Often, we talk about what fulfills us, what makes us feel whole, and what we do to fill our time. To be full is good and abundant, while to be empty is sad, lacking, and lonely. Is that true for you? This post aims to play with the idea that seeing a glass half full instead of half empty is optimism. What if optimism could also be emptiness? What if we became more comfortable suspended in voids and accepting nothingness as an experience?
About 7 years ago I attended a talk in Boston featuring the 14th Dalai Lama. It was really fascinating to be in his presence and observe (from afar) the ways in which he conducted himself. One of his main topics was emptiness. Referring to the event’s program pamphlet and my notes in it, I’d like to contemplate emptiness. This is my understanding and interpretation of it, not his. Humbly, the Dalai Lama said “take what I say not as a truth but as an experiment.”
Part of the Heart Sutra declares “matter is empty…so too all feeling, ideation, formation, and consciousness are empty.” When I think of emptiness, I think of hunger, hollowness like a chocolate Santa, and white space. I’m reminded of deserted landscapes vacant of civilization after an apocalyptic disaster. Looking around, everything we see, the matter perceived in 3 dimensions is a formed ideation our minds create to make sense of the world. If it is indeed empty and our consciousness and feelings that inform us are empty, what is there?
If we lived as if everything is empty, wouldn’t that be depressing? What’s the point? This is why we feel the need to fill voids and create meaning. I find it interesting that the Dalai Lama balances a discussion of emptiness with the Buddhist principle of dharma (purpose). Emptiness eliminates all dharmas, but duality helps deepen understanding. So we may embrace both a purpose and emptiness.
Embracing emptiness is uncomfortable. We can make it work for us by seeing possibility in it, but that would be to fill it. From my understanding, the Dalai Lama’s perspective on emptiness follows the Heart Sutra. The Heart Sutra, proposes there is no wisdom, no origin, no purpose, no attainment, no elimination of death. There is also no pain, no attachment, no death, no cessation. Suffering comes from ignorance. Without ignorance, suffering, or fear, there are no obstacles that block us from experiencing enlightenment, our nature in its purest form. We begin to step into a truth of our existence: “I’m emptiness, emptiness is me.”
My personal interpretation of emptiness is acceptance. While meditating, we observe our attachments. That is our thoughts, sensations, understanding of the physical world, and understanding of the self. Eventually with practice we learn to sit without those attachments. That doesn’t mean that each time you meditate you’re doing it wrong because you’re not clearing your mind. It’s more about exploring a vast space within you that exists without the reality your ego creates. Personally, I think one function of meditative practices is to guide us through the discomfort with emptiness and prepare us for death experience. We can experiment with what it’s like to let go.
I’m not here to preach meditation to you. I know a lot of people who have tried meditation and said it “didn’t work” or it’s not for them. This could very well be true. Like any other healing tool, individual experience is important to consider. I will say, that meditation is worth a few tries. Like most medication, its effectiveness does not become apparent until after a few consistent doses. A draw-back for a lot of people, often myself included, is there is discipline and self-accountability involved. Unlike most medication, you have to exert effort for the best results.
For those who don’t believe meditation is for them because they’re “not the type of person” to sit quietly with their thoughts, that’s okay. Few people are able to naturally and comfortably do that. Practicing meditation is how you become more comfortable with stillness. It’s the same as when people claim they “can’t” do yoga because they aren’t flexible. One of the benefits of practicing yoga is becoming more flexible. But I get it. I’ve dismissed lots of things I didn’t like on the first try. I’m not sure anyone can change my mind about revisiting apple-tinis, venison sausage, or Harry Potter.
What’s great about meditation is there are so many different varieties. Starting with different guided meditation recordings is helpful. A great way to train your focus is using mala beads. Because I went to a Catholic elementary school, I find they’re used in a similar way to rosary beads, a prayer for each bead. Most malas have 108 beads. You can hold one bead as you take a breath or say a mantra then move to the next until you complete the string. Simply counting the beads works as well.
As an extra note, sitting up is important. Many people take the option to lie down for comfort and relaxation. This is great especially for restorative yoga and Yoga Nidra. However, you run the risk of turning your meditation into a nap. The trick is to be just comfortable enough so you can remain alert. Sitting up can achieve this. I find it unfortunate that our society is so over-worked and drained of energy that any moment of quietness sends us into a snooze. Do what your body needs. If that means nap first then meditation practice, so be it.
Even though I know it’s good for me, I still have trouble seamlessly weaving meditation into my routine. It helps to take things moment to moment. For some people it works for them to schedule a time each day and show up. Otherwise, do it when you remember it. Pull yourself out of a task to focus on breathing or the weight of your head balancing in space. If you say “I’ll get to it later” you’re probably not going to feel like it, will have something else come up, or forget. It only takes a few seconds to notice your existence.
Go find the emptiness of your being! If you like this page, please share it.