Stopping thoughts?

Discussion of meditation in the Mahayana and Vajrayana traditions.

Stopping thoughts?

Postby Nikolay » Sat Apr 27, 2013 2:32 pm

I often encounter the advice that while practising shamatha one shouldn't try to stop the flow of thoughts, but should just sort of register them impassively. I found it basically impossible to do. When the thought arises, I notice it and sort of think "Here is a thought." Then it vanishes, and while my attention is on my mind, I can't help but feel that I am somehow making an effort to stop thoughts from arising. How does one "concentrate on the present moment" without stopping thoughts? Or maybe I am overthinking it?
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Re: Stopping thoughts?

Postby Jnana » Sat Apr 27, 2013 9:09 pm

mirage wrote:When the thought arises, I notice it and sort of think "Here is a thought." Then it vanishes, and while my attention is on my mind, I can't help but feel that I am somehow making an effort to stop thoughts from arising. How does one "concentrate on the present moment" without stopping thoughts? Or maybe I am overthinking it?

You could just notice that feeling of making an effort and see what happens?

mirage wrote:When the thought arises, I notice it and sort of think "Here is a thought." Then it vanishes....

Compare with the meditation instructions given in Changlu Zongze's Zuochanyi:

    Do not think of any good or evil whatsoever. Whenever a thought occurs, be aware of it; as soon as you aware of it, it will vanish.
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Re: Stopping thoughts?

Postby Johnny Dangerous » Sun Apr 28, 2013 5:59 am

http://www.mahamudracenter.org/MMCMembe ... c420995633

http://www.amazon.com/Practice-Mahamudr ... +mahamudra

These are the two best things i've read on the subject.

Honestly the first link is years and years worth of practice, but the first bit of basically shamatha techniques are implementable right away. For me the "just sit" and "joyful rest" techniques were what relaxed my relationship to thought somewhat and allowed some insight into it, for some reason object-focused shamatha revs me up and distracts me. The second book has an extremely good, concise explanation of the proper use of discursive thought - kalpana is the word I think, and how to gradually remove attachment, aversion, and mistaken views toward it.

Anyway, when I do it, I literally just sit down and see if I can feel out where the resistance is, find the part that cares or is attaching to the thought and just relax it by looking at it...I just keep trying to expand out anytime something creates a tension and try to look indirectly at what creates the tension. I have no idea if that advice would work for anyone else, or if it even makes sense, but there ya go. Really nothing to do with the thought, but with the perceiver, and the perceiver's relationship to the thought.

It doesn't always work for me either, but those two resources coupled with in person instruction have been really helpful for what i think you are describing.
"Just as a lotus does not grow out of a well-levelled soil but from the mire, in the same way the awakening mind
is not born in the hearts of disciples in whom the moisture of attachment has dried up. It grows instead in the hearts of ordinary sentient beings who possess in full the fetters of bondage." -Se Chilbu Choki Gyaltsen
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Re: Stopping thoughts?

Postby dyanaprajna2011 » Sun Apr 28, 2013 6:23 am

Be aware that there is a thought, but don't think "I'm having a thought." Be sure to not become attached to the thought or dwell on it, then let it float away like a cloud floating in the sky.
"If you want to travel the Way of Buddhas and Zen masters, then expect nothing, seek nothing, and grasp nothing." -Dogen
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Re: Stopping thoughts?

Postby Nikolay » Sun Apr 28, 2013 8:50 am

Thank you for your advice. I will try to explain in more detail what is happening.

For some time I have been trying to practice shamatha with object, by concentrating on my breath, or on a Buddha image, or on some random dot on the wall. That did not really work out for me. Then I obtained this book: http://www.amazon.com/Stilling-Mind-Sha ... 0861716906 and practical instructions there resonated with me immediately. As a first stage, it recommends focusing not on objects, but on space, gazing into space, merging the mind with it and just being there, noticing the arising thoughts. I tried it and was far more successful than before.

However, something bothers me. All shamatha instructions I have seen, including the one I use, mention that basically the first thing you should experience, the first sign of progress, is becoming aware of the huge number of thoughts, like some raging waterfall, all constantly arising and crowded in the mind. This never happened to me. A thought arises, I register it, and it disappears. At other times, I feel no thoughts at all, but I also do not feel completely relaxed - some tension still remains, both external and internal. I strongly suspect that I am actually making some sort of effort suppressing my thoughts, but how do I check it? How do I make sure that I am "letting thoughts go" and not suppressing them?
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Re: Stopping thoughts?

