The essay was written after several counseling sessions with clients dealing with a deep sense of despair. After contemplating the foundation of suffering, and immersing myself in several books on the idea of emptiness, I sat down and put my thoughts into words. I completed this essay after 3 days at Starbucks, and copious amounts of triple espressos. I completed this essay with the song “Goose Bumps” by Wicked and Wild (EDM music) playing on Pandora.
“It’s not supposed to happen like this; this just isn’t fair,” is what she said as she exposed her wounds of deep despair. Her immaculate dream of traveling the world with her husband of 48 years, now shattered by a debilitating form of dementia that has left her bright engineering husband unable to even converse. Babbling and wondering aimlessly around the facility that cares for him, she watches him from across the room as her idyllic picture loses all the vibrant color and begins the process of fading away. She is unrelenting and refuses to accept. Fueled by a strong need for control and order, she fights to revive her ideal picture. Even though the house of cards she has constructed is falling, she will not let go of the brilliant engineer that was her rock throughout these years. She clings to the incomplete dreams that deserve to be fulfilled. Then she vocalizes a sentiment that we all have said aloud or within: “It’s not supposed to happen like this; this just isn’t fair.” The suffering in the quiver of her voice is deep and heavy.
Suffering is due to the attachments we have. While suffering is inescapable, the extent of your suffering will coincide with the magnitude of attachments you have with the world you have created. We attach ourselves to expectations, ideals, and identities all the while thinking: this is how life supposed to be. We infuse everything around us with an essence that further deepens our feelings, judgments, and perceptions about the world around us. Even worse is that we live with a voice in our heads, and a conscience that takes all of our experiences and predilections and forms an illusory “self”, an “I”. This is the disease that has stricken us all: the ego, the “I”. The ego is made up of the ideas and beliefs that define you. The ego drives the narrative you live by. All of us live by a narrative that we’ve been constructing since we were children. The narrative fills in the gaps of our deepest existential question: who am I? Through adolescence and into adulthood, our feelings, thoughts, impulses and perceptions are filtered through the story that we live by. These are the factors that come together to create each individual: A value-driven human that seeks self-preservation through attachments to meaning. Once we are attachments are gone, compromised or given a terminal diagnosis – then suffering ensues.
My contention is that suffering can be mitigated if we release our attachments (or greatly loosen our grip) and stop infusing everything – even ourselves – with an essence. How so? By embracing emptiness. To put more concisely, living with the mindset of emptiness is to avoid infusing things and people with solid, fixed, and permanent descriptions. All of the wondrous adjectives that we fill our world with, will one day turn to dust or fade altogether. Embracing emptiness is a way to make peace with that reality.
Let’s go back to my opening illustration of the soon-to-be widow who said, “It’s not supposed to happen like this; this just isn’t fair.” She created a life that was replete with solid and predictable essences: solid conception of her brilliant engineering husband who is her emotional “rock”; fixed dreams that they would travel the world; predictable stable life that gave her the comfortable illusion of normalcy and homeostasis. Once those descriptions are solidified, they pave the way towards expectations and ideals that are just as predictable and fixed, whereby she expects the world and her life to produce the results that she anticipates. When reality is made clear – nothing is solid and predictable – she is now left exposed and raw; she now sees the illusions that guided her life and the deep chasm of emptiness is revealed. If only she would have made peace with the deep chasm of emptiness prior, her suffering would not have spiraled into inconsolable despair.
What is Emptiness
Emptiness is a state of being in which you embody the realization that everything is without an essence. Essence has to do with the qualities we imbue on something/someone that, in turn, affect our perceptions and feelings. To imbue someone/something with essence is to fill them with adjectives, or descriptions that we believe to be inherent in them. For example, you come to view your Starbucks barista as a happy and out-going, yet when overwhelmed with a rush of customers, she is an angry barista. In short, you fill your barista with an essence, qualities that impact your feelings and judgments about this particular barista. Essence is a matter of interpretation; it’s something you are choosing to construct from a host of subjective qualities. Essences don’t exist independent of human perception. To perceive emptiness is to perceive raw experience without doing what we’re inclined to do: build a theory about what is at the heart of the experience and then encapsulate that theory in a sense of essence.
Emptiness, then, is to avoid the imposition of instilling an essence in the people and things around you. Moreover, emptiness is to be empty of the affect that impacts our desires, feelings and attachments to things and people. Why is this important? Because suffering is due to the attachments we form; when we imbue the object of our desire with special qualities and an essence – and then the object of our desire is gone, giving birth to suffering. Suffering is mitigated or dampened when we release our grip, unattached to the essence of things/people, and realize the emptiness of the qualities that feed our ego. Thus, to be in a state of peace to is be in a state of emptiness.
Emptiness is a phenomenon in which we are completely free from any obstructions. Emptiness is an opportunity to step back and view the world clearly. Unencumbered by our prejudices, judgments, and biasness – emptiness quiets our anxious mind, and liberates us to the experience of a still mind. Emptiness is the canvas and background to your very being – blank. In the West, the feeling of emptiness is often seen in a negative light that connotes nothingness or meaninglessness. When someone bemoans of feeling hollow inside, they are quickly encouraged to take up a hobby, go on vacation, or see a doctor for depression. This kind of emptiness is common in those who feel lost when it comes to meaning and purpose in life. Contrary to a nihilistic hollowness, emptiness is starting point for calmness and peace. Emptiness is our true nature, utterly free from expectations, ideals, status, reputation, and obligations. With no agenda or need to continually protect our fragile ego, emptiness gives us fresh lenses to view and experience the world.
