Live Zen on a daily basis: non-thought. Beyond thought.

- through Henry Oudin

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We often come across this expression in Buddhism: “to empty”. But what does that really mean? Should we stop thinking, as we so often hear? To meditate, would it be to empty oneself of any kind of mental activity?

We must dispel a huge misunderstanding, a huge misinterpretation. Thoughts are constant, they come to mind continuously. Night and day, brain activity is indeed producing images and words, we are constantly talking to ourselves. The nervous system and the body constantly generate thoughts that we would be hard pressed to completely stop. Wakefulness and sleep are inhabited by dreams or floating thoughts. And the role of meditation is absolutely not to put an end to it: to stop thinking would be to die, neither more nor less.

The problem begins when we give too much importance to these thoughts, when we believe them and especially when we come to substitute them for reality. Which happens all the time to all humans.

In a still famous scene from a Hollywood film, a taxi driver displays a photo of an exotic beach on the dashboard of his vehicle and replies to anyone who questions him: "This is how I resist stress, I can take vacation at any time. Stuck in a traffic jam, I just have to look at this photo for a few seconds and I'm far from here”. One could precisely compare the activity of meditation to a vacation, a time when you don't care, you let yourself go, you relax and rest from the daily routine and the pressures it generates. And for this, it only takes a few seconds or minutes. It is not necessary to climb the Himalayas or to make a long retreat, nor to leave for an exotic destination, it is enough to meditate right in the middle of our daily activity to put an end to the scenarios of all kinds, of the most pleasant to the most terrible that unfold within us, maintained by us. Every day, every minute of our lives, we are a moving magazine of images where nightmares rub shoulders with dreams. A mental cinema in which the worst and the best happen. Left side pain? And the darkest diagnoses are built up with gloomy films that accompany them, the image of a chocolate cake or an advertising nude, and desire or appetite are set in motion irrepressibly. It never stops and passes without any logic from cock to donkey. Obedient and following external solicitations, conscious or unconscious, thoughts rise. To be on vacation from them is to stop judging, weighing, evaluating, quantifying, qualifying… We put our harsh judgments on others and ourselves in parentheses. A beginner and an experienced teacher are in the same boat, which may have led one of them to say to a pupil who questioned him: "There is really no difference between you and me if this is that I am aware of the inner chaos and the impetuous torrent of my thoughts, you are not”.

Open the spirit cage and free the monkey

The mind is often compared to a monkey in Eastern philosophy. To meditate is to open the cage of the mind and free the monkey. In the Buddhist tradition, the movement of thoughts is often compared to that of clouds in the vast sky or of the wave that forms on the ocean, and the practitioner is invited not to follow or repel these mental formations, but to watch them rise and then disappear by themselves; and to realize that we have thoughts, but that we are not them. The thought of disease is not, for example, the disease itself. Every thought is recognized as such and then we let it go. In the process of meditation, we stop identifying ourselves with what goes through our head and return to the simplicity of being: back and forth of the breath, presence to the sensations of the body or to external manifestations. More deeply, we are aware that these thought-clouds, far from contradicting the beauty of the blue of the sky, emanate from it and enhance it. The practice of meditation tends to calm the game, but this mental activity remains, it accompanies us until our death.


Preferably sit down so you don't doze off. With your back naturally straight, shoulders relaxed, follow the back and forth of your breathing. Observe the thoughts that come and go and as soon as one arises, identify it. You can tag it and give it a name. Then come back to sitting and breathing back and forth. And start over. You will then sometimes be surprised to see how much your mind goes in all directions and regularly deviates from your physical reality (the place where you are) or your activity (attention to the breath). When you realize this, without judging yourself, just come back to where you are and what you are doing.

You could compare the activity of meditation to a vacation, a time when you don't care, you let yourself go, you relax and rest from the daily routine and the pressures it generates.

Here is now an exercise that I hold to be one of the most precious that I have ever practiced. You are in the grip of an obsessive and tenacious problem, a daily difficulty which, like an inner thorn, bruises your soul and damages your joy. Consider this problem and ask yourself this question: basically, what does it matter? In five, ten or thirty years, what does it matter? On the scale of the universe so immeasurably vast, what does it matter? Having thus put things back in their proper place, resume the course of your life until the next eruption of the same problem or a similar problem, because you will have now understood that it never stops.

The daily practice, taught the great Tibetan master Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche, is simply to accept, to open up to all situations and emotions, to all people, by experiencing this without any resistance or blockage. Thus, one does not withdraw from the experience nor does one focus exclusively on oneself. In this spirit, develop with each step: curiosity, openness and acceptance. Give your undivided attention to things, however minute and small they may be, and to beings. Learn also to see that the shoe being laced, the dustbin, the pebble or the simple peel of fruit are – this may shock you – beings in their own right. Make room for the universe, rather than empty

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Henry Oudin

Henry Oudin is a Buddhist scholar, spiritual adventurer and journalist. He is a passionate seeker of the depths of Buddhist wisdom, and travels regularly to learn more about Buddhism and spiritual cultures. By sharing his knowledge and life experiences on Buddhist News, Henry hopes to inspire others to embrace more spiritual and mindful ways of living.

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