Trying to stop thinking is like telling the ocean to stop making waves

In many meditation practices there is a misconception that there is a need to “stop thinking” or “clear the mind” – that you will eventually reach a state of thoughtlessness with enough practice. 

I believe that this is an unrealistic goal and the primary reason why most beginning meditators get frustrated. Clearing the mind is not the point of meditation. 

Instead, the point is to notice the impermanent nature of thoughts. That thoughts, like the waves of the ocean, will constantly come and go. To learn to simply watch them pass instead of getting wrapped up into them. 

In this sense I like to look at the mind like the ocean. In the same way that the ocean will never stop making waves, your mind will never stop making waves of thought. 

Sometimes the waves are big, sometimes they are small. Sometimes they come in rapid quick succession, other times there is a lot of time in between one wave to the next. Size, frequency, force, speed all differ depending on the day  

The same is true of the mind. There will be some days when the waves of the mind are calm and not much is troubling you. There will be other days when the waves of the mind are crashing into shore full force. There will be times where you have a lot of space between thoughts, there will be other times where thoughts happen rapidly.

Just like the ocean, thoughts can be characterized by size, frequency, force, and speed. Big thoughts of questions you might not be able to answer, small inconsequential thoughts about your day. Rapid succession of thoughts or maybe one you stick with for a long time. Some that hit you with the emotional force of a knockout punch and others that don’t get any reaction at all.

Your thoughts are waves that will differ on a variety of circumstances depending on the day. 

This is backed by science too – when you look at the human brain under a EEG test you can measure it by….frequencies! (Aka waves!) No surprise that scientists literally refer to this as “brain waves”.

The Brainwaves

   Image: Ned Herrmann, The Creative Brain

When the brain is engaged in a specific task that requires intense thinking, it generates beta waves. These beta waves are of lower amplitude, and are the fastest of the four different brainwaves. The frequency of beta waves ranges from 15 to 40 cycles a second. A public speaker would often be in Beta. Someone analyzing data trends or working on mathematics would be in beta. Beta is more or less our “working state”.  

The next brainwave category in order of frequency is alpha. Alpha brainwaves are slower, and higher in amplitude. Their frequency ranges from 9 to 14 cycles per second. It’s the state most often correlated to relaxation. When you take a break from working and rest you will often go into alpha. Sitting in nature and listening to the sounds can often put someone into alpha. Deep breathing or relaxation techniques. 

The next state, theta brainwaves, are of greater amplitude and slower frequency. This frequency range is normally between 5 and 8 cycles a second. This state is usually associated with daydreaming or “zoning out” that often happens when the mind doesn’t need to focus on anything in specific at all. Not quite sleeping or dreaming yet…but close.

The final brainwave state is delta. Here the brainwaves are of the greatest amplitude and slowest frequency. This is usually associated with dreamless sleep. They typically center around a range of 1.5 to 4 cycles per second. 

The most important part to understand from these brainwaves?! 

Even in the most relaxed states of mind the waves don’t stop – they just slow down or become calmer.  

Just like the ocean, the mind has waves that never stop (if they did stop you would literally be brain-dead).

This understanding of how the mind works is important for us to have a healthier relationship with the thoughts that go through our heads. To give ourselves a break and realize that no matter how much meditating we do, we can’t stop waves from coming. We might be able to slow them down temporarily, but they will never cease altogether.  

It also shows us how these frequencies help each other and work together and rely upon one another.

You can’t get into alpha unless you’ve been in intense beta. You can’t walk around in delta all day if you want to generate creative ideas and be engaged in thinking work.

There are no waves that are better or worse, just different depending on the context needed for the mind. They all work interchangeably and synergistically.

The mind will never stop creating thoughts, and the ocean will never stop creating waves. Thus, it’s our job not to try and control the waves, but instead sit on the beach and watch them come and go to the best of our abilities. 

To learn how to swim or surf these waves as appropriate. To use the waves to our advantage as needed. To recognize their impermanent and passing nature. To appreciate when the waves are calm.

So the next time you’re frustrated with your relentless monkey mind realize that it’s normal and the waves today are choppy. Sit with those thoughts, watch them come and go, and wait for the low tides to come again.

Allow your mind to be the beautiful ocean that it is and ride the waves as best as you can 🙂 


Also published on Medium.

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