Perspectives Issue 4: Inviting the Experience of Emptiness

Issue 4:  December, 2011

We join spokes together in a wheel,
But it is the center hole
that makes the wagon move.

We shape clay in a pot,
But it is the emptiness inside
that holds whatever we want.

We hammer wood for a house,
But it is the inner space
that makes it livable.

We work with being,
But non-being is what we use.

~ Lao Tzu (translated by Stephen Mitchell)

. . .

Inviting the Experience of Emptiness

Last night, I found myself at the end of a very full day, snuggled up with my partner, Shawn, feeling hugely grateful for his steady, grounding presence, and mumbling sleepily “Sometimes it feels like there are too many people living in here.”

I had spent the day bouncing — mostly quite happily — through a myriad of roles: daughter, mother, aunt, coach, friend, elf (yes, elf — what else would you call someone working on stocking stuffers?), organizational development consultant, self-employed person, manager of Shawn’s teaching schedule, writer, cook. It all felt good while I was doing it, but more than once I found myself in a space in between, trying to decide which role to take next, with feelings of loss, sadness, indecision and confusion welling up in those cracks. In that quiet before sleep, I could feel them again, along with the bewilderment and sense of being overwhelmed that often comes in those rare moments when I actually notice myself making decisions about how to spend the present moment that is what I have to give myself and the world.

Being the Container

We all play many roles in our lives — and we gain much of our satisfaction through doing so (though of course there are also roles we play that are not so satisfying).

But choosing what role we are going to play in any given moment can be challenging — there are so many pulls, and so many ways to choose. And so often we feel torn; even when we are in the midst of doing something we want to be doing, we find ourselves thinking about the other things we could, or “should,” be doing, instead of staying connected to what we are doing.

This other-focus is a tried and true recipe for dissatisfaction, anxiety, frustration and sadness; it feeds our sense of scarcity, or not having enough time, and of not being enough.

We forget that the role we are playing in the moment is just a role, just something we step into or, said another way, the role we are taking is something we are holding, in that moment, in the container that is us.

Lao Tzu reminds us in his poem that we are, fundamentally, empty — that is, that we are containers, shaped by our genes and our experience. There is room for us to take on all these roles because there is a space — an emptiness — to fill.

Usually, we make the choices about what to fill that space with unconsciously, simply falling into the roles we expect ourselves to be in. Sometimes that results in fulfillment, but often it is instead draining and dissatisfying.

The way to change that pattern begins with noticing; we feel fulfilled when we choose well what to fill that space with, moment by moment.

What will you fill your present with this coming year? What do you most want inside the container that is you?

What we choose, what we fill our present with, shapes how we experience ourselves and our world.

Before we can let ourselves truly ask those questions I just wrote down — ask them without limiting the possibly answers — we need to know that there is room for what might come. And that requires us to invite that experience in. Try it out, step by baby step:

  • Take a moment now to experience the stillness, the emptiness inside you; I promise it is in there, underneath all that noise. Be gentle with yourself if it doesn’t show up instantly – it is shy and quiet. Invite yourself to get quiet and listen, and then wait a bit.
  • Once it arrives, just let yourself be in it, instead of filling it up right away. You may need to gently release all the thoughts that will want to rush in. This emptiness is our capacity to be filled, which is the most fundamental gift we are given in the universe.
  • From that space of knowing there is emptiness that can be filled, let yourself ask what you are longing for, what would bring you deep contentment this year. Breathe. Let yourself hear the answer. Write it down, or draw it, so you can see it.
  • Imagine you are being filled with whatever that is. Take a moment, or two, or even three, to just be with what it is like to be full to overflowing with whatever that quality is.
  • Now, ask yourself if you really want that in your life this year. Is it something you are willing to make room for?
  • If so, choose one thing that you will do in the next week that will bring you more of what you just heard from that wise voice inside you. Are you willing? What action will you commit yourself to taking in support of that wisdom?
[There was more to this newsletter — workshop announcements, etc. — but I’ve omitted them since they are no longer timely.]

© Tasha Harmon, December 2011. All rights reserved. You are invited to share this article with friends and colleagues as long as it stays intact, with all acknowledgements and contact information in place. If you’d like permission to reprint this or others of my articles, written permission is required. Please do contact me about this if you are interested. Thank you.

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