One common misconception people have regarding Buddhism, and meditation in general, is that we are supposed to stop thinking all together. It is not surprising that many of us reach this conclusion: we learn that our thinking patterns bring us suffering: that “I will be happy when I have X”, reinforces the idea we are incomplete; and we learn meditation techniques to bring us away from our thoughts and into the present moment. So our minds may jump to the conclusion that we are supposed to stop thinking completely, which seems completely unrealistic and frankly dangerous. It IS unrealistic: as human beings, the ability to plan ahead and imagine is essential for our survival. The good news is that Buddhism, and similar traditions, do not advocate such an extreme approach. Becoming a vegetable was not what the spiritual masters of ancient India were proposing.
We also may reach the conclusion that desire in itself is wrong: that we are not supposed to want anything. Again unsurprising given the connection between desire and suffering we find throughout Buddhist teaching, but again totally unrealistic. Of course we will experience desire: if you are thirsty you need to drink. What Buddhism is teaching us is not to suppress our thoughts and desires completely, but to learn how to remove our attachment and false expectations associated with them. The real problem, is ignorance: not seeing things as they really are. It is fine to have a thoughts and desires, but we can run into serious problems if we allow them to cloud our perception.
When Daydreams become Nightmares
For example, if I have a desire such as: “I want my business to grow over the next five years”, this is perfectly natural. However there are a number of ways that this desire could potentially bring me into a state of dissatisfaction. Firstly it could become a recurrent, repetitive thought that does not benefit me, my business or anybody else. Rather than making genuinely useful plans I could simply be stuck in a loop of thoughts that may actually prevent me from reaching my goals. Secondly the desire could cause me to become inflexible: a rigid attachment to my business growing may stop me seeing other opportunities, or prevent me working on different areas of my life. This type of narrow-perspective can be thought of as a form of ignorance. We may fall in love with our thoughts, and they say that love is blind! Another way that desire could cause us problems is that if it often comes bundled with powerful emotions: I could start to feel a lot of fear that I may fail, which could become all-consuming, stressful and totally unhelpful.
Life may offer us many things, but if we are asleep we will miss them. To fully accept and benefit from all the richness of this world we need to be in harmony with it, not lost in unhelpful thoughts and emotions.
What Do You Really Need?
The hugely influential philosopher, Moses Maimonides, had much to say on the subject of desire, and in his work can be found many parallels with Buddhist thought. He pointed out that all of the things we really need, we already have. If you reading this you probably have access to food, water, and shelter – and the whole world would too if we divided things equally. Air, the most essential substance for our survival, is of course freely available! However the things we desire are often unnecessary (Gold for example, is simply desired because it is rare). Maimonides also illustrated how many of the things we desire will result in somebody else losing out. If I obtain more money / fame / power, this will often result in another person having less. If we look at the extreme inequality of the modern world we can see the damage that has been done by this “win/lose” game. If we can shift our desire away from things which are unnecessary, or which cause other people to lose out, and focus instead on what we really need, we may realize that we are more complete than we realized. This will bring a sense of peace to ourselves and help us work toward a fairer society. Maimonides realized that self-knowledge, the most precious of all things, is unlimited, and accessing will bring about this shift in our priorities. This is exactly what Buddhist teachings advocate: turning inwards is essential for bringing about a state of harmony with our environment.
Thinking and Wanting are Fine
So there is nothing wrong with thoughts and desires in themselves: it is our attachment to them that causes us to misperceive reality. Even the famous Zen Master Adyashanti talked of having many thoughts during meditation; some days our minds are full of chatter and this is totally normal. The human mind has been compared to a drunken monkey that has been stung by a scorpion, frantically hopping from one thought to the other: full of emotion but with little awareness of the outside world!
One of the tools Buddhism uses to allow us to see our thoughts and desires with clarity is meditation. In meditation, when a thought comes we simply notice it then return our attention to our object of meditation, the breath for example. This is no easy task, often we will find that we have been carried away by a whole string of thoughts and emotions before we remember we are supposed to be meditating! This may seem like an extreme practice, and in a way it is – the opposite extreme being the drunken monkey mind described above. One can be thought of as the antidote to the other. Spending time not engaging with our thoughts will eventually give us the power to see them from a bird’s eye view, allowing us to have control over them rather than the other way round.
Taming The Monkey Mind
Meditation is not simply a practice in itself, it is designed to change how we react in our daily lives and help us cultivate the mind of a witness, beautifully described by the renowned Guru Osho as, “The Watcher on the Hill”. The aim is to eventually reach the stage we see thoughts and desires for what they really are: just temporary visitors that come and go in the same way as the waves in ocean rise and fall.
Practice medication, and you may find at the beginning it is the everyday chatter of the mind that brings tugs at our concentration; but with more sustained practice deep, repressed, emotions can arise. Once the meditation session is over we than then reflect on what came up, giving us a greater understanding of ourselves and any obstacles we may have to overcome. We can disarm any negative thought patterns, we may have picked up from challenging periods of our lives, simply be recognizing them and choosing not to engage with them. A mind that is always stuck in the past is not seeing the true nature of things, as is a mind constantly planning for the future.
There is a subtle but crucial difference between suppressing thoughts and desires, and losing our attachment to them. In the Hindu tradition, from which Buddhism emerged, the great spiritual dilemma: to act or not to act, is beautifully resolved in the Bhagavad-Gita which advocates acting, but without attachment or expectation:
“You have the right to work, but never to the fruit of work. You should never engage in action for the sake of reward, nor should you long for inaction”
“Perform work in this world … without selfish attachments, and alike in success and defeat. For yoga is perfect evenness of mind.”
In the Yogic tradition, sensations and memories held in the body and mind are referred to as Samskaras. Past traumas or difficult experiences may leave a physical and mental imprint that can be a major obstacle. For example, somebody who was rejected by a potential partner may refrain from approaching new people because of the fear and pain associated with the memory of rejection. Often we will find that these sensations are held in certain areas of the body, and that is why certain Yoga poses, or massages can sometimes trigger extreme emotions. Even if we feel calm in a certain situation, our bodies may be tense due to Samskara – only when we purify this will we be able to bring a sense of harmony and break negative patterns which prevent us seeing the true nature of things.
Awareness not Suppression
Buddhism is not a system of suppressing thinking and desire, it is a simply a way of removing the ignorance, giving us a clear view of the world as it really is.
If we become deeply aware of our thoughts, memories, fantasies and desires we will find these are where dissatisfaction can often be found, so Buddhism teaches us to spend more time in the present moment, where there are no problems. This does not mean we will never have thoughts and desires, but when we do – we will see them for what they really are, and learn to use them in a way that serves us.