Engaging Emptiness


 In his autobiography a Zen master, Ku Yun, describes how he lost his mother at birth. But instead of lamenting that loss, he chose instead to be grateful to her for giving birth to him.  

 And remarkably, he chose to take a positive attitude towards the emptiness he felt because of her absence! He treated the feelings of emptiness as a gift he'd been given. He befriended the emptiness as instrumental in the shaping of his destiny.  

 It was this attitude of total acceptance of everything that comes your way that Joseph Campbell held up as an ideal. In fact, Campbell saw this played out before his eyes as he spent long periods of time with a Tibetan Buddhist monk who had suffered terribly under the Chinese. Not once did he hear the monk complain about what he and his people had gone through. Campbell says that the monk taught him what spirituality was.  

 If we'd like to be truly free, as it seems to me, we have to make peace with with all that has been handed to us. Not like passive dolts, but with a whole-hearted embrace! 

 To someone suffering with a life threatening illness, Campbell offered that same counsel - to embrace and surrender to it all. In response, the woman's attitude changed and a transformation took place before his eyes.     

 The monk (Ku Yun) whose mother died at the time of his birth felt that loss and the resulting emptiness but did not allow it to glaciate him. Instead, he embraced the emptiness as a gift. The experience of emptiness was a catalyst for his spiritual journey. 

 In his forties, Ku Yun made a three year journey prostrating himself at every third step in order to pay back his debt of gratitude to his parents.  

 At a point of near exhaustion he was asked why he was doing it. His response was to say: “I did not see my mother when I was born; my purpose is to repay the debt of gratitude I owe her." He overcame emptiness with gratitude for the life he had been given.  

 How ordinarily do we relate to feelings of emptiness? Typically, we may try to fill up our empty spaces by throwing ourselves into as many numbing activities as we can find. Sometimes it seems as if anything will do as long as it serves to numb the pain.  

   “I feel as if I don’t exist”, said a woman who tried to cover over her emptiness and pain with food. All day I’m working and no-one cares, then I am sitting alone at night. I usually put the television on. It doesn’t matter what I watch, I need the voices to fill up the space." 

 "That’s when I eat. Packets of crisps, biscuits, chocolate. I just have to have something. I keep cramming it in, even though I’m often feeling so full it’s painful. If I didn’t I’d just feel so empty. I couldn’t bear it."  

 In one of the worst experiences of my life, (which I'm still struggling to accept!) someone with whom I had always hoped to be close exclaimed:  "Do not ask me to feel what I feel. I never want to go there again. Do not take me there.  I’ll 'crack up' to go there.  Do you want to see me crack up?"

 I was taken aback and dumb struck.  I didn't want this being to 'crack up.'  So I backed off, gave up and accepted that there would never be any kind of 'heart to heart' or 'soul to soul' contact with this person. 

 He had said to me in absolute terms that he did not want to feel the pain in his soul. Which ended up meaning therefore that over the next twenty years he indeed did 'crack up,' by never engaging his inner life. He disintegrated until the last years of his life were spent staring into space muttering to himself.

 I've been left with the question ever since:  Is it the case that once the capacity 'to feel' is lost, that it is better to leave the being alone to his drugs and entertainment? 

 Is it the case that some people's pain is really so severe that it's better to leave them alone? Do they need therefore to be protected from self-awareness?  Is it the case that if someone's rule in life has been a long term avoidance of pain and a determined lack of self-awareness, that he should just be left 'as is?'  

 Theodore Dalrymple, the British psychiatrist, doesn't think so. With regard to his work with heroin addicts he says: “I have witnessed thousands of addicts withdraw; and, notwithstanding the histrionic displays of suffering, provoked by the presence of someone in a position to prescribe substitute opiates, and which cease when that person is no longer present, I have never had any reason to fear for their safety from the effects of withdrawal." 

  "It is well known that addicts present themselves differently according to whether they are speaking to doctors or fellow addicts. In front of doctors, they will emphasize their suffering; but among themselves, they will talk about where to get the best and cheapest heroin.”  Dalrymple's view is that these addicts are capable of change but do not want to.  And he holds them accountable.

 The contrary view is that these addicts can no longer choose because their brains have been damaged by early childhood trauma. No real recovery is even possible.  

 My predilection is to hope, perhaps against all hope and perhaps against the evidence, that change may still be possible. 

 At this point, I intend to live as if anyone can change and can find healing and wholeness. But even as I say it, in light of much I've read, I may sound hopelessly foolish and naive. 

 Nevertheless, if there is hope it is related to choosing to engage emptiness as a way of opening up to our innate capacity of soul. As Gordon Smith writes about.  

 Smith writes that he began to relate positively to his own sense of emptiness by learning to meditate. He calls the meditation practice a way of "nourishing the emptiness with penetrating attention."  

 There is, in my experience, something incredibly powerful in practices that require a "pentrating attention" to one's own experience.

 For example, there is the case of the singer, Tina Turner, who broke out of her addictive patterns by regularly repeating a mantra on a daily basis until her inner life became strong enough to create a new life for herself.

 Among the Yoga practices I know, the chanting of the Guru Gita, is an incredible tool to focus with penetrating attention.   

 When I first attended this one hour and twenty minute chant, followed by twenty minutes of meditation, I thought I was going to 'die' (of restlessness) part way through! I found it exceedingly difficult to stay focused and grounded.  

 Through, however, that struggle to remain attentive, I experienced a shift into that deeper dimension of myself that when accessed, dispatches restlessness replacing it with stillness and an inward sturdiness.

 To spend time in practices that require a penetrating attention may be an incomparable resource to break out of additive patterns.  

 By embracing our emptiness, instead of masking it, we begin to create the conditions in which the soul can emerge. 

 Once that inner capacity of soul is activated, our possibilities are unlimited. 

 It's worth all the time and effort we give to such practices.