An Open Mind Is Empty

Mental clarity makes a true friend for life, showing up at every turn. The contents of our minds drive our lives—whatever shape it’s in, the mind is behind the steering wheel of our thoughts and actions. I know from experience about this friendship and count on it. I also know that mental clarity can play a devilish game of hide and seek—that maintaining clarity takes work and persistence. We’re lost without it. Confusion leads us blindly, nowhere, bad wheres. Recently I’ve thought a lot about the path to clear thinking, what it is that philosophy does, exactly. I realize that for my students, readers, diners, and for me, clarity does not come from accumulation of knowledge. Clarity’s beam is the product of emptying the mind of all the junk stored within, making room for wisdom. That’s why all the question-asking! Ah Ha! My philosopher's shingle hangs outside the sanitation department--my job is sorting through, picking out and up the trash, getting rid of piles of ideas and assumptions that prevent clear thinking. No recycling! No rest for the weary—tough lifetime labor.

Each and every one of us carries a heavy mental load, much of it unconscious. Inevitably, we’re products of our specific time and place, our very particular life experiences. The world appears to me through my own prescription glasses, with me at the center of this world, judging everything in reference to me. With this very restricted viewfinder, I shrink this majestic, mysterious world to my (dis)comfort zone. A mind filled to the brim with untested opinions, prejudgments installed, and fomenting anger and resentment cannot see light. The goal of the philosophic temperament looms large: make room for ideas that lead to good living, thoughts that guide us well, by discarding the jumble, the unwanted, the no good.

What warrants this "no good" tag? Steady self-absorption and self-righteousness that kick my leg into constant knee-jerk reactions to a bitty world that my ego created. Fear of the unknown, though I have the nagging suspicion that I know very little. Ideas whose origin I can’t name. So, the trash comes out, slowly but surely. As the mind empties, my perspective widens—vision improves. Openings appear—better mental furnishings on the way.

What a relief to resign my post at the center of the universe! What a terrible job. The big, old universe(s!) now presents itself to me. Not so wrapped up in myself, I relax. What a world! How tiny am I? But I’m part of it all, and with a wide-open, empty mind I will think as if for the first time about: kindness, joy, beauty, peace, empathy, relationship, success. Whatever I choose to store in my mind, now, yes now, I’ll be careful that it will serve me, and therefore the world, well.

Knees won’t jerk as much, held in check by mindsets marked by calm, sincerity, humility, reflection, and humor. A Zen Master such as Shunryu Suzuki might call this approach “Beginner’s Mind.” Bertrand Russell might call it the "not-self" frame of reference. I call it junk removal and a fresh start.

Room For Soul Food