It’s easy to see how someone might think that sitting in meditation would be a terribly boring thing to do. Just sitting there doing nothing. Trying to think of nothing. Trying to think of not thinking. Of course, that particular thought (like a lot of them) couldn’t be further from the truth.
At first, when we sit and try not to think, we naturally fail. Instead, we start thinking of all sorts of things. Everything might come up…like something your father said to you twenty-five years ago; the money your ex still owes you; that guy who was on Oprah; when will the landlord finally fix that leak upstairs; things in the Middle East will never get better; is there an asteroid heading for Earth? What am I going to have for breakfast?
All these different crazy thoughts occur in a serial fashion, that is, one after the other after the other. Each thought leading haphazardly to the next, sometimes connected by the barest thread that only makes sense right at the moment it connects. A few more turns of the wheel down that road, and you can’t even remember how you got there, or why. Because there is no why. How you got there is simply caused by the incessantly demanding nature of your “thinking organ”—your brain, which like some kind of prehistoric shark insists on relentless movement, the continuous exercise of thought, that overlying process that we often confuse for who we are.
Descartes was a little off on that one: “I think, therefore I am.” We are—whether we think or not. Thought requires consciousness; Consciousness does not require thought.
Serial thought, the kind we most often find ourselves and our identities tied to, is apparently a function of our Left Brain, the left hemisphere of our glorious thinking organ, which works like a serial processor. Its job is to process, process, process in that continuous shark-like motion, joining one thing to the next, relating each significant fact (or insignificant non-fact) to another.
Often, the best we can do is discipline our mind to think about the things that we want to think about. Focusing our thoughts on a problem that needs solving, like building a bridge, creating a Unified Theory of Everything, or figuring out how to get the TV remote to work…as long as it’s something we want to think about, and hopefully something productive, creative and painless.
The simplest form of this discipline is the common self-request, “I don’t even want to think about it.”
When we meditate, all we’re really trying to do at first is to become a witness to this serial inner monologue, to try to objectively disassociate ourselves from its relentless process. To step to the side, and let it pass right by. That’s a good way to put it, because it describes what our (very appropriately named) Right Brain is doing while all that convoluted thinking is going on. It’s functioning concurrently as a parallel processor—connecting everything to everything else simultaneously. Processing our entire sensory experience wholistically, with a kind of quantum perception (“entangled,” and “non-local”); and for the most part intimately connected to the wonder and beauty of it all.
Right Brain function is the quieter, more deeply dynamic aspect of our brain that gets short-shrift because of the sequentially demanding nature of contemporary life, but you’re using it every time you find love, beauty, melody, serenity and joy. Every time you find you’ve deeply entered into the moment. It’s what actually keeps us (or allows us to be) sane.
As we meditate more, we can stop focusing on all that demanding noise, and instead focus on engaging our Right Brain experience; trying to catch it and live in it for as long as possible. When we start finding that easy state of being, we start accumulating awareness, creative energy, appreciation, tolerance and peace. Suddenly, those “serial” thoughts have a lot less urgency and importance.
Our lives can be experienced in a more realistic way when we’re in this way “less realistic,” because we learn to recognize that the moment really isn’t full of demanding or threatening “realities.” Usually, nothing needs to happen right at this moment, unless your butt is suddenly getting wet, or the kitchen is about to catch on fire. You don’t even have to think if you don’t want to.
This escape from “serial” thinking, to the Right Side of our brain, creates a much more pleasant state of affairs, when we can experience a calm, self-assured presence that’s only possible when we give the crazy person in our heads the day off.
So don’t just do something—sit there!…and think about it. Or that is, don’t think about it.
“What have you gained from meditation?”
“Nothing at all.”
“Then what good is it?”
“Let me tell you what I lost through meditation: sickness, anger, depression, insecurity, the burden of old age, the fear of death. That is the good of meditation, which leads to nirvana.”—The Buddha
Here’s a wonderful description of this idea by a neuro-anatomist named Jill Bolte Taylor who experienced, and survived, a life-threatening, life-illuminating stroke: