By John M. de Castro, Ph.D.
“You have power over your mind – not outside events. Realize this, and you will find strength.” -Marcus Aurelius
It is a basic instruction of contemplative practices such as meditation, to work to empty the mind and thereby quiet it. It doesn’t take long for the practitioner to realize that this seemingly simple and easy instruction is very, very difficult to do. The practice feels like a “whack-a-mole” process where as soon as a mental content is eliminated, another rushes in to fill the vacuum, and the process has to begin again, and again, and again. This seems like a never-ending process. The practitioner is taught to seek emptiness, but is cautioned that that doesn’t really mean empty! In fact, it is very, very full; full of everything. As has been pointed out, a glass that has no fluid in it is not empty, it contains air. It is empty only of fluid. Many novices become so frustrated with these paradoxes that they give up and quit contemplative practice.
Another instruction is to “let go” of thoughts and desires. But, the mind, like nature, abhors a vacuum. As soon as one thing is let go of, another arises to take its place; another “whack-a-mole” process. “Letting go” as it turns out is as difficult as emptying the mind. In fact, the desire to let go is itself a desire that has to be let go of. This sort of conundrum is typical of what confronts the practitioner who when in frustration asks “tell me what to do,” is told do nothing. As if the mind is ever capable of doing nothing.
The term mindfulness is a synonym of attention. But, attention is ambiguous as there is always attention to something. The word mindfulness by itself, does not indicate attention to what. Trying to attend is not “letting go” and attending to something is not emptying the mind. These are such conundrums that they can bring the uninitiated to the point of complete frustration and abandonment of practice.
A helpful way to look at the issues of practice is to realize that the mind is always going to be full. It’s not a question of emptying it, but rather of what that content should be. It’s not a question of letting go, but rather what should remain. It’s not a question of emptiness, but rather what actually is there. It’s not a question of mindfulness, but rather what we should be mindful of. It’s not a question of attention, but rather what should be attended to. In other words, realize that the mind is always full, the issue for the practitioner is to fill it with things that will lead to insight and greater happiness.
The mind always contains something. What exactly the mind contains is studied using a technique called time sampling. The individual is provided a signal at random times during the day and is simply asked to report on exactly what was in the mind when the signal occurred. Studies using this technique revealed the nearly half of the time, regardless of what the person is actually doing, the mind is wandering. The individual is thinking about something other than what is presently in front of them. When wandering, 42.5% of the time, people’s minds were on pleasant topics, 26.5% on unpleasant topics, and 31% on neutral topic. When asked how happy they were at the moment, they reported that they were no happier when thinking about pleasant topics than about their current activity, but, were considerably unhappier when thinking about neutral topics or unpleasant topics. So, the mind is always full of something, the question is of what. The thought sampling studies suggest that we’re happiest when the mind is focused on the present moment. So, the notion that the mind should be full of the present moment makes sense. It will increase happiness and lower suffering.
It is a trap to get carried away with present moment awareness. Don’t think that to gain insight and happiness one must be constantly focused solely on the present moment. In fact, the mind should not be perpetually paying attention only to the present moment. Thinking, planning, remembering are not bad things. In fact, they are very adaptive human qualities that allow us to better control our environment, learn from the past, and be prepared for the future. It is the case that sometimes, it is best if the mind is full of things other than the present moment. The instructions to empty the mind and let go of thinking are not absolute. So, practitioners shouldn’t feel bad when the mind is not full of the present moment. Rather it’s a matter of how often our mind is full of the present and how often of other thoughts.
The complexity of modern life demands more thinking and planning than was needed in the past. But, in addition to the needed attention to thinking, the modern world has developed a vast array of distractions from the present moment. Television, movies, social media, email, cell phones, video games, etc. are ever present and take up a substantial proportion of our time. It might be argued that when paying attention to social media we are paying attention to the present moment. In fact, no matter what we’re involved in, is the present moment. But, what is really being alluded to with present moment awareness is attention to the stimuli immediately present in the environment at the expense of thinking.
When we’re told to empty the mind, we’re not being literally told to get rid of all mental content, rather we’re being instructed to empty the mind of thoughts. What’s left then, what the mind should be full of, are the physical stimuli around and in us. In part, filling the mind with present moment sights, smells, tastes, sounds, feelings forces thoughts out. So, one way to empty the mind is actually to fill it up, fill it up with sensations. This replacement of thoughts with sensations makes us happier and begins to truly quiet the mind. The instruction to follow the breath is an attempt to do just that, fill the mind with internal stimuli, the sensations of the lungs filling and emptying, and the consequent changes to the abdomen, chest and head.
So, quieting the mind is not about emptying it out, rather it’s about filling it up completely. Filling it with awareness of sensations and emptying it of thoughts. This by itself will bring greater peace and happiness. But that’s not all that’s possible. When the mind is full of sensory experience the practitioner slowly begins to recognize that, underneath these experiences is a ground on which the experiences are perceived. This is the next great insight of the practice and is the first glimpse at the practitioner’s true nature.
As the process continues, sometimes very slowly and sometimes with flashes of insight the practitioner comes to see that ground on which the experiences are perceived is pure awareness. One reason for quieting the mind of thoughts is that thoughts block the perception of this ground. That’s why the instruction to empty the mind of thoughts exists. Not because there’s anything fundamentally wrong with thoughts, but because they prevent the individual from seeing their true nature.
The more time spent in present moment sensation awareness the more the ground of our being becomes apparent and becomes an object of awareness itself; awareness becoming aware of itself. Slowly or suddenly, it reveals that this pure consciousness is a completely empty state of nothingness, that is pure awareness. This is sometimes referred to as a void. But actually, it is not. It is a space of infinite potential. A space where anything can appear and/or disappear at any moment. It is an emptiness that is alive, bubbling over with potential. But, it is empty of thoughts and sensations. This is our true nature. This is what is called Buddha Nature. This is what is called the spirit. This is what is called the soul. It is all there to be witnessed if the individual is willing to patiently invest the time and effort it takes to first empty the mind of thoughts and fill it up with present moment sensations, allowing the ground of being to emerge into consciousness.
So, practice MindFULLness.
“You must live in the present, launch yourself on every wave, find your eternity in each moment. Fools stand on their island of opportunities and look toward another land. There is no other land; there is no other life but this.” ― Henry David Thoreau
CMCS – Center for Mindfulness and Contemplative Studies
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