2 Essential Elements of Zen Philosophy That Are Easy To Adopt, and Can Make a Big Difference In Your Life

Zen Philosophy can be quite vast, and thus, intimidating. But the gems are there. To ease your search a little, here are two of them...

Man suffers only because he takes seriously what the gods made for fun. ~ Alan Watts Click To Tweet

The mind is an amazing, complex instrument that can not only create reality, but help you navigate the world around you with discretion, discernment and critical thinking. Its attributes (along with its provenance) have intrigued scientists and spiritual seekers alike for centuries.

The most interesting characteristic? Thought, of course.

Despite the benefits of positive thinking and using thought as a creative force, many spiritual teachers believe that beyond the stream of thought lies enlightenment and endless higher states of consciousness.

We’re unaware of them because the mind is locked firmly in its own reality. It’s a problem we can solve by either quieting it or becoming aware of our thoughts as they happen, and watching where they take us.

Non-Thought and Self-Awareness: Shining a Light on the Inner Self

Here, we’ll explore two common concepts in Buddhism and other philosophies: the state of self-awareness (aka awareness of your thoughts) and the open-minded state of ‘non-thought’.

These concepts shine a light on the inner self and discourage searching the material world for what can only be found within, and they complete the puzzle for those who are generally spiritually aware but don’t know what to do next.

The ones who benefit the most are probably those who learn in the beginning that despite how fascinating it all is, the mind, the stream of thought and the world around them are temporary and true satisfaction comes from keeping a foot in both worlds – the mental and the spiritual.

To plant your foot firmly in the spiritual, you need only to calm the mind and hush the constant thoughts that bring your attention away from the inner self.

Self-awareness helps by increasing your discernment and bringing your attention to the power you give your thoughts, and together, the two will allow you to live in a wholesome way that opens you to the inner self and inspires you to improve the world around you.

Your Environment Conditions Your Mind

Before we discuss non-thought and self-awareness further, I’d like to share some thoughts from three different spiritual teachers about the mind. Some teachers condemn the mind as a distraction from enlightenment, but others praise it for its incredible powers.

According to Jiddu Krishnamurti, the mind and the personality are results of the conditioned environment in which we’re all raised. The mind sustains itself on identification, sensations or anything that reinforces its conditioned identity, and it panics when its existence is threatened.

It clings to patterns of thought and established ways of being because they keep it alive, and in doing so, it shields itself from truth. He believes that as long as we continue to allow mind to be conditioned by the past, it will never lead us to enlightenment. (1)

The Mind Machine

Krishnamurti likens the mind to a machine that strives to stay busy for the sake of its own survival. Different parts of the mind conflict with each other because each component is interested in controlling some aspect of our life, and this is why we have conflicting desires that often cause frustration.

You could refer to the aspect of the mind that tries to help you better yourself as the ‘higher self’ and the egotistical, self-centered aspect as the ‘lower self’, but they both comprise the same limited mind and transcending them could be the key to spiritual evolution.

The thoughts that come from both of these aspects are basically automatic, and trying to control them creates friction while dissipating your energy. (2)

Note that the ‘higher self’ that Krishnamurti refers to is likely different from the ‘higher self’ often discussed in the spiritual or new age communities. The latter is believed to be an aspect of your consciousness that exists in a higher state beyond the mind and guides you through life.

The ‘higher self’ described by Krishnamurti is a general interpretation of the positive components of the mind focused on self-growth and service to humanity. The difference is subtle but noteworthy, and one can potentially help more than the other.

Being at ease with not knowing is crucial for answers to come to you. ~ Eckhart Tolle Click To Tweet

The Mind Requires Motion

Bodhidharma tells us that the sole purpose of the mind is to be in motion. There is no mind when there is no motion, and while the two exist independently, they can’t exist without each other.

Mind requires motion to survive and motion requires mind to have an instrument through which to move, which makes the two of them independent yet contradictorily interdependent. When we calm the mind, motion ceases and we become open to an enlightened state. (3)

The world doesn’t stir, he tells us, when the mind is calm. This is because the world is a creation of the mind that consistently reflects what we think and feel. Therefore, a calm mind creates a calm world and a relatively easy life. (4)

The Space between Thought

Sadhu Arunachala writes that Sri Ramana Maharshi taught him of the nature of thought and non-thought.

He was taught that no single thought is continuous; each one manifests as a quick flash and never fully plays out but different ones flash constantly, making the stream of thought comparable to light from a light bulb that seems continuous but actually flickers.

The stream of thought is rapid and continuous, and focusing on the space between each thought rather than the thoughts themselves brings healing and transformation. (5)

You can gather from what we’ve learned so far that the mind can be ‘good’ or ‘bad’. It can encourage or inhibit spiritual growth, and what we get out of it depends on how we use it.

If we focus on its higher or lower aspects, we’ll struggle with conflicting desires. If we transcend that duality and seek refuge in the space between our flickering thoughts, we’ll discover the way out of the suffering caused by spiritual unawareness.

