The Snow Globe

by Michael W. Taft

One metaphor I often hear for meditation is that it’s like a snow globe. Let’s say it’s a Buddhist snow globe, with a meditating figure in the middle of a glass globe filled with water and something that looks like snowflakes.

The normal mind, it’s said, is like a snow globe when it’s shaken up: thoughts flying everywhere in a chaotic swirl. But the meditative mind is supposed to be like a snow globe when the flakes all settle. In this metaphor, the practice is to let the snowflakes (i.e. the thoughts, the mind) gradually settle.

It’s a nice metaphor, but I don’t believe that it’s the most appropriate metaphor for awakening. Letting the snowflakes settle is the idea of shamatha or concentration meditation (jhana practice, for example). Shamatha practice requires that the mind become very still; very settled. And—don’t get me wrong—it’s wonderful when the mind gets very still and settled.

Awakening, on the other hand, doesn’t require that the mind become so still. Awakening is the realization that the swirling flakes are just swirling flakes. In other words, that the movements of the mind are just movements of the mind. The mind can be chaotic or the mind can be peaceful. The emotions can be positive or negative, highly active or peaceful. Awakening is the understanding that you are not your thoughts and feelings at all.

Of course, many deep meditative practices and traditions are centered on the idea that the mind must become very still. And, of course, there is real utility in a still mind. Yet, in the end, needing to change your experience in any way, even in a positive direction, doesn’t point toward reality; toward awakening and freedom.

Instead, experiencing that in a deep way there is no important difference between the chaotic mind and the still mind—between the snow globe with the flakes flying and the snow globe with the flakes all settled—that points towards awakening.

Often I find a real prejudice against thinking in the meditation community. Thoughts are bad, thoughts should stop, thoughts are wrong. My mind is a “monkey mind” and I cannot have peace while it is jumping about.

I understand this viewpoint, but I think it is partaking of a deep conditionality; a grasping, if you will, after a still mind. If you cannot accept reality without a still mind, then you cannot accept reality. And awakening, after all, is nothing more or less than the acceptance of reality.

Engaging the mind just the way it is is a powerful way to unleash your creativity, as well as take steps towards resolving long-held psychological difficulties. You can begin to experience the mind as it is—a natural flow of thoughts and images that has the quality, appropriately enough, of the sky, the clouds, the wind, and the weather. Beautiful and wild.

So, when life shakes your snow globe, let the snowflakes fly!



snowglobe photo by Lindsey Turner



  1. MWT, what then do you think is the difference between someone who realizes they’re just thoughts vs someone who is enlightened? Is the latter unable to ever see it any other way vs the former who “knows” it, but forgets it often? Or do you think someone who thinks they know it intellectually don’t actually believe it at a deep level? I am imagining that it’s sort of like the optical illusion with the cube which is inside out or right way in. You can’t unsee it once you see it.

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