The Emptiness That Scares You

Have you ever felt empty? You know, the hollow, blank, ennui, I-don’t-know-what-I’m-f**king-doing-with-my-life kind of empty. If so, does it bother you? FYI: if your answer is no to either question, you’re a rare gem of humanity and no need to read further.

I had my first conscious encounter with emptiness when I was eight. Now, I’m that absent-minded person who’ll forget your name the second after you tell me what your name is. But I remember this non-event distinctively.

It was the end of summer. I had spent the entire summer break catching earthworms in the yard and not much else. School was starting in a week and I hadn’t even touched the homework. As I lied in bed one night, a feeling of hollowness sneaked up on me like Lord Voldemort’s dark ghost. It happened so fast. Before I could make any noise, it seized my gut and raged into my stomach. Suddenly, nothing in life appeared to carry any meaning. All was wasted. Life was in vain. And I was being devoured by a stifling emptiness. A thought immediately followed— My life is going to end futile, because I squandered all my time on worms and will amount to nothing. The sensation and the subsequent thought were so frightening that I found my heart racing and my mouth dry. Tears streamed down my face. I lied there feeling paralyzed.

My father came in to say goodnight, and was surprised to find me crying in bed. He asked me what happened. And I, not able to comprehend the experience or put it into words, told him what I thought it was: “I didn’t do my homework. Now I feel so bad about myself!”

My father, finding it amusing, stroked my hair and softly said, “It’s ok.  Just be more diligent next time.”

My father was a strict parent and we rarely shared any tender moment together. So I was a bit surprised by his response. My gratitude to him at that time was beyond measure. Not only did he rescue me from the emptiness monster, but gave me the forgiveness that I was sure not even God was able to bestow.

Neither of us realized that I just had my first rendezvous with the No. 1 primal fear of humanity. Death, annihilation, oblivion, nonexistence. Call it whatever. It’s the opposite of life, which most of us don’t know–and probably don’t want to know–much about. Most people, no matter what belief about death we buy into, unconsciously assume that there’s nothing fun about nonexistence. It’ll be a meaningless void going on and on to eternity. Cold, dark, immobile, like a black hole that the stars die into.

It’s natural to feel that the experience of emptiness is a dreary preview of our worst-fear scenario. No matter whether you’re on top of the world or trampled under Fortune’s wheel, you can get a visit from emptiness anytime. You hear it say: “Hey, come here! Look closer! Yes, this is the dingy dungeon you’ll end up in, exactly like you suspected!”

I don’t blame you if you try to get away from it as much as humanly possible. I did the same, without ever understanding what it was.

As I grew older, emptiness came back again and again. The interesting thing is that it often showed up after I had been relatively unoccupied with activities. So I took it as a sign of having too much time on my hands. I thought it meant that I wasn’t productive or diligent enough. And if I could just get my act together, work harder, and accomplish more, I’d chase the dreary void out of my life for good.

I call this the Over-Achiever’s Plan to Escape Death, aka OAPED. I was never conscious of this plan, but I executed it religiously.

Although few people ever compare notes on this, OAPED is a popular plan shared by many. People’s individual experience of emptiness may differ, but our response to it is almost consensual– Look away! Get busy! Occupy every waking moment with life, life, and more life! In fact, if you want to know how hard someone was bitten by the emptiness bug, just look at their schedule, and count the number of diplomas, gold medals, romantic partners and start-up companies they’ve acquired.

Looking back, I realize that my idleness didn’t really “cause” the emptiness. Instead, it was simply that when body and mind are unoccupied, it leaves more room for emptiness to enter one’s field of awareness.

But does OAPED work? To the same extent that ibuprofen works for your toothache. You can banish the emptiness out of sight for a while. And then when you’re not paying attention, it may come back with doubled force.

After many, many years, one day I finally decided not to run away. I was tired of freaking out whenever emptiness struck. I wanted to change. I held out my hand and tried to be friendly. The first few moments were excruciating. Being eaten alive by a boa constrictor would be more enjoyable. But as I started fudging, a voice in me said, “Stay, stay. You can’t live the life of an escapee forever.” I stayed, as much as I could, jaw clenching and stomach reeling.

At one point, something in me softened. I got a silent message from the void:

“I’m not here to destroy you. I’m here to show you the truth of your own nature. I’m here to give back your power, the power you lost when you thought you were separate from me.”

At that moment, I seemed to see the entire creation happening inside of me. I saw the Universe emerge out of nothingness. I saw star lights expand and shrink into solid black. I saw ten thousand flowers bloom and die. It was so beautiful that I wept, and wept, my heart supple and fresh like a newborn.

The truth is you can never escape emptiness.  It is the constant that underlines every existence, the invisible non-structure upon which life weaves its majestic stories. Every moment dies into nothingness. Every moment gets created out of nothingness. Nothingness is in everything.

The moment you stop running away from emptiness is the moment you start living free.

The more at home you feel about nonexistence, the more you triumph over existence. For some of us, that’s when life truly begins.

And even at this very moment, if you allow yourself to be still, you can touch the edge of emptiness with your being. Notice that it is always in you. In fact, it is you.

How does it feel? What do you see?

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(Image Credit: Victor de Schwanberg / Science Photo Library)

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