One of the instructions we’re given when we start Zazen is that we should allow our thoughts to come and go freely, like clouds in the sky. That instruction can be quite helpful to people right at the start of their meditation practice to become aware of their mental chatter, and the possibility of not being imprisoned within that.
But taken as a general instruction, it is both harmful and useless. It’s harmful because it sets up an unnecessary dichotomy between thinking and the absence of thinking; between mental noise, the noise of our thoughts, and silence. The consequence of that is to create, unintentionally, an ideal of meditation which essentially emphasizes silence and an absence of thoughts. That ideal, that perspective on meditation, is both joyless and austere. It’s also frustratingly unattainable.
The instruction is useless because ‘thinking’ in no way encompasses the range of our experience, either during Zazen or otherwise. Alongside mental chatter we will experience – for example – the various manifestations of our imagination; we’ll experience auditory and visual (and other sensory) hallucinations; we’ll experience emotions that we can’t name and don’t like. We’ll experience sensations that are very elusive and we’ll experience the movement and aliveness of our body and the world.
The purpose of meditation is not to kill thought: it’s not to kill this rich experience—it’s to liberate it.
When we’re on retreat at Ardfern, at the back of the house there’s a little tree. To it are drawn all these lovely little birds,all different colors. Some blue, some yellow, some green, some red. They’re all drawn to the aliveness and tremulousness of the little tree.
When you’re sitting, your little birds are drawn to your alive tremulousness. Sometimes the birds of thought, sometimes the birds of the imagination, sometimes the birds of movement and aliveness, sometimes the birds of emotion, sometimes the birds of sensation. Do not wish them away; if they come and go freely, everything is as it should be.
When we get carried away with ourselves, we might think of our steadfast sitting as being like a mountain, but we’re more like this little inconspicuous tree which, even though it’s small, its roots extend throughout the earth. because it arises in love, not fear, its branches reach throughout the sky.