Throughout our lives many have and will tell us how best to live: what views to hold, what behaviours to adopt, what to perceive as right and wrong and so forth. Good or bad, if these influences persist long enough, the mind, with its ability to conceptualise, crystallise, model and predict will inevitably weave these views into the mechanisms we use to define the world around us.
While everyone is largely free to choose what views they hold, feeding these views with the energies of belief and unquestioningly adhering to them in thought and action can cause them to overpower the very mind that formed them. They become rigid, inflexible and absolute, laying the path to fundamentalism, obscurity and varying degrees of general unpleasantness.
Naturally, an alternative/substitutive view or belief structure offered by this or that individual or group that would allegedly remedy the situation is, in itself, a contradiction – to borrow the essence of several parables, one can’t remove tea leaves from water by putting more tea in the pot. The concepts and views are only symptomatic – it is the continued act of conceptualisation and of holding views that clouds awareness.Thus, practicing a negative method – quietening the views that are already there – may help to clear the water, so to speak.
To be clear, ‘negative’ in this context does not suggest contradictory or nihilistic. In this ‘negative’ method, one does not deny or refute one’s beliefs; such dramatic introspection would only lead to self-doubt and would make one exceedingly upset at oneself. Further, as a method (an action), it does not seek to substitute alternatives. It is a temporary but sincere effort that does not confront but allows space and perspective.
The temporary silencing of all views without the subsequent substitution of new views is a means to become aware of thought patterns that have become so habitual that the thinker has forgotten he/she was sustaining them. One can only determine if a window is clean or dirty if one is aware that they’re looking through it.
Practising the method is simple and approaches are diverse. A personal favourite derives from the practice of shikantaza:
Set aside 10 minutes or more in which you commit to silence. Gradually but diligently seek to become fully aware of your immediate surroundings. Note the experiences flowing through each sensory channel – the rhythm of your breathing, gravity pulling down, the floor pushing up, the sounds near and far, all impressions in your visual field (whether your eyelids are open or not, does not affect this) and so on. As thoughts and feelings arise, treat them as sense objects – experience them, study them, or redouble attention on your surroundings – but do not react to them with more thought or emotion and they will settle and pass. If you find yourself getting bored, it’s unlikely you’re paying full attention to the task. After the time set aside is up, simply stretch continue with your day. This method will not give you new insights or answer any questions, but hopefully, it will help clean the figurative windows of the mind.
It’s no secret that the negative method is at the core of many meditative traditions, in particular Buddhist practices. Find out more!