Cultivating Stillness

Most thoughts are not worth having. They are repetitious. Exhausting. Anxiety driven. They come over and over again. Like water dripping from a leaky faucet.

I observe this in myself. There are some basic thought patterns that occur again and again. When I wake up. When I am in traffic. When I am eating. When I am brushing my teeth. These thoughts are a constant companion. The exact same thoughts don’t repeat, but they are variations on a limited set of themes – broadly themes of concern regarding myself, and the people and the world around me.

These thoughts appear, as it were, with signs: “Pay attention! This is very important! Need to think about this now!” They suggest that if they are not heeded to, something bad will happen. “Protect yourself! Protect the people and things you care about! Ignore me at your peril!”

They feel like you are approaching a railroad crossing, unaware that a train is coming. The thoughts present themselves as the flashing stop sign.

But really, the thoughts are not linked to any impending danger or concern. They are a flashing stop sign disconnected from any broader mechanism. They are like if you took the railroad stop sign, brought it home and put it on the wall. All the time it flashes “Stop”, referring to nothing.

If there is a real danger, thoughts don’t just present themselves, passively. They themselves impel action. They don’t simply advocate vigilence. They move the person in vigilence.

Most thoughts feel vigilant, as if rooted in a need of the now. But they are really stuck in the past, a recurring leftover.

Nor are these thoughts part of intellectual activity, or practical, instrumental thought. Seeking to understand, learn, comprehend, explore. That is thought which propels one in excitement, enthusiasm, interest, passion. Or atleast curiosity and not hobbled by anxiety or fear.

Most thoughts are not like this. They are passive, stale, like a day’s old food left on the table. They present themselves not because they inspire, but just because they are there.

And one thinks them not because one wants to, but more because one doesn’t know how to stop them. They are thoughts entertained passively. Like being unable to stop eating ice cream until the container is empty.

In my life, I estimate atleast 50% of my thoughts are like this. Maybe more. Maybe 70%. Am I underestimating? Is it really more like 90%? I wouldn’t be surprised if it were. And I imagine in this I am similar to most other people.

If these thoughts go from 70% to even 40%, that would be a significant change. A transformation in consciousness. That much mental energy freed up. That much mental garbage removed from the system.

Enlightenment is simply the ideal of having these negative, draining thoughts at 0%. One doesn’t have to reach 0%. Decreasing from 70% to 60%, or in general the direction being towards decreasing these thoughts is enough. More than enough.

How to reduce these thoughts? Not by accepting or even denying them. Accepting them only makes them repeat again and again. Denying them does the same, only now with more pain and self censure.

The best way is to simply be aware of the thoughts. Let them hang in the air, in the mind, without affirming or denying them, without identifying with them or dismissing them.

Observe them as just thoughts floating through the mind. Not as your thoughts that you generated that you need to act on. You didn’t generate them and they are not yours. They are just flowing through your consciousness.

Identification with the thoughts is the energy which keeps them going. Disidentify with them. Observe them as just objects floating through your field of awareness, and the thoughts lose their potency.

They will still float by, as debris floats through empty space. It passes you by, disconnected from who you are.

Then the mind, being less cluttered, just is. Neither thrilled by the passing thoughts nor depressed by them. In equinimity, consciousness resides in stillness. Like a body free of toxins, consciousness, free of toxin thoughts, revels in itself.

5 thoughts on “Cultivating Stillness

  1. > Identification with the thoughts is the energy which keeps them going.

    Yes!

    I had a passing thought the other day about the relationship between the Sanskrit words “maaya” (illusion) and “mayaa” (by me). There is probably no etymological relationship, but the phonetic resemblance is thought-provoking. Mayaa maaya — illusion generated by me.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I love this post, and come back to it at least once a week to remind myself. A couple of my older, more enlightened friends tried to explain this to me, but I never really understood it. Your way of describing awareness (sans identification or disavowal) is really helpful.

    This principle has also been presented to me as a way of dealing with the emotions that accompany these thoughts. So, when one feels overwhelmed by emotion, to not shut it down but to be aware of it and then just be with it until it passes.

    I’ve been trying these principles for the last month in dealing with some difficult emotions. When I succeed, it’s so rewarding. But I can’t always keep myself from getting carried away. A work in progress for me, for sure.

    Thanks again for this great post.

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      • A friend sent me this quote from Shantideva:

        “Where could I possibly find enough leather
        To cover the surface of the thorny earth?
        Yet leather on the soles of my shoes
        Is as good as covering the entire earth

        Likewise it is not possible for me
        To restrain the external course of things
        But if could I restrain this mind of mine
        Why would I need to restrain all else?”

        Your original post is a route to how one might go about covering the soles of our own shoes.

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        • Yes. Absolutely.

          It’s a new thought for me, covering my own feet. I have been practicing it bit by bit in my life, when I get upset, annoyed or depressed. The impulse to find the root of the pain outside is so strong. And letting go of that to focus on myself feels selfish, as if I am withdrawing from others, into my own cacoon, being anti-social. But I see now what being “social” in the sense of trying to fix things in the world, cover the whole earth with leather, is the root of social ills and personal pain from those ills. Withdrawal from that kind of socialness is a prerequisite for a better socialness, one where each gives room to the other by focusing first on oneself. This is what Socrates, Buddha, Christ discovered. Quite amazing.

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