Soon after the Buddha's Mahaparinirvana (passing away), his disciples wanted to synthesize his teachings to keep their purity and prevent arbitrary interpretations. So they called a meeting of senior monks. It was decided that 500 of the most accomplished ones—Arhats (those who had fully overcome the mind's habitual patterns and disturbing emotions)—would gather and recite the teachings.
Ananda, the Buddha’s shadow-like attendant, was supposed to be in the meeting as he was the one to remember the Buddha's teachings. People had extraordinary memory at that time because all knowledge had to be recorded in human brain; paper wasn't invented to note things down. But there was a problem with Ananda—he wasn't an Arhat yet. Becoming an Arhat required the mind to have clear, unhindered knowledge of its own reality. Ananda still lacked that clarity.
The night before the great convention, the First Buddhist Council, Ananda was in crisis and his participation wasn’t sure. As the story goes, Ananda tried to speed up his Arhathood but failed. The more intensely he tried, the more he felt being pushed away from it. Tired and exasperated, he was convinced that he wouldn’t make it to the council. So he gave up and went to sleep toward the end of the night. That did it—just before the dawn, as soon as he fell asleep, realization dawned on him. He was able to fully free the mind by seeing and separating the subtlest of habitual tendencies and disturbing emotions.
Often when we practice meditation, we are way more confused and deluded than Ananda (he was already very close to realization). We think meditation is a state of being free from thoughts, and that it is a peaceful, feel-good state of mind. We think it is about stilling the mind. Not quite.
Stilling the mind or making it thoughtless is never the goal of meditation, at least in the Buddhist tradition. It is helpful to have a still mind, but we don’t strive to make the mind still. And we don’t make effort for that either, because we cannot make the mind still through effort. It’s like going to sleep—it’s helpful and very beneficial for the body and mind to fall asleep. But we cannot sleep by trying. We cannot force ourselves into sleep. We create the necessary conditions for sleep, like lying down on a bed, putting a cover over us, turning off the light and so on. But the more we try to sleep, the more sleep evades us. We can just have an intention, not effort, to fall asleep. We let go of all our trying, all our doing, and sleep befalls us.
Having a still mind in meditation is like that. We create the necessary conditions, and we let go of all our efforts, all our doing energy. Then mind calms down. What is the necessary condition here? There are a few: a curious, non-judgmental attitude that accepts things and situations as they are. Not labeling experiences as good or bad, right or wrong. Willingness to let go of things. If that doesn't work, allowing them to let be as they are. It's as if you let go of your stress and try to relax; but if you cannot relax, let the tightness be there. Accept it as the truth of the moment. As soon as you accept it, the resistance drops and your tightness goes, often without your knowing. External environment like a comfortable meditation cushion or a peaceful candle-lit shrine could help a bit in the beginning, but they are neither necessary nor sufficient.
Say you are successful in stilling the mind. But the point is not quite that. Animals never think, they naturally have the thought-free mind that we all wish for. Is that due to meditation? Are they meditating? Not at all. Like animals, we can have a thought-free and still mind. But at the same time, we can be totally ignorant, bonded, and miserable. At the most, a stilled mind can temporarily send mental defilements to the background, not eradicate them. Eradication is possible only when we see them up-front and properly understand their nature. A still mind can just give us a supportive environment to see and cleanse that stock of mental defilements. It is only a means, not an end in itself. The goal is to have wisdom—that full seeing and understanding of the mind’s intricacies—that liberates us.
We deal with our jumpy and bumpy mind by attentively seeing it, being curious about it, and accepting it for what it is. Knowing, more than trying, calms it. And this knowing takes us further—toward wisdom, toward a liberating clarity. That’s the real thing we look for.