Saturday, 13 September 2014

Emptiness: The Greatest Paradox of the Spiritual Life?

In a recent “Living the Questions” group we explored “Awe, Wonder & Amazement”. As is always the case it was a fascinating conversation as we wrestled with the subject, exploring what the great minds have said about it as well as share personal thoughts and experiences. It was a wonderfulfilling evening. Afterwards I sat and reflected on all that I heard from those present. I was amazed by what I had experienced, it filled me with awe. A truly awful evening (the evening filled me with awe). I felt filled and yet completely empty of fear and trouble. I felt very much at one with myself and yet a part of everything. I felt like a tiny speck in life and yet one in the midst of a greater whole. I felt a deepening sense of love for all that is, all that has been and all that will ever be. I felt deeply that sense of love for life, for that which makes up life, for all that is out there and I felt a deepening sense of love within the soul of me. The following simple words by Forrest Church came back into my mind “God is not God’s name. God is our name for that power that is greater than all and yet present in each.” I experienced this deeply with the people I was connecting with that evening. It also brought to my mind the following beautiful words by Ralph Waldo Emerson,written while reflecting on the wonder of being in the woods.

“Standing on the bare ground – my head bathed by the blithe air, and uplifted into infinite space – all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eyeball; I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or particle of God.”

I love the beautiful paradox here “I am nothing; I see all;” and the last part “I am part or particle of God.” As I thought of these words an image of a "Meme", I had recently seen published through social media, also came to mind. It goes by the title “Serbian Proverb”, and read “Be humble, for you are made of earth. Be noble, for you are made of stars,” These words and that evening certainly humbled me and I live in the hope that they will enoble me too. I know how important it is that I believe the simple message contained in these beautiful words. These two qualities are vital to a fulfilling life, they are not opposing dualities, more complimentary qualities.

A few days later I was chatting with someone who had attended “Living the Questions” discussion. I asked him how he was doing as I knew he was going through some changes in his personal life. He began to talk and it was clear that something was stirring within him and that he was opening up to something new. We both talked about those moments in our lives when things had changed, when life had humbled us and how in those moments something broke both inside and outside and how this had brought about a new beginning, spiritually speaking. I would personally call these profound spiritual experiences, although I know others would give them a different name. In these moments the humility that opened me took me to another level, you could say it began to enoble me. I live in hope that this will continue.

A few days later I was chatting with my Tuesday morning friends. There was a theme running through the conversation. Several of us described recently experiencing a powerful sense of fear present in our lives. While at the same time experiencing a greater sense of faith also present  within us too. A faith that manifests as a deep sense of knowing that by remaining open and connected that we will walk through whatever fear our minds create.

As we shared together the following words from Luke’s Gospel chapter 12 vv 22-27 came to mind.

‘Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat, or about your body, what you will wear. 23For life is more than food, and the body more than clothing. 24Consider the ravens: they neither sow nor reap, they have neither storehouse nor barn, and yet God feeds them. Of how much more value are you than the birds! 25And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? 26If then you are not able to do so small a thing as that, why do you worry about the rest? 27Consider the lilies, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin; yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these.

As the conversation continued the following words from the 46th Psalm also came into my mind “Be still and know that I am God”. If I have learnt anything in life I have learnt that somewhere in this stillness in this emptiness a fullness and a strength can begin to grow.

The problem I suspect for many of us is that we are afraid to stop, to centre and to empty out minds. but stop we must if we wish to begin to be filled, it is crucial that we do so. The great spiritual traditions of the east have understood how vital emptiness is in order to experience the fullness and harmony of life. They have claimed that what is required is silence and stillness in order to truly connect to all that is, to truly know you are a part of God. When we are still we no longer locate ourselves in the past or the future or attempt to become something or someone else. In this stillness we can become like the Lillies of the field or the birds of the air. In this stillness a profound silence of the mind is revealed. It is this silence that embraces and connects the present to all times and places. This stillness is what holds and embraces all the movement of life. In  it we become, as Emerson said, “a part or particle of God”

It is emptiness that reveals the greatest paradox of life. For it is often in this emptiness that we truly understand how important everything is; it is the emptiness that reveals the fullness of life. As I constantly say everything matters, every thought, every feeling, every word and every deed. For everything is a part of everything else. The mistake is to fall into the despair of emptiness, although perhaps this is a stage that we may have to go through. This mistake is formed from a superficial understanding of emptiness, that some see as a dismissal of  life as a kind of dream, that doesn't really matter or exist. In doing so we end up dismissing life itself as empty and unsubstantial, that it doesn’t really matter. Such a view can lead one to see the world with contempt and therefore dismiss the very real suffering of others. There is nothing either humble or enobling in this. To me the very point of emptying and going within is to enable us to truly connect with both the joys and sorrows of life, its difficulties and its successes in a very real way and therefore act in a noble way. It is the very stillness that will hold us in the storms we feel or witness and ensure that we do not turn away but live instead in the way of love.

I believe that this is almost perfectly illustrated in the poem “I am much alone in this world, yet not alone” by Rainer Maria Rilke, there is something powerful in these beautiful words especially in the context of the nothing and everything paradox and perhaps the frustrations it brings.

I am much too alone in this world, yet not alone
to truly consecrate the hour.
I am much too small in this world, yet not small
to be to you just object and thing,
dark and smart.
I want my free will and want it accompanying
the path which leads to action;
and want during times that beg questions,
where something is up,
to be among those in the know,
or else be alone.

I want to mirror your image to its fullest perfection,
never be blind or too old
to uphold your weighty wavering reflection.
I want to unfold.
Nowhere I wish to stay crooked, bent;
for there I would be dishonest, untrue.
I want my conscience to be
true before you;
want to describe myself like a picture I observed
for a long time, one close up,
like a new word I learned and embraced,
like the everday jug,
like my mother’s face,
like a ship that carried me along
through the deadliest storm.

“Wisdom tells me I am nothing. Love tells me I am everything. Between the two my life flows”, said the 20th century Hindu guru, Nisargadatta Maharaji. Carl Sagan once wrote "For small creatures such as we the vastness is bearable only through love."

For me in the silence in the emptiness I find the love that connects me to all that is in a truly wonderfulfilling sense. In the emptiness my cup once again begins to runneth over. In so doing I can once again know the fullness of life and live in such a way that is indeed enobling.

By deepening in silence we discover that the apparent emptiness holds no real fear, instead it leads us to true beauty and joy; it leads us to the joy of living. In that space we can discover that we are “a part or particle of God”. In doing so we rest in the infinite space that is life and begin to live in both accord and harmony. This silence brings peace, wholeness and well-being. It humbles us for it allows us to see that we are made of the earth and yet also enobles us for we can see that we are made of the stars.

No comments:

Post a Comment