Does meditation really mean shutting off your thoughts?

Is It Possible To Pause the Mind?

Have you ever tried to stop breathing? Or tried to not blink for longer than 30 seconds? Actually, here’s a more basic example that all of us are familiar with: What does it feel like to have to go to the bathroom but not be able to? Now consider this: What does it mean to stop your thoughts?

Every organ in your body has a specific function. They keep us alive and ensure our existence in some way. So trying to stop the function of a major organ is to impede life itself. Our lungs are meant to breathe, our stomachs to digest our food, our hearts to distribute vital blood and oxygen to our bodies, and our minds to think…

Don’t resist, just let go

That’s important to keep in mind when we consider practicing meditation because meditation is an endless path where we strive for effortlessness. Picture it like this; instead of driving in a car and watching the scenery go by, meditation is more like sitting still on a bench and watching the people, cars, birds, and clouds pass by. In doing so, we observe what passes through our minds and come to understand that stopping our minds and quieting them are two different things.

It is possible to stop your thoughts, but doing so would require a great effort. Our minds generate between 60,000 and 70,000 thoughts per day —  so it would seem futile to pause such a hardworking organ. Trying to stop our own thoughts would require resistance on our part, but it’s not resistance we seek through meditation. Instead, we’re trying to cultivate serenity and effortlessness. In any case, trying to do something doesn’t always mean we’ll be able to. This phenomenon is something we’ve all experienced in our daily lives. The same holds true for our minds: there’s no pause button we can press. So, we shouldn’t waste our time looking for it.

Our minds can be exhausted after working hard, almost non-stop the whole day. We can learn to notice its weariness through mindfulness. When we say “mindfulness,” we mean realizing that our minds are a part of our bodies, just like our other organs. It means understanding that we are not our minds and that our minds are just doing its job, just like all our other organs. Having this awareness can change a lot in our lives.

Understanding that our minds are separate entities doesn’t mean that they are independent of us. After all, our minds are one of the most important building blocks that make us who we are. But we tend to think that we are solely our minds. This isn’t true. We can begin to realize this by learning to “see” our minds and observing our own thoughts. Once we do that, we can give our mind the care and attention it needs. For instance, we can notice when it’s exhausted. Think of it this way: we are not our fingers. When our fingers are tired of typing, we let them rest. And since we are not our minds either — we should let it rest as well.

‘How do I turn off my thoughts?’ This is a question we often hear from our meditation users. The thing is that meditation doesn’t mean shutting off our thoughts. Rather, it helps us observe our thoughts and begin to deconstruct the repetitive thought patterns that keep us feeling stuck or overwhelmed.

The resting mind

When we meditate, we examine our minds. We watch the cars that drive by with the same wonder we used to feel as little kids. We see cars of all different colors and shapes, and we continue to watch them pass by. We refrain from making any comments as we watch. We neither criticize the colors that we see nor judge the shapes. If we were to make any such comment, it would be as though we got up and followed one of the cars that passed us by. But our goal is to just sit down and watch. That’s what our minds need to rest: observation.

When we meditate, in addition to resting, we also strengthen our minds. After all, it’s very noisy and restless in our minds. Consider how tired our minds must be: 70,000  thoughts per day! Because of this, our mental muscles need to rest and gather strength. We can strengthen our bodies with physical exercise every day. Why shouldn’t we do the same for our minds with meditation?

Trying to stop the flow of thoughts is an exhausting battle. The more we try, the more we’ll wear ourselves out. Finally, we’ll probably decide that we can’t meditate and maybe even give up. So let’s all agree on one thing: it’s not possible to stop the flow of our thoughts. All we can do is slow them down and calm them down.

What should we channel our energy towards?

We know that we can’t rid our minds of thoughts when we meditate. Instead, we can simply try to understand what types of thoughts our minds generate. We peer into parts of our minds we hadn’t looked at before. We encounter new things. We can do this by observing without judging, as well as by paying attention.

Trying to stop our thoughts requires taking action. It’s tantamount to a battle. Such a battle requires a great deal of energy. We can’t speak of serenity and rest in meditation if there’s action and energy involved.

If we start to follow a certain thought, we risk getting lost. If we do this, it’s equivalent to getting up and running after that thought without even paying attention to where we’re going. Following just one train of thought requires us to take action and expend energy that we didn’t want to expend in the first place.

When we focus on observing our thoughts instead, all we have to do is sit down and watch. It doesn’t require us to take action. If we do this, we can spend less energy for a longer period of time. We can experience what it is to “just be,” which is the essence of what meditation teaches us.

We know that we don’t rid our minds of thoughts when we meditate. Instead, we just try to understand what type of thoughts our minds generate. We peer into parts of our minds we hadn’t looked at before. We encounter new things. We can do this by observing without judging, as well as by paying attention.

Real Change

It’s possible to momentarily pause our minds. We can stop certain thoughts in their tracks, especially in difficult, stressful times. But this is neither sustainable nor beneficial for us. What we’re doing with meditation is exploring ourselves, resting, and strengthening our minds. If we want to be in the moment during meditation and be more mindful in general, we need to spread it throughout the rest of our lives. So, focus on new discoveries and see what results from them… Real change happens when we discover ourselves, not when we pause our minds.

Translated by: Zeynep Şen

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