Dogen had a nice definition for meditation, which is “dethinking your thinking.” You’re trying to take apart the concepts that you carry around with you, especially the ones that are causing you to suffer—and a lot of these concepts you believe in, very firmly. They’re what the Thai ajaans called sommut, from the Pali sammati. They’re the conventions by which we communicate with one another, make sense of our world around us, especially in the social sphere, through the agreements we have, both within ourselves and with other people. The word “red” has a certain meaning. The word “blue” has another meaning. “Like,” “dislike”: All the concepts of language are things that we learn to agree on with one another, to use when we deal with one another.
We also carry a lot of those concepts inside. We have lots of beliefs about ourselves, about how we run things inside our mind—sometimes skillful; sometimes not, particularly if you come from an unhealthy environment, which a lot of America is now. Many of the concepts you bring inside for dealing with your own thoughts, figuring out what’s going on inside, are actually harmful.
So you want to learn how to dethink those thoughts. It’s not a matter of just putting them aside. It’s a matter of taking them apart, questioning them. At first, to do the proper questioning, you have to get the mind in a good place. That’s why we practice concentration, so that you can dethink your thoughts not out of desperation or from neurotic dislike for them, but from a place of balanced well-being. You put the mind in a good place and then, from there, you can gaze back at the ideas you’ve been carrying around and you can ask yourself with some objectivity: “Are those really helpful right now?”
Even something as simple as the notion of facing forward: Close your eyes. The body has a sense of forward and back, but why does the mind have to carry that in? We tend to think of the mind as being like the eyes that face forward. But what happens if you think of the mind just as being a radiance going out in all directions, and all directions are equal?
Then, of course, there are concepts about the breath. I don’t know how many people have said, “There’s no way breath can go through your nerves. How does air go through nerves?” Well, “breath” here isn’t air. It’s energy, and there are many layers of energy in the body. Our society doesn’t encourage us to look at these layers of energy or provide us with any coherent way of thinking about them. So here is one way you can rethink your thinking. Think of your sense of the body here as just breath. Everything you know about the sense of your hands, your feet, your legs, your torso, your head: Just tell yourself that your first perception of these things is energy. Then, from that, the perception goes into the sense of being solid or warm or cold. So it’s not like you’re trying to push the breath through the solid parts. You’re just allowing the breath to come first. Give it priority. And let those other things fall into the background, because, after all, the breath is what allows you to sense these things to begin with.
This becomes a useful way of dealing with pain. Pain tends to get glommed together with the earth element, your sense of solidity in the body. Of course, that makes the pain seem solid. So to get past that, you learn how to question the solidity of the pain. You experience the breath before you experience the pain: Think of it in that way. We have a subconscious tendency, when there’s a pain, to allow the breath energy to flow up to the pain and then stop. Well, that makes it worse. We tighten up around the pain in our childish desire to put a boundary around it, to keep it from spreading, and then the energy can’t go through. We feel that the pain is there first and the breath comes second. So reverse that. The breath is first. The pain is second.
And the breath is something other than pain. It’s a physical element, but pain is something else. It’s that sharpness, that heightened sense of displeasure or discomfort. But once you untangle it from the solidity of the body, you begin to realize it’s a lot more fluid and insubstantial than you thought before.
Ajaan Chah has a nice analogy. He says it’s like you’re sitting in the one seat in the house, and all the other things that come have no place to sit down. They’re there at your pleasure. They come and they go, but you’re the one in the seat. You’re in charge. Thinking of the breath this way puts you more in charge of what’s going on in your sensation of the body. You were here first. The breath is here first. The pain is secondary. It’s not the case that the pain has moved in and laid claim to it and pushed us out, unless we allow ourselves to be pushed out and give the seat up to it. We were there first. The breath is there first.
Once you can start taking apart your thoughts and perceptions about the body, you can do that with thoughts and perceptions about other things as well. A thought comes up and you can recognize it as a voice from someone in your family, someone in school, or somebody in the media. Or it’s one of your old defilements: in other words, your identity in the past that wants to come back. That’s why the ajaans personify the defilements, because you gave them personality by assuming them as your identity. Learn to question that. When these things come in and say things, ask yourself, “What if the opposite is true? And why do I have to believe those concepts anyhow?”
