Our first experiences of a mind free of all agitation or dullness are usually all too brief. A fleeting glimpse, like catching sight of a rare fish beneath the surface of a river – unmistakeable but elusive. For a few precious moments we may enjoy the peaceful spaciousness of mind, perhaps begin to settle into the profound well-being that comes from being unburdened of conceptuality. Then the next thought arises and – yadda, yadda, yadda – the pristine nature of mind is once again obscured.
As much as we might wish to return to that state of pure presence, to lengthen and deepen our experience of it, our problem is the constant current of inner chatter. We just can’t seem to stop ourselves: speculating, projecting, planning, fantasising, remembering – enough already!
So, how do we deal with the challenge of too much thinking? The time honoured method is to apply the twin tools of mindfulness – constantly remembering the object of meditation – and awareness – being alert to what our mind is actually doing. When we catch the mind going anywhere apart from where it is supposed to be, we gently return to the object of meditation. Simple – yes. Easy – probably the least easy thing we ever attempt.
But over time we do get better at it. Just as a baby will spend a long time crawling before she can even start to take her first few faltering steps, just as she will fall over countless times before developing a sense of balance, we are all meditation crawlers for a very long time.
And with practice, it’s possible to develop the skill of cutting off thoughts as they arise. We can learn to recognise the subtle movement of mind before that movement develops into a full blown thought. With mindfulness we can ensure our focus remains on the object of meditation.
Having been born and brought up in Zimbabwe, Africa (accompanying photos from a recent visit home), I sometimes think of the analogy of a game ranger in the bush. Knowing the terrain, a ranger can detect subtle clues and, if necessary, take action. Walking through the bush, he will be aware of the fresh spoor of a leopard and avoid an unwanted encounter. A tourist in the same situation may, on the other hand, be completely unaware of any nearby predator until he’s being dragged up a nearby tree trunk by the neck to become that night’s leopard family dinner.
‘Isn’t it bad to suppress your thoughts?’ is the question that sometimes arises when talking about cutting off thoughts. Agreed, suppressing thoughts is not to be recommended. But that’s not what’s being described here. ‘I just want to experience some peace and quiet, but along come these thoughts. They frustrate me!’ is a mild expression of the impulse to put the lid on, bottle up, or otherwise suppress thoughts.
The problem with this approach is that is just doesn’t work. It is emotionally-driven and not very skilful. When we react emotionally in other situations – whether it’s the bitter email, the despairing phone call, the angry tirade or the cocky Facebook update – we live to regret it. Sometimes very deeply. Had our emotions not got the better of us, we would have behaved very differently. For the same reason, trying to suppress thoughts is ineffective.
The avoidance action taken by a game ranger walking through the bush at twilight is automatic, skilful and based on having experienced much the same situation many times in the past. In the same way, as meditators, taking action to cut off thoughts before they develop is experience-based.
I hope this helps explain the difference between cutting off thoughts versus suppressing them. Good luck on your travels as a skilful mind ranger!