02/06/2013 05:35 pm ET Updated Apr 08, 2013

Does the Mind Stop Thinking?

The Dalai Lama said that Buddhism is not a religion, but a science of mind. Buddhist practices are based in the remarkably simple observation that life is marked by dissatisfaction and impermanence. Dissatisfaction and impermanence are clearly the fuel the runs our economy. The Buddha taught that there is no self -- that who we think ourselves to be is a mirage. Dissatisfaction and impermanence seem obvious. No self is difficult. Belief in the solid existence of myself and others is the very core human experience and the basis for the game of life.

There is a widely accepted cliché that the Western mind is outward looking while the Eastern mind is inward looking. That idea is an oversimplification. It is the human mind that doesn't want to turn inward. The human mind does not want to simply feel the way it feels.

There are a surprising number of meditation techniques. I keep it really simple, just sitting quietly, paying attention to the breath and consciously shifting my mind's attention from the scheming brain to the anxious body. I used to think I'd succeed at meditation and my mind would stop thinking. This doesn't happen. The brain thinks as regularly as the heart beats and it thinks all sort of unpredictable things. To keep my brain from running wild, I use every crutch I can find. I use mala beads to remind me to engage my hands in awareness of the breath. I do a four breath anchor devised by Thich Nhat Hahn, in-out, deep-slow, calm-ease, smile-release. Meditation is about maximizing awareness of the movement of the body mind. If I don't use my crutches I find myself deep in a daydream. Every tool I use to focus helps me recognize that thinking arises from an inexplicably empty but aware space. There is no self in that aware space, only awareness.

I used to be ambitious about meditation -- disciplining myself to sit longer than I felt comfortable. I didn't find that helpful and found useless distractions that were most certainly not helpful. Twenty minutes once or twice a day is long enough that I can really relax and short enough that I really enjoy it. It serves as a reminder to come back to the simple feeling of breathing when I feel stress.

Meditation is said to work in stages: The first stage brought about from stopping and being with the breath is shamatha, or calm. Calm allows for Vipassana -- insight. There's a temptation to get cosmic about just what it is that constitutes insight. My experience suggests that insight comes in two varieties. The first insight involves the stress of daily life, recognition that I'm getting myself worked up over trivial events. Then there is the insight that comes from the deeper impact of horrors like the Sandy Hook shooting. Like everyone, I experienced the heartbreak of it followed by my mind bursting aflame with blame and solutions. To arm or disarm, that becomes the question.

I live in Oklahoma City. The aftermath of the Murrah Building bombing was a memorable tribute to the innate goodness of the human heart. For months the city was a kinder, gentler place. During that period I heard Billy Graham on the radio. He said that we all had a choice to make. We could let the tragedy harden our hearts, or we could let it soften them. I find that as I sit with tragedy, my mind cools and my heart warms. As I witness my individual mind I understand that I can't control it. It thinks as it thinks and I can't control it. I can only be mindful of it. Nobody can control their minds. We can only do what we can to be mindful and responsible. The Buddha simply described the facts of life and made a simple prescription to help us cope with them. I've come to regard meditation as a basic human responsibility.

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