I, Empty and Silent

by Christopher Lovejoy on November 11, 2012

“Be still, and know that I am present.”

This declaration is a potent way to begin a meditation in silence.

In a place of silence, in a space reserved for reverence, below and beyond the hubbub of chatter, dwells Presence.

Silence … Reverence … Presence.

Being present allows me to welcome the full intensity of my anxiety as and when it arises.

Staying true to my conviction that I can learn, grow, awaken, enlighten, evolve, and ascend in response to what happens in my life, even the worst of it, allows me to welcome anxiety around any tragedy that I might witness, even survive.

Staying true to my intention to live consciously and fully allows me to welcome anxiety in response to a living death.

If truth be told, not many of us make time for silence, reverence, and presence.

In light of what I’ve just written, I think you know why.

Caught unawares, anxiety is uncomfortable, even distressing, but then, so is being a witness to tragedy or to a living death.

Who among us care enough to open (the senses), soften (the tension), and deepen (the breath) in response to any of this?

Am I willing to be still, to know that I am present?

Tao Te Ching, Verse 11

Strictly speaking, there is no empty space per se; there is no silence per se. Not really, not absolutely.

With quantum fluctuations in the so-called vacuum of space, empty space is not so empty. With leaves rustling or with pins dropping in near-absolute silence, silence is not so silent.

Profoundly, relatively empty space as well as profound, relative silence do exist, however, and these backdrops to perceptions of nothingness and non-being serve us well in so many ways.

Thirty spokes
converge upon a single hub;
it is on the hole in the center
that the use of the cart hinges.

Shape clay into a vessel;
it is the space within that makes it useful.
Carve fine doors and windows,
but the room is useful in its emptiness.

The usefulness of what is
depends on what is not.

Ref: Change Your Thoughts, Change Your Life: Living the Wisdom of the Tao

The usefulness of what is depends on what is not.

True.

And not just the usefulness of what is, but the reality, the truth, the goodness, the righteousness, the beauty, and the purity of what is depends inextricably, by way of contrast, on what is not.

My Impressions of the Verse

I cannot question anything about this verse except this: it’s not complete.

The focus is strictly on usefulness, which is fine as far as it goes, but it doesn’t go far enough.

We all know of people who live their lives strictly within the bounds of usefulness. They live by one standard and one standard only: “Is it useful? Am I useful? Are you useful? Are they useful? If not, it, I, you, and they are less than worthy.”

These impoverished souls are impoverished only by virtue of contrast. To them, and others like them, they’re doing just fine.

Let us care enough not to get trapped inside the bounds of usefulness.

Thirty spokes
converge upon a single hub;
it is on the hole in the center
that the use of the cart hinges.

Shape clay into a vessel;
it is the space within that makes it useful.
Carve fine doors and windows,
but the room is useful in its emptiness.

Place one hundred pictures on a blank wall and you get either a clutter or a collage, but place one picture in the centre of that same wall and you make a statement about the significance of that picture.

Occupy the void at the center of your Being to meditate at peace in the midst of a cacophony of sound, but occupy the silence that surrounds you to allow your inner guidance to have its way and its say.

The usefulness of what is
depends on what is not.

The significance of what is depends on what is not. The relevance of what is depends on what is not.

Implications for Personal Fulfillment

What implications might a healthy, vital relationship with the void have for personal fulfillment?

In my post On Living Naturally, I introduced notions of nature, nurture, and culture.

Ideally, with respect to nature, I know who I am and I feel at ease with who I am as I remain a witness to having my needs met.

Ideally, with respect to nurture, I welcome and create opportunities to give and receive, to love and be loved, to care and be cared for.

Ideally, with respect to culture, I bless those desires that accord with my nature and respect my nurture so that I might fulfill them with relative ease in a moral, social context.

In light of these ideals, however, I persist unconsciously in being a living contradiction in terms …

I resist uncertainty knowing that uncertainty is a stimulus for my creative freedom; I deny impermanence knowing that impermanence is what makes my life precious and potent; I evade being present to my experience knowing that being present to my experience is the source of my creative power; I defend a stable notion of myself knowing that it’s renewable and refreshable with each passing moment; and I avoid taking deep responsibility for myself even when I know that the more responsibility I take, the more fully alive I become.

I resist the void; I deny it, evade it, and defend myself against it. In short, I avoid the void.

If anxiety is a fear that never gets processed (acknowledged, experienced, integrated), then the anxiety I feel in or around or above the void is a chronic fear of being swallowed whole.

Do you avoid the void?

Be honest with me. Do you? If so, why? Why are you so afraid of the void?

Are you afraid of tragedy striking? Are you afraid of being abandoned, of succumbing to a living death? Which of these fears strike at the heart of your soul so much so that you would be compelled to avoid the void?

I could ask myself these very same questions on occasion.

I’ve heard it said that if you’re doing well for yourself, you’re generally more concerned about being murdered, but that if you’re not doing so well, you’re generally more concerned about committing suicide. I also think it reasonable that if you’re relatively well-off, you’d be more attuned to the possibilities of tragedy striking, but if you’re not so well-off, you’d be more attuned to the possibilities of succumbing to a living death.

