My mind just won’t let up! It’s like a gerbil running on a treadmill, never stopping. Regardless what I’m doing during the course of the day, including meditating, my mind doesn’t stop producing thoughts about the past or future that take me away from the present and basically make it impossible for me to be present, no matter how much I try. What can I do to free myself from this constant thinking?
Mind Won't Stop
Dear Mind Won't Stop,
What you are experiencing is one of the most common and challenging experiences of those walking the path. At some point you have enough awareness to observe what is going on within yourself, but you don’t yet have the ability to free yourself from the power of your ego-mind, and it drives one crazy. I’ve certainly been there, and to some extent still am.
There are several ways or levels at which to address this phenomenon that you are experiencing. There are times in the day when we need to think. Whether we are at work or we are at home planning for some future activity or course of life, we need to think. But for that thinking to be as productive as it can be, we need to see clearly. And that means our thought process has to be free of the known, of our learned experience.
This does not mean thinking out of ignorance, forgetting everything that we’ve ever learned. What it means is not being controlled by the known, not having it straight-jacket our thoughts whether they come from our ego-mind or from factual knowledge we’ve acquired through study. If we are to think clearly, our thoughts must be unencumbered. For more on this issue, see my post, “Freedom from the Known.”
Then there are the majority of moments throughout the day when we are not focused on solving some problem, and yet our ego-mind keeps bombarding us with thoughts, with issues, with problems, with cravings. Our ego-mind does not want us to be present, it does not want us to meditate and find peace, and so it pulls us away from potentially spiritual moments with thoughts of the past and future.
As I’ve written in many posts, and as you’ve no doubt read in many books, you can’t fight your ego. You can’t white knuckle your cravings and attachments. The result of that would just be that your ego pushes back even more and your agitation increases.
Instead what you should do is defuse these thoughts by not engaging them. Instead acknowledge the thoughts and have compassion for them. That is a teaching of Pima Chodron and is very effective. At the same time be firm that you are following a different path and have faith that if you live each day, each moment, well the future will take care of itself. For more on this process, see my post, “Not Engaging Your Thoughts.”
Ok, so there’s a way for your thoughts not to be controlled by the known. And there’s a way to not engage your thoughts and be free of your ego-mind. But isn’t there a way just to be free of all thought or at least unwanted thought? That is an even more challenging one, but I’m coming to see that there is a way.
It starts with being present in the moment. When you sit to meditate, say the following mantra to yourself.
“Breathing in, I’m aware that I’m breathing in;
breathing out, I’m aware that I’m breathing out.
Here there is no yesterday, no tomorrow, no
today, just the present moment. This is the only
reality, all else is thought.”
If you’ve read any of my books, you’ll know that I believe that when we are trying to change the paradigms of our life, as we do when we are walking the path, because it is such a struggle it is helpful to augment meditation and one’s reading by daily reciting mantras or affirmations that reinforce the change we are trying to make. The point is not to think about the words as you’re chanting them, but just chant or recite them clearly and wholeheartedly. The daily repetition helps drive the point deeper. As Roshi Philip Kapleau once explained, “Conscious awareness of the meaning of the words [while chanting] is unimportant - this meaning is absorbed on a subconscious level.”
In this instance, we are trying to change our paradigm from one that says that our thoughts reflect reality ... it’s how the world is and thus defines how we view the world ... to one that says that we can only perceive reality if we are free of the intervention of thought. This reflects our understanding that our thoughts have no intrinsic existence, they are of dependent origination, and thus place a barrier between us and the experience of reality whether past, present, or future. (For more on the illusory nature of all perceptions, see any of my Buddhist series books.)
At first this will have little effect, other than to give you a feeling of calm. But at some point you will begin to internalize the truth of this mantra. How quickly or slowly this occurs is a function of the stage of your practice. And the deeper this truth goes, at some point it will become your default perspective, your new paradigm. You will be in conscious contact with your true Buddha nature.
As this process continues, you will find it easier and easier to be present, at one with all things, both when you are on your cushion and off. Indeed, at some point you will be able to be immersed in some analytical exercise you’re engaged in and divert your attention to what is around you, be present instantaneously as you are aware of your breath, and experience the present directly without the intervention of any thought.
Say it’s a gray, humid rainy day ... as it has been for days on end recently. Rather than trying to be present and instead thinking immediately, “When is this going to end? How long will this rain and heat continue?” and going to the computer to check the weather forecast yet again, you will have no thought regarding the future of the weather. At that point you will be able to truly say, “It’s just the way it is,” be at one with the weather, and continue on your peaceful path. You will experience the day, the weather, as it really is because no thought, no label, has intervened. At that point, you will have made a major step towards being truly free of the known in all respects.
As the Heart Sutra says (in my translation; see my book, The Self in No Self) when the bodhisatva practices the perfection of wisdom and perceives the emptiness of all five skandhas:
“Thus being at one with all things,
Experiencing things directly without the
intervention of thought,
All suffering and doubt cease.”