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The Value of an Empty Mind
“Leave thinking to the one who gave intelligence. In Silence there is eloquence. Stop weaving, and watch how the pattern improves.” -Rumi
For several years early on in my teaching career, I told a version of the following story at the beginning of my trainings…
Once upon a time, a student traveled far and wide in order to expand his knowledge of the path. Much to his delight, one day he was granted an audience with a noted Zen master. When they sat down together, he shared the many things he’d been studying on his journey.
After listening politely for nearly an hour, the master called for tea. As always, the tea was prepared according to an elaborate set of rituals. When it came time to pour, the master himself performed the honors.
However, to the student’s dismay, the master didn’t stop pouring when the tea-cup was full. He continued to pour the golden liquid until it began spilling over the sides of the cup and onto the saucer. The student didn’t want to be so presumptuous as to correct the master, but when the tea began to pour over the edges of the saucer and puddle on the floor, he felt he had no choice.
‘Excuse me, oh venerable one,’ he said, careful to observe the forms of respect, ‘but you must stop pouring. The cup is full – it can take on no more tea.’
‘Ah,’ said the master with a twinkle in his eye. ‘Like this cup, your mind is full of your own ideas and accumulated learning. If you want to learn something new, first you must empty your cup!’
I used the story as a way of encouraging people to put their old thinking to one side and ‘get stupid’ so that they could approach learning new things with a ‘beginner’s mind.’ But it was only when I began studying the inside-out understanding that I caught a glimpse into a far more powerful meaning to the story. Rather than trying to make room for a new philosophy to be poured in by an ‘expert’ in this field or that, the point of emptying our mind is so that it can be filled with insight from the natural intelligence that exists beyond our personal thinking.
While I intuitively recognized the value of ‘getting stupid,’ I was also fiercely resistant to it. My mother has a PhD in organic chemistry from the University of Brussels, my brother started MIT at 16, and my sister started Harvard at 17. Our family valued intellect, and I was damned if I was going to put that to one side. After all, I reasoned to myself, my intellect is what’s gotten me where I am today.
So, when I hired a Principles-based practitioner named Kristen Mansheim to assist me in integrating this understanding into my work, I spent way too much time trying to persuade her of the value of intellect in general and of my intellect in particular.
What lost me the argument wasn’t anything she said, but rather something I felt: in the midst of my repeated intellectual thrusts into her annoyingly non-judgmental listening, I was suddenly overwhelmed by a deep and profound feeling of peace and quiet.
In the lingering silence, I saw two things quite clearly. The first was that this sense of peace was something I recognized as having been present in several of my most life-changing moments. The second was that even if I’d never experienced it before, I would gladly have traded a thousand intellectual victories for even five extra minutes spent resting in that world of deeper feeling.
The transformative conversation that followed unfolded over several months, and I came to refer to our sessions together as ‘speed bumps’ for the way in which they allowed my thinking to slow down and a deeper intelligence to flow through the cracks in my much ballyhooed intellect.
For the first 40 years of my life I’d been trained to use my mind like a buzz saw, filling it up with information and cutting through the weak points in other people’s arguments without ever noticing the scars I’d accumulated on my own psyche along the way. Now I began to see the value of listening without anything on my mind, allowing myself to become reflective and receptive to a wisdom that seemed to exist somewhere beyond the reach of my own experience.
Accessing Innate Wisdom
Of course, once I saw the power of this deeper intelligence, the next question became how to slow down my thoughts to the point where I could actually benefit from it on a regular basis.
By this time George Pransky had become my mentor in the inside-out understanding, and he shared with me his metaphor for the workings of the mind as being like the tachometer of a racing car. Generally speaking, drivers use the tachometer to let them know when the engine is functioning optimally and when it’s time to shift gear. Now imagine that instead of measuring revolutions per minute, RPM, our mental tachometer measures thoughts per minute, or TPM.
Let’s say that our brain’s TPM tachometer runs on a scale something like this:
- 0–50 TPM: Deeper wisdom/beautiful feelings
- 50–100 TPM: Healthy functioning/good feelings
- 100–200 TPM: Beginning to overload/mild stress
- 200–300 TPM: Spinning out of control/persistent stress
- Over 300 TPM: Mental burnout/extreme stress
So, if we want to make the journey from stress to peace and from burnout to wisdom, we need to find a way for our thinking to slow down. We intuitively know this, which is why meditation and hypnosis have become increasingly popular in Western culture over the last 60 years and have been standard practice in Eastern and Oceanic cultures for several millennia.
The meditative state of mind is the closest thing to a ‘magic wand’ that I’ve come across in 25 years of exploring the human potential. It heals the body. It’s the gateway to deeper wisdom. It opens up a world of deeper feelings. It gives us glimpses into the nature of the universe.
Most people who understand its power have learned to access it through discipline and practice over time. In fact, people put an extraordinary amount of effort into attaining and maintaining a peaceful state of mind. They try to protect their mind from disturbance by not watching the news, not reading the papers, and not allowing negative people into their life. They employ meditative techniques designed to still the mind through inquiry, mantras, and visualizations. Or they shift their attention away from their mind and onto their body, using intense exercise, gentle movement, or focusing on the breath to change their state.
Each one of these practices can be an effective way of experiencing greater peace of mind and the insights that come with it. But there’s a difference between having a meditation practice and being in a meditative state of mind.
If you want to slow down your car engine, you do it by not pressing on the accelerator; if you want to slow down your thoughts, you do it by not revving them up. Which means that there’s nothing you can do that will quiet the mind faster than doing nothing to quiet the mind.
And when you recognize meditation as your natural state, there’s nothing you need to do to attain it. It’s not only right where you are sitting now; it’s the one who’s doing the sitting.