Emptying Into Wholeness

My journey into emptiness brought me four kinds of emptying: first, to clear away some outside clutter of unfinished projects; second, to let go of the inner residue of unresolved emotions; third, to let go of habits of character, tools of maneuvering that kept me from merely being with myself and others; and fourth, to let go of the roles I occupy.

Perhaps by numbering these steps, I give a wrong impression that the journey was linear or planned out. As I looked back over my journal writings, I found a winding and twisting path, with bits and pieces of each of these interspersed with the others.

Thomas Merton writes in one of his journals:
“In order to arrive at what I cannot understand, I must go by way of that which I cannot understand.”
 

I started out on the journey with a hunger. I did not plan the four kinds of letting go. Rather, I encountered them in the pathway, as I meandered down the road, led by my hunger to find the heart of my own soul. If you took a journey into your emptiness, it might be completely different. But perhaps, by my sharing, you might recognize a few turns along the path.

The journey into emptiness led me into a sense of wholeness, a sense of being with and in my complete self. A sense of openness and relationship to larger being. I didn’t stay there. I got busy with work again. But I learned that I need that periodic emptying in order to be happy in my life, and to be happy in my work. That emptiness is the source of creativity and insight and serenity. That emptiness is the place from which to experience Mystery.

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Letting Go of the Roles We Play

The fourth step on my journey into emptiness was to let go of the roles I occupy in other people’s lives. One of my roles is to be a minister. Part of being a minister is to carry the needs of other people about whom I will be for them. One day, I may help someone with a painful situation, and to them, I become the epitome of kindness and wisdom. That very same day, however, I might not have time to answer another person’s call. So they call me again to tell me how upset they are—at that moment, for them, I may feel like the epitome of an uncaring world.

All of these emotions are perfectly legitimate for people to feel. After the first call, it would be easy for me to believe that I am wonderful; after the second call, it would be easy to believe that I am horrible. But if I pay too much attention to these outer perceptions, I lose sight of who I really am, in the haze of trying to be what everyone wants and needs.

This is not only a hazard for ministers: all of us have roles we play for other people, expectations placed on us as workers, as leaders and followers, as parents and children, as lovers and spouses. We wouldn’t be ourselves without our roles, but there is a self beneath the roles.

One day, while writing in my journal, I imagined that I slipped out of my roles, as if I were air or water being sucked right out of a suit of armor. I felt astonished that I could so simply leave behind judgment or praise, and find myself like one hovering behind all the roles I usually occupied. It felt peaceful in that space. I was a spirit that was free to stretch and breathe. In that airy space, I caught a glimpse of my deeper self: I felt myself a spark of light, a caller of spirit, beloved of the larger Mystery. I wanted to be silent, to breathe, to give thanks.

Later, when I was walking on the beach, I saw an empty crab shell. I realized that crabs teach us a wonderful lesson about letting go of our roles: they withdraw from their shells at regular intervals—whenever they have grown too tight—to start fresh and soft again. The roles, like the shells, are good things. But in the journey of the soul, we need to slip out of them periodically, or we will be unable to grow.

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Clearing Out the Clutter in Our Character

Fence DSC03309As I continued on my Journey into Emptiness, I discovered a third kind of clutter, which might be identified as the clutter in our character. This is made up of all the tools and maneuverings that we use in our relationships with others.

Does every vacation—for those of us who are partnered—have to include at least one big argument? Mine seem to, and they unfailing arise out of habits that might have some usefulness in completing work projects, but not in being with the one I love.  My colleague, the Rev. Barbara Merritt, drew my attention to the advice of modern theologian, Richard Rohr, who claims there are three things we need to let go of here: 1) being in control, 2) being effective, and 3) being right. Then she told a story that I could have written myself. She said:

Having just read that list, I was a passenger in the car as my husband drove us to the movies Thursday night. I couldn’t help but notice that he’d taken a very slow and, I believed, inferior route. I shared this observation with him. He reminded me that I was not driving (number 1, I was not in control.) I replied that he was not being as effective as was possible (I wanted maximum efficiency) and finally I comforted myself with a smug sense of being right. In less than a minute, I had violated all three precepts of ‘letting go.’ I had struck out.

