I am smiling to myself as I write this post because I know she will see it and she’ll know I am talking about her. I have watched her walk down the hill from my house many times and she has never looked back …to say goodbye…or to give me a final wave. Even when she goes away and we don’t see each other for months on end…she never looks back. She knows I watch her. She is a sight for sore eyes. Shaved head…flowing robes…barefoot….and beautiful. I wanted to know what a Theravada nun thinks about as she goes on her way. So I asked.
“I am thinking about nothing” she said.
I was disappointed. I thought I was going to get insights into enlightenment. No such luck!
“How can you be thinking about nothing…that’s impossible? In other words your mind is empty?” It was then that she slayed me with the Buddhist line. “Emptiness is not nothingness and nothingness is not emptiness”. What!
So off I went on my spiritual travels. Again. This is what I found.
Everyone feels or has felt empty at some point in their lives. It goes with the territory. In the western world we look at the concept of emptiness as negative. Something that is empty is finished…washed up… worthless. We have been raised to believe that we have to have a life that is full. We are on starters order and we have to achieve…to accumulate….collect and acquire as much stuff as possible. But what if all this stuff brings us no closer to happiness or the peace of mind we desire…what then? Maybe there is something in being and feeling empty that we can learn. Maybe our concept of emptiness is all wrong.
Being empty is our natural state.
When you look at a flower, you can see that the flower consist of pedals, leaves and a stem. But that is not the whole story. In order to exist the flower must consist of the sun, rain, clouds, earth, air and the gardeners touch. In fact, the flower holds everything in the cosmos. So it cannot be fully empty. But there is one thing that the flower is empty off and that is a separate existence. The flower cannot exist by itself alone. If you take away air or the soil or the rain the flower cannot exist. A flower has to ‘interbe’ with the all things in the cosmos. It is the same for you and me. If you take away your parents genes and all the elements that make you, then there would be no you. If you cut yourself your parents don’t come running out of you. Yet they are there in your blood. You cannot exist as a separate element. You exist because the whole cosmos has conspired to make it so. You exist and so you cannot be empty because you are ‘interbeing’ with the cosmos all the time. So when you feel empty it is because you are looking for ‘fullness’ in all the wrong places.
Let’s take this a little further. If you are anything like me you are always misplacing things. Not one day goes by where I haven’t lost my keys…my glasses… the remote.
When you look for the remote on the table and it is not there, you don’t blame the table. So why do we blame ourselves when someone is not there? You don’t say “the table upon which the remote rested is empty” So why do we say ‘I feel empty’ to ourselves as if it is a bad thing? We do not say “that the table is nothing”. Or the table on which the remote rested is worthless because there is no remote. So why are we so brutal with ourselves? The table is no less a table. Why? Because the table wasn’t designed solely for resting a remote as its main function. The table is absence of a remote but it has the capacity to rest many things.
How is it that we can understand the significance of the existence of a table but we cannot understand the significance of our own existence? We can understand the capacity of a table but we do not understand our own capacity. Why is it that we understand the table and we allow it to be a table in all its glory but we do not allow ourselves to be ourselves?
Sometime we look at our lives and we say that something is missing. Something is absent. But when you think about it everything has the absence of something. The short person has absence of height. The day is absence of night. You get the gist. That is what makes it what it is. A white cup is a white cup because it has the absence of red or green or blue. If we look at a cup we may say it is empty, but empty of what. The cup is full of air and air is full of lots of stuff. Even if the cup happens to be ‘empty’ at a certain point it doesn’t take away its value or its ability to function. We never say that the white cup is lonely and that we need to buy another cup o keep the cup company. We only use the word lonely to describe our circumstances. But describing ourselves as lonely and empty is as useless as describing a cup as lonely and empty.
So emptiness doesn’t mean nothingness. Getting to a state of emptiness and shredding all the unnecessary trappings of the material world could be a good thing. Understanding that nothing can be fully empty because we are all connected and we co-exist with the cosmos. Emptiness only becomes a concern if we think that we are separate from each other and the cosmos. Emptiness only becomes a negative thing in our lives if we buy in to the definitions. On you way to spiritual enlightenment you may find that emptiness is the absence of self…attachment…desire…craving…material stuff and any thoughts emotions feelings or environment that doesn’t serve your soul. To understand the true nature of emptiness is to understand our true nature.