To Be More Mindful, Try Emptying the Mind

Shunryu Suzuki in Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind:

When you study Buddhism you should have a general house cleaning of your mind.

Despite a few classes in college on Buddhism, I am by no means an expert on Zen philosophy.  Inspired by the minimalist tradition, however, I occasionally have Zen-like moments and find myself thinking about meditation or cleaning off one of my many desks in hopes of discovering some sort of nirvanic bliss by the very act of hiding junk in drawers.  In a world crammed full of stuff and distracting gadgets, I imagine you, like me, understand the challenge of finding a little ‘space’ or emptiness in our minds or in our surroundings.

Perhaps you may find some inspiration from the following excerpt found in an article on Steve Jobs in which the author fuses the Japanese Zen concept of Ma with Steve Jobs’s minimalist design philosophy:

Apple products are as defined by what they’re missing as much as by what they contain.

Jobs’s immersion in Zen and passion for design almost certainly exposed him to the concept of ma, a central pillar of traditional Japanese aesthetics.

Like many idioms relating to the intimate aspects of how a culture sees the world, it’s nearly impossible to accurately explain — it’s variously translated as “void,” “space” or “interval” — but it essentially describes how emptiness interacts with form, and how absence shapes substance. If someone were to ask you what makes a ring a meaningful object — the circle of metal it consists of, or the emptiness that that metal encompasses? — and you were to respond “both,” you’ve gotten as close to ma as the clumsy instrument of English allows.

Much like the art of Zen Buddhist circles (ensō), sometimes it’s the missing elements that matter most.  Too many branches and we can’t see the forest.  Whether it’s your mind or your physical surroundings, each of us would do well to follow Shunryu Suzuki’s advice to undertake a general house cleaning and determine what should stay and what can go.

You must take everything out of your room and clean it thoroughly.  If it is necessary, you may bring everything back in again.  You may want many things, so one by one you can bring them back.  But if they are not necessary, there is no need to keep them.


  1. It amazes me how attachment keeps me from the stillness. I am currently clearing a small crawl space where I store my life’s artwork. But holding onto what has been, pulls me into the past. I often remind myself to be here now. One small box is an unfinished piece for someone else. If I am not going to finish it, I need to let go. I want to let go of that piece of guilt. Love your relation of minimal design, life space and mental space.

  2. Very simplistic way to understand how we clutter our lives. Appreciate the clarity. Will definitely apply it for my cognitive behavioural therapy students. Thank you. Love and peace.

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