little bird whispering in the ear) was that this practice was actually creating a battle within. I could succeed in bringing myself to pay attention to what was going on around me: the so-called present moment of perceptions (vision, hearing, taste, smell, bodily sensations), and wake up from the thinking noise: whatever fantasy or mental yakking I was engaged in. But stopping the talking, thinking, or quieting it down is like a very high maintenance partner: even if successful at appeasing them, it is not permanent, and always has to be done again. All joking aside, it is a forced thing in this sense.
I realized there was a basic problem, or situation here. It’s no wonder that I never won. It’s a conflict within oneself.
Again, my experiences is corroborated by other’s insights:
“One day I was speaking with my teacher, and she said, ‘If you try to win the war with your mind, you’ll be at war forever.’ That really struck me. At that moment I realized I had been viewing meditation as a battle with my mind. I was trying to control my mind, to pacify my mind, to try to get my mind to be quiet.”
“When we use the mind to stop the thoughts, the mind will not stop the thoughts at all, because the mind wants to go on living. Stopping the thoughts is annihilating the mind, and the mind does not wish to be annihilated. The mind wants to live on to fill you full of nonsense, superstitions. Therefore we do not try to stop, the thoughts. …
You do not have to watch the thoughts, analyze the thoughts, be the witness to the thoughts, or observe the thoughts in any way whatsoever. All of these symptoms simply make the mind stronger really.
Most of you have tried to stop your thoughts with various practices like these for many years. And if you look back in retrospect you will see, it made the mind stronger. It causes the mind to have more power. Thoughts hit you from all directions. This means we do not wish to use any method whatsoever to stop thoughts. Yet the thoughts have to be stopped. They have to cease. By doing absolutely nothing, the mind will begin to slow down.”
~ Robert Adams, satsang “Enter The Silence” October 8, 1992
To see the context of how little control we have in reality: we don’t control what’s going inside our cells right now, the amount of blood cells the bones manufacture, or the firing of neurons, or what the various parts of our brains are doing to keep the body, senses and physical functioning going. Thank god this is all on automatic. Indeed, they go on by themselves, unconsciously. There is no central controller. If there was, what would be controlling it? The universe, the totality is the only rational answer.
To see the context of how effortless living is: seeing, hearing, sense of touch, and thinking happen, without having to take lessons.They are effortless. They are natural movements of energy.
As a natural instrument, thinking is used for practical purposes. For example, finding the directions to a restaurant. It is also useful for celebratory purposes, like enjoyment of thinking and conscious fantasizing, telling stories or making art, or for worshipful divine purposes such as contemplating the truth. It’s misused when it causes suffering, when it is psychological. Then, it is an inherited dis-ease of useless thinking, that is centered on a non-existent seemingly separate self: the one that needs defending, reinforcement, is fearful, hateful, controlling, guilty, worried, and so forth.
But stopping or slowing thought is another matter. It’s like a ball of mercury you try and pin down, it slips out the second you are not on top of it. Or like the proverbial herding of cats. And the next minute, or hour, when your not on top of it, even if you succeeded to some degree, you have to start over again.
So natural intelligence is effortless. The artificial thinking, this repetitive and effortful movement, is a learned habit. And this includes “mindfulness” practices, if they are repeated past the initial period when they fresh and engage our natural enthusiasm. Anything becomes mechanical when repeated for motivated reasons of a seemingly separate person, and not as an inherent movement.
We as consciousness are responsible for everything, but as seemingly separate entity, do nothing on our own. The personal will that supposedly is ours does not exist, is only the “will of God” (in theistic terms), the totality, which is effortless continuous presence and intelligence Now: the very being of our inner nature. This “inner” nature is in fact outer nature too, appearing in experience via a mind instrument which projects it as a seemingly objective reality.
What I saw was that a presence practice, and trying to gain a quiet mind by bringing oneself into the present, is in fact a dualistic practice, and sets up a conflict. In other words, it reinforces the dualism it should, or could, eliminate.
I don’t mean to de-value a quiet mind, as it is can be a stepping stone to liberate one from personal mind (it was for me). In fact a book that was a valuable help in times of confusion for many years, The Quiet Mind, contains an arguably dualistic, Christian-sounding message with a God and a heaven. But it helped me, particularly in difficult time, to see beyond what appeared to be happening, and seemingly make a choice towards love and peace…
In summary, in effect, this mindfulness practice I used was a form of resistance to What Is. It’s pushing some things in the background and putting other mind content forward. This is verified by the experience post-awakening to the seeing of it: there s an effortless quieting of the mind, which is felt as natural, and the spontaneous awareness of new ideas, fresh perceptions, beauty, love and truth to a greater degree. The mere recognition is enough to allow the silent mind to quiet the mind, without any practice. It’s more like “Ah, Silence Is”. It’s too simple to even describe. You could call it Self-Knowledge, or knowing who one is. These are all names. The question is, are you experiencing it?
In mindfulness practices, the mind is taken seriously, as a real thing, and as part of a person, which is also considered a real thing. In the direct path, reality and consciousness are realized as one and the same non-thing: this present universal, impersonal Be-ing. Not this or that be-ing, just Be-ing.
Therefore, Just Be.
“When you enter the silence you enter a profound peace, bliss consciousness, pure awareness. That’s what the silence is. It’s not being quiet. It’s beyond that. It’s not just quieting your mind, like I say all the time. It’s understanding that there’s no mind to quiet. When you realize there’s no mind, you automatically become silent. When you still think you’ve got a mind, you make every effort to quiet the mind, and you can’t.
How many of you believe you can quiet the mind through effort? You can’t do that. It’s not the effort that makes you quiet your mind. It’s the intelligent understanding that you have no mind to begin with.”
~ Robert Adams, “Jnana Marga – The Path of Knowledge” (satsang recording 3/14/91)
mind: the total sum of perceptions, bodily sensations, and thoughts being experienced presently in consciousness.