Impermanence and Emptiness
The two threads that weave the tapestry of emptiness are impermanence and non-self. Impermanence is the acknowledgement that everyone/everything is in a state of ceasing to be. Simply put, nothing is solid, nothing is predictable. Even a new-born baby has begun his/her journey towards death. To Westerners, this is dark and morbid thinking, but it’s reality. Impermanence is almost impossible for human beings to embrace because it goes against every ounce of our fiber: at all cost, we fight for self-preservation. So strong is our fight, that even though we know intellectually that we will one day die, we do whatever we can to push those thoughts away.
Not just people, but even the impermanence of things escapes us. I remember watching my dilapidated 1996 Toyota Camry being hauled to a junkyard, and then reminiscing about the day I purchased it and thought it was the most amazing thing ever, possessing a kind of infinite beauty. I ponder the same thoughts about my dad, who, as a little kid, was my invincible superhero – the strongest man in the world (in my eyes). Now in his eighties, he can barely feed himself. The full force of decay and entropy never hits us until the object of our desire is facing complete extinction – but even then, we often continue to deny impermanence. We desperately cling to people, things, and ideas, imbuing them with an everlasting life force to feed our purpose, meaning, and identity. And then when we experience death, loss, or a faith crisis, we find ourselves shocked, utterly bewildered and barely able to get out of bed and face the world –shell-shocked to find our world not as stable, predictable, and in control as assumed.
Emptiness and impermanence go hand-in-hand because the tranquil state of emptiness can only be experienced when you grasp for nothing. Emptiness is experienced when you fully embody the reality that nothing is solid, and nothing is predictable. This is what it means to just be; palms open clutching nothing, and a mind unshackled by the chains of constant thinking. This conception of emptiness doesn’t mean that we avoid enjoying people and things, rather, it means we don’t cling with parasitic tenacity to the concepts, ideals, and expectations of people and things. It means that we are able to take a step back, and simply embrace the now – the present moment. We’re not living in the past and we’re not placing demands on what the future should look like.
Empty of Your Own Identity
The second thread that weaves the idea of emptiness is non-self. If I asked you to tell me where self is located, where would you point? Most people point to their head or heart. If you lose and arm, are you still you? Are you still you if you have a heart transplant? What about if you experience a brain injury? Where exactly is your self located?
At some point in time, we’ve done or said something that we later regretted, and thought, “that wasn’t me.” Or you’ve felt like you weren’t being yourself. You have many “self’s”, for instance, when you are mad, excited, nervous, in front of an audience, alone in your house, at work, or with your friends. So which ‘you’ is ‘you’?
We all live with the illusion that we have a self. We speak with the upmost confidence when we speak in first-person, “I”. If pressed to describe yourself, you will begin listing the attributes that make you … you. In essence, the “self” is the story that we create and live by which is the accumulation of our history and experiences. But the “I” is just that: a story that we’ve created and live by. The story you create evolves every day; morphing based on your perception of life events.
The mistake we make is in seeing our self as a fixed identity. We live by fixed descriptions that we lump together to form the concept of self. These fixed identities are as simple as man/woman, parent/child, smart/dumb, responsible/undependable, optimistic/pessimistic, introvert/extravert, etc. The problem is that we live with the illusion that these descriptions make our “self” solid and fixed. To the contrary, we are a vast array of feelings, perceptions, and responses that ebb and flow and cannot be pinned down to something fixed and solid. The “you” of last year, is different than the “you” of today. As the Greek philosopher Heraclitus long ago said, “you can never step into the same river twice.” We are constantly changing, and who you were last week is not the same as today. In the past week, you have experienced many feelings, perceptions, and reactions that – even in the most minuscule of ways – have shifted the way you interface with the world.
What does all this have to do with emptiness? Well, emptiness is the realization that nothing is fixed and solid, just like our concept of self. In other words, in a state of emptiness, you’re not attached to the descriptions and identities that make up ‘you’. Instead, you see yourself as an experiencing consciousness that accepts life as it happens. ‘Accept’ doesn’t mean condone; rather, it means that you face the world with courage, knowing that all events in life – like the ocean – ebb and flow. Moreover, it means that when conflict (psychological or physical) comes your way, you possess the wisdom and insight to know that your identity and “self” is not really being threatened. Rather, like a cloud moving through the sky before dissipating, so too will the conflict that appears to threaten the “self”.
Emptiness means holding onto nothing. The intersection of impermanence and non-self is in the realization that nothing is fixed – even though we live like all is fixed and under our control. As long as we live under the illusion of control and that people/things are predictable and fixed in our lives, pain and suffering will be waiting at the threshold. Like I have already said, while suffering is inescapable, the extent of your suffering will coincide with the magnitude of attachment you have with the world you have created. Making peace with the reality of emptiness is the antidote to deep despair. Emptiness is a state of being that helps accept that everything comes and goes and ebbs and flows. Again, everyone knows this intellectually, but few truly embody this in their daily living. For when we embody emptiness, we approach ourselves and the world with a humble, open and accepting disposition that acknowledges that even though suffering is part of life, it need not overtake us. Negative emotional states will arise and fade. We need not get swept away by the torrid currents of anger, bitterness, and despair. They too shall pass.