Thursday, September 3, 2015

Running on Empty

"A Rich Abundance of Emptiness" 
- Outside the Desert Retreat House - 


Yesterday I had a very thought-provoking online conversation with someone who had just returned from his summer vacation. He had hoped to return back home refreshed and renewed, instead he told me that he felt as if his life was “running on empty.”  His time away meant that all his work was waiting in piles for him when he got back to the office, he was tired and wasn’t feeling all that well; in fact he was already feeling “burnt out” before he even started up the fire of his normal routine life.

As I reflected on my conversation with this online friend, I realized that there are probably a whole lot of people in the culture today who feel as if they are “running on empty.” I also realized that this may not necessarily be such a bad thing.

In some sense every single human being “runs on empty.” We all have an empty place deep in our hearts. Regardless of our life’s path or what we might believe or not believe, we all have a restless spirit, a deep desire to be connected beyond our own individual selves. We hunger for love, we yearn for transcendence, we desire “God.”

And so in one way or another, either consciously or unconsciously we are always trying to fill up that existential emptiness – we do whatever we can to fill up the hunger of the soul. Sometimes people drink a lot or they eat too much or they work incessantly as a way to fill up the empty spaces in life, sometimes people seek out the companionship of others to help fill their own needs, sometimes people turn to words to soothe their restlessness – always thinking, studying, even praying to fill up the emptiness of the human heart.

As I see it, the only way any of us can ever really “fill” the empty places is by recognizing that we are empty. It’s a strange spiritual paradox that on the quest for fulfillment we all need to sit with and “trust in” the emptiness.

The ancient Taoist, Lao Tzu, expresses the paradox in this way:

Become totally empty.
Quiet the restlessness of the mind.
Only then will you witness everything unfolding from emptiness.

It's no accident that all the major religious/spiritual traditions have their roots in emptiness: The Buddha sits in silence, empty and alone waiting under the Bodhi tree, and there he is enlightened. Likewise, Christianity, Judaism and Islam, the three major religions of the West all began in a desert – one of the emptiest places on the planet.

Moses leads the people of Israel out into the barren wilderness and there they encounter “God” and are given direction for reaching the Promised Land. Jesus and also Muhammad also begin their mission out in the barren desert where they sit alone in silence until wisdom bubbles up in their spirits, filling them with the abundance of a Holy abiding Presence.

Before moving out to the desert where I live here in Southern California, I never quite understood the important of emptiness as the vehicle for spiritual fulfillment. One of my desert spirituality books describes the wilderness in this way:

The desert reminds people of things they would rather forget,
taking them to the edges.
The desert has nothing to do with comfort,
It offers a shrill cry of absence
as opposed to the easy exuberance and glib certainty about divine presence.  
The desert experience is far more given to being emptied than filled.
It is harsh and lean in its imagery.
Yet, there is no greater love than desert love.

I find so much wisdom in this observation of “desert life.”  There have been times when I have ventured out into the wilderness that have left me quite frightened. The total silence  was just too much, the empty spaces just too vast. Whenever that has happened,  I want to “run scared,” run to fill up my mind with the comforts of safe sounds and safe sights –cars whizzing by, computers humming, supermarkets and restaurants, or even churches. But whenever I have been able to master my fear and “quiet the restlessness of my mind” I have almost inevitably experienced fullness- a sense of connection to a transcendence that is beyond my control or machinations.

So, I’m not sure that it’s a bad thing when people feel as if they are “running on empty.” Instead of trying so hard to fill up those empty spaces it may me a far wiser thing to simply go to a quiet place and admit your powerlessness, watching “everything unfold.”

There is no greater love than desert love.

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