Many years ago a good friend of mine told me that she thought my approach to spirituality would never catch on with anybody else because it is too stark. I was not entirely sure what she meant, but I was none too happy with that judgement. Stark? It is about the overflowing abundance of the whole movement of Life!
But I see now that she had a valid point. Not that I can or want to change my approach, but it is not one that is likely to lead to a best-selling spiritual movement. Because my understanding of spirituality is based on inner emptiness.
I am not alone here. There is a long spiritual tradition known as the via negativa, or the way of negation. It holds that in order to come to a realization of the presence of God, one must set aside everything that is not God. Every idea one has about God, that is not God. So ideas have to go. Every experience one thinks one is having of God, that is not God, so experiences have to go. One peels away layer after layer of belief and perception, and each one is set aside because it is not God. Until everything is gone. Every layer is peeled away until nothing is left.
There is no core. No grand spiritual states. No special status as the chosen one. No promise of heavenly eternity. No soaring idealism. There is only emptiness.
I wouldn’t blame anyone for shrugging at this point and saying, “your friend was right. This is worthless. Emptiness? What good is that?”
The central insight of the via negativa is that if you want spiritual fireworks, there are a million ways to get them. These days there is a belief system for every personality type. But if you want the truth, you have to get to know emptiness. If you do not know your emptiness — your essential non-existence (ouch!) — then you are driven by the perpetual search for your true self, which you will never find. In fact, the whole bloody mess that humanity is in, from endless war to life-threatening environmental destruction to the commodification of just about everything (you and me included) is founded on our steadfast avoidance of our essential emptiness. It is founded on the impossible task of finding ourselves in some particular thing: a set of beliefs, a title and position, having more than the other guy, being better than somebody else. Have you noticed that no one is every satisfied with these things? It does not take long for restlessness to resume and for the mind to go in search of some new thing to pin its identity on.
The discovery of inner emptiness ends the search, for it is the heart of our being.
Emptiness is what remains when everything transient falls away. It is the immeasurable space in which everything happens, all thoughts and experiences. Emptiness is what makes awareness possible, awareness of both inner and outer reality. Emptiness is the capacity to allow things to be as they are, without adherence to any mindset. Emptiness is what unites us with everything, all matter and all energy. Everything is emptiness. Humans hold no lock on emptiness; we are no more and no less empty than anything else. The paradoxical conclusion of the via negativa is that I am nothing, therefore I am everything. The beauty, the mystery of the via negativa is that it leads to an absolutely inclusive via positiva. When every particular thing that is not-God is set aside, God is found, not in any particular thing, but in everything-together, the creative outpouring of the whole universe. Which also means, strangely enough, in every particular thing. Everything is sacred, absolutely.
Because I do not exist as a separate entity, because there is no individual soul or spirit, no thing that is running the show, no center that makes this body separate from the rest of the universe, I only exist as the whole of intertwined reality. The “I” that I think I am doesn’t exist at all. John is an ephemeral invention of a body-mind. What does exist is the whole movement of everything, immeasurable, unimaginable, indivisible. And within that whole movement is the appearance of a body-mind that thinks it has a separate existence called “John.” That illusion will die when the body dies, just as it dies every night as the body enters deep, dreamless sleep. What remains is energy, and emptiness. Lots and lots of emptiness.
So, yes. Pretty stark. You don’t exist as a separate entity. Your essential nature is emptiness. Emptiness that is full of everything that arises and falls away. Emptiness is what you are fundamentally, and emptiness is what makes it possible to embrace the whole dynamic movement of Life without prejudice. Emptiness is what makes it possible to let go of the mad rush to achieve and acquire and possess, which is driving humanity, and the planet with us, into a death spiral.
It is hard to understand, but in the choice between Life and Death, if we are to choose Life, we must become acquainted with our essential emptiness. Because only emptiness embraces the whole of reality with unadorned, unaffected, unconditional love.