“Emptying the mind of thoughts; concentrating on just one thing.”
The Buddha didn’t say this. It’s a contemporary definition of meditation; how most people conceive of it.
It certainly has a ring to it. When I sat on my bed fifty-odd years ago and tried meditation for the first time, I wanted to forget humdrum thoughts and drift off into the universe. Being young and rather stupid, I didn’t realize I was already in it.
Later on, emptying the mind became more imperative. The more I tried to figure myself out, the more I got entangled in my own thoughts. The mental chatter drove me nuts. That’s when I started looking for some serious training. I needed to believe just one thing: that the mind could be emptied.
Can the mind really be emptied of thoughts?
I had no experience to go on, no hard facts. I believed it because I wanted it to be true. I think that’s true for most people, why it’s still such a popular idea.
The Buddha claimed that his path brought an end to the effluences (āsava). He never said anything about stopping thought. To achieve this dubious goal, many people (myself included) have retreated from everyday life to focus on focusing. It’s a difficult experience that delivers some wonderful moments, but its contingency is never more apparent than the day you return to the world. When I realized that my hard-earned detachment, concentration and clarity depended on an artificially minimal environment and an unsocial lifestyle, and that leaving that environment returned me quickly to the busy mind, I finally questioned my premise. Could the mind really be emptied of thoughts? More upsetting still was this question: even if it could, what was the point?
The meat and potatoes of life lie in how we act and how we see
The great attraction of mindfulness is the idea of dwelling in the present moment. Anyone who tries it soon admits they can’t sustain more than a few moments at a time, and yet that’s okay. The effort has its rewards: a relative slowing down, greater comfort in our own skins, a more thoughtful stress response. Just attempting to do it helps.
This is the clincher. We don’t meditate to think less, but to think better. The mindless version of mindfulness may inflame our imagination, but what sustains us is considerably less sensational.
Talk of emptiness, non-duality, non-discursive awareness and enlightenment might spur us on, but it’s just abstraction. The meat and potatoes of life lie in how we act and how we see. The more plainly we do those things, the more human we become; all the more real.
Slowing the mad rush of thoughts is a great idea because it enables us to think critically (yoniso manasikāra) — to process all that data we’re being mindful of. That means neither emptying the mind nor taking off on flights of philosophical fancy, just using your wits to keep things in perspective.
That’s why we meditate.