“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 (pronounced "chee gung") to heal from clinical depression, low back pain, anxiety, and chronic fatigue. Today, I'm the director of Flowing Zen, an international organization with students in 48 counties. I've been teaching qigong since 2005, I've served on the board for the National Qigong Association, and I’ve helped thousands of people to use qigong for their own stubborn health challenges. If you're ready to get started with qigong, there's no better way than my best selling book, which comes with free videos and meditations. The sooner you read my book, the sooner you can start healing! Click here to see my book on Amazon.
Or maybe you CAN play the Schoenberg violin concerto, but you’d rather not 😜😂
Just kidding! Great post 👍
Sifu Anthony Korahais says
Probably a bit of both! 🙂
Norm Roach says
Great post, Sufu. Thank you.
This post was enjoyable, and …enlightening!
Sifu Anthony Korahais says
Richard Abbott says
Do you have any products for those who want to learn gi gong this year without having to wait for the online school to open again to get started?
Sifu Anthony Korahais says
Hi Richard. Yes and no. You can see all of my current courses here: https://flowingzen.mykajabi.com/
I’m working on some new courses to hold people over as they wait for Qigong 101 enrollment to open. Get on my email list for details. (You can get on the list by taking the free class in the link above.)
Conceding that it’s outside both our realms of experience, I can only wonder from a theoretical perspective, but 0 tpm sounds closer to being brain dead than enlightened.
Thank you for this important message and the helpful TPM analogy. Since, as you say, we can’t expect to meditate at 0 TPM, then it’s helpful to avoid being disappointed with ourselves or dissatisfied with our practice session when we discover we still have background thoughts. On the contrary, we can be happy that this very act of discovery, of being able to observe our thoughts as they occur, is an indication that our meditation is on the right track! Don’t you agree, Sifu?
Sifu Anthony Korahais says
Hi Libby! I totally agree!
Great explanation, thank you. It makes this “empty mind” thing many people think they must have to be meditating correctly much easier to debunk and explain to others.
This post made me laugh but is really useful. I am asked the same question very often. I just don’t think it is a good idea to start counting TPMs while meditating. Or at least I am not going to start that counting. Maybe it’s just better not to cling to them. Or in case of moving meditation, just try to focus on one at the time.
Anyway it is a good way to help people understand that there is nothing wrong with them if they have thoughts.
Thank you and keep meditating, and please don’t stop thinking, otherwise I will miss your posts.
Sifu Anthony Korahais says
Ha! I didn’t mean to imply that you should start counting TPMs! It’s just an analogy!
Food for thought
Matt Elliott says
Great article! I’ve been meditating for two years, every day for 30 minutes, and I have days where I’m feeling like it’s my first time ever doing it. Then thoughts of frustration come in from not being able to quiet my mind, and Bam!, More thoughts, LOL! Coming back from that downward spiral is a challenge, but I have done it before, giving me motivation to keep at it. I can see where it can take a LONG time of dedicated practice to reduce the TPM.
Jody San Antonio, TX says
Thank you Sifu Anthony for clarifying such an important topic! I always find myself thinking more if I contemplate my needs or desires just before meditation. Then I might find myself in sort of a prayer mode wanting to converse. But to prevent this, I try to just to focus on the energy of feeling happy or feeling good (smiling from the heart) for the next 15 minutes or so. So now, in the event I carry too many thoughts during my meditation, oh well, I’ll just try to enjoy those thoughts as well! Happy Meditating!
In the early days of my practice a fellow practitioner taught me that thoughts will always come and that I should allow them as useful (thoughts about breathing cycles) or useless (thoughts about bills or vanilla pudding) and to observe the useful and discard the useless. This practice has really helped me quiet the Monkey Mind considerably.
Hi! I am actually happy to be with my thoughts 🙂 My meditation goes something like this: breath in, ( belly expand) -breath out ( belly pulls in)….. every breath brings awareness of where I am tight, tense, sore, hurt, … it’s healing, dissolving stresses,melting resistance.. and sometimes when there is a general feeling of expanding the whole body and sinking with the breath I float ( feeling more like a bird on an air current).. after a moment or two I get new ideas or new feelings about people and things .. the new ones are good, are gratitude, and happiness….
