Going Beyond Thought: Why Meditation Can Seem Impossible And What To Do To Succeed.

March 24, 2019 Nam Yang Kung Fu Retreat

One of my favourite quotes comes from Bodhidharma: founder of Shaolin Kung Fu and also of Zen Buddhism, traditions which have inspired millions to achieve deep meditation.  

‘Go beyond language, go beyond thought’.

It gives a valuable clue as to how to overcome the classic problem with meditation: how to still your mind?  


The problem.

The state of Zen (Chinese ‘Chan’, Indian ‘Djana’) involves stilling the mind, bringing to a halt the churning of random thoughts which characterises human consciousness.  This is often misinterpreted as ‘shutting down the mind’ or ‘thinking of nothing’. In fact the Zen mind is highly aware. It is highly conscious of everything which is happening, outside the body, inside the body and deep in the mind.  This is mindfulness. But it is focussed in the present, oblivious to that which has happened or that which might happen. It is ‘living in the now’. Stilling all of those thoughts runs contrary to the nature of the mind, though, and can seem impossible.


Understanding the problem.

Firstly we must understand that the human mind is a total design failure!  It is intrinsically flawed, does not work properly and, as we are becoming increasingly aware in this age of stress, frequently breaks down completely.  The good news, however, it that like most things if looked after well and nurtured properly it will perform much better.


Looking a little more deeply we have conscious and subconscious minds.  The conscious mind is the one with which we are most familiar and the one which our education emphasises.  It is the ONLY part of the mind which works in language or words. Hence anything that we are told and anything which we read is dealt with by the conscious mind.  Any thoughts which we have which are articulated though words, for example ‘I am hungry’ are clearly conscious mind thoughts. What proportion of the thoughts which pass through your mind while you are trying to meditate are conscious thoughts?  I guess most of them. 😉  The conscious mind is believed to process about 7 thoughts a second, plus / minus 2*.  This seems like an awful lot. No wonder it is hard to still the mind if it works at this rate!  Wait until you read what is coming, though!


The subconscious mind does not work in words and is far more difficult for most of us to tap in to.  Working with the sub conscious feels less like thinking, more like knowing, being aware, being intuitive.  None the less the subconscious is where most of the processing power of our minds lies. The subconscious processes 3 million thoughts a second*.  Compared to which 7 suddenly feels frankly rather feeble!


Successful meditation is about resting the conscious mind so that we can connect properly with the subconscious and hence take advantage of its huge power.  So turn away from ‘thinking’ in favour of ‘knowing, awareness and intuition’. This, however, is easier said than done as you will no doubt have discovered for your self.


The Underlying Problem.

When we think about meditating we do so with the conscious mind.

When we take in instructions how to meditate we do so with the conscious mind.

When we try to meditate we do so with the conscious mind.

The harder we try the more we shift into ‘conscious’ mode.

The more frustrated we get the more we shift into conscious mode.

This is precisely the opposite of what we are trying to achieve: to rest the conscious and shift to subconscious mode!

The Solution.  Part One.

Do not think about meditation, your mind or anything else.  Focus on your breath. No need to think about it but do be completely aware of it.  Breathe calmly, softly, deeply, slowly, evenly. Breathe very relaxed. Mind, body and breath are much more closely linked than most people realise.  As the breath becomes calm and relaxed the mind follows. Key words are awareness, knowing, intuition. Avoid thinking.


The Solution.  Part Two.

Accept yourself.  Be kind to your self.  Forgive your self.

The Buddha said:

You can search throughout the entire universe for someone who is more deserving of your love and affection than you are yourself, and that person is not to be found anywhere. You yourself, as much as anybody in the entire universe deserve your love and affection.

You have likely been conditioned to be harsh on your self when you fail.  The reality is that when working on stilling your conscious thoughts you will fail.  Over and over again. This is quite simply because you are human, with a human mind, and as I have already said the human mind is badly flawed.  The conscious mind is constantly in a state of turmoil, unable to rest. So thoughts will enter in. Even the very best meditators experience distraction.  As for those of us who have not entered monkhood and who do not live secluded lives in monasteries, how can we expect to still our minds for very long at all?  


We are inevitably going to experience thoughts.  We have a choice, however, how to handle this. If we blame ourselves we stimulate the conscious mind.  We think about things. A downward spiral then begins, things fall apart and it is time to take a break.  We have an alternative, though. We can understand that when we become distracted we are just being human.  We accept our humanity, reassure ourselves that there is nothing wrong with it and calmly continue to meditate.  No blame, no stress, no worries: just continue.


Once the conscious mind is stilled – even for a little while – we find ourselves in an astoundingly pleasant state.  Worry, regret, shame, fear and all of the other negatives dwell in the realm of the conscious. When we shift to the level of the subconscious they disappear.  We are left in a state of complete freedom, complete satisfaction, complete awareness. There really is nothing to be unhappy about. In this state we are finally able to know our selves.  Our real selves. The selves that lie deeper than body, deeper than thought. This is something worth working towards. This is the ‘Zen mind’.


None of this is particularly new or revolutionary.  It is something which Buddhists have been practising for over 2,500 years.  For those of us with a western style education, though, it does benefit from a western style of explanation.


Back to that Bodhidharma quote.

Language is the realm of the conscious.  Thought is the realm of the conscious. Neither are at all conducive to meditation.  To succeed in meditation we must go beyond to the level of knowing, intuition and awareness.


Or in more simple English:

don’t think about it; do it!


I could end with that but would like to throw in just one more thing for you to ponder.  When Bodhidharma, the monk credited with founding the whole Zen school of Buddhism, was appointed head of the newly finished and highly prestigious Shaolin temple legend has it that he was very unimpressed with the inability of the resident monks to maintain a state of meditation.  His solution? Rather than lecturing them on meditation he taught them Qigong, the art of breathing! That was real wisdom. Then again, what else would you expect form the original Zen Master?


Iain Armstrong.

Kung Fu Retreat,

Northern Thailand.

24th March 2019.


*There seems to be disagreement amongst the scientists as to the exact figure.  Some quote 40 thoughts per second for the conscious, 40 million for the subconscious!!!  The principle remains the same: subconscious has very much more processing power.