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“Unscheduled time” feels dangerous for some of us.  So we fill all our time, playing with our electronics, turning on the TV, skimming through Facebook.  Faced with a postponed meeting yesterday and four extra hours before me, I recognized the mind in me that fears empty space, that wants to fill it up with something, anything, preferably something pleasurable, distracting, that keeps me from feeling bad, alone, unsure, scared, unproductive.  Sometimes I feel “empty”-a useless, “don’t know what to do with myself” feeling- but know this feeling is not what the Buddha was aiming at when he spoke of emptiness.  I might fill this feeling with little house-keeping tasks, opening mail, responding to email, but not in a way that is fulfilling, real. We do have to deal with those tasks, but there is a difference between acting with mindful energy and doing things to fill a void. “Empty” is not a very positive word in our culture, not something we naturally aspire to have.

As I journaled about this question this morning, I pulled out a book that gave me new insight into “emptiness” – Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche’s The Joy of Living: Unlocking the Secret and Science of Happiness.

He says that the Buddhist word for “emptiness” is the opposite of our interpretation as “void” or “nothingness” or “vacuum,” all negatives in English. In Tibetan “emptiness” is two words – tongpa-nyi – which he says means “inconceivable” or “unnamable” POSSIBILITY. His words gave me a whole new, very positive view of this word I see often as a goal of Buddhist meditation. It is a state in which “anything can arise, anything can happen.” It is a place of “unlimited potential for anything to appear, change or disappear.”

“Physicists describe the state from which all subatomic phenomena arise as vacuum state, the state of lowest energy in the subatomic universe. In the vacuum state, particles continually appear and disappear. So, although seemingly empty, this state is actually very active, full of the potential to produce anything whatsoever. In this sense, the vacuum shares certain qualities with the ‘empty quality of the mind.‘ Just as the vacuum is considered ‘empty,’ yet is the source from which all manner of particles appear, the mind is essentially ‘empty’ in that it defies absolute description. Yet out of this indefinable and incompletely knowable basis, all thoughts, emotions and sensations perpetually arise.” (p. 59-60)

Our resistance to becoming ‘empty’ might be a resistance to dissolving into nothingness, having no purpose, becoming the ‘hole in the doughnut,’ losing our sense of self. But this new definition of emptiness as “inconceivable possibility” helps free me from that fear, as does the reality of Interbeing.  Freedom comes not by just reading the words, but in meditation trying to rest my active mind, to hold any little fears, anger, worry that might arise in meditation for a few moments, greeting the feelings as old friends who pop in to let me know that they are still present in my life. Instead of getting totally wrapped up in their gloomy projections of the future or the messy bogs of the past, I hold them gently, smiling, then let them go, so something new can arise in my mind.

Yesterday’s four extra hours were a gift I could invite with anticipation of the surprises it would bring or waste it away.  Part of me was delighted to have the time to decide for myself what I wanted to do and part was confused by this new opportunity.  I decided to look at my feelings, journal, share with a friend, hear her advice, and enjoy whatever happened next.  When I emailed a meditation teacher friend, she suggested that I “just BE.” She said, “In the unexpected SPACE I sometimes find myself inspired.” She is writing three books at the moment, so her inspirations benefit others greatly.  I found a plan forming in my mind to spend more time outdoors, to join a Qi Gong class, go to a meeting that inspires me, take time to rest, read, relax, not escape into mindless activities when tempted.

Theoretically, I know this. I have practiced meditation in some form for decades. I teach meditation, just gave a retreat for women on Mindfulness last weekend. But there is strong energy in me of DOing rather than BEing. It is a practice, a daily challenge, for me to just BE, to do nothing, to allow my body, mind and spirit the space to relax, to be part of the vast, exciting, unfolding universe of which I am a small part. Why not let myself go with the flow of the rest of the day, do my best to practice “emptiness” as “ inconceivable possibility” today rather than “nothingness” or “void.”  Who knows what might happen?  Out of the darkness might come stars and a rising sun.

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3 Comments

    • Mary Seematter
    • Posted September 22, 2014 at 11:36 am
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    • Reply

    Thank you, Joann. I have the same issues. One of the best pieces of spiritual advice I ever received is pretty brief. Show up. Let go of the outcome.

    • Isn’t it amazing that we still – after so many years on a spiritual path together – get to keep learning and growing. Thank you for “Show up. Let go of the outcome.” I’ll use it TODAY!

  1. Thanks.


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