When I was in Thailand at Wat Asokaram, we’d have Dhamma talks every night. They had a rotating roster of monks. And out of the fourteen monks on the roster, maybe two could give good Dhamma talks, and the rest were boring: not very insightful, not very helpful. So I made a game of it: Even though I could hear the talk, I was going to very definitely not understand it. It was just going to be sounds, sounds, sounds. A word would come and I wouldn’t connect it with the word before it, and I wouldn’t connect that one with the word that came after. When you do that, you find that the mind can quiet down a lot faster.
Well, you can try the same trick with your own thoughts. Just think of them as gibberish. Cut the connections between them. Think of them as a foreign language. You don’t have to take on their concepts—because often when you take on their concepts, you take on their grammar, too, which creates a kind of reality. Again, this is what they call sommut in Thai: conventions, supposings, agreed-on meanings.
It’s interesting that the Thai word for “convention” also means a “supposing.” You suppose things into being. You make those agreements for useful purposes, but you don’t have to agree with them all the time. You can say, “For the time being, I’m just going to be here with the breath and I don’t have to agree with any other thought that comes in, any other language that comes in.” As soon as a thought appears, think of it dissolving away. Think of it exploding. Pains arise in the body. Think of them being dispersed, dispersed. You’re not clamping down on them—because all too often that’s what we do. A pain comes in and our instinctive reaction is, “How can I make sure this doesn’t spread?” And so we tense up around it, thinking that that’s a way of keeping it from spreading. Of course, that actually creates extra pain.
So instead of thinking of the pain as a thing, think of it as just these moments that come and go; come and go. They’re whizzing past and they’re going away from you. Instead of thinking that they’re coming at you from the front, think of them as coming at you from behind. You’ve got the right to think of them in those terms: As soon as you realize that they’re there, they’re going away from you. That loosens up a lot of the tightness and tension, a lot of the sense of being burdened by these things, being attacked by these things, of being on the receiving end. You don’t have to receive them. They’re not guests. You’re not obliged to be polite with them. You’re sitting here with your eyes closed and you’ve got the one seat in the house. You don’t have to have anything to do with anything else. See how many of your conventions and supposings and internal agreements you can put aside, at least for the time being. You can dethink them. Flip them around. Turn them inside out. Just think of them as being gibberish right now.
The only thing that’s real is your sense of awareness, very clearly here with the sensation of the breath—the sensation of energy here for the body. Eventually, you’ll want to dethink that, too, but not yet. Use that first to dethink other things. That way, the things that have long had a hold on the mind don’t have a hold anymore because you’re not holding onto them. This is like the Buddha’s image of fire. Fire feeds on its fuel and clings to the fuel and, as a result, is stuck on its fuel. It’s interesting that a lot of ancient cultures perceived fire as clinging. The I Ching talks about fire as clinging as well. And of course it clings. Take a stick with a flaming end and try to shake the fire off the stick, and you’ll see that the fire holds onto the stick no matter how much you swing it around. It clings—and as a result, it’s trapped. And then, as they say in Pali, it gets freed when it goes out. It’s freed because it lets go.
How are you going to be free of your thoughts unless you learn how to let them go? You won’t gain any freedom until you give them their freedom to go. You keep digging them up and hanging onto them, digging them up, hanging onto them. They present themselves and you immediately turn things into the type of reality that fits into your conventional, supposed, agreed-on notions of reality, and that places lots of limitations on you.
So learn how to question those agreements. Say, “I’ll use those agreements when they’re necessary, use those supposings, those suppositions, when they’re necessary, but right now they’re not.” Why carry them around? They’ll come back when you need them. A lot of those things you don’t need right now. All you have to do is be aware of the breath. It’s all around you. It’s bathing you. It’s not the case that you’re on one side of the breath facing forward looking at the breath. It’s all around you. So try to have an all-around awareness of this all-around element and see how that changes the dynamic inside.