The Jar in Our Mind
by Larry Perkins
Many people begin meditation with a misconception of what meditation is or the benefits it can provide. Today, I'd like to discuss the misconception that meditation will stop your mind from thinking. This is akin to believing that because you have placed a mask on your face you would no longer be able to breathe, or by placing a glove on your hand you would no longer be able to grab things.
Just as your lungs provide a means to transfer oxygen from the air to your blood, and fingers provide a sense of touch—our minds serve a function as well: to create thoughts. But do not be discouraged, because through meditation you can learn to become aware of these thoughts and, in doing so, learn to identify less with them and be able to more clearly see them for what they are: the mental phenomenon of this existence.
Let us envision for a moment that your head is a large transparent jar of water. As you look into the jar, this is analogous to your perceiving the world around you through the thoughts in your mind. In this case, there are no thoughts that cloud your perception.
Now, let’s add some of these ‘thoughts.’ In our example, we will use confetti, some dirt, and food coloring. Just like the thoughts created by our minds, these items create a cloud through which we end up seeing the world. If we only added dirt and were to believe what we see, we would believe that the world is a dirty, muddy place. If we used confetti, we could be deluded into thinking that the world was some kind of party. And if we only add food coloring, we would be tricked into seeing that the world is shaded some color or another. If we do a mixture of these things, it would be more representative of the thoughts that are typically generated: there are some negative thoughts (like the dirt), there are some good thoughts (like the confetti), and there are thoughts that are colored by the past stories we have told ourselves and continue to believe.
As we live our lives, our mind creates thoughts based on the experiences we are involved in. This ‘churning’ keeps our thoughts swirling through our mind. In order for these things to settle in the jar, we have to put it on some flat, level surface. Similarly, in order for our minds to settle, we have to let them process the experiences we have had without adding more to them. This is where the sitting practice of meditation comes in. By sitting and following our breath, we are providing an opportunity for our minds to work through and sort out the experiences of our lives.
This settling isn’t an easy process. Because we have been conditioned to believe that the stories our thoughts present us are true, we will be distracted by the thoughts as they drift before our awareness. When that happens, we will respond and follow the thought—and that is okay and natural.
By being present with our breath, we can guide our attention and awareness away from the ever-present thoughts and allow them to work through themselves without carrying us along with them. The very fact we recognize that we have transitioned from being aware of the breath is where we are presented the choice: continue following the entrapping thought or return to the breath. It is always a choice, and one that we will experience over and over again each time we practice our meditation.
Bio: Larry Perkins is a Performance Improvement Coordinator in the Nuclear Industry who spent 11 years serving in the US Navy. He has been an informal student of meditation since 2010 when he first came across such influential persons as Alan Watts and Ram Dass (Richard Alpert). A spiritual non-theist, he has 2 daughters and 2 sons over the course of 2 marriages so he has a firm grasp on the role of duality in this incarnation. He became qualified as a volunteer Meditation Instructor for the New Leaf Meditation Project in December 2016 and serves on the New Leaf Board of Advisers. Everyday, Larry looks for opportunities to learn without boundaries and teach without preaching.