“The Master leads
by emptying people’s minds….
He helps people lose everything
they know, everything they desire,
and creates confusion
in those who think that they know.”
~ Stephen Mitchell (trans.), Tao Te Ching: A New English Version (New York: Harper Perennial) 2006.
For the Daoist, a mind is not a terrible thing to waste, but a wonderful thing to lose.
Something can only be truly filled when it is fully emptied. How often can we say that our minds are empty? For most of us, each day is bookended by checking our phones, which deliver a steady stream of information—emails, texts, app notifications, social media posts, and calendar appointments—and in the time between we check compulsively, whether due to FOMO, work anxiety, or the craving for dopamine hits. We are rather like the “hungry ghosts” from Tibetan Buddhism, with tiny mouths and distended bellies, doomed to forever gobble without satisfaction. They don’t call it “doom-scrolling” for nothing.
We cannot be satisfied because we are never really hungry—never really empty. Just as we are surrounded by cheap, abundant calories, we are inundated with cheap, abundant information. And just as fasting can help us feel lighter and become leaner—and help us appreciate a good meal—digital detoxing can help clear our minds and ground us in our bodies.
T.S. Eliot asked—around a century ago!—that “Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge? Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?” By collapsing the three into “information,” and believing that the more information the better, we delude ourselves into thinking that we can move closer to certainty and further from confusion by amassing more information. But as we have learned, this often merely reinforces our imprisonment in echo chambers and filter bubbles, as our attention and greedy desire for “comfort news” is invisibly monetized while we click, tap, and scroll.
Reading this chapter, it is tempting to picture the “Master” as a guru, a sage, a monk, or even a great political leader. But the chapter also says “If you overesteem great men, people become powerless.” The Master is really your own inner sage—what Buddhists call not-knowing, that part of us that is always free, open, and empty, of which we are usually unconscious, and which our culture tends to regard as “useless.” Lead from there, the text suggests, and you will empty your mind.
And if you empty your mind, what would you let back in?