This conversation originated in an online forum and I think many can benefit from understanding that the difficulties faced with maintaining a meditation practice are real and that you are not a “bad” meditator if you struggle with the practice.
Here is my reply with the questions inserted:
You have touched on the core problem of maintaining a meditation practice. Namely, the assumption that it is supposed always be enjoyable. The fact is that it is not always so. It is very difficult as one is dealing with a lifetime of mental habits. There are old texts which liken the mind to a wild horse – big, powerful, and almost impossible to tame.
1) Do I have to pass through the stage of practicing focusing before I can just simply sit down without any thoughts?
Yes and no. You have to be able to keep bringing the mind to the present moment over and over again. This requires being aware of when it wanders. Concentration allows one to spot the wandering as soon as it starts. So to the degree that one is doing this, it is indeed a stage of practice. However, this is not a straight line. You will return to this over and over again as you start to penetrate into deeper layers of thought. So it is not a stage that one passes through, never to revisit.
2) Can I, or anyone ever reach the stage of really, really zero thoughts?
Again, yes and no – you never completely stop mental activity. Knowing this is very liberating, however. The silent interval between thoughts does get larger quite naturally over time. The biggest obstacle here is looking for the thoughts to stop. In other words, the moment one thinks “have my thoughts stopped?”, obviously one is thinking. The key is to just sit and get out of the way. Simple, not easy.
3) Is In-Out breathing meditation good enough to develop focus? Can I just do this for 8 minutes?
Yes – watching the breath is an excellent method. Yes – 8 minutes is sufficient to start. You will find that this time will lengthen naturally. There is no need to push it in order to attain some goal of sitting time.
The long term goal of meditation is a clear mind that sees things as they are. This clarity is beneficial because it allows one to deal with reality. This is also why most people will not stay with the practice. There is the belief that it should be some kind of bliss-out or constant joy and when this does not happen, most give up. If you think of a clear mind as one that apprehends reality without distorting it through desires, you will start to see the long term fulfillment that is available. Dealing with reality is liberating because one is no longer fighting the disappointment of things not being the way we want. Our energies are thereby conserved for the work of living well, rather than dissipating them in the let down of things not being the way we thought.
Hope this helps. May you find the silence.