Calming Down Thoughts

Conceptual thought is indispensable. Without it, we’d be unable to differentiate objects in the store as either apples or pears, nor would we understand the phrase “Please give me two tickets for the show.” While we need conceptual thought in daily life, it can sometimes be an obstacle. For instance, to concentrate in meditation, we need to quiet down all the mental chatter and preconceptions of what we experience.

Quieting the Mind

To gain concentration we need to quiet our minds, so that, as some meditation instructions describe, we arrive at a more natural state of mind. To be clear, we’re not aiming to have a totally blank, zombie-like mind, like a radio that is turned off. If that were the case, it might be better to just sleep! The goal is to quiet all of our disturbing states of mind. Certain emotions are very disturbing, like being nervous, worried or frightened; our aim is to calm these down.

When we quiet our minds, the state of mind we’ll achieve is clear and alert, where we’re able to generate some love and understanding, or express the natural, human warmth we all have. This requires deep relaxation, not just of the muscles in the body but also of the mental and emotional tightness that can prevent us from feeling the natural warmth and clarity of the mind, or even anything at all.

Some people misunderstand meditation as meaning we have to stop thinking. Rather than stopping thinking, meditation should stop all the extraneous, unnecessary thinking, such as distracting thoughts about the future (“What am I going to have for dinner?”), and negative thinking (“You were so mean to me yesterday. You’re a horrible person!”). All of this falls under the category of mental wandering and disturbing thoughts.

To have a quiet mind, however, is just a tool; it’s not the final goal. When we have a calmer, clearer and more open mind, we can use it constructively. We can use it in daily life, and we can use it while sitting in meditation to try and gain a better understanding of our life situation. With a mind free from disturbing emotions and extraneous thoughts, we can think more clearly about important topics like, “What have I been doing in my life? What is going on with this important relationship? Is it healthy or unhealthy?” We can be analytical – this is called introspection. In order to understand these types of issues and to be introspective in a productive way, we need clarity. We need a calm, quiet mind, and meditation is a tool that can bring us to this state.

Conceptual and Non-Conceptual States of Mind

Many meditation texts instruct us to rid ourselves of conceptual thoughts and settle into a non-conceptual state. First of all, this instruction does not apply to all meditations. It refers specifically to an advanced meditation for focusing on reality. Nevertheless, there is one form of conceptuality that all types of meditation need to be rid of. But to understand the different forms of conceptuality discussed in meditation texts, we need to understand what Buddhism means by “conceptual.”

Conceptual Thought Does Not Refer Merely to the Voice in Our Heads

Some people think that being conceptual refers to the normal, everyday verbal thoughts that pass through our minds – the so-called “voice in our heads” – and that to become non-conceptual means simply to quiet that voice. Quieting the voice in our head is only a start – a very important start – but only the first step. It’s part of quieting our minds of extraneous disturbing thoughts in order to have a clearer and calmer mind. Others think that to really understand something, you need to understand it non-conceptually, and that conceptual thought and correct understanding are mutually exclusive. This is also not the case.

To untangle the complexities regarding conceptuality, we need first to differentiate verbalizing something in our thoughts from understanding something. We can verbalize something in our thoughts either with or without understanding it. For instance, we can mentally recite a prayer in a foreign language, either with or without understanding what it means. Similarly, we can understand something with or without being about to explain it mentally in words; for instance, how it feels to be in love.

The issue of conceptual versus non-conceptual states in meditation, however, is not an issue of understanding or not understanding something. In meditation, as well as in daily life, we always need to maintain understanding, whether conceptual or non-conceptual, and whether or not we mentally verbalize it. Sometimes verbalizing is helpful; sometimes it’s not useful at all or not even needed. For instance, tying your shoes: you understand how to tie your shoes. Do you need to actually verbalize what you do with this lace and that lace when you tie it? No. In fact, I think that most of us would have great difficulty describing in words how we tie our shoes. Nevertheless, we have understanding. Without understanding, we can’t do anything in life, can we? We can’t even open a door.

From many points of view, verbalization is in fact helpful; we need verbalization to be able to communicate to others. However, verbalization in our thinking is not absolutely necessary; but verbalization in itself is neutral, which means it can be used in a helpful or destructive way. There are, in fact, some useful meditations that involve verbalization. For instance, mentally repeating mantras is a form of verbalization that generates and maintains a certain type of rhythm or vibration in the mind. That regular rhythm of the mantra is very helpful; it helps us to stay focused on a certain state of mind. For example, when generating compassion and love, if you’re reciting a mantra like OM MANI PADME HUM, it’s a bit easier to stay focused on that loving state, although of course you can remain focused in a state of love without mentally saying anything. So verbalization itself is not the problem. On the other hand, of course, we certainly need to quiet our minds when they’re just chattering with useless verbiage.

Conceptual Thought Means Categorizing Things into Mental Boxes

If the issue of conceptuality is not an issue regarding verbalization or understanding, what is the issue? What is the conceptual mind and what does the meditation instruction mean when it tells us we need to rid ourselves of it? Does this instruction pertain to all stages and levels of meditation, as well as to daily life? It’s important to clarify these points.

Conceptual mind means thinking in terms of categories, by means of putting them into boxes, such as “good” or “bad,” “black” or “white,” “dog” or “cat.”

Now, certainly when we go shopping, we need to be able to distinguish between an apple and an orange, or between an unripe fruit and a ripe one. In such everyday cases, thinking in categories is not a problem. But there are other types of categories that are a problem. One is what we call a “preconception.”

An example of a preconception is: “I expect you always to be mean to me. You’re a terrible person because in the past you did this and that, and now I predict that, no matter what, you will continue to be a terrible person.” We have pre-judged that this person is awful and will continue to be awful toward us – that’s a preconception. In our thoughts, we put the person into the category or box “awful person.” And, of course, if we think that way, and we project onto someone the thought that, “He’s mean; he’s always terrible toward me,” then there’s a big block between us and that person. Our preconception affects how we relate to him. So preconception is a state of mind in which we categorize; we put things into mental boxes.

Being Non-Conceptual

There are many levels of non-conceptuality, but one level is to simply be open to a situation as it arises. Now, that doesn’t mean to drop all conceptual understanding. For instance, if there’s a dog that has bitten many people, then because of thinking in terms of the category “a dog that bites,” we’re careful around that dog. We have some reasonable caution around the animal, but we don’t have the preconception of, “That dog will definitely bite me, so I won’t even try to go near it.” There’s a gentle balance here between accepting the situation that is arising, while at the same time not having preconceptions that prevent us from experiencing the situation fully.

The level of non-conceptuality that is needed in all meditations is a mind that is free of preconceptions.

One of the most general instructions is to meditate without any expectations and without any worries. Preconceptions around a meditation session could be the expectation that your meditation session will go wonderfully, or the worry that your legs will hurt, or the thought, “I won’t be successful.” Those thoughts of expectation and worry are preconceptions, whether or not you mentally verbalize them. Such thoughts fit your upcoming meditation session into the mental box or category of “a fantastic experience” or “a painful experience.” A non-conceptual approach to meditation would be simply to accept whatever happens and deal with it according to the meditation instructions, without placing a judgment on the situation.


Without understanding the different types of conceptual thought, we can mistakenly imagine that all of it is detrimental for meditation and even for daily life. In most meditations, we need to quiet the voice in our heads and drop all preconceptions. But, except for the most advanced practitioners, understanding something, both within and outside meditation, requires fitting it in a mental category, whether or not we put it into words.

Original Audio from the Seminar