The Emptiness of Self – NOT the Loneliness of Self – February 2018

I was on a meditation retreat recently.  It was different from most because the meditations were often in the form of a topic or question that you then contemplated and articulated your response (body, emotions and thoughts) out loud to a meditation partner.  We were talking to each other from an acutely tuned place of awareness and openness.  

One contemplation began with the question, “What are the roles you play with others?” and then progressed gradually to the question, “Who are you behind and beyond all these roles?”  As I let go of my understanding of my “self” and this question, Who are you?, who are you?, who are you?, echoed through my consciousness, it became clear – just like clouds parting and the sun shining through a fog – that I was nobody.  I smiled; I giggled!  I had no words.  I just gazed at my meditation partner with warm, impersonal openness.  She was nobody too.  And a perfectly beautiful nobody at that.

Then I went home after the retreat and my mom came to visit and my “self” came rushing back like a tidal wave.  I noticed feelings of guilt, tenuousness, powerlessness.  I noticed thoughts like “I can never get it right;” “I just always cause her pain and I don’t know why.”  I noticed myself pulling away, withdrawing.  And then that withdrawal, in and of itself, caused her pain, and then we were both looking at each other with an invisible wall between us and stuck in that feeling I wrote about last month – separate and alone.

This is very different from being empty and nobody.  Very, very different.

It seems the self – our ego and assumptions and roles and fears and impacts on each other – can cause loneliness and separation.  And at our best moments, when our self is suspended, or at least not swallowing us, there is lovely, easy sense of unity and communing.  Ironic, right?

Carlo Rovelli, an Italian physicist, explains that electrons, one of the building blocks of everything, “exist only when someone or something watches them, or better, when they are interacting with something else.  They materialize in a place, with a calculable probability, when colliding with something else.  The ‘quantum leaps’ from one orbit to another are the only means they have of being ‘real’…” (Seven Brief Lessons on Physics, pg 17).  This is fascinating to me.  Extrapolating to psychology could easily mean that we – our ego and roles and sense of self – do not exist unless we are “interacting” or “colliding” with someone else.   We exist in relationship.  

Where I, and likely all of us, get stuck is that we can create fixed concepts of our “self” that we then feed and foster and believe, regardless of the actual interactions with others.  My mom, for example, was over the small transgression I made in a matter of minutes.  It was nothing to her, and she had forgiven me and moved on.  I, on the other hand, continued to feed the idea that I am harmful to her and cause her pain no matter what I do.  I continued to unintentionally create this idea of myself as toxic and then act based on those ideas alone!

What foolishness.

We cause our own loneliness and separation.  In seeing this clearly, in penetrating through our concepts of our “self” and being willing to let these arise and pass away in response to an immediate other in front of you right now, we are most intimately connected.  Rovelli writes later, “We [humans] are an integral part of nature; we are nature, in one of its innumerable and infinitely variable expressions.” (pg. 76)  If we could only feel that, at the atomic level, it would be so much easier to shed our clunky prisons of roles and self-image and allow the natural sense of nobody-ness to connect us to each other beyond our wildest dreams.