I was talking to my daughter the other day about the benefits of meditation and why it has a place of such importance in my life. I must have said something about the space it opens up for me to think things through, because at one point she said, Oh, I thought that in meditation you were supposed to stop the flow of thoughts. (I paraphrase).
Well, yes and no--at least in my experience and as I practice it. Yes, because it's a prerequisite to still the mind and bring it to rest in concentration. To get that far, I find it important to let the distractions go; distractions that include physical sensations, memories and intentions, judgments--thoughts of all kinds... To that end, I use the breath, bringing my attention back to it each time it strays into distraction by directing its energy to specific areas of the body and concentrating there.
But this process, for me, is the means to an end, and the end is to clear the mind of all the rubble that accumulates there--the "defilements" of grasping, clinging, aversion, delusion--so that it can really see things with an undistorted clarity. The "things" it needs to see are those reactive patterns that cause me suffering, because the purpose of all this, as the Buddha said, is the end of suffering. The reactive patterns are the knee-jerk responses to the triggering mechanisms of daily life--those that cause fear and anger, grief and pain. The more I can "see" where they're coming from, the more I'm able to observe them and nip them in the bud, so that the suffering they cause is lessened by my awareness of their tricky ways.
The question to be asked at this stage is this: What is it that I'm doing in my life right now to cause suffering for myself or others? Pain comes along inevitably with things that happen on the outside, beyond my control. Suffering results from my own actions, what I do with those things that cause the pain. If my mind is clear, I find, the answer to that question will pop up from the silent space I have created--which is why it's called "insight" meditation. And that insight leaves open the possibility to do something different.
So it's not a matter of not-thinking, it's a matter getting to that place where I can watch the mind in action; and a matter, in that place, of persuading it to do those things I want it to do--and refrain from those I choose to avoid, if I want to avoid unnecessary suffering. As I tell myself often, it's very simple, really. But it's also very hard to do. Meditation is, to my way of thinking, work.