- Freedom in Thought
- Silence Your Mind, Stop Overthinking
Silence Your Mind, Stop Overthinking
Table of Contents
A Noisy Mind
A student visited a master at his home in order to learn the ways of enlightenment, and the master offered him a seat.
Student visits master
As the master boiled some tea for the student, the student began rambling about all of the philosophies he had studied, the different sages he had visited, and all of the different theories he had about the world. “But even after all of that, I’m not satisfied,” said the student, looking distressed. “I want to know the truth about the meaning of life, and that’s why I’m here today.”
The master poured tea into the student’s cup until it overflowed. “Master, what are you doing,” asked the student, “the tea cup is overflowing.”
“Your mind is like this cup of tea,” said the master. “You must empty it before I can fill it with anything.”
Master pouring tea for student
The more noisy and full our minds are, the less capable we are of being present and learning from the world. So to maximize the awareness we bring to each moment, we must master the art of making our minds still, silent, and empty.
Seeking Certain Outcomes
A noisy mind is one that is stuck searching for certainty in the wrong spot.
The nature of the mind is to find solutions to our problems, and it will not stop searching until it feels confident in its solution. Our minds seek certainty, and when they’re unable to find it, they start looking harder and they become obsessed. They rip up all the floor boards, rummage through the drawers, and toss things aside. They become noisy, and they will not rest or quiet down until they find what they’re looking for: certainty.
A mind frantically searching for something it cannot find.
But the reason our minds don’t find certainty is because they look for it in the wrong spots. They look for certainty in outcomes. They ask questions like,
“Do you think they like me?”
“Will this make me rich?”
“Will they like what I made?”
“Do they find me attractive?”
“Will I have a good time?”
And so on.
The mind often wants certainty that it’s liked by others, that it’s safe from danger, and that it will have a good time. The mind seeks certainty about the world. But even if the mind received all the money in the world and praise from everyone, if it was escorted down a red carpet by armed guards, to the sound of applause and cheers, with a huge buffet waiting at the end, it couldn’t be certain that it wasn’t in a dream. It could wake up in the very next moment and realize that everything that it had thought about the world was not real.
A man dreaming that he is a king.
“Am I dreaming or hallucinating all of these outcomes?” The mind can never find certainty about that question.
All outcomes are fundamentally uncertain, and as long as our minds are obsessed with outcomes, they will never find certainty, and they will never find peace. They will search and search in vain for all of eternity, because you can’t find something where it doesn’t exist.
Act With the Best of Intentions
If our mind wants to find certainty, there’s only one place it needs to look: at itself. The one thing the mind can be certain of is its own intentions.
As Descartes said,
Even if the rest of the world was a dream, or a hallucination, the mind could find certainty in itself, in the fact that it existed and was having an experience, in the fact that it was aware and had intentions.
A mind unable to doubt itself
The only thing the mind can be certain of is its intentions. The outcomes, on the other hand, lie in the hands of fate.
In one zen story1, two monks, Tanzen and Ekido, came upon a river where they saw a young lady struggling to make it across.
“Let me help you,” said Tanzen. So he lifted her on his back and carried her across to the other side.
Tanzen helping the lady cross the river
After walking for a few more hours, Ekido could no longer contain his anger. “How could you carry that lady,” he said. “You know we’re not supposed to touch women.”
“I put her down hours ago,” said Tanzen. “But you’re still carrying her.”
Tanzen was more worried with the intention of what he was doing rather than the outcome. He intended to help the lady, and he did what was in his power to fulfill that intention. And because of this, his mind was at peace. It found certainty in his intention.
Ekido, on the other hand, worried about the outcome of what he was doing more than the intention. The outcome he desired was to be a good monk. But now that Tanzen had touched a woman, he did not know how that affected his desired outcome. Was he still a good monk? Should he have helped the lady instead? Did he do the right thing by not touching her? Should good monks follow strict rules? Or should they be more lenient? What should he do in the future? Is he still capable of becoming a good monk? So on and so forth. Ekido’s mind was not at peace, because it was focused on outcomes more than intentions. And his mind will never find certainty in the outcome, because there are always reasons to have doubts about outcomes.
If Ekido helped the woman, he would feel guilty for touching her. If he did not help the woman, he would doubt whether he did the right thing. When we are overly focused on the outcomes, there are no certain answers, only doubts and regrets.2
Ekido trapped in endless contemplation
But when we focus on our intentions, like Tanzen, certainty is always possible: did I try my best to do good or not? If not, I can repent, ask for forgiveness, realize where and why I went wrong, and try to do my best in the future.
The Buddha said,
When we act with pure and good intentions, our conscience remains clear. And if an action is done with a good conscience, according to Buddha, it’s well done, regardless of the outcome.
Immanuel Kant would agree with Buddha, because he said,
Kierkegaard would also agree, because he said,
If a doctor does his best to help a patient but fails, that does not mean he did something wrong. His conscience is clear, and his mind can be at peace knowing he had the best of intentions and acted accordingly. The outcome, however, was in the hands of fate.
And yet, if that doctor did not have the best of intentions, he will know with certainty that he did not have the best of intentions—if he is honest and willing to admit it to himself. And if he admits it to himself, if he admits that his intentions were not pure and good, he has certainty about what to do next. Repent, ask for forgiveness, realize the error that led him astray, and do his best in the future.
So if the mind acts with the best of intentions, it can find certainty and peace in that. But if the mind seeks to generate a specific outcome, it will never find certainty or peace in that.
Stillness & Learning
So when the mind stops worrying about outcomes—when it finds contentment in acting with the best of intentions—it becomes still, quiet, and empty.
An attentive student listening to a master. His mind is quiet, still, and empty.
When the student approached the zen master, he was too worried about finding the truth. He was too worried about the outcomes, and so his mind was noisy. The zen master knew this, and that’s why he told the student that he needed to learn how to empty his cup.
Because only when the student stopped worrying about the outcomes would he be able to be fully present, and only when he was fully present would he be capable of learning from the master, and only when he was capable of learning from the master would he find what he was seeking all along.
As Nietzsche said,
Reps, P., & Senzaki, N. (1985). Muddy Road. In Zen Flesh Zen Bones (pp. 39–39). essay, Tuttle Publishing.
At every moment in life, we stand at a crossroads. We have to make a decision, do we go left or right? If we’re focused on the outcomes of our decision, we will always have regret, because we will never know if the other choice would have been better. But if we’re focused on our intentions, we simply choose the path that seems best to us at the time and move on. We don’t have regrets, because we made the best choice we could at that time based on the information we had.