Here are some observations and thoughts that may be useful, both practically, to anyone trying to grow spiritually, and to psychologists and scholars trying to understand spiritual/personal growth and meditation…
A friend wanted to use some psychic healing abilities to help me deal with a small, but annoying medical problem. In preparation for a distant healing session, he wrote me that I could best prepare for receiving it by practicing “…no mind for a few minutes as possible for our brief contact period.”
That important phrase “no mind” goes around a lot in the Buddhist circles, transpersonal psychology and New Age communities, and I’m usually unclear on exactly what people mean by it, so I’m going to wrestle with it for a bit in this essay. Like the ambiguous term “meditation,” it can misleadingly create a feeling that we know what’s being talked about when actually it can mean many different things to different people.
This little essay, based on a letter to my friend, is some thoughts I’ve had to try to get clearer on what “no mind” could mean, and perhaps help my friend clarify what it is he would like a recipient of his distant healing practice to do. And to remind us, if we haven’t thought about it a great deal already, how much we need to clarify the intended meaning of many common terms in the transpersonal psychology and spirituality areas. I know this is going to be difficult as there are some aspects which seem ineffable, they can’t be adequately expressed in the words we have today, but while we may not be able to gain any kind of absolute clarity, we get get clearer and less ambiguous in both our own thinking and in communicating.
I write primarily as a transpersonal psychologist and as a student of Buddhism here. But while I’ve learned a lot from studying and attempting to practice aspects of Buddhism, I’m no scholar or teacher of Buddhist ideas, so what I say here will mainly reflect my personal observations and understandings as a Westerner who is greatly interested in the nature of the mind and working with it. I also try, although don’t know how well I succeed, to avoid using Buddhist and other ideas about mind, enlightenment, etc. that are mainly just intellectual ideas for me, not deeply experienced realities…So this essay is written from the level of an intelligent person working to understand these things, not from the level of someone who is highly accomplished in experiencing them or teaching some spiritual doctrine.
[Ah, that is true of all I write, but it never hurts to point it out as some people credit me with too much knowledge…]
“No Mind” as Fast, Automatized Response:
One of the perspectives on “no mind” that I have, drawing on both ordinary life experience and my experience in learning and practicing the Japanese martial art of Aikido during the middle years of my life, is that “no mind” means a very fast, well learned, and (hopefully) appropriate reaction to events, to stimuli. When I first began learning some Aikido, e.g., my partner would punch me slowly, to help me learn an appropriate defense response. As she or he punched, much of my mind would go into thinking about how to respond. That involved many aspects, such as (a) remembering the technique I was supposed to be learning and practicing, (b) assessing just how, spatially and temporally, the punch was coming in so I could harmoniously blend with the energy of the punch, (c) was I continuing to keep some attention in my body, thus being centered, then (d) reacting to the punch with a technique, (e) sometimes observing my reaction in several stages to see whether I was staying centered, (f) not getting carried off into totally irrelevant thoughts, etc. Then (g) how I might improve next time, etc.
If someone were really trying to punch me, of course, those first several thinking/evaluation/sensing steps take too much time, I would get hit. But when I had the Aikido technique learned as a single, smooth reflex, as it were, my mind could be pretty quiet and passive while I did the technique well. Indeed, my mind had to be pretty quiet as it couldn’t really keep up with the physical action.
I could call that learned style, cemented by hundreds of practice trials, an example of “no mind,” and I think I have seen the term used in various places that way. You’ve taken a complex sensing and reaction pattern and blended it into one smooth response that happens faster than thinking step-by-step about what to do.
The trouble with this kind of “no mind” response is that while it’s very useful when dealing with known situations/attacks, whether in martial arts or ordinary life, when the situation is significantly or even subtly different, your smooth, conditioned reaction may not be useful, indeed may be quite inappropriate. You’re using response pattern D in response to stimulation/attack pattern B, and it doesn’t work.
