Recently, during meditation, I experienced an overwhelming sense or feeling of emptiness. The emotional memory of this had me relating to feelings like loneliness or sadness. I had felt this way before and in the past, I looked outside myself for the reasons contributing to why I was feeling this way. It was easy to blame it all on a possible disruption of a friendship or relationship, some disappointment in an outcome that didn’t meet my expectations or just downright boredom. As the outside situations underwent changes however, I moved on without much further contemplation about what was this empty feeling really all about. Of course some of that emotional, gut feelings may well have been caused by some of these outside influences. However this time, through the power of a meditation practice, I wanted to look deeply into what this feeling of emptiness was about.
I looked at my emotions and determined that this sense of emptiness I was experiencing and feeling in and out of my meditation practice, wasn’t related to outside influences like what I remembered from before. It certainly wasn’t boredom either. Being retired now, I sometimes wonder how I did all that I am doing and still had time to work. My curiosity was piqued. What was the difference?
So I did my Google, and found a number of articles and teachers speaking to the concept of Emptiness as it relates to the Buddhist philosophy. Many expressed thoughts like…”Emptiness is a central teaching of all Buddhism, but its true meaning is often misunderstood.” One third century Indian Buddhist Master, Nagarjuna taught, “Emptiness wrongly grasped is like picking up a poisonous snake by the wrong end.” In other words, we could be bitten by misinterpreting this feeling. Emptiness is not complete nothingness; it doesn’t mean that nothing exists at all. What it does mean is that things do not exist the way our grasping self supposes they do. The Heart Sutra says, “…all phenomena in their own-being are empty.” It doesn’t say that all phenomena are empty. Thich Nhat Hanh when addressing emptiness, references “interbeing”. His teachings tell us that this term embraces the positive aspect of emptiness as it is lived and acted by a person; with its sense of connection, compassion and love.
I think my search for meaning in the emptiness I experienced, was best clarified in my Google search in some writings by Ari Goldfield, a Buddhist teacher at Wisdom Sun and translator of Stars of Wisdom. He wrote, “The first meaning of emptiness is called ‘emptiness of essence,’ which means that phenomena (that we experience) have no inherent nature by themselves. The second is called ‘emptiness in the context of Buddha Nature,’ which sees emptiness as endowed with qualities of awakened mind like wisdom, bliss, compassion, clarity and courage. Ultimate reality is the union of both emptinesses.”
It is in teachings like this that I feel such gratitude for my meditation practice and the philosophy of life given to us by the Buddha. It is there that feelings that I probably misinterpreted in the past, are now seen in a new light and given a different meaning and understanding. Using this small awakening through mindful living , I see more clearly the value of experiencing things like emotions and feelings in the broader context of ultimate reality and in the Bodhicitta; which is the mind inclusive of thought, action, feeling and speech, totally dedicated to others and to achieving full enlightenment in order to benefit all sentient beings as fully as possible.
Emptiness is no longer something to avoid, but rather to seek.
namo tassa bhagavato arahato samma sambuddhassa