There are a number of techniques for silencing thoughts. Only one of these methods, so far as I know, leads to Self-realization. It has been described in a variety of ways by different people. Here is my attempt to explain how to do it.
This method is based on a certain state of mind that you can get into voluntarily. Thoughts cannot occur while you're in this state. The longer you stay in this state, the less effort is needed to maintain it, and the weaker the impulses become that tend to generate thought.
I'll call this mental state "the aware state." Other people have called it I AM, self-remembering, awareness watching awareness, abiding as yourself, and knowing that you are. Although these names sound different they all refer to the same thing.
To learn this method from this article, two steps are required:
1. You have to figure out what I mean by "aware state" and experience that state for yourself and recognize it.
2. After you know what the aware state feels like, you have to learn to make it happen deliberately.
I suspect that nearly everybody experiences the aware state occasionally without noticing it. Contrary to the impression given by many books, there's nothing arcane or remote or advanced or difficult about it. It's a normal, ordinary state of mind.
(I'm using the word "mind" in its ordinary English sense of "consciousness." Most spiritual books use it in a more restricted sense having to do only with sensation and thought. They do this because the word for "mind" in Indian languages has that restricted meaning. This is one of the reasons why spiritual books in English are so confusing.)
The most difficult thing about step one is figuring out from somebody else's description what the aware state is exactly. It's very hard to describe a state of mind, and most of the descriptions in books aren't very good.
The way I'll handle this problem is by describing a situation in which the aware state occurs. It's easier to describe a situation than a state of mind. If you put yourself in this situation, the aware state will occur, and then (I hope!) you'll know for sure what I'm talking about.
I'm going to assume that you've tried to meditate at least once, because that's when this situation occurs. If you've never tried to meditate, you'll need to stop reading now and meditate for twenty or thirty minutes before you go on. You can meditate in any way you like as long as it involves maintaining your attention in some chosen way. For example, you could try to stay aware of your thoughts. Or you could try to fix your thoughts on a particular object or idea. Or you could try not to have any thoughts at all. Whatever you choose, try to maintain your attention for twenty or thirty minutes. If you lose your concentration during this time, that's okay (in fact, that's perfect, as you'll see in a moment), but as soon as you can, start concentrating again and continue until the time is up.
Now, here's my description of the aware state.
During meditation everybody has the experience of suddenly realizing that for the previous five or ten minutes they hadn't been meditating at all. They got lost in daydreams without realizing it. Suddenly they snap back to their senses and realize, "Oops! I lost my concentration and got lost in daydreams for several minutes without noticing it. I only just noticed and remembered this instant that I was supposed to be meditating."
If the last paragraph isn't familiar to you, try meditating some more until you notice this experience happening to you. The rest of this article won't make any sense unless you recognize the experience I just described.
What does this experience have to do with the aware state? Well, at the instant that you snap back to your senses, you are momentarily in the aware state. An instant later you will probably begin to berate yourself for abandoning your meditation, causing you to slip back into the ordinary lost-in-thoughts state, but at the very moment in which you come back to yourself, you are in the aware state. (To be precise, you are closer to the aware state at that moment. It's really a matter of degree.)
Keep putting yourself in situations where this experience happens, and each time, try to notice the heightening of awareness that occurs at that moment.
(Incidentally, if you've ever been puzzled by the traditional instruction to look at the space between two thoughts, this is what it's refering to. At the moment I'm describing, your daydreaming just ended and your next thought hasn't yet carried you away.)
As you observe these moments more carefully, you'll begin to see that thinking and awareness are polar opposites. The more you have of one, the less you have of the other. At one end of the continuum, you are lost in thought. At the other end, you are aware.
You can learn to move voluntarily between these two states, but most people remain lost in thought during almost all of their waking hours. They never notice that the aware state exists.
As you observe the difference between the two states you will notice that when you are thinking, you aren't really conscious. This may sound strange, but you'll see for yourself that it's true. When we think, we are actually lost in thought and not aware. When we become aware, we emerge from thoughts. We stop being lost and find something — ourselves. This is why some people call the aware state "self remembering" or "knowing that you are." Try it, you'll see. These traditional terms make sense once you see what they refer to.
You'll also see why most forms of meditation are useless. Meditation only works if it gets you into the aware state, but most people stay in the lost-in-thoughts state when they do it.
Real meditation is remaining in the aware state.
Once you know what the aware state feels like, you need to learn to enter it deliberately. Here are some tricks that may help:
1. Ask yourself, "Am I conscious now?" You have to really wonder and inspect yourself to see whether you are or not. The act of inspecting yourself to see whether you are conscious causes you to emerge from thought and become conscious. You have to really pay attention when you do this, otherwise the mind will trick you by imagining that you're conscious even though you aren't. This trickery is like dreaming that you got out of bed and turned off the alarm clock, when in reality you're snoring happily in bed.
2. Become very familiar with the aware state. Observe closely what makes it different from being lost in thoughts. It's not different because a certain sort of thought is happening. It's different because you're aware. Notice that if you try to figure out what's different about it, you'll plunge right back into being lost in thought. Watch how the initiation of a thought makes it vanish. Go back and forth deliberately between thoughts and awareness. Once you become familiar with how this works, you can learn to do this voluntarily just like wiggling your fingers. It may take a bit of practice, but you really can learn to do it.
3. Always be aware that a thought is starting. If you are aware of it, then you won't get carried away by it and your awareness won't get lost. This is the meaning of the traditional instructions "be vigilant," "be mindful," "watch your thoughts," etc. These instructions are potentially misleading because they can be misinterpreted to mean, "Go ahead and daydream." Perhaps a better way to state this idea is that you should observe very carefully the process by which your awareness starts to slip away when a thought starts. Be on your guard for those events so they won't happen.
I said there were two steps, but now I'm adding a third. What gives?
Well, if all you want to do is silence your thoughts, then yes, two steps are enough.
But once you've learned to remain aware, you might as well take the third step and make it a habit. Do it as much as possible. Try to make it your permanent state.
What will happen if you do? Something interesting. Try it and find out.
For more information on this subject, see my blog.
This article was written in 2007.
Photo by Manish Swarup.