Thursday, October 12, 2017

Embracing Emptiness

"Abundant Emptiness"
- Outside the Desert Retreat House -

Now that the days are turning cooler, I am able to resume my daily walks out on the wilderness trails near our house. When we first moved here I was actually somewhat frightened when I would walk out into the desert because the space is so empty and so vast – it all made me feel so out of control. I also discovered that the farther I would venture out into the wilderness, the more silent everything became. In fact, at times the silence was so intense that it was too much for me to bear and I would find myself quickly retreating back to the safety of my house.  

Yesterday as I walked out into the desert, I realized that a shift has happened in me. I have now come to the point where I embrace the emptiness and welcome the profound silence.  The desert has become a very spiritual place for me - an icon of what a spiritual journey is all about.

In the English language (especially in Western culture) the word "emptiness" has a very negative connotation. An empty stomach, an empty bank account, an empty house, even an empty space on a wall conjure up images of a void that cries out to be filled. And so, the first response to emptiness is usually to do something about it, to fix the problem, to replace what is missing and fill up what has been emptied out.

As I think about it, our hunger for “God” is also a form of emptiness. The human heart longs for transcendence, we earnestly desire to be connected to that which is beyond our own tiny little self. At some core level when we feel “empty” we often set out on a spiritual journey, seeking to be filled up with greater wisdom and deeper truth. 

Yet, despite our constant attempts to fill up all the empty places in life, we often remain rather unsatisfied. A bank account may be overflowing, the refrigerator filled to the brim, a person can have every creature comfort ever desired and yet somehow it just not enough- something is still missing. 

Even our quest to fill up our hunger for "God" often goes unfulfilled regardless of what we may do. People may read volumes of theology books, memorize the scriptures, fill their minds with words and ideas, perhaps consult with a clergy person or a spiritual guru, but somehow the emptiness often remains unfulfilled. 

I have come to believe that maybe the very emptiness we experience in life may actually be the fullness that we seek.

I am reminded of the life of the celebrated mystic-monk, Thomas Merton, who throughout his life wrote volumes of books replete with an abundance of spiritual guidance. In the earlier days of his monastic career, Father Merton’s books overflowed with carefully crafted theological language, scripture quotes and references to church doctrine;  but the older he got and the more advanced on the spiritual path, he became less and less concerned with words and ideas. Toward the end of his life he would just go outside his little hermitage in the mountains and quietly sit, basking in the glory of a summer's day, listening to the sounds of the wind in the trees.

Although he was a Christian monk, Merton was highly influenced by a Buddhist wisdom that embraces "emptiness" rather than shrinking from it.  For the Buddhist, achieving the state of "emptiness" is a higher level of spiritual awareness. When your mind is clear of all ideas and the slate of all your explanations has been wiped clean, there is nothing left but emptiness. When you are empty you are wide open to the present moment, available to experience life as it is and not as you think it should be. Emptiness is the doorway to enlightenment, the awareness that everything and everyone belong to one another. 

One week before his untimely death in 1968, Thomas Merton was visiting a Buddhist monastery in Sri Lanka, and as he gazed upon the many Buddha statues in the shrine, he had a moment of intense spiritual revelation.  It was the culminating point of his long and fruitful spiritual journey. 

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 to me--
everything is emptiness and everything is compassion.
I don't know when in my life I have ever had a such a sense of
 beauty and spiritual validity.

As I walk out on desert trails each day, I think about Merton’s experience in that Buddhist temple and it deeply resonates with me. The wilderness is such a perfect icon for the spiritual path precisely because it is so full of emptiness - so wild, untamed, unable to be controlled, understood or analyzed, so many spaces not filled in; and yet, when I am able to surrender to it all, willing to embrace the emptiness and listen to the thunderous silence. I always feel a connection beyond myself.  It is an experience of transcendence, an experience of the great Mystery we call “God.”

The "God" I seek is way beyond what I think "God" is. 

Everything is emptiness and everything is compassion.

Of course, you don’t have to live in a desert to embrace emptiness.


  1. I love this line Paul-
    "I have come to believe that maybe the very emptiness we experience in life may actually be the fullness that we seek."