A Mind Capable of Not Thinking

On achieving a quiet mind, from British philosopher Alan Watts:

One cannot act creatively, except on the basis of stillness. Of having a mind that is capable from time to time of stopping thinking. And so this practice of sitting may seem very difficult at first, because if you sit in the Buddhist way, it makes your legs ache. Most Westerners start to fidget; they find it very boring to sit for a long time, but the reason they find it boring is that they're still thinking. If you weren't thinking, you wouldn't notice the passage of time, and as a matter of fact, far from being boring, the world when looked at without chatter becomes amazingly interesting. The most ordinary sights and sounds and smells, the texture of shadows on the floor in front of you. All these things, without being named, and saying 'that's a shadow, that's red, that's brown, that's somebody's foot.' When you don't name things anymore, you start seeing them.

To turn off the mind and observe things without naming them — to really observe them. To smell the roses instead of analyzing them: I aspire to the level of mind control which I hear enables such present moment living.

Oh, silent meditation retreat, where art thou?


Here's my post on self-consciousness and one on the art of self-overhearing. Thanks to Colin Marshall for the pointer.

10 comments on “A Mind Capable of Not Thinking
  • Over the last few weeks, I’ve become accustomed to doing yoga at the ungodly hour of 5 in the morning. It’s far easier because the majority of people in India are up this early anyway, and in fact waking before sunrise is considered a godly thing.

    Towards the end of back-breaking exercises, a group of 15 of us or so just sit cross-legged on grass in the middle of a park for about 15 minutes. This is a long time to do nothing. Nothing is what I considered it at first.

    Then the chatter in my brain stopped. I slowly became aware of the regularity of my breathing and felt my eyelids closed against my skin. If I heard someone cough it was far in the distance and like you said I didn’t label it, it just happened. 15 minutes, as we internally define their time limit, had no value.

    And it’s only a start. I hope to continue this practice beyond my trip.

  • Ben: Ah, the silent retreat! Good you posted this. You may recall I asked you if you planned to do one.

    My experiences with Pilates are similar to that of Akshay’s with yoga. Focusing on breathing makes you focus on nothing else. Apart from yoga, though, nothing else ends with “shavaasan” (lit. the pose of a corpse or dead body) which is super quiet even breathing slows down. I do now feel that all those years we did yoga in the school, we wasted our chance to be “quiet”. It is something I learnt when older.

    Akshay: Technically, early hours starting 4am are Brahma Muhurta so the hour is not “ungodly” at all. Au contraire, and enshrined in Hindu mythology. No, I am not religious but the mythology provides beautiful metaphor and shorthand for life situations. 🙂

  • You can listen to Alan Watts’ lectures for free via iTunes. I believe his son is putting this material out.

    Ben, you live in California: you could find a 3-day silent retreat TOMORROW if you set your mind to it. Do it and tell us about it!

  • Years of being tortured mentally by ignorant fundamentalist preachers in my childhood made me a master at a very tender age of turning off the mind.

    I can hardly describe the horrors of being imprisoned in a windowless, fluorescent-lit “sanctuary” surrounded by semi-literate morons who compounded their crimes against humanity by droning idiotic hymns (without even the saving grace of accompaniment by instrumental music).

    Turning off the mind was an act of self-preservation.

    I can’t remember which came first into my life, Alan Watts, or LSD, but Watts provided a philosophy that made my exploratory trips to inner space intelligible. A friend at high school had been turned on to Watts’ books by his heroin addict brother, and passed them on to me.

    At home I was being poisoned spiritually and emotionally by the rancor and hatred of alien parental units, and physically by massive exposure to organophosphate insecticides.

    I made my escape one day as the male p.u. was haranguing me for my embarrassing lack of a girlfriend (black girls didn’t count). I couldn’t take it any more and ran off down the street shouting, “I’m queer!”

    Ah, sweet freedom. I went to live in the woods and ended up in a tent at a commune run by The Great Hippie (the closest thing to a philosophical entertainer I ever knew personally) where I found “a more honest and congenial society among the mutant[s]”.

    I imagined that I was really living in the Tao, now, until the next time I dropped some acid and thought Mao’s Red Chinese Army was invading the USA.

    I saw their rainbow parachutes!

    Therefore, it’s absolutely true that absolute morality has absolutely nothing to do with the fundamental realization of one’s deep spiritual identity.

    If the above seems like a blatant non sequitur, it’s only because I turned off that pesky mind when I wrote this.;-)

  • Silence isn’t easy. An inability to stay quiet is one of the most conspicuous failings of mankind. One of the greatest sounds of them all is utter, complete silence. Turning off your mind is even tougher because it’s chatter is involuntary. The harder you try to achieve absolute silence, greater is the tendency to wiggle and twitch. You may overlook the torso (or any part of your anatomy that you’re ordinarily aware of), but you begin to feel your eyebrows or the tip of your penis. That’s disturbance enough to start a new drivel.

    Make a beginning by shutting off all things that are voluntary and are in your control. Start by recognizing the lack of physical agitation and the stillness of context. Then progress towards the stillness of body that is easier to contemplate. You’ll begin to enjoy the state of physical rest and mind will slowly turn itself off, for whatever little while.

  • One doesn’t necessarily need to go somewhere to participate in a silent retreat. Like the above commenter said, you can start right now wherever you are whether it’s on the bus, in the airport or at a hotel.

    You just need to be in a comfortable position – not necessarily sitting and just focus on breathing and listening to that. I’ve managed 5 minutes of silent meditation just laying on the floor or sitting still at my desk while at work. Just focus on being quiet and if a thought pops up, acknowledge it and return to the silent medtiation and clearing of your thoughts. Thic Nhat Hanh’s book “peace is every step,” makes a great case for meditating anywhere and anytime.

  • If you want to notice the texture of shadows or really think of things beyond the (time-saving) labels you use in every day life, take some mushrooms (in the world of illicit drugs, I believe they are pose very few health risks). I do not anymore, because the experiences were a bit too intense and I did not like what I found when turning the naked eye inwards, but I could spend an hour or more observing my disheveled bedroom with only a lamp turned on in the middle.

  • What worked for me and is now a mandatory twice or thrice a year session is the Art of Living Part 2 course. (www.artoflivin.org)

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