Usually we know there are lots of thoughts churning rapidly in our mind. However, this awareness is on the surface. What we notice are thoughts that are easy to detect. When we have the chance to practice the Chan method of concentration and insight and bring the mind to observe internally, we see more clearly the movement of so many more thoughts.
Some of these thoughts are wholesome, and some are not. Some are what we want to think, and some are what we do not want to think. The arising and ceasing of these numerous complex thoughts is so fleeting and chaotic that it is incredible sometimes, and they are not what we had imagined would occur. Nonetheless, the wandering thoughts just churn on like that.
Some people who are just beginning to learn sitting meditation are often surprised as they realize that not only haven’t wandering thoughts decreased as expected but these thoughts have seemed to increase. Actually, this is not so. Before one learns sitting meditation, wandering thoughts were as numerous as they are now, if not more. But because the mind was not trained in concentration and reflection, these thoughts came and went unnoticed. And even when noticed, they were only those that were coarse and on the surface of the mind and were not being seen clearly. Therefore, they did not attract a lot of attention. After one learns to sit and quiet the mind a little bit, external environment is somewhat “closed down”, and the function of inner reflection then becomes stronger. When one practices contemplating and gaining insight, one is able to see wandering thoughts more clearly.
This is actually making progress in practice, and it is good if it happens. Only when we do not understand the reason behind this apparent increase in wandering thoughts, do we become apprehensive and maybe afraid to practice further. However, as long as we understand the above explanation and do not pay attention to or become disturbed by wandering thoughts, only focusing instead on the practice method and applying the method of insight, the disturbance caused by wandering thoughts will gradually decrease. As the mind is trained and refined, with the aid of the practice method, the mind will eventually become quiet and still.
Although the crowd of wandering thoughts is still present, existing in many layers, Chan practice is to go deeper and drop these wandering thoughts layer by layer until we reach the point where clear mind is functioning. This enables one to observe what is as it really is and to follow the correct path of understanding.
Therefore, seeing wandering thoughts is not a problem. As long as you correctly understand the method, the idea behind it and the process, observing wandering thoughts actually is the practice method of Chan!
(Published in the book 《爾然小品》 by Dharma Drum Publications in 2010.)