Why don't you stop thinking when you meditate?

One of the most common questions I get in the process of teaching and guiding Zen is: "Is meditation about not thinking at all?" or a similar question: "How not to think about Zen?"

Before 2019, I knew the answer to this question was that meditation is not without thinking and it is also very difficult not to think while meditating. Even the monks and nuns who have meditated for a long time cannot escape this. However, it wasn't until 2019, after completing a more in-depth course on Zen, that I knew better why.

The reason is because in our brain there is a system called Default Network System, which simply translates to Default Connection System. This is also a new concept a few decades ago, after scientists measured electrical waves of brain activity in people who should have been in a state of complete rest with no activity.

That means whether you like it or not, your brain will always be active, always thinking.

This system usually operates in 3 main areas:

  • The prefrontal lobe is responsible for tasks that require a lot of complex thinking such as planning, strategy, perception, etc.
  • The limbic system is responsible for processing emotions
  • The inferior parietal lobe of the parietal lobe (top of the head): responsible for calculations, logic. It also handles sensations and surrounding space.

This is also not surprising. From time immemorial, we will always have to be in a state of alertness to face the dangers around us and find ways to survive. Take a funny example is that even though you are sleeping, if there is a mosquito buzzing around you can completely sleep while hitting the mosquito.

Understanding that lets us know that it's completely normal for us to think or concentrate fully during meditation.

That's why when you close your eyes and meditate, many of you will find it makes you "think" even more than when you open your eyes. Simply when you turn off one sense (eye), it will have more energy for other brain activities, for example here is thinking, planning, thinking about feelings of frustration, joy ... or calculate how much sales this month...

For myself, I also don't expect to reach the state of no-thinking because thinking is very important to me. It helps us live, contemplate, and think.

It's quite interesting that in my opinion, there are quite a few people who like to have this "supernatural ability", which is to completely turn on and off the thinking mode. Maybe it's because you see images of monks or Buddhas meditating in complete silence or you want your heart to remain unchanged in the midst of life? Or do we think the other side of the thoughtless state is another "enlightened" world?

However, when practicing Zen, it is true that one of the things we need to do is to "limit" our thinking as much as possible so that we can observe and perceive the deeper levels such as the subconscious, the unconscious as well as the sensations, emotions and existential energies.

To limit your thinking, you will need a point of focus, which is why we need to rely on the breath, an object or a mantra depending on the type of meditation you do to bring focus and awareness to a more controlled place.

It can be said that by doing this, we "turn off" and reduce the activity of unimportant brain activities so that we can "feel" and better perceive the more important things. What are the more important things, I will talk about in the next articles. Hope I have answered the above question.

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