One day Margy and I were driving to the movies, and I managed to strike out in just exactly the same way. From my point of view, we were rushing to get to the movie, and she was foolishly taking a longer route. There was nothing intrinsically unpleasant about the journey, yet I was worried about wasting time on the way to the movie. I was attached to control, effectiveness, and a sense of myself as being right.

Antoine de Ste. Exupery, in The Little Prince, tells us that it is the time we waste on our friends that makes them so important to us. Of course, there is a paradox here. Being with friends is not really a waste of time. But we cannot enter that time with productivity or effectiveness in mind. Wasting time is the essence of a playful spirit. We are not trying to gain anything, grow anything, accomplish anything. We move from doing some thing, to being some one.

On the journey into emptiness, the third step was to let go of these compulsions of my character, and to waste time. Perhaps because I am partly introverted and partly extroverted, I needed to waste time both alone and with others. I needed unstructured solitude, and I needed unstructured time with friends.

How often do we just take time for being with friends? After one such dinner conversation, I wrote in my journal: I feel saner, restored to myself. This is what I am looking for, finally, this sense of being restored to myself. In order to be in the present moment with others, I needed to stop doing and doing. I needed to let go of control, to let go of being effective, to let go of being right.

 

The quote from the Rev. Dr. Barbara Merritt was from a sermon “The Spiritual Practice of Letting Go” preached February 25, 2001, at First Unitarian Church in Worcester, MA.

Letting Go of Old Feelings

When we encounter old unfinished feelings within our hearts, we may be tempted to try to sweep them up and move them along, to push them out of the way. But unfortunately, this doesn’t really work. I have found two methods that do help me to let go of old feelings.

Creek DSC01248The first is a devotional practice. I turn over my troubles to the larger Mystery of which I am a part. Sometimes I imagine it with the image of a river—I place my feelings in the flowing river and let them float away. By turning them over, I am relinquishing my control over them. I place them in the hands of something larger, in whom I feel trust.

A second method that works for me is related to a form of meditation. I cultivate an awareness of what is going on within my mind and body, including whatever may be troubling me. I let myself breathe with it, and experience it in a state called mindfulness. I give it my attention, without attempting to change it in anyway. I just keep breathing into the feelings, as they are. I let go of my attachment to pushing the feelings away. Eventually, feelings will change and move of their own accord, if we give them this mindful attention.

There is no way to finish with emotions, just as there is no way to finish our house projects once and for all. As long as we are alive, new emotions keep happening. In the journey into emptiness, I am trying to move from doing something about emotions, to doing nothing, to merely being with the emotions. By the practice of being with my inner clutter, rather than doing something about it, I am getting closer to emptiness. 

The Inner Clutter of Old Emotions

Patterns DSC02538The second step on my journey into emptiness was getting to my inner clutter. When I had longer spells of unplanned time, I found myself feeling a little depressed—sometimes sad or cranky. One day, I found myself writing a long letter to one of my conservative sisters. Two years before, she had refused to let me stay with her family, because she didn’t want her children to be exposed to a different perspective on the world. I had never been able to respond to her letter. I needed to let her know how deeply she had hurt me. I couldn’t pretend everything was fine between us, except for this small matter of not being allowed to have a relationship with my nieces. The empty time gave me space to feel and grieve and name the reality between us, and write my own letter back to her.

When we take time for emptiness, old feelings emerge, all the unresolved emotions that we haven’t attended to. Perhaps that is one reason we like to keep busy. If you had a long period of silence, (and you had already completed a list of all your unfinished projects,) you might start to remember some of your own unfinished emotional business, the inner clutter you carry in your heart. Perhaps a friend or relative you haven’t talked to in a while. An unresolved conflict. Guilt, pain, anxiety, anger, loneliness. By calling it clutter, I do not mean to imply that the feelings are unimportant, but rather that the feelings are stuck.

