Zen's approach to thought
I once saw an advert for a local Zen group which said: 'Zen: it's not what you think.' I liked that, because I like wordplay, although to be fair I didn't like it enough to go to the Zen group, so make of that what you will.
Regardless, Zen has an interesting relationship to thoughts, knowledge and learning. Sometimes Zen is presented as being totally anti-intellectual, anti-thought, anti-philosophy, anti-learning, but that isn't entirely accurate. While the central core of Zen is experiential rather than intellectual, nevertheless Zen has produced a vast body of literature, and experienced students will typically be required to study classic texts and demonstrate their knowledge and understanding. Ultimately, Zen practice must be integrated with every aspect of life, and that includes our relationship to thought.
Thoughts are not the enemy
When I meet people who are interested in taking up meditation and I ask them what they're hoping to get out of it, the most common answer by far is something like 'I want to be able to clear my mind.' Despite my best efforts to manage their expectations, they're usually disappointed to find that their minds don't fall silent the moment they sit down to practise, and if anything they start to notice their thoughts even more as they begin to develop some introspective awareness.
However, this is one of those good news/bad news situations. On one hand, it's very unlikely that beginning practitioners will be able to 'stop their thoughts' - most folks will need a pretty heavy-duty level of samadhi to come even close to a silent mind, and that takes a lot of practice. On the other hand, though, people who persist with the practice long enough usually find that they don't actually need to stop their thoughts. It becomes clear after a while that it isn't the thoughts themselves that are the problem so much as our relationship to them. Thoughts are like sounds - they come and go. We hear sounds because we have ears; likewise, we think thoughts because we have a brain. It's what happens next that's the key bit.
We tend to give our thoughts a lot of weight. When a compelling thought arises ('oh no, I forgot to do something at work yesterday!'), our attention will often naturally shift to that thought, and more similar thoughts will start to come up ('that means so-and-so won't be able to do what they need', 'they're going to be angry with me', 'I'm so careless, why do I do these things?'). To make matters worse, we tend to assume that our thoughts are true - after all, it's me thinking it, and I'm pretty switched-on, so it's gotta be right, hasn't it? The trouble is that thoughts are just thoughts, just ideas that have bubbled up into our heads, and they may or may not have any connection with reality at all - so the more easily and unquestioningly we believe them, the more we're prone to self-deception and confusion.
So meditation practice very often involves turning the focus deliberately away from the thoughts, or cultivating specific thoughts rather than letting the mind roam freely. In mindfulness of breathing, for example, we place our attention on the physical sensations of the breath, and when thoughts come up we simply let them go and come back to the breath. After a while our mind starts to get the message that, at least while we're doing this meditation, the breath is interesting to us and thoughts are not interesting, and so the thoughts fade into the background and stop distracting us so much. In metta practice, we might use specific phrases ('may I be happy') to focus the mind on a particular thought which evokes goodwill, and again after a while the mind gets the idea that, just for now, we're staying on this one thought of wellbeing rather than wandering around freely as usual.
'Don't know mind'
Zen is often associated with something called 'don't know mind'. As I mentioned earlier, it can be easy to interpret this as some kind of 'philosophy of ignorance', especially if you've heard Bodhidharma's classic description of Zen as 'a special transmission outside the scriptures, not depending on words and letters'. (If you've ever tried to read one of the more difficult Zen texts, such as the Lankavatara Sutra, it can be very tempting to say 'Oh, well, Zen is outside words and letters' and quietly put the heavy, impenetrable book down in favour of the latest Expanse novel... Or maybe that's just me.)
Rather than a suggestion to avoid learning, however, 'don't know mind' is actually a teaching which encourages us to explore our thinking mind and see its limitations. Again, our thinking mind is not a bad thing - it's super-useful to be able to solve the problems that come up in the course of our work and our lives. The only danger lies in letting it completely run the show.
