In the English language, the word "emptiness" has a very negative connotation. An empty bank account, empty refrigerator or empty stomach - hardly something to be desired. When people say they feel empty, they are usually referring to some void in their life. There is a feeling of emptiness when you are lonely or when you feel unloved, injured, or abandoned.
Our first response to "emptiness" is to rush in to fill up the void, to replenish what is missing. When people feel empty they may seek companionship, or maybe look for a new boyfriend, or maybe just eat and drink a lot, often to excess - anything to fill the void. Emptiness is a bad feeling.
But even when life seems pretty full, when the bank account is brimming, the job is going well and the family is all happy and content, there is still a sense of emptiness in every human heart. At some level all of us feel as if there is something missing in our lives. At some very deep level we hunger for something more than who we are. Every human being desires to somehow be connected to that which is greater than their own individual self.
As I see it, this deep-rooted emptiness in the human heart is a hunger for "God." There is a longing for "transcendence" within every human heart whether you are religious or not religious.
Since our human response to emptiness is to try to fill the void, we often try to feed our hunger for God (for transcendence) by filling ourselves up with words and ideas about "God." We develop and consume endless theologies and systematic doctrines. We read books, or listen to sermons and say prayers - anything to fill up the emptiness, to feed that deep-rooted hunger for transcendence.
And yet somehow the hunger still prevails.
In my later years in life I have finally come to the understanding (the wisdom) that the only way you can fill the emptiness is by being emptied.
This sounds so paradoxical but I believe it is true. I encounter God when I am able to shrink my ego and enter into the realm of unknowing, recognizing that anything I or anyone else has ever said about God is not who God is. The only way you can fill the emptiness is by being emptied.
All throughout his life, the great mystic monk, Thomas Merton, was on a quest for God. He spent his life in a monastery. He was a spiritual guru for many people (myself included). He wrote many books and gave many lectures, and still found that the more he pursued God, the less he knew about God. And herein was the secret.
In his later years Merton was particularly influenced by the Buddhist wisdom that the essence of all life is emptiness. When Buddhists use this term, they mean that nothing we can say or think is ever an accurate understanding of what is. At its core, all life is filled with "emptiness," that which is far beyond anything we can possibly put into words or even imagine.
Toward the end of his life, Merton left his monastery and made a pilgrimage East where he visited several famous Buddhist shrines. One week before his death in 1968, he stood barefoot and alone at one such shrine in Sri Lanka gazing at Buddha statues, and here he had a powerful and ultimate revelation that put his entire life-long spiritual journey into perfect focus.
Looking at those Buddha figures I was suddenly, almost forcibly, jerked clean out of my habitual , half-tied vision of things, and an inner clarity became obvious and evident…everything is emptiness and everything is compassion. I don't know when in my life I have ever had such a sense of beauty and spiritual validity.
All throughout his life's journey, Thomas Merton was moving toward that one moment of perfect clarity- the way to fill the emptiness is by being totally emptied. "God" is beauty and presence beyond human comprehension. Compassion is at the core of everything.
The desert where I live is a perfect teacher of "emptiness" and I am doing my best to be a faithful student. The desert just outside my house is a place of wild, untamed, vast emptiness - so vast that I really cannot describe how empty it all feels when I stand out there on the desert floor.
But whenever I stand there in that emptiness, with no sense of my self importance, without words, I am filled with a sense of abiding Presence -filled with a sense of the energy of universal love - a beauty beyond anything I might be able to imagine. The desert is teaching me the truth that,
Everything is emptiness. Everything is compassion.