Fabrice Midal: meditating is not emptying your head!

- through Francois Leclercq

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Reflection on the misunderstanding between meditating and creating a void... without the fuss.

Meditation is today identified with the effort to clear one's head. I had another striking experience of this a short time ago, after giving a presentation of the practice to a small group of people. I had started by explaining that meditation is a very simple act where there is nothing to seek, no state to reach — that in summary, meditating does not consist in emptying your head, but just in open to what is. However, to my great surprise, after the first meditation session, the majority of people told me they were very disappointed not to have managed to empty their minds… I was annoyed! I had just explained to them for an hour that this was exactly what they had to avoid doing in order to understand what I was offering them.

Thinking back to this situation, I realized that this idea is so firmly anchored that my words are simply inaudible to a person who discovers the practice. When a false idea is so entrenched, it is not enough to denounce it, it must be questioned. We must show why we believe it, why it is false, why it poisons us. This work is necessary for two reasons. First of all, we must remove one of the most ingrained and harmful “misunderstandings” about the meaning of the practice. This is no doubt what explains the discouragement that seizes so many people who wanted to practice without succeeding. But it also allows us to understand one of the most profound blindnesses of our time which, well beyond the question of meditation, touches on the very meaning of human existence.

An incoherent and false idea

This idea, which prevails everywhere, is first of all incoherent and false. It is incoherent because it is quite simply unachievable! It is impossible to empty your mind. As long as we are human beings, we have thoughts. And even worse, if you seek to empty yourself, you can be sure that this will further reinforce the number of thoughts that pass through you. It's no different than what happens whenever we seek to be other than what we are. If we try to be calm when we are upset, it only compounds the problem. If we want to sleep at all costs when we have insomnia, it only leads to tensing up more. This idea is also a mistake. What would you do if your mind was blank? Seeking to have an “empty” mind actually makes no sense. Yet we tend to believe that it would be nice to get there. Why do we have such a conviction?

Because of our experience that a moment of calm is pleasant. And conversely, when we are overwhelmed with thoughts and our mind is agitated, spinning, we experience a rather unpleasant state. This experience is correct, it is undeniable. But should we conclude from this that we should cultivate the first state in order to be calm all the time? I enjoy eating chocolate. I do not conclude that this experience should be reproduced from sunrise to sunset. We can't be calm all the time! It's impossible. To believe this is to understand nothing about a human being who goes through various states. And who sometimes is overwhelmed.

An aggressive and guilt-inducing idea

This idea is not only incoherent and false, it is also extremely aggressive. In fact, to seek to create a vacuum is to go against the movement of life, against the very fact of being a human being. You may be surprised. Telling people “Be calm! » or « Be zen! » seems indeed a beautiful promise. In reality, this is a violent and deeply negative word, since what it basically says is: “Don't be human beings! ".

As humans, there are times when we feel angry, anxious, worried, sad, tired, or tense. This is completely normal. And it is not by blaming yourself for experiencing such emotions that this will fix things. Basically, by believing that we must be calm in any situation, we make ourselves feel guilty for being who we are and for having the experiences that all human beings naturally have. This attitude, far from helping us, from calming us down, only suffocates us even more.

To seek to create a vacuum is to go against the movement of life, against the very fact of being a human being.

To be human is not to be “Zen”! To be human is to know that in life there are ups and downs, times when things are going well and times when things are not going well. Wisdom is being able to go through these experiences with gentleness, kindness and breadth of view, not suppressing them. Sometimes we just can't take it anymore. We burst into tears. It is not a fault. But the important thing is precisely to know what to do in the face of these trials! And this is where meditation can be invaluable. It teaches us to have a healthy attitude towards what happens to us.

This idea of ​​no longer thinking is also particularly guilt-inducing. As it is impossible to create a vacuum, as we cannot achieve it, to have such a purpose is to put yourself in a situation of failure. We fabricate the abstract image of a practitioner who is constantly in a state of complete zen and we suffer from not matching it. But this image is without reality.

