Not Thinking is Not the Goal

Buddhist meditation is about being mindful, about being fully aware in the present moment. But there are a number of misconceptions about meditation. I want to address the misconception that not thinking is the goal of Buddhist meditation.

Zoning Out

Zoning out is not the goal of meditation. More than one person has expressed to me that sometimes in meditation they get to the point of zoning out, a point where they are almost semi-conscious.

This is very similar to the state you enter just before you fall asleep. That unaware, half awake, semi-conscious state of non-thinking. But isn’t non-thinking the point of meditation?

The simple answer is no. Non-thinking is not meditation, it is non-thinking. Meditation is about being mindful. It is about being fully aware, fully engaged with the present moment. I think it is a common misconception that meditation is about stopping thinking.

The Point

So what is the point of meditation? Whether you’re thinking or not thinking is not the point of meditation. The point of meditation is to be mindful, not mindless. You want to be fully aware of what is going on.

You are not trying to get rid of thoughts, you are trying to detach from them. Thinking is not the problem. Believing your thoughts is the problem. The point of meditation is not to change anything, but to observe what is, as it is. As long as you are aiming to change or get rid of thoughts, you are hindering your meditation.

Meditation is about observing what is, not changing what is. If you are thinking and are fully aware that you are thinking, then you are meditating. Just don’t get attached to your thoughts. And don’t think about not thinking. The point is to be okay with thinking and to be okay with not thinking. Neither really matters, as long as you bring full awareness to it.

Stopping Yourself

So how do you stop yourself from zoning out? You keep following your breath. When you lose focus of your breath, be fully aware that you are no longer being aware of your breath. Then become aware that you are not aware. Instantly, you are aware again.

You want to stay with the sensation of breathing. Be the breath, just be the breathing. If you need to, you can count your breaths to help you stay engaged with the present moment.

Meditation is about being fully engaged and embodied in the present moment. Following your in-breath and your out-breath is vital to staying connected. You don’t want to disconnect from reality, you want to fully connect with it.

Being mindful means being fully engaged. You can tell whether you are fully engaged by whether you are aware of your in-breath and out-breath.

So don’t try to stop thinking and, for that matter, don’t try to start thinking. If you are not thinking but you are fully aware of breathing, that’s good. Simply be fully aware of what is going on.

Think of yourself as an observer. In meditation, simply be mindful of what is, without trying to control it. Let go of the need to control, sit back and watch the show. Watch the thoughts arise and fade. Watch the emotions arise and fade. Watch the images flash across your mind’s view screen, and watch them fade. Become the watcher – that is the goal of meditation.

In summary, zoning out is not the point of meditation. The point is not to stop thinking. The point is to be fully aware and engaged in the present moment.


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6 thoughts on “Not Thinking is Not the Goal”

  1. Thanks, Jay. I found these to be useful suggestions. I meditate daily for about 15 minutes, sometimes longer. I think I’m clear that the goal is mindfulness and “presentness.” But my thoughts do get in the way, especially early in the meditation. My “thinking” usually consists of a stream of what I might say or write to others. Yesterday, for example, I sometimes found myself streaming possible versions of this response.

    I confess to taking short-cuts to tone down this incessant voice. Sometimes I imagine the words evaporating into the air. This “trick” usually lightens the word flow. Sometimes I…slow…the…words…down…so….they….taper… I do observe my breathing, my body, sometimes the sounds and sights around me. But until the word stream settles down, it can interrupt at any time.

    Your suggestions to sit back, observe yourself, and give up control are helpful. But I find that observing my own word stream—continuing to listen in on my continuing inner flow of words—has not been possible so far. The two processes—the observing and the wording—seem to come from the same source, so it’s one or the other. This is useful, actually. I can quiet my thoughts a bit by being aware of them in the ways I’ve mentioned above.

    I welcome any comments or suggestions. Thanks.


    • The following may help, it’s from my book Practical Buddhism: “Well, here a fourfold method to help you focus on the breath. When you find that your mind has gone astray, do the following three things. First, note in your mind, “thinking, thinking” or “feeling, feeling” or “sound, sound” or whatever it is that distracted you. Second, time gauge. Determine the length of time you were distracted. A rough estimate is fine. Third, take a deep breath, and refocus on your breath. And fourth, after you take a deep breath, begin to count your breaths.”


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