Tuesday, June 4, 2013
Instructions on emptying the mind
Short version: drop the broom!
Longer version: The 13th-century Zen master Keizan Jokin ends one of his many beautiful poems with these lines: "Most people want to have pure clarity, but sweep as you will, you cannot empty the mind." So many people come to me with a wish for an empty mind, and my response is generally the same. No matter what we want, and no matter how much effort we put into it, we can't make our mind empty of thoughts. Thoughts naturally come and go, and, as we like to say, the mind secretes thoughts in the same way that the stomach secretes acid.
Most of us have had the experience, when we first begin to meditate, that our thoughts appear to increase. Of course, this is only because before settling down into a still, quiet posture, and turning our attention on what is arising from moment to moment, we never noticed just how busy our little pea brains actually are, constantly filled with thinking -- pictures, words, combining into very convincing narratives that screen us from direct experience.
When we try to stop this endless stream, or try to make our minds blank, we are only giving our thoughts more energy with our aggression against them or our attempts at avoidance. They may appear to stop for a moment or two, but then they begin anew, with more strength. Instead, we can allow thoughts to come and go on their own, either focusing on some neutral object, like the breath, or sitting in spacious awareness, without any kind of agenda for our thoughts. Coming and going, coming and going, none of our business...and so, thoughts appear to decrease, and the mind "quiets."
The other day, I was explaining this to someone who was having a hard time emptying her mind of thoughts. She thought it was what she really wanted. Her delighted response to the instruction to let her thoughts come and go was, "this is much easier than what I've been trying to do!"
Most pictures of Jittoku, the Japanese name for the Tang Dynasty Zen monk Shide, a close friend of the poet Hanshan, show him with a broom, sweeping. In the picture below, which is also the picture that accompanies this blog, he has let the broom drop, so that he can delight in the moon. And so, we realize the basic instruction: drop the broom!