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Advaita for the 21st Century

Exploring Emptiness

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Sometimes we feel an inner sense of emptiness. When we look within, it seems like nothing is there, so we distract ourselves with something on the outside, like food or television; and yet, these outer distractions only temporarily take care of the emptiness, or more accurately, they only temporarily keep our attention. When the distraction is over, the emptiness returns.

What is it about emptiness that makes us want to move away from it? Is emptiness really a bad sensation? When you consider the literal meaning of emptiness, how can it be a problem? Is it possible for “nothing” to hurt you? And with the inner sense of emptiness, is that empty feeling actually uncomfortable, or is the restlessness and activity of trying to avoid it or distract ourselves that which is uncomfortable?

This is an important distinction. We are so used to assuming that lack or emptiness or something missing is a problem that we are uncomfortable when that is our experience. But is the emptiness itself the source of our discomfort? Or is the action we take in response to emptiness the source of our discomfort, including the inner activity of distracting ourselves with ideas and judgments about the fact that we feel empty?

It’s not our fault that we tend to avoid feelings of emptiness. We were taught to do it by everyone around us who was doing it. In fact, there is a good reason to avoid one feeling of emptiness—the feeling of hunger—as it is important to eat when you are hungry. However, we are so unfamiliar with the sensations of emptiness that we often interpret a lack of something else as a lack of food. Have you ever eaten when you weren’t really hungry to try to distract or relieve yourself from a feeling? It’s possible to simply experience the sensations of emptiness or lack and discover that they aren’t bad sensations. Try it and see for yourself:

Exercise: What happens right now if you just allow any sensation of emptiness or lack or there not being enough? Are those sensations painful, or are they just particular sensations? Perhaps there is something in particular that feels lacking: a lack of strength, energy, or self-worth; a lack of excitement or interest; a sense of there not being enough security or safety; or a feeling that right now there is no joy or happiness present. And yet are the sensations unpleasant that let you know these things seem to be missing? What happens if you just let them be here for a moment?

It certainly would simplify life if we didn’t have to do anything about these feelings of lack. So much of our activity and effort and our inner striving and longing is meant to get us more of what we seem to lack. But what if it is okay to lack something? What if we could just be here feeling empty? What a relief! So much less to do!

Even more surprising is that the sensations of emptiness can be enjoyed. There is a richness to silence, to stillness, to space itself. We have been overlooking the richness of the inner silent spaces in our being. In a sense we are quite unfamiliar with them because we have been looking away from them most of our lives, so we are not very discriminating about their nature. Just as a wine connoisseur can make finer distinctions in the flavor and quality of wine than someone who has only tasted wine a few times, we can become connoisseurs of emptiness.

Perhaps the biggest surprise is when we discover that the very thing that feels lacking in an experience of emptiness is often found in the emptiness itself. For example if we are feeling weak or lacking strength and energy, and we stay present to that specific sensation of weakness or lack, then we may notice a deeper more subtle sense of strength appearing in the emptiness. It is hard to say if the strength appears in the emptiness or if it was always there, but we were just to busy trying to avoid the emptiness to sense the subtle strength within it.

Inner experiences of strength, joy, peace, and love, which can be found in the empty places within us, are much more subtle than the feelings we generate from our usual attempts to feel strong or happy or loving. However, as we focus on subtle, inner strength, joy, peace or love, the experience can become powerful and real in a way that far exceeds our expectations. Who knew that there was a deep reservoir of infinite peace lying under the restless feeling of a lack of peace? What a surprise to find abundant joy in the dry, empty sense of a lack of excitement and fun?

This principle—that there is a true source of strength, joy, peace and love to be found inside our strongest feelings of emptiness and lack—is a radical new perspective. But this truth can only be known fully by diving into each experience of inner emptiness we encounter. It is so contrary to our conditioning and therefore to much of our experience that it requires a completely new habit of paying attention to the feelings of emptiness in order to discover for yourself the richness waiting there.

This would be easier if every time you turned your awareness towards an inner feeling of emptiness, “not enough”, or lack, you were immediately filled with a sense of abundant peace or joy. But the experience of emptiness is many-layered, like an onion. So, as we move into a particular feeling of emptiness we may find a deep inner sense of strength or love, or we may just uncover a deeper layer of conditioning. Initially, the sense of emptiness or lack might get worse. As we allow the feeling of there not being enough or of being inadequate to just be there, painful memories or a strong aversion to the sensation of emptiness may be triggered, which can make it difficult to keep your attention on the emptiness itself. Each time we are distracted or find ourselves avoiding the sense of something lacking, we miss the chance to discover a little more of the true nature of that inner emptiness, including any subtle inner quality to be found there. What is needed is a new habit of staying with each new layer of feeling and memory and sometimes stronger sensations of emptiness and incompleteness. There is nothing you can do to make the deepest feelings of peace and joy appear except to stay with your experience until they do.

