Touching the Emptiness


At the still point of the turning world. Neither flesh nor fleshless;
Neither from nor towards; at the still point, there the dance is,
But neither arrest nor movement. And do not call it fixity,
Where past and future are gathered. Neither movement from nor towards,
Neither ascent nor decline. Except for the point, the still point,
There would be no dance, and there is only the dance.

T. S. Eliot, Four Quartets

“There is only the dance.” That’s what I’ve been seeking all my life – the stillness at the center of everything, “the place where the definitions are,” as Hunter S. Thompson once said.

In Western society – both secular and religious – we’re uncomfortable with emptiness. In depth psychology, it’s often equated with alienation, the sense of powerlessness, meaninglessness, or self-estrangement. Western religions see emptiness as estrangement from the divine, a spiritual longing that is painful at best and destructive at worst. We fear emptiness, especially the emptiness we suspect is at our very center.

In Buddhism, on the other hand, emptiness doesn’t refer to absence or lack, but to the fullness and potential of the not yet.

As the secular Buddhist thinker Stephen Batchelor says in his book Confession of a Buddhist Atheist, “To say the self is empty does not mean that it is non-existent. I am empty only in the sense that there is nothing fixed or intrinsically real at the core of my identity as a person. Recognition of such emptiness therefore liberates one to change and transform oneself.”

His point, I think, is that it’s only by looking at the emptiness within us, in fact, by engaging with it, that we become whole.

Buddhism, and other meditative disciplines, engage with the emptiness through meditation. That may be through zazen (“just sitting”), trying to unwrap a koan (a story, dialogue, question, or statement which provokes the “great doubt”), or chanting. The desired outcome of all three is to suspend all judgmental thinking and let words, ideas, images and thoughts pass by without getting involved in them. When that happens, all that’s left is emptiness.

Over the past five decades, I’ve experimented with a number of different kinds of meditation techniques, from traditional Christian prayer to sitting zazen to chanting mantras to yoga. Even, for a brief time in my early twenties, psychedelics. The goal throughout that time was (and still is) to come to some kind of peace and some measure of understanding, of myself, of the world I live in, and of reality itself. In other words, to touch the emptiness. Everything I’ve tried comes close, but that’s all. Over time, tantalizing glimpses alone simply get tiresome.

Now, I touch the emptiness by running.

Consider the following, which I posted recently to dailymile, a social networking site for runners:

“Barefoot and kilted, no shirt, no Garmin. Riding the rhythm of my breathing, feeling the world turn under my feet.”

That’s my favourite kind of run. I don’t worry about pace or distance. I don’t wear a watch, or even look at a clock when I set out or when I finish. I run barefoot, because that way I can feel the ground beneath my feet. I breathe, and I get lost in the rhythm of my breathing. Or, more correctly, I ride the rhythm of my breathing, and let that rhythm carry me. My focus becomes a non-focus, and the false distinction between the observer (me) and the observed (the street, the landscape, eventually, the world around me) becomes realized as a non-duality.

When that happens, it sometimes lasts for a very short time, sometimes longer. More often than not, I’m not even aware of it, only coming to realize after I’ve I’ve finished the run that I’ve gone beyond the ordinary, to a place that’s not a place, to an understanding that’s non-rational, to a wholeness that’s difficult, if not impossible, to find in any other way.

I don’t think it’s all about understanding anyway. I don’t even think it’s enlightenment. There’s no inside, no outside, no me, no world. There’s just emptiness. And that’s OK. It’s perfectly OK.

Further Reading

Stephen Batchelor, Confession of a Buddhist Atheist, Spiegel and Grau, 2011
Ron DiSanto, PhD and Tom Steele, PhD, Guidebook to Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, William Morrow, 1990
Mark Epstein, MD, Going to Pieces without Falling Apart: A Buddhist Perspective on Wholeness, Three Rivers Press, 1999
Jiddu Krishnamurti, To Be Human, Shambala Publications, 2000
Robert Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Values, William Morrow, 2008


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