I've written several times about insight - here, here and here, for example. One of the most powerful and transformative uses for meditation is to develop insight - to see deeply into our true nature, to see things as they are, to discover for ourselves what's really going on as opposed to what we think is going on. And that's the key right there - we think that our minds and our lives work a certain way, but our thoughts are not quite in sync with our experience - sometimes not at all! Nevertheless, we tend to see the world through the reference frame of our concepts - our ideas about the world. We filter what we experience through what we expect to have experienced - and if something doesn't fit, we explain it away, brush it under the carpet, or get angry with the universe for subverting our expectations. Insight comes about when we can break out of that reference frame and see something new about what's going on - when we realise the limitation of our old way of seeing, and adapt accordingly.
The more this happens, the more it becomes clear that we should hold our concepts and reference frames lightly. The tighter we cling to them, the more upsetting and destabilising it is when we discover their limitations - or the harder we have to work to keep pretending that those limitations aren't there. If we can instead acknowledge that we really don't know how things work, at least not completely, then we can be more flexible and responsive in situations that challenge the way we see the world.
What can we know, anyway?
Through this practice, we also begin to discover how complex the world truly is. At any given moment, we only see one tiny part of what's going on, and it can be extremely difficult, if not impossible, to predict how even the simplest of decisions will turn out. Suppose a valuable member of my team at work is becoming dissatisfied and thinking about leaving. I value that person, and so I want them to stay - so I should try to encourage them to stay, right? Then again, leaving might be absolutely the right decision for them - and for all I know, the person I recruit to replace them might be even better. Or perhaps the person I recruit is actually worse, and causes lots of problems in the team - but in the process, the actions we take to fix the damage they're going actually makes things better in the end than they had been before. Or... You get the picture.
I've mentioned Prof John Vervaeke's excellent YouTube series Awakening from the Meaning Crisis before. In one of his videos, Vervaeke asks the question 'Do you want to be a vampire?', and points out that we can't answer that with any degree of certainty. We might have ideas about what it would be like to be a vampire, but those ideas are rooted in who we are now. Becoming a vampire would change our lives so radically that, by the end of the transformation, we would have little in common with who we are now, and that person might feel totally differently about whether they want to be a vampire or not. Even if the idea repulses you right now, the future vampire you might think it's totally cool - or vice versa.
The more we explore these kinds of questions, the more we see how very contextual our experience is. We tend to think of ourselves as fairly solid entities with fixed personalities, travelling through a fairly solid world made up of fairly solid things that are the way they are. But the more we look, the more we find not things but relationships. If I lose interest in what used to be my favourite TV show, that might be because the quality of writing or acting has declined (i.e. the TV show changed), or it might be because my personal tastes have drifted (i.e. I changed), or that something in the wider world has happened which has changed the context (e.g. maybe my favourite TV show was about a global pandemic which is somehow less appealing than it used to be in light of Covid-19).
The more we look, the more we see connections and relationships in all directions - and those relationships depend on further relationships, which depend on further relationships and so on. Sooner or later we find that it takes the whole universe to be as it is for even a single thing to happen. The world, and our relationship to it, becomes more mysterious as we realise the limitations of our knowledge - but, far from being threatening or confusing, it's actually beautiful, even miraculous. (We might even start to notice how very certain the people around us are about everything, and how often that certainty is misplaced.)
Applying this to our practice
So how can we work with all of this in meditation?
One approach is simply to practise treating thoughts like sounds, or any other distraction. Whether you're sitting in Silent Illumination, focusing mindfully on the breath or doing jhana practice, simply let the thoughts come and go in the background, like someone's left a radio switched on in your mind but the radio programme is completely irrelevant to your interests right now. Even in a practice like the Brahmaviharas or working with a koan, where you're deliberately introducing a thought from time to time, remember that the thoughts are not the ultimate point of the practice - they're just a means to an end, and so we can and should let them go, in order to make more room for the practice to unfold.
Another approach is to explore this directly. You could perhaps work with a question such as 'What do I know for certain?' as a koan, or examine a recent decision in your life and look at all of the hidden dependencies, all the things you didn't know then that you've since discovered, all the things you may never know. See for yourself the limitations of our knowledge - and maybe catch a glimpse of life's mystery for yourself.
Matt has been practising meditation for over ten years and hopes to share these powerful techniques for the benefit of all.