How To Stop Thinking
“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, 1991)
Why would one want to stop thinking?
The question comes up when either a student of a meditation practice, spiritual path, or psychological understanding is told the value of stopping thinking, or it begins to dawn on one the importance of thought and thinking in one’s life and in one’s outlook and happiness. You begin to see how much it interferes with relationships, work, and general happiness. You start to see your “problems” are not really “out there”, and if not entirely in your head, then at least mostly or partly. Or, you are just so damn sick of listening to your own thinking, and it’s driving you crazy, or distracting you: the endless pointless arguments in the head, the dialoguing and the chatting brain, daydreaming, fantasy and feelings borne of memories and worries, and on and on. The varieties of thinking, and the problems it causes, are endless. Overthinking, a busy mind, and out-of-control (and negative) thinking are quite obviously at the root of stress, mental disturbance, disharmony and conflict. (Or it may be becoming more obvious to you).
The world we see is the world projected by the mind. A peaceful mind equals a peaceful world experience.
You may be on a spiritual path or doing some kind of practice such as meditation, or learning about a spiritual psychology path like the Three Principles Psychology, where the thinking is looked at as key. In the Three Principles Psychology and in neo-Advaita teachings, one can supposedly shed all this extra thinking through a simple understanding. One becomes aware that “it’s all thought” or “its all just happening”, and may be encouraged to accept or embrace all experiences. This is good in theory, but in my experience this only works in some limited cases (anecdotally) but not very often, and not in my own personal life experience (the most important criteria!).
In meditation one is told to become aware of thoughts, let them go by like clouds, let them arise and dissolve, and gain a calm and clear mind. “Don’t hold onto or attach to thoughts” is a typical meditation instruction, such as in mindfulness training.
At an even deeper level, we are told, or come to understand, that if one can really stop thinking, a profound state of being could be experienced, such as non-dual awareness, a “higher state of consciousness” or experience of self-realization (discussed thoroughly in countless places: this article only scratches the surface of a very deep subject).
So given the fairly obvious value and desire of stopping, slowing down or at least calming and quieting the thinking—stilling the mind—how is it that it can seem so hard, or so tricky to pull off? And even when achieved for a time or to a degree, why can’t a quiet mind be maintained?
“Why can’t I stop thinking?!”
That’s a very interesting question.
It’s a question that took me over 30 years to answer. And, now that I have an answer, I’m finding it harder to explain than expected (the article “True Meditation: A Quiet Mind Versus A Silent Mind” was an attempt). Even with friends with decades of experience under their belt in meditation, seeking spiritual understanding with various ways and means, practices and studies, it’s been difficult to convey. What I say seems to “fall on the ears of the listening mind” as the mystic Sydney Banks used to say about trying to explain his major insight experiences. It’s difficult to explain not because it’s complicated or takes a lot of knowledge, but just the opposite: it’s so simple. In fact I have a hard time even grasping it myself! That may sound funny, but it’s a reflection of the fact that the mind is limited in what it can know, and what it’s good at. The mind is good at and attracted by complexity. Simplicity and matters of the heart “do not compute”.
The mind is good at dealing with content, with adding and maintaining (learning and accumulating), with particulars, with objects in consciousness and material matters, processes and techniques, goal-oriented behaviors, stuff in time and space and linear reality, and maintaining social programming and linguistic expression. It’s like a giant biological computer, reflected in the fact that we have brains (although that too appears in our minds, and an appearance, image, a concept and set of ideas, data and memories!). Minds are good for personal purposes and doing things in the world. But what we want here, in this stopping of thinking, goes beyond the personal.
First a definition to help in clarity. We can call “the mind” the sum total at any moment of the subjective objects of consciousness: bodily sensations, sense perceptions, and thoughts. We are giving a name, a noun, to what is really a verb, a movement. And thinking is the images and concepts, memories and sounds in and of the mind. So it would seem that all our knowledge comes from that collection. But is that all there is to the mind or to experience? No.
There is knowledge that is direct and unmediated by representations, images, or thinking. And that’s where we want to go, or realize.
Let’s get one thing out of the way right at the start: thinking is not bad or something to be frustrated about. Even very great sages still have thinking going on, only they have a very different relationship to it (more on that later).
