A natural, healthy mind free of fixations is like a mirror. Nothing is present in a mirror before a reflected object appears, and nothing remains after the object departs. The object adds nothing to it when it arrives, and subtracts nothing from it when it goes away. No matter what the object is, it leaves the mirror neither cleaner nor dirtier. The immediate perception of the “direct mind” is similar to this. Consciousness functions in this way only when it is in a state of true awareness, open to its own inner truth.
The mind in this state is free of the compulsion to think, but this doesn’t mean that it doesn’t think. People often misunderstand this point. To simply shut down the thinking process is a kind of mental blackout. Students occasionally come to me saying, “I’m not thinking!” This is fine if the mind has naturally come to rest in stillness, but if the thought process has simply been suppressed this represents no more than a blanking out of the self and extinguishing of the light of consciousness. This is of no use in everyday life.
It is possible, of course, to stop ordinary thinking through intense concentration practices while one is sitting, like a tightrope walker who focuses solely on what he’s doing during the time he’s on the rope but returns to his ordinary way of thinking once the act is finished. Zen practice of this type is false, leading to a kind of split life where the mind is silenced during zazen and allowed to wander the rest of the time. The two aspects of life end up unrelated, with the practice not functioning away from the confines of the meditation hall.
Zazen is not a concentrated suppression of thought but rather an awareness so open that does not get caught up in ideas and has no need to think when thinking is unnecessary. In its natural state consciousness is a flowing thing that, like water, goes bad when it stagnates. Analytical thinking may be necessary when considering something from an academic point of view, but in everyday life it generally gets in the way.
Rather than attempt to suppress the mind’s ordinary habit of thinking, the thinking habit must be redirected so that the mind no longer chases after the mental activity that naturally wells up out of the consciousness. As Zen master Rinzai says, “Don’t continue [thoughts] that have already arisen and don’t let those that haven’t yet arisen be aroused. Just this will be worth far more to you than a ten years’ pilgrimage.”

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