As my own unfinished emotions emerged that summer, I wrote in my journal: Remember the difference between grief and hunger. If I can recognize grief, that will make room for hunger. Keep them separate to keep hope alive. Here is what I meant: Grief involves a process of letting go. Hunger is a kind of reaching for something. In our emotions, if our grief becomes fused to our hungers, we become too attached to our feelings, rather than letting them go. If we do not let go, by grieving whatever is filling our soul with sadness, we will not have any room to draw to ourselves that for which we hunger.

One example of this is unrequited love. If we hold on to loving someone who does not love us in return, we barricade our hearts from the possibility of finding a mutual love. Just as I had to clear away the books I wasn’t using to make room for the books I was, so I had to clear away old unfinished emotions, had to clear away my attachment to situations that I could not change, to make room for something new.

 

Unfinished Projects and Clutter

At the beginning of my intentional journey into emptiness, I wrote in my journal: So much of life’s activities seem to be preparation for something else, a kind of infrastructure. We need to fix the bulkhead on our house, prune the vegetation in the yard, make a will to protect each other when we die, do the dishes and the laundry, and so on. I wrote down a whole list of unfinished projects. I am sure if you had five minutes of silence, and a pad of paper, you could fill in your own current list of unfinished projects. 

My journal continued: If “everything else” was done—the whole list of infrastructure projects—what would I like to be finally doing then? What are we preparing for? What is at the center? Sometimes I meditate, to feel centered for the rest of the day. But then that also seems to become so much preparation for something else. What is the something else? Is there something at the center? What is worth paying attention to? The yard right now reminds me of my life because it is being taken over by invasive species. When I look at it, I feel a sense of clutter there, too. I feel clutter within, and clutter without.

So, the first step on my journey into emptiness was an attempt to clear out some of the outside clutter. When I woke in the morning, I would gravitate in the direction of some cleaning project or another. I cleaned out my office at home. I moved books I wasn’t using from the bookshelves into the basement, to make room for the books I was using, that were stacked all over the floor. I cleared the surfaces of my dresser, of the desk, of the floor, sorting and putting away paper. Another day, I worked in the yard, to try to clear out some of the bittersweet, wild roses, and raspberry bushes that had formed an entanglement over our leach field.

But after a while, I realized that I could spend my whole vacation just working in the yard, or just doing various house projects. It wasn’t even possible that I would get to the end of the list. Even if I did, I wouldn’t find what I was looking for. But I needed to do some of it. If there was too much outside clutter, I couldn’t find the space within for what was most important.

Do you feel your life is full of outside clutter, surfaces that are full of paper or books, projects that you can’t get to?  Part of a journey into emptiness might to clear out some of that clutter.  Try taking one area and see what happens if you clear out the clutter there.

Photo by Margy Dowzer

Photo by Margy Dowzer

A Journey Into Emptiness

Become totally empty
Quiet the restlessness of the mind
Only then will you witness everything unfolding from emptiness
                                           Lao Tse

In order to enter the consciousness of now, we must quiet the activity of the left brain mind. This is not easy. Most of us keep very busy with left brain activities. The United States is a country of work, projects, and keeping busy. We are a country of doing. Did you know that Americans take less time on vacation than all the rest of the industrialized nations of the world? Workers outside the U.S. enjoy as much as three times more vacation than their American counterparts. And often when we do take a vacation, we fill our days with so many activities, we are as busy as when we are working.

I know that has happened for me. I can become so accustomed to a pattern of filling up my days that even my time off is soon filled with more projects. Even spiritual practice can become a project. But when I get too busy, even with work that I love—when I fill my days with more and more activity—I start to feel that something is missing. In the midst of my busyness, I can’t even tell exactly what it is I am missing, but I feel some sort of undefined emptiness within. And so I have learned that for me, it is essential to find a time for not doing anything, so that I can remember that lost something, and find being again.

I entered this process in an intentional way several summers ago. I decided to use my vacation time not in travel or some other highly scheduled activity, but for a different kind of journey. It is interesting to note that the word vacation comes from a Latin root, vacare, meaning, to be empty. I wanted to journey into the emptiness, into the interior of my life. I wanted to find the center.

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I hope to share with you some of what I experienced in my next few blog posts.