August 2010



The Quiet Mind

When we first learn of the idea of being present, it seems so familiar, so simple, and so right. Of course one would wish to be present. Who wants to be a stranger to his own life?

So we begin, full of resolve, to make the effort to be present. And, wonderfully, we can do it, for a few seconds at a time. Yet as we persist we become aware of an internal force that almost continuously displaces the living moment. We drift off, we forget about the effort, or we awaken to find ourselves chanting, “Be present, be present,” as we drive past our freeway exit.

What is that force, and where do we go when we “drift”?

If we listen in on our busy minds, we find that they are almost never quiet. There is a constant flow of words, like white noise, that continues regardless of whether or not we are aware of it. The voice talks on, even if no one is listening, like a television in an empty room. Peter Ouspensky called it imagination, and defined it as “uncontrolled mind activity.” Every spiritual tradition recognizes this strange phenomenon as an obstacle. And while thought may hold a legitimate place in our internal world, imagination has no useful function.

“Realization is not attained by going far, but only by staying still, not by thought, but by cessation of thought.”
Tripura Rahasya, Hindu Scripture

"The seeker has no path save to remove everything he knows from his thoughts and to sit empty-hearted with God through presence."
Ibn Arabi

"Do not think about what can be thought about, and do not think about what cannot be thought about. When one thinks about neither the thinkable nor the unthinkable, emptiness will be seen."

“The mind can make no progress in prayer if it does not put the inner man in order by stopping thoughts turning round and round.”
Hesychios of Jerusalem

The difference between thought and imagination is simple. Thought is intentional and is under our control—it can be creative and it can have practical results. Thought requires some effort and focus, even if it is simply in response to the question like, “What do I need to pack for my trip?” It takes thought to read these pages attentively. Imagination, on the other hand, is accidental, associative, random, and uncontrolled. We can’t intentionally be in imagination. Try, for example, to deliberately “think” your favorite daydream.

The subject of imagination is always something in the past or the future (fortunately, we can’t be in imagination about the present). Even if the inner dialogue is commenting on what we are seeing or feeling now, it is always one beat behind our perception. As we observe it again and again, we come to realize that it is a law we are under, the natural state of sleeping man. If we are not making an effort to direct our thoughts, or to stop our thoughts, then we are in imagination. It’s the default mode of being.

“If our mind is inexperienced in the practice of watchful sobriety, it immediately attaches itself to the suggestion which presents itself, and begins to converse with it.”
Hesychios of Jerusalem

“When the prayer begins, the devil makes you think of pleasant things and of things wished for, and reminds you of such needs which you had forgotten.”

“When people speak, their first remark will often dislodge one from imagination, and then one must ask them to repeat what they said, because one is now more awake and can receive it.”
Robert Earl Burton

Verifying the existence of imagination in ourselves, learning to observe it, is one step. It’s another step to begin to dislike it. What’s so bad about being in imagination? We are entertained by our thoughts, by the flow of judgments and opinions that is activated by every impression. We can be so witty, in our own minds! Our imagination can seem beautiful or ennobling to us, it can be really funny, and sometimes it can be horrific, as if a dictator or torturer had taken up residence in our head. We don’t get to choose what enters our imagination—it just happens to us. Our minds are not our own.

But if it were uniformly pleasant, imagination would still be inimical, because it stands between us and the silent reality of the present. It is the great lie. In the absence of our Self, imagination builds an imaginary reality within us, a “reality” in which we can believe we are controlling our world, in which we are the center of our self-created film.

Throughout our lives, imagination is ceaselessly weaving a false persona, our imaginary idea of ourselves. If someone criticizes us, for example, instantly the repair work begins. We go over and over it in our mind. We think of how wrong the person was, and of all the reasons why they were wrong. Or we judge ourselves harshly, and enter a familiar despondency—“I did it again.” Or we replay the scene so often in our minds, altering it pixel by pixel as we go, that in the end we manage to replace it with a photoshopped memory—we have censored our own past. There are so many ways to alter or ignore reality. And oddly enough, all these varied reactions require imagination—they require words running through our minds.

Whatever form the imagination takes, the aim is the same—to maintain a psychological status quo—to bring us back to the comfort of the familiar, and to cover over the strange intrusion of reality, of the living present, in which “we see, even as we shall be seen.” This wheel of words that is always turning in our heads is in itself our false identity—the maya we seek to escape. We need to learn to distinguish rightly between the state of presence and the workings of our own imagination, or we can simply dream that we are present.

"Our life is the creation of our mind."

“We imagine ourselves, really, and we are not what we imagine ourselves to be.”
Peter Ouspensky

“One must find reality more interesting than imagination.”
Robert Earl Burton

Fortunately, imagination also provides one of our greatest opportunities. In the elegant economy of esoteric work, by working on imagination we work on all obstacles to presence. Fixed attitudes, justifications, and judgments; negative emotions like resentment, self-pity, self-deprecation, and indignation; weaknesses such as laziness or fear or vanity—everything manifests internally as imagination. Take away the words, the inner dialogue, and over time these negative manifestations are weakened and begin to collapse.

To ward off imagination and achieve a quiet mind for even thirty seconds is a great achievement, although it often seems negligible to us. But the all-out, intense effort required to still the mind in itself brings other fruits—courage, humility, detachment, discipline. It trains us to begin to accept the death of our imaginary identity. And it begins to reveal the wordless, wondering witness that can truly inhabit the miraculous present.

“In order not to fall into illusion while practicing inner prayer, do not permit yourself any concepts, images, or visions."
Theophan the Recluse

“Little by little, through patience and repeated effort, the mind will become stilled in the Self.”

“Why was Jesus throwing out those who were buying and selling and why did he tell those who had doves to get rid of them? His intention was none other than to have the temple empty."
Meister Eckhart

“I sit and look out.”
Walt Whitman


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