On Awakening: No-Thought
Wait without thought, for you are not ready for thought:
So the darkness shall be the light, and the stillness the dancing.
—T. S. Eliot, "East Coker"
One aspect of awakening is stabilizing the mind in a state broadly-but-not-completely free from verbal thoughts. A diverse set of traditions have discovered this:
Hundred flowers in Spring, the moon in Autumn
The cool wind in Summer and Winter's snow.
If your mind is not clouded with things
You are happy at any time.
—Mumon's commentary on the ordinary mind koan (Zen)
Thoughts can be compared to clouds. When clouds vanish, the moon appears. […] Thoughts are also like the fogging of a mirror. When you wipe away all condensation, a mirror reflects clearly. Quiet your thoughts and behold your Original Face before you were born!
—Daito's commentary on the original face koan (Zen)
Recognize your mind, and in the absence of any concrete thing, rest loosely. After a while we again get caught up in thoughts. But, by recognizing again and again, we grow more and more used to the natural state. It's like learning something by heart—after a while, you don't need to think about it. Through this process, our thought involvement grows weaker and weaker. The gap between thoughts begins to last longer and longer. At a certain point, for half an hour there will be a stretch of no conceptual thought whatsoever, without having to suppress the thinking.
—Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche, "The Inheritance" (Dzogchen)
Again, a state of mind that is lucid and thoughtfree may exclusively be regarded as the meditation. The lucid and indescribable awareness, after a thought has subsided, is indeed the meditation training.
At some point, when mindfulness and your mind are no longer different entities, everything turns into the nature of mindful presence and it is 'smooth sailing' from then on.
— Clarifying the Natural State (Mahamudra)
In sum, across all the interviews, developing an ability to dwell for at least some periods of time with a mind that is quiet, peaceful, and attentive seems to be taken for granted by the teachers as a necessary condition for progressing along the path.
—Richard Boyle, Realizing Awakened Consciousness
[Ramana]'s silence was his direct teaching. He taught Self-Enquiry to those who could not comprehend his silence; so Self-Enquiry actually takes a secondary place as far as his teaching is concerned. He imparted his teaching of silence by his mere grace filled glance. This is the look that Muruganar and others refer to as his glance of grace.
—Sankarammal, devotee of Ramana Maharshi, taken from this page
The thought 'who am I?' will destroy all other thoughts, and like the stick used for stirring the burning pyre, it will itself in the end get destroyed. Then, there will arise Self-realization.
When other thoughts arise, one should not pursue them, but should inquire: 'To whom do they arise?' It does not matter how many thoughts arise. As each thought arises, one should inquire with diligence, “To whom has this thought arisen?”. The answer that would emerge would be “To me”. Thereupon if one inquires “Who am I?”, the mind will go back to its source; and the thought that arose will become quiescent. With repeated practice in this manner, the mind will develop the skill to stay in its source.
All the texts say that in order to gain release one should render the mind quiescent; therefore their conclusive teaching is that the mind should be rendered quiescent; once this has been understood there is no need for endless reading. In order to quieten the mind one has only to inquire within oneself what one's Self is; how could this search be done in books? One should know one's Self with one's own eye of wisdom.
—Ramana Maharshi, Who Am I?
When a thought subsides, you experience a discontinuity in the mental stream — a gap of "no-mind." At first, the gaps will be short, a few seconds perhaps, but gradually they will become longer. When these gaps occur, you feel a certain stillness and peace inside you. This is the beginning of your natural state of felt oneness with Being, which is usually obscured by the mind. With practice, the sense of stillness and peace will deepen. In fact, there is no end to its depth. You will also feel a subtle emanation of joy arising from deep within: the joy of Being.
So the single most vital step on your journey toward enlightenment is this: learn to disidentify from your mind. Every time you create a gap in the stream of mind, the light of your consciousness grows stronger.
Enlightenment means rising above thought.
—Eckhart Tolle, The Power of Now
There is a silence within, a silence that descends from without; a silence that stills existence and a silence that engulfs the entire universe. There is a silence of the self and its faculties of will, thought, memory, and emotions. There is a silence in which there is nothing, a silence in which there is something; and finally, there is the silence of no-self and the silence of God. If there was any path on which I could chart my contemplative experiences, it would be this ever-expanding and deepening path of silence.
—Bernadette Roberts, The Experience of No-Self
The most powerful prayer, one wellnigh omnipotent, and the worthiest work of all is the outcome of a quiet mind. The quieter it is the more powerful, the worthier, the deeper, the more telling and more perfect the prayer is. To the quiet mind all things are possible. What is a quiet mind? A quiet mind is one which nothing weighs on, nothing worries, which, free from ties and from all self-seeking, is wholly merged into the will of God and dead to its own.
—Meister Eckhart, taken off Wikiquote as I haven't been able to get my hands on the cited text, A Dazzling Darkness: An Anthology of Western Mysticism
Therefore a master says: if someone is to perform an inner work, they must draw in all their powers as if in the corner of their soul, hiding from all images and forms, and then they shall be able to act. They must thus enter a forgetfulness and an unknowing. Where this word is to be heard, there must be stillness and silence. We cannot serve this word better than with stillness and silence; there it can be heard and properly understood, and there we are in a state of unknowing. Where we know nothing, there it reveals itself and makes itself known.
