Contemplative ecology is founded upon an encounter with a realm that is difficult to talk about, the core realm of the contemplative life: the realm of emptiness or silence or stillness or nothingness.
Contemplation is a way of facing oneself at the deepest levels, and perhaps to see through all in the human mind that is illusory, destructive and life-defeating. Without society’s distractions, we come face to face with ourselves in our actuality, including those unappealing aspects of ourselves and our culture that our busyness, our compulsiveness, our conformity to social norms, and our immersion in entertainment usually obscure. We face all of the ways in which we have unconsciously internalized our culture’s norms of belief and behavior. Ultimately, we have to face our emptiness.
Emptiness is the essential nonexistence of the self that believes it is separate from everything else, but it is also much more than that. Emptiness is the immeasurable. Emptiness often comes as the encounter with something you cannot fully comprehend: a deep love, or a terrible loss; the arrival or departure of another life; or the inscrutable nature of your own mind. Emptiness is the visceral recognition that your existence is not separate from the existence of everything else, that everything exists in interrelationship and interdependence, and that reality cannot be controlled or managed or experienced or understood in its vital actuality. The mind can’t grasp it. It’s too big; it’s too complex; it’s too dynamic; it’s too alive. Emptiness is the encounter with the unfathomable, living presence of everything.
Touched by the infinitely unknowable, nothing can ever be the same. Life is so much more than this petty little mind.
The power of the encounter with reality is not in the description. The attempt to describe it usually requires negative terms like silence, emptiness, nothingness, stillness. These are entirely inadequate words to describe the whole of unfathomable reality. What they point to is that we are filled with our beliefs and memories and worldviews, and usually need to be emptied of them in order to come into contact with the reality of the living world. That living world is always right at hand, but it remains eclipsed by the mind’s ideas about it.
The encounter with emptiness reorients the organism. Much more needs to be said about emptiness – what it is, what it means, why encountering it turns our lives upside down and inside out, why we fear it – but there is little that can be said. How can emptiness be described? It can’t. You have to go there. Talking about emptiness accomplishes nothing. Being touched by emptiness changes everything. Discovering the hollowness or emptiness of the self collapses the foundation of the exploitative psycho-social system and reorients life toward life itself, the whole movement of life.
What emptiness emphatically is not, is some kind of esoteric experience that comes as the result of years of spiritual training. Emptiness is not something we can obtain or lose. It is not having a quiet mind or being “in the flow.” It is not spaciousness or openness. It is not a heightened state of awareness or consciousness. Emptiness is not a state of mind. It cannot be experienced.
It’s really quite simple and straightforward. It’s right at hand. Emptiness is what is, regardless of what we think about it or how we experience it. We can acknowledge it or we can try, and ultimately fail, to deny it. That is all. Emptiness—unfathomable reality—undoes everything we try to do. It ruins all of our plans and hopes and schemes. It is everywhere and everywhen and everything, yet when it reveals itself, it comes like a thief saying, “Nothing persists. Nothing you believe is true. Nothing you experience is real. Nothing belongs to you, not even your self, not even your life.” And civilization crumbles, founded as it is on the belief that treasures can be stored up and kept safe for the immortal self. Emptiness is a direct and immediate affront to the feeling that I exist, that I can be protected, that I can be perfected. Emptiness contradicts all of the stories we tell about the self and the other. Emptiness takes everything away from us that we wish to possess, including our sense of identity. And so we push emptiness away. We avoid it with our noise and activity. Minute by minute we reinforce the feeling of being a separate self (the words “separate” and “self” come from the same root) through our mental and physical activity. When we stop and listen, and especially when we listen to the natural world, emptiness is right here. Emptiness is what remains when I stop. It is very simple, but because most of us never stop, it’s revolutionary when we do.
Our current society does not serve life. It serves the separate self. Can we see that serving the self is delusional? The self does not deserve our devotion. It does not deserve the commitment of our life energy to its maintenance and enlargement. Nor does society deserve that devotion, nor any group, nor any belief system. Only reality, the whole of life, deserves that. The life devoted to the whole movement of life (which, make no mistake, includes every individual) is a rare and beautiful thing. Few of us seem able to go there. Devotion to self keeps reasserting itself. Those who do go there, even briefly, will also know about emptiness. Like the outer and the inner, wholeness and emptiness travel together. They are the yang and the yin of the way of existence. You can’t have one without the other.
Many people find the idea of emptiness frightening or depressing. We are afraid to learn the truth about ourselves. We do not want to know that all of our striving is for nothing. Contemplation is bad news for the separate self, but good news for life. What one finds when stripped to the core is not evil, but a blessing: the communion of reality beyond words; easing at last the generations of fear and pain we have been inflicting on ourselves and the world.
An Introduction to Contemplative Ecology, of which this is an excerpt, can be read in its entirety here.