Be careful about equating the ability to calm thinking with being a Buddhist master.
When you are emotionally stirred up, do you notice that there is always a thought at the root of it? “He shouldn’t have done that to me”, or “Why can’t people be careful with my stuff?” – or a million other possibilities. It is well worth investigating every time something feels uncomfortable to find the thought which underlies the feeling. Our usual assumption is that our thought is correct and the ‘world’ – someone, or even the weather – is wrong. If you can get into the work of Byron Katie, you’ll overturn that to your considerable advantage and greater peace. (See thework.com)
The next thing to notice is that these thoughts always involve the notion of your self, of being a separate self interacting with the world and other people. Connect this with the Buddhist search to establish the reality or not of such a self. But you don’t need to reach the end of that search to see that in meditation, peace is easily equated with lack of thoughts. Absence of thoughts gives a rest from the emotional turbulence of the self. Of course this is temporary, and it does not guarantee realising the truth about self. What’s more it offers a lure towards being able to cut thinking in meditation. The well-known danger here is that this is a dead-end, these states of freedom from thinking can be blissful and sought for their own sake.
What liberates is insight – understanding, realising crucial truths about what we actually are. Specifically it is clear that the truth about the self we take as existent now, and its relationship with thinking, is a vital realisation for our freedom. If we continually confirm our idea that the self and thinking are the same, and we wish to experience freedom from the self, the short-cut is to see thinking as inherently troublesome, and to practise cutting thinking. This is likely to cut our chances of realising what thinking is, and uncovering the truth of what is and is not self.
If we maintain our goal of realising this truth and we do not hide from thoughts, then even reaching blissful states of no-thought can be instructive – perhaps we can notice more clearly the nature of thoughts as a result of our temporary freedom from them. The question is, of course, how much freedom from thinking do we need, to reach the jewel of understanding which then makes thinking not a problem? We could spend years manipulating our mind into thought-free states unnecessarily.
In terms of shamata and vipashyana, we need enough shamata to promote vipashyana. (Shamata being mental tranquillity and vipashyana being naturally arising insight or the meditation which yields this.) Teachings and pointing-out instructions can facilitate the process, and it’s also worth noting that our natural wonder at some of the questions posed by such clues can produce its own shamata. Pursuing the dhyana/jhana states of progressive refinement of the mind is not a requirement, although for some traditions it is taken as a path. The Tibetan Kagyu ‘upadesha‘ path of Mahamudra taught by Lama Shenpen does not include the jhanas. (Extreme tranquil states)
So keep your eyes on the prize, keep your meditation on the track to liberation, avoid the siding of temporary bliss or showing-off your mental physique.
(Upadesha = personal instructions from a realised teacher, pointing out the nature of mind.)
(Response to a student, August 2018)