I've meditated every day for about fifty years, starting in 1970 when I was in college and began studying yoga with a crazed Greek guy whose Christananda Ashram blended Christian and Hindu philosophies in a decidedly weird fashion (for details, see here).
After giving up on the Greek yoga teacher, for the first 35 years of so I followed the meditation practice enjoined by the Indian religious organization I belonged to at the time, Radha Soami Satsang Beas.
It had a strong mystical bent, being focused on concentrating one's attention totally within the mind/brain, with the aim of detaching consciousness from this physical world and entering higher regions of supernatural reality.
All that now strikes me as highly implausible and unappealingly dualistic.
So I've embraced a Buddhist style of Vipassana/Mindfulness meditation. Mainly I follow my breath, sometimes counting breaths, and sometimes simply being aware of my breathing and other perceptions.
I also enjoy listening to guided meditations by Sam Harris via his Waking Up iPhone app (plus Tamara Levitt's Daily Calm).
From his books, I'm aware that Harris has had considerable training in Dzogchen, a Tibetan form of Buddhism. So I assume that his Waking Up meditations reflect that philosophy to a considerable degree.
I found today's guided meditation to be insightful. Nothing special or new, really. What Harris said just appealed to me.
As is common with Buddhist meditation teachers I've listened to via the Internet, Harris started off by suggesting meditating with eyes closed, then becoming aware of the breath. After a few minutes, he said something like, "If you've been captured by thought, bring your attention back to the breath."
There's nothing wrong with thinking, of course. Obviously it's an essential part of being human. However, i agree with Harris that it's the automaticity of thought which is the problem. Or, if "problem" is too strong a word, perhaps "issue" is a better term.
Thoughts do tend to repeat. (I almost added "like a broken record," but likely many people haven't experienced a scratched record playing the same part over and over, a fairly common occurrence in my record-playing youth.)
And those repeated thoughts do have a certain automatic quality to them. It's as if the mind is stuck in a certain pattern, based on prior experiences, where habitual thoughts spring up unbidden. That wouldn't be a problem, or issue, if the thoughts were productive.
Often, though, and maybe even usually, unbidden thoughts aren't necessary or useful. They just seem to be the mind talking to itself. And since I obviously am myself (same is true of you), this inner dialogue is kind of weird.
Just imagine if our thoughts could be amplified and broadcast to people around us. Much of the time they'd view us as stangely as passers-by react to a homeless person with mental problems who is chattering away on a street corner, making very little sense.
So today Harris suggested that if we can markedly reduce the automaticity of thought, what's left are perceptions and emotions. Meaning, seeing, hearing, touching, smelling, tasting, along with the feelings that arise within us.
This puts us into closer contact with the only reality that is known with certainty to exist: this world, this universe. We can perceive it directly, whereas there's no demonstrable evidence that supernatural realms exist anywhere but in the imagination, fantasies, and illusions of the minds of religious believers.
What about intentions, though? Aren't these necessary to perform the many actions we need to engage in each day? Brushing our teeth, going to work, cooking dinner, writing emails, and so much more. And aren't thoughts like "I've got to wash the dishes" essential for action?
Well, the way my mind works, and likely yours is similar to mine, a thoughtless intention almost always precedes an action-related thought. For example, when I write, like I am right now, an intuitive image of what I want to say comes before the words that I use to express that intention.
Thus it seems highly probable that each of us could go on a "thought diet" without losing any of the functionality of our mind/brain. While thoughts appear to be highly useful when, say, a difficult problem needs to be addressed, likely we could ditch many or most of our daily thoughts and still function just fine.
The reason being two-fold.
One, many thoughts fall into the automatic category, being repetitive habits of self-talk that serve little or no purpose. Two, often thoughts interfere with actions that we're already skilled at. This is reflected in the oft-heard sports commentary, "She's playing out of her mind."
Meaning, highly skillfully, without the distraction of unnecessary thoughts.
This is readily apparent in basketball games where the score is tied near the end of a game, and a player goes to the free throw line. When the player is loose, smiling, and joking with his teammates, it sure seems like a made free throw is more likely than when a player grits his teeth, stares fixedly at the basket, and looks like he's trying really hard.
Life is too short to spend it unduly stressed, tense, and worried. I love to say to myself, Relax and Let go. Or, I simply relax and let go, which is even better.