If I told you I was feeling emptiness in my life, would you immediately feel sorry for me and start to suggest how I might find fulfilment?
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, 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 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 it because I had been conditioned to think it was a negative.
A negative view of emptiness
How did we come to have such a negative view? A few possible explanations:
- We associate emptiness with psychological problems. Psychologists list it as a symptom of deeper problems like social alienation and drug addiction, so we feel that there must be something wrong with us if we experience the same thing.
- 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 this space and cannot deal with it, so we gravitate back to busy-ness.
A non-negative view
Let’s consider alternative views that embrace emptiness as a neutral or even positive state:
- Most of our universe is emptiness. This is neither good or bad, it just is. Within that space, countless galaxies and life forms can exist. Space is a necessary backdrop against which life can stand out and move about.
- Buddhist philosophy embraces emptiness. The aim of meditation is to arrive at nothingness. 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
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”. My recent emptiness has allowed both sadness and joy to wash over me and fill the void.
Now I easily cry over sad movies, yet minutes later, I am perfectly serene and happy. I feel joyous watching a squirrel scurrying along my jogging track. I have space for all these wonderful feelings to flow through me.
The next time you feel empty, don’t fight it. Don’t even judge it as something undesirable. Allow yourself to experience the feeling for all that it is, and all that it is not. Make peace with it. See what it reveals. See where it takes you.