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The Benefits of Blankness

Posted May 05 2010 9:58am

If you spent a moment without thinking, would you cease to exist?

When I give talks about using mindfulness practices to focus on your work, at least one person usually tells me they "can’t meditate" because they can’t seem to force their mind to quiet.

But often, if I get the chance to dig deeper into what’s going on for that person, what I discover is that they don’t really want their mind to be silent. They’re afraid that, if they stopped thinking for a moment, they wouldn’t be able to start again. And if that happened, they’d become stupid or comatose, or perhaps even disappear.

Their solution, then, is to keep up a constant stream of thought. One problem with this approach is that the clutter in their mind creates distraction — particularly when they’re trying to do a task at work. Also, as I’ll bet you know from experience, much of the thinking we do is repetitive and unpleasant.

Relaxed Body, Relaxed Mind

Many people think emptying the mind takes hard work, which is why I get questions about how to "force my mind to empty." But over time, what I’ve discovered in meditation is that it’s more a matter of, if you will, taking a break. In fact, thinking is what takes work — mental blankness simply happens when we relax.

To experience what I’m talking about, next time your mind feels cluttered, take a moment and notice whether some part of your body is tight. For example, one thing I usually observe when my mind is teeming with thoughts is that my jaw is tense. When you notice where you’re holding onto tension, see if you can relax that area.

What I’ve noticed in myself, and in others I’ve worked with, is that relaxing those tight muscles actually helps relax the mind. It’s as if we need to tense up to produce a constant stream of thought, and letting go of that tension helps us drop the compulsive thinking.

I think this is one reason why yoga, bodywork, and other methods that help loosen up those tight spots can bring such peace. When constricted places in the body open up, it’s as if the mental storm abates and the sun peeks through the clouds.

Thinking Versus Insight

But if we let our minds empty, how do we come up with the ideas we need to do our projects? This is where, for me, the difference between thinking and insight comes into play.

Thinking, as I said, seems to require effort to produce. Insight, on the other hand, seems to arise without effort — in those moments where "inspiration strikes" without warning.

My sense is that, when our minds are clear, there’s more space for insight to enter. But when they’re clogged with ceaseless thinking, there’s no room for inspiration. It’s no surprise to me, then, that my most powerful ideas have spontaneously come up during meditation.

I think this is one meaning of the story you may know about the professor who visited a Zen monk. The monk served the professor tea, but he kept pouring even after the cup was overflowing.

"You are like this cup," said the monk. "I cannot show you Zen until you are empty."

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