Alan Watts Presents a 15-Minute Guided Meditation: A Time-Tested Way to Stop Thinking About Thinking

The con­cept of empti­nessshūny­atā—in Mahayana Bud­dhism is per­haps a sub­ject best avoid­ed in casu­al con­ver­sa­tion. It so vex­es every­one not least because of issues of trans­la­tion: “empti­ness,” many schol­ars think, hard­ly suf­fices as a sub­sti­tute. In Eng­lish it has a more dis­tinct­ly nihilist fla­vor than was intend­ed. Yet empti­ness is so indis­pens­able that it can hard­ly go unmen­tioned when the prac­tice and pur­pose of med­i­ta­tion come up in Bud­dhist thought.

Leave it to Zen to put things in such suc­cinct and down-to-earth ways: the prac­tice of med­i­ta­tion is to devel­op “’no mind,’” says Suzu­ki Roshi. It is to have “no gain­ing idea.” The rea­son is to have no rea­son. But from the same point of view, there is a point: “the point we should make clear in our prac­tice,” the Zen mas­ter tells us: we should “put more empha­sis on big mind rather than small mind.”

If you need more clar­i­fi­ca­tion, you might turn to anoth­er Zen pop­u­lar­iz­er who also began to draw audi­ences in Cal­i­for­nia in the 50s: Alan Watts. Watts came to San Fran­cis­co not with a life­time of monas­tic train­ing in Japan, but through his train­ing as an aca­d­e­m­ic, Epis­co­pal priest, and Zen enthu­si­ast in Britain. He is wordier, less poet­ic, and more essay­is­tic in his deliv­ery, but in dis­cussing the pur­pose of med­i­ta­tion, you will find him say­ing the very same things as the Zen mas­ters:

Med­i­ta­tion is the dis­cov­ery that the point of life is always arrived at in the imme­di­ate moment. And there­fore, if you med­i­tate for an ulte­ri­or motive — that is to say, to improve your mind, to improve your char­ac­ter, to be more effi­cient in life — you’ve got your eye on the future and you are not med­i­tat­ing!

As for Suzuk­i’s “big mind,” Watts has his own ver­sion: “The art of med­i­ta­tion is a way of get­ting into touch with real­i­ty… our basic insep­a­ra­bil­i­ty from the whole uni­verse.” These are not nec­es­sar­i­ly syn­onyms for “empti­ness,” but the idea of hav­ing no idea maybe comes close to sum­ma­riz­ing the con­cept. “Not know­ing,” as the koan says, “is most inti­mate.”

Maybe it’s hair-split­ting and belabors the com­par­i­son, but Suzu­ki Roshi did not talk about med­i­ta­tion as a way to stop all think­ing. This is futile, he would argue. Watts seems to sug­gest oth­er­wise when he says that “we become inte­ri­o­ral­ly silent and cease from the inter­minable chat­ter that goes on inside our skulls. Because you see, most of us think com­pul­sive­ly all the time.” Most hon­est peo­ple will tell you they think com­pul­sive­ly dur­ing med­i­ta­tion as well. But in his guid­ed med­i­ta­tion above, Watts acknowl­edges just this fact.

Indeed, his mat­ter-of-fact way of rec­og­niz­ing the ever-pres­ence of thought is what makes the instruc­tions he gives so use­ful, even if they are also, ulti­mate­ly, point­less. Hear the orig­i­nal fif­teen minute guid­ed med­i­ta­tion at the top of the post and an edit, with some, maybe dis­tract­ing, back­ground music, just above. To let think­ing recede into the back­ground, we must engage our oth­er sens­es, let­ting every sound and sen­sa­tion come and go and the autonomous ner­vous sys­tem take over.

How to let go of think­ing about think­ing? Let Watts guide you in an exer­cise and see what hap­pens. Then lis­ten to Suzu­ki Roshi describe the Bud­dhist phi­los­o­phy of empti­ness. As far as med­i­ta­tion, or “zazen prac­tice,” goes, he says, our zazen prac­tice is based on… the teach­ing of shūny­atā or empti­ness,” which is not an idea but an expe­ri­ence of “let­ting go of fixed ideas,” writes anoth­er Zen mas­ter who brought his prac­tice to the U.S., “in order to go beyond them.”

via Big Think

Relat­ed Con­tent:  

Alan Watts Dis­pens­es Wit & Wis­dom on the Mean­ing of Life in Three Ani­mat­ed Videos

How Med­i­ta­tion Can Change Your Brain: The Neu­ro­science of Bud­dhist Prac­tice

Stream 18 Hours of Free Guid­ed Med­i­ta­tions

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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