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The Nothing That Heals Us

In our human lives, experiencing this kind of profound emptiness means that like a candle flame gets blown out, our separateness and suffering are blown out.
03/18/2010 05:12am ET | Updated November 17, 2011
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It's the end of daylight savings time on the east coast, and it just about always seems to be dim. Each day is largely dark, and cold, hinting at the uselessness of endeavor and the insubstantiality of what we ordinarily run around seeking. It's a good time to be depressed.

This is the way we conventionally view what Buddhists call emptiness, and mystics of many traditions call nothingness or the Void. A really murky day, pointing to the uselessness of it all. But at the heart of personal, transformative wisdom, this emptiness isn't a cold, depressing problem, leading us down to nihilism - seeing emptiness is liberation. It brings us right through the seeming solidity and oppressiveness of our ordinary concerns, into a world where reality is shimmering, translucent, vital, while also being insubstantial, fleeting, and evanescent.

In speaking of the unalloyed, direct knowing of profound emptiness, the Buddha said, "Oh, Bhikkus, (mendicants) there is the unborn and the unconditioned. Here the four elements of earth, air, water, and fire have no place. The notions of length and breadth, the subtle and the gross, good and evil, name and form are altogether destroyed. Neither this world nor the other, no coming, going or standing, neither death nor birth, nor sense objects are to be found here."

In our human lives, experiencing this kind of profound emptiness means that like a candle flame gets blown out, our separateness and suffering are blown out. Not our capacity for love, or kindness, or clear seeing, or relationships, or work, or choosing soy ice cream in the grocery store over the dairy kind.

And the experience of this profound, liberating emptiness isn't meant only for those who lived long ago in far away places, sitting in caves and at the roots of trees. It is beckoning right here and now. I thought of that right away when looking at Joan Konner's book, You Don't Have to Be Buddhist to Know Nothing: An Illustrious Collection of Thoughts on Naught.

I first met Joan when she was working on the Mystery of Love, a PBS documentary. From love to nothingness, in a few short years. That makes sense to me. In Buddhism we would say that when we perceive the transparency, the insubstantiality of life, we grow in wisdom. When we perceive relatedness within life, the interconnectedness, we grow in love. One never excludes the other.

In her book Joan has put together a collection of quotes from writers, philosophers, artists, musicians, poets, mystics and folks like the rest of us, all about, well, nothing. It is so much fun, along with being provocative and illuminating, to read. Everything is there, from Paul Valery, "God made everything out of nothing, but the nothingness shows through," to Emily Dickinson, " 'Nothing' is the force that renovates the World," to Oscar Wilde, "I love talking about nothing. It is the only thing I know anything about." Almost every page invited me to take a few risks in perception, and step out of the strictures of feeling this day to day reality as all too solid.

In our society we are taught to badly want this and want that. But no matter what we get, it is never enough because it doesn't last. So the search for new experiences goes on and on. We look for new intellectual experiences and sexual experiences and cosmic experiences. Over and over. We even see people willing to destroy their bodies, their minds and their loving relationships--destroy their lives--for a new experience.

Even if a pleasant experience could endure, we could not bear for it to go on and on. Who could watch the same movie over and over without wanting a break? Who could listen to a sweet sound that never stops? Yet commonly when we seek rest from one experience we do so, ironically, by seeking another. It is possible to find rest even from the constant tedium and pressure of changing experience through knowing the difference between bleakness and what is meant in Buddhism by emptiness.

May the consideration of nothing free you from anxiety, dread, and all unhappy things. It's right here.