march spotlight on: emptiness

It’s widely accepted across most spiritual disciplines that becoming “empty,” or draining or releasing yourself from the thought patterns of your mind, actually result in fullness. Seems contradictory, no? You might know some of these old adages: empty yourself to become full again; he who is humbled will be exalted, realizing you’re nothing means you are everything.

It’s hard to understand emptiness. Meditation teacher Jack Kornfield says it’s hard to describe, “in the way water would be obvious, yet hard to describe for a fish.” It seems to me that we can’t really get this sense of emptiness unless we have fullness as a frame of reference. Every day, our heads are filled with emotions, opinions, thoughts, and memories, and these seem to take on a life of their own with each new breath. We then attach ourselves to these fleeting moments and base our entire identities, our Self, upon them. As quickly as a thought arises and dissipates, so too our identity passes and we become something else. This ever-changing pattern is responsible for much of our suffering and unhappiness.

Yet somewhere, deep in the back of the mind, we may realize that we’re not merely passing thoughts. We begin to unchain ourselves from our human minds and experience absolute freedom, our true nature.

Becoming empty may sound like a negative thing. But there’s the promise of finding freedom in emptiness. Buddhist scholar and teacher Kalu Rinpoche describes our potential relationship to emptiness in this way: “You live in illusion and the appearance of things. There is a reality, but you do not know this. When you understand this, you will see that you are nothing. And being nothing, you are everything. That is all.”

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