Postby Jnana » Sun Apr 28, 2013 4:58 pm

mirage wrote:However, something bothers me. All shamatha instructions I have seen, including the one I use, mention that basically the first thing you should experience, the first sign of progress, is becoming aware of the huge number of thoughts, like some raging waterfall, all constantly arising and crowded in the mind. This never happened to me. A thought arises, I register it, and it disappears. At other times, I feel no thoughts at all, but I also do not feel completely relaxed - some tension still remains, both external and internal. I strongly suspect that I am actually making some sort of effort suppressing my thoughts, but how do I check it? How do I make sure that I am "letting thoughts go" and not suppressing them?

The similes given for the stages of settling the mind pertain to all different types of people, and in many of the Tibetan practice traditions that use those particular similes there is also explicit acknowledgement that not everyone progresses step by step through all of the same stages. For example, it's entirely possible that some people experience less discursive thoughts than others.

As for your particular question, it's usually most productive to follow one approach and not attempt to mix and match based on replies on an internet discussion forum. It's also very helpful to have some direct contact with an experienced teacher from the tradition that you are attempting to practice. This way your questions can be addressed in context, and approaches can be explored that are tailored specifically to you.

But generally speaking, the development of śamatha involves more than just eliminating thoughts. There are also subtle bodily and mental feelings (vedanā) of well-being and pleasure that arise with the progression of mental calm. These stages are described in the Śrāvakabhūmi and further explained in the Tibetan Lamrim texts. If you are actually experiencing bodily or mental tension it might be helpful to explore that feeling of tension with an open, non-judgemental awareness. It's possible that by bring sufficient awareness to the feeling the tension will begin to dissolve.
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Re: Stopping thoughts?

Postby Nikolay » Sun Apr 28, 2013 5:30 pm

Jnana wrote:The similes given for the stages of settling the mind pertain to all different types of people, and in many of the Tibetan practice traditions that use those particular similes there is also explicit acknowledgement that not everyone progresses step by step through all of the same stages. For example, it's entirely possible that some people experience less discursive thoughts than others.

As for your particular question, it's usually most productive to follow one approach and not attempt to mix and match based on replies on an internet discussion forum. It's also very helpful to have some direct contact with an experienced teacher from the tradition that you are attempting to practice. This way your questions can be addressed in context, and approaches can be explored that are tailored specifically to you.

But generally speaking, the development of śamatha involves more than just eliminating thoughts. There are also subtle bodily and mental feelings (vedanā) of well-being and pleasure that arise with the progression of mental calm. These stages are described in the Śrāvakabhūmi and further explained in the Tibetan Lamrim texts. If you are actually experiencing bodily or mental tension it might be helpful to explore that feeling of tension with an open, non-judgemental awareness. It's possible that by bring sufficient awareness to the feeling the tension will begin to dissolve.

Thank you for your response. Unfortunately currently I do not have the option of consulting a teacher.

Regarding tension, I am experiencing several kinds of it. First is plain physical discomfort while sitting in a meditation pose. Despite practising hatha-yoga for some time, my body is not very flexible, and even sitting cross-legged is somewhat challenging for me. I have experimented with different poses, but they are even worse. This is just something I have to deal with. Second, there is certain tension and stiffness in my neck and in the back of my skull, roughly in the area where spine connects to it. I am not entirely sure what is causing this. Third, when I turn my attention to my thoughts, I literally get some vague feelings "inside my head" - actually it is most likely caused by muscle tension, but it is pretty distracting. This one actually can be hard to distinguish from psychological tension. I really have trouble with the whole "letting go" thing.

About thoughts - well, it is like this: when I direct my attention to a thought, it quickly vanishes, but I am left with a feeling that I have forced it to vanish. I have that feeling that the thought is "not supposed" to be here, so my awareness turns out to be slightly aggressive and judgemental, even if I do not form any thoughts about it. This also bothers me because I have repeatedly read that "removing all thoughts" is an error, and the meditation of no-thought is not a Buddhist meditation.