I’ve observed two basic approaches to life:

  1. life is a moral exercise, a series of lessons, to be overcome with courage and determination or with patience and perseverance
  2. life is an aesthetic experience, a series of meetings and meetups, to be invited, even welcomed, with peace, love, joy, and bliss

If the motto of the first approach, of those who live their lives like perpetual students, is “live long and prosper”, then the motto of the second approach, of those who live their lives as artists or healers, is “live and let live”.

Which brings us back to the void …

Each basic approach to life has its own answer to the void.

Earlier this year, I wrote a post called My Anchor to Reality. In my introduction to this post, I shared a personal account of slipping into the void that had me terrified and then wholly present to my experience after the terror melted away.

This was not a warm, dark womb that I experienced. Rather, the experience was more akin to a spontaneous vacillation between pure witness and pure nothingness, between “I am I” and “I am that”. Any perception of the ordinary descriptors – cold, dark, dry, empty – fell away.

It was a void as pure as anything I have ever experienced.

If life is a moral exercise, then the void is a blackboard to experience the imposition of your will (to make it so), but if life is an aesthetic experience, then the void is a canvas to welcome encounters as they arise in your experience of the witness (to let go and let be).

Throughout much of my life, I was inclined to view life either as a religious and moral exercise in seeking unity through consistency or as a spiritual and aesthetic experience of allowing harmony through neutrality. I know enough now not to give priority to one over the other.

If life is a moral exercise, then the void is a blackboard that draws me down into the depths of soul to engage the lessons of life and love, but if life is an aesthetic experience, then the void is a canvas from which to welcome and respond to my experience as a witness to life and love.

At this point, I would be remiss if I did not share the observations of those who have clinically died and come back to tell the tale.

There are those who have undergone comprehensive reviews of their lives, who have been told in no uncertain terms “you have more work to do; you must go back” or “you can do more to love; you can do better.” For them, “we are always at choice to love or not to love.”

For these souls, life is predominantly a religious and moral exercise. Their imperative in life often becomes “love, love, love.”

And then there are those who have undergone life reviews, who have caught glimpses of their futures, realizing that their entire lives have already been scripted. For them, “we are human beings, not human doings; we have one choice and one choice only: to be or not to be.” To be … or to push, push, push, force, force, force, drive, drive, drive ourselves to have, do, and become, behave, perform, and improve, succeed, commit, and excel.

For these souls, life is mostly a spiritual and aesthetic experience. Their offering is simply this: “be as you are where you are.”

What are we to make of this apparent contradiction? How might it be resolved?

I would say this in response: if you’ve mastered the lesson of love, if you’ve realized that love is already integral to who you are, then the script for your life is there to be enjoyed by consciously allowing, observing, accepting, and releasing each and every perceived and perceivable moment of your life.

As I hinted above, there are five apertures on the lenses of perception that can give us five terrifying, yet potentially exhilarating glimpses into the void: uncertainty, impermanence, absence, chaos, and confusion.

Here again are the statements that correspond with each of these five apertures:

  1. I resist uncertainty knowing that uncertainty is a stimulus for my creative freedom
  2. I deny impermanence knowing that impermanence makes my life precious and potent
  3. I evade being present to my experience knowing that presence is the source of my creative power
  4. I defend a stable notion of myself knowing that it’s renewable with each passing moment
  5. I avoid taking deep responsibility for myself knowing that the more I take, the more alive I become

Seeking to secure the essential, existential positives of life through experience – viz., certainty, permanence, presence, stability, and clarity – carries a price. The more I insist on one (say, certainty), the more intense will my experience be of its opposite (say, uncertainty).

These dualities in human experience are not necessarily a bad thing, as is evident by the five statements above. The main challenge lies in physically, mindfully, heartfully, soulfully, spiritually, creatively incorporating these five essential, existential negatives into your life.

For the lover intent on loving, on making it so, I would simply say this: relax. Relax into being the essence of love that you already are; embody this love in all that you say and do; release and relieve yourself of any mad, bad, sad compulsion to give or to get the love.

For the loving witness intent on releasing, on letting it be, letting it go, and going with the flow, be a loving witness to the resistance and the reactivity – your own and others, within and without. That is, be a loving witness to these essential sources of existential anxiety:

  1. Uncertainty, which is your stimulus to apply creative freedom
  2. Impermanence, which is your stimulus to express a reverence for life
  3. Absence, which is your stimulus to be present to your power to manifest
  4. Chaos, which is your stimulus to be spontaneous and adapt
  5. Confusion, which is your stimulus to seek clarity and find vitality

Welcome the anxiety that surrounds uncertainty, impermanence, absence, chaos, or confusion.

Better yet, allow yourself to experience anxiety around uncertainty, impermanence, absence, chaos, and confusion while being open and receptive to a satisfying and fulfilling experience of their opposites: certainty, permanence, presence, stability, and clarity.

