If I told you I was feeling empty, would you immediately feel sorry for me and start to suggest how I might find fulfilment?
And when you yourself feel empty, do you think that you must be doing something wrong to be feeling this way?
For some reason we think emptiness is undesirable. We associate it with lack, and assume it is a vacuum that needs to be filled.
This was my way of thinking too. Each time I experienced this emptiness, I felt that I had to do something about it. Find a purpose, do more charity, or whatever it took so that I would be ‘filled’ again.
Then it hit me. I had worked hard to be this empty. I had deliberately created this space years ago. I had pared down my belongings, minimized my commitments, eliminated the non-essentials. All this naturally left spaces in my routine and my consciousness. Yet I didn’t appreciate the actual feeling of emptiness because I had been conditioned to think emptiness was a negative.
What about you? Do you view emptiness as positive or negative?
A negative view of emptiness
How did we come to reject emptiness? A few possible explanations:
- We associate emptiness with psychological problems. Since emptiness is thought by psychologists to be a symptom of deeper problems like social alienation and drug addiction, we feel that there must be something wrong with us if we too experience emptiness.
- We understand emptiness to be the opposite of fullness. ‘Fullness’ is a word with positive meaning, and therefore we think its opposite must be negative by definition. This stems from dualistic thinking, where we try to classify everything as right vs wrong, good vs bad.
- We are unaccustomed to feelings of emptiness. Modern living puts so many pressures on our time that our routines and minds are packed from a young age. When we have gaps in our routine or thoughts, we are not used to the emptiness and cannot deal with it, so we gravitate back to busy-ness.
A non-negative view of emptiness
Let’s consider alternative views that embrace emptiness as a neutral or even positive state:
- Most of our universe is emptiness which is not good or bad, it just is. Within that space, countless galaxies and life forms can exist. Emptiness is a necessary backdrop against which life can stand out and move about.
- Buddhist philosophy embraces emptiness. The aim of many forms of meditation is to arrive at emptiness. The paradox “form is emptiness; emptiness is form” is a Buddhist classic.
- Emptiness is a necessary part of good design. The use of space in designing houses, buildings, and cities can make the difference between ugly clutter and elegant simplicity.
Emptiness and fullness
A full cup cannot contain any more. An empty cup allows you to be filled with anything. If you feel empty, rejoice, because you have the space to contain all that life has to offer.
I’ve learnt to appreciate the emptiness because I once craved it. Many years ago I didn’t feel very much. I wrote in my journal that I wanted “to be empty enough to experience the highest highs and the lowest lows”, so life would be an exhilarating roller coaster ride.
My recent emptiness has allowed both sadness and joy to wash over me and fill the void, while allowing the feelings to flow out just as easily. I cry over sad movies or thoughts; yet minutes later, I am perfectly serene and happy. A simple, quiet joy flows into me as I watch a squirrel scurrying along my jogging track, and just as quickly gets left behind as I continue jogging.
The next time you feel empty, don’t fight it. Don’t even judge it as something undesirable. Allow yourself to experience the emptiness for all that it is, and all that it is not. Make peace with it. See what it reveals. See where it takes you.
If you want to go a step further and seek this emptiness, you could:
- Practise meditating.
- Give up one non-essential routine activity.
- Live one month without a goal to achieve.
- Take a day off and plan to do nothing.
- Turn off your phone for a day.
- Stay away from your computer for 3 days.
- Lock yourself into your room for a weekend.
- Refuse to read anything for a day.
- Donate your TV to charity.
I wish you enough fullness that you can appreciate emptiness, and enough emptiness that you can experience fullness.