My curiosity has had me reading not just Catholic books--the predominant category in my personal library--but books & documents about all kinds of religions, practices and disciplines. Some are very similar to Catholicism, some are very different, but all have a few things in common. One of these commonalities that I've never really questioned until very recently was this notion of "clearing the mind", or trying not to "think", but to instead focus our attention on a single thought or sensation, like our hearts beating, our breathing, the wind rustling outside, and to tune everything else out.
In some religions this practice is said to allow the person to enter another state of consciousness. As Christians we do not seek an altered state, but a number of Christians also suggest this practice as a good preparation for prayer. Clearing our minds and focusing intently on a single thought is supposed to bring about a mental state that facilitates clear, unobstructed meditation, as well as the posture to engage in contemplation. The idea is that we'll be able to hear the voice of God better without the noise of our own thoughts getting in the way. It's by no means a new idea.
I thought until very recently that this was how it worked, but I couldn't ever attain it. I have one of those minds that just won't turn off. I start off not thinking and lets say listening to my heartbeat, then after two, maybe three beats I'm wondering whether or not my compost has the right ratio of brown and green matter and whether the local convenience store restocked their nightcrawlers (for the compost...yes, my mind is a scary place). It's a headache waiting to happen. I even have trouble praying rosaries because my mind wanders too much, particularly when I intently zero in on the mystery. Then about two weeks ago I read something in St. Teresa of Avila's Interior Castle:
"Some books," she wrote, "advise that as a preparation for hearing what our Lord may say to us we should keep our minds at rest, waiting to see what He will work in our souls. But unless His Majesty has begun to suspend our faculties, I cannot understand how we are to stop thinking, without doing ourselves more harm than good. (4th Mansion, Chapter III #4)" Talk about a relief. She continued on, comparing the suspension of thought with "forcible restraint", and discussing how thought and imagination are a sign of our creation in His image and likeness:
When His Majesty wishes the mind to rest from working He employs it in another manner, giving it a light and knowledge far above any obtainable by its own efforts and absorbing it entirely into Himself. Then, though it knows not how, it is filled with wisdom such as it could never gain for itself by striving to suspend the thoughts. God gave us faculties for our use; each of them will receive its proper reward. Then do not let us try to charm them to sleep, but permit them to do their work until divinely called to something higher. (4th Mansion, Ch III #4)
Charm them to sleep. How good is a dialogue with one person constantly asleep?
As I continued reading, I began to think of an element of my Christian life called Formation: the progressive use of our intellect to better know God and grow in love for Him. Our formation should roll into prayer, allowing us to dialogue with God on ever increasing levels. Metanoia is a change of the mind to know and to live God's will for us. How can our minds change at all when they're forced into a state of inaction? The more we allow our minds to stretch (so long as we avoid sin), the better equipped we are to develop our understanding of God, who is infinitely beyond anything we can comprehend.
Maybe the reason to not empty the head is as simple as this: When God is ready to "employ" my mind according to His will, I want Him to have plenty of material to work with.