Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Emptiness vs. Lack

Lately my spiritual reading has been divided between a book by Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hahn and poetry by the Sufi mystic Rumi. One thing in particular that fascinates me is the way in which two such different spiritual paths can converge on similar ideas. Lately I've noticed how both Thich Nhat Hahn and Rumi talk about emptiness as a key element of spirituality.

At first I found myself a little resistant. In our culture, emptiness implies an absence, an unfilled need. Emptiness, in other words, is bad. But then my poet tendencies kicked in, and I started to think about emptiness in other ways. In the Christian tradition, the principle of sacrifice turns up again and again--both the great sacrifice of Christ, but also the smaller ways in which his followers can abandon their sins and weaknesses, give up our wants in the moment for something better in the future.

It occurred to me that the common denominator in all these faith ways is the idea of emptiness as potentiality: creating space for something better and higher, rather than merely going without. Emptiness is a state of readiness, where the person who seeks greater insight prepares a place for that insight. It's like leaving a field fallow one year so it's ready for seeds and summer's growth the next.

Maybe it's a symptom of the core problem in our society that we see emptiness not as potential, but lack. A friend and I were discussing what we call 'the famine mentality' recently. It's at the root of our unhealthy relationship with food and my tendency to buy more books than I can read. I know there's a hole, and I grasp at ways to fill it.

It manifests in broader ways, too: the sense that immigrants will steal jobs or pose a threat to safety. The worship of financial ruthlessness over generosity. The zero-sum approach to relationships of all kinds, from romance and marriage to parenting and friendship. If I can only see my own loss in someone else's gain or success, there's only lack, not emptiness. Consumed by the need for more to fill the hole, I've left no room for the possibility of joy and peace.

There's a great deal of anger and blame going around, over what's gone wrong in our world. And there's much to fear. But I think we won't get better until we stop seeing only what we lack, and start cultivating an empty place--an open place--for hope and kindness.

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