Have you ever experienced emptiness? Is it a despairing sense of nothing is arising inside of me and I care for nothing, or is it the liberating sense of moving like the wind with nothing to weigh you down? This one word, emptiness, can be used to describe emotions as wide-ranging as angst to ecstasy.
I had the great privilege of compiling and editing one of Adyashanti’s early books, Emptiness Dancing. The title emerged in a talk he gave about living from the realization of emptiness, or the experience of no-self, recognized as a core transformational event in the Buddhist tradition.
To the mind emptiness or a perspective of void is horrifying. All of our lives we strive to have a strong sense of identity, an improved personality, an expression of the many possibilities we sense within ourselves. Therapists become alarmed when there is a loss of self, and this felt experience is often interpreted as a consequence of trauma, abuse or depression. Psychology views a positive self image and the authentic expression of ones capacities (individuation) as indicators of mental health. The feeling of emptiness is often targeted as a cause of addiction and despair.
So what is the truth about this sensation and is it possible to dance instead of despair when it arises? It all depends on who we think we are.
Our identifications trap us so often in the see-saw emotions of life. If we think we are the many roles we carry we will measure ourselves against the ideal – the perfect parent, accomplished artist, successful business person, good teacher, excellent student – and the waves of good and bad judgment will measure us and usually decide we are acceptable in some moments and greatly lacking or totally inadequate in others. We hear evaluations about ourselves both externally and internally and are easily swayed in our self-concept, which cause us to swing emotionally from day to day.
When we touch a sense of emptiness we are greatly alarmed because the mind interprets this as being nobody, and believes this means we have no value, no capability or no possibility of happiness in the world.
It is the interpretation of the emptiness that makes it a terrible feeling, raises its power to despair, and leads to grief. In a few people, as the non-dual teacher Eckhart Tolle described in the introduction to The Power of Now, this wrenching fall into the void of emptiness leads one clear through themselves and into liberation. More often it is a dark loneliness that goes into the cul-de-sac of fear and sorrow.
How then, can such an internal void ever lead to the purported freedom and joy of spiritual liberation? Many who view Buddhism skeptically see nothing positive to be gained by a realization that human life is essentially empty. Yet Adya says this emptiness can dance!
To understand emptiness it is helpful to view the sky. There emptiness is vast, and its limits yet unknown – undoubtedly (although inconceivably) nonexistent. If the empty space of sky did not exist could the appearance of any forms exist? Just like the sun, the stars and the planets have appeared in this nothingness of space, so we have appeared from a minute seed into a physical form in the empty space of a mother’s womb. Our bodies are vibrational forms of matter, and our inner thoughts and feelings are like the patterns caught on radio frequencies, which come through depending on the station that has been set. We can call this conditioning, DNA, cultural adaptations, education, etc. Our nervous systems pick up stories and sensate reactions and tune us to whatever appears to be going on. The sense of “I” collects enormous amounts of data throughout our lives and uses it to draw conclusions about who we are and how we ought to behave.
Spiritual seekers generally are those who begin to have doubts. They never quite identify with what they have learned about who they are. Often they feel they do not fit in anywhere. There is some part of the heart and mind that sees a kind of irrelevancy or even insanity in the human condition, and questions whether what is taught can be true. Many join spiritual groups of various kinds, or even travel to far distant places to explore what other cultures and teachers have to say about the meaning of human existence.
Although they may enjoy adventures, insights and transformational or mystical moments in these adventures eventually most seekers will feel they are still coming up short. They begin to realize that experiences pass and do not return, and the longing or wondering, restlessness or even the emptiness still remains. At some point the inner journey will be required. This is when the silence and stillness inside may be discovered, and the layers of belief and identification begin to crumble.
If everything you ever learned or thought or felt suddenly fell away, and you could see through the many activities of your life as an inevitable passage through stages of the human condition, lacking personal accomplishment or failure, just simply unfolding, what would remain? You might see emptiness. You might feel an argument arising – of course my great work, my children, my lovers – all of it had meaning! All of it is who I am! And of course in the world of mind and heart there is a purpose to it all – you have been busy being a human in your own unique way.
But the world of spirit is inevitably heartless – cutting through the illusion of separateness, bringing consciousness to a standstill with its revelations. To discover what will remain when you will no longer be human, and what exists prior to your humanness, and thus to be satisfied you have found the answer you were spiritually inclined to seek, you will have to become naked of yourself, to feel the nothingness of space within the cells and at the core, to not only see it but become this, move as this, begin dancing as this. This which cannot be described by the limited language of mind will lean in and see the play of light and dark, form and space, miracle and mundane and be drenched by the radiance of its own beingness.
One must become emptiness, not simply look at it. One must sense the unbounded space and vastness of it to feel the ecstasy of it. And one will not stay there, but return into the unique form and play and dance of an apparent separate life. It can be confusing and disorienting at first, and of course one sees that most people are looking through a different lens at life experiences, although they also are radiant emptiness at the core. One will in the best moments be brightened by an interior peace with what is, feel free of conditioned compulsions, and know compassion for the human condition.
And so, Emptiness dances.