The Value of an Empty Mind (#802)

One of the most significant conversations I’ve had in the past five years or so was an argument I lost with a coach I’d hired who I was attempting to persuade of the value of intellect in general and my intellect in particular. What lost me the argument wasn’t anything that she said, but rather something that 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 silence that lingered, I saw two things for myself quite clearly. The first was that I recognized that sense of peace as something I had experienced in several of my most life-changing moments of decision. The second was that even if it hadn’t led to so many positive effects in my life, including my marriage, my subjugation of short-term career goals for an increased presence in my children’s lives, and the direction of my subsequent work as a writer and coach, I would gladly trade a thousand intellectual victories for five minutes of this sense of calm well-being.

The transformative conversation which 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. The first forty years of my life, I had been trained to use my mind like a buzz saw, cutting through the weak points in other people’s arguments without ever noticing the scars I had accumulated all over my own psyche along the way. Now, I began to see the value of an empty mind, reflective and receptive to a wisdom that seemed to exist somewhere beyond the reach of my own experience.

Over time, I’ve come to recognize that my experience was far from unique, and I’ve become a bit of a collector of stories of people who traded intellectual pride for greater access to an impersonal and potentially infinite intelligence.

One of my favorites comes from a friend of mine who shared the story of her husband (I’ll call him “Bob”) and his conversion to the value of an empty mind. Having spent the first 30 years of his life as a suffering but successful intellectual, he had discovered in a burst of insight that his mind worked best when it was in abeyance.

At a family reunion, about a year or so after his discovery, his wife was cornered by a concerned relative. “What’s wrong with Bob?”

“What do you mean?” asked my friend.

“Well, I don’t mean to be rude, but he’s acting like he’s got brain damage!”

Putting to one side the unlikely possibility that calling her husband “brain damaged” might be misinterpreted as “rude”, she asked the relative to elaborate.

“Well, Bob was always so political, but when we were talking about the upcoming elections he didn’t seem to even have an opinion, let alone be willing to argue for it. And he kept getting distracted by things!”

“Like what?” my friend replied.

“Well, the sunset, and the breeze off the water, and even the taste of his tea – he went on about it like he’d never had a cup before.”

My friend smiled peacefully.

“Have you noticed,” she asked the relative, “that Bob’s never been happier?”

“Well that’s all well and good,” the relative said dismissively, “but how’s he going to run his business if he can’t even go five minutes without stopping to enjoy the smell of a flower or the taste of his Fruit Loops?”

My friend bit her tongue to stop herself from laughing.

“Actually, this has been his most successful year yet in business. He’s nearly doubled his income with virtually none of the stress that had been making him ill.”

This stymied the relative a bit, but she rallied to save face, ending the conversation by saying “Well, it won’t last.”

And this points to perhaps our society’s most unproductive and ill-founded bias – the idea that our happiness comes from success and our success can only come at the cost of struggle, sacrifice, and stress. In other words, according to this poorly conceived mathematical equation:

Struggle + Stress + Sacrifice = Success = Happiness

or to simplify it even further:

Unhappiness = Success = Happiness

which ultimately leaves us with the oxymoronic formula:

Unhappiness = Happiness

It takes no great intellect to see the fallacy in this argument, so rather than take the time to rebut it, I’ll leave you with a simple recipe for happiness and success that works deliciously well in my experience:

The less I have on my mind, the better life gets.

With all my love,
Michael

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