Wherever there is unknowing, there is a lack and an absence. Such a person is no better than a beast, an ape, a fool, which is true for as long as he or she remains in unknowing. At this point we must come into a transformed knowing, an unknowing which comes not from ignorance but from knowledge. Then our knowing shall be divine knowledge, and our unknowing shall be ennobled and enriched with supernatural knowing. With respect to this, being passive shall make us more perfect than being active.
The very best thing you can do is to remain still for as long as possible.
—Meister Eckhart, Sermon 4 in The Complete Mystical Works of Meister Eckhart
Concentration without effort — that is to say where there is nothing to suppress and where contemplation becomes as natural as breathing and the beating of the heart —is the state of consciousness (i.e. thought, imagination, feeling and will) of perfect calm, accompanied by the complete relaxation of the nerves and the muscles of the body. It is the profound silence of desires, of preoccupations, of the imagination, of the memory and of discursive thought. One may say that the entire being becomes like the surface of calm water, reflecting the immense presence of the starry sky and its indescribable harmony. And the waters are deep, they are so deep! And the silence grows, ever increasing. . what silence! Its growth takes place through regular waves which pass, one after the other, through your being: one wave of silence followed by another wave of more profound silence, then again a wave of still more profound silence… Have you ever drunk silence?
To begin with there are moments, subsequently minutes, then "quarters of an hour" for which complete silence or "concentration without effort" lasts. With time, the silence or concentration without effort becomes a fundamental element always present in the life of the soul. It is like the perpetual service at the church of Sacre-Coeur de Montmartre which takes place, whilst in Paris one works, one trades, one amuses oneself, one sleeps, one dies… It is in like manner that a "perpetual service" of silence is established in the soul, which continues all the same when one is active, when one works, or when one converses. This "zone of silence" being once established, you can draw from it both for rest and for work. Then you will have not only concentration without effort, but also activity without effort.
For silence is the sign of real contact with the spiritual world and this contact, in turn, always engenders the influx of forces. This is the foundation of all mysticism, all gnosis, all magic and all practical esotericism in general.
—Anonymous, Meditations on the Tarot
For He can well be loved, but he cannot be thought. By love he can be grasped and held, but by thought, neither grasped nor held. And therefore, though it may be good at times to think specifically of the kindness and excellence of God, and though this may be a light and a part of contemplation, all the same, in the work of contemplation itself, it must be cast down and covered with a cloud of forgetting. And you must step above it stoutly but deftly, with a devout and delightful stirring of love, and struggle to pierce that darkness above you; and beat on that thick cloud of unknowing with a sharp dart of longing love, and do not give up, whatever happens.
—Anonymous, The Cloud of Unknowing
What actually happened was something absurdly simple and unspectacular: I stopped thinking. A peculiar quiet, an odd kind of alert limpness or numbness, came over me. Reason and imagination and all mental chatter died down. For once, words really failed me.
—Douglas Harding, taken from his awakening description
I want to share the main features of a permanent shift that began in January, 1972. My experience, indeed my life, became noticeably different than had been before that date: behind everything I am and do now came to be a sense of silence, a bottomless emptiness, so open as to be without end. This silence bears a sense of spaciousness, or vastness, which extends in every direction. This silent expanse is not something I have to remember to be; it takes absolutely no effort to maintain it. It is as effortless to be this as it is to have a right hand. Though it rapidly became too normal or everyday to seem amazing or ecstatic, it is quite pleasant and peaceful. Since that day, it has been what I am: not the me that does dishes, that worries when I have to write an article, or the me that feels alone or scared or happy. But vast silence has been the me that watches and lives and holds it all.
Before that January day, behind every moment of thinking, seeing or hearing, there had always been other, fainter thoughts, odd snatches of music, hints of feelings, errands I shouldn't forget, half-formed sentences. This is what many call the "monkey mind." This chattering brain-hubbub was constant.
Until it wasn't. With the onset of permanent silence, they just vanished. The burbling background chatter simply disappeared.
Unlike what I had expected, my mind did not become entirely silent. I had understood from my guru, Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, that in such shifts our minds would come to be without any thoughts at all. This wasn't that. I continued to think. What did stop however was the endless half-clear thoughts beneath my mind.
It was as if behind the movie of my mind had been scrim behind scrim: each with a dimmer move I could barely make out. But that afternoon it was as if the light suddenly shifted so that the front scrim became opaque and I suddenly was watching just one movie, thinking only one thought at a time.
No perfect quiescence, but much more focused. Whereas before I would struggle to keep my attention where I wanted, I suddenly was able to put my consciousness on something and have it pretty much stay there. It was like getting eye glasses for the mind.
