Site icon Liesl Garner

Thoughts on Thinking, the Empty Mind and Not-Doing

It’s Tao Tuesday – a fun little reminder to think these thoughts, to examine these principles, to engage the spirit and delve into this understanding, or non-understanding as the case may be. One day of the week, as originally instigated by Amy Putkonen over at Tao te Ching Daily. She has a whole list of every chapter and articles or responses to every one. I am beginning again, and on my third week – 3rd chapter.


Chapter 3

If you over-esteem great men,

people become powerless.

If you over-value possessions,

people begin to steal.

The Master leads

by emptying people’s minds

and filling their cores,

by weakening their ambition

and toughening their resolve.

He helps people lose everything

they know, everything they desire,

and creates confusion

in those who think that they know.

Practice not-doing,

and everything will fall into place.


This may just be the hardest concept in all of the whole world of spiritual matters for me – the emptying of the mind. I guess because I’ve heard it used in a most negative way. My dad was at a conference once, where a young man was giving his testimony, and he wasn’t the kind of guy who thought deeply or philosophically in the first place. He was more of a jock, and spent his time honing his skills on the field of play, rather than in the halls of learning, so to speak. Anyway, he was trying to explain “faith” to an audience full of people, and the image he used to illustrate it was he said he took his mind and threw it over a cliff. My dad was speaking right after him, and stood backstage just clutching, doing the face-palm, wondering how on earth he was going to turn this around without insulting the guy, but allowing for reason and intellect to play a part in matters of the heart and soul and in coming to an understanding of faith.

My dad is a preacher, and an intellectual, who surrounds himself with great books by great scholars, and people who can debate and dialogue about all manner of things. Our dining room table was always filled with esoteric conversation and the mulling over of the big questions and ideas. It was often after a dinnertime conversation among brilliant minds that he would pull out a book of the Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis (no slouch in the intellect department) and read aloud to us kids, with a table full of bright, young thinkers listening in and staying up all night to finish the story.

C.S. Lewis is one of my heroes. Aslan is a version of the Divine that sits well with me, and feeds my spirit with only good thoughts, and reverent thoughts, and none of the disenfranchised thoughts I tend to have about “church.”

So, coming from this background, the idea of emptying my mind is a difficult concept. Although, when I read about people who have studied with great Zen teachers, and I hear the stories of their creating confusion to illustrate points, it makes sense to me. Only when we think we know something are we stiff and inflexible to learning new things. Maybe the emptying is a version of humility – not thinking we know so much that we are unable to acquire new thoughts.

That actually reminds me of something that was on my mind over the weekend. Scott and I were trimming the dead branches out of a tree. He was up inside the tree, tied in for safety, and working from within. He was cutting out the dead branches and throwing them to me on the ground, so I could haul them away. Only, the dead branches weren’t giving up easily at all. They were holding on. You would think a dead tree branch would be hard and brittle. They were hard and brittle, and also ferocious and tenacious and clinging to every branch nearby in a death grip. They wouldn’t even fall to the ground. We had to wrestle each one out of the tree. Along the way, there were some living branches that needed to be trimmed for the health of the tree, and they were so easy to work with. There was still give in the limb, and it was pliable and bendable and wow, what a difference.

We spent the better part of the day working with these stiff, unruly branches. I was scraped up and scratched. I had many conversations with the branches, truth be told. I scolded, cajoled, wheedled and coaxed them to let go already, and come with me. And I thought about thoughts. I thought about the thoughts we hold onto and we decide to structure all our other thoughts on these ones, they are our foundation, they are solid, they will not be moved. I wondered about the nature of pliability in thinking, about the living branches and how much easier they were to move. Do I want to be flexible and bendable, able to shift gears as new thoughts occur to me, or do I want to plant my feet and hold firm to an idea?

I think there are times for each, but it really made me wonder about when I am holding firm to something thinking I am being consistent, when maybe I am being stubborn. Perhaps there is something to this Clearing of the Mind to rethink old thoughts and see if they still work, or if we somehow glommed onto them without really working them through, and they are actually dead, and brittle and holding us, rather than us steadfastly holding our ground. Maybe our held ground restricts us instead. Maybe from time to time, the dead and brittle need to be pruned to leave room for the living thoughts, the growing, flowering, reaching down into the ground for sustenance and passing on the nourishment received to the upper branches sorts of thoughts.

Maybe the thoughts we cling to as fundamental, foundation-al are the ones that need to go to make room for the thoughts that are living, breathing, things that will help us instead of hinder us.

What is it that feeds our core, if we are to empty our minds? What gives us a satisfied belly feeling for our souls?

I can get myself going with thoughts, and thinking, and thinking about thoughts, and forget to do other things, and then scurry around trying to catch up on chores at the last-minute. Philosophy is fun and for me, a bit distracting. Practice not-doing, and everything will fall into place, is the final thought in this chapter. And that brings to mind the best moment I had all summer long, when we’d put our new (to us) rocking chairs on the back porch, and sat doing absolutely nothing but enjoying each other’s presence all afternoon. I sat and stared at the back field, watching our animals graze peacefully. Bean came and sat with me and told me stories and all sorts of plans for what he wants to be when he grows up. Ben came and told me about the book he is reading and the thoughts it gave him about love and soul-mates. My husband came and sat with me and looked off into the distance with me, and we held hands, and shared space, and felt serene and lovely there. It may have been one of the few times all summer I did nothing, and it was the richest day.

How easy it is to forget that the days of not-doing are sometimes the best days ever. I have to plan ahead in order to relax like that. I must have dinner in the crock-pot or something so that I can sit back and truly revel in an unstructured day.

What do you think about the Emptying of the Mind idea? Does it scare you a little like it does me? Do you resist it? I still have yet to fully embrace, or find the time for a meditation practice, which is supposed to help clear out the mind and relax the soul. Part of me is clinging to an old idea that I don’t want that much free space in my brain. Part of me feels like a brittle branch that is getting really close to being pruned.

photo of The Thinker from here

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