Cowboys and Ignorance

by Dan Nussbaum

I encounter many people who, once they hear that I am a meditation teacher, tell me that they can’t meditate because they think too much. Some of them are professors, scientists, and psychologists, who use their thinking in their work and have developed as human beings through using their minds. Because they have gotten a picture of meditation as requiring a quiet, thought-free mind, they feel they can’t do it. That is a real loss, a true shame. Jason Siff, Unlearning Meditation, p. x

All over the world, millions who meditate deploy a tactic that could have been lifted from a Hollywood Western. Whenever thoughts arise, meditators on metaphorical palominos head ‘em off at the pass. Like movie cowboys – or screenwriters – they use the tactic reflexively and too often. Still, cowboys have to do something about cattle rustlers and meditators have been persuaded that thinking has to be dealt with too. But what danger does thinking pose?

After they receive  instructions to follow, many who sit reasonably conclude that meditation has to be done correctly to get results. It’s a logical but not always helpful conclusion. With meditation widely believed to be a synonym for inner silence, the eruption of mental conversation might be taken as a hindrance to obtaining good outcomes. Others who want to become “good meditators” may rate progress based on how many quiet periods they go through. For them, persistent thinking not only disturbs the peace, it challenges identity.

Others don’t just seek peace, they seek the highest peace, the perfection of peace. This is nirvana conceived of as the ultimate achievement. The Buddha’s biography includes details about him developing the ability to enter into states of deep absence,  but he  distinguished those states from what he meant by liberation, directing followers away from the notion that nirvana and unbounded stillness are the same. Still, ideas of unbudging perfection show up in Buddhist schools and assume various names. Pure Mind, The Unconditioned, The Deathless, Emptiness, The Void, Original Mind, Absolute Truth, True Self, No Self. Sometimes when it’s talked about, no self amounts to no thinking. (No self, no nothing, might be another way of putting it.) For someone devoted to inhabiting starkly quiet mind states, the return of thinking must sometimes come robed in disappointment.

Still, it never occurs to some people to seek a void, let alone The Void.  Aware that Buddhist teachings describe effective ways of relating to life’s shocks, demands, stress and loss, people look to meditation for relief. With this in mind, techniques that might have been developed to generate quiet states in monasteries, now are often prescribed to alleviate various mental and somatic disturbances. In some contemporary models of Buddhism and psychotherapy, when thinking is allowed to bound off without heightened moment-to-moment scrutiny, the development of well-being is threatened. Unregulated thinking emerges as both a symptom and the root cause of maladies.

Basic teachings say that ignorance about what perpetuates suffering is the very condition that keeps suffering going. Instructions that imply freedom comes from controlling or ending thoughts mistake thinking for ignorance. They’re not the same. Wholesome development depends on understanding ignorance. This is the work of a lifetime. I don’t know that I’ll ever be able to say that I’ve eluded the grip of my own ignorance, but even so, I know that I’ll never get anywhere by not thinking. Frankly, not thinking is what led me to some miserable places.

The Buddha presented a path of liberation from ignorance. This means that realms of experience conditioned by greed, hate and pervasive misunderstanding are also accessible to wisdom. How could our thoughts and the process of thinking itself be exempt? Why would we want them to be?

We think because we’re alive. What we experience in thinking has to do with the kinds of lives we’ve led and continue to lead.  It depends on what we do, what we say and who we encounter; what we see, hear, smell, touch, taste; what we believe about big things and little things too.

Thoughts threaten, cajole, clarify and confuse. They confine us and they free us. The variety and incongruity of the thoughts that each of us has known says how inadequate this one label “thinking” is for an immensity of experience. An often noisy chorus of thinkings carries us along throughout our lives. Over time meditation becomes about learning to pick out different voices in the multiplicity so we can finally hear what they have to say.


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