“Become totally empty. Quiet the restlessness of the mind. Only then will you witness everything unfolding from emptiness.” – Lao Tzu
Our typical American life is very full with possessions, work, recreational activities, and very busy minds. Yet many struggle with a feeling of emptiness. We acquire more and more things, and we are, to a degree, grateful for what we have, yet the feeling of completeness, of needing nothing more in order to be fulfilled eludes us. We keep acquiring more and more and striving for more and more, yet the abiding sense of gratitude that makes life truly full and rich beyond circumstances seems out of reach.
Buddhism and Taoism have a great deal to say about this conundrum. These ancient Eastern philosophies tell us that our problem stems from attaching our value and well-being – importantly, our very identity, in our external circumstances. We confuse having with being. We believe that the more we have materially, along with having social status and affiliations, and having positive emotional experiences, the better we are. We depend on these circumstances being advantageous for our well-being, but there is no lasting certainty to any of this. So, our well-being swings with the advantage or disadvantage of our circumstances. Our problem is that in order to be okay we need to feel filled with advantageous circumstance, and this is pretty shaky ground upon which to build a life.
When the great fountainhead of Taoism, Lao Tzu, advised us to become totally empty, he was telling us to go deeper into our foundational self, to empty ourselves of all dependency on possessions, status, and affiliations, all ideas, philosophies, emotional dependencies, and preconceptions, like pouring out the contents of a cup to realize the infinite potential of the cup itself as a vessel for anything, for everything. A cup of tea is a cup of tea; the cup is full with one thing and has no room for anything else. When we empty the cup it is a space filled with infinite potential, with the Universe itself, ready to accept whatever is needed in the unique circumstance that is a moment of life.
Importantly, every moment of our life is like a cup, and only when we enter it empty can we be filled with the moment’s own unique preciousness, but we do not generally enter the moments of our life empty. We enter the moment carrying a train of previous memory-moments and anticipated future-moments filled with our subjective interpretation of what the value of those moments has been and will be, shaping our sense of the value of our life. The momentum of this train of impressions and judgments is so great that we fly on through each present-moment as we encounter it, adding an occasional strongly positive or negative moment on as one more box-car on the train of our life speeding on to some future destination where we hope to find fulfillment or, as it is for too many, just a train to ride, going they know not where but fearing it goes to nowhere.
Lao Tzu advises, “Quiet the restlessness of the mind.” Our restless mind, seeking fulfillment, is what already fills our cup and drives our train. We enter the moment projecting into it our memories, expectations, desires and fears. We have no room in our cup to be present in wonder because we are rehashing where we have been while looking further down the track. We do not know how to empty the cup, to stop the train. We don’t know that we must quiet the mind that restlessly pushes us forward, to avail ourselves fully to this moment where Life is actually happening. We don’t know that there are miracles and wonders to be experienced while we are unavailable because we are already filled and racing forward. The result is that for too many we experience life, instead of being filled with gratitude for these wonders, as filled with grudging acceptance, dissatisfaction and anxiety over the perceived contents of our lives and our minds. They are filled but still empty, racing into an uncertain future. The miracles are lost as unnoticed blurs as we speed past.
Only then will you witness everything unfolding from emptiness.” It is quite remarkable and quite a privilege to be alive at a time when science is discovering the underlying quantum field nature of reality. Just as the ancients intuited, it seems to be true that every thing arises from no-thing. The underlying reality of the universe seems to be a field of energy potential containing no gaps or no separations, truly a Uni-verse, a single story/source of Creation. From this proto-energy field arises spontaneously the building blocks of atoms – electrons, gluons, quarks, Higgs-boson particles that all become the stuff of the world, the stars and the planets, the oceans and the mountains, the trees and the rocks, the rivers and the streams, the vegetation and the animals, and you and me. All these things arise from what is a no-thing because it has no boundary, and no boundaried things within it. Everything unfolding from emptiness.
So too, our minds are quite possibly like quantum fields. In fact, the once very enlightened view that the brain is like a computer that stores bits of information in memory and has a remarkable retrieval mechanism that allows us to creatively mix and match the up to 100 terabytes of information stored in a human brain, is giving way to a view of the brain as a quantum storage, retrieval, and reorganization biological information technology that, like in the world of physics where particles pop into materialization from out of what seems to be a vacuum but is now described as “quantum foam,” so too, quite possibly, does information in the mind.
From this universal field of potential that precedes and permeates everything, both the physical world and the world of mind materialize, exactly as they need to so as to create a world of perfect balance and harmony with layer upon layer of harmonized strata. When the balance is upset by too much of anything, the balance is restored naturally, but in the human mind, Nature has created an anomaly, a phenomenon that identifies and quantifies itself as separate from all else, creating imbalance, felt as a kind of anxiety that no other creature experiences. This sense of separate self, or ego, builds and builds on itself, erroneously hoping to manage the anxiety with more of itself, but this is a tactic that simply does not work. Just more imbalance is created, in individual humans, human collectives, and in the world inhabited and dominated by humans.
Yet within us is the way back to balance. The mind must empty itself of established ideas and emotional experience which create this false sense of self. We must learn to make ourselves available for new insight and perspective while realizing the truth of the ancient teachings that tell us we ARE Nature, already complete, just as is all of Nature. We must remember the ancient ways of emptying the mind, of entering deeply into fertile silence, remembering that only when the mind is relatively free from running on its default mode of holding onto and seeking itself in things can it realize itself in its original potential. We must rediscover that only when, even for a moment, the mind is empty of running its story of filling cups and rushing trains through time can it realize its fullness as this and every moment arising in consciousness, the Universe manifesting and realizing itself, a great miracle and wonder happening as a human life.
Then we can begin to reorganize our lives, both individually and collectively, not as cups or trains that we fill, but rather, simply as witness and participant in Creation, where we and every moment materialize from the field of infinite potential that is the Universe, where our cups empty and fill magically with the contents of the moment, with what is needed to experience and build our lives based in the natural harmony of Nature. I have often thought that this is the real meaning of the Biblical phrases that direct us to live our lives “at play in the fields of the Lord” and to be “like the little children” who show up in the moments of their lives empty of the baggage of a developed ego-self, to experience life “unfolding from emptiness.” Human civilization will not collapse for letting go of the ego-myth that more is better; it will find its way back to harmony, no longer a train rushing to a burned out bridge somewhere up ahead, but rather a magical caravan that fully experiences, explores, treasures and creates the terrain of Life as it appears, fullness arising from emptiness. Our cups will become cornucopias that magically empty and refill moment to moment while we are full in the magic of emptiness. And gratitude for the miracle that is Life can travel with us as our constant companion.