On Not Harboring Thoughts
"It is not the thoughts that create problems for us. It is our harboring them."
by Ken Russell
The best explanation of meditation I have come across is from I Am That by Nisargadatta Maharaj.
"[There is] . . . only one meditation — the rigorous refusal to harbor thoughts. To be free from thoughts is itself meditation."
This explanation is so effective because it contains key practical guidelines. Not just what meditation is-being free of thoughts-but how to accomplish it. And here it is- put very simply.
The key is the verb to harbor, which has several meanings: to take in or provide a place for; to cherish or entertain. Note that Maharaj is not suggesting that we do not have thoughts, which is impossible short of death or stupor. We will have thoughts as long as we are alive.
It is not the thoughts that create problems for us. It is our harboring them. It is our receptivity to them. Our inviting them to remain in our consciousness. Our playing with them. We give them fertile ground to grow in by harboring them, and then, like weeds, the thoughts proliferate, overrun and choke our being, distancing us from what we truly are.
So, we are to refuse to entertain and encourage thoughts. We cannot refuse to have them. But we can refuse to harbor them.
And we must do this rigorously. We cannot be haphazard or sloppy in our application. The mind is insidious and pernicious; given any kind of toehold, it runs rampant. We must understand that it is our lives that are at stake here. What we risk is not physical death but the death-like state of living in and through the mind. When you have begun to move beyond being captured and captivated by your thoughts, you will discover a new dimension to life that is infinitely richer and more rewarding.
The practical meaning of being free of thoughts is simply not to harbor whatever thoughts may happen. Let them come and let them go. They are not your concern. You need not concern yourself with your thoughts any more than you need to concern yourself with your digestive fluids. The body automatically releases digestive fluids in response to the presence of food in the stomach. When you have a situation requiring the use of thoughts, then you employ them. Otherwise, there is no need to involve yourself with your thoughts.
A very good way to refuse to harbor thoughts is to be attentive to what you are doing in the moment. If you are walking, then walk. If you are showering, feel the water, the soap suds; listen to the sound. If your senses are engaged in what is happening with you, there is no harbor for your thoughts.
The need for refusal assumes the ever continuing efforts of the mind to engage us. The mind never gives up in its attempt to involve us and interest us in its products. Refusal acknowledges the relentless efforts of the mind to ensnare us, the continual enticements of the mind and the ever-present need to be wary of it and its traps. It is not in our best interests to relax our vigilance over the mind because it never gives up in its attempt to engage us in its fabrications.
The mind is accustomed to indulging itself constantly. You take a walk in some picturesque surroundings, and the mind is not there. It is thinking about work, about meeting so-and-so, about the clever retort you should have made to so-and-so. You are harboring thoughts. You are letting the mind feast on its creations while you miss the beauty of life around you.
The quality of your life will improve enormously if you make the effort to disrupt the compulsive efforts of the mind to continually capture and engage your attention. The mind always wishes to be foremost in your consciousness. The way to undercut the mind's ability to cut you off from the fullness of life is to simply attend to what is on hand, to be conscious of whatever you are doing . Suppose, however, that there appears to be nothing happening. You are sitting in your room with nothing to occupy you. To not be caught up in your thoughts you can always watch your breath. That is always occurring. Or get in touch with your feeling at the moment.
It is very important to provide time in which the mind is stilled, in which energy is available for other facets of your being to come into play. Silence or quiet is actually the most powerful means of growth, just simply being present to yourself. . There is a zen saying:
Sitting quietly, doing nothing,
and the grass grows by itself.
What the mind actually prefers is to keep pulling the grass up to see how it is doing. Or, if it can't do that, it likes to read and think about the best ways to make it grow. Or worry about the various problems it could have or might have. The grass might be destroyed by drought or eaten by insects; or your neighbor might have greener grass; ad infinitum, ad nauseam . Notice that most of the time the mind is not present to either your self or your surroundings. It just spins off on whatever program it has been conditioned to follow. However, all you need do is to keep on bringing it back to whatever you are doing or feeling. Simply bring it back. Done repeatedly, that is all it takes to undo the mind's control over you, leaving no harbor for its thoughts.