Concentrating on non-arising can be… well, kinda deep. Scary even, at times.

And it requires a kind of balls-to-the-wall dedication with each sit. I came from a shikantaza background—open awareness meditation. But this is something altogether different. But, life is short, and the results are rapid.

When we talk about concentrating on inner silence or stillness, we’re not talking about cultivating a kind of spacious, open awareness. We’re zeroing in on silence the same way that we usually zero-in on our cellphones, Netflix, or porn. We’re trying to develop a single-pointed focus on inner silence.

It’s a demanding practice that requires, each time you sit down to do it, the, “I’m going to sit here until I’m a Buddha,” drive. It’s a take-no-prisoners practice, an, “I’m sick of suffering and would rather die than lose my way,” practice. Those are just metaphors, it’s the spirit behind them that I’m talking about. A let’s-get-shit-done attitude.

And when you’re doing it, you renounce everything that isn’t the silence. You’re renouncing your friends, family, lovers, career aspirations, interests, loves, hates, and so on. We sit and disown everything; each thought, feeling, sensation, view, even ourselves and we just concentrate on silence, on non-arising.

Now ya don’t have to get all freaked out. All that stuff isn’t going anywhere, it’s just on hold while you’re on the cushion. When we sit down to meditate, we’re stepping outside of our daily life and going on a retreat to a walless, roofless, monkless monastery.

We can’t take any of those things with us into death or deep sleep, and we’re not taking them with us into calm abiding meditation either. Just like with death and deep sleep, we’re withdrawing from the world. The difference is that, in calm abiding meditation, there’s actually heightened consciousness rather than a loss of it.

By focusing—with everything we’ve got—on non-arising, we’re setting down our clinging and craving because, in that moment, there’s nothing to cling to or crave. So, each venture into that inner stillness is a taste of nibbana that we can bring back with us into daily life.

That short reprieve from the topsy-turvy helps us to manage our topsy-turvy lives better. It helps us to not be so reactive, so quick to push and cling. It helps us to see things a little more clearly, and with each journey into that silence, we get a little closer to growing up and being free of our own BS.

And I’m not an Arhat. I haven’t even gone beyond the first jhana yet. I’m not on the Other Shore sending you postcards from Bodhi, I’m in the midst of the journey gabbing with you side-by-side. But even these small, toddling forays into the quiet mind have been life-changing.

Those moments of joy are astonishing, but it isn’t all sunshine and rainbows. If your focus isn’t sharp enough, if you approach this meditation with a lazy, languid awareness, then you’re gonna experience dullness or even fear. I had to coach myself a bit the last time I sat:

“It’s OK, it’s OK. You’re not drifting into nothing. Just relax and concentrate.” Seriously, I felt like I was soothing a scared child. But it’s worth it, it really is. Things like that aren’t permission to go off on some kinda cathartic, psychoanalytic voyage. They’re signs that we’ve lost focus, so we can just gently move awareness back to stillness again.

When I first started concentrating on inner silence, I used thought-swatting to kind of… weed whack my mind. Just cut off each thought mid – CHOP! Just like – CHOP! Bu – CHOP! After each chop, there’s a slight gap before the next thought arises. That gap is what we’re concentrating on. The more you thought-swat, the larger the gaps get until, eventually, everything’s gone.

In that silence, you can kind of feel thoughts before they rise up. It’s like a subtle agitation in the mind. You can chop that too the same way. Notice it, then CHOP! it, and return to the undisturbed silence.

Thought-swatting is just a kind of orientation. Once you get the hang of clearing your mind, you just kinda… do it. The intention becomes enough in itself.

If thought-swatting doesn’t work, focus on the space between breaths—the space after exhale/before inhale, and the space after inhale/before exhale—until you’re familiar enough with stillness to try again. Sometimes I alternate between them, focusing on the space between breaths, and then, while I’m inhaling or exhaling, the space between thoughts.

If that doesn’t work, focus on the body, taking long, deep breaths in, letting all the muscles tense. Then, slow breaths out, letting all the muscles relax. I usually start each sit like that.

You can focus on non-arising in day-to-day life too by taking frequent thought fasts: times when you can just sit, stand, or walk without thinking. When you can’t do that, it’s possible to be aware of the space between thoughts. If you’re a spatial thinker, you might even perceive space around your thoughts, like your inner-monologue is rising and falling down an empty corridor. This helps to keep our narratives tidy; it keeps the mind from chimping out, swinging from branch to branch.

Just as we’re focused on internal silence when we’re sitting, we can be aware of external silence as well. There’s silence between each sentence we speak, between each step we take. And, right now, there’s an air cleaner whirring near me, but the neighboring dresser isn’t making a peep. We perceive life as a busy, noisy ordeal, but we’re often around objects that are more silent than not.

Space is the visual equivalent to silence, and just like with silence, there’s space everywhere. There’s space between and within these letters. There’s space inside and around cups, cars, bookshelves, and even our bodies. The Taoists realized that space is an integral part of every object, but we tend to overlook that. What we’re doing in practice is learning to no longer overlook things, since overlooking things is pretty much what causes all of our troubles.

We can’t understand, adapt to, and work with the facts of life if we’re glossing over a vast portion of our experiences, because then we’re drawing conclusions from incomplete information.

Silence and space provide a fantastic backdrop for experience. When we’re focused on space, we can come to see the objects in space clearer. When we’re focused on silence, we can perceive sounds clearer. This is what eventually makes insight meditation possible since, when the mind is utterly silent, each momentary flash of mental movement is observable against that still, silent, tranquil background.

1 Comment

  1. I just got around to reading this, John, and I really like your examples of how to observe that thoughts are not arising. Good techniques. You got me thinking ….

    What I’ve learned of non-arising as practice comes from the Satipatthana Sutra, aka The Four Foundations of Mindfulness (I know you know this well). In the section The Contemplation of Mental Objects, the notion of the non-arisen is presented. Here, for example, is what it has to say about observing sloth and torpor:

    “When sloth and torpor are present, he knows, “There are sloth and torpor in me,” or when sloth and torpor are not present, he knows, “There are no sloth and torpor in me.” He knows how the arising of the non-arisen sloth and torpor comes to be; he knows how the abandoning of the arisen sloth and torpor comes to be; and he knows how the non-arising in the future of the abandoned sloth and torpor comes to be.

    Non-arising covers every confabulation of mind, every feeling-tone, emotion, perception, mental construct, even the way we string it all together. If I were prone to sloth and torpor, as my moments and days went along, I would remember to observe that sloth and torpor are not arising at this moment. So we can use the observation of the non-arising of which particular unskillful behavior we want to change. It becomes a structure of practice until it’s no longer necessary.

    I love this section of the Sutra, The Contemplation of Mental Objects. Each section ends with a very useful repetition:

    “Thus he lives contemplating mental objects in mental objects internally, or he lives contemplating mental objects in mental objects externally, or he lives contemplating mental objects in mental objects internally and externally. He lives contemplating origination factors in mental objects, or he lives contemplating dissolution factors in mental objects, or he lives contemplating origination-and-dissolution factors in mental objects.[21] Or his mindfulness is established with the thought, “Mental objects exist,” to the extent necessary just for knowledge and mindfulness, and he lives detached, and clings to nothing in the world. Thus also, monks, a monk lives contemplating mental objects in the mental objects of the five hindrances.”


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