5 Vital Things about Emptiness — emptiness is scary, until it isn’t. Once you find it as a natural state, you can then simply live
On the Way Home
We’re flying home from Down East today, and the office reopens tomorrow, June 5.
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My initial thinking was that if the heart’s “natural state” was emptiness, then surely a logical question was “empty of what?”
In the article I suggested that the heart “processed” thoughts and feelings (the Taoists believe that thought and feeling happen in the heart.) The point I wanted to make was that “grasping” (obsessing) over our thoughts and feelings led to a “full heart.”
My poor little Western mind came up with what I thought was a plausible tale. Until Jock got a hold of me.
The problem with “empty of what?” is that much of Eastern thought is “about” one-pointedness, or non-duality. We’re so quick to label and judge — we want there to be “stuff” — we want to find our place in a universe of things.
We see all this stuff around us, so it must be real, right?
Here’s the key e‑mail exchange:
Wayne: No rush on this — if the heart “wants / needs” to be empty, then empty of what?
Jock: Empty of nothing .… nada. You phrase your question in terms of “something” [referred to by “what”] … but it’s not a something issue. Empty … that’s that.
W: I think I made another leap here, given the premise that the heart is the “seat” of thought and feeling.
J: Seat in the passive sense of being sat on … not in being anything … centre of everything, which is nothing, which is no place, since all is all …
W: And still curious — empty of??
J: no object. empty of nothing = no thing. The “of” simply doesn’t apply …
J: Had a further thought .… empty of … everything
At that point, my mind did a back flip.
I tried to wrap my head around this, and my brain almost exploded. And then, I realized, there’s nothing to wrap my head around!
1. Reality isn’t
We each look out through filters. Think of wearing red sunglasses. If you wear a pair, everything appears red, initially, and then our eyes adjust, and we “fail to notice” the red tint. Add to this that every single person on the planet is also wearing sunglasses, and each person has their own, specific colour. What appears, initially, red to me, appears green to you.
We fail to notice (this idea is attributed to R.D. Laing):
The range of what we think and do is limited by what we fail to notice. And because we fail to notice that we fail to notice, there is little we can do to change; until we notice how failing to notice shapes our thoughts and deeds. Read more
This “tint” to life explains simply why siblings, for example, remember common events differently. Different perspectives, different “tints.” We often waste our lives trying to persuade others that our “tint” is the “correct” one. And think about what we say: “I explained it clearly and he just couldn’t see it.”
When we notice, when we notice our “tint,” (our prejudices, biases, judgements, etc.), and when we realize that what we believe is non-defensible, we can get off of trying to shift the world (to replace their glasses with mine) and simply act. Meditation teaches us to “enter the emptiness” that lies behind the glasses. Then, action comes from a place of exploration, as opposed to external focus.
2. Emptiness is
You can do this whether you meditate or not. Take a seat (sit in your meditation posture, if you meditate) and let your eyelids close to half-mast. Look 2–3 feet in front of you, at the floor. Breathe smoothly and fully. After a few breaths, after you breathe out, gently hold your breath (let your lungs decide when to take the next breath — this isn’t an endurance contest.)
What you’ll notice is that, for a few seconds, thoughts stop, and you are just “aware.”
I’ve experienced the same thing receiving Bodywork on my sternum. The feeling is “empty.” The “visual” is a sea of blackness. (I can “see” the blackness, which seems a contradiction in therms, but there my mind goes again…)
This is a universal experience — we all have within us this “void.” The existentialists make much of it, and equate it with the “dread of nonbeing.” Let’s remember, though, that Existentialism is a Western philosophy, and Western philosophy is all about labels and thinking, as opposed to direct experience.
Your direct experience of the void is similar to how you respond to being “in the dark.”
Some are scared, some are neutral, some are comforted. The reaction (see point 1) is personal — in other words, emptiness isn’t anything — it’s not scary, or neutral, or comforting. It’s not a thing. It has no characteristics. It just is. “Empty … that’s that.”
3. Nothing and everything are two sides of the same coin
In Buddhism, there is one reality. The oneness is emptiness, which is the locus of the 10,000 things. We tend to think “real” and “unreal,” but such dualities are simply labels. The things we see, and hear, and feel, are “just that.”
This is important. When I realize that the essence of life is emptiness, I am (curiously) freed to simply experience. In the West, the term “flow” or “zone” has been attached to this sense of inter-being. When you are in the flow or in the zone, there is no time, no space, no separation. The sensation is of being water flowing along. Whatever is happening is just happening, elegantly.
I’m writing this, paradoxically, to encourage you to stop thinking about this stuff, about “who’s right, who’s wrong” and get back to being empty of the necessity to judge. And rather than split off into another mind game (“Boy, this mindfulness is sure better than…”) to simply let yourself go. To experience without the colour commentary.
4. Be real
I’ll likely have a few pictures for you, from Down East. We have thousands of photos of past trips. Here’s the point: a picture is not what it captures. Real is real, pictures are pictures.
I see some people with cameras glued to their faces — so much so that their entire experience is framed through a view finder. So desperate are they to capture the moment, that they fail to notice that they are detached from the moment. They stare at the picture on the screen of their phone or camera, and say, “Wow! What a great photo!”
And what they are photographing goes un-noticed.
Real is engagement. The vista is mind-blowing, if I choose to simply see. The mountain is there to climb, the water to boat on or swim in. The people around us can be interacted with, touched, danced with.
Or, we can slip into our camera-like minds, and capture mental sound bites and photo opportunities. And pretend it’s real.
A cleint was contemplating ending a relationship. She described the entire conversation to me (both sides!) complete with a “feeling analysis.”
I suggested she go home, and start the conversation, and see what actually happened.
She cried, and said, “That’s scary!”
5. Open your heart and leave it empty.
The riskiest thing we can do is make ourselves vulnerable by opening our hearts. Our almost universal lack of connection is due to resisting intimacy — hiding behind protective layers. Crossed arms, tight legs, closed minds, and shrunken hearts.
Opening requires doing. You don’t need permission, or techniques, or even “the right person.” You can literally open your heart anywhere, any time. You simply breathe, look into someone’s eyes, and as one of Darbella’s Qi Giong teachers puts it, “Smile with your heart.”
You don’t need a collection of stories, or really anything at all to be open-hearted. Just a sense of the “bigness” of openness.
You do, by doing!
Next week, I’ll have another go at this, but for this week, let me leave you with a poem Jock wrote, that reprises his comments, above:
What is full?
I am full
What am I ?
I am nothing
What is empty?
I am empty
What am I?
I am everything
Well, short post this week, as we’re on the road (actually, on the plane coming home.) Keep in touch!