Sometimes people complain of being “empty” or of having a sense of “emptiness” in their lives. This is a painful experience of absence, of deadness, of lack of vibrancy in life. This state of being is usually caused not so much by absence, but by excess: the mind is crowded with too many thoughts, and not a lot of time is spent experiencing the world outside of one’s thoughts. Such a life feels empty because one is not in contact with reality, but rather mostly with one’s own thought-world. It might be very full of people and activities, and still feel “empty inside.”
But there is a good kind of emptiness, which lends meaning and vibrancy to life, and resolves fear.
Just as you cannot read a piece of paper that is solid black with ink and no space, there is no meaning in a life that is absent of space. Space is what makes all things possible: without absence, you cannot contain anything in a container of any sort. It is space that defines forms, as an artist or designer knows.
This line of thinking seems just philosophical, but it has practical applications. Consider our work life. When we attempt to be efficient, often we think we have to work non-stop. This is not true: we work best with short breaks between tasks. We burn ourselves out trying to work constantly. Our minds tell us this is the way to get a lot done, but it isn’t. Similarly in our personal lives, we talk and talk to get our points across to others, to try to be “right” and win arguments or at least feel heard. But good communication leaves some time for listening and thinking. In a good conversation, whether casual and light or intense and deep, there is much silence.
It is worth studying this question of emptiness in our meditation practice and everyday life. If we follow this line of thinking and really experience it in our lives, many troubling things become clearer. Notably, it becomes clear why everything must end, why there must be death as well as life, loss as well as gain. We can begin to let go of our need to always “be” and see the value of not-being. We can begin to let go of our need to always succeed, and see the value in sometimes failing. This understanding can be very liberating.
When we meditate, we can experience “good emptiness” through the pauses in our breathing. Between the in-breath and the out-breath, there is a short pause. We can learn to extend and savor this pause. We can learn to let the breath come all by itself, without any involvement of our own. When we do, the space between breaths becomes more and more a time a profound stillness of mind. This is emptiness embodied, a moment of non-being when thoughts often subside for a moment. That is the best way to understand experientially what emptiness is, and feel with one’s own body why and how emptiness can be a good thing. Once we begin to taste what emptiness is and appreciate its role in our lives, we begin to taste true freedom. And that freedom of spirit is the greatest fruit of practicing mindfulness meditation.
post by Joe