Exercise: Notice what you are feeling inside right now. Especially note whether there is any sense of emptiness or lack. It could be a lack of worthiness or capability or clarity and understanding. Or it could be a lack of peace or joy or love. For now, just allow any sense of lack to be here. Notice specifically how you experience the sense of lack. Where is it located? How big is the empty space? What are the sensations associated with it? Is the emptiness itself uncomfortable or is it just empty? Keep paying attention to the empty feeling and notice what happens next. Are there thoughts or memories that arise? Is it easy or hard to stay with the experience you are having? Remember to drop into your Heart or give space to the feelings, as this can help you stay with your experience. Know that whatever arises next is exactly what you need to experience right now. If there is a painful memory or uncomfortable emotion that is triggered, then just stay with that as best you can. Notice if there is an even deeper sense of emptiness or lack in each emotion that arises.

If a strong desire or urge to move away or distract yourself arises, just stay with that urge. And again, notice if there is a deeper or bigger sense of emptiness that lies behind or beneath the desire to distract or move away. Especially be curious about the empty spaces or direct sensations of lack that you discover as you stay with your experience. Are the empty spaces painful or just empty? What qualities does the space itself have? Is it moving or still? Does it have a color? Is it clear or foggy? How big or deep is the emptiness?

When your attention is simply on the empty space itself, you may notice something present or moving within the space. What is present in the center of the space where something is lacking? Is there any peace here in the emptiness? Is there any joy or happiness? Is there any love? Set aside for a moment any expectations of what that peace or joy or love should look like and just be curious about any that you find. Especially set aside any expectations about how big or strong the feeling should be, and just be curious about the smallest sense of strength or clarity or peace that is present right now. Notice what happens as you pay attention to the center of the emptiness. Does the feeling of peace or joy get stronger, or does touching into a true sense of peace or joy trigger an even deeper longing and sense of lack? Stay with whatever arises for as long as you can. If any strong emotions or desires are stirred up by this exercise, take some time to just rest and settle after you stop exploring. This can be intense and difficult work, and it is important to nurture yourself in the process.

It is the most surprising and liberating discovery to find that everything that really matters in life, such as peace, joy, strength, power, clarity, value or worth, support, nourishment, and love, can be found within you—and not just when you are lucky enough to be already experiencing them fully, but also when it seems like they are absent and have never been there. Once you have discovered them in the sense of lack and incompleteness many times, then it becomes possible to just relax and know they are always there, no matter what the present moment feels like.

This is the key discovery. Experiences of our true nature come and go like every other experience, but to deeply know that love is here in all of its glory even when you are experiencing the absence of it frees us from struggle and suffering. To know that everything you could ever want or need is already here, even when you are experiencing the opposite, frees you from having to acquire inner or outer experiences of satisfaction.

Satisfaction is available, whether an experience is manifesting or just here in potential. Just as the potential energy stored in a battery means that you can be so sure of experiencing light when you turn on your flashlight that you can also turn it off when it isn’t needed, so knowing the true potential of inner space or emptiness means that you can trust that everything is fine even if you are not experiencing any peace, joy, or love. It is still here in pure potential. In fact, the experiences or expressions of love and joy can never capture the infinite potential of the source of love and joy within us. Unlike the physical battery, which has limited potential energy, the source of peace, love, and joy in the emptiness of space or Being can never be exhausted. There is always more to be discovered, so much more that the ultimate vastness of it can’t even be conceived, let alone experienced. So, you can finally just relax and know that it is here where it can never be lost or used up. Enjoy it while it appears, and enjoy the stillness and spaciousness that remains when there is not a particular manifestation of Presence or Being appearing.

  it is here
  in the breath
  it is here
  in the stillness between breaths
      it is here
      in the active mind
      it is here
      in the resting mind
  it is here
  in the dream's panorama
  it is here
  in each moment of awakening
      it is here
      when all is well
      it is here
      when fear has nothing left to fear
  even then
  there is pure noticing
  even then
  there is no need for doing
      no frantic searching
      can find the obvious
      no seeking needed
      to find that which seeks
  it is here
  where it can never be lost
  or found

Nirmala's book, 'Nothing Personal', is recommended in the Reading Section. A PDF file of Part 1 of the book may be downloaded - follow links from the website.   The complete book may be purchased from or]

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Page last updated: 10-Jul-2012