Give Your Mind a Rest: Practice Not-Thinking
Mindfully quieting your thinking is restful, calming, and restorative.
Posted May 18, 2015
“Not-thinking?" you might be asking. “Why would I want to do that?”
Of course, we need to think. If you and I weren’t thinkers, I couldn’t have written this piece and you wouldn’t be able to read it. In addition, thinking about the past and the future is essential at times so that we can make wise decisions about our lives. No one wants to—nor is able to–put an end to thinking.
That said, there are benefits to intentionally practicing what I call not-thinking.
Discursive thinking—the constant stream of one thought following another—is a deeply ingrained habit. It’s so ingrained that we often start thinking just to occupy our minds. Many years ago, I remember going on vacation and saying to myself, “It will be great not to have to think about all the stresses at work.” But it didn’t take long for other stressful thoughts to rush in to fill that void.
It's an act of self-care to take a break from discursive thinking now and then, even during our waking hours. The practice of not-thinking is restful, calming, and restorative. In the words of Ayya Khema, one of my first Buddhist teachers:
If we didn’t give the body a rest at night, it wouldn’t function very long. The only time the mind can have a real rest is when it stops thinking and only experiences. Once verbalization stops for a moment, not only is there quiet but there is a feeling of contentment. That quiet, peaceful space is the mind’s home. It can go home and relax just as we do after a day’s work when we relax the body in an easy chair.
Here are three ways to practice not-thinking, followed by two tips to help you with the practice. All five are forms of mindfulness practice.
I hope you’ll try these suggestions for a few minutes, several times a day; almost any time and any place will do. It takes practice because we’re surprisingly addicted to discursive thinking.
1. Open your five sense doors to whatever is happening around you.
When you’re lost in thought, it’s easy to forget that there are five experiences available to you aside from analytical thinking. Those experiences are: what you’re seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, and feeling physically. Let your attention rest on whatever sensory input is most predominant at the moment. It might be the sight of an art print on the wall. It might be the murmur of a conversation nearby. It might be the smell and taste of an apple you’re eating. It might be the physical sensation on your skin of the clothes you’re wearing.
When you try this, if you drift back into discursive thinking, simply note it without aversion or judgment and return your attention to what’s going on at the five sense doors.
As you become skilled at this practice, you can get bold and instruct your mind to stop thinking by trying a practice I call “drop it” in my books. In short, when you notice that your mind is caught up in thoughts, gently but firmly say “drop it.” Then immediately direct your attention to what is happening right around you.
As an alternative to resting your attention on what is most predominant in your experience, you could try the more structured practice I wrote about in “Five Minutes of Mindfulness Magic.” In that piece, you’ll find an exercise that guides your awareness systematically from one sensory experience to another.
Left unattended, the mind tends to dwell on thoughts about the past and the future. But if you consciously put your attention on the many sensory inputs all around you, you can take yourself out of discursive thinking mode. This is relaxing and renewing on a deep level.
2. Open the hand of thought.
Zen teacher Kosho Uchiyama wrote a book called Opening the Hand of Thought. I use this phrase to practice not-thinking. When I realize I’m lost in unproductive discursive thinking, I’ll open my hand and lightly blow on my palm as if I’m dispersing the thoughts into the air like dandelion seeds. I imagine all my trivial concerns and opinions blowing out of my mind, leaving me free to experience the world without the burden of analyzing every moment of my experience. When I do this, I can feel my mind relax and, just like Ayya Khema said would happen, a feeling of contentment arises.
3. Let the world speak for itself.
I learned this from the Tibetan Buddhist teacher Pema Chödrön. She practices “letting the world speak for itself” when she’s in places like airports where she has a wait ahead of her. Instead of picking up something to read or getting lost in thoughts about the past and the future, she just sits and watches what’s going on around her.
When I find myself in a waiting room, instead of giving in to that ingrained habit of picking up a magazine, I consciously practice not-thinking by opening my five senses and taking in what’s happening around me. As I do this, I say to myself, “Let the world speak for itself.” Not only does this provide welcome relief from thinking, but I’ve discovered that a world-that-speaks-for-itself is almost always a fascinating place.
Two tips for successfully practicing not-thinking
1. Don’t let thoughts “stick.”
As you’re practicing not-thinking, an unpleasant thought might arise. Thoughts—particularly unpleasant ones—tend to stick like glue. More often than not, this leads you to spin the thought out into elaborate and stressful stories about the past or the future—stories that have little or no basis in fact. The Buddha called this tendency papanca, which translates as “proliferation of thoughts.”
Here’s an example. You’ve consciously put your attention on all the sights around you. As you’re doing this, the thought arises, “I don’t feel well.” You could stop the thinking process right there and treat “I don’t feel well” as nothing more than a factual description of how you feel at the moment.
Instead, soon you’re off on what I think of as the equivalent of a guitar riff. You take that simple “theme”—“I don’t feel well”—and the riff begins: “I’m going to have a horrible day”; “Nothing will go right”; “I may never feel well again.” Soon, the fact that you don’t feel well has colored everything about your day, making you miserable emotionally.
Consider, though, these words from the Platform Sutra of the Seventh Century Chinese Chan (Zen) master, Hui Neng:
“No-thought” is to see and to know all things with a mind free from attachment. When in use, it pervades everywhere, yet it sticks nowhere.
Hui Neng is not saying that you’ll always be able to empty your mind of thoughts. Rather, he’s suggesting that when a thought does arise—such as “I don’t feel well”—you try to respond to it without attachment, which means simply watching it until it passes out of your mind in the same way that the sound of a bird singing arises and then passes out of your mind. When thoughts “stick nowhere,” to use his words, you don’t go down that papanca road, spinning a simple, fact-based thought out into every stressful scenario you can come up with.
The Vietnamese monk and teacher Thich Nhat Hanh describes “not sticking” this way: “Thoughts and feelings come and go like clouds on a windy day.” I like to keep his phrase in mind when I practice not-thinking.
2. Let go of opinions and judgments.
It’s easier to practice not-thinking if you put aside opinions and judgments. Doing this also brings welcome relief from constantly passing judgment on everything around you. Most of us immediately form opinions about our environment (too hot, too cold) and about people (too talkative, too quiet). Listening to this running commentary is stressful and exhausting. When the Thai Buddhist monk, Ajahn Chah, was asked what the greatest obstacle for his students was, he replied, “opinions.” When you’re able to let go of opinions and judgments, you’re letting go of a big chunk of what’s going on in your mind.
Discursive thinking is a deeply ingrained habit, but there’s no reason to be distressed about this. “Thinking” is what minds do. These suggestions are intended to help you give your mind a rest for a few minutes throughout the day. Consciously placing your attention—without commentary—on what’s going on around you is restful, calming, and restorative.
© 2015 Toni Bernhard.
I’m the author of three books: How to Be Sick: A Buddhist-Inspired Guide for the Chronically Ill and Their Caregivers (Second Edition), How to Live Well with Chronic Pain and Illness: A Mindful Guide, and How to Wake Up: A Buddhist-Inspired Guide to Navigating Joy and Sorrow.