mu-nyeom-mu-sang (the state of being free of all ideas and thoughts)

Silly doodle of Justice Alito as a baby with a blank slate

I admire those who have taken philosophy classes. Despite my scant knowledge of philosophy and decades ignoring my husband’s rows of frayed graduate school philosophy books on our shelves, I did once encourage a brilliant paralegal in my office to go to graduate school for philosophy instead of going to law school; surely the world needs more brilliant philosophers than a glut of attorneys. (Said paralegal ignored me and went to law school; go figure!).

Here is all I have retained about philosophy: Descartes wrote “I think, therefore I am” and of course, tabula rasa–Aristotle’s idea that humans are born blank slates devoid of ideas and thoughts. I know, I know, I’m a human sponge (absorbing knowledge so effortlessly)!

I am left wondering if the Korean expression mu-nyeom-mu-sang has a negative or positive connotation. It could of course have a wholly negative meaning–as in the state of being stupid.

Indeed, it’s a fitting time to discuss being vapid. One study, whose merit I am in no position to evaluate, suggests humans are getting dumber over time. Of course today’s Republican populists (e.g.,Vance, Ron DeSantis)are competing to appear dumb. (Some are not pretending). I recently enjoyed reading a Politico piece about journalists’ hesitancy to call politicians like Kevin McCarthy dumb (a moment of civility) in favor of euphemisms like “he is a golden retriever of a man.”). I love a good euphemism.

It makes sense to discuss tabula rasa, the blank slate idea, given our Supreme Court’s recent overturn of Roe; the Court’s majority acted like newborns blinking into the light! Who can believe our top decision makers have also given the wink to New York gun owners– allowing them to don guns in public at a time of unprecedented mass shootings. Insane.

Or perhaps this Korean expression has a positive connotation. Could it mean being mindful, relaxed?

Mindfulness reminds me of my mother’s friend C, an artist and her husband M. C was into veganism, crystal healing and sound meditation in the 1970’s and beyond. She once escorted me, a shy girl who didn’t like singing or any sort of performing, to a white church-like building on St Mark’s Place for vegan Indian buffet and an afternoon sitting on the floor of a sun-lit meditation room with unknown adults; we chanted and banged tiny gongs for what felt like hours. (My self-consciously delivered ohms were very quiet).

One Thanksgiving at the Manhattan apartment C shared with her husband, C gifted me a pair of cardboard glasses that transformed light into a pattern of mini rainbows. What a delight! But I wrinkled my nose at the dining room table’s centerpiece, a large turkey made of tofu and stared gape-mouthed at the eccentric, warm guests such as a tall woman who introduced herself to me as Beeboo the Goddess of roller skating and looked the part with her flowing locks, bohemian skirt and turquoise skates that supposedly transported her through the streets of NYC.

I’ve indeed rolled my eyes at the cult of mindfulness. I recall the time I took classes with a yoga teacher who was a former prosecutor. When I once asked her the whereabouts of the restroom before class (admittedly, the restroom was clearly marked and-dope!-I just couldn’t find it), she looked up from her down dog pose, scowled at me and said “you’re such a spazz.” Kind. Years ago, my mother in law very generously once took me to a two-day yoga convention at the Marriott hotel where I sweated with the masses and observed well known yoga gurus preening in stretch wear; though I was loose-limbed and content afterwards, I felt a mild distaste. After all, mindfulness is the enemy of activism.

A little more recently (approximately 13 years ago) when I was pregnant with my first kid, I visited C at her art studio. She presented me with a small brass bowl and showed me how circling the rim with a brass mallet of sorts produced a high-pitched sound. Then she did the unexpected, she approached my pregnant belly as the bowl vibrated with its shrill sound. I let her but my mind revolted. Would baby really like this high pitch and secondly, did baby really need to be mindful inside my womb? I imagined for most babies there was nothing more chill than a womb. Maybe I was wrong.

However, despite a childhood sometimes ambivalent about deep breathing, I’ve emerged an adult who generally appreciates mindfulness. I now look back at family and friends who exposed me to what I used to denigrate as New Agey-ness, with affection. After all, being free of all ideas and thoughts sounds pleasant these days, especially at bedtime. (The world is going to hell in a hand basket, no?). Sour cherry juice, art-making/writing, heated milk, wine and/or meditation are sometimes not enough at night when a mind races. Both my kids have or have had in the past some sensory needs so I used to drag them across our apartment floors in a tight breathable sack to calm them before bed. (This is a real, occupational therapist-approved exercise, don’t worry). Perhaps, inside the sack, we can be brought back to a serene, womb-like blank slate! I will have to wrestle up an adult size and implore my husband to drag me across the floor before bedtime. I’ll report back. (Might be a good time to sand down our splintery, pre-war apartment wooden floors!).

Being unburdened by ideas and thoughts is a luxury for most Americans. Meditation, yoga retreats and tap therapy are not a part of many of my clients’ lives who work low-wage jobs, many of them disabled and/or caring for their parents and/or children. My single mom after adopting me on her own, has always struggled to relax and quiet the clutter of ideas in her head. I once took her on a work-related retreat to Puerto Rico and saw her in full clothing sitting oddly erect in her beach chair on the sand, probably fretting about many things. She has no muscle memory for mindfulness. I wish I could gift it to her.

What do you do to free your mind of thought? Pop bubble wrap? Perform sound bath meditation? (Justin Bieber) Give your money away (Keanu Reeves)? Have sex? Scream? (Madonna). (At my college, we used to collectively scream at midnight during exam week and it was good, clean Midwestern-style release).

For something really conducive to mind-blanking during these harrowing times, check out this unique mindfulness journal full of creative drawing/writing fun that my friend Maggie, a NYC psychologist recently published. Free your mind people! xoxo

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