This may take half hour, or more, and then I start my qigong with that feeling of expansion and sinking carrying through…. I aim for nothing in particular, just follow my feelings.. that feels great!
Thank you Sifu, for opening up this discussion and making me feel good!
Lisa Billing says
Awesome article. So what is the deal with teachers saying “think of nothing” or “empty your mind”? Even using one thought to overcome 10,000 is not that helpful, because I can watch my breath, focus on my body, AND have random thoughts with sub-thoughts happening. But I will now feel pretty good if I’m able to calm or slow the TPM. Thank you Sifu!!!
Stan Cohen says
Great article Anthony. We were just having this discussion in class the other day.
Tom Judge says
Your meditation teaching has served me VERY WELL. I just had 2 stints put in the main artery of my heart. Turns out I had been having mild heart attacks the past 5 weeks, primarily around 4 a.m. but sometimes during the day. With each episode I would go to a meditative state and slowly breath in thru nose and out thru mouth directing my Dantan to absorb the pain. It would ease off within a few minutes. This worked so well that my first trip to emergency was not diagnosed as heart attack but a bacteria infection in colon causing heart enzyme to elevate giving false impression of heart attack. 5 days later pain was lasting too long. Emergency found main heart artery 90% blocked and my collesteral has never been an issue other than good collesteral too low. Cardiologist wanted me to enter physical rehab until she understood I had been doing over one hour of Qigong before Irma and would get back to daily routines immediately. Had I not fallen off the wagon with Irma this stent probably would not have been necessary
Sifu Anthony Korahais says
Wow Tom. I’m so sorry to hear it! I’m glad you’re okay. It sounds like you may have even saved your life with qigong. Let me know how I can help you get back on the horse.
Ningma Jashi says
33 TPM? That’s nothing! I’m probably running at 120 TPM! 😝
Joking aside – great article! Thank you, Sifu 🙏
Just another opinion; not really my own, merely parroting – while this approach is valuable and valid; we know there are others. (i heard once a great teacher saying there are some 60,000 ways to meditate!) Such as ‘using one thought to conquer one thousand’. Mantra recitation or japa which makes the mind one pointed and prepares the way for a clearer, quieter mind. Another approach is simply this: gradually cease identifying with mind or thought. Let the mind get on with thinking but give no importance; starve it of attention. Similar to silently watching the mind. A further method is to inquire as to the nature of thought and it’s source and origin…
There are many methods. Point being to find the method one finds easiest and most effective and appealing. This changes over time, according to circumstance etc. Then: Use it! Consistently. Results will come in their own time if we practise sincerely. If we struggle with methods, we may practise earnestness. This has been a big aspect of my own practise; struggling with meditation and academic learning. Honesty, sincerity and burning aspiration.
Sorry, blathering again. Hopefully there’s something useful in these words for someone.
A five percent decrease in mental noise means a five percent increase in peace. Peace is our real nature. Let’s enjoy it by Being [ourselves]!
Ricardo Ibarra says
Congrats on yet another great post 🙂
As a Vipassana meditator, I would say that neither attaining to have zero thoughts nor lowering your TPM should be the goal of your meditation practice. Instead, we’d better focus on increasing awareness of the body, mind and feelings. This will certainly decrease your TPM and that could be a nice way to check on your progress, but don’t forget the goal of meditation goes far beyond shutting up your inner chatter or monkey mind, and it has more to do with increasing awareness and insight on the true nature of reality.
Blessing and healing chi from Mexico,
either, although it certainly is a ‘secondary effect’ of your meditation practice. To me, the goal of meditation is increasing awareness of your body, mind and feelings.
Sifu Anthony Korahais says
Thanks for the kind words, Ricardo.
We’re mainly dealing with qigong for health and vitality here, so the path is a bit different than Vipassana. The goal for the majority of my students is health and vitality.
