One afternoon, when I was five or six years old, I was hanging around the kitchen, complaining that I had nothing to do.
At the sink, my mom -- who seemed to want me to go somewhere else -- intoned the following words, never uttered in our house before or since:
An empty mind is the Devil's workshop.
Moodily tracing a line of tile grout with my toe, I stopped that instant and, for a long time, said nothing. For this sentence -- while arresting and ominous -- held almost no meaning for me at all.
My only knowledge of the Devil came from the Saturday morning cartoons, where he occasionally could be seen sitting on someone's shoulder, hissing into their ear to go ahead and blow up Bugs Bunny, or what-have-you. I vaguely knew him to be bad, as a little Baptist girl had sorrowfully explained that my whole family would one day slave under his fiery lash in Hell. Come again?
Adding to my confusion, I did not know what a "workshop" was. My dad was not an American DIYer, but a foreign professor with zero interest or skill in home repair. I'm not certain he owned a toolbox. So a workshop was a place where Santa's elves made toys! Except . . . the Devil. Huh.
And finally, I could not grasp the concept of an "empty mind." Was my mind empty? I seemed to be thinking my usual thoughts -- I'm bored. I wish I could meet Peter Pan! -- thoughts which, in fact, carried me well into my twenties and beyond.
Struck dumb by this koan, I eventually chose to believe that the tall, narrow cupboard where we kept the broom and dustpan was "the Devil's workshop" -- it was dark in back, there may have been a spider in it -- and if I just stayed out of there, I would probably be all right.
Fast-forward to the present, when stressed-out Westerners are shelling out for workshops that promise to help empty their minds. An empty mind sounds clean! Relaxing. (It now goes by the name "beginner's mind.")
Last spring, of such a mind, I took an eight-week course in meditation. I was not very "good" at meditating -- I tended to fall asleep -- but it was a pleasant way to spend two hours on a Tuesday night. My favorite type of meditation was not to think about nothing -- or "bring the mind back" to nothing -- while attending to the sensations of the present moment. It was to think about whatever I wanted, without having to get someone a glass of milk, break up a fight, or scrape peas off the floor.
Whether the Devil had a hand in it is not entirely clear. If dozing on a yoga mat until roused by the tinkle of a Tibetan chime is diabolical, then his infernal designs aren't all they're cracked up to be.
Driving to work in light traffic, I often have an empty mind. (As an aside, this is one reason I probably shouldn't drive.) Occasionally, a song like Moves Like Jagger or Womanizer will come on the radio, and my mind will perk up, exclaiming: This is the best pop song in the world!
In sum, I feel the empty-minded have been given a bad rap. We are not Satan's spawn. We're just a bunch of goofballs with time on our hands.
One such goofball was Archimedes, the greatest mathematician of the Classical Age. Lounging in his bath one day, thinking about nothing, he suddenly realized that the upward buoyant force that is exerted on a body immersed in a fluid, whether fully or partially submerged, is equal to the weight of the fluid that the body displaces -- a Principle that endures to this day, primarily in bathtubs, but other places too.
"Hey dummies!" he reportedly announced, clutching a towel, moments later. "Hades, the sceptered ruler of the Underworld, has a message for you. He says, quote: You're welcome."
(Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)