Allow the emergence of these five fundamental dualities to experience them as choices:

  1. in this moment, here and now, do I welcome liberation or must I be a witness to restriction?
  2. in this moment, here and now, do I welcome unification or must I be a witness to separation?
  3. in this moment, here and now, do I welcome creation or must I be a witness to destruction?
  4. in this moment, here and now, do I welcome expansion or must I be a witness to contraction?
  5. in this moment, here and now, do I welcome facilitation or must I be a witness to limitation?

As you bring these choice points into awareness, ask yourself …

Observing my state of mind and being throughout the day, where am I tending to resist or react?

Am I tending to resist or react to moments of restriction, separation, destruction, contraction, or limitation?

Alternatively, you might prefer to flip the questions, asking yourself …

Observing my state of mind and being throughout the day, where am I tending to allow or respond?

Am I tending to allow or respond to moments of liberation, unification, creation, expansion, or facilitation?

For myself, I’ve identified my ideal state of mind and being as being one of clarity, buoyancy, serenity, and vitality.

As I mention on my home page, these four indicators – a clear focus, a buoyant mood, a serene outlook, and a vital spirit – express a continuity of personal fulfillment, which is supported and sustained daily by moments of physical and emotional satisfaction.

As clarity, buoyancy, serenity, and vitality conspire to produce an ideal state, it is much easier to be a witness to the essential negatives of restriction, separation, destruction, contraction, and limitation, even as I welcome and surf their positive polar opposites.

As I see it, this is a twofold process:

  1. cultivate a state of mind and being where you are clear, buoyant, serene, and vital most (if not all) of the time; and
  2. follow a method that effectively and efficiently enables you to allow and observe, welcome and follow the dualities

The first requires a fairly extensive knowledge and practice of those daily habits that serve to obtain, retain, and sustain health, fitness, and vitality. The second requires a keen awareness of your pain points, i.e., insight into what you find intolerable as you go about your day.

Perhaps you find anger intolerable, in yourself or from others, but have no problem expressing love and joy.

Perhaps you’re scared to death of intimacy with a man or woman, but have no problem being intimate with nature or a work of art.

Perhaps you dislike or detest the use of deception and manipulation, but have no problem evading your truth or telling white lies.

We live in a world of hype where we’re constantly conditioned to repress existential anxiety around what we remember or anticipate as being intolerable. With each act of repression, we become less clear, less buoyant, less serene, less vital.

For example …

Someone is angry at one person, but takes it out on another; someone hides the real reason why s/he feels what s/he feels by making up a false one; or someone is distressed by something that occurs but pretends that something else is to blame for what happened.

These daily acts of repression quell the anxiety but they also quash the vitality.

Each tiny act of displacing, rationalizing, or pretending adds up – not unlike paying a doubling of pennies every day for 28 days. In just 28 days, you’ve got a pot boiler of repressed emotion ready to explode – or express “creatively”.

But this is just the proverbial tip of a rather large, unpleasant iceberg.

Let’s also talk about the dreaded patterns, all of which relate to the dualities.

Patterns involve hiding and harboring inclinations to restrict, separate, destroy, contract, or limit.

  • Not being able to process uncertainty, someone closes down and restricts being, loving, knowing
  • Not being able to process impermanence, someone merges with others or withdraws altogether
  • Not being able to process absence, someone lashes out with the intent to undermine or destroy
  • Not being able to process chaos, someone under-estimates or over-estimates real capabilities
  • Not being able to process confusion, someone plays small and retreats to safety and security

The void has many faces, each one as scary as the next, and these five strategies to quell deep anxiety, in a bid to find and feel some measure of safety, carries a price – again, less energy, less clarity, less buoyancy, less serenity, less vitality.

I might be asking too much of most, but if I were to encourage intimacy with the void, I would suggest the following:

Start with presence. In centering prayer or meditation, be present, be a loving witness to what is absent in your life, and then, after dropping this anchor of presence into the sea of Being, welcome any anxiety around uncertainty, impermanence, chaos, or confusion.

Against a backdrop of silence, acknowledge the anxiety, welcome it, give it some space to be there; inquire thoughtfully, intimately, gratefully: “thank you for showing up; perhaps you’re ready to show me what this is all about?”

Express, by way of text, image, object, or action, what this is all about. Be a channel for the anxiety that arises to explore the nuances of your relationship with uncertainty, impermanence, absence, chaos, or confusion – as well as their positive polar opposites.

Be still and know that you are present. Acknowledge. Inquire. Express. Explore. This process is ongoing.

For as long as I live, love, learn, and grow, I expect to feel anxious around uncertainty, impermanence, absence, chaos, and confusion. I view existential anxiety with enough respect to know that it’s likely to occur on and off in some form until my last dying breath.

I intend to have existential anxiety serve me rather than own me. How about you?

“I, empty and silent, can be a witness to a healthy, vital relationship with the void.”

Next up: Living and Trusting

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This post is one of many in an ongoing series that began here.

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