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Empty

Posted by on in Paths Blogs

Emptiness terrifies me. And I long for it.

 

Empty hours and empty days threaten me with meaninglessness. Between jobs, or simply at loose ends, I might feel guilt, shame, or the fear of not being real. In fact even my empty minutes need to be filled with reading, TV, or some other distraction. Waiting for the bus, I have to check my phone. There’s a nameless anxiety lurking in that unoccupied space. 

 

 

The ancients worried that the ocean surrounding the world might some day rise up and wash everything away. It seems deep down I feel the same sense of threat. Occasionally I choose not avoidance but presence. I turn and face it. And I find that what’s there is not really emptiness, but anxiety. If I wait it out, eventually that feeling turns into something else, then clears away. There comes a moment of blessed relief, of perfect…emptiness. 

 

That’s where the longing comes in. This emptiness permits the mind to relax and open. It holds out the promise of space in which to rest, even a sense of transcendence and possibility.

 

On my altar there’s a collage I made: images of deity and nature surrounding an window that opens onto a grey nothingness. It’s emptiness again, imagined as a mysterious void which seems to lurk behind all that takes form, the empty centre surrounded by all our attempts to express or avoid it. It could be a nothingness that leaches meaning from everything we think is real. Or it could be a kind of infinite, inexpressible fullness, an unlimited potential. In many traditions, the void is regarded as the origin of all things, the dark womb of creation. In Buddhism, emptiness is the eternal and necessary condition of existence, a state of fluidity and interdependence without which nothing could arise. In Pagan myth it is the formless space from which emerge the first principles and the first gods. For mystics it is the “cloud of unknowing” that shrouds the ultimate, divine reality.

 

Perhaps it’s right that such a thing should terrify and lure us in equal measure. But that doesn’t mean we should avoid it in fear or place it reverently out of reach. I think we can touch into it, flirt with it, even enter it. For instance, there is a Buddhist practice of meditative gazing where one starts by looking softly at a central point, then broadens awareness to take in everything around that point, creating a visual mandala that feels both spacious and anchored—organized around a centre that starts to seem invisible and undefined. Next the awareness is extended in a sphere around oneself, sensing space before, behind, beside, above and below. The mind is stretched in all directions—smoothed out like a cloth pulled tight. Sensations and thoughts flow through this cleared space, and the meditator is able to let it all go by. Let herself be empty. 

 

Similarly, in Paganism we cast a circle around ourselves and call in the directions and elements, generating an awareness of space with the elements ringing us round. This centre—where we stand— is seen as a place of fluidity, transformation and potential. In a different way from the calm of meditation, it too is empty, open. It is the space where we await Spirit, the presence of the divine. This is the space of choice, the space between worlds, between past and future, between one breath and another. It is the sacred pause, a moment of anticipation like the stillness just before dawn. 

 

How full is this emptiness! It is empty of the limited and defined, but full of energy and awareness. We can fear it or see it as an untouchable ideal. Or we can allow ourselves to slip into it for those moments out of time in which we agree not to be our ordinary selves, not to know what we think we know, and so open ourselves to both terror and love, fear and transcendence.

 

Right here, right now. This moment is empty.

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Archer has been trying to make sense of religion since her parents first abandoned her at Sunday School in the 60s. She’s a mom, yoga teacher and repository of useless bits of information on ancient religion, spiritual practices and English grammar. Check out her column “Connections” in Witches and Pagans.
 
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