Why you should clean up, not empty, your mind

Pastor Johnnie Moore
© The Washington Post/Getty Images

Even though our minds ostensibly belong to us, we don’t always control or know what is in them. There are always some ideas, bang in the middle of consciousness, that are thoroughly and immediately clear to us: for example, that we love our children. Or that we have to be out of the house by 7.40am. Or, that we are keen to have something salty to eat right now. These thoughts feel obvious without burdening us with uncertainty or any requirement that we reflect harder on them.

But a host of other ideas tend to hover in a far more unfocused state. For example, we may know that our career needs to change, but it’s hard to say much more. Or we feel some resentment against our partner over an upsetting incident the night before, but we can’t pin down with any accuracy what we’re in fact bitter or sad about. Our confusions sometimes have a positive character about them but are perplexing all the same: perhaps there was something deeply ‘exciting’ about a canal-side cafe we discovered in Amsterdam or the sight of a person reading on a train or the way the sun lit up the sky in the evening after the storm, but it may be equally hard to put a finger on the meaning of these feelings.

Unfocused thoughts are constantly orbiting our minds, but from where we are, from the observatory of our conscious selves (as it were), we can’t grasp them distinctly. We speak of needing to ‘sort our heads out’ or to ‘get on top of things’, but quite how one does something like this isn’t obvious – or very much discussed.

There is one response to dealing with our minds that has become immensely popular in the West in recent years. Drawn from the traditions of Buddhism, the practice of meditation has gripped the Western imagination, presenting itself as a solution to the problems of our chaotic minds. It is estimated that 1 in 10 adults in the US has taken part in some form of structured meditation.

Yoga at Nepal's Boudnath Stupa

© Getty

Adherents of meditation suggest that we sit very quietly, in a particular bodily position, and strive, through a variety of exercises, to empty our minds of content, quite literally to push or draw away the disturbing and unfocused objects of consciousness to the periphery of our minds, leaving a central space empty and serene. In the Buddhist world-view, anxieties and excitements are not trying to tell us anything especially interesting or valuable. We continuously fret without good purpose, about this or that random and vain thing – and therefore the best solution is simply to push the objects of the mind to one side.

Obit Philip Seymour Hoffman

Eastern Meditation: the mind being emptied of its confused content

Buddhist meditation has been so successful, we are liable to forget another effective and in some ways superior path to finding peace of mind, this one rooted in the Western tradition: Philosophical Meditation. Like its Eastern counterpart, Philosophical Meditation wants our thoughts, feelings and anxieties to trouble us less, but it seeks to sort out our minds in a very different manner. At heart, it doesn’t believe that the contents of our minds are nonsensical or meaningless. Our worries may seem like a nuisance but they are in fact neurotically garbled but important signals about how we should direct our lives. They contain complex clues as to our development. Therefore, rather than wanting simply to empty our minds of content, practitioners of Philosophical Meditation encourage us to clean these minds up: they want to bring the content that troubles us more securely into focus, and thereby usher in calm through understanding rather than through evacuation.

Obit Philip Seymour Hoffman

Western Meditation: the mind’s confused objects being brought into focus

How does one bring the confused objects of the mind into focus? There are instructions for Philosophical Meditation, just as there are for Buddhist Meditation (a little artificiality in these matters may just be what we need to lend the process discipline). The first priority is to set aside a bit of time, ideally 20 minutes, once a day. One should sit with a pad of paper and start by asking oneself a very simple set of questions: what is it that I am regretful, anxious or excited about at present? One is invited to download the immediate contents of one’s mind. One will by nature be a little unsure of what our feelings mean, so it is best simply to write down – without thinking or censoring ourselves – one or two words around each feeling. It’s a case of tipping out the contents of the mind onto the paper as unselfconsciously as possible. One might, for example, write down: Darren, Cologne trip, weekend, shoes, Mum, face at train station… The task is then to try to convert each of these words from an ambiguous and silent worry, regret or thrill into something one can understand, grasp, order and eventually better control. Success in this meditation relies on a skilful process of questioning. Imagine these thoughts as ineloquent and muddled strangers, who are full of valuable ideas, but whom one has to get to know in a roundabout way, by directing just the right questions at them. [See the link at the end of this piece for a more complete Guide to Philosophical Meditation]

