“When I try to do my qigong, I just can’t seem to let go of my thoughts,” she said. “My mind doesn’t shut up. Am I supposed to be thinking nothing at ALL?”
This question came from one of my Qigong 101 students. It’s a good question, and a common one. I get it not just from qigong students, but also practitioners of yoga, sitting meditation, and tai chi.
If I had to venture a guess, I’d say that I’ve probably received this question at least 300 times since I started teaching in 2005.
So why don’t I have a blog post answering this question, you ask?
Another good question! Let’s fix that now, shall we?
But first, a story!
I Think I Might Be Enlightened
The year was 1991. I was attending a lecture at Columbia University by Professor Robert Thurman, a famous Buddhist scholar.
Professor Thurman isn’t just book smart. He’s also one of the first Westerners to be ordained as a Tibetan Buddhist monk. Oh, and he’s also friends with the Dalai Lama.
So he knows a thing or two about meditation.
“I had an awakening experience last week,” the student said. “I think I might be enlightened.”
Giggles filled the lecture hall. It was obvious to all of us that this dude was stoned. I think it was obvious to Professor Thurman too, but he listened patiently.
“What’s your name?” Professor Thurman asked.
“Tell me more, Dan.”
Dan explained how, since his awakening experience, he had been 100% thought free.
“The chatter in my head…you know, the radio station…it’s just, like, gone.”
“And how long has it been gone?”
“Since my awakening…like 6 days,” he said earnestly.
“So no chatter for 6 days?” Professor Thurman clarified.
Professor Thurman nodded but didn’t say anything. He paced around the front of the hall pensively, as if mulling something over in his mind. But his silence lasted longer than any of us expected, and all 50 or so Columbia students started to squirm in their seats.
Finally, after what felt like 10 minutes but was probably just 1 minute, Professor Thurman turned around suddenly and looked at Dan again.
“How about now?” he said.
Laughter erupted throughout the room, but Professor Thurman was still focused on Dan.
Dan considered the question deeply and looked as if he were meditating with his eyes open.
“I think you’re right,” he said finally, as if it were just him and Professor Thurman in the room. “I still have thoughts.”
“Don’t be ashamed, Dan,” Professor Thurman said. “Maybe you did have an awakening of some sort. But having no mental chatter at all — that’s perfect enlightenment you’re talking about, kid, and it’s a long way off for most of us, myself included.”
Mrs. Schupack, Zen Master
My first experience with meditation was in 5th grade. I think that my teacher, Mrs. Schupack, might have been a Zen master in disguise.
“I dare you to think of nothing for 60 seconds,” she said to the class. “No thoughts whatsoever for 60 seconds. Go ahead. Close your eyes and try it.”
I was 10 years old, and I thought I was pretty clever. I closed my eyes, confident that I would nail this challenge.
“Easy peasy,” I thought to myself.
“Wait, that was a thought,” I thought.
“And so was that,” I thought.
“Okay, no more thoughts,” I thought.
I squeezed my eyelids tight and did my best to concentrate. And I had a pretty good run. My mind was quiet for a second or two.
But before I knew it, I was thinking about lunch. Specifically, I was thinking about the vanilla pudding cup that my mother had hopefully packed in my lunch bag. I was thinking about popping the can open and licking the metal top carefully to get the delicious pudding….
“Time’s up!” Mrs. Schupack said.
“No way!” I thought. I felt defeated. It seemed like such an easy thing to do, but I had failed miserably.
“Anyone succeed?” she asked, a wry smile forming on her lips.
“I did,” Timothy said. I and several other students chuckled. There was NO WAY that Timothy had succeeded. He was full of you-know-what!
“No you didn’t,” Mrs. Schupack said confidently. “Because it’s impossible.”
She went on to explain that having zero thoughts for 60 seconds was not humanly possible.
Later, as I was eating my delicious vanilla pudding, I thought about what Mrs. Schupack had said. Was it really impossible to turn off your thoughts for 60 seconds?
33 Thoughts Per Minute
I’ve heard that the average human has over 50,000 thoughts per day. That’s over 2000 thoughts per hour, or 33 thoughts per minute!
This rings true to me — 33 thoughts per minute.
We’ll come back to this number because I think it’s useful for both beginners and seasoned meditators.
In the Zen tradition, we call this the Monkey Mind:
- The Monkey Mind is the radio station that Dan thought was forever gone from his head (but wasn’t).
- The Monkey Mind is the chatter that I heard in my own 10-year-old mind.
- The Monkey Mind is active in every human.
When people start to meditate, whether it’s sitting meditation or a form of moving meditation like qigong, they start to become aware of the Monkey Mind.
That’s what happened to me in Mrs. Schupack’s class. And that’s what happens to everyone who starts to meditate.
Does 33 TPM (Thoughts Per Minute) sound like a lot to you?
If you haven’t practiced meditation, then it probably does.
But if you’ve practiced meditation, you’re probably nodding your head and thinking, “sounds about right.”