This brings us back to self-awareness and non-thought.

An Overactive Mind Creates Negativity

Small periods of isolation from the stream of thought can make a profound impact on your understanding of yourself, your outlook on life and your willingness to create a better world, and it’s tragic that so many people don’t have enough time to slow down the mind and enter a meditative state.

Stress, frustration, anger, hate, bitterness and other forms of negativity result from an overactive mind that can’t stop moving because its pilot is unaware of the space of non-thought about which Maharshi informed Arunachala.

If you’re unaware such a space exists, then naturally, you’ll never experience it because you’ll never try to experience it. The world you see in front of you will be your only reality, and the ceaseless thought stream that dictates your experience of it will be your only connection with your inner universe.

It would be tragic, because you’d remain unaware of blissful states of consciousness that exist just beyond your thoughts and you’d miss out on the greatest source of healing available to humankind.

The mind creates the abyss, the heart crosses it. ~ Nisargadatta Click To Tweet

Non-Thought Is Not Thoughtless

I’m not suggesting you spend long periods of time in a state of thoughtlessness, because the challenges the world throws at us often require us to be mentally sharp.

Even if you spend less than fifteen minutes a day in a meditative space in which you can relax the mind and refrain from thinking about anything, the peace it will connect you with will subtly but permanently change your life over time.

It’ll inspire you to give more of yourself to a world that you’ll sense is changing or evolving in some way, and you’ll likely notice a positive change in yourself.

I noticed a change when I first tried meditation and received wonderful vibrational visions and sensations, and my understanding of thought and the nature of the inner universe has never been the same.

I have meditation and the space of non-thought to thank for what I now know, and if others could open up to it, they’d be pleasantly surprised to find it’s just what they need.

Self-Awareness and Impulsiveness

Self-awareness works hand in hand with non-thought to ensure the stream of thought doesn’t lead you away from enlightenment or inner peace. Even when being aware of non-thought, you’ll still be tempted to stray from inner peace, and the decision to stray is usually impulsive.

Impulsiveness causes bad decisions even for spiritual seekers, who are just as susceptible to temptation and negative influence as anyone else. Self-awareness creates awareness of impulsive thoughts and desires, thereby helping you heal them.

It essentially saves you from yourself, or to put it more appropriately, it saves you from your own mind.

Self-Awareness and Introspection

Not to mention that it changes how you see the world by making you aware that your thoughts, attitudes and decisions determine what you get out of life.

A positive attitude goes a long way if you want to remain heart-centered in the midst of life’s challenges, but even though your attitude determines your quality of life, being positive isn’t enough. Self-awareness completes the puzzle by giving you the space to explore why you feel negative and actually heal it, instead of just ignoring it.

When you’re aware of your reactions and responses to the world around you, which are driven primarily by your thoughts, you can become aware of your power to create a heavenly or hellish world depending on what you choose to see.

Together with an open mind and a temporarily silenced stream of thought, you can invite a higher power to influence your thoughts in the future and the life they help you create.

When I understand myself, I understand you, and out of that understanding comes love. ~ Krishnamurti Click To Tweet

Can Self-Awareness Cure Addiction?

Being aware of your thoughts makes you aware of the mechanisms in yourself that drive negative, habitual or addictive behavior, and you can then change the thoughts that divert you. In a meditative space of non-thought, you can uproot and heal the source of the addicting thought/desire and free up space for deeper states of self-awareness.

Uprooting the negative spiritual influences nestled in the minds of many will help you free yourself to explore those states and integrate what you learn therein into your life and the work you do to make the world a better place.

Self-awareness works with non-thought to help you unlock deeper states than the limited mind can fathom, but it’s an ongoing process that requires active and willing participation. In this case, the participation takes the form of meditation and introspection.


The value of non-thought and self-awareness can’t be overstated, and yet, they’re simple ideas that don’t require much explanation.

Once you become aware of your thoughts and begin to feel the meditative sensations that accompany non-thought, you’ll understand the beautifully complex simplicity of the whole thing as you explore a state of consciousness that results from your transcendence of thought.

Until you experience these states directly, you’re left with the aimless identity-driven mind and its unawareness of the inner self. To experience these states is to understand them, and when you do, you’ll recognize creativity, non-thought and self-awareness as the vehicles that bring them to you.


  1. Krishnamurti, Commentaries on Living. First Series. Bombay, etc.: B.I. Publications, 1972; c1974, 24.
  2. Krishnamurti, Commentaries on Living. Second Series. Wheaton, IL: Theosophical Publishing House, 1967; c1958, 231.
  3. Red Pine, trans., The Zen Teachings of Bodhidharma. Port Townsend, WA, Empty Bowl, 1987, 21.
  4. Ibid, 27.
  5. Sadhu Arunachala (A.W. Chadwick), A Sadhu’s Reminiscences of Ramana Maharshi. Tiruvannamalai: Sri Ramanasramam, 1961, 38.

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