Dear Alistair

I have been interested to see that meditation is currently being promoted (mostly by psychologists) as a way to deal with stress. I don’t really know anything about meditation, but wonder whether there is not a danger in clearing one’s mind of all thoughts? Specifically, I would be concerned that an empty mind is more accessible to the negative, bad (or even evil) thoughts that one is generally able to keep at bay. Please shed some light on this.

Thank you for raising a very interesting topic. As someone who has incorporated mindfulness meditation practices into his daily life, I will share how (mindfulness) meditation has brought about a significant and very positive change in my relationship to my mind and the thoughts it is continually producing.

As a new meditator I became aware that my mind, like the minds of most individuals, would generate an ongoing stream of thoughts during most of the waking hours! My mind produced thought after thought, often planning thoughts, anxious thoughts, thoughts about work, my children, the past, etc, etc. My thinking mind would not let me “be”, either at ease, without worry, or in the moment. I began to see how my mind was often a barrier to my happiness.

The goal of mindfulness meditation is not to stop thinking, however, or to clear one’s mind of all thoughts as I had also assumed, but rather to expose one’s mind to itself. Before meditation I was completely focused on the content of my thoughts. I had never given attention to the process of thinking itself. And most of us are totally and mindlessly carried away by one thought after another!

Thinking is, however, an essential tool for our well-being and our survival. Thinking allows us to plan, reason and imagine, and communicate with each other now (and with future generations). Unfortunately, most of us value thinking above most other aspects of our being. The more we become identified with our thoughts, the more we become disconnected from what is happening in the here-and-now, leaving us “lost in thought” and disembodied.

Research into our brain and nervous system reveals that most of our interpretation of the world as well as our decision making takes place below the level of awareness, without a rational, conscious, thinking self directing the process. In fact, thinking occurs quite late in the cognitive sequence and is, generally, mostly an afterthought.

Cognitive scientists say that thinking is a way of organizing experience, while evolutionary scientists see it as an adaptation, something that evolved like the opposable thumb, and can be a very useful tool. It may also be helpful to view the mind as a sixth sense, and to not give thinking any more or less importance than sight or hearing. Like the other five senses, our thinking is simply another way of reading and interpreting the world. And as is true with other senses, the main job of the thinking mind is survival. Viewing thinking as a survival tool helps to demystify and depersonalize the process. It allows one to see one’s thoughts as both generic and intrinsic to the human species, not as “I,” “me” or “mine.”

So after quite a bit of meditation, and with the help of modern science, I seem to have gained a degree of freedom. I no longer have to believe in or get carried away by every thought that comes along. I have not been taught how to clear my mind of thoughts nor how to stop them, but I’ve become better at giving my attention to other aspects of me and the world around me. In essence, I am more present in my life.