I realize I am asking a lot of highly specific questions, so I'm not expecting definitive answers. I just thought that maybe someone here had similar experiences and doubts, and discussed them with their teacher, resolving them somehow.
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Re: Stopping thoughts?

Postby Johnny Dangerous » Sun Apr 28, 2013 5:41 pm

Personally, I did not get any clarity in terms of watching thoughts until practicing Vipaysana techniques. It's hard to put this stuff into words, but it feels to me like there is a difference between looking directly and indirectly at thoughts...some of the techniques in the link I posted involve things like trying to determine the color of thoughts etc. For whatever reason (doesn't make sense intuitively - seems like it should be the opposite) these really improved the general clarity regarding this kind of thing..for some reason focusing on one thought makes it easier to not grab at the other ones.

Do you think the feeling of grabbing at the thoughts could be related to expectations of the practice? I know for me that when I have a feeling that something is "not working" or feels wrong in meditation, as Jnana advises, the best thing for me is to try to gently look at that tension, and soften my expectations - of everything.
Last edited by Johnny Dangerous on Sun Apr 28, 2013 5:48 pm, edited 1 time in total.
"Just as a lotus does not grow out of a well-levelled soil but from the mire, in the same way the awakening mind
is not born in the hearts of disciples in whom the moisture of attachment has dried up. It grows instead in the hearts of ordinary sentient beings who possess in full the fetters of bondage." -Se Chilbu Choki Gyaltsen
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Re: Stopping thoughts?

Postby White Lotus » Sun Apr 28, 2013 5:47 pm

let a thought come when it wants to come, register it (become aware of it) and then just return to mindfulness of your breath. for me, ultimately meditation should become your daily experience of life and no contrived meditation should be necessary. all is meditation, but i guess one has to see that ordinary mind is the buddha. there have been people like Bankei; a japanese zen master of renown who saw all meditation and koan study as a fabrication and a contrivance. your ordinary mind is already buddha mind. no need to see into your own nature, just see the ordinary nature of all things right in front of you. that is shikantaza, zazen, shamatha.

formless meditation is just to see what is right in front of you and to be aware of the ordinary nature of things without any effort. loosing focus when losing focus, mindful when mindful. the way its always been.

if you are struggling with the monkey mind of disturbance through thoughts entering your mind... that can be seen as perfect practice. the mind is already perfect. if thoughts wish to enter do not judge them. you can even enter the subject of the thought, just be with it. be aware that i am thinking of such and such and then return to the breath.

ultimately you want to get away from mindfulness of the breath and just be aware of your environment, a form of wu wei. just doing nothing in particular. alowing thoughts, but mindful of them when mindful of them. unaware when unaware. ordinary mind and awareness is enlightenment.

this will be my final post for some months i expect. i am sorry i cant respond to any posts.

even if your mind is a tornado of thoughts, be with that. dont struggle with it. just observe. this is practice. going to the toilet is practice. all is practice. all is zazen/shamatha.

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Re: Stopping thoughts?

Postby Nikolay » Sun Apr 28, 2013 5:48 pm

Johnny Dangerous wrote:Do you think the feeling of grabbing at the thoughts could be related to expectations of the practice? I know for me that when I have a feeling that something is "not working" or feels wrong in meditation, as Jnana advises, the best thing for me is to try to gently look at that tension, and soften my expectations - of everything.

This could be the case. I guess I will do my best to work with my expectations. It's hard to find a balance, because if I just leave things as they are, I will be carried away by thoughts, and by preventing that from happening I am already struggling against something, already not accepting something.
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Re: Stopping thoughts?

Postby Nikolay » Sun Apr 28, 2013 5:51 pm

White Lotus:
Thank you. I realize that not judging and being simply aware of thoughts is the key. But looks like not making any effort is an effort for me in itself! :thinking:
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Re: Stopping thoughts?

