I am delighted to share another beautiful submission for the Monk in the World guest post series from the community. Read on for Barb Morris' reflection emptiness.
“To attain knowledge, add things every day. To attain wisdom, subtract things every day.” So says the Chinese prophet Lao Tzu, writing 500 years before Jesus.
Maybe it’s my advancing middle age, but the spiritual practice of welcoming emptiness has become more and more necessary to me. As Lao Tzu prescribes, I find myself, after decades of adding things to my life, subtracting in order to find Wisdom.
I’m especially drawn to emptiness this Advent – this season of waiting. Emptiness feels particularly necessary during these holy-daze. I could fill up every day and every night with Christmas-ish activity. My to-do list could be as long as my arm.
Since it’s likely not Advent when you read this, let me assure you that the spiritual practice of welcoming emptiness can be fruitful all year round. Each commitment of the Monk Manifesto is furthered by the spiritual practice of welcoming emptiness.
Welcoming emptiness is, at its core, a willingness to come face to face with our deepest selves.
Virtually from the time we’re born, we’re given disguises and personas to wear. At first, we wear them because we’re dependent on our caregivers and we know in our tiny baby selves that life will just go better if we become who our parents want or need us to be. Most of us, eventually, like fish oblivious to water, forget that our identities were ever assumed. We’ve become our disguises.
Here’s where emptiness comes in. After four or five decades of living from our shells, we begin to wear out. This wearing out often comes in the form of aimlessness and depression – that almost-predictable midlife malaise that calls us to pay attention to who we really are.
Here I am – trying to explain emptiness. That’s sort of the opposite of what I’m suggesting! So, here are some forms that emptiness might take in our embodied lives:
- Emptiness might take the form of dispensing with pretending and disguises. We might just get back in touch with our souls and let ourselves be who we are. We might just decide that taking the risk of authenticity is worth the payoff of real relationships, with ourselves and with others.
- Emptiness might take the form of forgiveness. We might choose to release our identity as victims of someone or something else, and see what’s left.
- Emptiness might take the form of allowing ourselves to feel anger, fear, and sadness. Rather than filling ourselves with food or booze or shopping or reading or something else that distracts us, we can simply give our feelings space to exist.
- Emptiness might take the form of white space on our to-do lists and calendars.Giving ourselves the gift of time to do nothing – empty time – is necessary for new life and new creations to emerge.
- Emptiness might be physical. Emptiness might mean freeing ourselves from the actual things that bind us. Emptiness might take the form of empty space on our bookshelves, in our closets and garages, or on our plates.
Welcoming emptiness is paradoxical. How can we welcome something that doesn’t exist? How can we cultivate nothingness?
My answer to this paradox is that emptiness isn’t really empty. It’s in emptiness that God can speak to us, and we can finally hear. It’s in emptiness that we become aware of and moved by holy intuition, guidance, and inspiration. It’s in emptiness that we know ourselves to be deeply and irrevocably connected with our divine Source.
Welcoming emptiness takes courage and faith.
(Going beyond welcoming emptiness to actively cultivating emptiness takes even more courage and faith.)
Here’s more Lao Tzu for inspiration:
“We join spokes together in a wheel,
but it is the center hole
that makes the wagon move.
We shape clay into a pot,
but it is the emptiness inside
that holds whatever we want.
We hammer wood for a house,
but it is the inner space
that makes it livable.
We work with being,
but non-being is what we use.”
I invite us to stop. Let’s notice what’s going on inside ourselves. Notice when we’re filling our fertile emptiness with identities, expectations, or busy-ness. Notice when we push away an unwelcome feeling and distract ourselves. Notice when we blame others for our choices. Notice when we’re so attached to our agendas that we fail to see God’s agenda.
Stop. Welcome emptiness, and welcome God’s deep love beneath and around emptiness. Cultivate the emptiness that allows Love to grow. When we empty ourselves of all that isn’t God, we allow God to expand within us and overflow into a hurting world.
Emptiness is unpredictable. Emptiness makes room for grace and surprise. Emptiness makes us useful as Christ’s body in the world, in ways that are inevitably surprising.
Above all, emptiness trusts that we are much, much more than our identities and our grudges and our fears and our things – we are God’s love embodied. We are God’s hands working for peace and justice and the dignity of every human being.
May we welcome and cultivate emptiness in order to become more fully ourselves.
Barb Morris is a writer, teacher, and artist living in Bend, Oregon with her Episcopal priest husband. More of her blogging, writing, and art are at www.barbmorris.com.