Two bits of a warning or disclaimers: one, what I’m going to reveal may sound rather paradoxical or even crazy, and two, it does probably require that you have a certain amount of mental stability, clarity and calm to begin with, in order to “see” what I’ll be pointing at.
How to Stop Thinking
The way to stop thinking is to stop trying to stop thinking. Give up, Surrender. No more effort. Let it go completely.
Whatever you were practicing, stop it. Stop it completely.
Anything you do is a doing, not a being.
Whatever you try and do as a person, by your own personal will, is using the mind. So you are using the mind to try and stop the mind. It’s a conflict. The “I-thought” is a thinking activity, and it is thinking that we want to stop. It’s a battle you cannot win.
The mind does not want to die. It has been trained to maintain itself. It’s like a computer program in an endless loop. The assumptions behind this ceaseless effort are that the person, or what you are, is a separate and limited being, and not adequate or whole in itself. The chattering or yelling monkey-mind fears it’s own disappearance, is on insecure ground.
The fact is, what we truly are is effortless, and without personal will or “doership”. We are not living our lives, we are being lived. And the “being lived” is infinitely more intelligent, perfect and appropriate to the moment and the exact needs, then any person can manage. See that there could not possibly be any local, central controller in reality, for what would be controlling it – some entity further back? Where does the buck stop that is not just an idea? Where is the you that you could call you?. But as long as we are contracted and tense, and trying to live from that illusion, things will seem difficult and uncomfortable. Suffering comes from this mental living, which using the wrong GPS.
In order to stop thinking, we must do nothing, because we are nothing. Thus one is aligned with True Being.
By “doing nothing” I am not saying to do no actions with the body–the body goes on doing whatever it needs to do as the faithful artistic organism instrument– nor am I suggesting you quit your job and go live in a cave. It has nothing to do with your body. “Do nothing” is regarding your mind only. It is a recognition that the habit of reacting mentally must stop. In the East they call it the law of Karma, and stepping off the wheel of life and death. By reacting you are repeating the action of the mental machinery, the mechanism that keeps the false self going, the robotic human that shields and veils the flowering of true selfhood. True selfhood is the innate, naturally loving, giving, happy, free and peaceful being you were meant to be.
What do we react to? We react to thoughts and feelings, and we react with thoughts and feelings. So we are in a prison of our own device. But are thoughts and feelings us? Why do we treasure them, value them, identify with them? We are trained this way, from an early age, unconsciously and automatically. It gets passed on from generation to generation, down through history. However, ultimately the “why” doesn’t matter. What matters is liberating yourself, Now, from this training, these habits.
There is a recognition that a quiet mind goes beyond anything that can be created, manufactured, enforced or contrived through practice or effort, but is in fact that very silence we are made of, our inherent truth as a transcendent reality. We were trying to get someplace and make something happen, but that very effort takes us away from it. This is corroborated from so many directions that it is very reassuring to discover: you’re on solid ground, not only existentially but proven (in experience) by countless others. I will only mention one corroborator here for now, by way of the famous saying by St. Francis of Assisi:
“What you are looking for is what’s looking”.
Another obstacle is the sheer momentum of the thinking, its speed and weight. Like a car traveling very fast, it cannot slow down immediately but needs some time to come to rest.
The Irrational: There is also the fact that unconscious patterns of thinking may be operating. These patterns have been laid down over a long period of time, and are let go and de-programmed in large chunks quickly or in smaller chunks over a greater period of time. It’s been called the “thousand deaths” and these ego patterns are dissolved in the light of awareness as they arise and die. The still mind is a powerful solvent. Many techniques have arisen over the centuries (such as yoga in the Kashmir Shaivism tradition) to help dissolve these patterns of energy—leftovers of ignorance, such as patterns of fear and aggression—by addressing the experience of the body for example. But in the end, it is always conscious awareness with its innate, natural intelligence that does the work, not the personal self or will. At some point in any case, no such work is needed: the unveiling of the true Self is effortless grace.
You’ve heard the saying “You are your own worst enemy” and “I only needed to get out of my own way”. Well that is true here, only more so. It goes right to the heart of the matter.
Why did it take me 30 years to realize this? Because I was too smart and too disciplined for my own good. Discipline and intelligence are already qualities of our true nature. We don’t need to add or manipulate them, only “align” with them as it were. I also had many misconceptions and beliefs in the way of true seeing.
