April 21, 2024

Is it possible to think about nothing? Certainly our consciousness is always whirling away. Paul Lambert, Southampton

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Readers answer

You cannot think about anything, since thinking involves creating concepts, even if it is a concept about how nothing can be. However, you can empty your mind of thoughts and sit with nothing going on in your mind. It does not mean unconsciousness, but an experience of a pure consciousness, the mind before it does anything to create our ordinary experience and endless fountain of thoughts. You will need a meditation teacher and some discipline, but the resulting experience of limitless stillness and peace is an invigorating one. aarthur

Try meditating on the Brexit “benefits”. Wiff Waff

It’s not consciousness that always rumbles away; it is the thinking function of the mind that is so busy. Consciousness is always at peace, often overlooked, as the background of all experience. Lemuel Babcock

Yes is the answer. In the north east of Scotland we call it dwamming. cocotheradge

I am a philosopher who has faced this question from students many times over the years. The most important thing to note is that thinking about nothing is not the same as thinking nothing. To think nothing is simply to lack any thoughts at all, and this can certainly be possible (eg in a dreamless sleep).

Thinking about nothing is thinking something, the same as thinking about Christmas is thinking something, even though there is no Christmas to think about. Of course, since nothing is not something, one cannot think of something and think of nothing. But one can cherish the thought that there is nothing, that is to say that it is not the case that there is anything. Of course, one cannot do this and think something true, but one can do it – and that is to think something.

Ideas of this kind occupied some of the earliest philosophers, for example Parmenides, a pre-Socratic, who thought he could show that time did not exist by such reflections. He was wrong about that, but I’m glad to see that such thoughts still occupy people today. Even though they are useless, they are quite fun. Dr Benjamin L Curtis, Nottingham Trent University

Speaking as a non-existent owl, as you can imagine, I’ve been thinking a lot about nothing and nothing. So, I can say with some confidence that, yes, it is possible to think of nothing. For example, one of the definitions my dictionary gives for free is “a trifle”, and I have to imagine that very few people have any trouble thinking of a trifle.

But on the other hand, it is not possible to think of nothing. If you happen to find yourself not thinking about anything, seriously don’t consider the possibility that you might be dead but just didn’t notice. There is no Owl

There are many politicians who seem to do exactly that, day in, day out. TheTrueHOOHA

I’m trying damn hard to think of an answer, but nothing comes to mind. EddieChorepost

I read an interesting version of this question in one of DT Suzuki’s Essays on Zen Buddhism. Suzuki claims that the goal is misunderstood and that the lifting of active control of your thoughts is the point. He suggests simply watching your mind think, as an outside observer, becoming a mere passenger on the flood of thoughts passing through your mind without trying to steer, block or otherwise intervene in the process; as if you are observing another person’s train of thought.

It’s an interesting exercise and it might give you more confidence in your mind’s ability to take care of things when left to its own devices, which in turn will fuel your creativity. It’s strange and wonderful to see where your mind wanders when freed from conscious control. Enjoy it! Doc Mar

I have been meditating for over 30 years. After a decade of Zen meditation and retreats, I continued to meditate on and off (and very often since my retirement). One of the basic steps in meditation is to simply allow thoughts to come and go without getting lost in them. Treat them like clouds floating across the sky. Over time, the thoughts and other objects of awareness (sensations etc.) can diminish and sometimes drop away completely. Mind and body falling away tend to be a state of pure awareness.

A further step is to turn that awareness back on itself. I have done this on several occasions. Sitting in pure awareness without thoughts is certainly possible, with practice. And, according to Zen, this is the gateway to enlightenment, although I don’t know if that’s right myself. I should also add that my first experience of this state, for a few minutes, happened spontaneously one night before I had much experience with meditation. Thorloki

It is perfectly possible to think about nothing; in fact, Jean-Paul Sartre wrote half of Being and Nothing about it. More seriously, there is a difference between thought and consciousness. If you meditate, you soon find that thought, by which I mean the constant flow of ideas, images and sentences that we generally experience constantly, is only one category of the phenomena that occur in conscious awareness. In my experience, if you are in the right mood and you meditate long enough, you will find that thinking slows down-. If you’re lucky, it might stop for a bit. Peter Wright

Thinking of nothing is a bit of an oxymoron. It is possible to be empty of thoughts, but is not easy to find and you cannot think your way there. It is a giving up of thought that brings you to nothing, and everything exists there. LorLala

“Sometimes I sit and think; and then I just sit again.” Peter Markham

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