Saturday, October 08, 2011

The Upside of Emptiness

Usually, when we lose someone or something that has helped us defined much of our lives -- whether a lover or a belief, a job or a home, an ability or a skill -- we feel a sense of loss.

Sometimes, it's more than that.

Or rather, "less."

Sometimes rather than just feeling a void where previously there was a treasure, there is a sense of emptiness that reaches well beyond the contours and borders of the parts of life defined by what has been lost. That sense of emptiness affects all of our experience -- we discover through its sudden absence a now-missing sense of belonging and warmth, confidence and meaning. It seems that we see through new eyes, and they reveal everything to be artificial, a bit contrived. What used to be our sense of belonging and meaning, we now see as structures of a mind that we no longer occupy.

Sometimes there's just a hint of that seeing. But at other times, it's so strong that it's overwhelming.

But it's always disturbing.

* * *
The Heart Sutra, a core text of the Mahayana Buddhist scriptural canon, uses a four-part framing to express this experience:

Form does not differ from emptiness. Emptiness does not differ from form. Form itself is emptiness. Emptiness is itself form.

* * *

We often associate the sudden, jarring sense of emptiness -- the sense that things and experiences and life itself are hollow or lacking an essential stability and solidity -- as a sense of loss of something we value profoundly, even if we didn't know it until it was gone. But that isn't the only way that most of us have experienced emptiness. All who've lived to adulthood have experienced a time, a moment in our teens or twenties when we just as suddenly had the sensation of seeing the life of grade school -- all the competitions and dramas and dilemmas and challenges and failures and misery -- of seeing all of that suddenly empty of meaning. For most of us, that discovery of emptiness was accompanied not so much by a sense of loss, though that can be a part of it, but rather more as a sense of freedom. And because it feels lightening to move beyond those structures of life, we might not have even paused to consider the discovery of emptiness where we'd previously found meaning and purpose and definition to be a loss of any sort. Giving that up felt good.

Similarly, many of us who've been through depression can remember a time when we realized that the downwardly-spiraling thoughts that were carrying all our life into the depths of misery were, themselves, empty. We remember realizing, "oh...those are just thoughts; that is the way my mind behaves in these circumstances." And rather than feeling that discovery of emptiness to be a loss, on the contrary, it felt like a glimmer of light in the darkness, like a place where we could stand while everything around us was unstable, like remembering in the middle of a horror movie, "oh...this is a movie."

* * *

So the experience of emptiness isn't always a bad thing; though experiencing it in connection with the loss of something we identified with, something we adored, something we depended on -- that experience of emptiness *does* feel like a wrenchingly bad thing.

When I've found myself in that kind of strange, uncomfortable, disquieted mind state, there are three basic ways that I've responded. Since it's an uncomfortable feeling, I've often sought to bring it to an end as fast as possible. One way is to instinctually return to the things that I'd valued previously. Reattach myself to what the momentary perception of emptiness has made seem hollow. I tried this approach the first time I experienced emptiness in connection with my believing and faithful worldview. And I repeated it again and again. But despite my efforts, I never quite forgot afterwards that I'd seen its emptiness. Another response I've tried was to instinctually turn away from what I'd seen as empty and replace it with something that seemed sturdier -- more solid and essential. From my spiritual life, I turned toward scientific materialism. Hard-headed facts that seemed much more trustworthy than my hollow religious beliefs. Seemed. But there came a day when I saw the emptiness of that, too -- when I saw the mind-contrivances that I was engaged in, that the science writers I followed were engaged in. And I saw that scientific materialism, too, was empty of something essential, of solid, irreducible bedrock. Which led me to a third way of responding to the perception of emptiness: rather than turning back to old attachments, and rather than turning toward new attachments, to turn instead toward the emptiness itself, and to allow my eyes to see emptiness in all things.

I had actually become aware of this potential response *long* before I ever attempted it. To my western-shaped mind, "turning toward emptiness" sounded frightfully like nihilism, frightfully like despair. And I wanted nothing more to do with those demons. But eventually I came to see that emptiness only looked like nihilism to an egoic mindshape. And so I ventured. But in the actual *doing* of turning toward emptiness, there was not the weight of judgment condemning existence as vacuous and void that I'd felt when I'd been nihilistic. Instead, there was a little hint of lightness. Of freedom.

But it was only freedom for so long as I was willing to allow the emptiness to be, while seeing all the forms that filled my sense perceptions and my mind.

* * *
bardo (bar-do) (noun)

  • (in Tibetan Buddhism) a state of existence between death and rebirth, varying in length according to a person's conduct in life and manner of, or age at, death.

  • an indeterminate, transitional state: wandering adrift in a bardo of intense negativity, blame, disappointment, criticism and denial.

Despite the sense of liberation, it isn't easy to stay in that equipoise, seeing the Heart Sutra's form and emptiness equally in all of experience. It's like standing on a tightrope while the wind gusts at me and the sound of the neighborhood ice cream truck tantalizes off in the distance. I've given up that perception almost as many times as it has arisen in my life.

But I've come to consider those moments when I am able to stay with that sense of emptiness as powerful times. When I'm in -- and allow myself to remain in -- that sense of emptiness that sometimes arises, I find myself comfortably recogizing the death of one life, of a worldview that once was "me." But I've also come to recognize that I'll eventually enter another life. I know that I'll soon re-enter experiences that will seem solid and tangible and essential from which I'll build a new life, a new worldview. And even knowing that that will eventually happen, I can still stay in equipoise in the experience of emptiness while it is what is.

But after that's happened again and again, I've discovered that I enter the next life a little bit aware that it is both form-and-emptiness, emptiness-and-form. And I think maybe that background awareness lets me be a little bit less rigid in my thought patterns, in my certainty, in my waking dreams. I'm more aware of my own mind's contrivances, of my mind's own role in creating my experience of reality.

* * *

The discovery of emptiness is a kind of falling in love. There is a
vertigo in it: we step off the cliff of what we know and are certain
about. -- Zen Abbot John Tarrant

These insights aren't unique to Buddhism, though I found them while looking through the lens of Buddhist teachings and practices. After I found them there, I went looking for them elsewhere. I was surprised to find them in the teachings of the Catholic saints, Theresa of Avila and John of the Cross. I found them in the teachings of the Advaita school of Hinduism. I found them in the Sufi poetry of Hafiz and Rumi. And I even found them in the temple endowment ceremony of Mormonism.

* * *

In Mormon terms, the gist of it is this: the perception of emptiness can be profoundly disturbing to a mind that has become accustomed to attachment to a specific form of thought -- especially to a particular belief set that promises comfort and success by following a prescribed set of actions; but the very same emptiness is profoundly empowering when we do not resist it, because the very emptiness ("...there is space here...") empowers us to create meaning from the actions of our consciousness in the context of the experiences we have. It takes the endowment's "yonder is matter unorganized" and it brings the truth of that statement to the center of the heart of each individual.

Where there is emptiness, there is potential.

The experience of emptiness brings to our conscious minds the choice that we previously never knew that we had.