Postby Johnny Dangerous » Sun Apr 28, 2013 10:42 pm

Well this is just personal experience, and I am no veteran so take with a grain of salt, but for me so far problems like this have come down to either expectation or apprehension about practice, and once I was able to drop these somewhat things untied themselves. Ultimately only a teacher could confirm or deny this, but I also get the distinct impression that how you view discursive thought and your relationship to it changes in the course of meditation, and that is normal. Think about the first time you ever sat, having to look directly at your boredom and neuroses.
"Just as a lotus does not grow out of a well-levelled soil but from the mire, in the same way the awakening mind
is not born in the hearts of disciples in whom the moisture of attachment has dried up. It grows instead in the hearts of ordinary sentient beings who possess in full the fetters of bondage." -Se Chilbu Choki Gyaltsen
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Re: Stopping thoughts?

Postby PadmaVonSamba » Mon Apr 29, 2013 12:02 am

When thoughts arise, just think the word, "thinking" and return to watching the breath.
The point is not that the thoughts will stop (although eventually they will subside) but that they arise, they will be more as gentle ripples in water, not as big waves.

Consider all of the things you are aware of at this very moment which are not at the center of your focus of attention...the color of the walls, the humming of your computer, the nerves in your feet. As you practice shamatha, the arisingt thoughts will become background noises such as these.

Consider two parents of toddlers who have gotten together one morning for tea or coffee, and they are sitting in the kitchen chatting away while their kids play with toys in the other room, just a few feet away. The parents are fully aware of the activities of the children, but their attention, their focus, is on their conversation (this analogy occurred to me when my son was 2 years old). Likewise, your focus of attention is on your breathing. The thoughts that arise, you are aware of them, but we could say they are "in the other room" of your mind. you are aware of them, but they are busy having their own activity and you need not concern yourself with them.
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Re: Stopping thoughts?

Postby LastLegend » Mon Apr 29, 2013 11:48 am

What has been working for me is being mindful of Buddha's teachings. So I recognize or become aware of a thought, I'll be like, "This thought is not Buddha's teaching for it is negative." The same goes for anger, resentment, etc.
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Re: Stopping thoughts?

Postby Nikolay » Mon Apr 29, 2013 6:42 pm

This forum is a treasure trove of good advice. I will continue with my practice, and see how it goes from here :namaste:
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Re: Stopping thoughts?

Postby In the bone yard » Sat May 04, 2013 7:50 pm

mirage,
Good to see diligent practice!
I think you may be trying too hard. There doesn't have to be any effort.
Just sit (you know what to do already).
Let the mind remain naturally without effort.
You could just sit with boredom.
Not every session has to be the same.

Mindfulness (shamatha) is good, but don't forget awareness (Vipasyana).
Form is emptiness and emptiness is form...this is awareness.
Too much mindfulness makes one very dull and sometimes sleepy. This means implement more Vipasyana.
Too much agitation means need more mindfulness.

Also, I do not sit in lotus posture. I'm not limber anymore, but I do take discomfort as being an important part of meditation.
Discipline is very important and I offer the little discomfort with devotion to my guru, but you don't want to get distracted from the point of meditation. It's fine to sit in a chair but never use the back of the chair.
Always sit straight and upright like the masters of the past did.
They even died that way. Yes, they were full lotus but I am not, and I dare not, compare myself to the precious ones.

Lastly, meditation without merit is only half practice!
Refraining from the 10 evil acts is a good start of merit and improves meditation greatly.

Good to see you not taking this life lightly!

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Re: Stopping thoughts?

Postby Beatzen » Fri May 10, 2013 7:44 pm

Nikolay wrote:I often encounter the advice that while practising shamatha one shouldn't try to stop the flow of thoughts, but should just sort of register them impassively. I found it basically impossible to do. When the thought arises, I notice it and sort of think "Here is a thought." Then it vanishes, and while my attention is on my mind, I can't help but feel that I am somehow making an effort to stop thoughts from arising. How does one "concentrate on the present moment" without stopping thoughts? Or maybe I am overthinking it?


It's the nature of the mind to think.

I think the best way to achor yourself in the moment, without repressing thoughts, is to throw a majority of your attention into your body; posture and breathing - ideally with the center of gravity just below your belly button.

Pretend like your spine is the mast of a ship that is being tossed about in a storm (your perceptions, thoughts and feelings, etc.) - just weather it out patiently and let your natural intelligence intuit things for you.

It's really not a glamorous exercise. But do the practice until the practice does you.
"Cause is not before and Effect is not after"
- Eihei Dogen Zenji
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Re: Stopping thoughts?