—Robert Forman, this paper
Without a language center telling me: “I am Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor. I am a neuro-anatomist,” … I felt no obligation to being her anymore. It was a truly bizarre shift in perception, but without her emotional circuitry reminding me about her patterns of critical judgment, I didn't think like her anymore. … [She] had grown up with lots of anger and a lifetime of emotional baggage that must have required a lot of energy to sustain … and with this obliteration of memories I felt both relief and joy. … On this special day, I learned the meaning of simply “being.”
—Jill Bolte Taylor describing a stroke, as quoted in Realizing Awakened Consciousness
Not All Thoughts
Even Gary Weber, author of Happiness Beyond Thought and the internet guru pushing "no thought" as a useful practice goal, doesn't experience the total cessation of thoughts. Here is how I described it to one Redditor:
Yeah, from what I've dug into of Gary, he specifically means a class of thought he refers to as "blah blah," which seems to be something like self-referential and mind-wandering thoughts. He says planning thoughts are still intact but, even so, he puts them at <10 per hour.
He also mentions there does seem to be a period of memory consolidation during the descent into sleep that he experiences as thoughts.
Here is the same idea, from Jeffrey Martin's PNSE paper:
Almost immediately it became clear that participants were not referring to the disappearance of all thoughts. They remained fully able to use thought for problem solving and living what appeared outwardly to be a 'normal' life. The reduction seemed limited to self-related thoughts. Nevertheless, participants were experiencing a reduction in quantity of thoughts that was so significant that when they were asked to quantify the reduction, those who could answered within the 80-95% range. This high percentage may suggest why someone would say all thought had fallen away.
The class of thoughts that falls out is very likely those generated by the brain's default mode network, so: mind-wandering, past and future, autobiographical, and episodic memory thoughts. I've collected more on the plausible relationship between this network and the experience of awakenings elsewhere on the site.
No thought, then, when used in the rough-and-tumble Wild West that is internet dharma, almost always means something like, "an incredible, drastic reduction in thoughts, but not a literal, complete cessation of thought," or, even closer, something like, "the new normal for this mind is mental silence, but I can use thought when needed."
Placid Drowsiness Isn't No-Thought
The main potential pitfall is mistaking a state of placid drowsiness, of being "tuned out," as the point. This is the opposite of what you're after—you want perception to be very, very bright and alive.
If we can remain in natural uncontrived presence, without sinking into an oblivious drowse, we disinhibit our spontaneous clarity. Stars appear in the sky, and their brilliance is reflected in the referenceless ocean of being.
— Roaring Silence (emphasis mine)
Let your mind be as it naturally is without trying to correct it. Now, isn't it true that all your thoughts, both subtle and gross, subside in themselves? Rest evenly and look to see if this mind doesn't remain calm in its own natural state. […] During this state, do not become dull, absent-minded or apathetic.
— Clarifying the Natural State (emphasis mine)
Default conscious experience can be likened to a house, one where thought plays the role of a load-bearing wall. Remove it and the house collapses.
[There are] four major ways of stabilizing a system that constitutes a d-SoC [discrete state of consciousness].
The first type of stabilization is ballasting or loading, to use an electrical analogy. In electrical ballasting, you impose a large electrical load on a circuit that draws on the power resources sufficiently so that very high voltages cannot occur; the power supply lacks the capacity to produce them, given the load. Loading in general refers to any activity that draws a large proportion of the energy of the system so that the system does not have excess free energy available. A load may also store energy, giving the system inertia that prevents a sudden slowdown or speedup.
Psychologically, loading means keeping a person's consciousness busy with desired types of activities so that too little (attention/awareness) energy is left over to allow disruption of the system's operation.
A final example of loading concerns the thinking process. You have a constant internal thinking process going on, constant internal chatter, which runs through familiar and habitual associative pathways and keeps you within your ordinary d-SoC. You think the kinds of things that please you; you feel clever as a result of thinking them; feeling clever makes you relax; feeling relaxed makes you feel good; feeling good reminds you that you are clever; and so on. This constant thinking, thinking, thinking loads your system and is extremely important in maintaining your ordinary b-SoC. [baseline state of consciousness]
The importance of this constant loading of consciousness by thinking in maintaining and stabilizing our ordinary d-SoC cannot be overestimated.
—Charles Tart, States of Consciousness
Commonly Raised Objections
I don't care how clever your "gotcha!"'s are.
If you are unable to sit without thinking for a minute or five or thirty, you're an addict. Sort yourself out—you don't have to abide there persistently. Pull an Erdős, if you must. Just prove you can do it.
[Erdős's] colleague Alfréd Rényi said, "a mathematician is a machine for turning coffee into theorems", and Erdős drank copious quantities (this quotation is often attributed incorrectly to Erdős, but Erdős himself ascribed it to Rényi.) After 1971 he also took amphetamines, despite the concern of his friends, one of whom (Ron Graham) bet him $500 that he could not stop taking the drug for a month. Erdős won the bet, but complained that during his abstinence, mathematics had been set back by a month: "Before, when I looked at a piece of blank paper my mind was filled with ideas. Now all I see is a blank piece of paper." After he won the bet, he promptly resumed his amphetamine use.