Without a base level of meditative skill, it’s hard to be aware of all 33 thoughts. Your mind moves so fast that you can only track some of them, maybe not even half.
Then, with practice, you start to discover what I call thought clusters.
What at first seemed like one thought is actually a whole cluster of sub-thoughts.
For example, my 10-year-old brain started to think about vanilla pudding. But underneath that thought were many sub-thoughts, like, “it’s almost lunchtime,” and “I’m hungry.”
There were even non-verbal thoughts, like the muscle memory of opening the can of pudding. This was something I had done countless times — something I could feel in my fingers.
All of that forms a thought cluster. It’s several thoughts, not just one.
If we include thought clusters, then 33 TPM is a good example of what most people can expect when starting to meditate.
The goal of meditation is to gradually quiet the Monkey Mind.
You can think of this as gradually lowering your thoughts per minute from 33 TPM down to 1 TPM. But as Professor Thurman said, this is a lifetime of work.
Wait, what about 0 TPM?
I won’t even talk about reaching 0 TPM because it’s so advanced and so far from my own realm of experience that it’s practically meaningless.
In other words, even after decades of meditation practice, I still don’t worry about 0 TPM.
This was Dan’s mistake. He thought that, at the tender age of 19, with very little meditation experience, he had somehow catapulted himself to 0 TPM.
Sorry, Dan. You did good, but not 0 TPM good.
I do suspect that Mrs. Schupack was wrong and that 0 TPM is actually possible. But we’re probably talking about a tiny percentage of people in all of human history.
Are You a Child Prodigy?
Here’s what beginners and intermediate students really need to understand:
You don’t play the Schoenberg Violin Concerto after 1 year of practice.
You don’t even play it after 3 years of practice.
If you are a child prodigy, then MAYBE you play it after 10 years of practice. Maybe. And in that case, you’re one of the best violinists who’s ever lived.
The truth is that most violinists will never be able to play it. Not ever.
But this doesn’t mean that they can’t be amazing violinists! They absolutely can!
And that’s my message to you. You can be an amazing meditator without ever reaching 0 TPM.
In fact, you should probably stop thinking about 0 TPM altogether.
What’s Your TPM?
Dan thought he was suddenly and permanently at 0 TPM. Thanks to Professor Thurman’s ingenious teaching method, Dan realized that he wasn’t there yet.
Similarly, at the age of 10, with my first real attempt at meditation, I was aiming for 0 TPM. I was doomed to fail.
The student at the very beginning of this post, the woman who asked if she’s supposed to be thinking nothing at all — she was also aiming for 0 TPM.
Let me be clear: 0 TPM is not the goal.
Instead of aiming for 0 TPM, just aim to lower your TPM by 1 or 2 points every year.
That’s it. Just 1-2 TPM lower per year. That’s enough.
This is enough to get the many benefits of meditation, which is what you’re really after, right?
You want to be less anxious, to be more present, to have less pain, to have more energy, and to be happier, right?
Lowering your TPM, even by just 1 or 2 points, will start to bring you those benefits.
How To Spot a Fake Master
I’m of the opinion that most people who talk about being enlightened probably aren’t.
Here’s how you can tell.
Ask them if they are able to clear their mind 100%.
In other words, ask them if they are at 0 TPM. If they answer yes, then they’re probably fake. Go find another teacher.
(Of course, they might ACTUALLY be enlightened, in which case, sorry! You just missed an opportunity to learn from a living Buddha! My bad!)
Every meditation master that I’ve learned from admits that they are not yet at 0 TPM. In other words, even world-renowned meditation masters still can’t “think of nothing”.
But don’t let this fool you. These people are still INCREDIBLY skillful.
For example, someone who can repeatedly and reliably get to, say, 5 TPM — now that’s someone who deserves your respect!
The Bottom Line
Here are the key points of this post:
- Your mind absolutely should NOT be totally empty when meditating, whether it’s qigong, yoga, sitting meditation, or tai chi.
- Stop trying to “think of nothing”.
- Instead, just try to lower your Thoughts Per Minute (TPM) by 1-2 points.
- Remember that, in the beginning, you might feel like your TPM is increasing rather than decreasing. This is because meditation practice enables you to be aware of thought clusters.
- Most of us start at about 33 TPM (including thought clusters).
- You’ll start to reap the benefits of meditation even if you lower your TPM by 1 or 2 points.
- Most people who claim to be enlightened probably aren’t. Your miles may vary.
So there you go. There are my thoughts about…well…thoughts!
What do you think? Did you find my TPM analogy helpful? Let me know in the comments below! Best regards, Sifu Anthony I’m Anthony Korahais, and I used qigong to heal from clinical depression, low back pain, anxiety, and chronic fatigue. I’ve already taught thousands of people from all over the world how to use qigong for their own stubborn health challenges. As the director of Flowing Zen and a board member for the National Qigong Association, I'm fully committed to helping people with these arts. In addition to my blog, I also teach online courses and offer in-person retreats and workshops.