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How to Reduce Mental Clutter and ADHD through Taoist Thought

The Story-Telling, Game Theorist, Troubleshooter, and Taoist Problem-Solver


Helping people to create better lives through efficiency, effectiveness, precision, self-awareness, Eastern Wisdom and game-based strategies


Q. My mind is always wandering and it is hard to keep my thinking focused. I was told I may have ADHD. Is there some concept tied to Eastern wisdom or Taoist thought that can help me solve this?


A. There is a saying in the great Taoist classic book the Tao te Ching “Empty your mind of all thought and all will be tranquil.” (entry #16)

For the individual in possession of profound wisdom, there is little that is of greater value than the concept of emptiness.

There is a Chinese word – Wu – which is commonly translated into English as “emptiness.”

In Taoist practice, emptiness has two common meanings.

  1. A general, though an incomplete description of the qualities of Tao. Since one cannot really describe what emptiness is, here is understood to be experienced as the opposite of “fullness.”
  2. The second meaning of emptiness (Wu) points to an inner realization or state of mind characterized by simplicity, quietude, patience, frugality, and restraint. It also reflects an attitude of openness, eagerness, a lack of preconceptions when exploring a subject – even when studying it at an advanced level.

In Zen practice, which has many similar ideas to Taoism, this is known as “Beginners Mind”. How you choose to think, speak, and act, can influence whether you will flow in the harmonious state of “emptiness” or become a prisoner of “Monkey Mind” – a state of constant mental distraction filled with anxiety, suffering, and confusion.  All humans use combinations of words or non-verbal signals which we call language. We use language to communicate needs, define ideas, create and build relationships, and explore who we are and what we are doing. It is not unreasonable to say that our personal reality is created by the language we use.

The philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein wrote that the definition of words emerges from daily living, what he called “forms of life” – the culture and society in which they are used. Wittgenstein stressed the social aspects of thought.  He wrote that to understand how language works, we have to observe how it functions in a specific social situation. Wittgenstein placed great emphasis on becoming attentive to the social backdrop against which language is understood.  For the student of Taoist thought in the digital age, this idea is seminal for it shows how important intention is concerning the social network one will choose to become a part.

In life, we give significant meaning to things and find ourselves influenced by that meaning.  If we do not embrace ”emptiness” we may find ourselves in a language prison of our own creation. Ultimately the escape from this prison is to regain the clarity of thought that arises through regular meditation and contemplation of Lao Tzu’s ideas.  Through this Practice, the complex becomes simple and struggle and suffering naturally turns to ease and joy.

Whether we are “Empty” in All human language is symbolic: Concerning the sound of words – their shape when written has no relation to what they actually represent. Once this is understood language becomes a servant rather than a master.  Let’s explore this idea.

Even with a relatively limited number of signals, signs, words, letters, and rules, an individual can create infinite combinations within a specialized language.  This is especially apparent when you see the many different translations of the Tao te Ching. The written Characters used in Asian languages may mean different things in different eras as do Western words and terms. However, once you understand that any person, place, or thing may be referred to using a variety of words and terms; and any word can have many meanings, then you have a basis to explore language as an essential component of your daily Practice.  It is as if language itself is a tool for inner wisdom. Think of the ways in which you use words:  Some descriptions will reflect your intention, the ability of the listener to evaluate effectively what you are saying and the context in which the words are used.

This can get complex. In the academic discipline known as “Pragmatics,” scholars study how the transmission of meaning depends on knowledge about the status of those involved as well as the linguistic knowledge (e.g.  grammar, lexicon etc. of the speaker and listener.)  In addition, there is the inferred intent of the speaker, the context of the utterance, and many other factors.

As I have previously mentioned, emptiness is a simple state of awareness. It refers to having an attitude of openness, eagerness, and a lack of preconceptions when exploring a subject. Emptiness mind three core elements:

  1. The basic nature of this state of mind;
  2. Ways to attain this state of mind;
  3. The profound mystery of this state of mind.

Once these are understood there are three additional elements that you will need to master including the ability to:

  1. Recognize and understand the meaning of a symbol.
  2. Effectively conveying verbal and non-verbal information as well as listening, hearing and absorbing verbal and non-verbal information and cues.
  3. Learning through the imitation of others.

When you are committed to your Practice you will naturally seek to integrate these tools into the specialized language and thinking patterns of that reflect emptiness. This not brainwashing or cult-like behavior. It is these simple tools that will allow you to easily access the more advanced and specialized tools that are required. This specialized type of language can become a pathway for creating meaning in your life and transcending Monkey Mind.

According to philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, “Meaning just is use”—words are never defined by reference to the objects or things they designate in the external world, nor the thoughts, ideas, or mental representations that one associates with them.  Our words have meaning by how they are used in ordinary communication.

Essentially a word has no meaning unto itself, but only by how it is used. For engaged in Taoist practice, how certain categories of thinking are expressed, and certain words and phrases are acted upon can have an immeasurable impact.  The practical aspect of this is that language helps you create and understand reality and then to expand this reality.

In chapter 11 of Tao te Ching, Lao Tzu provides several examples to illustrate the importance of this kind of emptiness:

Thirty spokes converge

to create what is the hub of the wheel.

The empty space for the axle

is where there is non-being,

and it is here within which the usefulness of the wheel lies.

Thus we may profit

from whatever is there,

but usefulness rises

from whatever is not there.


Clay may be formed into a pot,

yet it is where there is the empty space in the pot

that the pot’s usefulness resides.

When you create doors and windows for a room,

it is from what is not there

that usefulness may be found.


Closely related to this general idea of emptiness/ Wu is Wu Wei – a kind of “empty” action or the action of non-action that is discussed throughout these commentaries. A similar concept is Wu Nien – empty thought or the thinking of non-thinking; and Wu Hsin – empty mind or the mind of no-mind. Yet what is pointed to by the terms Wu Wei, Wu Nien and Wu Hsin are the Taoist ideals of simplicity, patience, ease, and openness – attitudes that express themselves then through the ways we apply thought word and deed in the world.

The individual that exists in a state of emptiness understands that the things of the phenomenal world do not exist as independent, separate, and permanent things, but rather are linked through the dependent origination and continuing interaction of an infinite number of causes and events.

The student of Taoism ‘emptiness” is really a technical term, describing the lack of anything but rather the dependence of all things in the never-ending cycle between yin and yang. In my daily life, this is reflected in my meditation, Tai, Qi gong, Aikido, and Polarity Therapy Practice.

It is all designed to produce states of mind consistent with the Taoist ideals of Wu Wei, Wu Nien, and Wu Hsi: a feeling (and actions) of ease, flow, and simplicity, as the mind that grasps at things as permanent begins to relax. The emptiness of thought is ultimately the fuel that feeds emotional balance, clarity of thought, and spiritual intention.

Now look at each line in this entry and see how the concept of “emptiness” gives clarity to the meaning to each line.

All things of the world rise and fall

as the self observes the cycle with detachment.

The person of profound wisdom is able to watch

the world come and go from the source,

for here, all is stillness which is the way of Tao.

Possessed of Tao, this person is constant

and this constancy brings insight.

Not knowing this constancy leads to confusion and regret.

They who know the constant, know it is all-embracing.

Thus the person of profound wisdom becomes open-hearted, compassionate, detached, amused, and tolerant.


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