For my part, I have never met a single person in my entire life who was calm in any situation. This is why I propose a completely different attitude to you: to meet for good the person that we are, that will do us much more good.

An idea that deceives us about what meditation is

This conception that I denounce also leads us to a complete misunderstanding of the very meaning of the practice of meditation. We make it a form of mental gymnastics. In the same way, I can do certain exercises to have better abs, I can through meditative exercises clear my mind.

But meditation is not of this order. It is a profound gesture of openness, welcome, trust. Understanding that this is the meaning of meditation is certainly difficult. In the meditative traditions, this misunderstanding has already been denounced for a very long time. One of the great teachers of meditation, Gampopa, who lived in XNUMXth century Tibet, wrote: “I have this student who meditates in the mountains. And he continues to practice trying not to have thoughts. If he had stopped trying to get rid of thoughts, he would have been enlightened years ago. But he keeps trying to get rid of all thoughts. Indeed, this desire prevents us from transforming ourselves and deprives the practice of what it could offer us.

But then, what is meditation for?

If meditation is not about creating a void, what does the practice invite us to do? Rather than trying to be without thoughts, we must learn to develop a completely different relationship with them. What do we do with thoughts in practice? In a very radical way, we do nothing. We are not trying to empty. We do not seek to suppress thoughts. We encounter the experience of having thoughts. At times, certain thoughts carry us away and we are no longer present. We realize this and we come back. Sometimes there are times when thoughts stop. These thoughtless moments come by themselves. Never because we decided and wanted it. In practice, we simply notice what is happening. What happens when there are thoughts? What happens when there are no thoughts? When I am tired ? When I have such emotion?

To meditate, therefore, is not to empty your head, but it is to learn to be present to all that is.

We can even sometimes notice the tendency that we have to prefer the moments when there are no thoughts to those during which our mind is more agitated. From a practical point of view, this does not change anything. We simply notice that there is this tendency to prefer one state rather than another. It is a fact. This is not a problem. We do nothing. We just open up to what is.

It is often said that we watch thoughts pass like clouds in the sky. If this expression can make sense, for my part, it does not help me. In reality, in practice, I don't watch the thoughts pass like clouds. I have thoughts, sometimes they absorb me, sometimes I notice and then I come back. When I come back, I come back. I celebrate this uncanny ability of the mind to come back and resynchronize to the present and to life. In this sense, the thoughts I do not care! It's like that. We must stop “taking the lead” with this question.

Develop another relationship to everything we live

In practice, we not only learn to develop another relationship to thoughts, but also to everything we experience. We thus develop a much fairer relationship with everything that passes through us. If I am anxious, rather than ignoring it or trying to be calm at all costs, it is much more important to see what relationship I can establish to the anxiety that passes through me. How to work with her? How to listen to it? How can I hear what she says to me and what she calls me to?

To meditate, therefore, is not to empty your head, but it is to learn to be present to all that is. Learn a gesture that engenders an open presence, a heartfelt presence for whatever happens. We abandon the guerrillas to try to be calm, we abandon this injunction that has been imposed on us since childhood, telling us to be good and not to make noise.

In summary: the unconscious belief behind the idea that practicing is about being Zen is that we shouldn't experience the emotions, the torments, the ups and downs that we all experience. We should be transparent, calm… But to meditate is to learn to relate to all that constitutes human experience, including the most poignant and painful experiences, with gentleness, warmth and wisdom. And it is this attitude, and this alone, that can calm us down for good.

photo of author

Francois Leclercq

François Leclercq is the founder of Buddhist News, a website which aims to disseminate information and practical advice on Buddhism and spirituality. François Leclercq was born and raised in Paris. He studied Buddhism at the University of Paris-Sorbonne, where he graduated in social sciences and psychology. After graduating, he devoted himself to his passion for Buddhism and traveled the world to study and learn about different practices. He notably visited Tibet, Nepal, Thailand, Japan and China.

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