January in Chicago is cold and dark. The wind can cut through you like a knife. I personally hate the gray, cold sky stretching on and on and on. I try to escape it as much as I can – I crank the heat up, go outside as little as possible and if I’m really lucky, I spring for a plane ticket to somewhere else.
That’s also how I tend to deal with emptiness, loneliness, boredom, depression. I get busy, fill it up, run away. These days I rarely just slow down, take a deep breath and just experience this side of life, even though it is there in the background.
Our team at CMP recently read “Radical Acceptance” by Tara Brach, and she has a line in the book that kind of took my breath away. It said, “What if you allow yourself to just feel longing and need, and feel it deeply.” What?! Why would I ever do that? Even when I am faced with my own, or others’, sadness and pain, it can be rich and colorful and multi-layered and textured. I’m not afraid of different shades and intensity of emotion. But this barren and bare emptiness. This January on the plains. No. Too stark.
Maybe I’m afraid I’m going to be swallowed up and extinguished. It is true that when that cold wind rips through me, I fight it. I shiver, tense and grit my teeth. It does no good. And now I’m wondering what would happen if I take a deep breath, relax and allow it to blow through me. Would I actually disappear?
I visited my grandmother who has Alzheimer’s recently. She is dying, but she is still there. Sometimes I can see her in the way she raises her eyebrow or turns her still beautiful, still full lips down as she’s expressing some concern about some long-ago friend. But she is emptying, slowly. And it made me wonder, where is she going? I watched my own mother embrace her tenderly, and tell her the latest family news, and look into her eyes and say, “I love you.” And it seemed that Grandma was the gravity that simply pulled the love through my mom and through and beyond. Grandma and Mom weren’t “things” – discrete bodies and separate entities. They were just pebbles that Life and Love touch as they flow down the mountainside. So Grandma’s emptiness became full. And then empty again as she faded into who-knows-where in her own mind.
When we wheeled her back to the dining room of the locked nursing home unit where she lives now, there were ghosts everywhere. Old, frail bodies sitting around, or pacing. One woman wisely looked straight at me with a smile and said, “I don’t know what the hell I’m doing!” as she scurried by with her walker. Where are their “selves”? Where are “they”? Those opinions and accomplishments, and even relationships, that they probably spent most of their lives carefully cultivating and building up so strong and tall? They are in various stages of emptying. And yet, I could feel that if I allowed love and compassion to flow through me, it could easily fill them up, fill me up, move through us, and then beyond. Can we only be filled this way if we are empty to begin with? Or is it easier at least?
I wonder what would happen if I just relaxed and allowed the cold, cutting January wind to blow through me. Would it whisk away the useless and rotting scraps of hurts, pride, annoyance, arrogance? If I fully embrace the barrenness of longing and loneliness, will it illuminate what’s really most important and left after that extinguishing? What is left after we are emptied?
I hope I’m brave enough to look clearly and simply ahead, take a deep breath, and find out.
“Listen Sariputra, this Body itself is Emptiness
and Emptiness itself is this Body.
Tis Body is not other than Emptiness
and Emptiness is not other than this Body.
The same is true of Feelings, Perceptions, Mental Formations, and Consciousness.
Listen Sariputra, all phenomena bear the mark of Emptiness;
their true nature is the nature of no Birth no Death,
no Being no Non-being,
no Defilement no Purity,
no Increasing no Decreasing.
That is why in Emptiness, Body, Feelings, Perceptions, Mental Formations and Consciousness are not separate self entities.” –The Heart Sutra, translated by Thich Nhat Hanh