Postby randomseb » Sun May 12, 2013 5:40 am

I've noticed in myself that after a couple of hours of doing shamata my arising-extinguising thoughts become very subtle background noise, the gentle wave mentioned in a post above, as opposed to the big attention grabbing woosh of every day thought..

This is by just being with the thoughts as they come up, and not following them as they try to generate followup thoughts.. This is as opposed to going to the thought in any directed way.. How to say.. Let's say my awareness is like a variable radius beam from a flashlight, that's turned towards whatever i focus on, here it's set to focus/light everything at once and just not concentrated onto the thought, if that makes sense.

Sometimes this takes 3-4 hours, once it was about an hour, sometimes after 5 hours there's still no difference.. We'll see what happens when I increase this to 8 hours or so..
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Re: Stopping thoughts?

Postby Azidonis » Sun May 12, 2013 1:54 pm

Nikolay wrote:I often encounter the advice that while practising shamatha one shouldn't try to stop the flow of thoughts, but should just sort of register them impassively. I found it basically impossible to do.


Thought arises from consciousness. To be conscious without thought does not mean that the thoughts are gone, or obliterated, or anything (outside of samadhi anyway). It simply means that thoughts are not engaged.

Nikolay wrote:When the thought arises, I notice it and sort of think "Here is a thought."


And this is the question - is it a thought before the notion that it is a thought arises? What is it before it is a thought? Is it anything at all prior to the labeling? The simple answer is no. Without naming it, it isn't anything at all. Nameless.

So, as consciousness flows like a stream, thoughts arise like fish jumping out of the stream. But, they are not actually recognized until you say, "This is a fish!" Do not try to stop the fish from leaping up out of the stream. Instead, let them leap, and if you happen to catch one, let it go, and don't try to keep it.

Nikolay wrote:Then it vanishes, and while my attention is on my mind, I can't help but feel that I am somehow making an effort to stop thoughts from arising. How does one "concentrate on the present moment" without stopping thoughts? Or maybe I am overthinking it?


You concentrate on the present moment by not catching the fish, or if you happen to catch one, not holding onto it, not putting it into the "fish bucket". And then, you get to the question of, "What is catching the fish? What is trying to hold onto them?" And therein lies the doctrine of Śūnyatā.

Keep in mind also that the thinker and the thought are not two things, but one. The subject and object are not two things, but one. The thinker attempting to think about the thought is the thought itself, trying to analyze itself, using the only instrument at its disposal, which is thought. And the analysis is always about thought, but not thought itself. Thought cannot take thought apart, and view it objectively from outside of thought and say, "This is thought." Thus, it is one movement, and this is the movement that catches the senses. This is the movement that links the skandhas. The constant recognition of change, with the keyword being recognition, ie. catching the fish.
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Re: Stopping thoughts?

Postby mandala » Sun May 12, 2013 2:56 pm

Nikolay wrote: About thoughts - well, it is like this: when I direct my attention to a thought, it quickly vanishes, but I am left with a feeling that I have forced it to vanish. I have that feeling that the thought is "not supposed" to be here, so my awareness turns out to be slightly aggressive and judgemental, even if I do not form any thoughts about it. This also bothers me because I have repeatedly read that "removing all thoughts" is an error, and the meditation of no-thought is not a Buddhist meditation.


Yea i know what you mean, and sometimes I think we can just try too hard when it feels like we're not 'getting it'.
But I think you ARE getting it - you're mindful of a thought, you let it pass... maybe the bit where you're getting stuck is that actually, the thought IS supposed to be there, it's perfectly fine, no worries.
As we get to know our minds, it can seem like it's a big, unrelenting noisy mess in there, when it was like that all along but we just hadn't been paying attention. The job of mindfulness meditations isn't to stop the thoughts, it's to recognise what's going on and gain some calm and awareness to not be habitually controlled by the emotions/thoughts.

A nice mindfulness meditation that I like is "leaf on a stream" - to visualise a lovely flowing stream, and when thoughts pop up you gently place them on a leaf that falls into the stream & floats off. Then you go back to watching the water flow. It helps create a bit of distance between mind as the observer and the emotions/thoughts. Perhaps it could help you with the feelings of forcing or aggression as it's quite a calming visualisation..

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