ADDENDUM: A Dialogue On Doing Nothing
The following is part of a dialogue between the Advaita sage Robert Adams, and two students (the transcript was entitled “Satguru vs Pseudo-Guru”, 25th October, 1990). Robert Adams was one of the greatest nondual masters of the 20th century, and is only now beginning to be recognized as such by a small population of more mature seekers and teachers. He had profound insights into the nature of the human “mortal dream” and how to help his small group of students free themselves from the bondage of the human mind programming. (“R” is Robert, “SN”, “SK”, and “SH” are students).
It’s when “SH”—one of the older students—chimes in, that it really gets interesting. He asks the key question: “Who would be stopping the thoughts?” and “How does one stop thinking?”:
SN: So it’s not a matter of stopping your thoughts?
R: You can’t stop your thoughts at once. But as you observe them, they become less and less.
SG: Well will there then come a point where there are no thoughts to stop?
R: Of course. That’s the ultimate result, that’s self-realization. When there are no thoughts, empty mind, nobody home.
SK: Is realization when no thoughts is permanent or extended.
R: If you are really no thoughts, it becomes permanent. If you’re really not thinking, it’s a permanent way.
SK: But is it true that one attains that state in the beginning at short intervals of time.
R: People are all different. Some people can do it all at once, some people it takes time. But if you want self-realization all thoughts have to cease. And all practices have to make the mind cease thinking. All the practices are to stop your mind from thinking, silence, quietness. When the mind becomes quiescent, still, calm, like a motionless lake, then it reflects the Self. The mind rests in the heart and you find peace, which is your very nature.
SH: Who would be stopping the thoughts?
R: Nobody. They stop by themselves when you stop thinking.
SH: When you stop thinking?
R: Then your thoughts stop of their own accord.
SH: How does one stop thinking?
R: Well then your thoughts keep on.
R: Your thoughts keep on going. The stopping stops by itself.
SN: It stops by itself. There’s no one to stop it?
R: There’s no one to stop it.
SN: Then if there’s someone who stops it, then…
R: Then you have to get rid of that someone.
SN: That’s the someone that…
R: That causes it.
SN: The illusory someone?
R: That someone has to go.
SN: Oh, then they stop of their own accord.
R: Of their own accord.
SN: Obviously no one can stop them?
R: No, the harder you try the more thoughts come. So you just give up trying. You just rest in your Self.
SH: Who is this you that you’re always referring to as giving up the trying?
R: The self.
SH:Is it the one and only Self that is doing the trying?
R: No, the Self has nothing to try, because the Self just is.
SH: Who’s doing the trying?
SH: Nonetheless the trying is there. People are trying to stop their thoughts.
R: They think it’s like a mirage. They believe somebody exists who’s making them think. Just like there’s no body, there’s no mind.
SH: It’s like shadow boxing.
R: Exactly. There’s no body, there’s no mind, there’s nobody thinking. It’s all an illusion. But it appears real like hypnosis. Like the sky is blue. Like looking down the railroad tracks and they turn into one track. It’s an optical illusion. Like the mirage in the desert. It’s all the same. There’s nobody thinking.
SH: (laughs) We certainly keep that illusion universally alive.
R: Because you refuse to give it up.
SH: Like an all day sucker, it’s something that makes you use your mind.
R: The mind is afraid to let go because it will lose its identity.
SH: Why should there be fear left, that’s your freedom.
R: Of course, but the mind is used to the everyday occurrences.
SH: What mind?
R: The mind that you don’t have. (laughter)
SH: Well spoken.
R: But obviously most people believe they’ve got a mind.
R: And they go to all the trouble trying to stop it.
SH: It doesn’t work.
SH: That just strengthens the stopping.
SH: The good old famous ego.
R: What ego, like you say, what ego?
SH: The illusion that we’re all, most all are operating under.
R: That’s why when you speak words they become limited. You have to say you, me, my, ego, mind.
SH: Language is structured that way.
R: Of course.
SH: Language is structured according to the illusion.
SH: Too bad.
R: We would be all better off if we were all deaf and dumb. (laughter) Really.
SK: How about the functioning of the brain?
R: The brain is part of the body. If you are no body you have no brain.