Using “no mind” this way, I could claim to be an expert ”no mind” practitioner in much of my everyday life. Things happen, familiar things, I tend to react automatically from learning and habit. It usually makes me fast and smooth, and often pleased with myself at being fast, smooth, and right! But sometimes my reaction is quite wrong. If only I had kept my mouth shut and thought about what she said for a moment, before speaking, that kind of thing…
The whole Gurdjieffian mindfulness tradition, which has been the backbone of much of my personal growth practice [see my 3 books Waking Up, Living the Mindful Life, and Mind Science: Meditation Training for Practical People], is about not being automatic or, at least keeping wider perceptual processes going, both outer (what’s happening in the world around me right now?) and inner (how am I thinking and feeling and reacting?), so as to gain insight and more freedom of response, a bigger chance to make a more appropriate response. What I describe as an expert practitioner of ”no mind” in the previous paragraph is what I understand Gurdjieff would probably call being “asleep.” Much suffering in life comes from automatic responses to situations which are no longer what we learned that response to…
“No Mind” as No Verbal Thoughts:
Another way I’ve seen the term “no mind” used is to indicate experiencing no verbal thinking. By verbal thinking I mean words and sentences in my head. Shinzen Young coined the technical term endolexis during a retreat for such internal talking, inner words, to discriminate it from other internal processes. In principle I could accurately describe such verbal thinking aloud, although practically the thoughts usually move faster than I could repeat them aloud. I’ve heard people say that sometimes when they “meditate” (quotes because of the vagary with which “meditation” is used) they have no verbal thoughts, they experience “no mind.” (There’s a whole other level of “thinking” in images in various sensory modalities, but we’ll ignore that here.)
Because negative thought loops are so common –- “Damn, I’m always doing this wrong, I’ll never get it right!” for example — I can understand that some people would see this kind of “no mind” as a really valuable outcome of “meditation,” a little rest from those pesky thoughts that I’m stuck in, which tell me I’m bad, which make me feel bad, etc. Thankfully it is relatively rare for me to get caught in such loops*, though, so that goal of no verbal thoughts at all isn’t appealing to me – unless the absence of verbal thoughts opens my mind to something deeper. That kind of absence can be an important part of inducing altered states of consciousness (ASCs), but I won’t go into that here.
* Note: The rarity of such negative loops for me makes me sometimes think that I’ve got my mind organized pretty well, and at other times makes me wonder if I’m a lot more insensitive than I think and so don’t realize such loops are operating… 😉
When I practice a vipassana style “meditation,” as I’ve learned it primarily from Shinzen Young, my goal is to gently observe the contents of my mind as they flow by, unattached, not trying to control them. Sometimes, for a few seconds, it can result in relatively “purer” perception of sensory (external and/or internal) events, with little or no internal verbal or imagistic commentary. Putting it another way, there are moments when what I perceive is closer to the unedited, unaltered perceptions that my senses are capable of, rather than the actual form of sensations coming in tending to be buried under internal reactions to them. I could see describing that as “no mind,” although more precisely it’s better described as significantly less verbal mind and less getting stuck in verbal reactions to verbal reactions to verbal reactions – thought loops.
Will “No Mind” Help Distant Healing?
Is this the kind of state my friend would like me to get my mind into before he does a distant healing session? I normally can’t do it directly, “it” meaning strongly stopping verbal thinking. For me it would be straining, forcing my mind to be verbally quiet. For me that would involve a kind of tense vigilance of watching for a verbal thought to arise and then quashing it, inhibiting it. By gently observing the flow of sensory events, on the other hand, a certain “spaciousness” is sometimes created where I can be pretty equanamous about the content of the verbal thoughts and not automatically caught up in reactions of holding on to a thought whose content I like or pushing away a thought whose content I don’t like. In this kind of vipassana I find the verbal thinking decreases as a “side effect.” Not disappears or stops altogether, but I’m less attached to or repelled by it. But I don’t think my friend has suggested I do this vipassana procedure…
From Conceptual Clarity to Practicality: Does It Matter?
Let’s think about any kind of situation where one person, acting as a healer, is doing something or “transmitting” something to a needy person, the healee. Generally, insofar as the success of such a procedure is concerned, the skill and particular activities of the healer matter, and the receptivity and response of the healee matter. Maybe no matter how skilled and active the healer is, his healing efforts are not going to have much effect if I, the healee, am in or holding the wrong mental/emotional/physical attitude. Maybe if I could successfully create and relax into what he means by “no mind,” it would make a difference.
As a parallel, consider hypnosis. For many people it can be a powerful therapeutic intervention when used skillfully. But if the needed hypnotic suggestions will only have much effect if the healee is deeply hypnotized, but the healee is resisting being hypnotized or lacks an inherent ability of hypnotizability, the hypnotist’s efforts are wasted.
Personally, I’d like my friend’s developing distant healing efforts to help me and other people. While there are many unknowns in the process, I’d like to know what he means by “no mind” so that I can try to induce it. And it’s possible he’s using a currently popular term that suggests irrelevant things to people he tries to help, so perhaps our mutual efforts to clarify the term may stimulate him to investigate and develop other ways to help his potential healees be more receptive.