Sounds appealing, doesn’t it – automatic meditation – as though you don’t have to do anything, as if you could pay someone to do your meditating for you. The other day, I took my car to Lubes R Us, and they talked me into an engine cleaner. It came in a can, this weird looking stuff they pour into the oil spout and then let the engine run. The lube guy warned me that a plume of black smoke would bellow out of the tail pipe, but that this was “proof” that the cleaner was working. I was only too happy to believe him. When it happened, I felt comforted that the treatment was doing its job – soot and grime that could not be scrubbed out by hand was being automatically and effortlessly purged. I felt like a new man.
If only there were a similar product for our brain, something you could pour into the top of your head and then just let your thoughts idle along, while black smoke would pour out of your ears. Whatever had built up inside would get flushed out, and you would feel renewed, fresh, and ready to think clearly about anything and everything. Wouldn’t that be great.
My little fantasy at the lube place was fueled by a new approach I had been taking in my meditation, a method I had stumbled upon while wondering if the way I had been meditating was doing me any good. It occurred to me that if the body, left to its own devices, will heal itself under ordinary circumstances, shouldn’t the mind be able to do the same thing? You know, kick it into neutral and let it hum along without any interference on my part. I decided to give it a try.
The first thing I noticed was that thoughts arise on their own in a random way – thoughts out of nowhere without any provocation from me. These thoughts seem unimportant, like chatter in the background. But then they show evidence of some sort of conflict, as though they are struggling to resolve themselves by finding the right connection with some other thought. But then I realized that there are no other thoughts to which they can connect, that these are truly thought fragments loaded with an electrical charge but having no way to complete their circuit. They press on the surface of my awareness but without a useful purpose. They just roll around creating a lot of static.
So, I began to observe each thought that popped up: oh, this one is about work; it feels like insecurity. This one is about bills that are due; it feels like worry. This one is about a commercial I saw; it feels like want. Whatever the thought, all I did was to identify it and let it go. That alone was enough to take the charge off of it. One by one, the thoughts dissipated into nothingness, and they were gone.
This made me wonder why these thought fragments don’t just bubble to the surface and dispel themselves. Why do they tend to persist? Why do they collect like so much mental sludge requiring deep cleaning? By watching my own reaction to them, I discovered that I was giving them life. If the thought felt like worry, affirming the worry kept the thought intact. Acknowledging it rather than identifying it and letting it go just added more energy to it. Instead of thinking, “This is a thought about money that feels like worry,” I was thinking, “My electric bill is past due!” Instead of dissipating, the thought would sink back down into sub-consciousness, from which it would of necessity reemerge the next time I tried to relax.
Glibly saying, “I am not my thoughts,” does little to keep us from identifying with them. It takes a certain amount of practice to step back from the roiling surface of our mind and see the flotsam for what it is – junk thoughts. There is a difference between identifying a thought, which is a way of canceling its electrical charge, and investing it with new life by taking it personally. One is an impersonal response, the other is an emotional reaction. We have to take the observer role, if we are to separate ourselves from the attachment these thought fragments seem to demand. Even if the thought is about something real in your life, something that is actually threatening your wellbeing, you have to be able to look at it and say, “This is a fear thought,” and then let it pass up and out.
I’m not saying that this is the only way to meditate, because it certainly isn’t. But it is a regimen of routine maintenance. It’s something we all have to do, pretty much on a daily basis. When it becomes an automatic part of our way of functioning, we will be able to spot problem thoughts when they occur, dispel them immediately, and find an equanimity in our life that was previously impossible to attain.