An enlightening read for a beginner. It was good to hear that it’s not about perfection. This removes a lot of the pressure, thus I imagine reducing some of those extra TPM. Good job!
Sifu Anthony Korahais says
Removing some of the pressure is precisely what I was shooting for with this article. Glad it was helpful!
Thank goodness! I thought (no pun intended!) that it was just me! I might be able to relax now I know I’m not a failure!
Sifu Anthony Korahais says
You’re not a failure!
Ishan das says
There seems to be a consensus of opinion that having no thoughts is a positive value. Of course a stone has no thoughts. But we are not stones; we are human beings. People are attracted to the idea of becoming “zero” because their consciousness is filled with pain. When pure consciousness is gradually uncovered, it is a source of spiritual bliss. At that point thought is not a problem; it becomes the servant of pure consciousness. Thought is only a problem when it tries to find fulfillment in its own processes. That is the groping of the monkey mind. Fulfillment comes from a deeper level. Fulfillment is the inherent nature of being that is omnipresent. The Sanskrit word is “atmarama”. “Atma” refers to the deepest aspect of our being. And “rama” means self-satisfaction, or pleasure of being. Yoga actually means making a connection between the self and all that is. There are several yogic paths to this realization. Hatha yoga is the path that begins with great physical and mental restraint. It is for the least intelligent. A mother working in the kitchen may place her child in a crib to restrict its movements. But as the child matures, the restriction can be removed and the child can be given positive engagement. The more we grow, the less restriction is required. Similarly, the more we advance in any spiritual discipline, the more our thoughts are meaningful, productive and a source of harmony and pleasure, both to the thinker and those he interacts with. The qigong tradition has never been about stopping thought, but is about the cultivation of wholesome thinking, based on the ability to soften the heart and dwell in a state of unconditional love of self and others. This is the prerequisite to the ability to sense and work with the universal chi. Restraint is not about softening, but about hardening. It is counter- productive. A prisoner is restrained because he is unwholesome. As we soften, we gradually become more wholesome. And as we become more wholesome, restraint is less necessary. We can think all day and become instruments of love, harmony and beauty for making this a better world. There are other perspectives that are still deeper. But some would say that making distinctions between spirit and matter pertains to the subject of religious cosmology and the domain of blind faith. However, western technological advancement cannot provide empirical evidence that chi exists; but we are all after it. Like religious cosmology, it appears to be a matter of personal realization. The beginner is in the blind faith category. By practice, everything comes into focus.
Hare Krishna! Ishan das
Ishan das says
Here is a quote from the book HEALING LIGHT OF THE TAO, by Mantak Chia, who is very highly regarded in the world of qigong as a teacher and master of the art/science:
“The true goal of all meditation is pure awareness or enlightenment, which produces a higher vibration, light, or frequency in our life force. The Universal Tao approach accumulates, circulates, and refines life-force energy to enhance all bodily functions, including the production of spiritual energies that derive from our organs and glands. Instead of silencing the mind, this system uses it to increase the flow of chi throughout the body, enhancing our health and our spiritual growth. ”
So once again, silencing the mind is for those who don’t know what to do with it in a productive way. This idea of silencing the mind has been introduced by Eastern teachers who view all conceptuality as illusion.
If we have a large negative balance on our credit card, that is a liability. And it is undoubtedly good to bring it up to a zero balance. However, having a positive or “credit” balance on our card is even better, because that is an asset. So zero is a relief from a suffering condition. But it is not on the platform of a positive interaction with life. In the same way, “no thought” is a refuge from psychological discomfort; but it is not the basis of healthful, wholesome social interaction that all of us aspire for every day of our lives. Flowing Zen abides in the context of unconditional love which is inherently a relational context; as opposed to the negation of selfhood, or no mind.
Francois Leblanc says
Thank you, very kindly for explaining, I have a much better understanding about reducing, thinking. Now I can explore meditation much better.
I really needed to hear that! Thank you Sifu Anthony and everyone who added their thoughts.