Philosophical Meditation brings us calm not by removing issues, so much as by helping us to understand them, thereby evaporating some of the paranoia and static that might otherwise cling to them. When confused objects of consciousness become clearer, they stop bothering us quite so much. Problems don’t disappear, but they assume proportion and can be managed. For example, we may make ourselves at home with an array of administrative worries that had been clumsily concealed under the vague title of ‘the Cologne trip’. The word ‘Darren’ might disclose someone we envy, but who holds out a fascinating run of clues as to how we might make a new move in our career. The word ‘weekend’ yields feelings towards one’s partner which are both resentful and yet capable of being discussed and perhaps worked through in the evening.

Sorting out our minds doesn’t just feel comforting (like tidying our homes), it also spares us grave errors. Confused excitement can be highly dangerous when it involves career ambitions. Imagine someone with a tendency to experience excitement when reading Vogue or Gourmet Traveller – and who then declares, without much attempt to analyse the feeling, that they want ‘to work in magazines’. It may seem reasonable enough for them to send off a CV to the magazine company HQ. After many efforts, they may be offered a lowly internship. It might take a few years and a lot of heartache before they realise that it wasn’t really the magazines themselves that were the true object of their attraction to begin with. Actually what was really speaking to this person was the idea of working in a close-knit team in an area that wasn’t finance (where Mum, a caustic and forbidding figure, puritanical in matters of sex and money, spent her career). Philosophical Meditation can, among other things, save us a lot of time.

Grazia Magazine Produces Issue From New Shopping Centre

© Getty

Not thinking might land you up here

Similar dangers play out when one is upset or anxious. Imagine that yesterday, you had dinner at the house of a conspicuously successful friend. They’d just got back from a holiday in the Maldives and were telling you about their latest business venture in pharmaceuticals. You left feeling restless and annoyed, but you didn’t know why. Your own life felt flat and dispiriting. Vague plans about what to do swirled around in your head. Maybe you could have a brilliant idea and start a business. Somehow you wanted your life to be more like your friend’s. But what is a brilliant idea in business? How does one get going? Then your partner said something about having set up a dinner with her mother. At that moment, from somewhere mysterious in you, you felt a wave of anger – and shouted something about the house always being left in such a mess. After all, there was a set of dirty plates in your field of vision. But your partner said you were crazy, the house wasn’t that messy anyway, and how long would it take to tidy away a few plates in the first place…? She walked out of the room crossly and so tonight, you’ll be sleeping on the sofa again for a whole set of reasons that it’s now becoming very hard to disentangle, let alone discuss with any degree of maturity.

Countless agonies and mistakes stem from not properly analysing our confused inner experiences. We pick the wrong job; get together with the wrong person, run away from the right person; spend our money on the wrong things and don’t do justice to our talents and deeper aspirations. Acting without Philosophical Meditation is like being allowed to embark on a trip without checking the equipment or the map. We trust the feelings without duly acknowledging that they may prompt us in some catastrophic directions.

Ordination of 13,000 novices at Wat Phra Dhammakaya - a

© UIG/Getty

The longing to empty the mind, to calm turbulent thoughts isn’t completely opposed to the exercise of cleaning up the mind, decoding, analysing and ordering its contents. It’s just that at the moment, as societies, we have allowed ourselves to get overly seduced by the promise of tranquility, so that we always strive to empty the mind, instead of attempting to understand its contents. We see our agitation as the result of thinking too much, rather than of not having – as yet – thought enough. It’s time for our societies to take on board the promises and advantages of Philosophical Meditation.

For a step-by-step guide to Philosophical Meditation, click here