Instead of being experienced as a sense of lack, the empty core becomes a place where there is now awareness of something other than, greater than, my usual sense of self.
So what happens when we don’t run away from that hole at our core? That’s what we are doing when we meditate: we are “letting go” of all the physical and mental activity that distracts us from our emptiness. Instead, we just sit with it and as it. It’s not that easy to do, because the hole gives us such a feeling of insecurity, ungroundedness, unreality. Meditation is uncomfortable, especially at the beginning, because in our daily lives we are used to taking evasive action. So we tend to take evasive action when we meditate too: we fantasize, make plans, feel sorry for ourselves …
But if I can learn to not run away, to stay with those uncomfortable feelings, to become friendly with them, then something can happen to that core – and to me, insofar as that hole is what “I” really am. The curious thing about my emptiness is that it is not really a problem. The problem is that we think it’s a problem. It’s our ways of trying to escape it that make it into a problem.
Some Buddhist sutras talk about paravrtti, a “turning around” that transforms the festering hole at my core into a life-healing flow which springs up spontaneously from I-know-not-where….
Instead of being experienced as a sense of lack, the empty core becomes a place where there is now awareness of something other than, greater than, my usual sense of self. I can never grasp that “greater than,” I can never understand what it is – and I do not need to, because I am an expression of it. My role is to manifest it.
So our emptiness has two sides: the negative, problematic aspect is a sense of lack. The other aspect is being in touch with, and a part of, something greater than my sense of self – or greater than I usually understand myself to be. Significantly, the original Buddhist term usually translated as emptiness (Pali shunnata, Sanskrit shunyata) actually has this double-sided meaning. It derives from the root shu, which means swollen” in both senses: not only the swollenness of a blown-up balloon but also the swollenness of an expectant woman, pregnant with possibility. So a more accurate translation of sunyata would be: emptiness/fullness, which describes quite well the experience of our own spiritual emptiness, both the problem and the solution.
These two ways of experiencing our emptiness are not mutually exclusive. I think many of us go back and forth, usually bothered by our sense of lack, but also occasionally experiencing our emptiness more positively as a source of spontaneity and creativity, like athletes do when they are “in the zone.” The point isn’t to get rid of the self: that’s not possible, for there is no self and never has been. Nor do we want to get rid of the sense of self: that would be a very unpleasant type of mental retardation. Rather, what we work toward is a more permeable, less dualistic sense of self, more aware of, and more comfortable with, its empty constructedness.
The two aspects of the spiritual path, deconstructing and reconstructing one’s sense of self, are obviously related and reinforce each other. Meditation is letting-go, getting back to the emptiness/fullness at our core, and this practice also helps to reconstruct the sense of self, most obviously by helping us be more mindful in daily life. The two processes assist each other indefinitely. As the Japanese proverb says, even the Buddha is only halfway there. Buddhist practice is about deepening the samadhithatt rests in one’s empty core, while we also keep working to reconstruct ourselves into self-less compassionate beings devoted to the welfare and awakening of everyone.
David Robert Loy is a professor, writer, and Zen teacher in the Sanbo Zen tradition of Japanese Zen Buddhism. © Copyright 2006, David R. Loy. All rights reserved. Used with Permission.