Do the Thoughts Ever Stop?

by Bhante Henepola Gunaratana

The Buddha advised bhikkhus, "Bhikkhus when you have assembled together you should do one of two things: have Dhamma discussions or observe noble silence."
Noble silence is the state of mind where there are no thoughts. The mind is totally silent. Thoughts can be stopped only if we train our mind to do so through correct meditation practice.
A meditator should begin by paying undivided and uninterrupted attention to one single object without verbalizing the experience in the mind. When you verbalize and conceptualize things, you interrupt your attention on the one hand and on the other you perpetuate your thoughts.
When you verbalize, you add more and more concepts or ideas. The reality is not a word or verb. The reality is what you experience. When you experience aches and pains or pleasure and happiness in or out of your meditation, you directly notice the experience exactly as it is. You don't need a conceptual bridge between your experience and direct knowledge. When you are hungry, you experience hunger without saying: "I am hungry, I am hungry."
You need nouns and verbs only to communicate your experience. When you meditate you observe total silence, not trying to talk to anybody about your experience. You should know yourself exactly as you are. You should feel yourself exactly as you are.
From babyhood through college, we learn to use words, concepts and ideas to make others understand us. But during meditation you are not trying to express your experience to anybody. By training your mind to remain silent, you make it silent. If you add more words to the mind, the mind simply remains busy.
We all have noticed people sitting or walking down the street carrying on a monologue with themselves. They cannot silence their minds. This is an extreme example of being unable to still thoughts. But in our own way, we wrestle with this in daily life and in meditation. It comes down to this; unless you try, you can never stop all that thinking. You still the thoughts only when you determine to do so.
Pay total attention to what you experience through the six senses without labeling what arises. There are certain things you experience for which no words are necessary. You simply know them. Your mind knows them. You stay with this knowing. When you feel cold, the normal habit is to say to yourself, "Gee, it is cold." When you feel hot, you automatically think, "Boy, it is hot." Simply pay attention to the cold you feel without this additional thought. Simply feel the heat without verbalizing the experience. When you remember visiting a place, or talking to someone, or eating ice cream or holding someone by the hand, simply become aware of those objects of your memory.
You need to gain full concentration to stop your thoughts. You do this by paying total attention to one object at a time. If you start the practice by focusing your mind exclusively on one object, gradually you condition your mind to overcome discursive thoughts by sustaining initial contact with the object.
When you listen to your heartbeat you don't need concepts to feel this subtle occurrence. Similarly, during meditation as you pay total attention to your in-breathing and out-breathing, you can notice the beginning, middle, and end of each inhaling and each exhaling. You can notice the brief pause between inhaling and exhaling. You can notice these natural occurrences in your breath if you pay total attention to them.
The mind moves so rapidly yet we can train it to notice these events exactly as they happen because they happen in succession. If you conceptualize these occurrences then you will be unable to notice them. Instead, you hang on to the words and miss the actual experience. You don't have to say, "This is the beginning of breathing in," or "This is the middle" or "This is the end." Simply notice these stages. You don't need thought to notice them. All you need is attention.
By no means do we become a vegetable when we still our thoughts. A quiet mind is receptive to insight. And you can stop the thought process by systematically training the mind.
I use the phrase "quieting the mind" or "silencing the mind" to mean not having thought in the mind, but this does not mean slowing down the mind like slowing down a body's metabolism during hibernation. It simply means not having thought-creating habits in the mind.
The brain does not manufacture thoughts unless we stimulate it with habitual verbalizing. When we train ourselves by constant practice to stop verbalizing, the brain can experience things as they are. By silencing the mind, we can experience real peace. As long as various kinds of thoughts agitate the brain, we don't experience 100 percent peace.
Peace is not a thought, not a concept, it is a nonverbal experience. One can stay in this peaceful state up to seven days. But before one attains such a totally peaceful state of mind, one should gradually train oneself to slow down thoughts. Once slowed down, thoughts fade away and no more new thoughts are fed into the brain.
Even while not meditating, we experience many things deeply for which often there are no words. We may try to find a word or verb for that experience. We may call it intuition. Yet intuitions may arise with no associated words or concepts. You can also listen to sounds without any words arising in the mind. It is said the best way to enjoy music is to listen to music. While hearing music, you listen to the sound without trying to verbalize the sound. Or consider how you listen to a bird's song; you don't verbalize the sound. You may say "The robin sings like this..." but that is your imagination.
This means that even outside of meditation you can experience many very subtle things simply by paying total attention to your senses. Most of the time, we verbalize things after we have experienced them, not while experiencing them. But when you pay total, nonverbal attention to something, you gain concentration which is not possible by verbalizing. Words stimulate the mind. Therefore the mind keeps producing more and more words and we express them in thoughts. By nonverbal attention, you can minimize the number of words you use. When the words are minimized, thoughts are minimized. Finally, this process makes the mind truly free from thoughts. But if you don't minimize the words, you can't free the mind from thoughts.
When you experience something, if you don't try to translate the experience into words you simply have the experience, not thoughts. Sights, sounds, smells, tastes, touch, they can all be experienced directly without words. When you use words, you block your direct experience of sensory objects.
After all, it is not the words that make you experience what you experience. Suppose the color white appears before your eyes. The whiteness reflects on your eyes. The minds knows it as it is. Only if you want to express what you have seen do you really need words. Yet whiteness is not a word, but what it is. Blackness is not a word, but what it is. The same is true for sweetness, bitterness, sourness, toughness, and everything in your experience.
The brain does not manufacture thoughts from nothing. It has to be fed something to use as raw material for manufacturing thoughts. The raw material is what you have fed to it in the past. If you do not feed it words, if you have trained it by avoiding verbalization, the brain cannot manufacture thoughts from a vacuum.