Yesterday I started tidying the kids’ bookshelf. It was a real mess, with new books having been piled horizontally on top of the others making it almost impossible to retrieve one without triggering a book avalanche.

There wasn’t enough room for everything so I moved onto the parents’ bookshelf hoping to make some space.

An intellectual house-cleaning

Wow! There were some really old books in that shelf!

I don’t mean hundred-year-old treasured volumes. I mean books that represent a part of me I no longer want or need to hold onto.

Textbooks on Neuro-philosophy from my Honours year that were horribly bleak when they first came out and are now outdated to boot.

Books on orthodox Catholic philosophy and theology from when I thought that perfect intellectual formation was the key, as if the answers to life’s questions could all be found via sufficient mastery of the Summa Theologicae.

A couple of new-age and qigong books from people I now know are basically charlatans.

Incredibly abstruse texts on philosophy of language and parsing religious relativism from my PhD studies that might as well be treatises on theoretical physics for all the interest they now hold for me.

The tome-like Zen and the Brain compendium of research into neuroscience and mediation that I ordered from America back in the early 2000s, which I had hoped would give me some kind of objective guide in my search for spiritual insight.

Books complaining about the decline of Western civilisation, marshalling the proof that the world as we know it is falling apart in all new and exciting ways!

Whether these books were on apologetics and philosophy or mysticism and prayer, they each represent part of my search outside myself. A search for identity, a search for wisdom, a search for inner peace and happiness, a search for empowerment through knowledge or spiritual practice.

Getting rid of these books is like allowing a space to open up for new things in life. Not likely new books, but a new approach. Nor new answers but a new receptivity to what life is offering me.

Because the only reason for keeping a big old textbook on Philosophy is to have it there, on the shelf, as if to advertise my intellectual inventory.

Not a single person has ever inquired, and with good reason. I kept those old books on the shelf but they weren’t active in my life. I was presenting them to others, but even I didn’t value them anymore.

Empty your cup

“Empty your cup” is a popular idiom derived from a Zen proverb.

It means that we can’t learn something new when we are already full of our own opinions and ideas.

It’s become cliché but I think it fits well with another popular saying “when the student is ready the teacher will appear”.

What does this mean in practice?

For me it means that yesterday I got rid of all the “answers” sitting on my shelf, all the tomes of dead wisdom and intellectual esoterica that I’ve been carrying around as part of my identity, like a sticker saying “ask me about my philosophical background!”

And these non-answers, like the proverbial overflowing tea-cup, kept me from receiving actual answers and insights and wonderful coincidences.

So this morning as I walked home after dropping my son at school I bumped into a friend and enjoyed a conversation that was a perfect match for where I am at today.

He talked about his business and his own desire for spiritual growth. He told me he had never really cared about money, but now he saw money as just a vehicle for going where he wants to go in life, including being able to visit the spiritual teachers he most wants to meet.

His sincere words affirmed my own efforts to revise long-standing beliefs about money: that money is an impure and corrupting force in our lives, an idol standing in opposition to all that is good and beautiful and true.

My friend didn’t tell me anything I hadn’t heard before, but it’s precisely this “I’ve heard it all before” attitude that stop me having more experiences like these.

There was more satisfaction in receiving his answer, like a sign-post along the way, than I could ever have found digging into my old resources searching for wisdom.

Besides, I’ve already become what I was looking for in many of those books. My personal knowledge and experience outstrips what one might gain from rereading them.

So with a great appreciation for irony I’ll end with a quote from the long-dead Zhuangzi, translated by the also-dead Thomas Merton:

The men of old 
Took all they really knew
With them to the grave.
And so, Lord, what you are reading there
Is only the dirt they left behind them.

Zac Alstin is associate editor of MercatorNet.

Zac Alstin is a writer, editor and stay-at-home dad to three marvellous children, in Adelaide, South Australia. His hobbies include martial arts, making things at home, and contemplating the underlying...