|About David Spangler|
David’s Desk is my opportunity to share thoughts and tools for the spiritual journey. These letters are my personal insights and opinions and do not necessarily reflect the sentiments or thoughts of any other person in Lorian or of Lorian as a whole.
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~ David’s Desk, Current Issue ~
#93 – The Empty Place
Recently, my family and I watched a six-part television series called The Sisterhood. It focused on six young women who each felt a calling to become a nun. The beginning of this process was a six-week period of discernment in which the women spent time in three different convents, getting to know the sisters there, participating in both their spiritual life and their work in the community, and in this way seeing if this really was the life to which they were called. It was a fascinating and moving drama as the cameras followed each of the women as they confronted the reality of what the life of a nun is like, in some ways very different from their fantasies of what it would be like.
One moment that struck me occurred as they entered the first convent for the beginning of their discernment journey. The first thing they had to do was surrender their cell phones. For all the women, this was an unexpected and challenging moment. Their cell phones were their links to the world of social media, and they took participation in their electronic communities as part of the natural order of things. To be cut off came as a genuine shock. Some of the women even felt panicked. What they had not fully realized was that they were embarking on an inner journey that required them to be free of distractions and the pull of the outer world. They were being asked to become contemplative, and to do so, they had to learn to become empty.
The practice of discovering and stepping into an empty place isn’t just for people entering a religious vocation; one does not even have to be a contemplative to appreciate its benefits. I think of it as the Ground Zero of our creative capacities. It’s where all things start. It’s the “stem cell” of the mind and heart, able to differentiate into any number of possible expressions. It’s the seed condition out of which emergence takes place.
For example, when I sit down each month to write this essay, I often have no idea what I’m going to say. I am confronted by every writer’s bête noir: the blank page. What words am I going to put on it this month? When no idea immediately springs to mind and no words are forthcoming, the natural thing is to think, “I have no idea what to write.” If I am struggling to fulfill my image of myself as a writer, then this is not a good thing. Not knowing what to say or do is a source of stress.
But if I’m in my empty place, then not having an idea—having only silence, emptiness and not-knowing instead–is a good thing. Rather than being a state of frustration, it becomes a state of wonder and anticipation. The moment I tell myself that it’s OK not to know what I’m going to say, I can relax and just let my mind empty out. Invariably out of that emptiness, something comes. It just needed me to provide it the space to emerge.
What comes doesn’t have to be earth-shaking and revolutionary. It can be an ordinary thought, like the one I’m writing about now, a thought that, when I give it a chance to appear, has something to say. In other words, I don’t go into the empty space as a means to discover what I’m going to say. The empty place isn’t a means to an end. It’s an enjoyable state all on its own which has the characteristic that, if nurtured, it will turn itself into something, like the stem cell turns into a liver cell or a heart cell.
Over the years I’ve developed a useful way of entering my empty space. I long ago learned that trying to empty my mind in the abstract—that is, just telling myself that I should have an empty mind and trying not to think of anything—didn’t work for me. What did work arose out of an experience that was so normal and common to me that I had overlooked it. This experience was one of quiet anticipation that took place when I was in a theater and looking at the empty stage or the blank screen. The play or the movie hadn’t started yet, so that empty stage or screen was a presence of potential, a place where anything might happen.
I discovered that if I imagined myself sitting in a theater in the audience with an empty stage in front of me before the curtain rose and the play unfolded, the feeling of the potential and wonder of that empty stage became an experience of an empty space within me. I became that empty stage, pregnant with possibility.
I called this my “theater of the heart and mind”. It was the place, the moment, the quiet before something happened…and anything could happen.
But it can also be a state just to be enjoyed for its own sake. Sitting with empty mind and heart—or, if you wish, with your mind and heart attending to the empty stage—doing nothing, thinking nothing is a regenerative practice, one that never fails to give energy and to be restorative.
The challenge is that we are in a culture that fears and distrusts emptiness. It is a culture of maximum stimulation, a 24/7 society that wants to fill up every moment with something. We have so many ways now to divert ourselves and fill our minds with information and stimulation that we can avoid emptiness, pushing it away with our screens, our tweets and our texts. But in so doing, we push away an important part of ourselves. The paradox is that while we may fear that in emptiness we will lose ourselves, in fact it’s in emptiness that we find ourselves…and much more besides.
(c) 2015 David Spangler
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